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Wednesday, 22 June 2005
The Best Networker in Babbleon
a novel by James Hazard


"Intolerable frustration is the midwife of reason."
-Rufus A. Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

It was another late night for me and I could tell as soon as I got home that my wife, Helen, was pretty mad.

"Where the hell you been?" She said, smoking a long, skinny cigarette that had dropped ashes on the front of her nightgown as she lay in bed next to Fred, her stuffed alligator.

"Where the hell have I been!" I said, putting my briefcase away, then wearily sitting down on the edge of the bed. Every muscle in my body ached. I noticed that one of my socks had a hole in it. Why didn't I just buy more socks? And then, of course, I knew the answer right away. We were flat broke. If memory serves me right, I think that we had a grand total of about 42 cents in the bank. We had been eating lima beans and crackers for the last two weeks and our electricity had been turned off once for a whole day. All the ice-cream had melted. Helen had gotten so mad that she had actually ripped hair out of her head just before biting me right above the elbow.

"Where do you think I've been, the goddamn zoo? I went to an opportunity meeting."

"Find any opportunities at your meeting?" she said sarcastically, stroking Fred.

I looked at her as she stroked Fred. Sometimes Fred had a funny smell, like the inside of a can of tuna.

"Look, damnit," I said, turning my attention to the blisters on my feet. "I'm doing this for us. So that we'll have a better life."

"Try getting a job that pays something."

"You think I like eating lima beans every night, don't you?"

"You like being a loser, Fick. You always have."

When she pronounced my name it sounded as if she were striking a match.

"Well, you married a loser, baby, so I guess that makes you the wife of a loser," I shouted.

That didn't come out quite the way I wanted it to. I've never had much of a talent for the snappy come-back.

"You," Helen said, mashing her cigarette into the wall. "Are pathetic."

"I really hate it when you do that," I said.

"We can't afford ashtrays, Fick, remember? Because you're too busy going to multi-loser marketing opportunity meetings to look for a regular job that pays something."

The next night I trudged off to another business opportunity meeting.

"Maybe Helen's right," I thought. "I've been at this for months and I haven't gone anywhere with it. Who am I kidding? Maybe I should just look for another job. Dad keeps talking about hiring more men down at the box factory, and Mom used to talk about her old days in the adult film industry. Maybe I just need to hunker down and work like everyone else on the planet. Who was I to ever think about going into business anyway?"

I thought about a lot of things that night. I wondered if I had what it takes to succeed. I wondered if I could get it up in front of a film crew. I wondered if I should just take off and get a new name. I wondered if I would ever stop passing gas from eating so many damn lima beans. I thought about suicide. I didn't want to do the usual stupid thing, like kill Helen and then myself. I wanted to kill myself, come back from the grave as a scary, rotting corpse and then kill Helen. Just like in the movies, the kind they used to show late on Saturday nights when I was a kid.


I was feeling sorry for myself in my usual childish way, in other words.

Mostly, however, I was thinking about the box factory, Kyle's Boxtorium, and a man named Llloyd Dugan. I don't know why Llloyd's name was spelled with 3 L's; I don't know why I remember that it was spelled with 3 L's; but I do remember the day my father came home later than usual, sat down in his recliner, starred with vacant eyes at the blank screen of our television set, and began to talk about Llloyd Dugan.

"There was an accident today, Fick," my father said, calling me as everyone always did, for some reason I've never understood, by my last name. "Llloyd Dugan lost a thumb."

"Oh my God!" I said, feeling my knees go weak as the blood drained from my face. I could never bear the thought of hurting my hands, especially my fingers. Just the thought of someone getting a hand mangled by a machine gave me the horrors.

My father sat quietly for a few minutes, then popped a handful of red pistachio nuts into his mouth, cracking the shells with his teeth. I always winced when he did that.

"The stupid sonofabitch," he finally said, spitting shells into a paper bag he always kept beside the chair. "I should have fired his sorry ass on the spot."

"But Dad," I said. "You said..."

"I know what I said," my father erupted, looking at me as if I were a baboon that had just learned to imitate speech. "You have any idea how much this is going to cost the company? Do you?"

I shrugged.

"Of course not," he said with lips that had been turned red by the dyed pistachio shells. For a moment I could imagine him biting off Llloyd's thumb just to teach the "sonofabitch" a lesson.

"How would you know anything!"

The business opportunity meeting was packed that night. Everyone had a prospect- what we called a potential business affiliate- but me. It felt like prom night all over again. The speaker, a perky little redhead with a cowboy hat, inspired everyone but me. I thought about rotting corpses coming back to life, corpses without wives or thumbs.

"Let me tell you something about myself," she said into the mike. "My name is Debbie, I'm from Texas, I've raised four kids on welfare, I supported a husband who had every single one of his limbs amputated, I've had to sleep in a car and I've had to work 60 hours a week just to shove junk food into my kids and keep them in school. And then along came a man who told me about something different, something better, something called network marketing, a business that is changing America one person at a time. And when I understood the gift he had given me I fell on my knees and wept because I knew that a better life was now possible for me, my kids and my husband who, unfortunately, was found asphyxiated less than a year ago. In his sleep. And I stand before you now, a single mother, a General Four-Star Regional Executive Vice President of the company you're about to learn more about, a woman who makes forty thousand dollars a month, a woman who owes it all to hard work, this company, and the power of network marketing."

"Praise Jesus!" a woman behind me said. Maybe it's my imagination, but I swear it sounded as if she had buck teeth the size of elephant tusks.

Her husband had lost every limb! I felt my genitals shrink to the size of peas. They could have fit his body into a shoe box, I thought, shuddering.

After the meeting I was introduced to Debbie, who asked me if I wanted to meet The Best Networker in Babbleon.

"I guess," I said, distracted by an image in my head of Debbie holding her husband in her lap like a ventriloquist's dummy.

"Well he's over there," she said in her Texas accent, pointing him out with a tiny hand held laser.

And there he was, standing next to an admiring crowd, dressed in an Italian suit, wearing a gold Rolex watch, a red dot on the side of his head.

That was the man, the legend!


Dare I speak to him? Could I?

I slowly walked up to him. After a few minutes he turned to me and said, "How's it going?"

I was going to say the usual-fine-but something choked me and I blurted out, "Crappy!"

"Ho-ho-ho," he laughed. He had a deep, resonant, musical laugh that reminded me of Santa Claus, Walt Disney, Mussolini.

"I like honesty."


"Kind of. So business not so good, huh?"


"In the toilet, uh?"


"Going nowhere?"

"Nowhere is right."

"Sort of spinning your wheels?"

"You could say that."

"Ho-ho-ho. What's your name?"


"Well Fock," he said.


"Exactly. Why don't we grab a bite to eat, okay?"

"Sounds good to me."

I liked this guy! He had confidence, poise, class, and he didn't smell bad, like the others. We got into his new BMW and sped off. We were silent for a while, and then he said, "Indian food sound good to you?"

"I've always wanted to try it."

"I know this little place that makes the best vegetarian Indian food around. You'll love it."

He ordered for us, and before I knew what was happening there I was, sitting in front of The Best Networker in Babbleon, eating curried lima beans while the owners sat around waiting for us to leave so that they could close up. Those were the best lima beans I'd eaten in weeks.

"Best Networker in Babbleon is quite a name," I said.

"Family's from Ohio," he said. "Father was The Greatest Networker in Babbleon, my Grandfather was The Good Networker in Babbleon, and I had a Great-Grandfather who was The Competent Networker in Babbleon. So we've come a long way, you might say."

"I want to be good at network marketing," I said. "I've tried so hard but I just can't seem to get people to listen."

For the next hour I poured my heart out. Here was a man I could talk to. Here was someone who could understand me. I knew that he heard every word I said. When he called people on his cell phone I could tell that he was really listening to me. Even when he dialed a 900 number and had phone-sex I could tell that he was still listening to me. He was to me, at that moment, a god. The god of Business and Prosperity.

"Well, I tell you what, Fock," he said, putting away his cell phone and wiping off his hands with a napkin. "You come over to my house tomorrow and we'll start some training. How does that sound?"

All I could do was nod dumbly and smile. What a guy! No wonder he was The Best.

"You know," he said. "You have beautiful hands. Anyone ever tell you that?"


"Then I'll expect you over at, say, 10 in the morning?"

"You bet!"

He walked out the door and I paid for our meal using my last wristwatch. I couldn't believe my good luck. From now on things were going to be different!

"You smell like garlic," Helen said. "How was she?"

"Don't start that, Helen," I said, taking off my clothes while looking at burn marks on the wall. "I had dinner with The Best Networker in Babbleon and he's agreed to help me. This is a big step up for us, Helen. Don't you see? Why, it's like having the head of General Motors sit down with you to teach you how to make cars."

"It's like the head of General Motors sitting down with the biggest schmuck on earth is more what it's like. Why can't you be like your brother. He steps in front of a car, takes the bastard to court and now look where he's at. But no, you can't do something that simple, can you? Won't work in a box factory, won?t get a job, even a small one, in your slut of a mother?s old line of work, won't even try a simple insurance scam. A schmuck! A schmuck is all you are and all you'll ever be."

"I have my pride," I shouted. "Yes, that's right. A man has his pride. And I'll tell you what, Helen. I'm not giving up. Giving up is for losers and I'm not a loser. A loser is not someone who loses. A loser is someone who gives up. A loser is someone who never takes a chance. A loser is someone without vision. Well, I'm willing to take a chance and I have vision. As corny as it sounds, I believe in the American Dream. Big corporations don't own everything, not yet. As long as I have breath I'll work honestly for a piece of the American Dream and I will succeed, Helen. A man is not beaten until be beats himself. I'm not beaten, Helen."

"No," she said. "You're a man giving a speech to his wife in pee-yellow underwear."

I didn't sleep well that night.

The couch was smelly and lumpy. But when I awakened I put on my best clothes, shaved, brushed my teeth twice, practiced smiling in the mirror and then, giving my wife the finger for good luck, set off to start my life over again. I was going to meet a god. The American god of Business and Prosperity.

Billy Travers was sitting on the porch swing next door, rocking back and forth wearing only boxer shorts. He was 15 years old, but when he was 6 he had been thrown through the windshield of his father's pickup truck and had remained 6 ever since. Billy liked to talk about shit sandwiches, his way of saying hello, how are you and good luck all at the same time, I think.

"Going to work, Mr. Fick?" Billy said.

"Going to work, Billy," I said, waving.

"Have a shit sandwich," he said, rubbing his face and giggling.

"Sure will, Bill," I said.

Luck was with me that morning, at least. My 1975 Datsun started on the first try, and in 15 minutes I was standing in front of one of the biggest houses I'd ever seen. The Best Networker in Babbleon came out wearing tennis shoes, jeans, a Hard Rock Cafe shirt and a baseball cap.

"You ever coach Little League?" he said.


"Good, neither have I. We're going over to the Senior Center. I coach a softball team there."

"But I thought..."

"Eh, eh, eh," he said, wagging a finger in my face. "All part of the training, Fock, all part of the training. Come on, we'll take your car. Never mind, we'll walk."

He was a good coach, firm but fair. The old people really looked up to him. At least the ones who could look up.

"The first thing," he said, holding the ball playfully in both hands. "IS THAT I WANT YOU ALL TO SHUT THE HELL UP AND STOP COMPLAINING. I don't want to hear about your arthritis or your artificial hips. When I tell you to dive for the ball you do it, is that understood?"

Wow! I thought. He really knows how to jerk their chains. He's rich and he's not afraid to bully old people. Is there anything, I thought, that he can't do?

When it was all over and the last of the ambulances had left we walked back to his house, went into the kitchen and drank lemonade.

"That was fun," I said, hoping that he'd offer me something to eat. "But what does it have to do with my training?"

"You don't see the connection?"

"Uh, no, not really," I confessed.

"You see, network marketing is all about helping people, teaching them. Like what I was doing today. You see?"

"Kind of. I'm not sure."

"Let me put it another way," he said. "Nice house, uh?"

"Beautiful," I said.

"Would you like to buy a house just like this one?"

"But, " I said, confused. "But how would I..."

"I'm just asking, would you like to buy a house just like this one?"

"You see, the thing is," I said, feeling the blood rush to my face. "I uh, the money, is..I don't.."

"Goddamn it to hell," he screamed, pounding the counter with his fist. "Can't you answer one simple stupid question!"

"I don't have the money!"

"Who asked you if you had the money you numb skull! I'm just asking you if you'd like to buy a house like this one."



"But," I stammered. "How, how do I make...You see I just want to know...I thought you could..."

"You make money by getting customers," he said, wiping his sweaty face with a dish towel, pouring himself another lemonade. "Isn't that simple enough?"

"But how do I get customers?" I said, feeling my heart pounding like a jackhammer. The side of my neck burned as if I had been stung by an insect.

"Helping people!"

"You want me to coach softball?"

"I want you to get customers, Fock. Jesus Christ, you don't have to be a rocket scientist, you know."

"How do I do that! I mean, how do I get customers?"

"By helping people."

"Helping them do what!"

"Whatever it is they want to do."

The room felt as if it were spinning. I was really afraid that any minute I'd have a heart attack right in this guy's house. Everything on the edge of my vision was a blur. I felt, I think, the way people do just before a train hits them.

"So those old people..."

"Don't bother with old people," he said, opening a package of cherry poptarts with his teeth. "They're so cheap all they do is complain every time they have to pay a nickel of sales tax."

"Then why do you spend your time..."

"Because it's all about helping people, Fock. You have to see the big picture."

"What the hell are you talking about!" I screamed. "The big picture of what! Why can't you just tell me what to do!"

"Ah, now you're starting to get it," he said. "Need is the mother of invention. You're close, Fock. So very close."

I honestly didn't know, for a long time, what happened next. I was told that I grabbed a baseball bat and that The Best Networker in Babbleon spent the next six weeks in intensive care. I took everyone's word for it that I was responsible for his injuries. What else could have happened? We were the only ones there and I had obviously gone nuts.

There is much that happened then that seems far off, dreamy and unreal. I can remember standing next to my lawyer in court and listening to the judge. I can remember some of what I said before sentencing was passed. The insanity defense hadn't worked.

The insanity defense never does work when you have a good reason for trying to kill someone, I suppose.

"Your honor, members of the jury. I'm just a guy who set out to make a difference. I guess that I couldn't make much of a difference but I didn't know that then. We all want to do better for ourselves and our families. We all want more time, more security. If you'll permit me, I'd like to lend you all a video that could change your life. You don't have to spend your life savings, this is your chance to make money in a billion dollar industry..."

I think that's about as far as I got. What really bothered me, though, was the judge talking to someone called "Mr. Fock."

A man has pride, I thought as they led me away in handcuffs.

It takes a while to get used to prison. The food isn't so good and most of the people there would rather be somewhere else.

But I adjusted. On my first day I remember looking at a picture, there on one of the walls, of someone who looked familiar.

"That's the owner," Bob, one of the guards, said.
Bob is a good kid, just married, raising two kids of his own, holding down the fort, working in a prison after the factory he had worked in closed and moved to Mexico.

"Someone owns this place!" I said.

"Oh yes. This is a privately owned prison."

"Well I'll be," I said, looking at the face of The Best Networker in Babbleon. "The man sure knows how to get customers."

"Wish I had his talent," Bob said.

"Yeah, me too," I said. "Me too."

Yep, prison is a growth industry. I got a job in the laundry room and developed, along with everyone else, a real fascination for soap operas, homemade knives, drugs and tattooing. I even got used to oral and anal sex. But I also learned a lot of other things from the people there. Like the fact that while most drug users are white, most of the people locked up for drug offenses in this country are black. That many of the people in our prisons are emotionally disturbed, that a lot of them are just drug users, too poor to go to the Betty Ford Center.

Yeah, money really does make one hell of a difference in this modern society of ours.

One hell of a difference.


"The main purpose of work in the modern world is to keep ourselves from asking why we are bothering with it to begin with."

-Rufus A. Pervus,
The Science of Mechanology

After I was released from prison I worked, as a condition of my parole, for a married couple, Dill and Emily Ford, who owned their own car detailing shop. Their business was called Dill and Emily's Auto Detailing. They told me that at first they had called their business Ford's Auto Detailing but that the Ford Motor Company had threatened to sue them if they didn't change the name of their company to something else.

They were a kindly pair. Dill was a retired railway worker and Emily had not only taught college but had won a gold medal in the 1972 Olympics held in Sapporo, Japan. They believed in helping people and so, without asking a lot of questions, they agreed to give me a job.

"We're gettin on but the business has a few more years in her, yeahuh," Dill once said to me as he wiped grease from his hands. He was a big man with a pleasant, round face, large walrus mustache and brown, thinning hair. He liked to tell jokes he read in Reader's Digest, and when Emily was not around he chewed big wads of tobacco he pulled from a foil pouch.

"I'm glad to have you here, Fick. Man shouldn't have to pay for one mistake for the rest of his life. That's the way I see it anyway. You could have a shop like this one day, you know. Yeahuh. And you've been doing a bang up job for us, too. Don't think we haven't noticed, Fick."

I liked them, I appreciated all they had done for me, but I stayed away from them as much as I could, physically and emotionally. People scared me. I wanted to be by myself.

When I finished work I took the bus home to a room, behind a two-story house, that had once been a garage. There I sat on the floor and watched television on an old black and white Zenith Emily had given me. For the most part I watched game shows. I liked to see people win money, and I always felt bad when contestants lost money or valuable prizes like cars or bedroom furniture. From 5 in the afternoon to midnight I watched television, and on the weekends I watched television around the clock, only stepping out of my room to get something to eat. I didn't want to read, I didn't want to talk to anyone, I didn't want to think. I just wanted to feel as if the man people once knew as Fick no longer existed, that the man formally known as Fick was now someone else on a game show wining money and fabulous prizes while people clapped and cheered.

When the television was off I wanted to feel as if I were off, too.

The only time I felt good being me was when I polished cars. Mr. Ford said that I polished cars the way men should make love to a woman. Putting aside all false modesty, I was the best car polisher who ever lived. I loved the feel of wax on my fingers, the smooth whirr of an electric buffer in my hands. Cars didn't just come out shiny, they came away from my work with a deep gloss, as if they were no longer made of metal but of pools of clear, lustrous, diamond bright water, the kind you only see in movies about lush tropical islands.

I made a fortune in tips; more, in fact, than what Dill paid me.

It was a simple existence that worked for a long time. Buffing and television. And then everything changed one day when Emily walked over to me while I ate lunch.

"What you do to a car's finish is absolutely amazing," she said, sitting down next to me and taking an apple out of her knapsack.

"Thank you," I said, chewing on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich I had made at home. It was the only lunch I ever made.

"How's everything?"


She took a bite out of her apple, looking up at the sky, at the clouds, I think. She still had on her running outfit. I had seen her jogging that morning. She still liked to think of herself as an athlete and she had, in fact, an amazingly strong looking body for a woman her age.

"I've got a nickname for you," she said.

"What's that?"

"I call you our hermit."

I took a small bite of my sandwich and chewed slowly. Go away, I thought. Leave me alone.

"You don't think that's funny."

"I dunno," I said, shrugging. I thought that if I acted stupid she would lose interest in me.
One of my greatest fears was that someone would find something about me interesting. And then start asking questions.

"You know, in all the time you've been here, I've never seen you laugh or even smile, Fick. Even when you're polishing cars, which I know you love, you have this stony look on your face. It's like?it's like?you're hiding. Do you think that about yourself-that you?re hiding from?from everyone?"

"I'm not hiding," I said, beginning to feel more than just annoyed. I worked an honest day's job and wasn't that enough? Now I had to laugh and sing and put on a show for everyone. They locked me up, they treated me like an animal and now they had to keep humiliating me? Come on, Fick, show Masta how happy you is!

"I think you are, Fick," she said, getting up and then tossing the remainder of her apple away as if it were my heart that she had just devoured.

"Let me know when you're ready to come out."

I'm none of your business, I thought, too upset to finish my lunch. I'm not anyone's damn business anymore.

I went home-if you can call a room that had once been a garage a home-and paced up and down with the television on full blast. Why had she opened her big mouth? I was angry, and then I was afraid because I was angry. Anger is bad, I thought. Anger is bad because when I'm angry I hurt people and I don't want to hurt anyone. I just want to be left alone.

Is that too much to ask?

The next day I kept glancing nervously at Dill, trying to see, by the way he looked in my direction, if his wife had spoken to him about me. If she had he wasn't going to give it away. He turned on the radio, as he usually did in the morning, and listened to Gaveston Gaylord, the famous talk-show host.

"My friends," Gaveston said after a long string of commercials for hemorrhoid pads, corn flakes, underarm deodorant, toothpaste and a mattress for people with back pain. "I don't make up the news. I didn't invent homosexual school teachers in our classrooms, filth in our museums funded by our very own government, criminals given a slap on the wrist by our so-called judicial system, lezbo femo-nuts dictating college curriculum, ecolunatics taking away American jobs, welfare that has become a way of life for a generation of teenage mothers and an entertainment industry that glamorizes sex, violence and drug addiction. If you've been listening to this show long enough you know that what I give you is only the straight truth, what we all know and what only a few dare say in the face of political correctness and the bias of the liberal media..."

Every morning Dill faithfully listened to Gaveston Gaylord's show but I never could understand why because most of the time he seemed not to be listening to it at all. It was as if the show were white noise or background music for people angry and disgusted by everything they were too busy to actually think about. Only once did I see him grin, spit a stream of tobacco juice into the weeds and say, "That Gaveston sure is an opionated cuss."

The show usually made me feel a little uncomfortable, especially when Gaveston Gaylord talked about criminals as if they were sub-human monsters only fit to be locked up forever or put to death like mad dogs. I wondered what Dill thought about those opinions but I was always afraid to ask.
Gaveston Gaylord's voice made me feel like a black man living in the South when there was legal segregation and lynching. Sometimes I heard his voice when I was on the bus, when I felt everyone's eyes on me, when I felt as if underneath my clothes people could still see a prison uniform.

I had nightmares about prison every night. They were always the same. I walked past rows of empty cells, wondering where everyone had gone. There were foot steps behind me, but when I turned around no one was there. I ran until I came to a wall that I beat with my fists, crying out for someone to save me, and I always awakened not knowing where I was.

This is not pleasant to admit, but I wet the bed a few times.

One day I was in the market putting a bunch of grapes in a plastic bag when a woman's voice startled me.

"You're the man who polished my car!"

I turned around and saw a young woman with short, sandy colored hair standing next to a shopping cart. She had on a pair of shorts and a tank top that left her tummy bare.

"I am?" I said stupidly, looking at the grapes in my hand.

"I wanted to tell you what a great job you did," she said, showing perfect teeth as she smiled.

"Well, thank you," I said, trying not to look as if I were looking too closely at her, at her tanned skin, button nose, blue eyes and bouncy hair.

"You've been working there long?" she said.

Her breath smelled like Juicy Fruit chewing gum. She had earrings on that looked like tiny kangaroos.

"No," I said, beginning to feel hot all over.

"I'm Samantha. What's your name? I see you in the neighborhood once in a while. You live around here?"

"Yeah, just, not far, around, there," I said, pointing with my hand. She nodded and smiled when I told her my name. I felt like an idiot. I was an idiot.

"You know, I was just wondering," she said. "My Mom's birthday is coming up. She's got this old lime green Pontiac she's been driving forever, she really loves it and I was thinking-"

She looked me in the eyes and I could see nearly invisible freckles on her nose.

"You know, if you sort of work on your own."

"Well, I, I could, I suppose," I said, feeling the floor tilt. Was this some kind of a trap?

"Oh that's great! Would you? I'll give you good money."

I said something like, "Well, certainly, I'd be happy to," but all the words felt sticky and I wasn't sure, as I stood clumsily clutching my bag of grapes, that she even understood me.

"Terrific," she said, reaching in her purse for a pen and a piece of paper. "I'll give you a call if that's okay and we'll set it up."
After a couple of days had gone by I thought that she had forgotten all about it- and a part of me hoped that she had-but then one night, as I sat on the floor watching a show called Wheel of Fortune, the telephone rang.


"Yes, yes, I'm here," I said, reaching to turn down the volume on the television.

"It's Samantha."

"I know," I said, instantly embarrassed by my stupidity again.

"I mean, hi."

"Hi," she laughed. "I hope I didn't get you at a bad time."

"Oh no, no, not at all," I said, gripping the phone hard, taking care not to breathe into the receiver.

"I was wondering if you're free this Sunday. Sometime before noon. Is that too early?"

"No, not at all," I said without thinking. "I'm an early riser."

"Good," she said, then fell silent for a few seconds. "How much do you want? I mean, you know, what do you normally charge?"

I sat down on a gray folding metal chair, the only chair I had. How much did I charge? This is something you should have thought about, I told myself. But nothing that came to mind seemed right and so I finally said that I didn't know.

"Well, I was thinking, something like, around fifty? Is that too low?"

"No, that's fine," I said. "Fifty is? is good."

"Oh good. Um, you want me to give you the address, then?"

"I'm kind of between cars, right now," I said. "So.."

"Then I'll pick you up. How does that sound?"

The sound of her voice was in my head all night and I hardly slept at all. I kept visualizing how I would polish her mother's car, rehearsing each step a thousand times. What if I didn't do a good job? What if I had lost my touch? I went to an auto supply store and bought my own polishing kit, then checked and rechecked everything to make sure that I hadn't forgotten anything. No matter how much I tried to prepare and calm myself down, though, I felt like a balloon turning taunt with too much air.
"Why," I asked myself one night, pacing up and down my small room. "Did I ever have to stop and buy those damn stupid grapes? Why did I have to agree to do this?"

Then, when the dreaded day came at last, I stood outside, smoothing my hair, trying not to sweat, running my tongue over teeth I had brushed twice, polishing kit at my feet. Samantha drove up in her Volkswagen Beetle. She looked as if she were just out for a morning drive, a kid on Spring break.

"Hi," she said. "You ready to go?"

"Yeah, yeah," I said, walking to the car.

"Don't you want to take that?" she said, pointing to the kit I had left behind.

"Well, yeah," I said, trying to laugh, feeling blood rush to my scalp. "I guess that would help."

"That's a nice house," she said, putting her bug in gear. "You own or rent?"

I didn't know what she was talking about at first.

"Oh, oh, no, I don't live there, I rent the house in the back," I said. "I just, you know, that house, that one, a couple owned it, or do-there's a guy- and he rents this room, a flat, small but comfortable and, I've been there just a few months, trying to save up a little money."

Do you want to buy a house like this? I heard that bastard say in my head.

She nodded as if my babbling made any sense at all. I clenched and unclenched my fists. One second at a time, I told myself. It's what I used to tell myself in prison and it helped me get through some tough times. But then I had a thought that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. What if she found out, by something stupid I said or would say, that I had been in prison? What would I do? What would she do? I started chewing on my lips.
I felt a chill pass through the center of my body as I looked at the hood of Samantha's Volkswagen and the brilliant signature of my work.
So much better, I thought, to be a machine, a machine that feels nothing, a machine that doesn't know that it even exists.

It was a strange thought, made even stranger by what I would one day discover about the destiny of the human race.


"If men and women understood each other the world would be far happier than it is now but a lot less exciting."
-Rufus A. Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

We turned into a winding street lined with poplar and walnut trees; two-story homes with balconies, chimneys and porch swings; old, wrought iron street lamps; wide yards with heaps of leaves in the center; expensive cars that needed to be washed and waxed; sculpted hedges, flower gardens and children's toys. The colors were not bright but deep and rich, as if the earth and everything good within it had soaked into the red brick walls, painted wood and even the shadows over decades of quiet, contented time.

Samantha and I walked into a backyard through a gate that looked as if it had never been locked. There, beneath a chestnut tree that had cracked a strip of cement meant to serve as a driveway, stood the old lime green Pontiac.

"I got the hose hooked up for you," she said, pointing to a coil of brown rubber on the grass. "And there's an extension cord for the buffer.You need anything else to get started?"

I looked at the car and began to rework its finish in my imagination, feeling my fingers begin to itch. A long time ago, when I was in high school, one of my teachers told us that Michelangelo looked at raw marble and saw, buried in stone, the sculpture he would liberate with his hammer and chisel. For me it was the same thing, only with cars. I could see, beneath the accumulation of dirt and grime, the beauty of flashing metal, the color of lime, like juice in a saucer on a summer day.

"No, thank you, I have everything I need," I muttered, walking to the car.

"Then I'll tell Mother you're here," she said.

I fell to work, washing and then waxing, working without care, without worries, without any sense of time; polishing a car, as Dill once said, the way men should make love to a woman.

When I had finished I sat down on a patch of scruffy grass to rest and admire my work. The old lime green Pontiac flashed like juice in a saucer on a summer day. It was so beautiful that I didn't notice the two people standing behind me.

"Well, what do you think, Mother?" Samantha said.
There was an intake of breath, and then, "Is that Betsy?"

I turned around to see who was talking. Samantha's mother wore yellow rimed sun glasses and a straw hat. She had red lipstick on and her skin, which looked as if it had never been in the sun, was as white and smooth as piano keys. Her hands, with their long, tapered fingers, were, I thought, the hands of an artist or a musician. Her voice was strong and mellow at the same time. It made me think, for some reason I can't explain, of peaches in a wooden bowl.

"Well, Mr. Fick," she said. "You are quite the miracle worker, it seems."

"You're very kind," I said, getting to my feet. "It's the one job I'm good at."

"A man should always be proud of his work," she said, walking around her car, touching it lightly with her long, tapered fingers.

Samantha put her hands together, smiled, and then looked at me for so long that it made me uncomfortable.

"Happy birthday, Mother," she said, still looking at me, then running the tip of her tongue over her bottom lip.

"Thank you, Sam," the woman in the straw hat said, continuing to walk around the car until she faced me. "My daughter always gets me the most unusual presents, Mr. Fick. Once, while she was still in high school, she had all her friends come out on Christmas Day to perform A Christmas Carol. It was positively astonishing and I have no idea to this day how she did it but there they all were, dressed in Victorian clothing, reciting Dickens, her brother Leon acting the part of Tiny Tim!"

"She is very persuasive," I said.

"Oh indeed. But now I think it's time for us to have lunch, don't you think, Sam?"

"Just let me get my stuff," I said.

"Oh leave it right there," she said. "Let me show you where you can wash up, Mr. Fick."

"Thank you..."

"Call me Caroline," Samantha's mother said. "Sam takes after her father, George. We called him Mr. G. He always let me make the introductions."

"Sorry," Samantha giggled.

"I'm pleased to meet you, Caroline," I said.

"Well I think that the pleasure is all mine," Caroline said, looking at her car.

I stepped through a sliding glass door and walked over a hardwood floor. There were pictures of a sandy haired girl and boy, a man with red, wavy hair and Caroline with longer, darker hair on the walls and end-tables. Baby pictures, beach pictures, summer camp pictures, graduation pictures. I could see the corner of a grand piano in the other room and there were delicate looking figurines everywhere. The bathroom, white porcelain with flecks of gold, smelled like pine. There were even little baskets of scented soap shaped like sea shells on the counter, and the toilet bowel water was blue. I washed my hands three times before I dared use the towels.

Samantha had me sit next to her. The large oval table, made of heavy oak, was set with sparkling crystal tumblers and silverware wrapped in white linen napkins. There were platters of sandwiches made with cream cheese and thinly sliced meats cut into little squares without the crust, held together by toothpicks with colored ribbons on the end. A large glass bowl was filled with a salad of lettuce, onions, green peppers, cherry tomatoes and large, toasted croutons.

I felt like such a toad that I was afraid to eat in front of them. It had been years since I had sat down to a table like this. They didn't seem to be aware of my discomfort at all. Samantha and her mother talked as if they were sisters. Mr. G, I gathered, had long since died; and there was Leon-the sandy haired boy I had seen in the pictures-who was now a college professor. They didn't just talk to themselves. I was dragged into the conversation at every opportunity.

"Do I have to keep calling you Mr. Fick?" Caroline said, handing me a pitcher of iced tea.

"Everyone calls me Fick," I said. "Even my parents did."

"And are they still around?"

"No," I said, lying. "They're, both, long gone."

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "Do you have any family?"

"No. Pretty much by myself."

"Married? I hope you don't mind my asking."

"I was," I said, smiling to show her that I didn't mind. I did, though, and was relieved when she didn't press for more details.

"Oh, well, it's so hard for young people to stay married these days. Mr. G and I were married for almost forty years and we'd still be married if he hadn't had the bad judgment to have had a heart attack. He was such a hard worker. Both of us were but it takes its toll so much earlier on men. Before he could retire he had just worn himself out. Men make a world that is so hard for them to survive in, I've always thought. Do you think that's true, Fick?"

"I think the world can be a very hard and cruel place," I said.

Samantha's eyes widened when her mother burst into laughter.

"Very good, Fick. Well, Sam, I don't suppose you remember your high school Dickens?"

"Oh," Samantha said. "Christmas Carol, right?"

"Have some more to eat, Fick. I feel funny calling you that, though. But then again, I got used to calling my husband 'Mr. G.' When Samantha was only 5 she told me one day that she wanted me to call her, 'Sam'. Well, I couldn't believe it but I said, 'Okay, honey, if that's what you want.' And I've called her Sam ever since."

I didn't know why they wanted me there at their lunch, since I was just a guy who worked at an auto detailing shop. What was I to them? They were educated, normal, polite, happy, well adjusted and well off. What could I possibly be to people like them? I was poor, miserable, rude and stupid. A hermit.

What are you hiding from?

But as uncomfortable as I was the food, I have to say, was the most delicious I had ever eaten.
"Mother got a real kick out of you," Samantha said as she drove me home.

"She was... very nice to me," I said, feeling something in my chest tighten.

"You okay?"

"No, I mean, I'm okay. I didn't expect lunch. That was nice, thank you."

"You act like you don't expect people to treat you nicely," she said, wrinkling her nose as she turned into my street.

I looked at my hands, desperately wanting the safely of television, hearing the chant,


"People treat me okay," I said a little too quickly. "The Fords are nice to me."

"I'm sorry," Samantha said, parking the car, turning off the engine and pulling up the brake. "I'm always shooting off my big mouth. I don't know why I even said that. It just popped into my head and then, whammo! out it goes for no reason."

"Well," I said, opening the door.

"Can I walk you to the door?"

"Well, it's, kind of..."

"Oh my place is always a mess," Samantha said, getting out of the car. "Mother keeps threatening to come over and clean it up for me. You don't have to invite me in, or you can tell me to close my eyes if you want."

Before I knew what was happening she was walking around the car. I was close to panicking, trying to remember if I took my underwear off the bed, if I had made the bed, if there were still bits of potato chips on the carpet, if the room would smell like dirty socks before I had a chance to open a window.

"Why the hell," I asked myself. "Would someone like her want to see my room?"

I walked up behind her, carrying my polishing kit, my armpits getting damp, my legs as weak as sponges, my ears filling up with the sound of my own heartbeat.

Everything happened quickly. I tried to unlock the door but my hand wasn't steady. Then we were inside and Samantha closed her eyes and I couldn't remember how to turn on the light and then I was frantically putting things away while Samantha counted, "One...two...three..."

I walked up to her to tell her that she could open her eyes and that is when she put her hands on my shoulders.

Everything inside my head came to a dead stop.

"I like to see a man who's good at his work."

Her eyes looked into mine, then crept playfully down to my chest.

My teeth were locked together. I could hardly breathe. There was a beautiful young woman touching me. That was all I knew but I couldn't understand why.

"So...?" she said, moving her eyes back up to mine.

I looked into her blue eyes, at her button nose, tanned skin and short, sandy hair. Her breath smelled like Juicy Fruit chewing gum. Her hands felt light and soft. I could feel the heat of her body on me.

Then her face came nearer, then nearer still, and suddenly I felt her lips on mine.

"Calm down, damnit, we just want to do it once..."

Prison, like a horrible childhood monster, pulled back the fabric of time and I pushed myself away from Samantha, nearly knocking her over.

I was trembling all over, covered with sweat, a sick feeling in my stomach.

"Jesus," Samantha whispered. "I..."


In a flash she was out the door, running back to the car.

I couldn't move. For a long time I stood perfectly still, eyes shut, like a paralyzed blind man, hardly believing what had just happened.
The door stayed open until it was dark, when I could finally walk far enough to close it. I stood by the door for a long time, and then I slowly walked over to the bed. Then I was sitting on my bed, the bed that I sometimes wet, the bed I shared with no one, and I could see, in my mind's eye, the apple Emily had been eating the day she talked to me, the apple she had carelessly tossed away.
Unable to contain my grief, the pain of my broken heart, I crumbled to the floor and wept.

I wept until my eyes dried out and I could weep no more. Then it all became clear to me. I knew how to rid myself of the pain and the loneliness, how to straighten out the mess that had become my life. There was just one thing that I needed, and I looked methodically through all of the shoe boxes under my bed until I had it in my hand.

A packet of razor blades.


"...we approach the beginning of a new millennium with some hope..."
-Rufus A. Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

Suicide is a hell of a thing. If you think you know how to do it from watching it in the movies, you've got another thing coming. Let me tell you from personal experience, when you get ready to take the off-ramp, hang up the phone, permanently retire or whatever else you want to call it, all kinds of things pop into your head at the last minute. Like the note. You have to leave a note, explaining to everyone why you left the party early. There's an etiquette to everything and yes, folks, believe it or not, even suicide has its own Emily Post.

So I got out of the shower stall, where I had planned to slit my wrists, and looked for a piece of paper and a pen.

"Of course," I sighed, walking in circles around my room. "All I need-the very last thing I need-is paper and pen and of course I couldn't have something that elementary. Why would I?"

It's true what they say. You can never do enough planning.

I walked, grumbling and swearing, to the back door of Carl Benson's house. Carl was the man I rented the room from. He's a professional man, I thought, sullenly stuffing my hands into my pockets. A man with a real job. A man with a real house. Rich bastards like that always have paper and pens.

There was a light on inside and so I knocked. I could hear slipper shod feet coming to the door. Carl Benson, an engineer who had just gotten divorced, asked who was there.

"It's Fick, Mr. Benson," I said in a gravely voice. My throat had been strained by crying.


I sighed again and thought, "Well, I won't be a nobody for long."

"The guy you rent the room to," I said.

Carl Benson opened the door. He had on a stained bathrobe, his hair was sticking straight up, his eyes were bloodshot and his breath smelled like whiskey. Jesus, I thought. He looks worse than I do.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing," I said. "I'm real sorry to disturb you..."

"It's almost midnight, Fick."

"I know, and I'm sorry, I wouldn't disturb you if it wasn't important but I really need some, well, paper and a pen. Just for tonight. It's, it's really important."

He looked at me for a long time with his bloodshot eyes as if he knew what I needed the paper and pen for. Then he shrugged, said, "Okay," left, then returned with a disposable pen and a pad of paper.

"Keep it," he said as he closed the door. "I won't be needing it."

I returned to my room, sat down on the gray metal folding chair, and began to compose my note on Carl Benson's stationary.

From the Desk of Carl Benson

Dear, whoever finds my body,

Sorry for the mess. I mean, my body and everything else. Can't stand the loneliness anymore, the guilt and the shame. This is not something I think people should do but I don't know what else to do. I'm sorry that I hurt The Best Networker in Babbleon,.I'm sorry about everything. Please forgive me. Tell the Fords that I love them for all they did for me and I'm sorry that I won't be able to work for them anymore.
I left the note on my pillow and then returned with my razor blades to the shower. The fan made a comforting sound. I closed my eyes and imagined that I was on a plane, a plane that would take me to a better place. Then I studied my wrist. I had heard once that you should always cut vertically, as if making a line to the inside of the elbow, and not horizontally, which is a common mistake. So I slid one razor blade from the pack, being careful not to cut myself, and took a deep breath. Here goes...But then another thought stopped me. How long would it take for my body to be discovered?

A shudder ran through me as I imagined what could happen in a few days. I saw myself as a bloated, gassy, purple, rotting, maggot eaten...Well, you get the picture. It was something I didn't want anyone to find.

Great, I thought. Now what?

I had gone to all the trouble of writing a note and I didn't want to waste it. No way was I going to put this off. The sudden conviction came over me that I had been born to commit suicide. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea at the time. After all, I thought, if some people are born to become great artists, scientists or politicians, aren't some people born to kill themselves? But how was I to do it without being inconsiderate of other people's feelings? That was the problem.

And then an idea came to me. The park was only a few blocks away. I could go there to commit suicide! City workers would find me right away in the morning.

"Hey Chuck!"

"What is it, Louie?"

"Looks like we got ourselves another body over here."

"Poor bastard. Get a bag. I think we have enough room in the recycle bin."

"The world can be a very hard and cruel place."

"Ain't it the truth!"

I left the note where it was on my pillow, since I was afraid that it would get blown away or overlooked if I took it with me to the park. It was warm outside, the first week of June, one of my favorite months. A few stars were visible. I locked the door because I didn't want anyone walking in and stealing my stuff (go figure); and then I walked to the park, being careful when I crossed the streets. I had dark clothing on and I didn't want to get run over before I could properly kill myself.

There was an area just south of the library that was dark and far enough away from the street so that I could go to work on myself unnoticed. I lay down on the soft, slightly damp grass and took out a razor blade that I had carefully wrapped in tissue paper.

A fragment of a sentence came to me from somewhere in my brain. "Dead things in the grass." An owl hooted. Owls have wings that are silent, I thought.

"Dead things in the grass."

My heart beat quickened. When I closed my eyes I saw Samantha looking at me, her face white with shock, her mouth open, and I felt a fresh current of pain. Dead things in the grass. Soon it would all be over.

I couldn't see the razor blade and I could barely feel it between my fingers. Make it quick, I thought. You've screwed everything else up till now, you can at least get this right. I closed my eyes again, tried to clear away the image of Samantha's face, and saw something else.

My mother. When I was little I had found a dead bird in the backyard, and she had come out to help me bury it. I was upset because the bird, a sparrow, was covered with ants and its eyes were missing. My mother gently picked it up, carefully removed the ants, wrapped it in a hand towel, and put it into the cigar box she used for her buttons. I cried because I wanted to comfort the bird but I was just old enough to know that I couldn't do that. No one could. It was dead. I knew that something was dead.

"When a bird dies," my mother said slowly, kneeling down next to me, brushing away the hair from her face and looking into my eyes. "Its soul flies to heaven, which for birds is a tree. And when the bird gets tired of heaven, it comes back down to earth and is born in an egg. The real bird is looking down on us and is singing and it doesn't want us to feel sad."

"Then the bird isn't really hurt?" I said, letting tears run down my face. It was dead, I knew that, but I wanted so much to believe my mother. I had never doubted her before.

"No, baby, he's fine, he's with his friends," she said. Then she stroked the back of my head and kissed me on the forehead, something she had never done before and never did after that.

I surprised myself by bursting into fresh tears. Jesus, a part of me said. Can't you think about something happy? Then again, I thought, if I had any happy thoughts I wouldn't be killing myself now, would I?

What if I had found a human body instead of a bird? I thought. And then another terrible idea occurred to me. (My night for terrible ideas.)

What if Chuck and Louie missed me and a child found me instead?

I put the razor blade away, looked up at the sky, and listened to the owl. Who knew suicide could be so damned complicated?

"Hoo-hoo," the owl said, agreeing with me.

I intended to rest just a few minutes before walking back to my room but when I closed my eyes I fell asleep almost instantly.

And then I walked up a flight of stairs in one of the longest and most exhausting dreams I had ever had. When I got to the landing there, carved on a wall in big stone letters, was a question.

I climbed another flight of stairs, only to be confronted by the same question carved exactly like the first.


On every landing the same question stared at me, demanding an answer. Then a voice, whispering behind me,


jolted me into a sitting position while I was still waking up. Where was I? The bed was damp and the blankets were gone. I was outside. Grass. I was in the park and, of course, I instantly knew why. The sky was no longer black but gray. I could see the outline of houses across the street. Birds were chirping and crows were cawing. There were leaves in my hair. My eyelids felt as if they had been glued together. I leaned over and put my face in my hands. Had I really come here to kill myself or had I just lost my mind again? I brushed the leaves from my hair, wondering if I had been bitten by mosquitoes or spiders. What a place to fall asleep in, I thought. Someone could have come along and murdered me!

My back felt like a sack of rocks when I stood up, my clothes were wet and my skin felt sticky.

"Great to be alive," I groaned, staggering to one of the picnic tables.

I sat down, shivering and wishing that I had brought along a jacket. What the hell was I going to do now? I imagined that Chuck and Louie were talking to me.

"You got your whole life ahead of you, kid."

"Yeah, you can always start over. Remember the American Dream?"

"Come on, come on. A girl tries to kiss you. That's a problem? I should have problems like that!"

"She likes you, you found someone that likes you. And you're out, got a place and a job you're good at..."

"Shut up!" I screamed, pounding the table with my fists so hard I heard wood crack.

I looked around, afraid someone had heard me. But it was early, all the sane people were still in bed or just getting up. Only the birds were around to hear me, and even they, I thought, were probably sick of me by now.

There were things that I needed to do. One of them was just to sit quietly, shut up and not think. I remembered my first night in prison, when I had stayed up all night trying to remember every scene of one of my favorite movies, which just happened to be A Christmas Carol. This went on until sunrise. My first long night. I didn't know then, of course, how many more there were in store for me.

The world can be a very hard and cruel place.

And so I sat and watched the sun come up. Cars began to appear on the street. Newspapers were thrown onto driveways. The first bus went by. Lights came on in the houses across the street. The world, refreshed from its sleep, was waking up.

I stood up at last and began to walk toward the street, feeling as if I had just lived a million years.

"Hey, buddy!"

My heart flipped over as I spun around. A man in his mid-twenties, blond and bearded, was riding a bicycle.

"How's it going," he said, stopping his bike to get off and walk beside me.

"Great," I said, trying not to look as if I were inviting him to walk beside me. He did anyway.

"I used to be homeless, too. And an alcoholic. What's your name?"

I told him.

"I'm John," he said. "I haven't seen you around. Been on the streets long?"

"Not too long," I said.

"Got a place to go?"
"Yeah, sort of," I sighed, wishing this jerk would go away.

"Well, that's good," he said. "I got a little food here and a blanket." He pointed to the basket on the front of his bike.

"I'm good," I said, walking faster, hoping to lose him.

"Well then, can I give you this?"

He was handing me a book. Of course, I thought. Lunatics everywhere. You can't even go to the park to kill yourself without running into them.

"No thanks."

"Please," he said. "It's nothing bad and it may help. It helped me."

"Okay," I said, accepting the book, hoping that by taking the damn thing it would get rid of him.

"Fantastic," he said, getting back on his bike. "See you around."

"Yeah," I said. "Whatever."

I was expecting the Bible, but when I got to my room I turned on the light and saw that what I had was
The Science
by Rufus A. Pervus

Guy gave me the wrong book! I thought. That's funny.

I actually made it to work on time and asked Dill if I could go home early that day.

"Life of the 'ole swing'in bachelor, eh?" he said. "I bet you were out partying last night." He leaned over and winked, then nudged me with his elbow. "Got a different one each night, am I right?"

"Yep," I said.


"Every night."

"Yeahuh, I knew it. Well, let's see. It's gona be kinda slow today so, I think I'll just need you till noon anyway. Then you get some of the hair of the dog if you know what I mean. Know what I mean?"

"I know."


"Hair of the dog."

"Yeahuh, you betcha, partner."

When noon came around I dragged myself up the steps of the bus, fatigue like lead right down to the marrow of my bones. How many more years, I asked myself, will I take this bus feeling the way I do now? Everything outside the window, all the liquor stores, beauty salons, banks and office buildings, looked tawdry and slightly unreal, as if I were traveling through a fake town designed to make the real town look better. Hardly anyone was on the sidewalks except a few bored looking teenagers. Strange symbols were spray-painted on walls. An old, crazy man, wearing too many clothes, staggered across the street, waving his arms and talking to himself. Billboards everywhere. People enjoying a bottle of whiskey, a pack of cigarettes, french fries, big cars, fancy watches. Empty buildings. Trash in doorways. A video store on every block. And Fick, that tired, sick looking man, sitting on the bus as if he had somewhere to go, still alive, wouldn't you know. Why? Why was I alive? It is the most terrible question a man can ask himself.

"Maybe," I said out loud (the bus was nearly empty). "I'm really dead and this is hell."

"You don't know how many times I've thought that myself, buddy," the driver said.

The only thing I wanted to do was sit on the floor and watch television for the rest of the day. I didn't even want to sleep. But when I went to turn on the television I noticed the book that I had been given by the blond, bearded stranger. What's his name. John.

I picked it up, sat down on the gray metal folding chair, and turned to the author's introduction.

"Nearly twenty years have gone by since the The Science of Mechanology was first published in a basement turned do-it-yourself publishing company. Since that time Science has enjoyed rare success for a work of such humble origins. It has been printed and reprinted, translated into seven languages, and has launched a movement which has touched the lives of people in all walks of life.

"Now, twenty years later, we approach the beginning of a new millennium with some hope and much trepidation. Science and technology have given us new marvels. The Iron Curtain has come down, segregation has been dismantled in the American South and in South Africa, and millions of people around the world are living longer and in better health thanks to new medical advances, better hygiene and improved nutrition. And yet despite all of this impressive progress, we worry about the future of our civilization. No matter what assurances we are given by the media, politicians, intellectuals and experts, it is a simple fact that for the average man and woman, something seems wrong with the structure and values of our society. And so anger and anxiety, like serpents intertwined, have become the latent psychic instruments of the way we think and respond to the world at large. This is reflected in the despairing lyrics of the songs we listen to, the increasingly violent movies we watch, the nihilistic humor we laugh at, the sneering voices we tune into, the drugs we depend upon, the marriages we dissolve, the children we abandon, the drudgery of work we resign ourselves to, the terrifying weapons of mass destruction we collectively build and the firearms we privately collect, the cynicism we feel toward authority, the hatred we express toward the outsider, the indifference we display toward our own neighbors, the hopeless longing we feel for a sense of community."

Well, I couldn't argue with that! I looked at the cover again, then turned the book over in my hands. There was nothing glossy or slick about it, no pictures or words of recommendation, which led me to believe that it was still being printed in somebody's basement.

"Weird," I thought, turning on the television. The news was on. People were marching, carrying signs, protesting plans to build a mall in their neighborhood, a big project called Wonder World Ko.

"What the heck," I muttered, wondering what was wrong with the people shouting and carrying signs. "You'd think they'd be happy to have a mall in their neighborhood."

Sports followed, then commercials and the news was over. A soap opera that I sometimes watched came on. All the people in it were rich and never worked; but instead of enjoying themselves, their cars, good looks and money, they were forever cheating on each other, sabotaging each other's weddings, winding up in the hospital with amnesia or getting shot by people they had swindled.

"People never know when they have it good," I sighed.

I kept glancing at the book. Television usually filled me up completely, pushing thoughts out of my head, but now there was something that I actually found myself wanting to think about.

Politics, religion and philosophy had never interested me before. And yet this man said things in plain English that startled me, that made me feel as if I were considering ideas I had always had myself but never took the time to think through deeply enough. I turned off the television, took off my shoes, and sat on the bed for the first time in a long time with a book.

"I enjoy talking to young people because they always ask the most important questions. It is not unusual for them to say to me, without hesitation or embarrassment, 'what is the meaning of life?' I've always wanted, although I've never had the heart, to say, 'Don't you think that's obvious?'

"But in the world we live in today, obsessed as it is with celebrity, material goods, money and looks, how can it possibly be obvious?"

I fell back on my bed, putting the book on my chest and closing my eyes. Could I actually find answers to the mysteries of life from a book that some kook had handed me? Probably not. And yet I kept it close to me, unwilling to set it down.

"...material goods, money..."

For years I had thought about nothing but money. And where had it gotten me? I thought about the last time I had seen Helen as I was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. She was using a compact mirror to inspect her teeth.

I looked at her, then looked away and thought, "I wonder if she'll give my clothes away or just trash them."

A scrap of the tissue paper I had used to wrap the razor blade in was on the floor. I looked at it for a long time, letting my eyes go in and out of focus.

"What are you hiding from?" I could hear Emily say in my head, clear as the first time I had heard it, reminding me of my dream in the park.

"Everything," I said out loud, still holding the book to my chest.

I fell asleep and dreamt that Samantha stood outside my door, howling like a desperate and frightened dog.


"The practicality of death is what upsets us the most."
-Rufus A. Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

I got home from work the next day to find flashing police cars parked in front of the house.

Oh no, I thought. Someone must have found the note, or saw me trying to kill myself, or saw me sleeping in the park or heard me screaming and pounding the picnic table like some lunatic who likes to bash people into a coma with a baseball bat. Panic like witch's brew bubbled in my blood, thoughts raced around each other in a white blur. I was on the verge of running when I saw the ambulance. Someone hadn't spied on me. No. Someone was hurt. Or dead. Thank God! But who? People in uniform were standing on the back porch of Carl Benson's house, going in and out with bags and rubber gloves on their hands. I walked past a crowd of half-dressed adults and nearly bald-headed kids slouched on bicycles.
"Whoa, there," a police officer said. He was tall, had a big stomach and a mustache that was so small you could have counted the number of hairs it had. I stood in his shadow, looked at his silver badge and felt sweat run down my legs. He planted his feet extra wide, arched his back and put his hands on his hips because he wanted me to see that he was the

Big Bad Policeman.

"I live here," I said in a voice so weak even I didn't believe me.

He looked down at me like an evil version of The Jolly Green Giant.


I pointed at the converted garage. Eyebrows arched. Tight leather squeaked and creaked. I was suddenly afraid that I smelled like perspiration and car wax.

"You rent that?"

"Yes, that, rent, I do," I said, feeling sentences crumble in my brain like rotted rubber bands.


"Mr. Benson," I said, afraid for some reason that he would want to look at my wrists. But there was nothing there. I hadn't killed myself. Had I? Why, lookee here, nary a scratch!

"May I have your name, sir?"

I told him.

"You have any ID on you, Mr. Fick?"

I felt my neighbors, hatched-faced women and half-naked men with hairy backs, starring at me like a mute Greek chorus. Hidyho, good neighbors, it's just me talking to Big Bad Policeman over here. I haven't beaten anyone up lately, honest. You're all safe and you can stop looking at me now.

He inspected my California identification card for a minute that felt more like an hour. I told him, because I knew that sooner or later he would find out anyway, that I was on parole. He asked me who my parole officer was. I told him.

"I want you to wait right here, Fick," Big Bad Policeman said, free now to dispense with the "mister", then lumbering, squeaking and creaking, toward the house like John Wayne with a leather fetish.

"Okie doakie."

"What'd he tell you?"

I turned around to look at a small old woman with big ears, a moist looking pink nose and a pile of white hair. Little hairs sprouted on her chin and upper lip. Her eyes were large, oval and nervously alert. She reminded me of timid Grandmother Rabbit, the kind you see in cartoons about animals who get killed by Mr. Fox and Mrs. Owl.

"Not much," I said.

"Did himself in," she said, then blew up her cheeks and made her eyes bulge.

I looked at her, looked at the house, looked at the ambulance then looked at Grandmother Rabbit again.

"Mr. Benson!"

"Carl," she said, nodding her head. "I'm the one called the police. Heard Suzie howling all night."


"Carl's dog," Grandmother Rabbit said, lifting her upper lip to show me that she still had teeth. Small, yellow teeth. "Poor thing. Didn't you hear her?"

"Well," I said, thinking about the dream. "Not sure."

"Poor Carl," she said, cracking her thumbs. "I knew his wife before the divorce." She leaned in close to whisper. "Pecker problem, drank."

She actually pointed to her crotch and made one bony hand into a cup which she lifted to her lips.

My head was swimming. Suicide! All I could say was, "But...but..."

Big Bad Policeman came back. Grandmother Rabbit sniffed the air, then hopped to safety.

"Would you be willing to do something for us? It would be a big help..."

Oh God, I thought. They're going to ask me to identify the body! I felt queasy at the thought, being a man who had nearly been a corpse himself just a few hours ago. But I nodded. Best to get it over with. I'll do anything you want just let me get on with enduring my lonely miserable screwed up suicidal existence one horrific second at a time.

"... if you could take care of Mr. Benson's dog until we locate relatives."

"Is Mr. Benson..."

Big Bad Policeman put his hands on his hips, turned to look at the house, making his leather belt squeak and creak again.

"Yeah, afraid so. About the dog..."

"No problem," I said.

"Okay, okay then," he said. "You wait here and I'll go get her. Then we'll let you back in your, your, uh, house, okay?"

"Okie doakie."

He gave me one long, last look, then squeaked and creaked away. My God, I thought. That's the biggest butt I've ever seen on a cop! When he came out of the house with Suzie he gave me the leash, then squatted down to pet her. It didn't look like the first time he had petted and caressed her. Big Bad Policeman was a dog lover.

"You're a good girl, good girl, yes you are and don't you worry. This man will take good care of you, yes he will, or we'll throw his sorry ass back in the slammer, yes we will!"
Big Bad Policeman stood up, putting his thumbs in a belt heavy with firepower, 2-way radio, pepper spray and night-stick. This was my cue to wipe the smile from my face and say something to Suzie, which was awkward since I had never owned a dog and didn't know how to talk to them.

Yes, that's right. I never owned a dog before. Go ahead and make something out of it, I know you will.

"What's new, girl?" I said.

Suzie was a big, black Labrador retriever. She didn't look up at me but looked at the house instead, pulling on the leash, trying to get back in to look for her master. She was strong. I had to keep a pretty tight grip.

"You're sad and so am I," I thought, wondering if dogs could read thoughts. I hoped not.

"Keeping yourself out of trouble... Fick?"

"Yes sir."

"Take care of the dog."

"Will do."

Big Bad Policeman looked at the dog, shook his head, and then walked over to talk to another cop.

"Well," I said to Suzie. "Mi casa es su casa."

Suzie pulled hard on the leash, barked, then walked around me, tangling the leash. I got her inside my room, not knowing what to expect. What was I to do now? I didn't have a dog door, dog food, even a bowl for water. What if she had to relieve herself? What if she attacked me? I thought that she would start scratching at the door, but instead she jumped up on my bed and then curled up, keeping her eyes open, shivering and whimpering.

"Make yourself at home," I said. There was a knock at the door. Big Bad Policeman was there, looking at me as if he had read my thoughts.

"I brought you stuff you'll need," he said.


He had put canned and dry dog food, plastic bowls and a chew toy that looked like a rope into a garbage bag.

"And Fick?"

"Yes sir?"

Hands on hips. Level stare. Exactly fourteen hairs quivering on the upper lip. "I wasn't kidding back there."

It is dreadful to hear a dog whimpering at two in the morning.

I reached down and petted Suzie, trying to calm her, worried that she was still shivering. Yes, I thought wearily, yet another long night in a life, it seems, of long nights. Why had Big Bad Policeman picked me of all people to take care of this mutt! Did he think that my life didn't have enough misery as it was?

The dog wouldn't eat or drink.

"I wasn't kidding back there."

"You're going to starve to death or die of a broken heart," I said. "And then you know what, Suzie? I'm going to die of having the shit kicked out of me."

This, I thought, is no way to comfort a scared animal; so I turned on the light, wondering if reading out loud The Science of Mechanology, that famous handbook for the homeless, would help. I turned to chapter one.

And looked at a picture of a stick man.

That was it.

"Oh for pete's sake!" I muttered, tossing the book on the floor.

The window over the bed was open but it was still uncomfortably warm inside for me. Suzie whimpered and twitched and a cricket somewhere in the room began to chirp. I stood up, put my nose to the screen and looked at Carl Benson's dark, empty house. The porch posts held up the yellow police tape. It looked like a ribbon for a foot race.

"And the winner of the suicide sprint is...", I thought, seeing Carl dash out of the house with his arms in the air, a bullet hole in his head or a rope around his neck. I realized that I hadn't even wondered how he did it.

"You know something, guys," I said out loud to Chuck and Louie. "What if we had both committed suicide that night?"

"Kids would stop in front of the house on Halloween to tell the tale," Louie said. He laughed the way psychopaths do in the movies.

"It's a hell of a thing," Chuck said, turning into a giant cricket. "You suppose he cut his wrists, like a certain someone was going to do?"

"You know, we would have found you. We found a dead peacock once."

"It's not too late," Chuck said, now a giant cricket with Samantha's face.

"I'm not in the mood tonight," I said, going to the bathroom to wash my face. Talking to myself this way was creepy but I couldn't stop myself.

"You know," Louie said, a giant, naked Barbie doll sitting on the toilet. "What are the odds of this kind of thing happening?"

"What do you mean?" I said.

"A man gets ready to kill himself and almost does while another man, his landlord, actually does kill himself. What are the odds?"

I came out of the bathroom, sat down on the floor and stroked Suzie.

Chuck, a cartoon rat holding a straight-razor, grinned and said, "Kind of makes you think, don't it?"

I turned off the light, climbed back on the bed and thought about getting a regular apartment, one with air-conditioning. Why not? I had easily enough money for the first and last month's rent. What else was I saving the money for?

Suzie whimpered, sounding like a kettle of water about to come to a boil. The cricket chirped. Chuck and Louie turned into Carl Benson, who committed suicide before my eyes in a variety of gruesome ways. Samantha, her mouth open, ran out the door again and again and again. Suzie, like a small child, climbed onto the bed and curled up next to me.

And Fick, still alive, wouldn't you know, closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep, dreaming that a hairy baby lay shivering next to him.


"Insanity is just an unfortunate side-effect of normal life."
-Rufus A, Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

I went to work the next day feeling as if I had been wrapped like a mummy in wet dough. My skin wanted to sink to the ground, leaving my skeleton standing up like Stick Man in that idiotic book I had been given. Just one normal day of not feeling anything is all I wanted.

The world owes me that much at the very least, I thought.

Dill was in the office, sitting down with his feet on the desk, eating a pink donut, listening to the radio, getting crumbs on his mustache and shirt.

"My friends," Gaveston Gaylord, the famous radio talk show host, said. I wondered if he really had any friends. He always sounded to me like a man who enjoyed hearing himself speak too much to find anyone else interesting.

"We live in truly remarkable times, when we have the opportunity, or I should say the obligation, to give to people who have made a mistake a second chance. And yet it is remarkable that the very people who complain the loudest that our society is cruel, hard-hearted and unjust should stand in the way of real, practical and yes, humane economic initiatives that could literally transform a society so besieged and beleaguered by every imaginable form of crime, vice, corruption and perversion. Of course, if you've been listening to this show regularly, as you should, you will know that what I am talking about is the Wonder World Ko Urban Recovery Partnership Project, something every American who cares about justice, cleaning up our streets, full employment and the future of the free enterprise system should care about..."

"Wonder World Ko!," I thought. "Why is everybody making such a big deal about a shopping mall?"

Dill turned his head in my direction, looking puzzled, as if he weren't expecting me.

"Feller just called me up asking about you," he said, making the last of the pink donut disappear.

"Who...who was that," I said, thinking of the owl in the park. My mind was filling up with animal images.

"Dang if I can remember. Said he was a lawyer. Said he'd come by at two minutes after ten o' clock. Must be a lawyer. I can't think of any other sonofabitch that'd be that particular about the time. You haven't been flubbing up on parole, have you, Fick?"

He didn't use the word, "flubbing"; but ever since prison I've avoided using the "F" word and I don't intend to start using it now, thank you.

"No," I said, feeling achy all over as if I had the flu. "Clean as a whistle."

Dill stood up, letting loose change jingle to the bottom of his pockets. He brushed the crumbs from his mustache and then picked up a cup of coffee, blowing off steam and then drinking it in one scalding gulp. Tough railroad man. I pictured him bending iron rails with his bare hands.

"What's the matter, Fick? You look like someone just beat the shit out of you with a big sack of shit."

Tears suddenly welled up in my eyes. I hate crying in front of people, I really do, so I looked at the floor, took a deep breath and blurted out, "I was going to kill myself but now I have a dog!"

"Holy shit!" Dill said, slowly putting his cup back on the desk without taking his eyes off me. "You have a dog?"

"A big black dog," I said, wiping my eyes quickly, hoping that he hadn't noticed. "Her name is Suzie. She won't let me sleep and I can't get her to eat."

"What pulled this train into the station?"

As quickly as I could I told him the whole story.

"Well maybe," Dill said, snapping his fingers. "That's what this lawyer feller is coming to see you about. The police told the family about the dog and they've just made arrangements to take it off your hands. That's probably all there is to it."

A huge weight rolled off my shoulders. The sun peaked through silvery clouds. A life insurance commercial came on. There was a whole box of donuts on the coffee cart and I was starving. Life was simple and good again. I silently thanked God for lawyers.

"So...What'd you do with the dog?"

"Left her in the room," I said. "With water and food, and I put newspapers on the floor. I think she'll be okay."

"You know, this means you'll have to move," Dill said, taking a thick pack of dark chewing tobacco out of his breast pocket. "I don't think they're going to let you stay there."

"I'm ready to move anyway. I was just thinking last night that I have enough money now for an apartment."

"That's the best thing I've heard you say in a long time," Dill said, smiling at me as he cut off a plug of tobacco with a pocket knife. "Sounds to me like you're getting your wheels back on track, yeahuh."

"I guess so," I said, taking a glazed donut from the box, wondering if all railroad men talked like that or was he just making it up.

"Well in the meantime," Dill said, tucking a plug of tobacco into his cheek. "Why don't you help me take the seats out of Mr. Bradshaw's Mustang?"

"I'm your man!"
We worked steadily for the next few hours, speaking very little to each other, attentive to our work. Work. Ah, it felt good to work again. I forgot about how tired and sore I was as we took out the seats, shampooed the floor, cleaned the dash, fixed a broken lock on the glove compartment, repaired tears and cigarette burns and installed new bucket seats. At 10:00 Dill and I went to the office to eat another donut, drink some coffee and wait for the lawyer feller. I began to feel nervous. As Dill talked to a customer on the phone I looked at the calendar on the wall and the picture of a girl standing next to a hot rod, wearing nothing but high heels and a string bikini. Why, I wondered, would any woman want to stand nearly naked next to a car wearing high heels? She looked happy, though, as if she knew the whole world desired her young, slender body. I looked at her half-parted lips and thought about Samantha. Samantha's smile, button nose, golden skin and soft, sandy hair. She had...I looked away, shame coursing through my veins like acid. What was I to her? What was I to anyone for that matter? Even Calendar Girl wouldn't look at me. She was the admiration of people in another world.

Dill hung up the telephone and we both looked at the clock. The second hand swept past the 12, the minute hand ticked over to 2, and at that very instant a long black limousine pulled, and then pulled some more, into the parking lot.

"When he says two minutes past ten, he means two minutes past ten," Dill said, lifting up his cap and rubbing his bald spot. We stepped outside, squinting as the sun rose like a brilliant sail into the southern half of the sky.

I felt as if I were in a movie, watching a space ship from The Day the Earth Stood Still. The windows were tinted so that it was impossible to see inside. Whoever had washed it, I noticed, had done a good job of waxing. Three coats, I guessed. And not a bad job of buffing, either, although I knew I could have done better. The driver stepped out and walked around to the side of the car facing us. He was tall, solidly built and wore a black uniform with matching cap that made him look even bigger. As he opened the door he glanced at us, his face icy and expressionless. I felt the bottom of my feet begin to sweat. This lawyer feller, whoever he was, was no joke!

The man who stepped out of the car also wore a black suit. He was short, completely hairless, very white, with an expression on his face that made my heart sag like a balloon full of iced milk.

This was the angriest looking man I had ever seen in my life; and believe me, as a man who has spent time locked up, I've seen a lot of angry men.

And then there was something odd about the way he walked. I couldn't quite put my finger on it. It was odd in the same way the movements of people in cartoons are odd. They lift their feet and bend their knees but without the counter balance of muscles at play they always look stiff, their limbs mechanically disconnected from each other. He looked as if he were sitting on a chair with legs that walked of their own volition. I actually heard myself gulp, something I had never done in my life, even in prison.

"Sweet Mary and Joseph," Dill whispered.

This bald-headed, short, angry looking man rode up to me on his legs, looked up at Dill and then at me again, slowly extended his right hand, which was gloved, then pulled the corners of his mouth up. I think now that he was trying to smile; but at the time I thought that he just wanted me to see how many gold fillings he had.

I also thought that he wanted to shake hands, but then I saw the card he was holding between his thumb and index finger.

"I have the honor of meeting...Mr. Fick?"

"Yes," I said, pulling the card from between his fingers.

"Victor, Williams, Mash and Oberman, at your service," he said.

I looked at the card, which only contained the gold-lettered names he had just spoken and a phone number in tiny black print.

"Which one are you?" I said.

"All of them," he said. "Actually, that is my name."

"What can I do... do for you?" I said, feeling the back of my throat turn dry as if it were coated with salt.

"The question is, what can I do for you?" he said, locking his eyes into mine with predatory precision.

"I, uh, uh, I don't know what you can...can do.." I said, the old feeling of unreality descending on me. I know for a fact that every hair on my body was sticking straight up. If I had been naked I would have looked like a porcupine.

"Mr. Benson was one of my clients," he said with the slightly squared mouth of someone tearing undercooked meat. Tearing and then chewing with little gold studded ivory.

"Well that's what we figured," Dill said.

"And it is my duty to inform you," he said, ignoring Dill. "That you, Mr. Fick, have been named in his will."

The ground dipped. For a split second I felt dizzy. Something had happened. Birds stopped chirping. Traffic came to a stop. I could only hear the sounds inside my own body. I took a rag out of my pocket and wiped grease across my face, making myself look like a raccoon.

"But...but," I said. That was all that I could get out.

"Be at my office at two minutes past six o' clock this evening," he said. "The will will then be read in its entirety."

The will! Yes, he had said will. What about it? Whose will was he talking about? My mind felt like a finished jig-saw puzzle going back into the box.

"Well, I, I don't..."

"My driver will pick you up."

"Do you know, know where..."

"We know exactly where you live, of course," he said, spinning around. I mean that he didn't turn, he really spun around.

"Be ready by ten after five," the driver, looking down at me, said with an accent that sounded German.

Dill and I looked at each other in mute astonishment as the driver walked and the lawyer seemed to glide toward the limousine.

"What the flub was that?" Dill said.

After work I ran up the steps of the bus, energy radiating from the marrow of my bones to the pink surface of my skin. How many times, I asked myself, will I be able to take the bus feeling so excited and young, as if I had never been excited or young before? Everything outside the window, all the liquor stores, beauty salons, banks and office buildings, looked as if they were painted on a canvas aglow with rustic charm and simple, rural warmth. Young people skate boarded down sidewalks, threw footballs at each other, walked in groups wearing the clean, black and white uniform of their school. An old man staggered across the street, looking up at the sky with drunken joy. Billboards everywhere. New cars! Lower interest rates! Better vitamins! A prosperous, thriving, busy town on the go. Fick's home. What is the best thing I can do to repay the world for its kindness and generosity? I asked myself. It is the most glorious question a man can ask himself. I thanked the bus driver-something I had never been considerate enough to do before-and walked home whistling. This, I thought, is the happiest day of my life.
It wasn't until I was in the act of unlocking the door of my room that I remembered that I had a dog inside.

"I hope Suzie is all right," I said. I was also a little worried about having to clean up any mess she had made.

There was a black streak through the door the second it was opened. I started to run after her, then thought that she probably had to relieve herself. The newspapers were torn up but nothing other than that was on the floor. None of the food had been touched. That bothered me. I walked back outside and called her name, then walked to Mr. Benson's house, expecting to find her on the porch. But she wasn't on the porch. A little spark of worry arched across the walls of my chest. Where do dogs go when they're depressed? I wondered.

I walked back to my room, picked the newspapers off the floor, emptied my pockets and turned on the television, keeping the door open in case Suzie, by some miracle, wandered back in. So Carl had named me in his will! Why? I could still see him standing in his soiled bathrobe, hair sticking up, smelling of whiskey, looking at me as if he knew what I needed the paper and pen for.

"Jeez-us!" I said, feeling blood drain from my face.

Then somewhere off in the distance Suzie, as if on cue, howled and the television screamed


I ran out the door, cupped my hands to my mouth and yelled, "Suuuuuuuuzie." A gust of wind slammed the door behind me.

"Where are you, dog!" I yelled.

"Well that's stupid," Louie said. He looked like Bill Clinton with a barber pole sticking out of his pants. "What'ya think the dog's gonna do? Say, 'I'm over here, Fick'?"

"And the best part is," Chuck said, a rope around his neck, hanging from Carl's porch. "You left your keys on the bed and I bet you're locked out."

I turned around slowly, walked to the door, put my hand on the knob and tried to turn it. Yes indeedy, good friends, the door..was...

"SONOFABITCH!" I screamed, kicking the door so hard that it made a cracking sound.

I was so mad that I beat the sides of my head with my fists. The little voice of sanity that I keep in my head for emergencies told me that if anyone saw me just now I'd look like a lunatic, but that voice is easily out-voted in situations like this.

"Why am I such a goddamned idiot loser bastard!" I wailed. If I didn't wail that I wailed something close to that.

I had left the window open. Just a minor setback, I told myself, taking a deep breath. Worse things have happened. Just a locked door. Window is open. Crawl through the window. Find the dog. Clean up, change clothes and wait for the driver. No problem at all. You see? What are you getting so excited about? My goodness, what a baby!

The television audience inside my room roared its approval. Yep. Someone had just won a fabulous prize. A fabulous prize and I missed it because I was outside which wasn't a problem because the window was open so there was nothing to get...

"Damn... stupid... door!" I screamed, pounding hard enough to crack wood and splinter bone.

Okay. Okay okay okay, I thought, letting sanity have its say. This is getting us nowhere. Throat raw, hand throbbing. Stroke conditions. And over what? Just crawl through the window. Just crawl through the damn... stupid... window.

I walked around in circles, a dog chasing its tail. This...is a good day. A gooood day! Fick is finally getting who-knows-what and look at you! Going to pieces over a door? A door?

"Get a grip," I said, catching something out of the corner of my eye.

I spun around. Nothing. Then I looked down. Little eyes magnified through lenses as big as the bottom of mayonnaise jars. Short pants, shoes threatening to come unlaced, Disney World tee-shirt, two front teeth missing. A boy. We looked at each other.

"What's 'a matter, mister?"

"Nothing, nothing," I said.

"Can't you get in your house?"

"I don't..it's..." I threw my hands up, then set them down on my hips. Great. Now I had a kid for company.

"My daddy couldn't get into our car once and he said bad words, too."

"Don't you have somewhere to go right now?" I said.

"'ats what my mother always says."

"I'm sure your mother also told you not to talk to strangers," I said.

He looked up at me, blinked through the bottom of two mayonnaise jars, shrugged and took a yo-yo out of his pocket. It was a white Duncan butterfly. I hadn't seen one of those in years.

"I can make it sleep for seven seconds but my friend Jay can make his sleep for 15 seconds but 'ats because he has one 'ats automatic and you don't have to pull it up."

"Can you rock the cradle?" I said.

"I can eat spaghetti," he said, making the yo-yo sleep at the end of its string and then, little by little, pulling it up toward his mouth as if he were eating a long strand of pasta.

"Well," I said. "I'd better go look for my dog."

"What kind of dog?"

"A big black one."

"What's his name?"


"'hen it's a girl dog," he said, putting his yo-yo back into his pocket and walking away.

"That was a good trick," I said.

He turned around once, waved goodbye, then ran toward home.

I don't know why, but I just couldn't bring myself to crawl through the window. Maybe I was afraid that someone would see me and call the police; or maybe I didn't want to look like even more of a fool in front of a boy with a Duncan butterfly yo-yo and gums for front teeth. All I could think was that my life seemed like an eternal swing of the pendulum from God's smiling face to Satan's hairy butt.

"Yes, I'm going to look for my dog," I snarled, starting my walk around the block, tired, dirty and hungry.

"Here Suzie, here doggy."

An hour later I found myself standing in a gas station convenience store, giving my last dollar to a man with a turban on his head for a hot dog. I didn't even bother walking outside with it but ate it standing in front of him.

"We have condiments," he said, pointing to plastic pumps and trays next to a microwave oven.

"I like 'em plain," I said with my mouth full.

"Very well."

"I'm looking for my dog."

"What kind of dog?" he said, moving black, slightly bushy eye brows together.

"Big black one."

"What's his name?" he said, selling a slim pack of clove cigarettes to a young Asian woman.

"Suzie," I said. This was making my skin crawl. Was this some kind of elaborate stunt the whole town was in on? Surprise, asshole, you're on Candid Camera!



"Does the dog have tags?"

"I think so," I said, wishing that I had enough money for another hot dog.

"Write down your telephone number, and if I see Suzie I'll call you," he said, sliding a piece of paper toward me on the counter.

"Well...well, thank you," I said, startled by such an act of unexpected kindness, starting to write down my phone number when something at the top of the paper did make my skin crawl.
From the Desk of Carl Benson

"What the hell!" I said, nearly bolting out of my skin. For the second time that day I had a vision of Stick Man.

"Is something the matter?" he said, looking at teenagers talking to a man outside the door.

"Where did you get that!"

"It is our stationary," he said, regarding me with mild curiosity, as if I were an amusingly nutty idea he had just had.

"Carl Benson's stationary?" I said loudly.

"The owner," the clerk said, putting his arms down at his sides and stepping away from the counter. I thought that he might be reaching for a gun. Or a sword, huge and curved.

"Well he can't own this station because he's dead!" I said.

"Yes," the clerk sighed, looking at the spot where the teenagers had been. "We all know."

"Well you won't believe this, but I'm in his will," I said, stepping aside to let a man put a six pack of beer on the counter.

"I believe it," the clerk said.

"You do?"

"Mr. Benson may have left his property to anyone. Would you like another hot dog?"

I stepped outside, clutching a free hot dog wrapped in foil, really afraid for the first time in my life for my sanity. When I had gone insane, grabbing a baseball bat and nearly clubbing a man to death, all the sanity in my body had been burned up like tissue paper on a bonfire. Poof! Fine one second, raving mad the next. Isn't that what had happened? I asked myself. There had been no time to worry about moving to the funny farm, right? This was different. I started to walk back to the house, chewing on a hot dog that tasted like rubber, wondering if I were actually eating anything; looking at people walking in and out of restaurants, video stores and laundry mats, wondering if I were actually looking at real people. The driver. Yes, I had to get back to meet the driver. I knew that. Then I would meet the bald angry robot lawyer feller who would read me the will, the will of a man who had killed himself because I was going to kill myself. Yes, that made sense. He owned a gas station with a convenience store, knowing that I would walk there to buy a hot dog after he was dead. Of course! It was all perfectly clear now.

"All I have to do is find Suzie," I said to a wide-eyed woman pushing a stroller, curlers in her hair, a CD player plugged into both ears. "That's my dog."

I crossed the street, hearing the screech of brakes, waiting to be run over and not caring. "Hey!" someone screamed wetly. "Hey yourself!" I screamed back, spraying the curb with bits of bread and rubber meat. A little girl with pigtails shot past me on a pogo stick. Earth, sky, earth, sky. My eyeballs bounced up and down and my knees buckled. Hi ho! "Drunk bastard," someone muttered. Hey hey! This is the life. And what is life? Why, life is a memo From the Desk of Carl Benson to Stick Man. I locked my elbows and knees and walked like Stick Man. "Nazi sonofabitch," an old man yelled. I spun around and spun around, wondering what it would be like to be a turtle on mars or a goat with four eyes or a building on fire or a fingernail growing in the grave or God bored with eternity or light bending on the cusp of a black hole or a woman making monsters or an earthquake passing through a chicken or Siamese twins cleaning teeth with dirty hands or souls gripped with orgasms in hell or Gaveston Gaylord teaching Daffy Duck how to light a cigar or grass growing for miles beneath barbed wire on sagging posts or a man who polishes cars the way men should make love to a woman, reeling to a stop, finally, gasping for breath. Where am I?

In front of a black limousine with Hans, the seven foot German, holding open the passenger side door, of course. Where else would I be?

I sprawled on the seat, giggling like a school girl. Whomp! went the door. Hans got in. Whomp! went his door. Solidly built. And leather interior! A lawyer feller, and a flubbing rich one at that.

"Sorry, you must forgive my appearance," I said, stretching out on the seat. What comfort! "You see, I locked myself out."

"You locked yourself out of your house?" he said, putting the limo in drive.


"I get you back in," he said, pulling into the street.

"Mighty damn friendly of you," I said, closing my eyes and thinking of the clerk with the turban. Was that a religion? The car seemed to glide above the street as if it were a monorail or blimp.

"Can you turn on the air?" I said, suddenly feeling hot all over.

"It is on."

"More, then," I said, pressing the palms of my hands to my eyes. My entire head, a pressure cooker, throbbed with fever. It hadn't been my imagination that morning. I did have the flu.

"You know, I've never been in a limo before."

"Enjoy the ride."

Chuck, afraid to be seen, whispered, "Gotta pee, don't you?"

I leaned over and coughed, which hurt. The air inside my lungs had turned to razor blades. Suzie was out there wandering around, hungry and lost. How could I have been so careless! In a moment of delirium I thought that Big Bad Policeman was sitting next to me. But it was only Louie. Oh, thank God, I thought, I'm not losing my mind. I lay on the seat, put my hand on the floor, thinking that Suzie was there, curled up next to my bed. The driver said something but I couldn't understand him. I had fallen asleep, dreaming that I was in a limousine and that Suzie was saying, her paws on my chest, "Would you like to buy a house like this?"


"Power is always interesting and desirable, even when it has no intention of doing anything useful or good."
-Rufus A. Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

The office I sat in, high above Beverly Hills, was every bit as gloomy as I thought it would be. Dark, every blind drawn and only one lamp lit. It looked as if the walls were lined with cork. Not a picture, vase, aquarium, statuette, golf-putter, coffee maker, telescope, box of cigars, drinking bird, stuffed cat, radio, porcelain duck or magic 8 ball in sight. All business. I imagined Bob Cratchit at work in the corner trying to warm his hands. The carpet was so thick and plush that I wanted to walk across it in my bare feet. The room, I realized, was completely sound-proof. If a hydrogen bomb fell on the city we wouldn't have known about it. Victor, Williams, Mash and Oberman sat behind a huge mahogany desk that was as shiny as the top of his bald, slightly egg-shaped head. Excellent job of waxing, I thought, admiring gleaming wood and skull. The reclining chair I sat in was made, I was told, of very expensive foam, made in Sweden, that conformed to the exact shape of my spine. I crossed my legs and let my back sink in, trying not to think about rubber hot dogs floating in my stomach like squeak toys in a sewer or the embers in my throat that flared whenever I swallowed.

"Carl Benson, Mr. Fick, was not just a client," Victor, Williams, Mash and Oberman said quietly, resting his elbows on the desk and looking at his bare hands. Ungloved, they were large, pink and very smooth. "He was a valued friend."

"He was my landlord," I said, wishing that I could go back to the limousine to lie down some more. Someone had stuffed cotton in my ears. I could barely hear anything. I didn't know if that was because of the room or my illness. Pain picked at my bones like foraging ants. Every time I closed my eyes I fell instantly asleep for a split-second, which was very disorienting. People, places and all kinds of strange ideas popped in my brain like atoms igniting, giving birth to worlds with their own memories that vanished back into the chaos. I had just come to the conclusion that I probably hadn't been talking to Suzie the dog in the limousine.

"And very reasonable," I added.

Someone in a marching band asked me if I were all right. I opened my eyes. For a moment I thought that I was in a theater about to see a movie. A bald-headed man with pink hands sat in front of me.

"Are you all right?" he said.

"Well," I said, rubbing my face, trying to shake the fuzziness out of my head. "I've felt better."

"You are not feeling well." No concern. Just a question.

"Sorry," I mumbled. The lights went out again. For three days I watched a little boy with glasses play with a yo-yo while I ate spaghetti. Then movie theater, bald man, pink hands.

"We can do this another day."

"Oh, no no no," I said, euphoric again as I remembered why I was there. "As long as I'm here. You know. Go through with it. Is it three nights and two days or two nights and three days that I have to spend in a haunted house?"

"I do not subscribe to the belief, prevalent in a society which trains young people so poorly in the sciences, that houses contain the immaterial residue of living, intelligent beings. Death is very real, Mr. Fick, and we have not been granted the privilege of escaping the laws that govern the rest of the universe."

His face glowed in the dimly lit room like a skull I once bought from Disneyland. I could see glints of gold in his teeth.

"Sorry," I said, glad that we were separated by such a large desk. "Joke."

"Carl Benson," he said, studying those large, smooth, pink hands of his. "Was an engineer, a man of science. He was my client. I was also his client."

I nodded, which sent a bowling ball crashing from the back of my skull to the front. My client, his client. What the heck did that mean? I couldn't untangle the meaning of that last sentence. Whose client was whose? "Who..who," I started to say, hearing that damn owl again.

"...after my accident that I met Carl Benson..."

Oh! He was telling me a story. Terrible car crash. Aren't they all? Left for dead. Tsk tsk. Limbs crushed. No hope. Fought to stay alive. Brave lad! Found by a trucker. God bless 'em. Finally air-lifted to a hospital. I'm on the edge of my Swedish foam seat. And then? And then?

"My legs and my arms were amputated."

Amputated! Wait, wait...I knew the meaning of that word. I closed my eyes to concentrate, then wandered down the isle of a toy store, looking at dolls that could speak, that could move their eyes and move their little legs, that could sit on someone's lap. I snapped awake, feeling cold sweat drench my clothes.

"Your wife wasn't..." I started to ask.

"...I supported a husband who had everyone of his limbs amputated..."

"My wife!" Victor, Williams, Mash and Oberman shouted, balling up his hands into big, pink, plastic fists. "Asked me for a divorce the day I came out of critical care."

"Then you weren't asphyxiated," I murmured, feeling as if I had shrunk to the size of a fetus. He could move his arms and hands as if they were real. How was that possible?

He looked at me steadily for a long time, then bowed his head.

"I tried putting a plastic bag over my head."

"I just tried to kill myself, too. But Carl beat me to it."

"Life is full of strange coincidences," he said without a trace of humor in his voice. Only anger. Endless, bottomless rage.

"You're telling me! But why am I in Carl Benson's will? He hardly knew me."

"Carl Benson," Victor, Williams, Mash and Oberman said, putting his hands down on the desk. " Was divorced and had no immediate surviving relatives except an idiot sister. A trust fund was long ago set up to take care of her for the remainder of her life. And so, for reasons he has chosen to remain unknown, he has left to you, Mr. Fick, the remainder of his estate. The house, his car, all liquid assets plus a portfolio of stocks and bonds worth six hundred thousand, four hundred and eleven dollars."

"HOLY FRIJOLES!" I screamed, jumping to my feet. "I'M RICH!"

"But there is a condition," he said, looking down at his hands, waiting for me to be seated, waiting for me to get a grip on myself. Waiting to trip the hammer.

"Name it," I said, grinning so hard I thought my face would crack.

"You must take care of Suzie, his dog, and see to it that she lives to a normal life expectancy for a dog of her breed."

Here are the details of my sudden death. While sitting down in a lawyer's office a power line fell on the back of my head, sending a billion volts of electricity through every nerve of my body. My skin shriveled up into pork rinds, my eyeballs exploded like cherry bombs, my hair turned to powder, my bones shattered and my brains hit the walls like flaming gelatin. What was left of me sat in the chair, smoking, then collapsing in a blackened heap.

"Are you all right, Mr. Fick?"

"Couldn't be better," I croaked, attempting, I think, to stand up. But I closed my eyes and this time there was nothing waiting for me on the other side but darkness.

I was dead. For how long? It's a meaningless question. Dead for a second is the same as dead for a billion years. Everything stops, then starts again, making time no more objective than a yard stick; but your first question, when consciousness feels the loss of time like a tongue probing for a missing tooth, is always and must be, "How long?"

Hans put his newspaper down, got up from his chair and walked over to the bed I was in. His clothes were rumpled and he needed a shave.

"What?" he said, leaning down.

"How long have I been out?" I said.

"About 4 hours," he said.


"You're in the hospital. You have the flu and were dehydrated."


"Victor wanted me to be here when you awoke."

I tried to ask something else but fell asleep the second my eyes closed. A bartender slid a glass of something green and foamy in front of me. Someone was saying something barely audible over a loudspeaker. People were coming in and out. I could feel their presence but I couldn't see them. Candles burned in skulls above the bar. I knew that I was dead again and that this time I had to get to God. I had something urgent to talk about.

"It's a waste of time, take my word for it," the bartender said, looking, amazingly, like a bartender, with a bow tie and hair parted down the middle of his head.

"Why is that?" I said, not wanting to touch the drink out of fear that I couldn't pay for it.

"Because death is real and you're in trouble with the law."

Three days, three hours or three minutes later I awakened. I was in a bed. There was a tube sticking out of my arm. Hans was talking to a nurse. When he saw that I was awake he walked over to me.


"You're in the hospital. You have the flu and were dehydrated."

I couldn't tell if this conversation had already taken place. When I remembered what was so urgent I wanted to grab him by his collar.

"I'm looking for my dog."

"What kind of dog?"

"Big black one."

"What's his name?"

"Suzie," I said. Wait. This conversation had taken place. "Look, never mind. I'll, I'll pay you a lot of money to find her."

"I'll call Victor."

"No! No, don't do that. Just us. Between you and me."

A nurse told Hans to leave. Hans looked at her and then at me through narrowed slits. The chauffeur was thinking.


"Look around my house. She couldn't have gotten far."

The nurse, a thin, no-nonsense looking blonde wearing a name-plate that said "Jeri" on her uniform, stood looking at Hans with folded arms.

"I'll take a look."

"Thanks," I said, almost calling him Hans. "By the way, what is your name?"


Exit Hans, enter Jeri with a hypodermic needle. Put out the lights. I'm dead again and ah, this time, no dreams disturb me.


"Even idiots have deep thoughts from time to time."
-Rufus A. Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

When I next awakened it was morning. I felt weak but clear-headed and surprisingly hungry. The events of last night seemed like a scene from a movie, a nightmare or some drug-induced hallucination; and for a long, slowed down moment of real confusion I seriously wondered if it all had been cooked up in my own over-heated brain box. Victor, Williams, Mash and Oberman had been married to Debbie, the millionaire multi-network marketer, and had lost all of his limbs in a terrible car crash (?) I had inherited Carl Benson's estate (?) Sure I had, all of it (yes, but...) and I had a house now (yes, but...), and a big bank account (yes, but...) and maybe even my own gas station ( here it comes) but I also had


A steam-roller lumbered over my heart and I let out a sigh loud enough to be heard, I think, by me in my next life. Suzie, my lost dog, the dog that would cost me everything, maybe my last chance of ever owning a house, was gone forever. Who would have thought that a dog could cost one man, who had never owned a dog in his life, so much? Victor was right, I thought. Life is full of strange coincidences.

And some of them are stranger than others.

"Oh well," I said under my breath, but not without bitterness twisting in my guts like a carving knife. "I didn't earn any of it and I do have enough money to get an apartment anyway. So I'm no worse off than I was."

A balding male nurse came in, took my vital signs, looked at me as if he had overheard what I had said, looked at me as if I were full of shit, which I was, and then duck-walked out of the room. A few minutes later an elderly doctor, squeaking and screeching into my room with a walker, blinked blindly through bi-focals, literally stuck his nose in my chart and told me that I would probably be released that morning.

"Can I have something to eat?" I said.

"Oh, you betcha," he said, putting my chart away. His name plate said, "Dr. Grummer." There was something about his eyes, blindly blinking at me through rectangular, plastic frame bi-focals, that made me think I had seen him before. Or maybe, I thought, he just looks like someone I know. "Who...who," I thought, then stopped myself, wishing that I could strangle that damn stupid owl.

"That's good because I'm starving."

"Good sign. I'll have them send you up something."

"You going to put me on antibiotics?"

"Flu is a viral infection, son. Antibiotics don't do a damn thing for that. Best thing for you is to get plenty of rest, drink liquids and take aspirin every four hours. And don't go running around with a fever." He started pushing himself out of the room with his walker muttering, "People think a fever is like a walk in the park."

A man in the bed next to mine coughed, rolled over and farted. I was still hooked up to an IV; and the sight of a tube sticking out of my arm was becoming unsettling. Hospitals always give me the creeps. Sewing people together upstairs and sawing them apart downstairs is how I always think of it. Most people are born in a hospital and most people will die in one; so being in a hospital is a little like being in an airport for souls. Arriving, departing, arriving, departing. And it's an airport where planes crash unexpectedly for no good reason. Oops! Birth defect, that's a bad ticker your boy came with. Oops! Cells multiplying kinda wacky but we can give you five more years if we start treatment now. Oops! Kids, Grandpa can't talk now but it's okay, he can't remember your names anyway. Oops! We can save him but we'll have to chop off his arms and legs. And what is that called, class?


God, what a terrible image. How do you break it to a man, I wondered, that you've just made it impossible for him to sit on the toilet and read a newspaper all by himself? Hey, Victor, you know how much time people waste shopping for shoes? Um, Victor, you know how many viral infections people get from shaking hands? When I closed my eyes I saw masked men with knives starring down at me as if it were a scene from a horror movie. Then "Stick Man", that idiotic picture, jumped into my mind again. Why would anyone draw a picture of a stick man and call it the chapter of a book? What was that supposed to mean? What did a picture of a naked girl standing next to a car on a calendar mean? What did it mean to feel like a loser because you just lost something you never had?

What did all these questions mean?

My mind suddenly seemed like an assembly plant for pointless questions. Life, death, luck, coincidence, Stick Man. I remembered how I felt when I read the introduction to that book, the feeling of coming back to important ideas I had never taken the time or trouble to think all the way through before. My life had taken so many strange turns lately that I wondered if perhaps I was destined, for some mysterious reason, to see things in a way few people do. There was something from the book that came back to me with surprising force. Young people ask me what the meaning of life is, Rufus A. Pervus said. And I remembered exactly what he wrote next.

"Don't you think that's obvious?"

Maybe, I thought, modern life is so distracting that only people who have walked away from it, or have been completely knocked flat by it, are allowed to see the obvious meaning of it all. Maybe, I thought, most people get sucked into a life so crowded with trivial obsessions that they really don't know anything at all until the moment of death, when the meaning of their life can no longer be ignored or put off.

Victor must have been close enough to Death to shake the cold bastard's bony hand. Had he glimpsed something just beyond the threshold of individual consciousness, something outside the tight, self-reflecting circle of generation, that altered forever his perceptions and assumptions? Was that why he was so angry, as a man irked by the average, clueless clod who lives only for the moment; or did it just have to do with the fact that he had been horribly maimed and then abandoned by someone he loved?

I may as well admit, before you get the idea that I had suddenly turned profound, that throughout these philosophical reflections I couldn't help thinking about how nice it would be to have an apartment and a bigger television. Yes, I wanted to see a game show. I wanted to see a game show the way heroin addicts want a fix.

"There must be something more to life than what I've found so far", I thought (or I thought about how nice it would have been to think something like that in a completely unselfconscious way); but what reverberated in the echo chamber of my brain, as I looked at the blank screen of the television mounted on the wall, was,



Family Feud

"Pathetic," I muttered to myself, seeing the face of my ex-wife, hearing her voice.


A pimply girl wearing a candy stripped uniform brought me a tray with orange gelatin, a soft-boiled egg, crackers and a glass of apple juice on it. It didn't look like much, but when I had finished it I felt full and pleasantly sleepy. A female nurse, wearing one of those white fuzzy flowery uniforms that look like pajamas, came in to tell me that I was being released.

"That's what the doctor just told me," I said.

She looked at me blankly. "What doctor?"

"The one who was just in here," I said.

She blinked, starred some more, said nothing.

"The old guy," I said, finishing the last of my apple juice. "In a walker. Can't remember his name right off. Bummer, Summer, Dummer. Something with two mm's in it."

"We don't have a doctor here who uses a walker," she said, wrinkling her brow.

"Really?" I didn't want her to think that I was playing games with her so I tried not to smile. "Nice in a grumpy kind of way. Wait. I think I remember. Gummer, no, Grummer, that's it, Grummer. His name was Dr. Grummer." I pronounced it so that it rhymed with "roomer".

"I'll be right back," she said.

"At least, well, he looked like a doctor," I said; but I don't think she heard me as she left the room.

"Maybe," I thought, "he was a patient after all. Now that would be funny."

"My doctor told me that I should have been dead five years ago," the man in the bed next to mine said.

"He wasn't Dr. Grummer, was he?"

"No. Little oriental prick. Told me to rip up my donor card. Said none of my organs could keep a chicken alive for five minutes."

"That's not reassuring," I said.

"Tell me."

"What are you going to do?"

"Get drunk the minute I get home I guess."

"Well that's an idea."

"Tell me."

"Won't make your doctor happy," I said.
"You would think, but he told me that it won't make that much of a difference now anyway. If you ask me, I think the little prick wants me dead."

"Now now."

"No, really," he said. "Notice how many people keep coming to California? Pretty soon almost everyone in the country will be in California. And then you know what's next?"

"Uh, we'll all have to take a number before we can go to the bathroom?"

"When we're all in one place," he said, lowering his voice. "They'll be able to control us."


"Who do you think?"

I let out a sigh. Who who! says wise Mr. Owl. "I don't know."

"The government."

"In California?"

"Hell yes!" he said. "We're practically living under Communism right now as it is."

I shrugged. That didn't seem too likely to me, but I didn't want to argue. What I really wanted to think about was getting my driver's license back. Even if I didn't get Carl's car, or anything else of his for that matter, I was tired of taking the bus. I wondered if Dill could help get me a good deal on a used car. Then the nurse came back in with an aide, told me that my lawyer had sent a driver to take me home ("They think I have a lawyer!" I thought), let me get dressed and then put me in a wheel chair. When I was in the lobby I saw Hans with his uniform on.

"How are you feeling, Mr. Fick?" he said.

I was surprised at how formal he was. Mr. Fick? I felt a little embarrassed at that. Should I call him, "Hans", or would he resent that sort of familiarity? I thought that we had broken the ice a little last night, so I said, " Not bad. It's good to see you again, Hans. Sorry I've caused you so much work."

"Not at all," he said, briskly getting behind me and wheeling me out the door.

"They didn't ask me for any payment," I said.

"Victor took care of that," he said.

"Well he thinks of everything, doesn't he?" I said.

We stopped in front of the limousine. "I know what people think of Victor. But he is a considerate man. He helped me and my wife to stay in America."

"It was very kind of him to take care of me," I said, watching Hans open the door for me, feeling blood rush to the tips of my ears as I stood up. "I want to let him know that..."

Something large and black, wriggling on the seat, stopped me.

"I found your dog," Hans said, his voice quivering with repressed laughter. "She was asleep on the porch next door. I got in your room and gave her some food and water. Here."

He handed me the keys I had left on my bed, something that now seemed to have happened a hundred years ago. I got in the car, put my arms around Suzie and petted her, feeling numb. She seemed to accept me, all the while turning her head from right to left as if looking for someone else. Of course, I knew who she was looking for.

When I was finally able to speak over the lump in my throat I said, "Hans, you've saved my life. I'll pay you, just as I said I would."

"Please," Hans said. "There is no need. It was something I had to do."

"Wheel of fortune," I muttered, patting Suzie all over, making sure that she was okay, making sure that she was really there.

"What do you think, Hans? Is life a game show or what!"

"The only constant companion modern man has is loneliness."
-Rufus A. Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

And so instead of moving into an apartment, I moved into a house all my own. But not right away. When I was first let into Carl Benson's house (trying with all my might not to call it the, "suicide house") I didn't touch anything and I could barely bring myself to even breathe the air. It was clean, well cared for, filled with beautiful maple furniture, oak cabinets, red and blue crystal lamps, shelves lined with leather-bound books, a well stocked bar, oriental rugs, glass display cases and a large bed Carl had lain in while swallowing sleeping pills, watching television and drinking scotch until he went nighty-night during the late late show.

I had nearly everything taken away except for something that couldn't be taken away- the ghost of Carl Benson, engineer, ex-husband, small businessman and successful suicide (unlike other people I could name).

For over a year I never went into the room where it had happened. I slept in the bedroom at the other end of the hall, which was just big enough for a new, large bed and a 31 inch television I bought at a big electronics store. With cash.

I still had to work at Dill and Emily's Auto Detailing as a condition of my parole, but I was happy working there anyway. If things hadn't happened the way they did, I guess I'd still be working there.

This may sound strange (unlike everything else that has happened so far), but after I bought the bed and television I didn't bother buying another stick of furniture for the house. I liked keeping it empty; and I only used the bedroom, kitchen and bathroom anyway.

Everyday after work I got into Carl's black BMW, which still had books, instruments and arms and legs in the trunk, drove to Jonny's Burgers for dinner, went home, fed Suzie, and then watched game shows or anything else until bedtime. On the weekends I took Suzie for long walks, played catch with her at the park, went to movies, watched more television, stayed to myself. It was not unusual for me to spend entire weekends without uttering a word.

I owned a gas station and convenience store which I visited from time to time, but I had no interest in actually running a business (where had my ambition gone?), so I let other people manage it for me. Checks came in the mail. I deposited them. My accountant, a man so unshakably cheerful that he would have been one of those doomed souls singing on the deck of the Titanic, left messages on my answering machine, sent me papers to sign and earning reports that I never read.

After so much work and sacrifice to the cause of money, I now had little interest in it, preferring to let it accumulate unused in checking and saving accounts, certificates of deposits, mutual funds and stock portfolios.

But a man in America who loses interest in money and sex eventually begins to live like someone who never had a reason to be born in the first place. I not only lived with a ghost, I became one myself.

My sole pleasure in the house, aside from watching television and scratching Suzie's tummy, was skating on the empty living room floor in my socks. I hired a maid to come in once a week to clean. Her name was Rosa. She was little, wrinkled, and always smelled like cigarettes, even though I never saw her smoke. When she walked through the house for the first time she whistled between the gap in her front teeth and said, "What the hell am I supposed to clean?" I told her that I wanted the floors kept clean and waxed so that I could skate on them.

She looked at me as if I had just unzipped my pants, then shrugged and said, "It's your money."

And so I watched television, skated in the living room, polished cars, took care of Suzie, a ghost sharing a house with another ghost. And this was not just my opinion. When Halloween came around I bought bags of candy and carved a pumpkin; but kids, holding onto their parents, tiptoed past my house, whispering behind their masks and pointing. The Suicide House. I ate so much candy that I got sicker than when I was in the 5th grade and Sharon Owensky gave me her meatloaf sandwich which had been in her desk for two days.

One day at work Dill asked me if he and Emily could come over to my house that night. I was surprised and a little embarrassed but shrugged and said, "I guess."

"Not much of the host, are you, Fick?" Dill said, laughing around a quid of Red Man tobacco.

"Not a lot of friends."

"We'll go out for a bite to eat. Okay?"

Now I was really mystified. Were they going to let me go? Did they want to make sure that I wasn't sleeping on a pile of newspapers, pumping my veins full of heroin in a house full of cockroaches and rats?

"Okay," I said, hoping that I had something nice and clean to put on.

"Around six good for you?"

"Oh, six is good for me," I said, not really meaning a word of it. One of my favorite game shows came on at six, so this was going to completely ruin my evening.

"All right, then," Dill shouted, laughing some more, acting as if he had just scored points in a game or done something to win a bet.

Still mystified, I shrugged and went back to work.

When 6 o' clock came by I waited for Dill and Emily at the curb, hoping that they wouldn't want to come in. I wasn't embarrassed about living in a house with hardly any furniture in it, but I didn't want them to think-no, I didn't want Emily to think-that I really had become a hermit. Living in an empty house may have been my way of keeping the world at bay but it was also my way, I liked to think, of keeping things, however minimally, under my own control. I had let other people tell me what to think, what values to have, what goals I should set for myself, and the result had been the near destruction of two lives. What Emily had said still bothered me; and I didn't want to be bothered anymore by what other people thought.

"If I'm afraid of the world, don't I have some pretty good reasons?" I thought. Yes, God had turned His smiling face upon me at last, but what was the catch? I was living in the house of a suicide, what my own life would have led to in an alternate universe. Had the Wheel of Fortune rewarded me by nudging someone else over the brink? If so, had I made, however unconsciously, a deal with the devil?

"Why," I thought, watching Dill and Emily's long pink Cadillac pull up. "Why would a man with a house, a bank account and his own business on the side kill himself? Because of a divorce? And why would anyone leave anything to me of all people?"

My mind was like a rotten apple, wormy with suspicion. Had Carl really killed himself by swallowing sleeping pills and drinking scotch? Was I being set up for some dark reason? Were the Fords buttering me up now because I had money? Did they want me to invest in the business, give them a loan or start up some other risky business with them? I didn't want to face that kind of pressure or listen to any of their homespun advice. I wanted to polish cars and skate on floors, a bird gliding on the world's hard blue surface.

I was surprised to see Emily stepping out of the car holding a package wrapped in silver paper and tied with yellow ribbons. What I heard next struck me dumb with astonishment.

"Happy birthday, Fick!"

I looked at them, speechless. Finally Dill said, "I think he plumb forgot it was his birthday."

There are moments in life-or there are if you're lucky-when your past becomes so fully illuminated that it seems as if you are looking, from start to finish, at the life of someone else, someone you have never understood until now. The last time I had celebrated my birthday was four months after my marriage. Helen had bought me an electric toothbrush and had left it next to my TV dinner along with a note telling me that she had gone to play bingo. I was overjoyed with my new toothbrush and used it before I ate my enchiladas, rice and beans, which were cold because our gas had been turned off. The last time we celebrated her birthday was about 6 months before I went to prison. I bought her an electric can opener and a stuffed alligator. She kept the stuffed alligator, whom she named Fred, on the bed, and it was the only thing I ever gave her, as far as I know, that she ever actually used.

That was how I thought people lived.

"My birthday?"

"Didn't you tell him?" Emily said.

She stood next to the car looking like one of the models on Dill's calendar, tall and thin, wearing a long white lace dress with white high heel shoes. Her small, pleasantly brown eyes seemed to reflect the color of her hair, which flowed, soft and feathery at the tips, down to her shoulders. Tiny diamonds sparkled on the lobes of her ears. When her large mouth formed, with pastel pink lips, a wide, toothy grin, it made the corners of her eyes crinkle.

"Well, sort of," Dill said, smoothing his moustache. He wore a Hawaiian shirt, filling it up with his belly, making it look like a colorful water balloon.

"Thank you," I said, blushing as Emily handed me my gift. Whatever it was, it was heavy.

"You can open it in the restaurant," she said. "Can we see the house before we go?"

"The house?" I said, still staggered at what was happening, trying to figure out how old I was. "Oh the house! Sure, okay. I don't...It's...There's not much to see but we can see it if you want to see it."

When I opened the door Suzie walked up to the Fords with that look on her face that always gave me the creeps. It was the look that said, "Is that you, Carl? No, it isn't you, is it?"

"Oh, aren't you a pretty girl," Emily said, squatting down to pet and caress the dog.

"Well, uh, you got plenty of room here all right," Dill said, looking at the empty living room with his hands on his hips. "You know, if you need some furniture I think we can lend you a couple of chairs and we have a coffee table in the garage we never use."

"I don't think Fick wants any of our old junk," Emily said, still petting Suzie. "What a sweetheart!"

"I've been trying to take care of her," I said, looking at Suzie lick Emily's ear. "But I think she misses, you know..."

"I've heard of dogs that died of grief," Dill said. "Are you moved in?"

"Well, I'll show you the kitchen, I have stuff in there, and my bedroom," I said, happy that I had made my bed and picked up my clothes at the last minute. Just in case.

Dill followed me silently through the house while Emily, with Suzie by her side, talked about sofas, throw rugs, pictures, book cases, paint, tables and plants as if the house had become her own personal project. We then trooped into the long pink Cadillac that smelled of Emily's perfume and Dill's cheap cigars.

"You like sushi old buddy?" Dill said.

"I don't know what that is," I said in the back seat, looking at a mixed collection of magazines on the floor. Hunting and Gardening, Hot Rods and Better Homes.

"It's raw Jap fish," Dill laughed, steering the car with his big, freckled hands as if he were behind the wheel of a boat.

"It's Japanese food," Emily said. "And it's delicious. There's a wonderful restaurant right here on Foothill that we've been going to for years."

"Well okay," I said. "I guess I've eaten burgers long enough."

Dill parked in back of the restaurant, next to the trash dumpster and a stack of wooden pallets. We walked through a narrow corridor, parting a curtain of wooden beads, then stood next to the bar, where people sat drinking large glasses of beer and eating what looked like cocktail appetizers on tiny plates. Despite what I had just said, I was beginning to miss my usual meal at Jonny's Burgers. A Japanese waitress, who didn't look as if she were out of her teens, greeted the Fords by name and showed us to a table. I was surprised, when we sat down, to hear Emily speak to the girl in Japanese.

"The first time I ever had Japanese food was when I was actually in Japan," Emily said when the waitress bowed and left. "I was terribly provincial, a real hick, in fact. I think that up till then the most exotic thing I had ever eaten had been Swedish meat balls made by my Polish mother."

"What was it like to be in Japan?" I said, looking with some trepidation at the wooden eating utensils wrapped in paper.

"Oh, I was a girl," Emily said. "I had never been out of the country in my life. Until I began to ski competitively, the farthest I had gone from home was to a cousin's wedding in Baltimore and that was only for two days because neither of my parents could get off work. So going to Japan was like..." She sighed.

"Strange. Very strange and very exciting."

Nine Israeli athletes had been shot dead, she reminded us. The summer games weighed on everyone's mind. And then so many athletes in Sapporo were threatened for so much as having a logo on their skies.

"My back still hurt from a fall, people wanted me to pull out at the last minute."

Parents sleepless and frantic. Whole town cheering for the home girl on ABC. Decisions to be made about college, an athletic career, marriage. Looking down at the jump, cold hands gripping the poles, time coming to a stop, blank terror and the exhilaration of forgetting everything, letting the body do what it's trained to do- speed and then flight, perfect, perfect, perfect, no sound, no thoughts, no fatigue or pain or future, perfect, perfect, perfect for the first time, the last time, the only time that mattered. And then standing, numb, heart beating like an anvil in her chest, hearing the U.S. National Anthem, shuddering, disbelieving, afraid of waking up, afraid that a mistake had been made and for one incandescent moment sure, absolutely and without a doubt, that nothing in life-not a second of it-can possibly be anything other than what it is, perfect beyond anyone's ability to know what it means in its entirety.

"It was the clearest moment I had ever had in my life," she said.

She picked up her chopsticks, slid them out of their paper sleeve and then broke them apart. That was all she would say about the greatest triumph of her life. If I had won a gold medal for anything I'd still be talking about it. But she was, I think, one of those people who rarely dwell on the past. It was enough for her to have done what she had wanted to do since childhood. She had left her little town to go to Japan, not bothering to look back; and when she had accomplished what only a handful of the best athletes on earth ever hope for, she hopped off the stage, turned her attention elsewhere, and desired only that other people do the same.

It made me wonder-which I still do to this day-how many times we are in the company of great people and never know it.

We were served salty brown soup-I don't remember what it's called now-and drank it straight out of wooden bowls. Dill ordered Japanese beers for me and him, Emily ordered sake. When the salads came Emily showed me how to eat mine with chopsticks.

"I came in here for years and always ate with a fork," Dill said. "Until one day Emily got so mad at me she said that if I came in here just one more time and ate with a fork she would kill me with it in front of everyone." He grinned at his wife and put two finger tips between his eyebrows. "I believe you said that you'd stick that fork right between my eyes. I didn't need any more convincing, and that's how I learned to eat with chopsticks."

"You're a crude, vulgar man and you've never had any manners," Emily said, sipping her sake and looking with pleasant eyes at her husband.


"And I know you still chew tobacco when my back is turned."

"I don't do anything behind your back except look at the girlie magazines, right Fick?"

"Right Dill," I said.

"Well, you men always stick together."

"We'll order some tuna," Dill said. He took a long pull of his beer. "It don't look like tuna, it don't taste like tuna but it's damned good. I always tell people that if you've never had sushi that's the best way to get started."

The thought of eating raw fish alarmed me at first, but after I had finished half my beer I think that I would have eaten anything as long as it wasn't moving. Emily showed me how to dip the little oblong cakes of rice and tuna into a mixture of soya sauce and hot green mustard. Dill warned me that if I got too much mustard it would feel as if a flame thrower had gone up my nose. I balanced my first piece of sushi on my chopsticks, closed my eyes and put the whole thing in my mouth.

Dill was right. It didn't taste like tuna-at least the tuna out of a can, which is how I had always eaten it. This was...different. Soft and yet firm, salty, spicy. Interesting. Not bad. Tasty. No, wait. Actually good. In fact, delicious!

"What do you think, partner?" Dill said.

"This is wonderful!" I said. "I never knew there was food like this."

"It's a big world, Fick," Emily said, smiling and looking at me, her eyes soft and pleasant.

Maybe it was because I was drunk (a half bottle of beer will do it, I have no tolerance for alcohol), but I knew what she meant and it didn't bother me. In fact, I welcomed it. I had been given a life and what was I doing with it? Watching television and letting my lips glue together. I thought about Samantha with a sudden, sharp pang. My birthday, a life nearly half over. Emily had gone to Japan and had come home with a gold medal. Dill had worked for the railroad and then had started his own business. What did I have behind me? And yet here I was, drinking beer and eating sushi, celebrating my birthday as if I had a reason to be born in the first place.

"This is the nicest thing anyone's done for me in a long time," I said, mad now for more sushi. "The last time I remembered my birthday, and mentioned it to people, someone threatened to stick an ice pick in my eye."

Emily looked down at her plate. Dill took a swig of his beer, then set his bottle down on the table delicately with just two fat fingers.

"The world's flubbed you around long enough and excuse my French, my dear," Dill said. "But do you know, Fick, that since you've been with us business has picked up 200 percent? I've got customers on a two month waiting list just to get their car polished! Hell, son, you've paid for this dinner about a million times over and starting tomorrow I'm giving you a 15 percent raise even though I know you don't need the money but you deserve it anyway."

"I don't think I've paid for the dinner a million times over," I said. "But I'm glad I brought business your way. You took me in with no questions asked, you treated me fairly, like a human being. I know I've been a bit withdrawn. Maybe some of that can start to wear off."

After we ate I opened my present, which was a video collection of famous game shows from the 50s and 60s.

I told them that I had a video cassette recorder. And I did, in fact. It came free with my 31 inch television, but I had never set it up. So when I got home I took it out of the box, connected it to the television (which was pretty easy since all the cables were color coded), and then, with Suzie by my side, watched my first video.

"Holy mackerel," I said. "Why didn't I do this before?"

But when I turned the television off I was still me, Fick, a man in an empty house with nothing to show for his life; and I found myself thinking about Carl's funeral.

I had not wanted to go, but Victor, Williams, Mash and Oberman, my one man legal team, insisted, and so I bought a black suit for the occasion. The morning was miserably sultry and I soon regretted that I hadn't bought a suit made of lighter material. The service was long and a bit strange. Men wearing aprons spoke and performed a ceremony. Carl had been a Mason.

Quite a few people who attended the services had artificial arms or legs. Carl's clients. They talked about how much of their life he had given back to them, wiping away tears with hands he had made, like Geppetto, in his workshop. A boy wearing short pants showed off a leg that let him run. A woman showed me her hands and asked me which one had three artificial fingers on it. I honestly couldn't tell.

And again and again they took me aside and said, "I'm so glad he was close to someone when he died", or, "God bless you for being a friend."

With all my natural arms and legs I felt like the biggest phoney there.

Carl was somewhere in the house now, asking me to figure him out, asking me to piece together the mystery of his life. The silence of the house, like a question waiting patiently to be answered, began to disturb me and so I turned the television back on. I kept it on all night. The next day I went to Block Party Video, got a membership, and rented three old movies which I watched, one right after the other.

Little did I know that watching videos, my next addiction, would lead me to the most profound crisis of my life.


"We indulge in fantasies not to escape reality but to remake it."
-Rufus A. Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

The first time I stepped inside a Block Party Video store a young woman wearing a pin stripped suit said, somewhat quickly and mechanically, "Welcome to Block Party Video if you need help finding anything let me know."

I told her that I wanted to buy some movies. Preferably old ones.

"We have some for sale in that bin over there," she said, bobbing her head up and down as if there were a loose spring in her neck. "I think mainly John Wayne movies in the bargain bin this week and some children's videos like Robin Hood the cartoon but not the one with Errol Flynn which is my favorite but there's also a whole shelf in front here with what we call 'pre-viewed' movies and some of those are pretty good but most of them are recent releases I wouldn't necessarily call classics if you know what I mean. My name is Sherrie by the way so have you ever been in here before?"

"I've never been in one of these stores before," I said, afraid that if she kept talking my head would explode.

"Well," she chirped. She was a small, nervous young woman, all bones, tics and bobs, with a rather monotonous, high pitched voice, the kind that can cut through sheet metal. "Why don't you fill out this membership form and we'll get you a temporary card and we'll send the plastic one in the mail and you can go ahead and rent movies tonight up to three your first night and if you need help finding anything let me know okay?"

"Oh will do," I said, happy to see her bob her head like a hungry lizard at another customer.

That night I rented The Maltese Falcon and two other movies. I also bought a catalog of Block Party videos, three boxes of microwave popcorn (with butter flavor) and a doll of Yoda, the ugly little puppet character from Star Wars. It was the biggest and most satisfying spending spree I had been on in a long time.

"What an amazing place!" I said out loud, clutching my big blue and white bag of treasure in Carl's black BMW (I always thought of it as his car no matter how long I drove it). "I can rent movies there for the next hundred years and never see everything."

The truth is, I was getting a little tired of game shows. The new ones, like The Money's All Mine! and Stay Alive, had a mean streak in them that I found disagreeable. I also wanted to go back to a simpler time, when men wore hats and used polite language around women; when women yearned for romance and love; when a boy's best friend was his dog and when girls skipped rope and learned how to sew and cook; when the worst thing you could do was betray a friend and justice always triumphed in the end. Yes, I know that sounds not only corny and reactionary but also contrived and historically false. Even then if someone had said that to me I would have agreed. But I wanted to see people happy. I wanted to see people better off at the end of a story than they were at the beginning. I wanted to go to bed at night and dream about wonderful stories, set to lush music, in black and white, the imagination's most vivid colors. If I had been born with a slightly different mix of chemicals in my brain, I suppose, I would have wanted drugs.

And so with VCR set up and Block Party Video card in hand, my life disappeared into a fuzzy, comfortable, electronic dream world. Every night I rented two or three videos, went to the supermarket for sushi and California rolls, then watched movies while eating dinner with chopsticks. I felt affluent and sophisticated. The ghost of Carl Benson faded away, an indistinct memory that no longer mattered. Important events, of course, were taking place in the world that I should have paid attention to. The FDA had just cleared the way for the testing of a revolutionary new device to help people with brain injury; and the Supreme Court was hearing arguments about the Wonder World Ko Urban Recovery Partnership Project (URPP). But like millions of other self-indulgent Americans, I thought of democracy as something that takes care of itself, like the weather or the post office. I wanted entertainment, escape, fantasy, Sam Spade, not responsibility. Besides, I was a convicted felon on parole and couldn't vote anyway.

Well, it may not be much of an excuse, but there it is.

I talked about movies all day long at work with Dill. This was especially enjoyable if he had seen the movie and still remembered the plot. If I really liked a particular film I bought a copy, then saw it everyday until I memorized all the dialog. I bought The Maltese Falcon, for instance, and learned it by heart. My mind became a screen with the projector always running. Movies invaded my every thought. Sometimes I would see someone glancing at me and imagine that I was in an Alfred Hitchcock thriller; or I'd look up at the sky and see flying saucers overhead; or I would look at an empty field and imagine leading my platoon on a dangerous mission. I found a used bookstore where I bought old movie magazines. Posters of Carey Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart decorated my bedroom. I got cable installed so that I could watch a channel devoted to nothing but old movies. After watching Citizen Kane, which had a musical score by Bernard Herman that I really liked, I bought a stereo and started buying soundtracks to famous films.

You might say, to spare my feelings, that I had an interest in films of the past; but why kid ourselves? I was obsessed. The world I had been born in was not to my liking. I wanted to retreat into another, more predictable and aesthetically pleasing one.

Reasonable objections can be made about such a way of life, and I'll be the first to make them; but I can also truthfully say that wanting to retreat into another, more noble world can provide what is needed to bring about another, more noble world. For the first time in years I talked to another human being about something that moved me. My emotions, reduced to only a few discordant tones, like a child pounding piano keys, began to express themselves with renewed depth, color and complexity. If I was still afraid of the real world I was also reminded of how much beauty could come from that world. Lassie made me aware of how much I had taken Suzie for granted, and what a gentle, loving companion she could be. A Christmas Carol, the movie my memory had clung to in prison, led me to hope that I too might be given a second chance. Ben Hur let me see myself as someone who could endure hardship heroically. The Odd Couple made me laugh and think about the importance of friendship. Duck Soup made me laugh so hard it brought tears to my eyes without asking me to think at all. It's the best comedy ever made.

Even my parole officer, Amanzi Kristos, sensed something different about me. As usual, we met at Wang's Chicken & Donuts, a little hole-in-the-wall that's not nearly as bad as it sounds.

"You getting enough to eat, Fick? You look like you've lost weight."

Every time we met Mr. Kristos talked about my weight. He once asked me to write down everything I had eaten for a week. When I gave it to him he walked around in a slow circle while reading it, then crossed out everything that, he said, had corn in it. I asked him if I shouldn't eat corn. He said that only American Indians have the genes for properly digesting corn. I don't think this is true but I've always meant to look it up.

"I've been eating sushi."

"What's that?"

"Raw fish."

"Fish is a good source of protein, although I'd cook it first. What about your carbohydrates?"

Mr. Kristos had, I think, strange ideas about carbohydrates. He liked donuts because, he often said, they are a good source of carbohydrates; and as we talked he ate one donut after another as if he hadn't eaten all day. I worried about his health. He was overweight, his hands trembled and he sometimes looked as if he had trouble breathing.

"Well," I said. "I eat a lot of rice."

"What kind of rice?"

"White rice."

"Brown rice is a better source of fiber and has more nutrients."

"Well," I said, cradling a cup of coffee in my hands, looking out the window at people getting off a bus. My mind began to drift. The last man to step off the bus was fat, balding, and wore a white suit. Suddenly words appeared on the screen in my head. They were

Mr. Kristos reached for his wallet. "Did you ever see my daughter?"

"No," I said, stirring my coffee, which I had no interest in drinking, with a wooden stick.

He handed me a small piece of cardboard with a picture tapped to it. The girl had yellow skin and spiky hair. I recognized her right away. She was Lisa Simpson, a cartoon character.

"Well," I said. Knowing Mr. Kristos as I did, I honestly didn't know if he was joking or not. He once told me that in a previous life he had been the lesbian lover of Eleanor Roosevelt. I said that I didn't know that he believed in reincarnation. He said that he didn't. I think he was joking, but I let it drop anyway.

"She's...a beauty."

"Gifted, too."

"Oh I bet!"

"Don't you want to have kids, Fick?" he said as I handed the picture back to him.

"There was a time," I said. This is not something I liked to talk about. Helen had once said that if I ever got her pregnant she would expel the fetus with a vacuum cleaner. We never had sex after that. Just thinking about it made me angry all over again.

"I don't know why I ever married that nasty, rotten bitch," I said, feeling all the blood in my body rush to my face.

"Well maybe you were in love," Mr. Kristos said. "You've never talked about your ex before. And now that I think about it, I've never seen you get this angry before. Are you doing something different with your hair?"

"What about my hair?"

"You're getting a little gray at the sides, you know."

I shrugged, sipped my coffee. Mr. Kristos started talking about his mother for the millionth time. Two men next to us were talking. Bored with what my parole officer was saying, I mentally drifted over to the other conversation.

"I'm telling you, Frank, when we brought my grandfather into the emergency room he couldn't talk and he was half paralyzed. I thought he was going to die. The next thing I know a doctor is taking me into his office, tells me that the hospital has got an experimental medication and asks me to sign a form. The next day I go to see my grandfather he's out of intensive care, he's sitting up in bed talking to my brother, and he looks better than he's looked in years."

"What was wrong with him?"

"Stroke! Would you believe it?"

"What did they give him?"

"Damned if I know. I couldn't pronounce it. All I know is that he was released the same day and he's back home working in his garden."

"It's amazing what science can do these days."

"Tell me."

"I have a confession to make," Mr. Kristos said, lowering his eyes.

"Which is...?"

"That really wasn't my daughter in that picture."

"You don't say."

He laughed so hard that he gave himself hiccups. "I don't have any children at all (hic). I dated a girl once, but she said that if I ever talked to her again (hic) she would get a court order."

"Gee," I said, watching the two men get up and leave. "I wonder why."

That night I had, for the first time in a long time, trouble getting to sleep. My brain wanted to work overtime. There was something about the conversation at the next table that bothered me. I kept thinking about the last time I had been in the hospital, about the doctor no one knew anything about. The sentence, "It's amazing what science can do these days," kept running through my mind. After tossing and turning I got up, turned on the television, and put The Maltese Falcon in the VCR. When I finally fell asleep around 3 in the morning, however, the movie followed me and turned into one of the most elaborate nightmares I have ever had.

I was supposed to be Sam Spade but I knew that my real name was Fick. For a long time I thought about that as I tried to roll a cigarette; but since I don't know how to roll a cigarette it kept falling apart. I was in the park. Someone was watching me, then chasing me on a bicycle, asking me if I wanted a book. Then I was trying to interrogate Peter Lorre while he skated in the living room. Sidney Greenstreet walked in and complained of a headache. I gave him a bottle of pills and said that they had cured my grandfather. Then Helen started beating up Peter Lorre. "When you're slapped you'll take it and like it," I said, running to stop her, then running through the park again, then skating through the park in my socks. "Five thousand dollars is a lot of money," the man on the bicycle said behind me. "I know the value in human life you people put on it," I said, moving faster, too fast. I was going to hit a wall. A wall with the words, "What are you running from?" written on it. But my feet. There were skies. Up, higher than the trees, then down, down weeeeeeeeeeewhatareyourunningfrom,,,Fickifthat'syourname?

When I awakened the room was spinning so fast around me that when I tried to get out of bed I fell on the floor. Suzie, sensing that something was wrong, walked over to me and started licking my face. I put my arms around her and waited for the room to come to a stop. When I was finally able to stand up, I shuffled to the bathroom, fell on my knees in front of the toilet and threw up. I spent the rest of the night curled up on the floor, sleeping in the bathroom, Suzie at my side.

That should have been the end of my marathon movie watching, but true addictions wrap their pain in packages that always make them forget what's inside. In less than a week I was wandering the aisles of Block Party Video again on the condition that I would no longer watch any movie more than once.

"No one can sit through The Maltese Falcon almost 40 times in a row and not have a bad dream or two," I thought (using Humphrey Bogart's voice, of course). I told myself that I must have eaten some bad fish, that I must have been tired and under a lot of stress.

"You watch a movie once and that's it," I said to myself. "Or, at least wait a year."

It seemed to work. I had a few more nightmares but they gradually became less intense. After a few weeks I stopped hearing dialog from The Maltese Falcon in my head. Sleep was blissfully dreamless. All was back to normal. And then came That Summer Day. It had to happen sooner or later that I would pick that film out of all the others to take home and watch.

The evening started out pleasantly enough. The movie sat on the VCR, a pizza cooked in the oven and I was in the living room, skating. I was practicing my figure 8s when I noticed two eyes at the window and froze. That kid who had showed me his yo-yo trick when I had locked myself out was standing on my front lawn, starring at me. I waved. He waved. His two front teeth were still missing and he still had on glasses as big as the bottom of mayonnaise jars. I opened the front door.

"You like to skate?" I said.

He blinked at me and said, "I have a skate board and a scooter but I don't have skates."

"Well that's okay," I said. "Come on in and take off your shoes and I'll show you how to skate."

He watched me skate, walked over to Suzie and petted her, then took off his sneakers and started skating in his tube socks. For a half-hour, while the timer in the kitchen ticked away and the house filled up with the aroma of bubbling cheese, pepperoni and black olives, we waltzed from one end of the room to the other, turning, spinning, looping and circling until we were sweaty, dizzy, and out of breath from laughing.

"Say, you want a piece of pizza?" I said.

"No tank you," he said, sitting on the floor to lace up his sneakers. The poor kid still couldn't make the t-h sound. "I'd better go home now."

"Okay. Thanks for skating with me."

"I'm glad you found your dog."

"Me too."


As he left I wondered where he lived and what his name was. I took a quick shower, then got ready to watch the movie, eat pizza and drink root beer. The makings of a perfect evening.

That Summer Day
A middle class neighborhood. The sun rises on a cool, overcast morning. A modest two story house is selected and we enter it through the back screen door. There we see a family in a small but well furnished kitchen. The woman prepares breakfast. The man looks as if he has just walked in. A young boy sits at the table, a dog under his chair. A lively discussion ensues. The older son is coming home from college for a visit. They are all excited, especially the boy.

What the parents don't know, but find out soon enough, is that their college student son wants to drop out of school and that he is bringing along a pretty but somewhat scatter-brained young woman he wants to marry. What the son doesn't know, but finds out soon enough, is that his parents have spent the last two years telling everyone who will listen how their boy is going to be the first one in their family to graduate from college. What the young boy doesn't know, but finds out soon enough, is that everyone in his family will soon start screaming their lungs out at each other and that he'll be better off staying up a tree until they notice that he's gone.

A dim-witted aunt who talks to herself, a spectacularly goofy uncle who's always drunk and assorted friends and neighbors drop in and out of the house, looking as if they're ogling a car wreck or circus act as all kinds of arguments, comic cover ups and acts of accidental buffoonery take place.

In the end the father learns to see his son as a man who has his own life to live, the son sees his father as someone who might know a thing or two about life, and the mother makes her husband take her seriously as a woman who has had her own share of griefs and disappointments.

All well enough and good for a sappy, rather mediocre film made in the middle of the fifties except for one scene that I should have missed if only I had chosen to go to the bathroom at the right time. But I couldn't have missed it. It is a crucial scene, the only scene of its kind in an otherwise routine, predictable movie.

The young boy, having been coaxed out of the tree by his mother, is disturbed to find that a bird has died in their yard.

"When a bird dies," the mother says slowly, kneeling down next to her son, brushing away hair from her face and looking into his eyes. "Its soul flies to heaven, which for birds is a tree. And when the bird gets tired of heaven, it comes back down to earth and is born in an egg. The real bird is looking down on us and is singing and it doesn't want us to feel sad."

The last slice of pizza dropped from my hand as my jaw fell through the floor. I got up, shaking, goose bumps the size of camel humps breaking out over every inch of my body, and turned the television off. How was this possible! Was I turning into Ronald Reagan? Had I finally lost my mind for good? It's just a movie, I told myself. But it wasn't a movie, it was my life. Or at least what I thought had been my life. I couldn't have seen what I had just seen. That was flat-out impossible. But there it was. This was worse than turning into Sam Spade. This was turning into nothing. A fiction. The goddamn scene that had saved my life, that had kept me from slitting my wrists in the park on the worst day of my life, had come from a movie!

And not even a good movie at that, but a cheesy low budget farce.

I walked to the bathroom to wash my face, then stared at myself in the mirror. Weird things happen when you do that, by the way. Monsters swarmed over my skull as my face changed shape and turned different colors. The bathroom seemed to get dark as my head glowed and got bigger and bigger, like a balloon filled with paint. Some sort of on / off switch got activated in my brain. I was there, I was gone, I was there, I was gone. Fick, Fickel, Fink, Finkelstein, Frankenstein, Fact Fiction. Fiction. Ah ha! The mystery of my name. Not Fick. What's a Fick anyway? I had never, outside my own family, met anyone else with a name like mine. Fick and now Fiction. I was a fiction. Worse, I was a fiction imitating other fictions. I was a man, if I were still a flesh and blood man, who could no longer trust his own memory. The day I got married. Did the minister really have a tiny crescent shaped scar just above his upper lip? And on our honeymoon, did Helen really ask me if she could still date other men? Had I really ambitions at one time that drove me insane? Did I really almost kill a man with a baseball bat and go to prison?

Had I tried to turn into Sam Spade because I had been trying to turn into other people all my life? That seemed to make a certain amount of sense.

I walked out of the bathroom and stood in the middle of the empty living room, looking out the window. Laughter, low, below the threshold of normal human hearing, but I heard it. The ghost of Carl had come back to have its revenge, a chuckle at something less than a man, even less than a ghost.

"When a bird, when a bird," I muttered to myself as I walked outside. Where was I going? Did it matter?

I was inside. I was in my old room on my old bed holding something I had left on the bed a long time ago.

"Well, well," Louie said, holding a staff and looking like Yoda, my stuffed doll from Block Party Video. "Look who's back."

"If it isn't the walking episode of The Twilight Zone," Chuck snickered, looking like Humphrey Bogart. "Seen any good movies lately, Fick?"

I didn't know why I was sitting on my old bed or what I was going to do next. The only thing I knew for sure was that I had punched the "off" switch and that my mind had come to an emotional dead stop. I wasn't afraid, angry or depressed. I was just a warm block of ice sitting in an empty room. Nothing to do. Nothing to say. Nothing to think about. A skinny gray cat wandered by, poked its head in the door, walked up to me, rubbed its matted body on my leg, bit my hand and then ran off. A man and a woman argued next door, stopping just when they were loud enough to be understood. The ice-cream truck clanged fuzzily down the street like a xylophone made of radioactive gold. Garage doors wheezed open and shut. A car angrily backfired. Children ran in circles outside, sounding like a flock of frightened, flightless birds. The sun slowly ran out of power. And then there was just me, sitting on my old bed in the dark with something in my hands.

Chuck and Louie must have gotten bored and left because I didn't hear them. For a long time I don't think that I heard anything in my own head. Everything had really come to an absolute standstill. Perhaps, for a little while, I slept sitting up. I remember the sun coming up, lighting the window behind me, warm and pink as grapefruit. My old room slowly became visible again. Church bells tolled in the distance. A fly landed on my nose. There was a book in my hands. I brushed the fly away and looked down at the book. I asked myself a question. What book was I holding? I asked myself another question. Who was holding the book?

There was a painful knot in my neck and in the small of my back. I stood up, cracking both knees, then walked outside on pins and needles, squinting up at the sky. What day was it? I stood there, not moving for a long time until it came to me. It was Saturday. I slowly closed the door of my old room, then trudged back into my house, feeling as if my age and the earth's gravity had increased a million times.

I crawled into bed fully dressed and instantly fell asleep. When I awoke it was dark outside. I switched on the light and sat there rubbing my eyes, feeling light-headed and a little dizzy. There was a book on the bed stand. I suddenly felt as if I had no choice but to pick it up. I read the first page of chapter two (I remembered chapter one), then put it down. I looked at the blank screen of the television, then picked up the book again and read another page. I did this for a while and then found that I could not stop reading; and so for the next 24 hours I poured over, without stopping to eat or even go to the bathroom, The Science of Mechanology from cover to cover.

It was the book that was to change everything.


"The existential crisis of Stickman!"
-Rufus A. Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

I called in sick on Monday-the only time I had ever called in sick-so that I could stay home, pretend that nothing unusually strange had happened, and read The Science of Mechanology by Rufus A. Pervus again from the beginning.

As I look back on it now I realize that probably any book, as long as it gave me something to think about other than the absurdity of recent events, would have helped me get over the most recent shock to my system. I felt weirdly diminished, mentally and even physically, and believed that I could no longer trust my own judgment about anything. A sort of diseased fog hung over me. And so I would have gone looking for a Rufus A. Pervus, I suppose, if one hadn't already been at hand. In the vulnerable state I was in I was ripe for almost any religion, philosophy or cause no matter how esoteric, strange or just plain cracked.

But, of course, I was not reading just any book. I was studying, eyes glued to every word, The Science of Mechanology, a book that seemed all the more important because it had been thrust into my hands the morning after I had attempted-or at least thought seriously about- putting an end to my own sorry existence. But what really made me read such a book so intently, and then read it again, slowly and with more care, was the first page of chapter two, where it begins in earnest. It was as if Rufus A. Pervus, a man I had never met, a man I knew nothing about, had written a long letter just for me.

"Stickman lives with the anxiety that he has no essential identity. He is, he likes to boast at cocktail parties and backyard barbecues, what he does. But in a modern industrial economy, expanding through ever more complex, interconnected circles of finance, technology, politics and evolving social trends, he may not understand how the work he does for "a living" has any material relationship with the life he actually leads, how it actually does, so to speak, make, "a living." Ask any Stickman and he'll tell you that one job is pretty much as good as another, dependent as they all are on a broad range of complex material relationships that literally may not exist tomorrow. Thus, what Intellectual Stickman and his allies proudly call, "Modern Economic Realism," is the product of work that has become, quite literally, a modern economic abstraction.

"But when that which connects us most vitally to society becomes an empty, irksome obstacle to time free from labor, culture at its foundations begins its slow but inevitable decay. Education, the process of perfecting that which makes us most fully human, becomes a means to a job, a career, material gain, "a living". Art becomes sentimental, a modernistic freak or a monetary investment. Government becomes a means for favor, advancement and the narcissistic acquisition of personal power. Religion, turned into an almost contractual ethic, becomes the material antithesis of the search for spiritual meaning in the mythopoetic tradition. What is left, finally, to give meaning to life can only be found in gratification of the senses broadly referred to as entertainment.
What we had once used as a needed distraction from the work of creating and sustaining a community has now become all that millions live for. For a brief moment Stickman is filled with the exhilaration of identifying with great athletes, international spies, great lovers, singers and musicians, etc. But when the stadium empties, when the lights go on in the theater, when he puts away his new clothes and toys, he is left with a lingering sense of emptiness, a feeling that his life no longer matters. The existential crisis of Stickman! Television is the opiate of the masses, as a certain German philosopher might grumble today; but even the entertainment industry can only do so much for so many. Those with a modicum of critical thinking skills, or those left to the mercy of poverty, physical or mental illness, turn to acts of rebellion and thus become the dreaded and dangerous anti-Stickmen we are forever warned about in schools, churches, union halls, television programs and newspapers.

"What! Is there no meaning to life beyond the merely material? Is Stickman doomed to die wondering if he will ever watch Bob Hope in color? Have we conquered a wilderness and given our lives in war for indoor plumping, a gas range and sliced cheese? Is freedom just the freedom, as one well known politician proclaimed in a famous kitchen debate, the freedom to buy, buy, buy? Or can we go beyond knowing what we make in order to know who we are? We can, and I maintain that we must, chose to look at the material, technical and scientific development of Western society using a philosophical approach normally reserved for the study of Spirit, or Mind. I call this approach the Science of Mechanology in order to describe the path which lies at the heart of Western thought and forms the core of its historic development. We have had, I maintain, a collective purpose which has never deviated from our true nature, however confused and lost we may feel ourselves to be as one dimensional beings in this moment of transition. And what a moment of transition it will be because soon, very soon, economy as we know it will cease to exist. So too science! Most of us will live to look back on our childhood as something out of the Middle Ages; for we are much closer than we realize to discoveries that will change the way we think about everything..."

I didn't understand everything in the book. Some of the chapters were dense and technical, using jargon I had never come across before. To my shame (having completed just 3 units of junior college), I didn't know the meaning of Platonism, Idealism, Monism, Pragmatism, or The Green Revolution. I did understand what was at the heart of the book: that the human brain, that awe-inspiring invention of nature (an over achiever if one ever existed), is actually a machine that makes other machines in the evolutionary process of becoming Spirit, that which is one with something mysteriously referred to as "The Realm of Pure Understanding." I didn't understand how the hell he arrived at that conclusion but the idea (which didn't have a lot of ideas to compete with, to be honest) staggered me. I wanted to know more.

Still, for all the renewed sense of hope that Pervus had given me, a vast feeling of emptiness, of having wasted my life and intellect, came over me when, after finally showering, shaving and putting on clothes, I stepped onto my empty living room floor. Rosa had just left. I could smell cigarettes and lemon scented wax. What time is it? I asked myself. What day is it? What year is it? Where is my life going? Is my Stickman brain really a machine that is trying to transcend its "machineness" and become Spirit? Why don't I get some furniture for this place? How could I have turned a scene in a movie into a childhood memory? What was I even doing in this house?

Was I always going to be alone? Terrible question to contemplate when one is alone in an empty house!

I felt barely strong enough to stand, let alone skate in my socks, and then realized that I hadn't eaten anything for almost two days. There was nothing in the house to eat except dog food. I took Suzie outside for a short walk, filled up her bowl with dry food, gave her fresh water, then drove to one of those restaurants that advertise on television for a breakfast that turned out to be more like lunch. I've since been told that people often call that sort of meal, "brunch."

With a cheese omelet in me I felt a bit more clear-headed. What now? I left a tip on the table, paid the bill, then walked outside. For a few minutes I stood next to Carl's black BMW, chewing a toothpick, watching the traffic, watching people walk past me, wondering what they would think if they knew what was in the trunk of the car, all the while feeling a little guilty for not being at work polishing cars.

Where do people go when they want to learn about something? I asked myself. They go where there are books, my brain, afloat in a small ocean of words by Pervus, answered.

"Where do you think?," Louie said. He was on a billboard across the street, sitting in a "sport utility vehicle" or SUV, one of those lumbering gas hogs so big it can turn other cars into flattened tin cans and everyone inside into jelly.

"The library, asshole."

"Yes, of course, the library," I said out loud, wishing that I could permanently get rid of Chuck and Louie. "As a matter of fact, I can go there now!"

The library was at the park I had nearly used for my final exit, so I felt a little reluctant about going back there. It had also been a long time since I had been inside a library and I was apprehensive about barging in and asking for help. What if the real Chuck and Louie, those furtive body snatchers who existed half in and half out of my imagination, where there? I had the image in my head of everyone turning around in their seat to stare at me as I walked in. "There's that guy," they would whisper, looking at my hands to see if one of them gripped a Louisville Slugger.

So when I got there I looked at the glass door of the library for a long time, watching gray-haired women in sweats, thin as band-saws, trudge in with grocery bags full of books in their arms. I kept looking down at myself to make sure that I had pants on. Finally, after smoothing my hair down and checking my zipper, I took a deep breath and followed one of the old, silver-haired book-worms in.

I must have stood there for a long time with eyes glazed over because a short, pregnant woman with red hair and large, curious eyes that were either gray or green waddled up to me and said, in a whisper, "Can I help you?"

"Oh. Do you work here?"

"Either that or I'm looking for a date."

"I'm sorry," I said, barely controlling an impulse to run out the door.

"I work here. At least for another month. Perhaps I can help you find something?"

"Well, I, uh," I stammered, trying not to look at her protruding stomach, which was difficult because she was short and I had to look down to see her. I don't know why, but for some reason the thought of being around a pregnant librarian gave me the willies.

"I read this book by a man named Pervus and, uh, well, I was wondering if you had any other books by him."

"Pervus, uh?"


"Should be easy enough to find if we have him. What does he write about?"

"Well, I guess it's, it's, uh, uh, what, uh. Philosophy?"

She took me over to a table lined with what looked like computers, then showed me how to use one of them. We were able to find a few authors by the name of Pervus, none of them Rufus A. I asked her, a bit too nervously, about, "Platoism." She looked up at me with her large, curious eyes that were either gray or green, blinked, and then said, "You mean Platonism?"

"I think. Yes."

"I'll show you where the philosophy section is," she said, arching her back, grimacing and starting to waddle. "Section P, which reminds me of something I have to do right now. If you need any more help I'll be behind that counter in about five minutes."

An hour later I walked out of the library with two books (one old and fat, the other new and thin) and a new bar coded library card in my pocket. For the first time in my life I felt excited about digging into something purely intellectual. I had always been afraid of education and had never done well in school. "Look who's improving his mind after all these years," I thought. And then I heard the voice. It wasn't Chuck or Louie. It was a real human voice.

"I couldn't help but notice that you were looking for Pervus in there."

I looked to the right, then left.

"Up here."

I looked up at the tree that stood brooding in front of the library. It was beautiful, impossibly huge, ancient and sinister, and had it not been for a brace made of iron to support one tremendous limb it would have smashed the foyer of the library like an ogre out of a fairy tale. There was a man standing in the exact center of the tree, surrounded by a thick circle of branches. He had long, tangled hair and a short, scraggly beard. I looked down again and started walking. No time for crazy people now! I wanted to get home and plunge once more into that deep ocean of printed words.

"Whether it is made of metal, plastic, rubber or flesh is immaterial, since the true determinate of the machine is its immaterial action."

That stopped me cold. I stopped to think, then backpedaled to the tree.

"That's from... chapter four, I think," I said in amazement, looking up at the man in the tree.

"Chapter four it is, The Science of Mechanology by Rufus A. Pervus."

"How did you know..."

"I was standing behind you while you were talking to Dolores," the man said.


"Our librarian," he said, jumping down and landing on his feet like a slim cat. He walked over the large brown and green leaves that lay on the dirt, pointing at the books I had checked out.

"Aren't in the habit of reading much, are you?"

"I don't know.What makes you say that?"

"You looked lost when you stepped inside, for one. You got, I'll guess by the questions you asked, a library card for the first time. And you're reading a translation of Plato that's second rate. You should have gotten the The Collected Dialogues edited by Hamilton and Cairns. We have it here, in case you're interested."

"Well, you certainly know Plato," I said, looking at a crow that had just picked up a walnut from the parking lot.

"I know books, Mr. Fick-if I may call you Mr. Fick. For the last 30 years I have devoted my life to reading books. I read The Science of Mechanology-" His eyes rolled up. "January third, 1975, at 3 pm. I bought it for 15 cents at The Yellow Eye, a book store in Pasadena that has since made way for a Christian Science reading room, I'm sorry to say."

Everyone at one time or another contemplates the question, "What would I ask God if we ever met face to face?" We all assume, trusting our ability to think more clearly and rationally than everyone else, that we would ask the really Big Questions. Why are we here? What are we supposed to do? What happens when we die? and so on. But would you really? Wouldn't you be just a little apprehensive-maybe even afraid-of the answers? Suddenly God jumps out of a tree in the body of a skinny, bearded, long-haired, not-too-clean guy in his mid-forties or fifties, points a long fingernail at the books you're clutching, and says, in effect, "Ask a question. Any question."

"What were you doing in that tree?" I said.

"Tree? Oh, that. I like to read there. And sleep sometimes. It was planted over a hundred years ago by the city's first mayor, who was killed in a gun battle. Did you know that?"

"About the mayor?"

"About the tree."

"No," I said, starting to move again. "Well, gotta go."

"I always thought that you were innocent, Fick," he said to my back. "And that you shouldn't have served any time."

I turned around slowly as the hair turned hard as old paint brushes on the back of my neck. From behind me came the thack! of walnut hitting asphalt, then caw caw caw.

"I told you that I read, and that includes newspapers as well. At the trial you said that you couldn't remember beating The Best Networker in Babbleon with a baseball bat. I believe that you couldn't remember doing that simply because you are, in fact, incapable of doing that, even to some rich bastard that probably deserved it."

"What makes you so sure?"

"That he deserved it?"

"No. That I didn't do it."

"Because I read books, and that makes me skilled in reading people, which is the real reason people read, or should read, books to begin with."

For the next two hours we talked over coffee at, appropriately enough, The Lean Mean Bean Machine. He told me his name and gave me a brief life story: sailor with the Merchant Marines, an LA fireman, an organic beet farmer in Sacramento and a news reporter for a local radio station. Plenty of college but no degree. Jobs that never led to a career. Girlfriends but never a wife. The on again off again life of the eccentric who just keeps getting more eccentric.

"Never really wanted to do anything but read," he said.

He had the loose build of a scarecrow with bulging, watery, nervous eyes, large, long-fingered hands and a scraggly beard that reminded me of the stray cat that had wandered into my old room to rub my leg and bite me. His clothes, jeans and a flannel shirt, looked clean enough but smelled as if they had been buried once in a compost heap. His teeth, however, were perfectly white, straight and clean, and he didn't smell like alcohol. I bought him coffee and three coconut macaroons which he ate with clean hands, having washed them in the bathroom until they were as pink as raccoon paws.

"You'll have to ask me a question," he said at one point after a short silence. "I can't talk about anything unless someone brings it up."

"Are you homeless?"

"No, I live in a tree because I'm claustrophobic and can't stand to sleep under a roof. In other words, yes, whadya think? I'm not mentally ill, though. That much I must insist on. That is, I remain, like most people, clinically undiagnosed although, unlike most people, I'm not half as dangerous. I had been living with my father but had to put him in the funny farm for old folks and I couldn't bear to live in the house anymore. Too many happy memories, growing up in a working class family that was proud of it, long talks about books and music, arguments after the late late show, Democrats versus the Socialist Worker's Party, Marxism versus New Criticism, Free Will versus Determinism, Dodgers versus Braves. You know, it's funny but it's only been recently that I've come to realize that the only family I ever wanted to have was the family I was born into. I rent the house now to a bunch of people who've turned out to be anarchists and refuse to pay. They sell drugs, sabotage food and put it back on shelves in grocery stores and who knows what else. I don't like them but they're anarchists and in principle it would be wrong for me to coerce them since they don't believe in coercion, being anarchists and all. By the way, did Dolores say anything to you about the baby?"

"Sounded like she's due pretty soon," I said, scratching my head. His beard and long hair made me itch. I hoped that he didn't notice.

"She always says that, poor thing."

"What do you mean?"

"Our librarian," Scarecrow said, chewing on his second macaroon. "Has been pregnant a lot longer than nine months."

"What do you mean? Is she okay?"

"Fick," Scarecrow said, leaning in and dropping his voice. "I don't know. But I knew that Dolores was pregnant, let me see, let me see, 12 years ago."

Before my brain, having activated a silent alarm, could stop my mouth I said, "You're not delusional are you?"

"Long answer, no. Short answer, yes. But forget about Dolores for a minute. Can I have another macaroon? Thanks. You know, when I was growing up we practically lived on cookies. Ever hear of Mom's High Cholesterol Cookie Snacks?"

"When I was a kid," I said, remembering the ginger snaps my father insisted on buying every year for Christmas. Never the lemon cookies or chocolate chip, always the dry, bone-hard ginger snaps with the face of the smiling fat woman on the box.

"That was our company, the company my mother, God rest her soul, started in our kitchen. The same year Disneyland opened. Did you know that?"

"That it was your mother's company or about Disneyland?"

"That she started the company when Disneyland opened."

"No, I didn't know that. But what happened to the company. Is it still around?"

"Sometime in the seventies people just stopped buying the cookies. Mother tried everything but nothing revived sales."

"Maybe it was the name," I said.

"Well of course she changed the name."


"Mom's Old Fashioned High Cholesterol Cookie Snacks. Didn't you ever see them?"

I had to admit that I hadn't.

"Well they didn't stay on the shelves for very long. We got sued and that about finished us off."

"Was it the cholesterol? People getting heart attacks?"

"No, some guy with nothing better to do ran tests on our cookies and found out that they were actually low in cholesterol so we got sued for false advertising."

"The bastard!" I said.

"Tell me. Well, anyway, that's the way the family fortune went. Last few years it's just been me and Dad. For the last couple of years I thought that he was just getting old and experiencing a normal amount of depression until he started talking like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And then he started taking in the trash instead of taking it out, mowing the lawn, nude, without a lawn mower. Poor Dad. Now if you're after nuts, talk to him. Last time we got together he thought I was Peter Pan, asked me what the hell I had done to the cookie factory. Well, okay, enough of that. I know you didn't bring me in here to hear about my father. You didn't get along with yours, by the way, did you?"

The sun drew squares of light on the dark table, which looked worn and carved up beneath a thick layer of varnish. I thought I saw the flickering shadow of flies in front of me but when I looked up there was nothing there.

"What makes you say that?"

"Well, aside from the fact that nothing makes me say anything, as you seem to believe, I can see it in your eyes and the corners of your mouth whenever I say, "Dad". You're really quite easy to read, you have a very open face. You can't hide from the world but you keep a safe enough distance. I know the type, believe me. So let's talk about you if you don't mind. Did you know that The Best Networker in Babbleon owns the prison you were sent to?"

"The first day I was there," I said sourly, beginning to feel uncomfortable. That was a time I didn't want to talk about even to myself.

"Ah, good, so you know. And did you also know that Best Networker Incorporated recently acquired sixteen percent of Ceroplast Industries? It was buried in the back of the business section but, like I say, I read everything."

"I try not to think of him or what he does with his money," I said glumly. "I don't care."

"Maybe you should."


"Because Ceroplast makes two things that you should find very interesting. They make artificial limbs that are activated by brain waves. And they make Amoxotrividian."

"Amoxo what?" I said, looking up again to see if there were flies in the room. I can't think if there are flies in the room.

"Don't you ever read a newspaper?"

"No," I said. "I've been kinda into movies lately."

"Amoxotrividian is the first medication ever developed, using gene splicing and man made molecular structures, to repair brain tissue. It hasn't gotten full FDA approval yet, although I've heard about clinical trials going on. It's supposed to help people like my dad, the mentally retarded, stroke victims, people who've been paralyzed, anyone with almost any type of brain damage. At least that's what they claim."

"Well, that's interesting," I said. "But...so what?"

"Then I'll spell it out for you. Carl Benson and Ceroplast. Ceroplast and Carl Benson. Ring a bell now?"

Time came to a stop. Blinded by the sun, I could no longer see his face. Ask a question, any question. My hands and then my arms turned numb. I felt as if I could float in air, die of heart failure, turn invisible, gibber like an ape. A long time passed before I could speak.

"Carl...You...You mean...But he..."

"I know there's a connection because you're driving his car, his black BMW, license plate, MYBETC. I used to talk to him all the time when I begged outside his convenience store. When I saw you get out of Betsy, as he used to call it, I followed you into the library. Imagine my intense surprise when I heard your name."

"Yes," I said, feeling as if my mouth had just been to the dentist. " And now... here we are."

"Why do you think Carl killed himself? Pardon the expression, but he didn't seem the type."

"I've always had this weird feeling that it had something to do with the fact that I was going to kill myself and didn't. That in some way I can't explain Carl took my place."

"You knew him well?"


"But you're driving Betsy, his car."

"He gave it to me. I was in his will," I said, worried by how that sounded.

"And why did he put you in his will, a man you barely knew?"

The room started to get hot. I felt as if a pot of coffee had suddenly gone to my head. Memories of talking to my lawyer in court came back to me. All I could do was shrug and try not to look guilty. That's what my lawyer, a man who wore loud checkered suits to court, used to say to me. I think that it was the only legal advice he really knew. Don't look guilty.

"Maybe," Scarecrow said, chewing his last bite of macaroon. "That's what you need to find out to complete this puzzle."

"You think this has something to do with my being innocent?"

It was the Scarecrow's turn to shrug.

"Look," I said, feeling my lips tremble. "This matters to me. You said you thought I was innocent. Why? And if I didn't nearly commit murder, who the hell did?"

"Well," he said, touching the tops of my hands. "It's not like I've spent a lot of time trying to figure it out. I've got a life, believe it or not and I'm hardly Sam Spade. But let me tell you something, something for you to think about, okay? When I was just seven years old I started having a hard time in school. People today would probably call it ADD, attention deficient disorder or some such crap. My best friend was a kid by the name of Van Wexler. Van and I sat next to each other and played together after school. One day the teacher had me come up to the front of the class to write something on the board. I really hated it when the other kids looked at me, so I got nervous, froze up and made a mess of it. When my back was still turned someone snickered. I don't know why but I was convinced that it was Van. I walked back to my desk, really steamed, you know, and hit him as hard as I could right in the side of his face. Smack! Poor Van screamed and then started crying. The teacher, a big old fat Norwegian, nearly beat the crap out of me-they could hit kids back then as much as they wanted. I felt terrible right away. Not because I was having the holy shit kicked out of me by the teacher, but because I had hit my best friend. Van and I made up but it was never the same."

"I'm not sure what you're getting at," I said. But I did. God was saying something that I didn't want to hear.

"I was just seven years old when that happened, but sometimes it seems as if it happened yesterday. And that was just me as a kid punching another kid! You really think that if you clobbered a guy almost to death with a baseball bat that you'd forget about it, that your brain would just drop a curtain and let you sleep through it?"

"I've never forgotten anything like that," I said, feeling ice water flow into my heart. "I told myself that I must have gone temporarily insane."

"People don't forget going insane either, my friend. It might seem like a dream to them later, but they remember. But whatever happened happened so maybe you should, eh, forget about it. What I mean is, it doesn't have anything to do with you or the world you're living in now. Know what I mean? You see, in the West we're taught to think that the past produces who we are, that we come out of the past. The world is the way it is because of what God did at the beginning of time. But Eastern thought has a much different perspective. To the Hindus and Buddhists, it's the present, the eternal now, that makes the past. Once you break through the illusion that you are controlled by the past, which doesn't really exist at all, then you're free because you recognize that you've been free all along, you just didn't know it."

"Isn't that what Pervus talks about?" I said.

"Pervus," Scarecrow said, his bulging, watery eyes two dancing points of light. "Thought that the making of machines was something in itself divine because the machine, as he saw it, is the closest that we can come to understanding, practically speaking, how the universe works. But, and this is a big but, this doesn't mean that the universe itself is a machine. It only looks that way on the surface. Matter, when we get up close to it, becomes more and more elusive until it resembles mind more than matter, at least in the way we ordinarily think about matter. The problem is not that we have limited ideas about the universe from the limited kinds of machines we make because our machines keep getting more sophisticated and intelligent. The problem is that our own society is becoming mechanized, becoming organic in its own right, using us for it own ends, so to speak."

"Stickman," I said excitedly.

"Exactly, what Pervus called Stickman, the Marcusian One Dimensional Man only for Pervus Stickman is also society itself, the world created in our image that then creates us in its image. So we have to free ourselves with some kind of two bit Hegalian analysis of history to see how we've been side tracked, dazzled by the show instead of the substance of what we've created. Pretty soon, though, we won't be able to ignore the staggering implications of what we've learned. A sort of critical mass is building, and then, wham! Technology, science and a higher mass consciousness combine to make the biggest evolutionary leap in the history of humanity. Mind, not the machine like apparatus we're operating with today, joins with the Universal Mind in The Realm of Pure Understanding."

"You think that will actually happen?" I said excitedly, hardly believing that I was sitting across from someone who shared so much of what I had been thinking about for the last two days.

"Fick, Pervus had a nice vision, but in all honesty, he was a flake, a wannabe intellectual. It's all nice and 'new age' as people say today, but let's look at reality, okay? We're preparing as fast as we can to destroy ourselves and take the rest of the planet with us. The climate is heating up and even if we shut down every factory on earth it will continue to heat up. Did you know that the west side of the Antarctic peninsula is heating up faster than anywhere else on earth? That by 2100 the planet could heat up another two to six degrees Fahrenheit? The AIDS virus in Africa has already killed over two million people and right now over twenty three million people are infected with the virus in Africa alone. As we speak corporations are patenting the very stuff of life itself and no one really knows what kind of havoc gene modified plants and animals are going to create in the natural world, what's left of it. Right now states all over the country are collecting DNA samples from felons. You might think that's a good idea but consider this. If you're a Communist in New Mexico and fail to register the government will take a sample of your DNA. In Idaho if you're caught banging anyone but your wife in the butt you have to submit a sample of your DNA. I'm not making this up. We have the highest percentage of people locked up than anywhere else in the world and we're spending our money making nuclear weapons and stealth bombers. The clothes you're wearing right now were probably made by people who literally work for starvation wages and are lucky if they can eat twice a day. In more than 150 countries torture is a regular occurrence. And guess what? More than fifty companies right here in the US make the kind of electroshock devices these countries use on their own people. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, my friend. Practically every death squad in South and Central America owes its existence to The School of the Americas run by our government to train dictators and assassins. A recent Supreme Court decision says, in effect, hey, we can put you to death even if you're innocent as long as you've exhausted all your appeals. Wonder World Ko isn't the end of the world, it's just one more nail in the coffin. Pervus thought that by some mysterious process people would one day wake up and realize that they're living in 1984 but take a look around. You see anyone waking up?"

"Some people are doing good things," I said without much conviction, afraid of making myself look idiotic by asking him to explain Wonder World Ko to me.

"You know who Pervus was?" he said, cracking his knuckles. His knuckles were huge, red and chapped.

"A writer, I dunno, I thought maybe he taught college somewhere."

"He didn't even graduate from college. I'm surprised you didn't know this. Pervus was an actor. Had small roles in a few B pictures, then got the starring role in Lovers Don't Kiss. Ever hear of it?"

I had heard of a lot of movies, of course, but I had never heard of that one. It didn't sound remotely familiar.

"You never heard of it because it was never released. As a matter of fact it was shut down half way through production. One of the disasters MGM doesn't like to talk about. They say that George Cukor took one look at the script and laughed so hard he wet his pants. It finished Pervus as an actor."

"So what did he do after that?"

"You mean you don't know? And you the movie buff! You're kidding me. You mean you never heard of Mother of Frankenstein?"

"Is that a movie?"

"The only movie Pervus ever directed. It's a cult classic, they show it at college campuses all the time, or they used to a few years back. Pervus made it in 1969 in two weeks, then put all his stuff in a camper and went to live in Mexico, where he started writing science fiction stories. About a year later he wrote Mechanology, possibly with the help of a little peyote, I've heard."

"So, then he's a flake? You don't take him seriously?"

Scarecrow shrugged. " O, yet we trust that somehow good will be the final goal of ill, to pangs of nature, sins of will, defects of doubt, and taints of blood. That nothing walks with aimless feet, that not one life shall be destroyed, or cast as rubbish to the void, when God hath made the pile complete."

I knew that he hadn't made that up, but I didn't want to ask about it and sound like an even bigger idiot.

"You really live in that tree?"

"Only when I'm tired of sleeping in my car. It's not that bad. I have a job interview next week, I'll land on my feet again. No big deal. I could go home, but..."

"The anarchists."


"Why did you want to tell me all of this to begin with?" I said. There seemed to be flies darting inside my eyeballs. The people at the next table were laughing too hard. It seemed as if they were deliberately trying to annoy me. And why, I asked myself, was I always ending up listening to pastry eating lunatics?

"I thought I might get a dollar out of you."

"Look, I can give you a dollar but, here's something. I have a room. Nothing fancy but it has a bed and I won't charge you anything for it."

I knew that I was getting involved with a complete stranger, offering him a room, the converted garage behind the house; and I knew what most people would have said about that. But I was tired of living for myself, always being careful, never taking any chances. Here was someone, maybe a bit cracked, I'll admit, who needed a helping hand, a guy who could also help me get to the truth about what had happened to me. This doesn't mean that I believed everything he said, especially that part about being a beet farmer in Sacramento; and I doubted that a librarian could be pregnant for 12 years. Louie, wearing a fake beard and glasses and sitting at a table on the far side of the room, looked at me as if I were crazy. I sent him a telepathic message saying, no, this is what I fully intend to do. I'm with anti-Stickman, and from now on I'll be anti-Stickman too!

"I'll say yes if you answer a question."


"Can I have rabbits?"


"Never mind, bad joke. My real question is, you ever try to kill anyone with a baseball bat?"

"You said you thought that I was innocent!"

"Yeah, well," Scarecrow said, running his fingers through his short, scraggily beard. "Can I still have the dollar?"


"Stickman is drawn more to the idea of love than the reality of love."
-Rufus A. Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

I polished cars by day and read Plato at night. Some days I came to work hardly able to keep my eyes open, having studied half the night.

About two weeks after I had called in sick Dill took me aside and asked me if anything were the matter. I think he missed our talks about classic movies.

"Everything's fine," I said. "It's just that I'm staying up late, reading a lot."

Dill's eyes narrowed as he twisted the ends of his moustache. His eyes were as small as olive pits.

"And you'll never guess what I'm doing. I'm letting a homeless guy stay in my old room, the one out back. Sometimes he comes over and we talk about Plato. He's amazingly well educated."


"The guy that's staying in my room."

"His name is Plato?" He looked dense, like an old sea lion trying to learn a new circus routine.

"I'm studying Plato," I said. Was I ever this stupid?

"Like, making little sculptures, you mean?"

"Plato," I said. "Not Play Dough. He's a Greek philosopher."

"Let me see if I got this straight," Dill said, taking a bite out of a small donut sprinkled with coconut. We were in the office, looking at storm clouds drift over. It was drizzling outside and the air smelled faintly of dust and chimney smoke. On the wall a girl in a bikini leaned over the hood of a car, showing off small, firm breasts. I wondered if there was anything wrong with me because I found myself looking more at the car than the girl. Three coats of wax but the last coat hadn't been buffed by hand, which you have to do to get a really deep, glassy luster. Then I made myself look at the girl. I remembered how Helen's face used to scrunch up when we made love, how her legs were so disproportionately long and how nice they felt right after she shaved. She made me a cheese sandwich once. It was really good, just the right amount of mayonnaise.

"There's this homeless guy staying in your old room and you're studying Greek philosophy?"


"I don't know," Dill said, shaking his head. "What in the world are you studying Greek philosophy for?"

Something darted past the corner of my right eye. A fly? I poured hazelnut flavored cream-a recent luxury-into a cup of coffee and stirred.

"I didn't do all that great in high school and I only passed one class in junior college. There's a lot I don't know. And when I read I feel different. I don't know. It's hard to explain."

"Emily taught college," Dill said. "You can always ask her what to read."

I had forgotten all about that. There was a flicker of light on the window, then thunder a few seconds later. Maybe, I thought, I should talk to Emily about going back to school.

"But it doesn't surprise me," Dill said, looking out the window with his hands in his pockets. Drops of water hit the glass and crows swirled in the orange sky like black leaves. The office felt as warm and cozy as a bed with an electric blanket on it.

"What doesn't surprise you?" I said.

"I always thought that you were pretty smart and that's the truth. Me, if I don't know something it's because it wasn't in Reader's Digest. Emily thinks I'm as thick as a board and I suppose I am. I guess if a man studies philosophy it must be because he's not satisfied with what everyone else tells him is true and I'd have to say that that's a measure of intelligence, yeahuh. Now this homeless guy. How's that working out?"

"Oh, it's not a problem," I said as another flash of lightening lit the window.

No one had ever said that I was intelligent before. I had certainly never thought of myself as being smart. Was he pulling my leg? No, I decided. That wasn't like Dill. But the thought of being considered intelligent by someone embarrassed me, as if I had been thanked for doing something that, in fact, I couldn't do in a million years. And what had I done so far for Dill except polish cars and talk about old movies? Any dope could do that. Was there something about me that I was unaware of? I had always thought that what I saw in myself others also saw, and that whatever image of me that could be contained in another consciousness must be essentially true. Perhaps, I thought, that had been my life's biggest blunder.

Or maybe my life's biggest blunder had been to let Scarecrow move into my old room. Despite what I had said, I wasn't sure if he were going to be trouble or not. For one thing, he had a lot of stuff for someone who was supposed to be homeless. A waterbed, a stereo, a television as big as mine and a refrigerator rolled down a ramp on the end of a yellow truck and into the room. I stood looking out the kitchen window, Suzie pacing beside me, in astonishment. Where had he been keeping this stuff? Did he really have a house full of anarchists? Was he keeping everything in storage?

He didn't drive a rusted, run down '68 Ford, as I expected from someone who was out of work, but an immaculate, white, A4 2.8 Audi Quattro that was even more expensive than my car! And then there were the parties. The first one took place on a Saturday, just a couple of days after he had moved in. Young men and women-mostly women-showed up in cars that were also new and expensive. Cases of beer were carried in and loud rock music started playing. I watched in the kitchen with the lights off. How could this be happening? I thought. Just a few days ago the guy was living in a huge, ancient, sinister tree and now he was turning a converted garage into the Playboy Mansion! Sometime past midnight a young woman opened the door, closed it quickly behind her and walked around in the parking lot, wearing nothing, as far as I could tell, but a white pair of panties. I ran to my bedroom, closed the door and huddled in bed, engulfed in panic. What if the neighbors called the police? Oh man. Oh man. There was a half-naked woman in my parking lot and she had driven up in a really nice car, too. A yellow Thunderbird. With a sun roof. I couldn't sleep all night, terrified that if I did the phone would ring or the cops would show up. I was cooked. Somehow I'd have to get rid of him. I didn't care how useful he could be to me. I had to lose him and lose him fast.

Just before sunrise I dozed off, only to be awakened by my doorbell. Suzie lay stretched out beside me. I had never known her to sleep in bed with me before. Not in Carl's house. I felt as if I had been jolted awake aboard a train. Dream images evaporated in my brain like steam. Prison, stairs, signs and endless cars to wash and wax. I rolled out of bed aching and exhausted. The doorbell rang. Oh, so that hadn't been part of the dream, I thought. Then I remembered the party and froze like an animal sensing danger. Cops, I knew it. There was a body on my porch. Sensational headlines filled my head like long, stabbing, silent screams.


"He was quiet, a loner..."

"I had no idea he had been to prison. I blame the government for not telling us."

I tried to put on a pair of pants, realized that I was wearing pants, looked for a shirt, found one on me already. Someone had dressed me, I thought, feeling goose bumps. No, no, just fell asleep dressed. Of course. I couldn't remember. Cops. Had to make a good story. Party? What party? Why, I have no idea, officer. They were what? I am as outraged as you are! Then, just as I nearly broke my neck in the living room (Rosa had done an especially good job of waxing the floor) a thought made my heart skip a beat. What if it were the policeman. You know. The


"Who is it?" I said, standing to one side of the door, afraid that it was about to be beaten down. For a split second I had the weird thought of me standing outside, asking for paper so that I could write a suicide note.

It was Scarecrow.

"Wake you up?"

"No, no," I said, feeling my heart slide back down my throat. "I was just getting up."

"Hope my little house warming didn't disturb you."

"Oh, no," I said, anger at myself poking me between the eyes. He just asked you to complain! I thought, wondering if I could say anything now about the party without looking like a whimp.

"Well, I would have asked you over but all the lights were out and I thought that maybe you were in bed."

It was only then that I noticed the large white crock pot in his hands.

"I brought you over some bean soup I made this morning. You haven't eaten yet, have you?"

There weren't enough chairs in the house so we sat on the porch, eating bean soup out of coffee mugs. In all honesty, it was the best soup I had ever eaten. I asked him what was in it.

"White beans, onions, fresh red peppers, carrots, tomatoes, salt."

"You don't use bacon?" I said.

"Good God no! I eat not of the flesh."

"You're a vegetarian?" I said, noticing that he had trimmed his hair and beard. He looked less scruffy but older. He was also wearing nicer clothes.


"Any particular reason?"

"Just one," he said, putting his mug down. "I wouldn't want to be eaten."

"Oh," I said. "But..." I was irritated at myself for not remembering his name. "Animals eat each other."

What was his name? A line from an old Spike Jones song came to me.

"I have to look through my collection of heads!"

"They do of necessity, just as people often eat animals and even each other of necessity. But we've created a vast and brutal factory system of death, not of necessity but because we like the taste of cooked corpses. If aliens, far more intelligent than us, were to scoop us all up for food we would have no reason to complain."

"I never looked at it like that," I said, shuddering. Corpses. The thought of eating a hamburger suddenly seemed unpleasant.

"How's Plato coming along?"

"I'm reading this long dialog about love which, well, to be honest, is confusing. I don't understand why they're talking about love to begin with."

Scarecrow picked up a pebble from the asphalt and threw it at a telephone pole. When he looked at me his large, bulging eyes looked bottomless, like pieces of glass floating on the surface of an immense lake. For a split second I had the weird certainty that what was inside him was...nothing at all.

"I have to look through my collection of heads!"

"You thought he'd just spell out his philosophy for you, like Pervus, uh? Well, for one thing, love was an important subject for the Greeks."

"Socrates starts out talking about love one way and then backs out and says, whoa! Forget what I just said or a bolt of lightening will strike me," I said. "Why do they have to go about it in such a round about way?"

"Plato never teaches philosophy without teaching the methods of philosophy. In fact, for him the two are inseparable. Sometimes Socrates hears an idea, rips it to pieces, offers his own and then rips that one to pieces too and at the end everyone is left shaking their head. So since I won't have to go to the bathroom for probably another thirty minutes, let's consider love. You ever been in love?"

I thought I heard a fly buzz past my ear. Suzie snuffed at the door. I got up and let her out. She looked at Scarecrow, lowered her ears and sat on the porch. I sat next to her, rubbing her hard black head. Her red and black tongue unrolled between large white teeth.

"Hasn't everyone?" I said.

"Ah, you wish to avoid the subject."

"No, not at all," I said. Another lie. "Sure, I've been in love."

"Are you in love now?"


"But you were?"

"I was married." I said.

"Why did you get married?"

Sunlight, yellow as butter, fell on his face. A fly landed on his shoulder, walked up to his collar and then flew off. He seemed aware of the fly without looking at it. His large bulging eyes were everywhere at once. I felt lights come on inside me. So, you were in love. Really?

"It was something to do," I said, looking at the weeds growing on the edge of the asphalt, then looking up at clouds, fat and heavy as clown faces. "We liked each other, we had fun, we thought it would be a good idea to be together, have a place of our own."

"What happened?"

"When I was in prison she filed for divorce," I said, looking at Suzie, rubbing her side. I had grown to love the dog and often thought of how cold and lonely the house would be without her. Then, as I thought about Helen, a feeling of intense shame came over me as the clear truth dawned on me for the first time. There had been nothing at all wrong with our marriage. I was the one who had wrecked it with all my stupid ideas about starting a business and getting rich. Helen had told me over and over to just get a good paying job but I had been brainwashed by The Gospel of Home-Based Business to believe that jobs were for idiots. Finally, it wasn't even about getting rich. It was about proving her wrong. How can you possibly live with someone who only wants to prove you wrong without becoming bitter? It was a marriage of friendship, convenience. We could have grown to love each other.

"Big house," Scarecrow said. "How many rooms?"

Grateful that he had sensed my reluctance to talk about love, I said, "Four. I don't use the upper floor, though. It's spooky and drafty up there." I then realized that talking about the house was a big mistake. What if he asked to move into the house? I had just told him that I had empty rooms and an entire floor that I never used. Anxious to change the subject, I asked him about his car.

"Not my car, really. My girlfriend Alexis is letting me use it."

"You weren't really living in that tree, were you?" I said.

Scarecrow stood up, stretched, scratched his head and then stooped down to pick up his crock pot. "Depends on what you mean by 'living'. You weren't really in love, were you?"

Before I could think of an answer he had walked back into his room.

For the next few weeks I saw very little of Scarecrow. Then, one Sunday, just as I was coming back from the park with Suzie, he was on my porch, wearing a straw hat and chewing an unlit cigar butt.

"If you're still interested in crack pot metaphysics," he said, handing me a folded piece of paper. "Here's some people you can contact."

I went inside, let Suzie off her leash, then unfolded the paper. It was a flyer.


At the bottom there was an address and phone number. I put it down on the counter, made myself a cheese sandwich (I had given up eating meat), then looked at it while I ate. Spiritual life in the age of the machine. Was this Mechanology? And what was that remark about "Crack pot metaphysics" supposed to mean?

"Cynical bastard." I said, standing over the sink, thinking about getting a table and a few chairs. I had gotten used to eating in bed and was always having to wipe crumbs off the sheets. Maybe it was Helen who had gotten me into that habit. She always ate in bed. Tuna sandwiches, or sometimes just a bowl of tuna, straight out of the can, with crackers. I flinched and made myself think of something else. Tonight I would go to the store and buy some of those sushi cucumber rolls without fish. I could live without meat but fish I truly missed, especially sushi. I gave Suzie a piece of cheese, which she delicately took from my fingers, then folded the flyer and put it in my pocket. As I walked to my bedroom I nearly slipped and fell again, so I went to Sears before shopping for food to buy a large throw rug for the living room. I thought it was quite nice. Concentric circles, red, blue and green. My first real addition to the house.

A week later, as I was checking my pants before throwing them into the washer at the laundry mat (I hadn't bothered to buy a new washer and dryer for the house) I came across the flyer. The meeting was that very night. I tapped my teeth on my lower lip. Maybe this was worth checking out. Opportunity meeting, I thought, then laughed. What could I lose? If it were crack pot metaphysics at least it would get me out of the house. I looked at the address again, putting quarters into the machine. Well, why not? The machine began to fill with water. I put my back to it, then felt it vibrate behind me as I let myself think.


"Life is mystery on a grand scale."
-Rufus A. Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

I thought and thought, letting the washing machine vibrate against my back, until bombs going off made me forget what I had been thinking about. When I looked up I was surprised to see that the laundry mat was full of people, mostly women with small children. The machine had stopped. I turned around to see if it had malfunctioned but was surprised to find that the entire wash cycle had been completed. It was also darker outside. Had I fallen asleep? I opened the lid, pulled damp, twisted clothes out and tried to remember what had been going through my head. A woman next to me talked in Spanish to a bored looking little boy who tried to balance a bottle of bleach on his head. A television set in a corner near the ceiling was on, broadcasting news about an explosion at an oil refinery. Two small girls, dressed exactly alike, sat on the floor, playing a game on a board with snakes and ladders on it. I suddenly remembered playing with red and black checkers when I was growing up, sitting on the floor beneath the kitchen table, listening to the radio and the sound of the coffee maker, something I hadn't thought about in years. As I stuffed damp clothes into a drier I wondered what had happened to the old house, if it were still standing, who lived there. A buzzer went off, startling me. I fed two quarters into the machine, turned the knob and watched my clothes begin to tumble. I remembered that I had been thinking about transcendence, a word I had recently looked up in the dictionary. Humans can remake themselves, become better than they are but machines cannot rebuild themselves and therefore, I had concluded, the brain could not be a machine, could not be anything remotely machine like. Pervus was wrong. I had thought through him and his superficial philosophy. Maybe I was, as Dill had said, smart.

I walked to the little store next door to the laundry mat and bought a candy bar and a bottle of iced tea. As I leaned against Carl's car, eating chewy caramel covered with stale peanuts, a big golden retriever walked up to my feet, sat down and looked up at me.

"Hey there, girl," I said, shifting the candy bar to my other hand so that I could pet her. "Aren't you a nice dog! Yes, you're a big, friendly doggy aren't you!"

"I'm sorry," a woman said. "She always does that to people when they're eating."

"My dog is a lot more shy so I don't have that problem much," I said. "Although she does look at me when I'm eating."

"Sugarbear eats anything," she said, stroking the dog's head. "I'm always having to watch her."

When I realized what a stunningly beautiful woman I was talking to I became a little self-conscious and wished that I wasn't holding a half-eaten candy bar. She had short dark hair, long dark eye lashes, dimples and red lips that looked as if they smiled in her sleep. I was wearing grubby clothes and, on top of that, felt sweaty from the steamy air inside.

"Suzie-that's my dog," I said, trying to hide the candy bar behind my left leg. "Has always been a pretty picky eater. I used to just give her dry food but now she only nibbles at it unless I mix it with some chicken and liver canned food."

For the next fifteen minutes we talked about dog food, the best dog snacks, chewed up shoes and furniture, the best places to walk a dog, dogs we had seen in the neighborhood, tricks our dogs knew and how much we hated it whenever anyone mistreated a dog. She wanted to know how I had known that Sugarbear was female. It's something I can't explain, I told her. I just knew. All the while I struggled to think of something to say that didn't have anything to do with dogs. Finally something occurred to me, something subtle that, I thought, wouldn't make me look like a jerk.

"This is a really nice laundry mat, don't you think?"

A change came over her face that gave me a cold spot in the middle of my chest. She looked down, shrugged as if to say, "I should have known better", then walked away, Sugarbear trotting beside her, without another word.

I don't understand it, I thought as I walked back in to check on my clothes. I wasn't always this inept. When I was in high school I never had trouble getting a date. I walked outside again, hoping she were gone, hoping she were still there. It's not as if I had asked her for her phone number. Maybe times have changed. So much more to be afraid of, all the violence on the news every night. Yeah, I got a dog. I also have knock out drops and a rope in my trunk. Is that what she thought? Did she think that I had tried to "score"?

Had I?

The buzzer went off on the drier and I dumped clothes in my hamper, not even bothering to fold them. I felt miserably embarrassed, as if someone had caught me doing something I had always promised myself I would never do.

I got behind the wheel of Carl's car, afraid to look at the laundry mat, afraid that the people inside were looking at me. Maybe, I thought, I'm genetically programmed to turn out...like what? Like whom? I turned on the radio, afraid to let my mind drift; but the realization that I was trying to avoid thinking about something only increased the physical sensation I had of being adrift, my mind on a kind of dark assembly line of the unconscious. Black and red checkers. Sitting on the floor. The sound of a coffee maker, water dripping like soft rain. I turned the radio up and whistled with the music, driving mechanically, muscles tense and jumpy.

Pervus was right all along. We're machines. Soft, fleshy, mortal machines that think they're above all the laws they give to everything else, I thought.

I got home, put my clothes away, sat on the bed and petted Suzie, depressed. There was nothing on television worth watching and I couldn't bear the idea of reading alone in an empty house. After drumming on my knees, humming and mumbling the Pledge of Allegiance to myself (something I used to do as a child whenever I got anxious) I got off the bed, took off my shoes and rolled up the rug so that I could skate. I spun in circles and loops until I was dizzy and tired, then sat in the middle of my empty living room floor, starring at shadows on the wall. They were shadows of the tree outside the window. I thought about Plato's parable of the cave, about people chained so that they could not look outside but only at shadows, and how they had mistaken the shadows of the world for the world itself. Had I been starring at shadows my whole life? Most people, I thought, probably never ask themselves that. But what if what passes for reality is mostly a delusion?

Suzie put her paws on my lap, giving me the look that said, "You're going to feed me now, aren't you?"

I filled up her bowl with hard, volcanic looking chunks that I mixed with compressed meat and meat-by-products from a can (I wondered if it were possible to put her on a purely vegetarian diet) then watched her wolf it down in fifteen seconds. I thought about getting some food for myself and then going to bed but I wasn't hungry. Okay, I thought, no need for food, just go to bed. But I wasn't sleepy and it was still early.

For the first time the silence of the house unnerved me. I thought of going to the supermarket just so that I could be around people, but then I saw, unfolded on the bed, the flyer Scarecrow had given me. I looked at my watch, saw that I still had time to go to the lecture. Circle of Friends Astrophysical Society. I had no idea what that was, having grown up in a family that was largely indifferent to religion. Were they anything like Lutherans? Maybe they would be wearing robes and giving each other secret signs, or someone would hand me a flower as soon as I walked in, asking me for a donation. Strange music, incense, crystals, golden crucifixes, bare feet, chanting, magic signs. Colorful scenes passed through my mind, giving me the same feeling in the pit of my stomach that I always got just before watching a movie about the occult.

I remembered a line from a poem that I had read in high school. "Do I dare to eat a peach?" I had never understood the meaning of that line until now. Well, dare I? I closed my eyes and saw Sugarbear looking up at me, smiling the way dogs do. "Do you dare to eat a peach?" she said, sounding like Chuck. Or maybe Louie. One of them. Had the house driven Carl insane? Was that why he had killed himself? I was afraid to think of suicide, having come so close to it. They were probably a bunch of kooks but so what? Anything was better than this. I took Suzie out for a short walk so that she could do her "business" (does our association of a dog's bowel movement with "business" mean that we have some deep-seated antipathy toward making money?) then unrolled the rug, turned on the television to keep Suzie company and the burglars away, put the flyer in my pocket and locked the door, singing a tune from West Side Story.

"Got a roc-ket in your poc-ket, dee doo de doo doo..."

Then I unlocked the door and went back in. I could hear people chanting on the television.


Who was I kidding? Pervus was right again. I was trapped in a culture of entertainment I had no intention of escaping. Yes, yes. Better to stay home at night, safe, and share in the excitement of people winning prizes. Snuggle up with Suzie, maybe make some popcorn later if a good movie came on. If this is what it's like to get old, I thought, then getting old is not so bad.

But just then there was a knock on the door. And another. Tapping, rapping on my chamber door. Was that from another poem?

"Who is it?" I said, feeling my heart speed up, telling myself how ridiculous it is to think that every time someone knocks on the door it's the police.

"It's the police!"

"The..." I said. The rest of the words stuck in my throat.

"Just pulling your chain, Fick. It's me. Open the door. I made burritos."

He stood on my porch, holding a big paper sack in both hands, looking older, as if he had gone from fifty something to sixty something overnight. Can't be aging, I thought. Disease? Makeup? My own imagination?

"You haven't eaten yet, have you? Because if you have you can put them in the frige. See?" he said, reaching into the bag to take one out. "I wrapped them in aluminum foil."

"Well thanks," I said, taking the one from his hand. "I like Mexican food."

"Who doesn't? Say, you're not busy, are you?"

"Just going to watch a little TV," I said, putting foil up to my nose. Whatever was inside smelled good.

"Because if you're not doing anything too important I wondered if you could help me out, give me a lift. Won't take too long. Get some food to some people who could use it. Do a good deed. Whad'ya say?"

"Where's the car?"

"Alexis has it. So. It's just across town and it won't take long, really."

"Well, okay," I said, locking the door again. "I kind of wanted to go out anyway."

"Oh you're a kind hearted lad you are, Fick me friend, a kind and generous soul."

I thought of a saying as we got into Carl's car. No good deed goes unpunished.

"So," I said, starting Carl's car. "Where are we going?"

"When you get to the street make a right," he said. "It isn't far."

"Haven't seen you in a while," I said, unwrapping the burritto with one hand while I steered with the other. "Everything working out okay?"

"Oh, yeah," he said, looking straight up as if he could see the sky through the roof. "Everything's hunky-dorey."

"I mean with looking for a job and all."

"Oh, uh, that's, uh, getting there," he said, rubbing the sides of his head.

"You know these people?" I said.


"The people we're taking the food to," I said, taking a bite of the burrito.

"I know them," he said quietly, almost under his breath.

"Are they, like, homeless?"

"Depends on what you mean by homeless. Slow down, you'll make a left at the next light."

"You know, I've been meaning to ask you. For someone who's homeless, or doesn't want to live in the house he has, and doesn't have a job, you hang out with people who look pretty rich. How is that?"

We stopped at a red light. I put the left-turn signal on and took another bite of the burrito. Whole beans, rice, lettuce, onions, guacamole, tomatoes. It was the best food I'd had all week.

"Well, Fick, I'll tell you," Scarecrow sighed.

His hair was streaked with more gray than I had noticed before. His hands were wrinkled and his chest seemed sunken. No doubt about it. The man had aged.

"The secret to getting people to like you is, you give them what they want. And the only thing we humans want is...everything."

"This is really good," I said, meaning the burrito.

"Thanks. Everything in it is fresh. Now keep in the left lane and make a left at the next street."

"Are you all right?" I said. "You look a little tired."

"Old age."

"How old are you?"

"Old enough. You can park here."

"This is the library!" I said as I shut the engine off. A chill spread through my chest.

"Kind, generous and observant," he said.

"Well heck," I muttered, watching him get out of the car. "We could have walked."

Scarecrow walked around the car, then handed me the bag as soon as I got out.

"I wasn't about to lug fifty pounds of burritos to the library," he said. "Follow me."

The library was closed and the park was deserted. We walked over grass, then dirt and leaves. Something loomed in front of us, as big and dark as a tower. It was the tree, the very one I had seen him standing in on the day we met.

"I don't see anyone," I said, wanting to stop, turn around and go back to the car. What if this was some kind of elaborate set up? I could be robbed, beaten, found dead in the morning by Chuck and Louie.

As if reading my mind, Scarecrow said, "They're here and they're perfectly safe."

"There's no one here!" I whined. The burritos were giving off an intoxicating aroma and I suddenly felt hungry enough to eat another one despite my anxiety.

I set the bag down at the foot of the ancient tree. Scarecrow put his hands to his mouth, hooting like an owl. A quarter moon crept up the branches, winking and lecherous. Scarecrow hooted again as I looked around for either cops or robbers. Hoo hoo! Hoo hoo! Just as I was getting ready to march back to my car with Scarecrow or no Scarecrow someone in the tree hooted back to us.

"Oh you got to be kidding." I whispered. "They're up in the tree!"

"Where did you think they'd be?"

"Oh, I dunno," I said. "A tent, a box at least, a shelter run by the city..."

"Oh don't be stupid!" Scarecrow hissed. For the first time since I'd known him he sounded genuinely angry. "You think a jerk-water town like this is going to put people up in a motel or something? For God's sake, Fick. There are millions of people in this country living in trees. It's you people who go through life with your head stuck up your ass that never notice it."

"You people! What the hell are you talking about?" I sputtered, picking up the bag. "No one lives in trees. It's impossible. I mean, how would anyone do it?"

"Just hand me the bag once I start up, will you? You don't have to go up with me."

A helicopter shocked the air overhead, bursting through the low sky like a fat jet as sirens seemed to race away from us in all directions. So this is it, I thought, looking at the tail lights of cars, listening to myself breathe through my nose. I had allowed myself to be totally manipulated by someone who is mentally ill. No, crazy. So what did that make me? I was helping a man who was about to climb a tree, at night, with a bag of burritos wrapped in foil. The realization of what I was doing, of what I had gotten myself into, froze the blood in my chest into fractured cubes. And the worse thing of all is that we weren't alone. Someone had hooted back to Scarecrow. Someone who could be dangerous. This was nuts.

"Look," I said, walking toward the tree one slow step at a time, mindful of the low branches. "I..."

"Scarecrow! Is that you?"

"It's me. I brought food."

"What a minute," I said, feeling my arms begin to ache from holding the bag, which really was heavy. "What did he call you?"

"That's my code name. Scarecrow."

I shrugged. Life is full of strange coincidences, someone had once said to me.

"Fick," Scarecrow said. "I want you to see something not many people know about. I'm doing this because I think you should know and I think it'll help you."

"Show me what?" I said, growing even more alarmed.

"Something that I think you'll be able to appreciate. I know what's probably going through your head right now but this isn't anything to be afraid of. In fact, it's something wonderful."

"Wonderful how?"

"Look, do you trust me or not? If you don't, I understand but I need to know."

My mind went blank. This was nuts, true, and yet he seemed quite reasonable. As a matter of fact, Scarecrow had never seemed really disturbed to me. But did I really deep down trust him? Did I really deep down trust anyone?

Emily's question came back to me.

What are you hiding from?

Maybe, I thought, it's time to trust someone, even someone who might be a little cracked. Leap of faith.

"I trust you," I said. My scalp felt hot and my ears burned. Was I a liar? Did he believe me? Did I believe myself? Was this even happening or had I fallen asleep after coming back from the laundry mat? That old feeling of unreality came back up my spine and through my guts, making my head feel as light as a helium balloon.

"That's good because I trust you," Scarecrow said, reminding me that I was the one who had been convicted of deadly assault.

"Here it comes," the voice from the tree said.

The muscles in my legs tightened. Can't run away now. Trust. That was worth having in someone, right? But if this got me into trouble, what would Dill and Emily say? It would be like betraying them. I couldn't survive getting locked up again. But I couldn't survive having nothing to look forward to except work and television. I thought of the woman at the laundry mat. I thought about Samantha. Why hadn't I kissed her? I felt like beating myself. And now here it comes. What? Cops? A camera crew? Robbers with guns, knives and a rope? Scarecrow knew I had money. I had told him about the will. He trusted me but for what? To be a sitting duck?

Something black and shiny came down from the tree, hissing as it stopped. Scarecrow motioned for me to follow him. I hugged the bag to my chest, feeling the warm food through the paper, then walked forward, careful not to trip over roots or step into holes. Cool, moist air blew hair over my eyes and I made a mental note to get a haircut. The deepening darkness near the tree made it feel as if we were walking into a tunnel. I stopped when my fingers felt the back of Scarecrow's shirt.

"What the hell was that?" I whispered.

"Give me the bag," he said. I couldn't tell if he were facing me or if his back were to me.

"But what is it?" I said, trying to control the sudden urge to giggle.

Scarecrow came very close to me. I could feel his breath on my face. I started thinking of the words to the musical, "Peter Pan."

If grow-ing up means it would be
Beneath my dig-nity to climb a tree...

"What the hell are you laughing about?"

"Nothing," I said. "Just thinking of something."

"The bag..."


"Okay," he said, taking my arm, guiding me. "Step up on this."


"It'll take us up," he said.

"You're telling me this tree has an elevator?" I said.

I stepped onto something flat and metallic. Scarecrow told me to sit down and I did. This is where people come running out screaming, "Candid Camera," I thought. There was a faint hiss, and before I knew what was happening we were off the ground.

"Steady," Scarecrow said, holding my arm. "Almost there."

I felt like laughing. People could have chopped my arms off and I wouldn't have cared. Suddenly everything seemed like a joke. You go to the park in the middle of the night, you take a tree elevator. Doesn't everyone? Maybe I was insane. So what!

I rubbed my eyes, looked around, and saw that I was in a small, dark room.

A room with no doors and no windows. It reminded me of the Haunted House in Disneyland. I was going to die here and become a tree ghost.

It seemed okay with me.


"Lies make sense. Truth is weird."
-Rufus A. Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

We were in a small dark room without windows or doors. "Which leaves you with this chilling challenge," the Disneyland voice cackled in my head with swollen, evil cartoon character glee. "To find a way out!"

"Goddamn." Scarecrow said, his voice sounding muffled. "What happened to the light?"

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I began to see gray walls, barrels, the outline of boxes, a door with newspaper for a window and the shape of a man standing to one side of it. So we weren't trapped after all! The air was heavy with the smells of grease, solvents and old paint. This was some kind of storage area.

"What?" said the same voice I had heard below. I could see the outline of his body in the fuzzy light that leaked through the yellow newspaper. Were we going into the light? I started giggling uncontrollably.

"It's dark in here!" Scarecrow said, standing up.

"Bulb burned out this morning," replied the voice, padding toward us on light feet.

"Grab the bag, Fick," Scarecrow said. "Door's over there."

"Are we going to see the Wizard?" I said, feeling my head swim after standing up too fast.

"If we are we'll see about getting you a brain. Now, Fick...There's no way to prepare you for this so... In just a little while you'll come to understand what this place is so don't get wiggy on me, all right? Everything has a logical explanation."

"Oh rightarooney!" I shouted.

"Okay then, watch your step."

"We'rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrre off to see the Wizard..." I sang. Well, it made perfect sense. I was even with the Scarecrow. All we needed now was Dorothy, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion.

"He's had a bit much," Scarecrow said under his breath to the man in the light.


"Too much of what?" I said, on the verge of giggling again. I felt like Scrooge on Christmas morning. I'm as light as a feather! I'm as merry as a schoolboy! I'm as giddy as a drunken man!

"Fick," the man in the light said.

"Your servant, sir!" I said, unable to help myself. What a hoot this was turning out to be.

Now I could see his face as I stepped toward the door. He was wearing a black or blue suit, was of medium height, had dark hair and a small, neatly trimmed beard. I couldn't be absolutely sure in the poor light but there was something familiar about his eyes. We had met before. But where?

"I'm John," he said. "We've heard a lot about you."

"What are you guys, the Masons?"


"Got a secret handshake?"

"Not yet."

"This have anything to do with the end of the world?"

"In a way."

"All right, now we're getting somewhere. What happened to the tree? Are we in the library?"

"Not really. Careful you don't trip over any of this stuff on the floor. And watch your head on the way out."

I'm late, I thought as I stepped through the door. The queen will have my head! Then I came to a dead stop as I found myself standing on a strip of cement surrounded by grass. Instead of a tree behind me there was a garage. Even more dumbfounding, the sun was in the middle of the sky where it usually is in the middle of the day. I had come up...to the ground! I felt as if I had been flipped over. Impossible, of course. The queen...How had we gotten from the tree to...What the hell was going on? I looked to my left and saw an old two story wooden house covered with leaves and crows. We were in a backyard of long, uncut grass-actually very tall, spiky weeds- fruit trees, a swing set and a brick barbecue. There was no library. The tree we had come up or gone down was nowhere to be seen. Time had shifted and space had dissolved like a magic mirror into something else. My legs felt as if they were made of rubber and I suddenly needed to sit down.

"You still with us, Fick?"

"Oh...still there. Rightarooney."

Was I dead? I didn't feel dead. Was I hallucinating? But everything was too real. If this were an hallucination it was unlike any hallucination any human being had ever had in the history of hallucinations.

"They're all anxious to meet you," someone said.

Who said that? I turned to my right-or was it my left?-and looked at John. He was smiling as if he knew what was going through my head, as if he had seen it a thousand times but never got tired of it.

"Scarecrow," I said, still holding his bag of burritos as I turned around and around. I was trembling, my chest was about to implode and my face felt as taunt as an over inflated balloon. "How did we get here?"

"In a sense," Scarecrow said, taking the bag from me. "This is just where we were. Or it's an alternate universe, take your pick."

"Oh. Okay."

"We're going to the house," John said, pointing to the only house there was, as if I had absolutely no orientation whatsoever. Well, that may have been true enough.

He's wearing a blue suit, I thought as numbness spread down both my arms like thick poison. Not black, blue. He has blond hair, too, not dark. And I know I've seen him somewhere before.

The house was full of voices, the sound of running feet, smoke and the smell of food cooking on a stove. People in clean, casual clothes sat in wicker chairs, sofas and fat recliners eating olives and candies, talking, reading newspapers or napping. Children chased each other from room to room, up and down stairs, squealing and laughing. Everyone looked up at me but no one starred.

"Oh did you bring burritos?"

"Bring that bean soup next time."

"These are still warm."

"You must be Fick. Hi!"

"Put 'em over there. You bring any hot sauce?"



"You can sit over here."


"You okay?"

"I think so," I said, pressing the palms of my hands against my eyes. Everyone looked normal enough except for the little girl I was talking to. She had a large head and chubby hands. So what do I do now? I thought, feeling my body go up, up, up as if I were still in the tree elevator. Tree elevator? Should I say something about that? What if they thought I were crazy? Would they believe me or were they all in on it?

"Sorry," I mumbled. I found it hard to get the words out. "I'm a little confused."

"That's normal enough," the little girl said. She had a deep voice for someone her age.

"Normal?" I said, looking through my fingers.

"Well, I know what you mean, but we're getting ready to eat now. Hope you're hungry."

"No," I said. My head suddenly felt as big and heavy as a grand piano. "Could I lie down?"


Her voice, shrill and deep at the same time, popped against my ear drums like a wet knot.

"You better get over here!"

I awakened with a start. People were in my house! I sat up, sending a wobbling bubble of pain to the top of my head. Where was Suzie? Where was my television? The absence of memory terrified me. This wasn't my room. This wasn't my bed. Where was I? What day was it?

People were talking amidst what sounded like an old radio show. I remembered a dream, then, shuddering, realized that it hadn't been a dream but the memory I had been searching for. We had gone up a tree. The queen and the house covered with crows, night then suddenly day. Was I waking up now or falling back to sleep?

I looked down at my feet, wondering where my shoes were, wondering how long I had been asleep. People in the next room laughed. I gripped my head, squeezed my eyes shut, waiting for the thought that would make sense of all of this. Nothing came. The only thing I could think of was that I was thirsty enough to drink a swimming pool. I stood up, limped on stiff, aching legs to the window, pulled back a white curtain. Daylight. Had I slept into the next day? I saw a lamp on the bed stand, fumbled for the switch, then saw myself in a full length mirror on the wall next to the closet. With my hair sticking up and my clothes twisted and wrinkled I looked as if I had just taken a ride inside a tornado. A light rap on the door made my skin tingle.

"May I come in?" It was the little girl with the deep voice.

"Oh, okay," I said, frantically trying to smooth my hair down.

"I thought you might like a cup of soup," she said, opening the door.


"Feeling better?"

She held a large, steaming mug with one pudgy hand, looking up at me with aqua blue eyes. There was something odd about the way she walked and I wondered if she were handicapped in some way.

"What's your name?" I said, bending down to accept the soup.


"Oh, you know, I..."

"It's vegetable," she said. "No meat."

I sat down on the bed, cradling the soup with both hands, then took a sip. The hot liquid stung my lips pleasantly. It was the most delicious soup I had ever tasted.

"Dorothy. Really?"


"Nothing," I said. "I feel like I've been asleep for hours."

"A little less than an hour," she said.

"Where am I? Do you live here with your parents?"

"They're dead," she said, climbing up onto the bed. "But they weren't killed by the wicked witch if that's what you're thinking."

"Oh," I said.

John or Scarecrow must have told her that I had been singing a song from the Wizard of Oz.

"So, who takes care of you?"

"I'm not a child, Fick," she said. "I'm a dwarf."

I looked at her face, her hands and legs. Why hadn't I noticed it right away? There was obviously nothing child like about any of her features. This was an adult sitting next to me, a tiny woman.

"Oh, sorry."

"It's okay. Happens all the time."

"It does?"

"Look," she said, tapping the tips of her fingers together. "Some of us are on the porch. Why don't you put your shoes on and join us. I know you have a lot of questions."

I put my shoes on, then had Dorothy lead me to a bathroom. I splashed water on my face, then drank from the faucet until my stomach swelled. When I came out she handed me the soup, then walked or waddled through the living room where we passed a group of children huddled around a radio, listening to a story; and a table filled with casserole dishes, corn on the cob, baked potatoes, rice, salad, pies and a little pyramid of Scarecrow's burritos wrapped in tin foil.

"Help yourself," she said. "Everyone brought more than enough."

I followed her through the front door, then stepped onto a wide porch where people sat in gliders and chairs. We were on a curving, quiet, tree lined street. I heard children playing basketball in a backyard, a piano, a hedge trimmer and a mockingbird up high on the top of a telephone pole. The cool air was sweet and fresh, like slices of lemon dipped in sugar.

"Hi there!" people said to me.

"Hello," I said in return, feeling sleepy, puffy-eyed and stupid.

"Fick, you're alive!" Scarecrow said. He was sitting in the glider next to a very attractive woman. They were both smoking little cigars and drinking wine.

"I think so."

"Why don't you sit over here," John said. He was sitting on an old wooden bench, the kind that open up and are used for storage chests. I walked over and sat next to him.

"Was is that, soup?"


"It's just Cambell's," Dorothy said, pouring herself a glass of wine from a green bottle.

"It's very good," I said.

"Hot enough?"


"So what do you think about our house here, Fick?" Scarecrow said, putting his arm around the very attractive woman's shoulder.

"Beautiful," I said. I took a sip of the soup. It really was good, can or no can. "Where the hell are we?"

Everyone laughed.

"That's a long story," Dorothy said, looking at the long stemmed glass in her pudgy little hand. "But first let me introduce you to everybody. You've all heard about Fick. Well, here he is. Fick, this is Barbara, Debbie and you've met John and of course Crowl. The kids inside listening to the radio are Jimmy, Jessica and Jennifer and they're a little gift to our family courtesy of Debbie and John."

"Crowl!" I thought with a mixture of relief and embarrassment. "Now I remember his name. Crowl Reed." How had I managed to forget that?

"My father discovered this place," Dorothy said. "I'll run through the basic story. He was in the navy during World War Two and served on a destroyer. One day while he was on deck an enemy plane was spotted. It began to dive toward the ship. My father knew at that instant that he was about to die. The plane was on a kamikaze mission. So there was my dad, a skinny kid barely out of high school, squinting up at the sky on the deck of a destroyer, looking at a plane that was about to kill him."

She took a long drink of her wine, then looked up at the sky. I asked her what happened.

"Plane missed and hit the water," she said, shrugging. "But it's when people are closest to death that life makes the most sense to them. Sometimes, that is, if you're lucky. So my dad survived the war, came home, married my mother. But he could never let go of that moment when he stood on deck, looking up at the sky, waiting to die. It changed him, and as he got older it changed him more and more. He started staring at the sky for long periods of time, not saying a word to anyone. He would just stand there in the backyard, looking up, blinking, standing still, for hours at a time. We tried to understand but who can understand what war does to people unless you've been through it yourself? It got to the point that he started sitting on the roof and climbing trees. One day he came into my bedroom, sat down next to me, and told me about another world that he had discovered. I thought then that my dad had finally gone crazy, so I listened and didn't say anything, but later I cried myself to sleep. He talked about a tree, the Gateway, he called it, that grew next to the library. When my father died many years later I went to the tree with some of my friends who brought a ladder for me. I don't know why I did that then. Maybe it was to honor the memory of my father, maybe it was to help me find a way to grieve. I brought a little poem of mine that I wanted to read. It felt a little crazy but then I wanted to come to terms with my father's craziness. He was a good and decent man. I didn't want anything to overshadow that, I wanted, in a way, to touch those delusions of his, to see where they came from, to celebrate his escape from a world filled with so much horror and death."

I finished my soup and accepted a glass of wine. So then you discovered this world? I asked.

"No, but while I was up there I heard voices that I knew weren't coming from my friends. That scared me. No one else had heard them and for a while I thought that my father's craziness was inherited and that I would go insane, too. But I didn't hear the voices after that. A few months later, though, I went back to the tree, alone, and sure enough, a voice said to me, loud and clear, 'come back tonight'. So I did. I figured that I was nuts so, what did I have to lose? I came back at night, a rope ladder came down, and I climbed up."

The meaning of the Japanese word kamikaze came to me from one of those old black and white documentaries I had seen years ago.

Divine wind.

"This?" I said, looking around from face to face. "Is The Circle of Friends Astrophysical Society?"

"That it is," John said, grinning like a wolf.

"I don't get it."

"Well, let me get on with my story," Dorothy said, setting the long stemmed glass on the porch without having to bend over. "My father bought this property and had some friends living here. They were the ones that lowered the rope ladder for me. We used a rope ladder for a long time, then a few years ago we installed the lift. Pretty neat, uh? Anyway, since coming here I've been studying the history of this place and I've come to the conclusion that it is, in some respects, our world but... everything about here and the world you and I come from is identical up to 1945. Then something happened that caused a fracture, you might say, in space-time."

"What was that?" I said.

"The bomb, the atom bomb," Crowl said through a cloud of smoke.

"That's right," Dorothy said, nodding her large head. "Everything about the two worlds is similar up to 1945. But in this world the bomb was never exploded. It was built, but the government decided not to use it. It was taken apart, no one wanted to build another one, and from there the histories of the worlds sharply diverge. In this world the Cold War never happened. There was no Korean war, no Vietnam war, no national security state. Television was invented, of course, but didn't find a market so people listen to the radio. We buy less, work less, we aren't overpopulated, there is no AIDS epidemic, and we don't live in a police state."

"And all of this," I said, watching my wine make ripples in my trembling hand. I felt my mind expanding like the universe itself a millisecond after the Big Bang. "All this because of...because of a bomb?"

"We aren't exactly sure," Crowl said, standing up to stretch. "We can't say. All we know for certain is that up to 1945 everything was exactly the same. I think that up to 1945 there was only one world. Since bombs have been going off there are probably a lot of worlds. What we do know is that we've been meeting people who have entered this world from many different places, and none of them got here prior to 1945."

"Why doesn't everyone know about this place?" I said.

"Not everyone can get here," Dorothy said slowly. She looked down at her glass and bit her lips.

"What do you mean?"

"You have to be dead, first," John said, laughing.

"What John means," Crowl said, frowning at John and taking one last puff from his little cigar. "Is that since this world split off from the old one, there are, of course, duplicate people, the same people living in both worlds, in other words. But not everyone has a duplicate because this world, as you know by now, is not exactly like the old world. People who live in both worlds cannot cross over. What happens is a little like when you try to put together two magnets and they repel each other."

"I was never born in this world," Dorothy said. "Because my father's ship was hit two days before the war ended, which, over here, happened on August 28, 1945."

I started to get up, then fell back heavily.

"We did a little research," Dorothy said. Her face twisted with tension. "When you were nine years old..."

When I was nine years old, I thought, afraid that if anyone touched me right now I would disintegrate like a heap of ashes. The words of Emily came back hard at me, making me feel bruised beneath my skin.

What are you hiding from?

A woman opened the door, then stepped onto the porch. She was short and pregnant, with red hair and large, curious eyes that were either gray or green.

"I was hit by a car," I said, completing the sentence for her, looking up at the face of Dolores the librarian, my mouth dry and numb. "Because in this world my brother didn't push me out of the way."


"Paradise was lost, my dear, the second we thought it up."
-Norma Ravewood
Love in the Light

No one said anything for the next few minutes. I looked for the mockingbird and found it in the air, swooping over tree tops. So now I had stepped out of the cave and had found reality. A very, very strange reality. Weird, I think, is a better word for it. Unbelievably weird. We had not only split the atom, we had split the world. One ruled by force and terror, the other by reason and trust. One with me alive, the other with me dead. Long dead. My core temperature dropped as if I had just eaten a bucket of snow. In this world I was dead, my brother had not saved me. What I had tried to shut out of my mind for so long, what I had been hiding from for so many years, was the central tragedy of my family and the role I had played in it.

"Fick?" Dorothy said.

Like a rusty machine that hasn't been used for a long time, my mind began to work slowly, shakily and under pressure. The price my brother had paid for saving my life was none of their business. I would have to deal with that some way on my own. In the meantime there were other questions. To start with, Dorothy wasn't old enough to have had a dad who fought in the second world war. It was day here and night there. Dolores had been pregnant for 12 years? I didn't want to sound as if I didn't believe them, but none of this added up.

Time isn't something that operates uniformly no matter where you are, I was told. People who were born in one world but lived in another-like this one-aged differently. Or so it seemed.

"It can be a difficult concept to wrap your mind around," Dorothy said, standing under me, looking up into my eyes with concern. "If you were to stand beneath the library's tree and look, through the portal at a watch on the other side, the watch would appear to have stopped. So I look as if I hadn't aged but in fact I'm aging normally, at least according to the way time works here. Dolores has been pregnant for a few months but for people like us in this world it seems as if she's been pregnant for years. And yes, it is day here and night there. The bomb, we think, must have created a radical shift in time as well as space in ways that are impossible to visualize or to understand using concepts familiar to common sense."

"To make a long story short, it's confusing as hell," Crowl said, scratching his scalp. "And we can't explain it because we don't understand it completely-who does?- but if you know something about the theory of relativity then at least you have a place to start."

They thought that I didn?t know anything about physics, but I had read a few issues of Discover Magazine once and had listened to some shows about science on the radio; and although I didn?t know much I at least knew that Einstein?s theory had to do with moving bodies, especially as they neared the speed of light. How, I wondered, could I have traveled to a place moving so quickly away from me? No, this didn?t add up. Was there another explanation? Was Universal Mind moving, so incrementally that hardly anyone was aware of it, away from the bedrock of matter and toward, as Pervus insisted, Pure Spirit? Had we made up this world through the force of our collective aspirations?

"How many flyers did you print up?" I said at last, resisting the impulse to pick Dorothy up and put her on my lap.


That's what I had thought.

"So," John said, speaking to me while looking at Dorothy as if he intended to eat her. "Your next question is, why were you invited, right?"

I was blunt. "What do you want?"

"Oh, that may take a while to explain," the attractive woman who had been sitting next to Crowl said with a slight Southern accent. She looked as if she were licking the inside of her lips with the tip of her tongue.

"It's just that you have a, well, sort of a unique position," Crowl said, looking uncomfortable, like a man who knows that the only thing he can do is still the one thing he'll regret.

"I polish cars, Crowl, and I'm on parole, which I'm sure," I said, looking around. "Everyone knows about. So what position are you talking about?"

"Calm down, Fick," Dorothy said. "Do you want some more wine?"

"I am calm."

"You look a little tense. I know how you must feel about...about what happened when you were nine..."

"No you don't," I said. Every muscle in my body felt as hard as golf balls. My throat ached. I wanted to go home and forget I'd ever seen this place.

Crowl sat down, slapped his knees and then said, "Right. Okay, then, here it is. We don't think that Carl Benson's suicide and you getting in his will was a mere coincidence. And we think that you may be able to shed some light on it for us."

"I don't know anything about that and even if I did, why would you want to know?" I said.

"Because Carl Benson worked for Ceroplast industries," Crowl said.

"Damn it, Scare, I mean, Crowl, you keep talking about that," I sputtered. "What the hell does it have to do with me and why should I care a hill of beans what Ceroplast or whatever does?"

"Because the world-our world, the world we were born in-is in grave danger," Dorothy said simply, looking up at me with her aqua blue eyes. "And we could use your help."

"There is someone," Crowl said slowly. "We want you to talk to."

"Christ almighty," I thought, closing the door of Carl's BMW. "Now I really am Sam Spade."

Suzie looked excitedly out the window while I grimly gripped the steering wheel, Crowl's directions on my lap. This was breaking parole. I could go back to prison for this. Well, what the hell, I thought. You can't be Sam Spade without...getting your ass in a sling. Right? Besides, I had already called her, had spoken to Carl Benson's sister, Cindy. And she wasn't an idiot.

"This," I said under my breath as I backed out of the parking lot, still amazed at what I was doing. "Is not going to be easy."

I pulled onto the on-ramp of the freeway, merged with traffic, turned on the radio and listened to classical music as I drove beside trucks for the next two hours. I finally took an off ramp, only to find myself surrounded by small, green hills, motels and fast food restaurants. The air smelled faintly of seawater. I drove to a McDonald's, then sat in the car eating french fries and sipping a milk shake while Suzie wolfed down a hamburger and drank water from a plastic bowl.

"Good god," I yawned, standing up and stretching. "Where the hell are we, girl?"

After a short walk that did us both good we climbed back into the car. I studied Crowl's directions again and then started the engine. This was it. In a few minutes I'd be face to face with her. And then what? I was startled by the realization that I had been thinking so much about what I had learned in the last few weeks about the world-or worlds- that I hadn't considered what I would actually say to Cindy Benson.

"It's amazing that she would want to see me at all," I said to Suzie, who had curled up on the floor.

But she had sounded nice on the phone, only pausing once after I told her who I was. There wasn't a trace of resentment in her voice. She even sounded somewhat amused that I wanted to speak to her in person. Why, I thought, would Victor, Williams, Mash and Oberman call her an idiot?

To keep me from talking to her?

I drove down a long, unevenly paved road past wooden frame homes, barbed wire fences, the rusted skeleton of cars, boxes of fruit beside signs telling people how much to pay for them, dirt yards with chickens in them and satellite dishes on rooftops like strange, alien craft. Her house, next to a large, empty field, was exactly where Crowl had said it would be. A dry bird bath stood in front and a yellow flag fluttered next to the door. I parked on a patch of gravel, slipped a leash around Suzie's neck, then got out of the car. And there I was, next to Carl's car, standing in front of his sister's house. I get goose bumps thinking about it now.

A screen door opened with a long creak and a woman stepped onto the porch. Her blonde hair was coiled in a tight bun, she wore jeans, a long white blouse and sunglasses.

"Cindy Benson?" I said.

"Mr. Fick?"


"You bring Suzie with you?"

"Yes I did," I said, puzzled. Couldn't she see the dog standing next to me?

"Well come on in," she said. "You're probably tired after your long drive."

"It wasn't all that long," I said, walking up the front steps with Suzie. "I enjoyed the drive, tell you the truth. It's been a while since I've been out of town."

At least in this world, I thought.

As soon as the screen door closed a large German Shepherd trotted toward us. The two dogs looked at each other, then stepped forward until their noses touched.

"Oh Critter is friendly," Cindy said. "He won't even chase cats. At least if they don?t come too close. They make sure of that."

"Who's they?" I said, amused at the thought that once again I was talking about dogs to an attractive woman.

"Seeing Eye."

"They some kind of a trainer?" I said, looking at the room. Dark and very little furniture. My kind of place.

She laughed. "Yes. They train guide dogs for the blind."

Good grief, I thought, feeling myself redden. When I'm slow, I'm really slow.

"Why don't we go to the kitchen. That's my favorite place to sit and talk. Would you like some coffee?"

"If it's not too much trouble," I said, looking at Suzie and Critter sniff each other. Maybe, I thought, I should think about getting another dog.

"Oh I always keep a pot brewing," she said, taking porcelain mugs off hooks. "Have a seat."

The kitchen was small and tidy, painted yellow, with stained wooden cabinets, a tiny stove and refrigerator, and a microwave oven with white dots pasted over the numbers. There was a rectangular window over the sink. If I looked out, would I see a tree and a young boy on a branch who refuses to come down?

"Sorry about that," she said, carefully pouring coffee, keeping the tip of her index finger on the inside of the cup. "I sometimes forget to tell people over the phone."

"Oh that's," I said, then stopped. I didn't want to sound as if her blindness was any kind of inconvenience. It wasn't. I struggled for the right word, feeling awkward, then gave up.

"That's okay."

"I don't want to scare off men," she said in a low voice, grinning.

"Miss Benson," I said.


"Cindy. Thank you. Sugar. I, uh, appreciate you letting me come over like this."

I took a sip of the coffee. It was hot, slightly bitter and very strong.

"If you're worried about the will, don't," she said, sitting down and taking off her sunglasses. I was relieved to see that she had eyes.

"It's just that..."

"I'm very well off," she said, waving a pack of cigarettes at me. "Mind? I spend half the year here and the other half in Paris and not because of my brother. Ever hear of Norma Ravewood?"


"Well, if you read romance novels you would have. That's me. So far I've sold over ten million copies around the world and two of my books have been made into movies. Movies for television, but still movies."

"Wow. I'm impressed," I said truthfully.

She shrugged, smoking. "Actually my best work was my porno books but they didn't sell as well. So if my brother was generous to you it was no skin off my nose. I only needed my family's money until I was about 25, then I was pretty much on my own. Would have been on my own a lot sooner if I hadn't gotten thrown out of a car."

"Is that..." I wanted to be tactful. "How it happened?"

"Yup. It's only been the last few years, though, that I've been totally blind, which has been a real bitch, let me tell you. As long as I got Critter and someone who'll come out to straighten out all the shit on my computer I'm okay. Smokes, beer and a good lay once in a while are pretty much all I need. That and writing. If I couldn't write I'd pack it in. So what's your story? You have a problem being in my brother's will?"

"It's not so much that I have a problem," I said, stirring lumpy brown sugar into my coffee. "I just don't understand it. Were you very close to Carl? I hope you don't mind me asking."

"Mean, did we do the ole Thanksgiving Day turkey and all that shit? Not really. We talked once in a while. Our parents crapped out on us early in the game and we only had each other, but we had our own lives, you know? We both grew up wanting pretty much to be on our own. Him turning crippled tots into little robots and me turning out stories to get women's panties all steamed up. Typical American ambitions."

"I'd just like to know what was going through his head before, well, he died."

"You can say suicide, Mr. Fick. I spent a total of five minutes crying over it and that's more than I've cried over anything in my entire adult life. If you want you can waste your whole life weeping over a bunch of sad shit but I have better things to do. I didn't go to the funeral because I was in the middle of a deal, not that I go to funerals anyway. As you can see, I'm not the sentimental type. So, you want to know what the hell my brother was thinking, putting you in his will, a man he barely knew? I don't know what he was thinking about that, but I can say that he was going through some pretty weird shit before he gulped a bottle of pills and choked on his own puke."

"Like?" I said, watching her tap her cigarette over a small plastic tray.

She passed a hand over her eyes and, despite her words, I did see a flicker of pain in her face.

"Oh, Carl was a noble sort. I've always been selfish and a bit of a bitch but Carl really did care about people. I guess we could have been closer if I had wanted to be. Well, but, anyway...The thing is, he was one of those on again, off again drunks, and frankly, I haven't got the patience for that kind of shit. He was always looking for a cure. One day he called me up and started telling me about a project he was on, something that would change the whole science of brain trauma rehabilitation and even behavior modification. I didn't understand a whole lot of it because I've never been big on science. That's always been...That was always Carl's thing."

"When he was working for Ceroplast," I said.

"Yeah, yeah. One of those big, creepy corporations that has its finger in every pie. So, the thing of it is, I think that he was up to something really stupid, possibly illegal."


She took a sip of coffee, smoked, then drummed her fingers on the table.

"Yeah, well, I can't be certain, but I think he was experimenting on himself. Injecting himself with whatever he was helping to develop."

"How do you know? I mean, what makes you think that?"

"Because he told me how great everything was, how happy he was, how he didn't drink anymore, how little he slept and how much he liked working working working all the time like a bee, a drone. And then one night he called up to tell me that he'd turned himself into a machine. That he'd lost his soul. Two days later he was gone."

Dorothy's aqua blue eyes widened. She sucked in her breath, slapped herself on the forehead and yelled, "Son of a bitch!"

"What is it?" I said. It was unnerving enough coming back, after two weeks, to the same day I had left. To be told that I had only been gone a few seconds.

"Norma Ravewood!"


"The Norma Ravewood?"

I nodded.

"Damn," Dorothy said, sitting down on the same chair she had sat on as a five year old. "If I had known that I could have had you get an autograph for me. I've read all of her books."

"Well it pretty much confirms what I thought all along about Amoxotrividian," Crowl said grimly, a little girl next to him on the sofa, a paper sack by his feet.

"You make some more burritos?" I said.

"No, Fick," Crowl said, smiling. "These aren't burritos. These go for a lot more money."

I got up and looked down into the sack. It looked as if it were filled with bricks wrapped in foil.

"What are they?"

"Fick," Crowl sighed, shaking his head. "What do you think we're growing in the back yard?"

Spiky weeds. All those rich people coming...Giving them what...I suddenly felt like an utter fool.

"I give you a room free of charge and this is what you do?" I said. "You turn my house into a dope den!"

"It's how we make our money, Fick."

"By using me? By breaking the law? By putting my life and, and my freedom in danger?"

"Well it's not against the law over here," Crowl said.

"But you didn't tell him," Dorothy said, looking at him sharply. "You didn't tell him."

"Well it kind of slipped my mind," Crowl said, letting the little girl crawl onto his lap. "I was gathering intelligence anyway most of the time."

I wanted to scream and I would have if it weren't for the little girl. Out of the cave again and face to face with reality. For all their pious talk they were as bad as everyone else, maybe worse.

"Fick," Dorothy said, walking or waddling over to me. "In the event Crowl was ever caught he was prepared to completely exonerate you. We both agreed to that. But he was supposed to have told you. I'm sorry."

"And that makes everything okay!"

"Doesn't it?" Crowl said, as if he had merely forgotten to return a monkey wrench.

"I'm going," I said, looking Crowl in the eyes. "You bring that...pot to my house and I'll turn you in, swear to god. And as far as I'm concerned I don't want to see any of you, ever."

I walked through the house, out the back door, past the spiky weeds and into the garage without looking back.


"We can hide from love but not our need for it."
-Rufus A. Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

Someone knocked on my door. Suzie emitted a low, perfunctory "Woof" and then rolled off the bed where she had been comfortably getting her chest scratched. I waited for the cookie-pushing Girl Scouts or comic book Christians to go away but the knocking-a light series of raps-would not stop. Who is tapping, rapping on my chamber door? I wondered, making up my mind to buy "no soliciting" signs the very next day. If it were Scouts or Jehovah Witnesses I was prepared to sic the dog on them. If they're already afraid of dogs, I thought, it might work.

I was a little anti-social, you might say, having slid rapidly into what is technically known as Grumpy Old-Fartism. For a week I had barely spoken to anyone. After Crowl moved out in the middle of the night, leaving only his key behind, I sanitized the vacant room with bleach, lemon-scented cleanser, four cans of air-freshener and the most powerful vacuum cleaner I could find (the one that picks up bowling balls on the television commercials) so that I could suction up every itsy bitty tiny weeny speck of evidence that lying, pot-selling bastard could have left behind. Only then did I trust Rosa to go in and clean it again.

"It don't look so dirty to me, Mister Fick," she said, standing with her bare, wrinkled arms hanging out, stooped over and smelling, as always, like stale cigarette smoke.

"Well, just clean over what looks clean anyway," I said, trying not to look or sound evasive. Did Rosa suspect anything? I knew that I was becoming overly cautious, that I was in danger of drifting into paranoia, but every night I had nightmares of the police and I saw-or thought I saw-the neighbors looking at my house while they slyly watered their lawn or crept over to their mail box. Once I had seriously considered, in a state of near panic, withdrawing a large amount of cash, jumping in the car with Suzie and driving to another state or to Canada. I could change my name to Chuck or Louie and work in a filling station. Or I could disappear into another world but that, I told myself, was flat-out impossible because no such world existed or could ever exist. Crowl must have drugged me or the whole thing had been a delusion, yet another in a series of temporary insanities. But. The word 'but' stuck to my brain like something hot and scratchy against my skin. I had been somewhere, call it what you will, not once but twice and when I awakened from a nightmare about the police or prison my eyes snapped open and I knew that I wasn't crazy. Not completely. Whatever I had seen was real even if it should not have been real and sooner or later it would catch up to me because everything in my life was catching up to me. A young man standing on the deck of a ship waiting to die, bombs that split worlds and history, marijuana wrapped in foil like bricks, elevators in trees, a blind woman who writes romance novels and a dwarf who reads them. I assigned them to movies; the unaired rooms of my unconscious; the effects of eating god-knows-what in a burrito and, finally, a reality that, however it came, had a mind of its own and was not about to simply fade away outside the walls of my house.

I found it hard to sleep at night, lost weight and started getting headaches.

"Okay Suzie," I muttered, stalking through the house wearing only underwear beneath my robe, feeling a headache coming on. "Just remember, go for the throat."

When I opened the door no one was there.


My name, coming from beneath the ground. Cold needles jabbed the pores of my neck.

"It's Dorothy."

I looked down, terror rushing through my body like an insane ghost, and nearly screamed.

"Well, sorry to barge in on such short notice. That's a joke. Short notice. I didn't get you out of bed, did I?"

"No," I said, not weary but weak from the back of my head to my knees. She was here. Jesus. Dark spots formed in front of my eyes. I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach so hard that my lungs had collapsed. She was here. How was that possible? Well, Crowl was here but. But. I was under the Mount Everest of buts, squished like a bug.

"You okay?"

"I, I'm, uh..."

"Would you mind if I came in?"

She looked tired. Her face was bright pink and her eyes looked red. It occurred to me that the poor thing must have walked all the way from the park to my house. So I had to do something. She wanted to come in. What should I do? I quickly looked around to see if any of the neighbors were watching. There was a police car parked in front of my house. I blinked, insides jerking from the outside, skin feeling as if it had muscles of its own. No, it wasn't a police car, just an old, black sedan.

"Yes. Yes. Why...come in."

"I know you..."

"No, no, I was," I said, feeling cornered. It was back to never-never land. No escape. No delusions. Plato wanted us to step outside the cave. Now I understood why most people preferred to stay inside.

"It's just that you're here and. And you're here."

The last 'here' came out like, 'heeeeeeeeeeere."

"It's not a problem is it because..."

"Oh no, no, no come in, please."

"That's a big dog," she said, looking like a little girl standing next to a pony.

"She's nice," I said. "Her name is Suzie."

Dorothy looked around and whistled. "Crowl said you were a little Spartan."

"I just haven't gotten around..."

"You have nice looking feet."

"You know, I think I'll get dressed,"I said, remembering that I was nearly naked under my robe.

"I'll wait."

I threw on clothes, combed my hair and even shaved in less than a minute. She's here, she's actually here I thought, trying to pull my brain out of a bucket of glue and wanting to kick myself for not buying furniture. I wished she were gone and that she had a comfortable chair to sit on at the same time.

"I have an idea," I said, hopping into the living room with one foot while trying to put a shoe on the other.

Dorothy had her arms around Suzie's neck. The big black Labrador looked up at me, smiling the way dogs do as if to say, "Can we keep her? Please!"

"Yes, Fick."

That old feeling of unreality came over me again. Could she actually be here? As frantic as I was something deep inside me felt very calm at that moment. It was like a dream, when the whole world is insanely illogical but you accept it because your mind has created the memory of a lifetime that never was .Yes, I had seen her before in some other place that was or wasn't real but now, in some way I couldn't explain, I was seeing her for the first time when it was the right time to see her. To see her like this. Not a child. A tiny, delicate woman with aqua blue eyes.

"This is where I get together with my parole officer," I said.

We had driven to Wang's Chicken & Donuts. Dorothy un-selfconsciously propped herself up on a child's seat while I ordered coffee for me and a hot tea with lemon for her.

"What's your parole officer like?"

"His name is Mr. Kristos. He sort of obsesses about what I eat, although his own health isn't all that good. One time, he showed me a picture of Lisa Simpson and said that she was his daughter. I think he's paranoid, although I may not be the best judge of that right now."

Dorothy put her little, chubby hands around her styrofoam cup and then squeaked. I thought she had burned herself but then realized, with a mixture of horror and mortification, that she was crying.

I laced my fingers together and looked at the space on the table between us. Time, like the watch on the other side of the portal, stopped. A rotating fan in the corner blew air on my face. Someone came in and a bell clanged against the door.

"Sorry," she whispered hoarsely, wiping her eyes with a napkin.

I felt wretched. In a lifetime of hearing the word 'wretched' it occurred to me that I had never really felt it as an emotion until now. Sad, angry, lonely, confused, embarrassed and so on, sure. These are the simple building blocks of emotions. Throw at least three or four of them together in a tangled knot, however, and you get wretched.

"I let Crowl...we .."

"I made too much of it," I said as gently as I could, my own voice fogging.

"And we let you leave knowing..." she sighed. "I don't...How could we have told you about, when you were a child and then..."

"It's okay. Really it is."

"I don't want to go back. Not tonight."

"Of course."

"Could I stay over for tonight do you think?"

"Yes, yes that's fine."

She blew her nose and then took a sip of her tea. A cook in the kitchen sang in Chinese while frying donuts. I wondered if he had a twin somewhere who was also, at that very moment, singing and frying donuts. Something snapped into place inside me. There are worlds. Reality is more than the sum total of what any one person understands. It seemed simple to accept it now.

"Who's Lisa Simpson?" Dorothy said, attempting to smile.

"A cartoon little girl."

"God, I haven't watched TV in years."

"Well," I said. "You haven't missed all that much."

"She must be about my size."


"Lisa Simpson."

"Just about," I said.

We went back to the house, sat on my bed and watched television. Dorothy was amazed at how vulgar and violent the new shows were.

"All the adults talk about sex the same way kids do in high school," she said, stroking Suzie while wrinkling her nose at the screen. "Crowl and John always talk about all the amazing things over here, computers, cell phones, fax machines, TV, the internet. I think they like it over here and I guess I can see some of the reasons why. Can you really record this on a machine?"

"Oh, yeah," I said, finishing the last of the popcorn. "I have one. You can even buy or rent movies and play them at home."

"I don't know. Call me old fashioned but I like to see movies in a real theater."

"So do I!"

"Would you take me to one?"

"I'd love to."

"Just not one with a lot of violence."

"No, no."

She picked up the remote control, studied it, found the off button.


"Yes Dorothy."

"I can sleep here, next to Suzie, can't I?"


"I don't snore."


"I just wanted to ask you something and if it's none of my business you just tell me, okay?"


"Tell me about your family."

I sat up, tucked my feet beneath me, looked down and clicked my teeth together. What was I hiding from? Nothing. I was no longer hiding from anything. No world was too far away now that it couldn't catch up to me. I thought of Emily, of the apple she had tossed as if it were my heart, and then I took a deep breath.

"My brother, Paul, is ten years older than me. I think that's why I have only fleeting memories of him as a child. By the time I was seven he was already seventeen, nearly an adult. I mean, to me he always seemed like a grown up. I can remember him putting on a white shirt and a tie, polishing his shoes and telling me about his first real job. Even though he was so much older than me, had so many responsibilities and always seemed so busy, he would take the time to play with me, make sure I had breakfast, that I bathed, that I did my homework and that I cleaned my room. He was big brother and father all rolled up in one. If I had a nightmare or a stomach ache I went to Paul. I don't think he did it because my parents wouldn't or because they made him. I think that it just came naturally to him.

"Every day Paul walked me to and from school. One morning it was raining so we put on raincoats and Paul carried an umbrella. I remember being excited because it was my day to feed the rabbit. Funny how you remember things like that. Just as we were crossing the street, the one where my school was, I heard Paul yell something. I turned around and then all of the sudden I was flying backward. I remember hitting the asphalt hard, skidding and spinning with water all around me, air knocked out of me, hearing tires squeal, getting to my feet and seeing Paul crumbled on the ground, a big car fishtailing as it sped off, and then people suddenly everywhere running to get to my brother. It all happened, it seemed, in a second. I stood there in the rain, in shock, trying to understand what had happened. Someone picked me up, turned me around so that I couldn't see Paul. The last thing I remember is screaming as I was held and carried away.

"My brother was in the hospital for a long time, and when he came home he was in a cast so that he couldn't walk. His leg and hip had been broken up pretty good. I tried to help him as best I could but he had bouts of pain and the pills mom gave him only made him sick to his stomach. One of the worst things is that his skin kept breaking out under the cast. I sat up sometimes at night helping him scratch with a clothes hanger, seeing it come out bloody.

"Our parents started arguing, and then that's all they seemed to do. It escalated into screaming matches so bad that twice the police came out. Paul told me not to worry about it, it was only about money, he said, but I was scared all the time and started wetting the bed.

"Paul was the one who kept telling me that everything was going to be okay. I never heard him feel sorry for himself or even cry. He always seemed more concerned for me than for anyone else. 'One day, 'Pal', he'd say. 'We'll have a house all to ourselves and we'll make money by going up to the mountains to dig for gold.' He always made me think that the future was going to be like a fantastic adventure story. We were going to dig for gold or we were going to live on a ship and fish or we'd invent a time machine. Best of all, in the future we would never be separated.

"One night the arguments got completely out of control. Plates and lamps breaking, screams and threats. I can remember my mother yelling so loud it seemed to shake the walls, 'You want us to starve! You want us to end up in the street with a crippled son?'

"I was so terrified that I hid in the closet the whole night. No one came in to check on me and make sure I was in bed. A few days later, while we were alone, Paul told me what they had been fighting about.

"Mom wants to go back to her old job, that's all, Pal' he said. He told me that mom had been a model and he explained what models do. That made sense to me because as young as I was I had always known that my mother was gorgeous, like a movie star, and so I could see why people would want to take her picture. Why didn't dad want people to take her picture? I asked. Paul didn't say anything for a long time. He put an arm over his eyes as if the light bothered him and just said that one day I'd understand.

"None of us were ever the same after that. Paul had to learn how to walk again and had to use a cane for the rest of his life. Our mother went back to being a model. Paul stopped talking to dad and left home as soon as he could and dad made no secret that he hated me, especially after mom left him. But the worse thing is that I grew up hating my mother, blaming her for what had happened. The last time I talked to her was the day I graduated from high school and the last time I talked to my father was the day I moved out. I've been telling people they're dead ever since. A few years ago I found out that Paul had been making a living running insurance scams, stepping in front of cars, or getting other people to do it, on purpose. How's that for irony?

"So that's the hilarious true story of my childhood."

Dorothy said nothing for a long time. She stroked Suzie, letting her little body rock back and forth almost imperceptibly, looking at the blank TV screen as if she had been watching a movie version of how my family had come apart at the seams.

"I didn't have brothers or sisters. My parents loved each other and I adored them. For a long time that's how I thought everyone lived."

"The perfect family," I said. Was I bitter? I don't know. I think that I may have been.

"Terrible things happen everywhere and to everyone," she said, taking off her shoes and rubbing her feet. "I thought I had found a kind of perfection in the other world, but nothing's as simple as it seems. My father, for example, wasn't honest to me. I told you that story about him because that's the cover story, you might say, the official version. But let's be honest. A guy like my dad just discovers, out of the blue, one of these portals to another world? What are the odds of that? He was recruited. I know that for a fact now. The war had demoralized him, turned his beautiful and gentle soul into an empty shell and being a spook, the guardian of vast secrets, drove the last vestige of sanity out of him. I think that in the end his love for me and for my mother was the only thing he had left to cling to. And then even that wasn't enough."

"What do you mean?" I said, fighting the urge to sleep.

"The Circle of Friends," Dorothy said, lying down. "Is not a small band of kooks, as Crowl likes to say. It's big, Fick, and it's everywhere. You weren't let in on a whim, believe me. People are watching all the time, and the people who know about this are pretty high up in the government of both worlds."

"You mean the government-our government-knows about this?" I said.

"Well, duh!," Dorothy snorted. "What do you think? And it's not just them. There are lots of people who were born over there living here now. You didn't expect to hear that, did you? Some of them are famous, too, like Gaveston Gaylord."


"I kid you not."

"The guy on the radio?"

"That's him," she said, turning on her side. " From what I hear, he seems to have a real love affair with all the violence and mayhem of this place. But believe me, he's not alone."

"Dorothy, why did Crowl bring me over?"

"We did it without authorization, on our own to enlist you."

"For what?"

"We care about this world. We were born here. But this planet is dying, Fick, and your whole way of life is about to come crashing down around you."

"What are you talking about? Like nuclear war?"

"That could happen, but let's start with the basics. Your whole economy is being propped up on military spending, billion dollar drug cartels, gambling, entertainment, the prison industry and the exploitation of cheap labor in the poor countries by the rich ones. It's gotten to the point that you've got an arms race in outer space while genetically modifying and patenting life itself. People know that there's a point beyond which this can't go on but few people know what to do about it. This is where Wonder World Ko comes in."

"Everyone keeps talking about that," I said irritably. "What the hell is Wonder World Ko?"

"Christ, Fick," Dorothy said, putting her hands together, using them as a pillow, looking at me sideways with wide open eyes. "Don't you ever read the newspaper?"

"You know, you're not the only one who has asked me that."

"It's kind of like a mall and an industrial park all rolled into one."

"Well, what of it?"

"Let me tell you. Companies will be able to use not just cheap labor, but free labor without having to open up plants in other countries. Think of it, Fick. No more prisons, no more homelessness. Instead, a disciplined work force, producing and selling junk no one needs, working for food and a place to sleep and all thanks to Ceroplast technology."


"Oh, admittedly what they're planning now is small and experimental but it'll spread, Fick, and faster than anyone thinks. Look at all the advantages. The government no longer has to take care of convicts, school drop outs, the mentally ill, and industry gets a virtual army of happy robots. It's everything Pervus warned us about."

"The writer?" I said.

"The intellectual founder of our break-away sect in the Circle of Friends. Fick, you can help stop this from happening."

"Oh I'm sure I can," I said sarcastically.

"Actually you can by helping us create a scandal. That's the only thing the press over here is good at. We think your lawyer is involved in some way."


"You help us find out how he's involved. We think he had something to do with framing you for attempted murder."

"And that's your plan?"

"In a nutshell."

"Dorothy," I sighed. "I'm not about to turn myself into Sam Spade for crying out loud. What do you want me to do, break into his office? Take pictures of his files using a little camera? Bug his telephone? You should be writing articles."

"We have."

"Organizing demonstrations."

"We've been doing that, too," Dorothy said, sitting up. "But not enough people are paying attention."

"I don't know," I mumbled with my eyes closed, suddenly feeling as if I hadn't slept in days. "I just want to get on with my life."

There was a weight on my chest. I thought that Suzie had put her paws on me. When I opened my eyes I saw Dorothy's aqua blue eyes hovering over my face.

"Your life is larger than you think," she said, putting her small, chubby hands on both sides of my face.

I started to say her name, then felt her little body tilt toward me, felt her lips on mine, felt her legs and breasts and hair. Not a child, no. A tiny, delicate woman falling from a tree, landing in my arms, holding my face, tasting my lips. A shiver ran through me as I put my arms around her.

"Dorothy," I whispered. "Can you love someone..."

"Shhhh," she said, reaching over my head to turn off the light. Tiny clothes fell on the bed like flower petals.

"You'll wake the dog."


"The heart is always true, no matter how many pieces it has been broken into."
-Rufus A, Pervus
That Summer Day

"Let me see if I got this straight," Dill said as we sat in the office eating donuts and drinking coffee. "You say there's this other world that's kinda like ours, you get to it by taking an elevator up a tree, there's a plot to turn everyone into robots, and you've fallen in love with a dwarf."

"That pretty much sums it up," I said.

Dill slowly stood up. Change fell to the bottom of his pockets and crumbs fell off his moustache like flakes of dandruff. He took a deep breath, turning around to face the wall. For the first time I saw him looking at Calendar Girl. I wondered if, like me, he looked more at metal than bare skin.

"You know, I'd 'speck a dwarf to be pretty sensitive about her height and all. Don't you think people might look at you a bit queer, you being about average height? And then there's the medical problems these little people have. I don't mean to question your heart, Fick. I know that's good as gold. It's just that...I don't know."

"I'm going to do what's right, Dill," I said. "I've wasted an awful lot of my life and if there's one thing I've learned it's that, once you discover what is important, you can't take yourself for granted any more."

"Everyone within a five mile radius of that tree is Circle of Friends," Dill said, turning around to look at me.

My ears rang as if there had been an explosion.

"What are you saying, Dill?"

"Just 'speculating. And from what you're saying, you might not know who your friends really are, yeahuh. Man with a secret best keep that secret."

I tried to stand, found that I couldn't.

"Can I trust the friends I have now?" I said, trying to clear my head.

Dill walked over to the window, stood looking outside with his hands in his pockets. A group of girls in school uniform walked by on the sidewalk. Brown skinned gardeners, wearing white t-shirts and baseball caps, mowed grass and trimmed hedges across the street. Clouds like fat clown faces hung in the sky. The donut I had eaten felt as if it were turning into a pool of oil. I closed my eyes and saw Dorothy, felt her little body on mine. So much to do. Waxing and polishing cars seemed so pointless now. How had I ever been able to do such drudgery day after day?

"Well that's the sixty four thousand dollar question, isn't it?" Dill said.

I met Scarecrow (for some weird reason I had forgotten his name again) at The Lean Mean Bean Machine. Dorothy had arranged the meeting. He sat in the back, a plate full of cookies in front of him.


"No thank you," I said stiffly, pulling back a chair and sitting down.

"I don't know if I trust a man who doesn't eat cookies. Seems down right un-American."

"Well I suppose you could teach me a few things about trust now, couldn't you?" I said.

"Oh Fick. You are a better man than I am, no doubt about it. What can I say? I took advantage of your liberal hospitality. For that I apologize. What shall we do now?"

"You tell me," I said, watching him break a cookie apart with hands that were scrubbed pink.

"How's Dorothy?"

"Happy," I said stonily.

"That's good. Such a sensitive mite, don't you think?"

"I'd rather not talk about her if you don't mind."

"My father died," Scarecrow said, chewing on a macaroon.

I looked down at the table to avoid his eyes.

"Sorry to hear that."

"You know," he said, smoothing his beard. "I was with him when he died. He didn't know me."


"People over here are insane. You know that now, don't you. They just go clean out of their mind."

I stood up, then walked over to the counter to buy a cup of coffee. I really wanted a chance to cool down so that I could think. This was dangerous business, a walk on the razor's edge. I was well aware that I had always either trusted people too much or not enough, and I wondered if I had developed any instincts to let me know which mistake I was making now. I sat down, blew on the steaming cup in my hands, then told Scarecrow what I wanted in exchange for my help.

His head, which usually wobbled or bobbed when he talked, froze and his eyes widened.

"Not a good idea," he said at last, un-freezing his head, nibbling macaroon. "I don't know if we'll be able to get away with it."

"Well let's just say," I said, enjoying the unusual sense of power that flowed through me. "That if you're going to trust me, you'll have to give me something to show that I can trust you."

"I can get you the information you'll need," he said, leaning over and talking in a whisper. "But no one, and I mean no one in the entire history of the world, has ever done this kind of thing before. Aside from the creepiness of the whole thing, I think that it may be dangerous, Fick. Dangerous for you and dangerous for them."

"I have my reasons. This is not something I just thought up a second ago," I said, taking a sip of coffee, letting it linger on the tip of my tongue.

"It's really not a good idea," Scarecrow sighed, balling his hands into fists so tightly that knuckles popped like nuts cracking.

"You're as mentally unbalanced as everyone else here."

"Your answer for everything," I said, wondering how he could crack his knuckles like that.

"You're goddamn right!" he growled, looking out the corners of his eyes. "You arrest people over here for growing weeds on their own property. How crazy is that?"

"Don't give me a lecture," I said, putting up a hand. "Whatever you're going to say, I've already heard it. All I want to know is, do we have a deal?"

"Okay, you know what, fine, knock yourself out, I don't care, yes, whatever, Fick, deal. Just sit tight, it'll probably take me a day or two before I can get back to you."

Three days later I was on a narrow street lined with small, Spanish-style houses. There were only a few trees, and every lawn looked as if it were growing more weeds than grass. I couldn't see or hear any kids, and I got the feeling that, assuming places have personalities, this neighborhood didn't like them. A slender gray cat, licking his paws, watched me from a porch across the street. No sounds, not even birds. The sky looked pale, like the skin of milk gone sour. I stood in front of Carl's car frozen, as if someone had glued my feet to the pavement.

We had talked on the telephone for maybe ten minutes, although it felt more like an hour. When I hung up I could hardly breathe, and I felt the same tightening in my chest now.

So this, I said to myself, is where she lives. I looked at the white front door, put my hands in my pockets and tried to slow my heart down. Just a quick visit. Don't expect too much from this, I reminded myself. As a matter of fact, don't expect anything.

Like Scarecrow, Dorothy had reservations about what I was ultimately planning to do. When I discussed it with her, she was laying on the bed, nude, flipping through a glossy women's magazine.

"I can't say that I know either," she said, closing the magazine, then sitting up. I loved seeing her naked like that. She looked like a giant mouse.

"If what I'm about to get myself involved with can get me killed," I said. "Then this is one of the last things I want to do."


"You understand?"

"I think I do, Fick, but no one's going to kill you."

"I love you."

"In that case," she said, grinning and taking my hand. "Prove it, big boy."

I wondered if she had learned lines like that by reading the romance novels of Norma Ravewood.

So, taking a deep breath and trying to make my mind a blank, I walked up to the house, feeling sweat run down my armpits and back. I clenched and unclenched my fist, then knocked lightly on the white door with my knuckles. Maybe she's gone, I thought. I'll knock one more time then leave.

I heard footsteps, then, blood leaking from my heart, saw the door slowly open. A fat, unshaven man wearing a tee-shirt looked at me with flat, indifferent eyes through little plastic frame glasses. Gray hair stood up on his head as if he had just combed it with his fingers. I had come to the wrong house.

"Are you Fick?" he said before I could open my mouth.

Yes, I nodded, too embarrassed to speak.

There were brisk footsteps behind him. A woman, the man's wife, was about to ask him who was at the door. No, wait, he knew my name, I thought, my mind a beehive of confusion.

"Is that you, Fick?"

I heard her voice first, then saw her as she seemed to float like smoke through the shadows in the hallway. The large, hazel eyes, the brunette hair now cut short and the fixed smile, always mysterious. She had a peach colored dress on so that I could see all the freckles on her chest and shoulders, the ones I had counted when she could pick me up and hold me in her arms. It seemed impossible that she could still be so beautiful. But she was. Her heart shaped face was as smooth and pink as a girl's. My mother.

"Milo look, it's my baby," she said to the ape with the gray hair sticking up.

"Eh? Oh," the ape grunted.

"Come in, Fick," my mother said, turning around on red high heel shoes. "Don't mind the mess."

The room I entered looked like some kind of music store. There were boxes of vinyl records on the floor, electronic keyboards on stands, guitar cases, stereo equipment, drums and an upright piano topped with beer cans, harmonicas and sheet music.

"Milo is a musician," my mother said.

I followed her through the house, forgetting who Milo was, feeling that at any moment I would awaken in bed next to Dorothy. Or alone.

We walked through the back door, then stood on short, level grass surrounded on three sides by flower beds and wooden ducks waiting for a breeze to fly in place. My mother sat down at a clean, glass table on a slab of cement and invited me to do the same.

"I was sorry to hear that you had been arrested," she said, blinking rapidly at me, clicking long red nails on the table. "How long have you been out?"

I pulled a thickly padded chair away from the table, then sat down. A mocking bird sang overhead. A mournful piano chord sounded from inside the house. I didn't know what I had expected but I knew that if I had expected anything this is not what I would have expected.

"A while," I said, brushing hair out of my face.

"So. You look good."

"Thank you. Mom."

"Where are you staying?"

I told her.

"A house?"

"Believe it or not, I own it. And I have, I mean I drive, a BMW that's mine. And I have lots of money in the bank, too."

I felt as if I were talking too much and too fast.

"What are you doing?" she said, stroking the tips of her long red nails. She looked down and then up as if trying to measure me. There was calculating coldness around her eyes that I hadn't felt before. Mistrust.

"Well," I said, crossing my legs and taking a deep breath. "Just working at a detail shop. It's pretty simple work."

"And now you own a house and drive a BMW."

"Kind of a long story," I said, hearing another mournful piano chord from inside the house.

"Um, I'll just bet. So. Why are you here?"

The words jabbed me in the center of my chest.

"You're my mother. I wanted to see you."

"Um. Last time we spoke you said you were ashamed of me."

"I was. Then," I said, my face hot.

"What are you trying to say, that you're not ashamed of your mother now?"

"I was a kid," I said, putting both feet on the ground. "You know how kids are."

"No, Fick, tell me."

I bent over, putting elbows on my knees, breathing as if I had just climbed a mountain. A passenger jet flew far overhead, sounding like a boulder rolling on the floor of the sky. Tell me. She wanted the words to come out of my mouth for what? So that she could pick them up like pebbles, grind them against her skin, watch me as I watched her flinch, redden and bleed?

"Kids think their parents are perfect-or should be."

Her eyes flashed. She wanted to say something but stopped herself.

"Lemonade? It's Crystal Light."

"I'm fine," I said.

She crossed her legs, tapping the toe of her red shoe on the cement. It sounded more like a nervous habit than impatience. The house was quiet. A soft breeze stirred our hair, carrying the faint odor of burnt leaves.

"How did you and Milo meet?" I said, waving a fly from my face.

"At a club. He plays with four other people. Jazz mostly. Very good. You should hear him some day."

I pictured an ape sitting down at a piano and smiled.

"Ever talk to your father?"

"No," I said, shuddering.

"He's sick."


"Diabetic. Extremely severe. Had to have surgery to stop bleeding in his eyes."


"Yes, a sick puppy all right. You look good, a little thin."

"I work outdoors so I get a lot of fresh air," I said, seeing the shadow of flies on the glass table. Were there flies?

"I didn't think you wanted to see me," she said, smoothing her dress against a knee. The smile, always mysterious, remained on her face, although it looked thinner now, more tightly held in place, as if it were no longer automatic but something she had to think about. Endure. I started to reply, then saw that she intended to say something else.

"That's why I didn't visit you."

"It would have just depressed you. And me."

"You used a baseball bat?" she said softly, almost under her breath.

"I don't know. That's what they said." I was embarrassed.

"You couldn't hurt anyone, Fick," she said, lacing her fingers around her knee. "I never believed it."

Because you're not strong enough, the look on her face seemed to say.

"I think something happened to me. I'm trying to figure out what."

"You were always a strange child, you know, so impressionable. If there was a story in the news about a flood, no matter where it was, you would go into a panic about drowning."

"I remember seeing a house floating down a river on TV", I said, shrugging. "Gave me nightmares."

"You believed in Santa Claus for so long it became embarrassing, the other kids in school started teasing you about it."

"Kids have to have faith in something," I said.

"You believed anything you heard. Paul once told you that Zoro was real and you started having nightmares about him coming into your room and writing a Z on your chest with his sword. For the longest time you wouldn't go into the backyard because of an old movie you had seen on television."

"You don't remember the name of it, do you?" I said, trying to look disinterested.

"No," she said, rolling her eyes. "All I remember is that it had something to do with dead animals."


"I don't remember."

That Summer Day. The movie my unconscious had used, out of desperation, to save my life. Is desperation, I wondered, the key to all our illusions? Are we so afraid of death that we'll believe anything?

Yes, a false memory. And yet it had saved me, drawing me back from the brink. Can we live without illusions? I asked myself.

It's a question I still ask myself.

"I don't like to think about my childhood," I said evenly.

"Well if you came all this way to tell me that I was a terrible mother you've wasted your time. I always knew that. I never wanted to have kids but when I got pregnant with Paul I was only seventeen, still a kid myself. There were a lot of things that I wanted to do that I never got the chance to do and don't think that I'm blaming you because I'm not."

"I didn't come over here to have it out with you," I said, pressing the back of my legs so hard against the chair that my feet started to tingle.

"What do you want, Fick?"

"Maybe some sort of a family."

"I wasn't the one that destroyed it," she said, looking up at the trees.

"No, I guess I did that," I said.

"Oh don't flatter yourself," my mother said, the color rising in her cheeks. "We all did what we wanted to do. I wanted to go back to modeling and your father wanted to sit around in his underwear drunk. What Paul did he did without thinking. He would have done it to save a complete stranger."

"I don't know," I mumbled, stung.

"Sometimes things just happen," she said, announcing each word as if it were a telegram. Sometimes. Things. Just. Happen. Stop.

"Your point being?" I was angry.

"Everything isn't about you, my dear boy."

Six days and thirteen hours later I stood in front of a house that looked like a house I had often seen just as clearly in my dreams. It was small, coated with stucco and painted yellow with a dark brown trim. There was a white wooden fence with a gate left open and a bird bath on the left side of the lawn with leaves, floating without a care, on the dark, cool looking water.Two slender trees with peeling bark stood inside circles of red, decorative brick; and the grass around them was as smooth and even as the top of a pool table. A fat Sunday newspaper lay on a chocolate colored welcome mat. Tiny bulbs strung on a green wire hung from the shingles, waiting without embarrassment for Christmas. Ceramic wind chimes and humming bird feeders dangled from nails driven into split wood. It looked like the house I had left one morning on my way to school, to return in one world but not in another.

I looked up at the sky, a blue dome resting on the rim of mountains that looked as if they had been painted with water colors. Church bells rang out a pleasant melody in the distance while two little girls skipped rope next door. I touched the top of the white wooden fence to see if it were real, then looked at my fingers to see if they were real.

What could I possibly do? Scarecrow and Dorothy had asked me what my plans were but I was incapable of making the kind of logical plans one can visualize, rehearse and talk about. I wanted to study the house, absorb its every detail, persuade myself that I remembered it, that I was linked, in a gigantic universe of parallel forces, to an alternate version of my house and world. And then, I thought, something will happen.

But I had no idea what that would or could be.

After a minute or an hour I heard a bell, then turned to my left and saw a bicycle coming around the curve of the sidewalk. A woman wearing a sun dress and a wide-brimmed hat on her back rang the bell again and I stepped off the sidewalk.

"Good morning!" she cried, slowing to a stop in front of me.

"Hello," I said, watching her climb off the bicycle, a big blue Schwinn. Groceries in canvas bags hung over both sides of the rear tire.

"Beautiful day, isn't it?" she said, putting on her hat.


"Are you looking for someone?" she said, looking at me now. The large, hazel eyes, long brunette hair, a smile that seemed neither fixed in place nor mysterious.

"I used to live here," I said, feeling a weird sensation of weightlessness in the center of my body as I spoke. What was a lie? What was true?


"A long time ago," I said, feeling heat rising like steam from my chest all the way to my scalp.

"Um." She studied my face.

"Down at the other end of the street. For a while. Then my family moved."

"Where do you live now?"

"Pretty far away," I said, looking directly into her eyes. There could be no mistake. It was her. But what did that make me?

"Well," she said, starting to roll the bicycle through the open gate. "You have a nice day."

"I think I knew your son." The words, coming from my own mouth, made my heart leap in my chest as if I had tossed it like an apple.

She stopped, then turned around.

"The one," I said, trying to breath. "Who was...who had the accident."

I couldn't hear her voice, but saw her lips form an O.

"We were in the same grade at school," I said, barely able to finish the sentence. A lump the size of a rock had lodged in my throat and I was afraid that I was visibly sweating. Accusing thoughts circled my brain like barbed wire.

"Do I know you?" she said, putting a hand at the base of her throat.

"Who you talking to, Mother?" a man said. The hair, what was left of it, was entirely white now but the eyes were still blue, bright, lively and humorous. He walked briskly down the steps of the porch, cradling a pipe in one hand, dressed in slacks and a cardigan sweater, smiling at me as if he really knew my name but had waited all day just to tease me.

I looked at my father; or I looked at a man who could have been my father had my father ever been happy.

"A young man who's visiting his old neighborhood," Mother said without taking her eyes off me.

"Well is that so!" Father said, knocking ashes from his pipe, then slipping it into a pocket. "What's your name, son?"

I blurted out the first name that popped into my head, then froze in horror.

"Stevie Wonder?," he said, tapping a broad finger on his chin. "Can't say I remember any Wonders in the neighborhood."

"Oh you don't remember what you had for lunch yesterday!" Mother said

"Well I suppose that's true enough, Mother," he chuckled.

I stepped back onto the sidewalk, expecting at any second to sink into the concrete.

"It was nice meeting you," I said.

"Mr. Wonder knew our boy," Mother said.

Father had gone back to scoop the fat Sunday newspaper off the chocolate colored welcome mat. He looked at me with sparkling eyes as his fingers twiddled with the rubber band.

"Well is that so!"

"You're not in too much of a hurry now, are you?" Mother said.

"No," I said, my lips numb. "I don't suppose I am."

Most of the furniture in the old house was new to me but there were a few old pieces that I recognized. They had kept an antique cherry red rocker and an old Magnavox console that could tune in the BBC and play Dean Martin records. We sat in the living room, at the very table we always sat around to eat dinner and watch Charlie's Angels or Three's Company. But that was in a different world, with different parents, in a world where people watched television. Now, with people that never were my parents, or could have been my parents, we sat at the table drinking coffee and eating moist squares of carrot cake, occasionally looking out the front room window as if to catch glimpses of a past we could only construct in the most fantastic of circumstances.

"So you went to Mira Monte Elementary, Stevie?" Father said, looking at a jig-saw piece from a puzzle that lay uncompleted on the far side of the table.

"I was in Miss Porter's class," I said, afraid now of making a fatal error. What if there had been no Miss Porter in this world?

"Peggy Porter!" Mother said. "Our boy used to call her Miss P.P."

"We all did," I said, laughing.

"Wasn't she that old woman with the cane?" Father said.

"That was Mrs. Breck," I said.

"Oh I remember her," Mother said. "Retired after she broke her hip, poor thing."

"You used to say," I said. "I mean, your son told me that you didn't like her, that you thought she was too old to teach young children."

"That's right, that's right," Mother said solemnly. "I guess he heard more than I wanted him to."

Can't you see who's sitting in front of you? I thought.

"They're all gone now," Father said, looking down at arms folded against his chest.

We sat for a minute in silence, then Father asked me what I did for a living. I told him.

"Well you can't go wrong working on cars," he said, looking into my eyes, tapping the corner of a puzzle piece against the table. He had started to smile but something had stopped him. His heavy body, bundled up in a sweater when it was really too warm for sweaters, rocked slowly forward. Eyebrows arched. "There's good money in it."

The little girls, still skipping rope outside, had switched to a different song. The frosting on the carrot cake was so sweet that it made my back teeth ache. I felt as if I were being x-rayed and even had the eerie sensation that I could feel their thoughts sparking like static electricity across the back of my head.

He's got your eyes and my chin. Who is he really?

"Who's that?" I said, looking at a picture on the wall of a handsome man shaking hands with what looked like The President of the United States. I was desperate to get their eyes off me.

"That's our Paul," Mother said, letting tears sparkle in her eyes. "He'd just been elected to Congress."

For the second time in my life I felt wretched. My mother had never stopped grieving for me and my brother-the one in this world-hadn't ruined his life by saving mine.

And then, of course, the terrible truth dawned on me all at once. Everyone's life had been better because I had not been saved. Scarecrow and Dorothy had been right all along. This was a ghastly mistake, something I should never have contemplated to begin with. Why hadn't I listened to them?

"Congress?" I said, seeing marble halls in my mind, seeing cars in the rain, feeling myself turn into a ghost.

"Well I guess you did move out of town," Father chuckled. "Just three years out of law school, one of the youngest men ever elected."

"Law school?"

"Yale," Mother said, dabbing her eyes.

I had barely made it out of high school. Could this get any worse?

"Oh he was always a good student, smart as a whip," Father said, taking the dead pipe out of his pocket and turning it over in his hands.

"Though we really didn't know it till we got him into the right school." His hands, cradling the pipe, trembled. No smoking inside the house.

"The right school," I said, feeling that nothing remained in my skull but an echo chamber.

"Oh you bet. Merifeild Academy! Took to it like a fish to water."

"He was...a hero to his younger brother," I said, knowing better but unable to stop myself.

Silent nods. Father leaned back in his chair, glanced at the puzzle, sighed. Were they past talking about it? Past thinking about it?

"I'll never forget that time," Mother said. "When he met a girl in town and decided that he wanted to get married."

"Oh that," Father said, shaking his head.

"Said he wanted to get married and took the train to California so that he could tell us he was leaving school! Father was fit to be tied."

It had just gotten worse. They hadn't seen That Summer Day. They had lived it.

"Your son climbed a tree and wouldn't come down," I said, past the point of caring whether I was right or wrong. What did it matter?

"You two must have been close," Mother said, widening her hazel eyes in astonishment. "That's exactly what he did, climbed a tree and wouldn't come down."

"Told me all about it," I said, feeling weakness like a river of lead run through my body. "Said that he buried a bird."

"We gave it a funeral," Mother said. Tears ran down her cheeks as Father looked on in bewilderment. The story was news to him.

"He told me the story," I said, equally torn between laughing and crying. "Of birds in the afterlife, of how they still sing so that we shouldn't feel sorry for them."

"That Summer Day," Mother said, looking at me with unfocused eyes.

I felt as if a basketball had bounced against the back of my head.

"I'm sorry. What did you say?"

"The famous children's book about the bird who comes back," Mother said. "I always thought it was the loveliest story Rufus A. Pervus ever wrote."


"How can we know the world when we don't even know ourselves?"
-Rufus A, Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

For nearly a week I stayed in bed. I wanted to forget everything I had learned, or somehow convince myself that whatever had happened had been the product of my own or even someone else's imagination.

But I've never been good at fooling myself. That's a job I've always depended upon others to help me with. So I curled up like a baby as much as I could and slept, getting up only to go to the bathroom; and when I couldn't sleep in the loneliest of all hours, those deafened and dreamless eternities between midnight and morning, I buried myself beneath blankets, terrified at the immensity of guilt that stretched out before me, a one-way road into the abyss.

It seemed a long time ago that I had discovered what it was to be wretched. Now I knew what it was to be in absolute living hell.

Poor Dorothy took care of me as best she could, feeding Suzie, bathing my face, getting me glasses of water, calling Dill to tell him that I was sick, curling up beside me, rubbing my back, bringing me food that I refused to touch and begging me to talk. One morning she lost patience and started pulling the blankets off me.

"They weren't your parents," she said.

"So what," I snarled, pulling the blankets back on.

"That wasn't your mother!"

"You say so."

"Fick, everything is different over there," she cried out in exasperation, pulling on the blankets again. "Don't you get it? You didn't die. Your brother saved you. Whatever happened to anyone else wasn't your fault. I'm sick and tired of this moping. I want you to get out of bed."


"Because," she said, climbing up on the bed, then crawling on top of me. "I made reservations at a fancy restaurant and so help me god, Fick, if you don't get me out of here tonight you'll get a chance to know what crazy really is."

My back hurt anyway, so I got out of bed one foot at a time, lathered my face and shaved with one of those ridiculously over-achieving disposable razors that has three blades, took a hot shower, put on the same clothes I had worn for my birthday with Dill and Emily, rubbed Suzie's belly, watched game shows; and at 6 O'clock put Dorothy in the car and drove three cities away to Los Viejos, the fancy restaurant she had found in the yellow pages.

An elderly waiter with hearing-aids stuck to both ears, thread like hair and teeth that looked too big for his shriveled head took us to our table. Dorothy refused to sit in the child's seat the restaurant provided so all I could see of her were her hands resting on the table, pink and chubby as pickled pigs' feet. I could see my reflection in the glass tiles on the wall in front of me but could not see Dorothy's, which made me feel strange and uncomfortable, like an unsuspecting victim in a vampire movie.

"I've heard that the macaroni and cheese here is excellent," she said, picking up a menu.

"We could have made that at home," I grumbled.

"Oh no, not the way they make it here," she insisted. "Look here, the shells are stuffed with aged Swiss cheese cooked in wine and garlic butter."

A man and a woman sat down at the table next to ours. The woman sat next to an oxygen tank and had tubes clipped to her nose. She had silver hair piled high on her head and a pleasant, amused looking face. The man, sitting in a wheelchair, looked as if his body had been melted, then poured clump by clump into his clothes. His arms were as skinny as garden hose and he had trouble, with his trembling hands, holding onto the menu. And yet he, too, looked happy. The two of them beamed at each other lovingly, like infatuated teenagers wearing Halloween masks.

"Is there something about this restaurant you haven't told me about?" I said, afraid that it would look to everyone else as if I were talking to myself.

"It's expensive," she said. I couldn't tell, but it sounded as if she were smiling.

"Well I'm rich so it doesn't really matter now does it," I said, looking at a menu that had been printed in gigantic letters. A mole with bad eyes even for a mole could have read it.

"Well don't bite my head off," she said softly.

I looked around the room. People were sitting in wheel chairs or had canes by their table; and there was more than a hint of Ben Gay and Gold Bond Powder in the air. Everyone but Dorothy and I had white hair.

"You think they accept social security checks?" I said.

"Behave yourself and order some wine."

I poked my head under the table.

"I'm not mad at you."

"Are you ready to order or do you need some more time?" the waiter said with a faint wheeze.

"I'll have the macaroni and cheese," Dorothy said.

The waiter looked in the direction of Dorothy's voice, frowned, hobbled over to her chair, then slowly knelt down, making both knees pop as loud as cap guns.

"Macaroni and cheese?"

"Yes please."

"Soup or salad?"

"Salad. French dressing."

"Very good."

Our waiter slowly straightened himself up, cracking bones not only in his knees but in his ankles and back. I expected his whole body to disintegrate right before our eyes in a white cloud of skin and bone.

"And for the gentleman?"

"I'll have the same," I said. "And, well, let's see, I guess a bottle of your house red wine."

"Very good," he wheezed, taking our menus with trembling hands.

"You know, I've heard the expression, 'where'd they dig that guy up? But I'm really wondering where they did dig that guy up."

"Don't be mean," Dorothy said. "None of us are getting younger."

"I'm not mean," I said, snapping my napkin open, then laying it on my lap. It was too bright and hot, I didn't like the smell of old people and I resented being dragged away from bed, sleep and game shows. Who was she or anyone else to tell me that I was mean? I was the one who had been sent up the river for a crime I didn't commit. I was the one who was nothing to one family alive and a blessing to another dead. For what reason was I supposed to be nice to anyone?

"Let me tell you something," I said, looking with disgust at the cheap Timex watch on my wrist. How long was I going to wear crap like that? "I used to think that I got money by being lucky but I'm not such a believer in luck anymore. I survived being locked up, having people believe that I went crazy and nearly beat a man to death with a baseball bat. And no one seemed to care a rat's ass, too. Not my wife, not even my own mother. Anyone who can take that kind of shit..."

"Okay, Fick," Dorothy said, waving her pickled pigs' feet in the air.

"Deserves a little recompense."

"Yes, Fick, okay. That's a good word, too, by the way, but we're in a nice place now. Try to keep it down."

The skin on my face felt hot and tight, as if I had shaved everything off except my eyes and then splashed myself with turpentine. With every passing second I became angrier, more irrational and ugly. Big shot brother goes off to some fancy private school and lets his little brother get run over. Bastard goes to law school, bastard runs for congress and wins. White trash mother lives with ape that plays jazz. Kindly Mom and Dad with their carrot cake, pipe, bicycle, Sunday newspaper don't even recognize me, think I'm Stevie Wonder for Christ's sake! And then being used by a bunch of pot heads who live in an alternate world above the library. An insane parole officer. Chuck and Louie. Why wasn't I killing people? I asked myself. What would be the harm in letting off a little steam and, say, lopping off a few heads with a machete at the mall? Nothing was real anyway; it was all a mad dream and I was still in bed.

"What are you thinking about?" Dorothy said as the waiter poured each of us a glass of wine. I should have noticed how tired she sounded.

"You don't want to know."

"You want to go?"

"Oh the evening's just getting started," I said, trying to read the label on the bottle of wine. It was in French. "Hey, maybe next time we can order baloney sandwiches and alphabet soup. You think a white wine would go with that?"

I didn't want to hurt Dorothy, truly I didn't; but a part of me, the scared, beaten, humiliated animal part of me, wanted to push, just a little, and see what would happen. Maybe that's just a round-about way of saying that I felt like being mean, that I wanted to hurt someone, to see what it was like to inflict suffering for no other reason than that it was something I could do. If I could have become four years old again I would have pulled the wings off a fly.

I somethings think, now, that a great deal of evil arises in the world because the only way so many people can express how hurt they are is by hurting others.

"It wasn't a good idea to talk to them, Fick. You knew that before you left. But you should also know by now that their circumstances are probably quite different from yours. I've spent a lot of time comparing both worlds and I know from personal experience that they don't mesh. In a few hundred years they won't be recognizable at all. What you learned couldn't have helped you at all."

I took a sip of the wine that was just a little too sweet for my taste, then set the glass down with a shaking hand.

"You're right," I said bitterly. "No one should find out that they would have been better off dead."

"That's not true. You know that's not true."

"Right again! Let me say, 'No one should find out how much better off everyone else would have been if they had died.'"

"I've had to struggle with that all my life," Dorothy said quietly.

"Oh have you?" I said without giving myself a chance to think about what she had just said. I should have felt ashamed of myself but when I thought about what she had just said I felt even angrier and meaner. What right, I thought, did she have to put me in the same category as her or anyone else? Mine was the most tragic life that had ever been lived.

"But I've come to see certain things," Dorothy said.

I stared sullenly at the reflection of the ceiling fans on the glass top of the table. Around and around, whish whish whish. Dark spots swam through my peripheral vision. Were there flies in here? Chuck and Louie, sitting on the far side of the restaurant and dining on soup through IV tubes, looked as if they had just turned 108. The decrepit old bastards, of course, were talking about me, laughing so hard that they choked on their own phlegm and turned purple.

"I believe that there are no accidents or meaningless coincidences in the world," she said. "Pervus wrote that we only see chaos when we try to impose our own individual sense of order on the world."

"Did you know that Pervus directed a movie called 'Mother of Frankenstein'?'"

"Yes. I've even seen it."

"And that in the other world he wrote children's books?"

"In the other world Stephen King makes cartoons about animals that talk and live in little cottages. So what?"

"In the other world I'm dead."

"Not to God."

I ducked under the table to look at Dorothy, to see if she were serious.

"You believe in God?"

The waiter, walking as if he were either going or coming from his own grave, arrived with our salads. Dorothy took her salad bowl and put it on her lap.


"How do you know?"

"Know what?" She said, chewing on a cherry tomato that made a cheek bulge.

"That there's a God."

"Well, for a long time I've thought of it like this, Fick. Think of a painting. You stand up close, real close, and all you see are flecks of paint. There's no focus. Stand farther back and then the whole picture springs to life, becomes complete. That's what God is, the point at which everything falls into place. Take the biggest picture of the world that you can from as far away as you can and it all makes perfect sense, Fick. And that means that your life makes sense too."



"That," I said, sitting up, then savagely spearing a black olive with my fork. "Is the stupidest definition of God I've ever heard."

"I read Hegel when I was little," she said.

"When you were little?"

"Someone wants to talk to you," Dorothy said stiffly.

My startle reflex threw half of a romaine lettuce leaf across the table as a hand touched my shoulder.

"I'm sorry, young man, didn't mean to creep up on you," a man said. His hair was white, he wore a white suit, and he had a large white moustache that made him look a little like Mark Twain. His eyes looked familiar but I couldn't place them.

"Uh," I said, looking down at Dorothy, then up at the tall white stranger again.

"Hidden is the name, Hidden Meaning."


"Mind?" he said, indicating the empty chair between Dorothy and me.

"Mr. Meaning wanted to meet you, Fick," Dorothy said, placing her salad bowl onto her plate with both hands like a little girl who couldn't quite reach the top of the table.

"He did?" I said blankly.

"Well you might say that we were briefly on the same team, you and I," Mr. Meaning said, smiling as he sat down.

"We were?"

"Don't you remember helping someone to coach softball?" he said to me as he shifted his gaze across the room.

I dropped my fork, which seemed to fly toward the ceiling fan reflected on the glass. "The softball team!"

"Oh that was quite a practice," he cackled as his hearing aids began to whistle like tea kettles. "A bruised rib and a dislocated shoulder for me, if I remember rightly."

"What?" I shouted. His hearing aids had started some kind of chain reaction. The whole restaurant sounded like screaming tropical birds or piccolo players gone berserk.

"...saw it...didn't think you..."

"Can't hear," I cried, plugging both ears with my fingers.

"...a needle...very tiny...CIA..."

People frantically adjusted their hearing aids. One woman dropped hers into a bowl of soup. Everywhere people clasped their ears, turning knobs and screaming at each other.

"What the hell are you talking about?" I shouted. It was at that moment, of course, that the whistling suddenly stopped.

"You were drugged!" Mr. Meaning shouted back, putting hearing aids he had taken out to adjust back in.

Even before I could see it, I felt everyone in the room staring at us. Their eyes were as big as saucers. I felt like a fox in a chicken coop that had been dark a split second ago.

"Drugged?" I said, looking down at my lap.

Mr. Meaning looked around, then looked at me. His moustache was quivering. He looked like a thoroughly unhinged version of Mark Twain.

"I wasn't sure then but I am now. And I know the son of a bitch who did it, too."

I moved my chair closer to him. "Who?"

"Me!" he said. "I'm the one who knows."

"I know you know," I said, struggling to control my voice. "Who drugged me, and why!"

"You were drugged?"

"Goddamnit," I growled, twisting my napkin into a rope. "You just said I was drugged."

"Can't talk about it here," he said, looking at his reflection in the golden spoon he had picked up.

"Well then why the hell are you here?" I said.

"Nice meeting you and your daughter, Mr. Fick," the old man said, dropping the spoon into a pocket, then shaking my hand. "Hope to meet you again sometime real soon."

As he walked away I looked at the matchbook he had pressed into my hand. I pretended to cough, then dropped it into my breast pocket as the stricken looking waiter arrived with our macaroni and cheese.

"So," I said, looking at the steaming plate the waiter had left. "You found this place in the yellow pages?"

"Did I say that?" she said, carefully sliding her plate off the table, then lowering it onto her lap.

"Why didn't he just come to the house, or call us?"

"I dunno."

"Damnit, Dorothy, I don't like people playing games with me. What's going on here?" Despite my intentions to ignore the food on my plate I began taking small bites, then bigger ones. She was right; it was the best macaroni and cheese I had ever eaten.

"In a little while," Dorothy said, breathing, I thought, a bit harder than usual. "Everything will make sense. At least most of it."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I said.

Dorothy didn't say anything for the next few minutes. I thought that she had finally gotten mad enough to stop talking to me.

"You're not going to tell me what that means?" I said, feeling the eyes of everyone in the restaurant crawling on me like fat bugs.

"Okay, fine, maybe later, then," I said as waves of surging, triumphant anger dropped away from me, replaced by guilt as cold and dismal as gruel on Christmas morning.

I slid my chair back, then leaned forward, putting my elbows on the table and my hands around the back of my head. Dorothy was sitting perfectly still, eyes closed and lips parted, as if asleep.

"Dodo?" I said, using her pet name.

I ran to her chair, knelt down, then touched her hand. She was asleep.

Or maybe not. My body's core temperature dropped. Needles, CIA, drugs. I put my hands, which looked gigantic, on her shoulders.



"What are you doing?" she said, yawning and rubbing her eyes.

"You fell asleep."

"I did?"

"Are you all right?" I said, feeling her forehead.

"I'm just, just a little tired," she said, closing her eyes again.

The woman with the silver hair and the hose clipped to her nose asked me if my little girl were okay.

I hastily threw a few big bills on the table, more than enough to pay for our meal, picked Dorothy up and then, holding her like a child, hurriedly left the restaurant.

Once we were home I took her to bed immediately, then undressed her as gently as I could while Suzie paced back and forth behind me. I was frantic with worry and guilt.

"I don't know what came over me," she mumbled. "Guess...not enough sleep lately."

"I'm sorry, Dorothy," I said, stroking her face while I wiped away my own tears.

"Oh, Fick. I'm fine," she said, dropping a hand over mine.

"Do you need anything? Are you really okay? You're not just saying that are you?"

"I'm just. Tired. I'm going to try and get a little sleep."

"Yes, darling, why don't you get some sleep. I'll be right here."



"Time is getting a little short. And. Maybe this isn't the best time but. There's something I have to say and. Right now will have to do. I guess."

For the first time I saw wrinkles around the corners of her eyes and streaks of gray in her hair. Like Scarecrow, she was aging. Only faster. Was it because she was so much smaller?

"You should get some..."

"In a minute," she said, struggling to sit up. "But you know what I mean, don't you?"


"I can't stay here much longer. I'm no longer...acclimated I guess is the word."

A string jerked my heart to the base of my throat. I couldn't speak.

"Fick, look, I. I just wanted to say something to you. I'll try to make it quick because you have to go out tonight."

"No, no I don't," I groaned.

"You do, Fick. We both have things to do. But I wanted to say, what I wanted to say is, I've been trying to find a way to put this and, right now. Let me see." She covered her face with her hands, took a deep breath, and then looked up. "When I was thirteen our next door neighbors invited me over to a birthday party they were having. It was the first time I'd ever seen a pinata. You know, those paper decorations filled with candy that kids have to hit with a bat and break open. I remember that we were all in the backyard, standing around this pinata, watching blindfolded kids try to hit it with a bat. And then. Someone whacked it really good and the thing didn't fall apart but dropped- the string must have snapped-and all I remember is this big damn red and green donkey coming straight for me. The next thing I knew I was lying in the house with a towel on my head."

"Dorothy, what has this..."

"Just, hear me out," she said, putting a hand over her eyes. "The thing is. The thing is, Fick, I couldn't tell you what else happened on that day if my life depended on it. I don't know what I had for dinner that day. I don't remember even whose birthday it was. And. The point is, most of what we do, of what we think and feel, we forget. A pinata lands on our head and we remember that, but what else do we remember? So. We look back on our life, but what we see are only fragments of a life. And. Out of those fragments, those few episodes we don't even remember very clearly, we try to piece together the story of our life. But it's useless, Fick. We can never know the story of our life. It's a mystery. Do you follow me so far?"

"I don't know if I do," I said.

"You can't know the story of your life, but you can know what kind of mind you have. You see, Fick, you think that you're a loser for the simple reason that you think you're a loser. But for every bad thing that's happened to you that you remember a hundred good things have happened to you that you've forgotten. Whatever is the story of your life, that's not important. What you think about your life is. And so. You have the absolute freedom to construct your life however you want it. The only people who are happy are the people who understand that and. That's. All I wanted to say."

She lay back down, closed her eyes and fell instantly asleep. I remained kneeling by her side, watching her breathe, thinking about what she had said. Suzie licked my face and I scratched her head. When I was finally satisfied that Dorothy was okay I stood up, then bent over to kiss her on the forehead. When I did something fell out of my breast pocket. A matchbook. I picked it up, then turned it over. On the front were the words, in red letters, "Thank You." On the back, in a circle, were the words, "We Appreciate Your Patronage." Patronage of what? I wondered, opening it. All the matches were still inside. I bent the flap completely back. Small words, written neatly, in black letters.
Wang's Chicken & Donuts 11:00 Come alone
I looked at Dorothy for one last time, then turned off the light.


"Fear pursues us and we cannot run."
-Rufus A. Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

The aroma of succulent fried food hung in the air long after Wang's Chicken & Donuts had closed for the day. I sat in Carl's BMW listening to the faint signal of a country and western radio station that sounded as if it were coming from the corn fields of Mars, afraid that at any moment BIG BAD POLICEMAN would knock on my window and ask me what I was doing.

"What the hell," I kept asking myself, "am I doing?"

I was worried about Dorothy and, on top of that, my old paranoia had resurfaced. Chuck, a giant brain floating in a levitating jar, told me not to leave Dorothy's side; but Louie, a skeleton with a flaming penguin in the center of his chest (the manifestations of my old friends were becoming increasingly symptomatic, I was afraid, of real mental illness), warned me that staying home would not only increase the danger to me but to Dorothy as well.

What was I supposed to do? Listen to the brain or the skeleton? Staring at the dark window of Wang's started to bore me, so I tuned in a few more radio stations, heard mostly car commercials; someone with a quavering, high pitched voice and a temperature of 103 raving about Jesus; and then news about shootings around L.A. mentioned so casually that they sounded like weather reports. I rummaged around in Carl's glove compartment and found a pack of cigarettes, the kind the lean, rugged cowboys, wearing leather gloves and a hat, smoke with manly indifference to their health on the glossy pages of magazines. I shook one out of the rumpled red and white pack, sniffed it, then put it between my lips. I had never smoked before and was suddenly curious. Flakes of tobacco, sweet as burnt crumbs of sugar, stuck to the tip of my tongue, burning it. Filthy habit, my mother had always called it. I remembered how Helen would leave butts in the toilet and how they always made me think of fish that had gotten their head cut off in a pencil sharpener. A car playing rap music on speakers big enough to make ripples in ground water drove by. I closed my eyes, saw my prison cell, then jerked awake with fear playing kettle drums in the empty chambers of my heart. What if something were to happen to Dorothy? Was I being an idiot? What was I supposed to do?

I thought about the time she told me how to make her favorite bed-time snack. Two pieces of white bread, mayonnaise and a handful of crumbled potato chips. Sloppy Spud, she called it. I tried one once and thought that is was actually pretty tasty. I was surprised to find out that she was a barber and that she had her own shop. She never complained about her height, about the cruel joke nature had played on her, and it was only by accident that I found out about the pills she took for pain in her hips and back.

"The old hinges creak a little sometimes," she said, looking up at me and smiling as she closed the bathroom door. "Nothing old age won't make worse, as my grandmother used to say."

But the old world she was in, the bad old world that had split the atom and spilt itself in the process, was making her old before my eyes; and I knew, when the corners of her mouth turned down and she closed her eyes, that she found it hard to walk or even get out of bed. Soon she would go back up the tree, never to return, and what then? I wanted to pound my head against the door. The answer was so simple that I couldn't understand why I hadn't thought of it before. We would leave together! If I never returned so what? I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. If only, I thought, I could convince Dorothy, get her to see how ridiculous this idea of saving the world was. We could save ourselves and as far as I was concerned that was enough.

I felt the old world slipping away from me like a feverish dream. No more would I permit myself to suffer the delusions of greed or to live without love. A new and better world awaited me, one that I would greet with eyes wide open. Say goodbye, I thought as I prepared to start the car, to sick, meaningless fantasies and say hello to reality. That was when I saw the man standing on the passenger side of the car. Holding a gun. Pointing it at me.

"Going somewhere?" he said, tapping the barrel of his pistol on the window.

Some of you, at one time or another, may have had a gun pointed at you; but for those of you who haven't (and I hope that's the majority), let me tell you what happens next. Nothing. Nothing happens next. No event freezes every neuron in your brain faster than facing a lethal weapon. You may think that you'll do something cleaver, something you've seen in a James Bond movie, but let me tell you, everything in that head of yours will come to a dead stop. Eternity suddenly becomes something quite real and not at all abstract and thoughts, if they come at all, move like chess pieces that weigh a thousand pounds.

"Open the door, Fick."

Open the door? How? I couldn't remember. The gun seemed enormous, a cannon. I saw the bullet shatter the glass and pierce my skull. This was it. I could slam the car into reverse, hit the gas and zoom out but I couldn't remember if I had started the engine. My heart surged though my chest like an ice breaker. An hour seemed to pass and then I punched the top button on the side of the door, unlocking Carl's car with a whoop-whick. Now I had done it, I thought as the man opened the door, then climbed inside. No escape now. Death.

"No need to be alarmed," he said. "We just want to ask you a few questions, that's all. You?re not doing anything special tonight are you?"

A loud voice in my head told me not to look but I looked anyway.

"John?" I said.

"Wow, you're fast. Yes it's John. How you doing?"

"Oh," I said, looking away so that I wouldn't see the gun again. "I've been okay."

"How's Dorothy? She looked a little tired tonight."

My hands felt like blocks of cement on the steering wheel. Air passed through my lungs like razors, as if I had been running.


"You don't recognize Hidden Meaning?"


"I've been following you for a long time, actually," John said, laughing the way people laugh when they just want to make you think that they find something funny. "We first met at the park, when I gave you that stupid book by that Pervus guy. And then I was a doctor at the hospital."


"Better start the car. Good. Pull out then turn left. You know, people who don't know a damn thing always wind up doing the most damage, which is certainly true in your case. You've gotten yourself mixed up in stuff you should have stayed away from. But that's true for a lot of people, I suppose. Now don't worry, Fick, like I said, no one wants to hurt you. Why hell, boy, if we wanted you dead you'd be dead! Fact is, we like you. Really."


"You'll see. Keep going. We'll be taking the freeway."

"Why did you give me that book?" I said, struggling to concentrate on my driving, Should I try to be friendly or would that backfire? And was he still pointing that gun at me? I felt a trickle of sweat run down the side of my face. My arms were going numb; I told myself not to grip the steering wheel too hard, John was some sort of double agent, only pretending to work for The Circle of Friends; or The Circle of Friends wasn't what I thought it was. As I pulled onto the freeway behind a truck I felt as if I were falling into a deep hole that had red lights at the bottom.

"Why the hell do you care about that!" he snapped.

"Just... I don't know," I said, feeling my throat turn hard and lumpy, I also suddenly realized that I had to pee.

"If you're thinking of anything, don't." he said. "Do anything funny and I'll put a hole in your head, swear to god, Fick, even if that means killing us both,"

"Okay," I said, afraid that at any moment I would either throw up or pee my pants.

"You have any idea how many times you've almost gotten your dumb ass killed?"

"No," I said. A motorcycle engine exploded in my ear, knocking my heart against my adam's apple. God, I thought, silently praying, seeing Dorothy. Not here, not now.

"Kinda clueless?"

"I don't...I don't know anything," I said. My face felt like a rubber mask contorted with terror.

"Well if it'll make you flippin happy," he said, not using, of course, the word ?flippin?, "I thought I was giving you the bible."

"The bible?"

"Yeah, you know," he said, using Hidden Meaning's voice. "I can't read. So I was supposed to give you the bible but picked up the wrong book instead. Pretty funny, huh?"

I was afraid that anything I said at that moment would get me immediately killed, so I only shrugged.

"You know, Fick, you have the goddamnist talent for always being in the wrong place at the wrong time, you know that?" Now he sounded like the elderly doctor I had talked to at the hospital.

"I guess," I croaked, terrified that he was about to become furious.

"You never actually recognized me? Even at the house?"

"No," I said, thinking frantically now. What would happen to Dorothy? Was she safe? Could I get out of the car fast enough at the first stop and run? Was I going to be killed? This was a clumsy way to do it. I could have been killed easily enough in front of Wang's. But what if they wanted me gone...really gone, without even a body for the police to find? Did I have anything to lose by doing something desperate?

I remembered watching a television program once about what people should do in situations like this. Use your name. Adopt an open, relaxed stance showing the palms of your hands. No sudden moves. Give them what they want and when attacked scream fire instead of help. What else? I racked my brain for something-anything-remotely useful and could find nothing. My stomach clenched with fear and I struggled to breathe. I hoped we'd drive forever. As long as I drove the car I'd live and I didn't care about driving endlessly as long as I lived that was all that mattered just staying alive.

"Stay in this lane," John said, like a man casually giving directions to a friend. "We're going to L.A."

So he couldn't read. Can I use that in some way? I asked myself. But all my thoughts seemed to collect at the barrel of a gun, then freeze, like space particles at the event horizon of a black hole. I glanced out the window and saw skyscrapers lit up as if each window were a beacon. Inside those buildings, I thought, are people who are going to live, tonight and tomorrow.

"Take the next exit."

I had to make a decision. Get off as told or keep going. Which one was the biggest chance? My neck muscles burned with tension. I felt as if I were balancing a thousand pounds on my head. Would he really shoot me in the car as I drove? Before I could think it over I felt myself mechanically turning on the right signal indicator. We were getting off the freeway. Bile rose to the back of my throat. The car was going too fast. I pumped the brake, thought about driving through the stop sign, then stopped, praying for a police car. Of course, I thought. Why would there be any cops around at all when someone is holding a gun to me? For the first time in my life I would have given anything to see BIG BAD POLICEMAN.

Dots danced in front of my eyes and for a moment I thought that a cloud of flies had landed on the hood of Carl's car. Something hard poked me in the ribs. The bottom of the car seemed to drop away from me as my feet went numb. Sweat rolled down my back and from under my arms. I became even more frightened when I realized just how frightened I was.

"Turn left," John said.

For a split second I couldn't remember where left was. He had the gun planted in my side. The light turned green. I took my foot off the brake and let the car roll through the intersection, turning left in a slow arc like a lumbering hippopotamus. The city looked old, cold and gray, all polished concrete, with nothing moving along its wide and empty streets but souls trapped in shadows and scraps of paper.

"City of the dead," I said silently to myself, shuddering at the thought of vast, empty offices, riderless busses, darkened doorsteps and the unsheltered asleep in alleys under mounds of rags and greasy, wrinkled newspaper.

We drove silently uphill and then downhill, past little stores with Spanish names, large granite colored buildings, benches with advertisements on them, billboards and a few lonely looking people in coats and hats pushing shopping carts.

"We're going into that garage," John said loudly, making all the muscles on the right side of my face twitch. "You'll have to stop and get a ticket but don't worry, we'll validate it."

"Great," I thought. "Like that's what I'm worried about." But I also clung to a morsel of hope by that remark. Maybe I was being given one more chance. If I had to polish cars for the rest of my life and do nothing else but watch game shows I wouldn't complain.

"Park anywhere."

The garage was empty. I pulled into the first stall I saw, listening to the tires squeal and echo on the slick cement, then set the brake and turned off the engine. This was it. For some weird reason I remembered Raymond Burr waiting to be stomped to death by Godzilla, saying calmly to his tape recorder, "This is it, George. Steve Martin signing off from Tokyo, Japan." I'd always found those words, intended to be his last, very moving. This is it. A man's way of saying the big goodbye. What else was there to say, anyway, about IT? I closed my eyes. This is how Chuck and Louie would find me, it, the body. This is it, George. Fick signing off from a garage of all places!

Something popped open. I smelled tuna.

"Hope you don't mind if I eat," John said.

I opened my eyes, looked in his direction. The man was eating a sandwich.

"Sorry, but I get headaches if I don't eat regularly," he said, taking another bite.

I slowly unfastened my seat belt, leaned back, took a deep breath, counted to three, then grabbed the door handle. Something shot across my face and my head hit the window with a crack.

And that was it.


"Truth is an expensive proposition."
-Rufus A, Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

Water, heavy as lead, dripped on my forehead PAT! PAT! PAT! even as I turned on my side, covered my face and felt that it was dry. Something soft and scratchy covered me. Suzie? But I was on something narrower and not as soft as my bed. And someone was going to...I sat up too quickly, sending ocean waves of needles and pins crashing against the left side of my head. PAT! PAT! PAT! A towel fell off my head and landed in my lap. PAT! PAT! PAT!

The room was dark and the walls were covered with flies. A few flew noiselessly from one end of the room to the other, passing through my eyes and out the back of my head. Each one had eyes that looked like a wall of little television sets.


The word echoed from the tunnel of a cave a thousand miles deep. I closed my eyes and gripped the sides of my aching head. My hair was damp.


It was the little fly-fairies, they were finally talking to me. Good.

Mr. Fick
mr. FICK

And they knew my name. They even sounded familiar. I pressed my hands to my face and put my elbows on my knees, fighting nausea. No, that wasn't fly-fairies. A man. A man's voice. I started to rise. A large, hard hand touched my shoulder.

"Don't stand up." This was some other voice.

"Yes, yes, lie down Mr. Fick." the man who was a man and wasn't a fly-fairy said. "Terrible, simply terrible, I can't tell you how sorry we are. Hans told me what happened. That man will no longer be in my employ, eh Hans?"

"He is a beast," some other voice, who was Hans, who was Hans pressing the scratchy towel back against the side of my head, said.

"You told me before that he was a beast."

"Yes I did."

"But I didn't listen to you."


"Now I do, Hans, I do now. Terrible, simply terrible. He had no right to lay a finger on you."

"And the gun, Victor!"

Victor. Who is Victor? Where am I? Okay, okay, okay, I thought. This is not Wang's Chicken & Donuts.

Pat pat pat! the eraser of a pencil bouncing off wood, then something harder, like steel inside thick plastic, whomp whomp whomp!

"I will have him arrested for that! How dare he carry a gun! He is a thug and a monster. Are we criminals, Hans!"

"No sir."

"I tell you Mr. Fick that I will have that man arrested and... and... and... he will regret such brutality, I tell you that now. We will...call the police, Hans?"

"Yes sir."

"We will call the police and have that man arrested. How is your head?"

I removed the towel, then touched my head. The wet, sticky hair above my left ear made my throat feel slimy and I had to fight to keep from gagging. I looked up. The room was dark, lit by a single lamp on top of a large desk. There were no flies. Had I been hallucinating? At least my hearing had returned to normal, although my vision was fractured and blurry.

"What do you want?" I croaked, closing my eyes and pressing the towel against the side of my head. It felt like the fur of an angry animal.

"Thank you, Hans, you may wait outside now. I wish to have a few words with our unfortunate guest before you take him to be examined. I cannot tell you how terribly vexed I am at what has happened tonight. John must have gone completely mad. He has been in my employ for several years as a private investigator. I sent him to you so that he could ask you a few questions and invite you to see me. That was all I sent him out to do. His actions tonight prove that he has become a dangerous lunatic. You may have suffered a slight concussion but we will get you looked at, don't worry."

"I thought he was going to kill me," I said.

"If this were not so nearly tragic it would be humorous, for you see, the last time you were in this office you were ill, suffering from the flu, I believe."

"Oh, I remember you now," I said. "You're the lawyer."

"Victor, Williams, Mash and Oberman, at your service."

"I think," I said, looking up to see the familiar bald, slightly egg-shaped head. "That I should go now. I'm a little worried about a friend back home."

"I did want to speak to you," Victor said, standing up, then gliding toward me on his mechanical legs.

Of course, I thought. Kidnapped, nearly killed and I still had to pee. Why wouldn't he want to talk?

"You have suffered, to be sure, and have suffered terribly, but, my friend, you have no idea of what it's like to suffer as I have by losing every limb.. There is no way that someone, even someone like you, could imagine waking up to discover that your body has been taken away from you. And then, on top of that, to find out that your wife, the one person in the world you depend upon the most, is walking away from you for a vulgar, loud-mouth sales hack. The mind can only withstand so much. I could only withstand so much. Do you have any idea of what I'm trying to say, Mr. Fick?"

"Yes, I think I do," I said, seeing Dorothy, seeing her disappear up a tree.

"I was, for many years, a man controlled by only one emotion, and that was rage. My body had been wrecked and another man had taken my wife. I had lost everything that mattered to me."

"I know," I said, thinking about John with an involuntary shudder. He was out there somewhere, a dangerous man with a gun who hated me. What if he got to Dorothy? I had to call her and I had to call the police.

"In an insane state of mind-and believe me, Mr. Fick, I am not attempting to make excuses for myself-I used you to get back at that man."

"The...man," I said, feeling the onset of a massive headache.

"You know to whom I am referring."


"The Best Networker in Babbleon!"

"Oh, that guy. Listen, can I use your phone?"

"I wanted him dead, at any cost. But how? Hans will do anything I ask but you have no idea how hard it is to find a reliable chauffeur, so I had to find a fall guy, a patsy! And there you were, Mr. Fick! There you were!"

"I knew it!" I screamed, jumping to my feet. Nearly blacking out, I fell back on the couch.

"At the softball practice..."

"I was...I was drugged."

"Yes, and later, at the house..."

"You were the one..."

"No, I had Hans go to the house. He was supposed to...to do the job since I could not. Only..."

"He didn't die."

"Yes, the evil bastard lived, saved by an experimental drug that saved his brain. But you. When you awakened with the bat in your hand, stripped to your underwear, in such an incoherent state...What would anyone think?"

"And then," I said, no longer Fick but Sam Spade. "You let me take the rap."

"Well, that was the idea. But as I regained my sanity, as I saw how poor Hans was suffering for what I had him do, as I considered what you must have endured in prison, I conceived of a bold idea that, I hoped, would make things right."

"Oh Jesus," I said, feeling weak and miserable inside, dropping the towel, sinking into the couch. "Let me guess. This has something to do with the will..."

"Yes! I put you in Carl's will. I made you rich."

"To keep me quiet."

"Yes, yes, that was also the idea, to keep you quiet. But then you started getting mixed up with these crazy, dangerous people."

"That's me," I muttered. "Always at the wrong place at the wrong time."

"You must stay away from this Circle of Friends."


"I cannot explain."

"Seems to me that you have a lot of explaining to do," I said angrily.

"I have said all that I can for the present," Victor announced, gliding back to his desk.

"What makes you think that I won't go to the police?" I said.

"I expect that you will," he sighed, sitting down.

"And that I won't tell them everything you just told me?"

"The question is, will they believe you? What evidence do you have? "

"Oh I think they'll listen to me," I said. A voice in my head told me to shut up but I couldn't help myself. This man had set me up for attempted murder. Patsy! He had used me like a puppet, sitting there behind his big desk, scheming like some demented, steel and plastic insect. He would pay for what he had done to me. Nobody, I thought, screws around with Fick and gets away with it.

"Well good for you," Victor said. "I can't say that I wouldn't do the same thing. A man abused so much should feel a normal amount of resentment. No doubt you'll have the entire scandal exposed and send me to prison. You will be completely vindicated. Good will triumph in the end, as it always does at the conclusion of a good movie. But before you embark on your crusade for justice may I ask you just a few questions? I promise to keep them short as I'm keenly aware that you're in need of medical attention."

How could anyone talk so much like a book? I thought. As if he wrote, and then memorized, his own speeches. The floor tilted up to meet me as I attempted to stand up. I crept forward on my hands and feet, uncertain as to what I should do next.

"For instance, you're relationship with Dorothy. How did that come about?"

My head was swimming. I couldn't tell if I were right side up or upside down so I kept still, hands and feet to the floor, like a man about to do a push-up.

"Have you been having, shall we say, an intimate relationship with this midget?"

A basketball inflated inside my head. I lowered one knee to the floor, then another, trying to ignore the blood trickling down my face.

"Go to hell," I rasped, closing my eyes against the pain. The door had to be somewhere. I'd crawl to it if I had to.

"Who has Dorothy contacted here?"

"Ask your snitch," I snarled, stopping to cradle my head in my hands.

"Oh my snitch has told me quite a lot, thank you. By the way, do you know that he once made a living doing voices for Saturday morning cartoons? His most famous role was that of a secret agent by the name of Hidden Meaning. Wonderful voice, that man, but his temper has always gotten the better of him, I'm afraid, and he has never held any job for very long. I shall be sorry to lose him."

"I won't be sorry till he's locked up next to you."

"Ah that's what I like, a fighting spirit! Although it doesn't look like you have much fight left in you. Oh dear, you won't black out on me will you? John has a black belt, by the way. I once saw him smash a pile of bricks with a karate chop. He could have easily killed you with his bare hands."

"Zata fak?" I said.

I heard his feet once more on the soft floor, creeping toward me.

"Who else knows about the Circle of Friends? How many are there on this side of the tree? Are those people you work for, Dill and Emily, involved?"

"Leave them out of this," I said. My voice felt as if it were deep in my chest. My mother knelt down next to me, turned into a grinning ape, then vanished. I had four hands and four feet. Double vision. I wondered if I were dying of a brain hemorrhage.

"If you hurt them or Dorothy... I'll kill you."

"Is it possible!" Victor said, standing in front of me on four feet. "That you could honestly be so stupid, that you could actually know as little as you claim, that you, by sheer dumb luck, stumbled upon one of the greatest secrets of all time?"

"Life is full of funny coincidences," I said without a trace of humor in my voice. Only anger. Endless, bottomless rage.

"Yes, just so. I am very sorry, Mr. Fick. I will have Hans take you to the hospital immediately. You can use his cell phone to call Dorothy and, if you still have a mind to do so, the police. Good evening."

I tried to get to my feet. It was so dark. Where was I? My knees felt like crumbled rubber bands. An arm sliding under mine. Dark suit. Large, hard hands lifting me up.

"Let me help you," Hans murmured in my ear. He smelled good, like cologne and tropical punch.

"My head," I said, trying to focus my eyes.

"The car is downstairs. Can you walk?"

I leaned against him. His body was enormous, a solid slab of brick. Had he really whacked The Best Networker in Babbleon with a bat?

"Oh, I can walk," I said, wondering if there was a bathroom that I could use. "Just watch me."

It wasn't until we were standing in front of the elevator that I came to my senses. Hans was not taking me to the hospital. Victor had wanted to know if I could in any way be useful to him and I had obviously proven to him that I couldn't. This little game was drawing to a close. I had to clear my head, think and think fast. If I ever needed Sam Spade, it was now.

Leaning on Hans, I watched the round numbers above the elevator door light up one by one. A tooth on the right side of my lower jaw felt loose. I felt time slow to a crawl, then stop, the way it does when you stare long enough at the second hand of a watch. I had to do something. But what? Hans was a gorilla, over six feet tall and wall to wall muscle. I could hear the elevator ascending through the empty building. The doors would open any second. There had to be something I could do. I might die, I thought, but I won't be led to my death like a dumb animal.

The elevator doors slid open noiselessly and for a split second I thought that I had gone deaf. Hans said something, a word I don't remember, and then I bent over as if I were about to be sick.

When he took half a step back, keeping his enormous hands on my shoulders, I looked at the open elevator, took a deep breath, then pushed against him as hard as I could. To my astonishment it worked. Hans hit the back wall of the elevator, then fell just as the doors closed. I had my chance!

I looked both ways, then turned right and began running as best I could. The top of my head felt as if it were being pounded from the inside by a coffee can filled with sand. Everything looked fuzzy and lopsided; and a couple of times I hit a wall. This was just like one of those nightmares that I used to have: the monster chasing me as I try to run on legs that have turned to lead.

It was a bigger building than I had thought and it felt as if I had run a mile before I reached the end of the hallway. There, at last, was the stairwell. I yanked the door open, wincing at the image of Hans or John standing on the other side with a gun. But no one was there. I bolted through the door, bounced off the wall I barely felt, then turned and began running down the stairs.

It's funny what your brain can manage to rummage through in the old memory box even in a state of sheer terror.

Emily said, "What are you hiding from?"

I thought,"I'm not hiding anymore. I'm running!"

Down and down and down and down, turning to the left and then the left and then the left again, holding the cold, flat rail, expecting Hans to grab me from behind at any second.

How many flights were there? I tried to think.

A lot. Hundreds maybe.

"He won't look for me," I thought. "He doesn't want to kill me and now he has an excuse, he can tell Victor that I got away."

Every time I passed a door I expected Hans or John to jump out of it. My face and chest felt numb. What if I had a heart attack?

"Get to Dorothy before they do, get to Dorothy before they do," I told myself over and over again.

I wouldn't give myself the luxury of giving up, of dying. The bastards. I'd live just to get even.

I'd live to be with Dorothy.

When I ran down the last flight of stairs I felt as if every muscle in my body had been crushed by pliers. There were large spots in front of my eyes. I leaned against the last door, the door to the garage, and listened as I tried to catch my breath. Every limb trembled as if I had just done thousands of pushups and knee bends.

Oh Jesus, I thought. He'll be right there, of course, expecting me. I should go up to the next floor, try to find an open office and a telephone.

No, no. Don't be stupid, everything's locked.

I could...I could...

Go to the next level and find a fire alarm!

Why hadn't I thought of that first?

Of course, of course, that was my only chance, pull a fire alarm, wait for help...

While they come for Dorothy.

Christ! I put my hands over my face, trying to listen, trying to think, trying to hold in the pain. I felt for my keys but couldn't find them, uncertain if I could drive anyway. I had to get away, find a phone somewhere.

So there was nothing left to do but make a run for it. It was my only chance.

I cracked open the door, felt a rush of cool air. My heart threatened to explode as I closed my eyes, pulled the door open, then jumped through. I was in the garage and Hans...Hans wasn't there! Or was he? I crouched down, looking right and left, trying to listen over the pounding of blood in my chest and ears. Could it actually be this simple?

Maybe he really wasn't looking for me. Maybe he was saying to Victor at this very moment, "He got away, boss. There was nothing I could do."

It could...it could be that he wasn't there. Quiet, no footsteps, nothing. I slipped off my shoes, then began to skate over the smooth cement of the garage, looking frantically around me. Where was the exit?

I saw three parked cars. One of them looked like mine although I couldn't be sure since I still had broken mirrors in my head.

There, to my right, a yellow sign, EXIT, and the ramp out. No one in sight. I was free and clear.

I ran up to the sidewalk on my stocking feet, slipped my shoes back on, then ran across the street toward a large, graham cracker colored building that had a few lights burning inside. If I could get inside...

A man stepped out of the doorway and I froze.


Not Hans. Who was that? The voice...

"Scarecrow?" I said, drenched in sweat and feeling the cold air, trembling so hard that my spine threatened to crack.

"Been looking for you."

Not Scarecrow. Who...who...A dazed owl flew into a power line and a slow current of fear cracked the bones in my lower jaw.

A crumbled sack fell on the ground and the smell of jelly donuts leaked through the air.

"Mr. Kristos? Is that you?"

Out of the shadows now. Yes, thank God!

"You've got to help me," I cried out "They're trying to kidnap me or something."

"You missed your last scheduled appointment and now you're under arrest," Mr. Kristos said, holding something dark in his hand.

A gun, of course.

"Fine, okay, I'll...we just have to get out of here," I said, putting my hands up. I suddenly became calm. Just another gun. Or maybe I had resigned myself to getting killed.

"You made her cry, Fick, you bastard."

"I did? Oh..uh..." Her? Her who?

Closer now, gun level at my face. Eyes red from crying, face pale, breath-even from here-sweet as caramelized sugar.

"You..don't even know who I'm talking about, do you?"

"Uh, Mr. Kristos, you see, the thing is..."

"When she heard you call her a cartoon, she cried all night."

"What the hell are you talking about?" I snapped. There is only so much a man, even a terrified man, can take.

"Lisa, little Lisa Simpson, my only child."

He was delirious. Or completely insane.

"Now I'm going to kill you."


The explosion broke my spine in half and I fell to the ground. No air. Knee bones bounced, jarring. My body felt as if it had been run over by a train but...Nothing had hit me. I looked down. No blood.

Mr. Kristos lay on the ground, arms spread out as if he were relaxing. Footsteps behind me. I turned to see Hans. Hans holding a gun. Thoughts dribbled through my brain like tree sap. Hans. Gun. Hans. Had. Shot. Mr. Kristos.

Was he dead? I got to my feet in a wave of dizziness, afraid that at any moment I would black out.

"I couldn't let him kill you," Hans said, his voice muffled in my head from the explosion.


Guns. Two, three of them. All pointed at me. Of course.

"You see, that's my job."

And then, like Superman doing a somersault, I flew back, back into the dark permafrost of eternity.


"At some time, before there was time, God probably flipped a coin..."
-Opening scene from, "Mother of Frankenstein"
by Rufus A. Pervus


no sound no silence no space no emptiness no light no dark-
no movement no stillness no in no out no cold no heat-
no negative no positive no creation no destruction
no past no present no here no there-
no beginning no end
no work no rest
no you-
no it-
no i-




particlewave rotates straight lines curvature-

everything all making empty all to everything empty-
flows away rings expanding away to-
fire flower fields-
radiant night-
disks scatter winds round dancing light illuminates-
comes from not-

all one i everyone-
each time anywhere everywhere-
when that i knew time waiting there was that and that before i after time no time-
clouds no a one no many infinite i one many all where-
wings to where all wings to fly where wings-
scratching head a head my head a foot my foot-
no yes no yes-
come i back you then always back-
again before will-

was am will be
walking on the wet grass evening stars faint and rubies roll the satellites on velvet black there light from windows hall white blue red like christmas fogs the air quiet peaceful cool you pad on grass your leather shoes your black suit long and loose you stop
i stop to look where is the moon tonight i ask a woman takes your arm my arm so young she asks how are you doing so long the day you must be tired
oh not so tired just thinking how much you look like her just now she was you know your grandmother was a lovely woman no no i'll be all right and back in soon
love you

lift up your wings hip hoppity hop they say their wings are tucked in tight you have been looking through scrapbook lives you'll live you lived your living now speak

it's a boy congratulations a boy

say da da say ma ma

don't be shy oh look he's got your eyes

put your right foot out put your right foot in

llloyd, the bastard, you know that'll cost us

that girl helen says she likes you

take this man

not beaten


you want to buy a house like this one don't you

this court hereby

hold still damnit

polish cars the way a man should love a woman you

hiding from

never loved anyone did you

not a child a dwarf

that's my job

a promotion my boy just think

he was fine

what happened

mister fick?

mister fick sir?


"If you want to know what a society really thinks human nature is, take a look at its prisons."
-Rufus A. Pervus
The Science of Mechanology

The light was strange. There were long, ice white fluorescent bulbs on the ceiling but they didn't seem to emit enough light. I was on a cot. Someone else was in the room, a young woman wearing jeans and a black shirt. As I felt my face she arose, took one step toward me, looked bug-eyed, then turned around and began to walk briskly out of the room, which smelled like coffee and donuts.

"I'll tell 'em he's awake now," she said in between snaps of chewing gum.

"Urk," I said, sitting up. My head felt as if it had just finished ringing the bells of Notre Dame. Where was I? What had happened to me? I patted my head, neck chest and shoulders, then ran my hands down my stomach, feeling something hard and metallic on my finger. No blood, no wound.

He had a gun.

I stood up, then spun in a complete circle. An elderly man wearing slacks, a plaid shirt and jacket sat on a folding chair, quietly contemplating me with a faint smile on his face as if he were either concerned and trying to hide it or waiting for me to finally say something sensible.

"Are you all right Mr. Fick sir?"

"I dunno.Where the hell am I?"

"The lounge," he said with what sounded like an East-Indian accent. He had little eyes that twinkled and a small, thin moustache so close to the color of his face that it looked as if it were made of dried skin.

"How long have I been asleep?" I said as I lost my balance and almost fell over the cot. My hands came together and once again I felt something hard and metallic. I brought my hands up to my face for a closer look, then saw that I was wearing a ring. I don't normally wear rings. Were had this come from? It looked like a wedding band. I walked around the other side of the cot and sat down.

"You fainted Mr. Fick sir," the man said, demonstrating my recent loss of consciousness by letting his right arm drop toward the floor.

"I did?"

"Too much work Mr. Fick sir, and, I think, not enough food."

"No. No, what happened was, I was shot," I said, feeling the words lodge on the back of my throat like stickers, looking down at my clothes. Plaid shirt, jacket. What the old man was wearing. A uniform?

He tilted his head and his smile faltered as his white eyebrows came together. For a second he closed his eyes and almost imperceptibly moved his lips, as if he were talking to himself or reciting a short prayer.

"I'm sorry but do I know you?" I said.

"You're not well Mr. Fick sir," he said slowly, putting his hands on his knees, then standing up. "We should get you to the hospital right away."

"But I need to make a phone call," I said

"Well, then," he said, gently stroking the side of his smooth, unwrinkled face with the tips of his fingers.

"Is there a phone here?"

"Yes, Mr. Fick sir, yes, of course but, you're not yourself. An ambulance is on the way."

"It is?"

"Yes sir."

"How do you know?"

"I just called them, of course. Please, you should lie down Mr. Fick sir."

"Well I do feel sort of strange," I said, turning the ring around my finger, feeling my face turn cold as wax. I closed my eyes, saw nothing, saw rings of incandescent gas rushing against the boundaries of empty, infinite space, then felt myself falling back as the old man, extending his hands, rushed toward me.

Light again. Cold. I opened my eyes, looked at the shadow of a tree on the wall to the right of the window.

Something wasn't right. I rubbed my eyes, felt a strange feeling of numbness on one half of my face. Soft-soled shoes squeaked on a floor somewhere. Someone had taken off my clothes and put a gown on me. There was a muffled voice outside the room that was followed by the sound of wheels. I sat up in bed, pulled on the collar of the gown and looked down at myself. No wound and nothing was missing. Perhaps I hadn't been shot. But if I hadn't been shot then what was the matter with me, why did I keep blacking out?

Where was I?

Even more importantly, when was I?

I looked down at the plastic bracelet on my right wrist and at the wedding band on my left forefinger. I took deep breathes, felt the beating of my heart, closed my eyes, pressed the sides of my head with the palms of my hands, knowing, with dread in my stomach heavy as boulders, that I would never see Dorothy again.

A clock on the wall counted the seconds, seeming to whisper my name

fick- fick- fick

What happened to me? I asked myself.

Was I alive, or was I still dead?

The door opened and a young woman wearing a business suit marched in. There was a white label pinned on the lapel of her coat, announcing that Dr. Grummer had just entered the room.

"Lie down," she said. She had a surprisingly low, husky voice for someone with such a tiny, waif-like body. Her hair was black and short enough to comb with a wet finger. She had blue eyes, very brightly lit, that looked as if they were trying to bring the tip of her nose into focus, giving her face a look both of concentration and mild confusion.

"I feel okay now," I said, lying down. I didn't really feel okay but that's what I usually tell doctors, especially when they might find something actually wrong with me.

"Chest pains?" she said, taking my pulse. Her hands were tiny and cold. They reminded me of little birds, dead and plucked.

"No, nothing like that. I know how this might sound but I was shot. Or I thought I had been shot."

"Shot?" Her brightly lit blue eyes lit up an extra kilowatt.

"By a man named Hans which is why," I said, feeling as if I had just lost a game without moving a piece. "I have to call, well, you see, the, uh, police."

She took a pencil flashlight out of a drawer, then used it to look into my right eye. When I involuntarily closed it the lights in the room went out. Feeling my veins turn into rivers of ice, I placed a hand over my right eye.


"I don't see. My left eye," I said, squeezing the words out of my throat. My heart sputtered like a flooded car engine.

"Fick, I want you to lie still," she said.

"Where am I how'd I get here what's wrong with my eye!"

"Fick, I want you to listen very carefully to what I'm about to ask you," Dr. Grummer said.

"Okay, okay," I huffed, hardly able to hear my own voice over the roaring of blood in my ears.

"What is the last thing you remember?"

"A man, Hans, pointing a gun at me," I said, pulling the sheets up to my chest with hands that felt numb all the way down to the elbows.

"And then?"

"I don't know...Nothing, then everything and the stars, I was a fly, sort of, or something, I dunno, all I know for sure is that I had wings and the universe kept getting blown up and made all over again and then I was in a room with an Indian man. He told me I had fainted."

"Do you know who I am?" she said.

"No," I said, putting fingers up to my left eye. I could see three of them but not the index finger and thumb.

"I'm going to give you something to help you calm down," Dr. Grummer said.

Feeling panic swarm over me like flesh-eating ants, I jumped out of bed and began pacing up and down the room on my bare feet.

"My eye," I sobbed, feeling my face turn hot and liquid.


"Oh my God."

"Fick, sit down, please, let me call a nurse. You were shot. It happened five years ago. It's how you lost your eye."

"What the hell are you talking about!" I screamed.

A man wearing white pants and a white shirt took me by the shoulders. He had hair as red as a clown's, an upturned nose and a mouth that looked as if it had to fit around ferocious horse teeth. He frightened me because he seemed to have come out of nowhere.

"I'm going to give you an injection," Dr. Grummer said. "I need you to take slower breathes because you're hyperventilating. Mr. Fick, do you hear me?"

I was slumped on the floor. The clown-nurse put his hands under my arms, propping me up like a rag doll. Dr. Grummer squatted down. A tiny gold pyramid hung at the base of her throat. She held up something that looked like a miniature squirt gun in her right hand.

"Good, good, you'll feel better in a few seconds," she said.

Dim light, soft and yellow as old newspaper. Something warm and heavy on me. I sat up and reached out, expecting to find Suzie at the foot of the bed. My mouth was so dry that I couldn't pry my lips apart. Where was I? I began to look around for Dorothy, trying to remember the dream I had just had about her, trying to remember where I had fallen asleep.

A woman sat slumped over in a chair, snoring.


"Hello," I croaked, feeling the coat on my tongue break like a sand dollar.

"Uh? Ow, Fick, you're awake!"

"I guess so. Where am I?"

"You're in the hospital, darling."

"Who are you?" I said, looking at my bed stand for something to drink.

"Samantha. Fick it's Samantha, your wife."

"Oh, okay," I said, pouring water into a plastic cup.

"You're...feeling better?" She said, gripping the rail on the side of the bed.

"Well I don't know. Depends on whatever I'm feeling better than. Who did you say you were again?"

"Fick, it's Samantha. Samantha your wife."

"That's nice," I said, taking a sip of the water, knowing that there was nothing to get upset about because the whole thing was a dream. The doctors could have burst into my room and told me that they were going to amputate every limb, like what they had done to Victor, Williams, Mash and Oberman, and I wouldn't have cared. By body felt light as helium. Life was good. Whatever they had given me, I wanted a lifetime supply.

"Don't you know me?"

"You look familiar," I said, resting laced fingers on my chest.

"I do!" Her eyes were hopeful.

"I waxed your car," I said, reaching down to scratch my butt. That felt good. "And your mom's. You gave me lunch."

"Yes Darling, yes! Do you remember anything else?"

"Not after I was shot. Lost an eye. Oh well. Do you know where Dorothy is?"

Her face, which was already pale, turned a shade paler.

"I don't know a Dorothy."

"I guess not, since people find her hard to forget. She's a dwarf. Lovely woman. I was going to run off with her to that other world where everyone makes their money selling pot. But she doesn't make money selling pot because she's a barber, you see. Stands on a box, I suppose, though I never got around to asking her."

"You never said anything about her."

"Well that's okay because I don't remember marrying you. What's your name again? I forget."


"Oh yeah, that's it. Well you're still pretty. How long have we been married?"

"Five years."

"You don't say," I muttered, pouring myself another cup of water. Excellent stuff. I wondered if it contained poison or drugs.

"We have two little girls."

"No! Really?"

"Sally and Cathy. Fick. Fick, don't you even remember your little girls?"

"Nope," I said, sliding back under the covers. "But it's okay, Samantha or whatever your name really is. I'll wake up soon. Or I'll go back to being a cosmic fly again. Who knows? It doesn't matter."

I rolled over on my side, pulled the covers over my head, and sank into a warm, peaceful cocoon. If this is what it's like to be awake, I thought, sleep must be even better.

"He should get some sleep now," I heard Dr. Grummer whisper.

For some silly reason the image came to me of Dr. Grummer standing on furry little mouse feet, and I fell asleep giggling. Then I had the most fantastic dream I had ever had in my entire life.

I was floating in a building without floors, so high up that I could not see the ground, listening to the soft, sweet music of strings, low horns, drums and flutes amid a gentle sea of murmuring voices. Windows lit with red neon signs as big and intricate as stained glass formed vast, endless corridors in all directions. Silver ribbons twriled and fluttered through the air, forming letters and words.

"Half price on all Niki men's and women's high-tops!"

I tried doing a loop and found that I could. Weeeeeeeeee!

"Sixty percent off all Lenox stem ware!"

Stores, stores, stores and more stores, and all stocked with the greatest bargains in the history of shopping! Foam mattresses made in Sweden! Gem studded Swiss watches! Gift baskets filled with smoked cheese, baked ham and bottles of champagne! Hand-blown paper weights! Automatic yo-yos! Silk pajamas! Non-stick waffle makers! Trays of chocolate covered nuts and caramel; thick squares of fudge, peppermint sticks, canisters of popcorn and peanut butter pretzels! Diamond rings, necklaces and earrings sparkling like sparks frozen in ice! Robot dogs and artificially intelligent dolls! Three-dimensional wallpaper! Permanently scented carpets! Pills to boost I.Q.! Orgasm inducing video games! Mood tattoos! Paint-on computers for your fingernails! Talking shoes! Chess sets hand made in Mexico! Lamps made of roses in cut amber glass! Vases from Peru! Books that talk when the pages are touched! Wrinkle remover, hair restorer and complete gym workouts in a pill! Cookbooks that do the cooking for you! Leather pants, jackets and purses! Your own personalized rainbows! Stars in the Milky Way, asteroids, comets, newly discovered plants, tiny towns along unpaved roads and barefoot orphans named after YOU! Novels, movies and soap operas all about YOU!

So much for so little. Impossible to resist!

To the best of my memory I bought a giant basket of fruit, a train set, a charcoal print of Jiminy Cricket, one hundred pounds of organic pistachio nuts, five Rolex gold watches, a moving picture jig-saw puzzle, flower print boxer shorts, hand carved wooden ducks, a Dickens' miniature Christmas village set with live-action Scrooge and Tiny Tim, and a magic set for ages 8 and up.

Then I sank into blissful, dreamless sleep.

Before I left the hospital I had to talk to a psychologist named Pete.

He had a full black beard, was barrel chested and had excessively hairy arms and hands. Just before he said anything he would close his mouth, pull his lips slightly in, then tilt his long, doleful looking face down so that he could look at me as if he were reading with a pair of bifocals on. Even though he looked about as dangerous as a chess player or any other introverted intellectual, I spent a lot of time looking at his hands, which were not only hairy but enormous and looked as if they could have crushed roast rib bones.

"How are you feeling?" he said, leaning on his knees. His voice was low, gentle and clear, with a slight accent coming up beneath the "are", all that was left, I guessed, of Scotland long ago and far away.

"Sort of all right," I said, adjusting my glasses. I had, I was told, a slight astigmatism in my right eye, which needed extra protection anyway since it was the only one left. "Better, I guess you could say. Trying to get adjusted to everything, all that's happened while I was, wherever I was. Somewhat confused."


"A lot."

"Maybe we can help that."

"I still don't remember anything since the night I was shot," I said, trying, as I always did whenever the subject came up, not to imagine where the bullet hit me.

"What was I doing when I passed out because I don't even remember that."

Pete shifted his weight, slid his hands up closer to his hips, then tilted his head down in that way of his that made me feel like fine print in a newspaper. Except for his eyes, there was nothing in the least effeminate about him.

"You were online. You do a lot of motivational speaking, it's one of the things you're most famous for. I've seen your work."

When people say, gazing at you with quiet, level eyes, "I've seen your work", leaving it at that, it usually means that they are more impressed than they feel they should be. But what, exactly, was my work? It couldn't have been motivational speaking. I'd never given a speech in my life, except when I was in the fifth grade and stood in front of the entire class with my fly open.

"You see, the thing is, I don't have any idea...What is it that I had did, do, had do, done?"

My mouth felt as if it were flying off its hinges.

"Business. How to build one, make money. It's what you do, did. Why do you ask? Is anything starting to come back?"

"No," I said, looking at the fluorescent lights on the ceiling. If I stared long enough in one direction without moving my head, everything in the room began to look flat, like a picture in a magazine or on television. My lack of depth perception made it hard for me to make simple judgments, and I had bruises from running into the corners of walls and tables.

"Getting used to the prosthesis?"

"They taught me how to clean it and put it back in if it ever comes out," I said sourly, hoping that he would change the subject.

"Sleeping okay?" He leaned in to look at me.
"Oh not bad" I said, relieved when he leaned back. "But I always have the same dream, that I'm flying around in some kind of gigantic mall, shopping as if the world were about to come to an end."

"It's not a dream, Mr. Fick," he said. He had big blue eyes the color of swimming pool water. The only feature, I thought, from his mother, if he had one and hadn't been cloned.

"Of course it is," I laughed. "I should know when I'm dreaming."

"You ever had dreams before that you were shopping?" he said, raising his shaggy eyebrows.

"I don't know," I said, shrugging, feeling as if my shoulder muscles were mimicking his eyebrows.

"I'll have to explain something to you, Mr. Fick. You're actually shopping. You don't have to but you may have to learn how to voluntarily activate the shopping menu all over again. Did you know that?"

"Know what?"

"That you're shopping?"

"It's a dream, damnit!" I snapped, forcing myself to look away from his eyes. "What are you talking about?"

It suddenly occurred to me that the color of his eyes were wrong. They should have been brown. I don't know how I came to that conclusion but I was convinced that I was right.

"You've been on the internet," Pete said, folding his huge, hairy arms across his chest.

"Isn't that on computers?"

"Not anymore. Unless your Amish."

"You...you mean to tell me...you mean to sit there and...you...you...you..." I had turned into Elmer Fudd.

"It's a direct cerebral interface, DCI for short. Your company helped pioneer it, Mr. Fick, and it made you the richest man in the world."

"I am?" I felt weak all over, like an insect looking at the shadow of a giant bird. This couldn't be right, and if it were, nothing good could come from it.

"You were sentenced for parole violation after you and Mr. Kristos were gunned down and robbed."

"We weren't robbed!" I shouted, springing to my feet.

"Well, that's what the police said," Pete shrugged. "Try to remain calm. It happened five years ago."

"I went to jail?"

"You're still in jail."

"Are you insane!" I said with such vehemence that I had to wipe spit from my chin. "You expect me to believe that?"

"Not a bad deal when you stop to think about it. Spend time in jail, which doesn't look much like a jail, you'll have to admit, and get a chance to make money. Only you turned out to be the best networker the company ever had."

"What company is that?" I said, feeling my stomach hit a trampoline dead center.

"You don't know?"

"I wouldn't be asking if I did," I shouted.

"Wonder World Ko."

"SONOFABITCH!!" I screamed, covering my head with my hands, sure that at any moment my head would come unglued.

"Look. Do you know...do you have any idea...Mr. Fick, I've been told that you have over 70 million people in your downline, did you know that? All over the world people buy direct at home, at the office or, like you, before they fall asleep, from your company! Wonder World Ko put every other retailer on the planet out of business."

"And..it did it all," I said, struggling to breathe. "With what? Forced labor? Slavery!"

"Well that's what some people call it."

"And I'm what? Some kind of millionaire pitch-man for this mind control outfit?"

"Oh geez," Pete said, poking fingers into his beard. "Ever hear of a guy named Bill Gates?"


"Small potatoes compared to you. You are, Mr. Fick, the greatest living networker in the history of network marketing. Your worth more than most nation states."

"I am?"

"We all work for you. You own this hospital. It's on the grounds of your house."

"I thought I was in jail."

"Technically. You can't go very far or a device in your leg will stop your heart."

"Jesus Christ!" I said, doubling over. "This is a nightmare, this is just what Scarecrow was trying to warn me about."

"Well I don't know," Pete said, spreading his feet apart. "You want to tell me about the scarecrow?"

"You'd think I was crazy," I groaned.

"I get to be the one to tell people they're crazy, and right now you don't strike me as particularly crazy. If the shooting is the last thing you remember, then maybe we should start there. What do you think?"

I stood up, then paced back and forth as I looked down at interlocking triangles in the square white tiles on the floor. A stream of refrigerated air was stirred overhead by the wooden blades of a ceiling fan, cooling my face and neck. I didn't know where or how to begin and I was afraid that once I started talking I'd have to keep talking for the rest of my life, like some oily hoodlum in an endless police interrogation.

"It's a long story," I said at last, looking out the window at rose bushes in bloom.

"If you got the dime I got the time."

"I don't think that I can do it today," I said, feeling nausea rock me like waves of stagnant water. If I were to tell the story-the whole story-I'd need time to think it through, to know, deep down, the truth of what I was about to say, even if it were impossible for anyone rational to believe it.

The next day, in the same room, I stood looking at the rose bushes in bloom. That morning a young male therapist with a ponytail, using a biofeedback machine about the size of a quarter, taught me how to go online whenever I wanted to, how to make telephone calls, write letters, play games, watch television and movies and, of course, how to shop for anything my heart had a desire for. It wasn't a fantasy. I could actually see, buy and own almost anything my imagination could conjure up at The Wonder World Ko Universal Mall. The world had been turned into one ridiculously stupendous theme park for my own personal amusement, and I could have it all just by closing my eyes and mentally manipulating certain simple geometric figures. I had drifted into a world where anything was possible, where want of all kind had been absolutely abolished. Did I desire a gold plated toilet seat? I could have one! Did I want to fly like a comic book super hero over the Grand Canyon? I could do it!

I began to think that maybe-just maybe-I could shed my paranoia and say goodbye forever to Chuck and Louie. Maybe, I thought, things really had turned out for the best after all. From what I had learned there was no unemployment, no brutal prisons like the one I had last been in, and crime was almost unheard of. How could anyone be unhappy? What was there to complain about? The world was now run by a gigantic pyramid scheme (I found my own tiny gold pryamid on a chain in my bedstand and I put it on) and I-Fick-was at the top of it. Way, way at the top!

And yet doubt, like a fly on the back of my head, wouldn't go away.

"The following true story, and I think that it is true, most of it, is about greed, mine and a lot of other peoples'," I said, slipping the gold pyramid inside my shirt. "It all starts at a business opportunity meeting I went to one night while my wife Helen stayed home mad, as usual, smoking in bed and rubbing butts on the wall. If I was ever nuts, let me tell you, I must have been nuts then. You want to know why? Money, of course. Money had taken over my brain like a virus, it's all I ever thought about. It was, I don't know how to describe it. An absolutely inescapable obsession. I wanted to make it big. I wanted to wear an expensive suit, take a vacation to the Riviera. Be successful. Get respect. Maybe I just wanted people to look up to me. I don't know if those are such bad things in themselves but I'm pretty sure, looking back on it all, that I wasn't thinking too clearly. I came to the conclusion a while back that I must have driven poor Helen nuts. She wasn't so mean when we first got married. Used to bite my ears when we made love. Well, anyway, there I was, going to multi-level-marketing meetings when I should have been looking for a job, convinced that I was too good to work like everyone else. That's one of the main ideas in the religion of money, by the way. That people who work for a living, doing something useful, are jerks.

"The American Dream. Now it really is a dream, uh? I remember that an American president once said that, 'The business of America is business.' Maybe that's true. I know how much I wanted a business. So much so that I would have traded anything in the world for it. I suppose that I actually accomplished that in a weird kind of way.

"The problem is, I didn't have a clue. I wasn't much of a salesman, at least not then, although I must have quite a gift for it now. Before I go any further, though, I have to back up and tell you another story first and, just stay with me because it all ties together. or it will if I can just get myself to tell it right. So, okay, here it is.

"There was a man-is a man with a long name, I'll call him V-who was one of those rich, powerful lawyers, well I guess he still is, but a man who lost everything in a terrible accident. Imagine waking up one day to discover that you've lost every limb. Both arms and both legs gone. Can't walk, pick up anything. The worst thing that could happen to anyone. And now imagine the final straw-watching the only human being you have ever loved leaving you for another man, a man with another long name whom we'll call B.

"So, having a lot of free time on his hands, or something, V hatches a scheme of revenge. All he needs is a patsy. Enter Fick, who becomes acquainted with B at a business opportunity meeting. After Fick is drugged at a softball game one of V's hired goons attempts to murder B with a baseball bat. Poor Fick wakes up in his underwear, holding a bat, looking at B in a pool of blood and then goes berserk, convinced that he has just gone criminally insane."

"You were framed?" Pete said, looking at me through a tent he had made with his fingers and thumbs. He sounded pleasantly surprised, like a man who has just gotten his first taste of the unexpected punch line heading his way.

"Like a picture," I said, managing to cough up a short, raspy rattle of a laugh. "But it gets better, Pete, way better. You see, B should have died-would have died if he had been hit in the head like that a few years ago-but something saves him, a miraculous drug that acts like a tiny machine inside living brain tissue to repair it.

"When V starts to think that maybe one day Fick will come to his senses, he hatches another scheme. He'll keep the idiot quiet with money-lots of it-by cooking up a phony will for the estate of the very man who helped develop and test this wonder drug, Amoxotrividian. Fick is suddenly rich and, with any luck, will spend the rest of his life senselessly occupied with toys, television, drugs or who knows what.

"Yeah, pretty fantastic, uh? But as this evil bastard once told me himself, 'life is full of funny coincidences'."

"Go on," Pete said, nodding.

"Something comes along and complicates everything, as something always does, and Pete, all I can say is, try to keep an open mind as I try to explain what happens next."

I took a sip of water, then stood looking out the window at the rose bushes in bloom. As I talked the tightness in my chest loosened, and I felt as if I were moving forward in space, freed from every obstacle ego and whatever good sense I possessed had ever put in my way. I may have imagined what I was telling this bearded shrink, but it was truth to me and now that seemed the only thing that mattered. Dorothy may have been right. Perhaps we can't know the story of our life. But I think that I had gotten a glimpse of an idea that has since become more clear and important to me, which is that truth cannot exist unspoken. The story we know, or at the very least think we know, is not as important as the story we tell. Truth doesn't exist like some kind of disembodied ghost in our skull. It lives and dies when people speak to one another.

"I'm sure you've studied history, being educated. You know the story of how we ended World War Two. We dropped The Bomb. Actually two of them. It began a new century, in a way, some people have called it The American Century, but what most people don't know is that it did a lot more than that. As it was explained to me, when we split the atom we also split the world. I mean that literally Pete, as crazy and far fetched as that sounds. One world-our world-has tried to control everything, to make the whole world's business business itself. The other world never used The Bomb and so turned out in a different way. I don't think that it was ever a perfect world-what world is or could be?- but because it didn't begin with such a terrific act of violence it was...How can I put it? Ever since we nearly destroyed the world we've been frantic to remake everything, including ourselves. Maybe that's guilt. I think that on some level I wanted to remake myself because I felt responsible for what happened to my brother. Well, that's another story. On the other world, for what ever reason, people aren't under so much pressure to control, remake nature, fiddle with genes, saturate themselves with advertising, get more money than they can spend.

"I know what you're thinking, that I'm delusional, and if I were you I'd pretty much come to the same conclusion. But let me go on anyway, because at this point I don't think that it really matters one way or the other."

"Go on," Pete said, rubbing his dangerously strong paws together. He looked like a bear hypnotized by light undulating off the surface of a swimming pool.

I told him how I had met Scarecrow and then Dorothy, the elevator in the tree, the attempt to expose and stop Wonder World Ko, the attempt on my own life by V, even my vision of The Great Beyond. When I finished I had to sit down because my legs felt like broken springs.

"So what do you think?" I panted. "Am I nuts?"

"I don't know," Pete said, crossing his legs, then sliding down into his chair. "But I am curious to know something. Why was V so interested in your involvement with The Circle of Friends?"

"I've wondered about that too," I said. There were shadows on the rose bushes now. They looked like dark, discolored signs, their words erased.

"My guess is, V knew, before a lot of other people, the potential of Amoxotrividian because the man who tested it on himself was V's friend, a man who built prosthetic devices for V after his accident. And I think that V was also into intelligence gathering. One of his spies infiltrated The Circle of Friends so V knew about the group that was planning to go public and wreck a lot of people's plans for, well, Wonder World Ko, for one. V, being the insider that he is, couldn't let that happen.

"So here we are. Wonder World Ko is a reality and you're looking at its top salesman. You know, I don't know if this story has a happy ending or a terrible one. Of course, you may not believe a single word I've said."

Pete shrugged, and for the first time since I'd met him smiled. "What's not to believe? When I was growing up certain things were known by everyone to be impossible. There was only one universe, for example. Now string theory says there may be an infinite number of universes. The best candidate for a unified field theory may have to exclude not only time but space in its equation. So who knows? You tell me there's another world, well, why shouldn't there be? But I do want to meet with you again, Mr. Fick. Would that be okay with you?"

"That'd be okay," I said, putting my fingers on the window, feeling the lingering warmth of the sun so late in the day.

But I couldn't help asking myself if that were the real world outside, or only an illusion. Could I trust anything in a world of Wonder World Ko and a mall that comes to you in a dream?

After a few more tests I was released from the hospital and sent home. I was pushed out in a wheelchair, and then driven in a long black limousine up a long winding road with tall, skinny trees standing like sentinels along both sides. When I saw the huge cluster of buildings we were approaching I felt my jaw drop. We were either coming to a large neighborhood of mansions or a small city.

"Holy smokes," I said, putting my hands between my legs. "This isn't where I live, is it?"

"Yes sir, it is," the driver said.

"You mean my house is around here?"

"They are all your house. Mr. Fick," the driver, an elderly man who looked as if he had no hair beneath his cap, said with an English accent.

"You know," I said, on the verge of giggling. "I remember, once, this jerk asking me if I wanted to buy his house."

"Yes sir."

"Well now, look at the monstrosity I did wind up buying."

"Not bought, sir, built. My cousin was one of the contractors."

"Well what do you know about that! And what about you? You work for me?"

"Yes sir, I do."

"But I don't know your name," I said, nervously rubbing my hands together.

"It's Henry," the driver said, pulling onto a circular driveway made of bricks.

"Well I...hope I've treated you right, Henry," I said, feeling a mounting sense of panic as the car came to a stop.

"Quite right, sir. Here we are. Let me assist you."

I let Henry open the door for me, since that, I thought, was his job; but it felt odd and I found myself wondering if I could trust him. Once you get framed for attempted murder by one chauffeur you may find it difficult to trust another one. You may, as a matter of fact, find it difficult to trust anyone.

It was morning. A mockingbird sang in a nearby tree. Water tumbled in a fountain that stood in the middle of the driveway. I stood in the shadow of a mansion that towered over the surrounding trees like a castle, listening to peacocks cry like cats in the distance. The windows alone were as big as the house I had last lived in. A slender young man dressed as a butler came out the front door, followed by two little girls and a young, curvy woman with blonde hair so curly it looked as if golden corkscrews came out of her head. Samantha came out last, looking pale, thin and cold in a thin white blouse and faded blue jeans.

My daughters-if that's who they were-fell back behind my wife-if that's who she was-wearing identical dark blue velvet, white shoes and hats.

I stood awkwardly in front of them as the butler took my bags into the house.

"Welcome home papa," they said as if on cue.

"Oh, well, uh, thank you," I said, putting my hands down at my sides, then looking at Samantha. What do you say to offspring you didn't know you had? I was so embarrassed that I began to sweat. Was it possible that they were mine? I looked into their face. One of them, the oldest, had my mother's eyes. The other looked more like Samantha.

The realization that they were the most beautiful little girls I had ever seen in my life made me feel as if the inside of my head were expanding; and I thought that this is what it must be like for stone when it comes to life.

"They're on their way to music class," Samantha said, letting them run toward the open door of the limousine with Miss Curvy Corkscrews.

"Hi Henry!" they screamed at the driver, who smiled at them.

Another shock. Henry was closer to my daughters than I was. But then, I thought, why should that come as such a shock? I had been traveling through time for five years. The other me, the one who had built this grotesque fortune, was...someone else.

And where had he gone?

I started to walk toward the house, then stopped and turned around. As I walked back toward the car Henry, sensing what I was about to do, opened the door once more for me. I leaned into the car, looked at my two little daughters again. Yes. There could be no mistake. They were mine.

"I'm glad you're home papa," the littlest one said.

"I'm glad I'm home too," I said, patting her on the head.

"Mama says you don't remember us," the oldest one said, looking down at her lap.

"Are you Sally?" I said.

"I'm Cathy," the oldest one, the one with my mother's eyes, said.

"And you're Sally," I said to the littlest one, the one who looked like Samantha.

"Yes Papa."

"Oh. I'll. I'll see you when you get back," I said.

I sat down on the rim of the fountain as the limousine pulled out, feeling weirdly drained, as if a pump had taken all the blood out of me.

"What's wrong," Samantha said.

"Nothing. It's just that. Well, they're very well behaved little girls and. I didn't expect to feel anything when I saw them. I guess I didn't know what to expect."

"You don't remember them," she said.

"I don't remember anything," I said, looking at the house, mansion, castle.

"Well then," Samantha said, folding her arms against her stomach. Her eyes were sunken and red. The tips of her hair were stuck to her forehead and she looked nervous and exhausted, as if she hadn't slept for a week. The bones in her white arms and face, which looked too prominent, made an alarm in my gut buzz. This woman was sick.

"Welcome home, stranger."


"The human race only needs
two commandments. 'Thou shall not be
stupid about love or money'."
-Rufus A. Pervus
Science of Mechanology

"Welcome home stranger." A week later those words seemed to echo with every footstep I took as I drifted in and out of elevators, wandered aimlessly from one room to another, drove a golf cart around two and three story guest houses, swimming pools, art galleries, office buildings, tennis courts, gardens, a school, concert hall, media center and library.

Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.

I did have to admit that whoever I had been when I had this place designed, I must have had good taste. My art gallery had pictures by Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko and George Bellows, among others. The concert hall was made of pink marble and was surrounded by hand-carved replicas of famous Greek statues. The gardens, filled with rare and exotic plants, were home to ducks, rabbits, deer, peacocks, Canada geese and large, fat fish that swam unmolested in the lakes.

There was an army of people on staff that I had to deal with almost constantly, but it was usually possible for me to wander around without being bothered for at least a few hours a day.

Sometimes Pete accompanied me on one of my tours. He didn't like the golf cart, though, and insisted that we walk most of the way. Pete was very athletic and had, according to him, almost played tennis professionally when younger.

"This direct cerebral what-ever-it-is, how on earth did they come up with that?" I said as we trudged up a winding hiking trail that, at its summit, seemed to lay the entire L.A. basin at our feet.

"Oh... that," Pete said, stopping to smell buckwheat. He had powerful legs that I had trouble keeping up with.

"Most people don't know but it's actually a pretty funny story. Quite by accident. You ever hear of people getting radio reception in their mouth after having braces put in?"

I told him that I had heard of that happening.

"Okay, well, the first documented case was reported by a woman who brought her 13 year old son in for psychological testing because he was compulsively masturbating. Turns out he was looking at porn sites on the internet."

"What do you mean? Like...?" I said.

Pete tapped the side of his head with a finger. "He'd been given Amoxotrividian a month before for a seizure disorder."

"They didn't think he was nuts or something?"

"Not after he started e-mailing his therapist. The kid had figured out how to run programs, said it was easy because he had spent so much time using his iMac and playing video games."

"But, Pete, the internet," I said, wondering what kids all over the world were looking at now. "Is, or the last time I heard about it, you need a phone line, don't you?"

"Not with wireless," Pete said, looking up at the sky. "Satellites. Your own company's Web Star. You know it's funny in a really weird way. Every paranoid's worst fear. I remember the first hospital I worked in when I was still an intern. It seemed every other nut that walked through the door had the same problem-the radio or television was beaming programs into their head. Hey look, now it's reality.."

"And everyone's brain is on the internet?" I said.

"Not everyone's," Pete said, stooping to pick up a flat rock, then expertly spinning it over a bush. "Quite a few people have resisted the temptation to join the Borg."

"What's that?" I said.

"Oh, you remember Star Trek? The Borg were half machine, half organic beings, unstoppable, 'Resistance is futile'."

"Oh yeah, I remember that. I was more into Star Wars."

"Me too."

"So," I said, watching a mosquito flit over Pete's head, wondering if I should warn him of an impending attack. "I guess I joined the ranks of the Borg after I was shot, after Amoxotrividian repaired my brain?"

"No, you're more like the chief Borg," Pete said, looking, like me, down at most of the city of Los Angeles. It looked serene beneath its thin coat of powdered sugar colored smog, like a perfectly planned colony that had been carved into dry rock by a race of extraterrestrial giants.

"Well," I said, putting my hands into my back pockets, wondering if there were anything in my past life that could be salvaged. I had once put my faith in a system, a quasi-religion, and not just out of greed or stupidity. Now I wanted to quote scripture, if for no other reason than to see how the words would feel in my mouth.

"This new internet together with marketing, exponential growth. Must have created a lot of opportunity."

I looked down like Yurtle the Turtle at my domain.

"Oh yeah, it did that all right," Pete said, looking at me sideways.

I watched a mocking bird land on a tree stump, heard a peacock cry out like a cat down below. Hardly any other sounds. I took off my glasses, cleaned them on my shirt. Was I, like Victor, Williams, Mash and Oberman, more machine than man?

Had I really turned into the Borg-the chief Borg?

"You sound like you don't quite believe that," I said, putting my glasses back on. I wondered how far we were from security, those men I occasionally saw wearing rap-around sun glasses, who came out of walls, bushes and doorways, then seeped back in like shadows. Pete, I knew, could have snapped my neck as if I were a chicken. And wouldn't it be a blessing to rid planet earth of the chief Borg?

"You don't know what's going on in the rest of the world," Pete said, taking a step toward me.

"Well, maybe I don't," I said, taking a step back.

"Peru just installed it's third government in nine months," he said, taking another step in my direction.

"Well good for them," I said, taking another step back.

"And it's been considered one of the more stable regimes."

"What are you trying to tell me, Pete," I said, looking at his hands.

"What I'm trying to tell you is, all around the world one economy after another is failing. The poor countries are tired of seeing all of their natural resources being used by rich countries and getting nothing in return and the rich countries have exported all of their industries so they have no middle class, only the super rich, a marginal working class and the poor. Markets have expanded until there's no place left for them to expand. Cheap energy is running out and you have literally billions of people working for the equivalent of one or two dollars a day and technology is wiping out the few jobs they have left. Like you said, it's all falling down like a house of cards."

"When did I say that?"

"The day before you passed out, the day before you had your memory wiped clean."

He said it as if I had deliberately pushed the 'delete' button on my own brain. Had I?

"But the internet...?"

"The internet is a drug," Pete said, looking at the ground for something. Another flat rock-something solid- to spin with the power of his own arm?

"That's all it is, an electronic fix only instead of letting people drop out it keeps them working longer and longer hours mostly for crap they can't afford, or..." He snapped his fingers. "An illusion."

I felt the muscles in my shoulders bunch up as I looked down once more at the city. Was anyone alive down there? What had been going on in the last five years?

"Illusion of what?" I said, feeling a spinning sensation in my head as if my brain were a heavy plate wobbling on a stick.

"That they have everything or that they're going to get everything they've always wanted. And you want to know something, Fick? You're looking at the man who helped design it all."


"It takes psychology to convince people that it's things and money that are more important than people, ideas and emotions. Yep, you recruited me personally and I was more than willing to come along."

"Well," I said, laughing nervously, feeling sweat run down my sides, wondering if this is where he'd kill me. "I guess I know talent when I see it."

"So now let's talk about something else," he said, starting to walk at a brisk pace back down the path.

"Like what?" I said, impatient to get back to a golf cart. My legs hurt. We had been walking for a long time and I was out of shape.

"Like," Pete said, turning around to face me, placing his hands on his hips.

"Tell me about you and Samantha. You are married, in case you've forgotten."

I walked for about a minute down the path before saying anything, following Pete as if I were his obedient disciple. Samantha and I hadn't been getting along. How could we be expected to? I looked at the trees, wondering what worlds could be reached by climbing to their top. Every night I dreamt of Dorothy, and yet I was dismayed to discover one day that, try as I might, I could no longer remember her voice. Sweet, gentle little Dorothy. Not a girl but a woman. I felt a constant ache in my body for her. How could Samantha take her place? What did I know of Samantha, other than the fact that we had been married for five years and had two children? Getting along! How could we? She had married a man who couldn't keep his freedom or even his memory. I thought of escape, of ascending once more into that gnarled, ancient tree and holding in my arms the one I loved.

My brain could have been thin sliced into a romance novel by Norma Ravewood.

Late one night two days before, while sitting on the floor of my study, playing with a train set, eating pistachios and wondering what to do with my charcoal print of Jiminy Cricket, the door opened and Sally came in, dressed in pink pajamas and carrying a can of orange soda with her two little hands.

"You're up late," I said, sliding sections of track together. Funny, I thought, how classic toys never go out of style in an age of high technology.

She walked up to me on her pajama feet, set the can of soda on the floor, then sat down beside me, eyes half-closed and face puffy with sleep.

"What's the matter?" I said. "Sandman didn't pay you a visit tonight?"

It's a sad rite of passage of sorts to realize, when you sit next to a child and don't know what to say or how to act, just how far down that long and lonely road of life you are from childhood. After a few minutes I guessed that the soda was for me; so I drank some, offered her a sip; but all she wanted to do was snuggle next to me. Unsure of myself, I put my arm around her, then felt her little body relax and go limp next to mine. In a few minutes she was asleep. I carefully picked her up, carried her to her room, then put her to bed next to her sister, who slept with her legs draped over the bed board, hands under her head, as if she were sunning herself on the beach.

My brother, I remembered, used to sleep like that.

I tip-toed out of the girls' bedroom, then walked down the long, circular corridor that was bathed in blue light, stopping to look out a window at a pond and a small, arched bridge. The water shimmered in the moonlight like polished, oval gemstone. Suddenly my whole body seemed to press against my heart. I felt lonely, angry and afraid all at once. Five years of my life had been taken away from me. My left eye was gone and I was living as a prisoner with strangers, spending fantastic amounts of money I hadn't made. Richest man in the world but I was a complete fraud. Once again my life had gone haywire in some completely ridiculous way and happiness had slipped from my grasp. And yet I also knew that here, too, was another opportunity. If I couldn't love Samantha I could at least be a father to my daughters. Some men, I told myself, long to have children all their life but the chance never comes along, and as they grow older a nagging sense of emptiness, of having wasted the best years of their life, never leaves them. It wasn't too late for me. And yet I didn't know if I could ever feel right assuming such a role. Maybe, I thought, if I could remember their birth. If I could recover the one memory that is the most precious to parents.

The train set could wait. I was sleepy, but also restless, so after putting on pajamas and a robe I paced the silent hallway like one of those mad kings or wealthy lunatics someone is always writing a play about. As I opened doors and peeked inside I felt as if I were in the world's biggest hotel, a hotel that I had almost all to myself. Room after room after room. All empty. I guess I should have been impressed, since the house, castle or whatever you want to call it looked as if it had been built only to impress people. But at that hour of the night it only seemed like an ornate warehouse, a place built by someone with too much money and time on his hands. I swung open one door, saw Miss Curly Corkscrews in a black lingerie, and started to close the door in her face before I knew what I was doing.

"I'm so... beg your...sorry... pardon," I babbled.

"Come in," she said. She stood in front of a lit fireplace, holding a bottle opener, looking as if she were expecting someone.

"I...I'm just, you know," I said, trying not to look at her body through the nearly transparent lingerie.

"Come in and have a beer," she said. "It'll help you sleep."

"Oh, well," I said. I did want company, and I didn't want to be rude.

She walked on pink slippers over to a chair, then slipped a nightgown over her head.


"Well that's, uh, okay," I said, more embarrassed now that I had to admit to being embarrassed in the first place.

"You don't remember me?" she said, opening one of two dark bottles she had taken out of a small refrigerator.

"Oh I remember you," I said. "You're the, the..." I couldn't think of the word.


"That's it, the nanny. I saw you the first time I came to the house."

She took the slippers off, then walked over to me in her bare feet, smiling like a cat.

"Nice and warm in here, isn't it?"

"Warm, yes, I guess you could say."

She handed me a bottle, which wasn't beer but ale. I took a sip, wondering how best to make a graceful exit.

"Too bad about your memory," she said after taking a long drink.

"Why is that?"

"Well," she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, then running the tip of her little finger around the neck of the bottle. "Some of those memories might be happy."

"Well," I said, sliding my foot toward the door. "You know what they say, what you don't know you don't miss."

"Oh?" she said, lowering her head, then tilting her pale blue eyes up at me. "Is that what they say?"

"You know, actually, I was looking for my wife," I said. That was a lie, but I was getting warning signals from my scalp to the soles of my feet to get out of Miss Curly Corkscrew's room.

"You don't know where she is in your own house?"

"Yeah it's kind of funny," I said, looking at her painted toenails. They had little intricate designs on them in gold and silver. "There are so many rooms in this house and I think she moves around every night."

"She's in the crow's nest," she said, setting her dark bottle of ale down.

"Oh good," I said. The blank look on my face must have said, "Where's that?"

"Just keep going up till you can't go up anymore. That's the crow's nest. There's just one so you can't... miss it."

"Gadzooks," I muttered to myself as I stalked down the hall, a taste of bitter ale in my mouth. "What a crazy damn house."

The next night, unable to sleep, I put on my robe and slippers, then walked down the long, circular corridor that was bathed in blue light. I stopped to look at the pond, then thought about finding the crow's nest. I had seen Samantha only once that day, as we ate breakfast with the girls. We barely spoke. I ate what the girls ate, which was oatmeal, orange juice and a banana. Samantha drank only black coffee. She looked tense and irritable, as if the wrong word would break her like a cracked tea cup. I chatted with the girls, who were going to bake cookies and then go swimming with Miss Curly Corkscrews, our flirtatious, ale guzzling, late-night nanny. Worry, like a tiny worm with one sharp tooth to nibble with, poked its way through my gut. What if Samantha knew where I had been last night? Would it matter to her? Did it matter to me?

It was another beautiful night with the pond and the arched bridge bathed in the reflected light of the moon. Another quiet, beautiful, lonely night. I looked at the door of Miss Curly Corkscrews and felt a tingling sensation in the back of my legs.

"She isn't married," I thought. "And, for that matter, neither am I."

But my feet refused to move in that direction. I wasn't ready for yet another romantic complication; and the thought of sex left me feeling ashamed not only because of Samantha but because I wanted to remain faithful to Dorothy. A part of me still wanted to believe that we would find each other again.

I thought that it might be fun to look for the crow's nest after all, so I walked to the elevator, then changed my mind and took the stairs, thinking of Emily, thinking of my dream.

What are you hiding from?

"Always some damn thing to hide from," I growled under my breath, dragging my hand over the marble banister. There were times when I felt as if I were on the set of a movie, like Citizen Kane.

"Rosebud," I whispered.

Finally, after climbing for so long that my calves ached, I came to the top of the stairs. I was in a little room with a couch, one window and a set of wooden steps that led to a door. The crow's nest.

I sat down on the couch, then looked at an oblong piece of furniture in front of it that I hadn't noticed before, a low glass-top coffee table cluttered with piles of playing cards, empty glasses and an ashtray full of skinny, filtered cigars butts, the kind that look like imported cigarettes. The thought of walking up those wooden steps and knocking on the door suddenly unnerved me. "What if she's not alone?" I thought. Someone had been drinking out of those glasses and smoking those cigars, perhaps the chauffeur.

"It's one thing for me to have an affair with the nanny, but if she's fooling around with the driver I'll kill him," I thought. I was trying to be funny.

The steps looked as if they had been made of teak wood; and I wondered, as I climbed them, if the house had consumed, along with everything else, the last of the rain forest. I stood on the landing, feeling my heart thump in my chest, feeling suddenly anxious and vulnerable.

"Those security men", I thought. "How do I get them if I have to?"

Then I remembered the phone, the one in my chemically redesigned head, and calmed down. After taking a last look at the stairs I prepared to knock; but to my surprise the door swung slowly open the second I touched it.

"Sam," I whispered. "You there?"

It was a small room, built like a cube, with windows, which were open, on every wall. Light came from the moon and a candle floating in a glass swan. The only furniture was a small couch and an end table next to it. I felt as if I had stepped into a doll house, a doll house, I imagined, where it was always cold and always midnight. The kind of doll house parents leave untouched after the death of a child.

I walked to a window and looked out. In the distance, like an igloo made of pink ice, was the concert hall. I could also see the gardens and lake, which looked like painted pictures on a dark canvas. It suddenly occurred to me that I was living in the middle of a theme park. Moneyland, the Most Conspicuous Concentration of Wealth on Earth. Bring the whole family! (Offer void to the poor and working class).

"Fick," I said. "You really must be the richest bastard on earth."

"Is someone here?"

Every inch of skin on my body was pushed from the bone by needles as I spun around.

"Jesus Christ!" I gasped, waiting for my heart to catch up to me.

Samantha, my wife, had been laying on the couch the whole time.


"Yeah, it's me," I said, feeling weak all over with an urge now to laugh.

"What are you doing?"

"Just, standing here," I said. "I was, well, wandering around, kind of wondering where you were. We haven't talked much since I came back."

"Where are you?"

The needles came back beneath my skin as I looked at her eyes.

"I'm...in front of you."


"What's the matter?" I said, feeling a mounting sense of horror. What if she had done something to her eyes?

"Nothing," she said, laying perfectly still. "I'm online."

"Oh," I said, taking a deep breath as I felt blood return to my face. "What are you doing online?"

"I'm in Falcon Crest."

"What's that?"

"A city," she said, sitting up. "Want to see?"

"Sure," I said, feeling the same kind of flutters in my stomach that I used to get when one of my fellow inmates offered me drugs. "How do I get there?"

"Well, you have to go online first, of course," she said.

Of course. I sat next to her, closed my eyes, tightened my abdominal muscles, imagined a triangle, point up, then turned it upside down as I said, "Starting direct cerebral interface protocol." A dot appeared between my eyes, turned into a vertical line, then expanded horizontally into a white screen filled with numbers and symbols that looked something like this:

File Edit Format Font Size Style Outline Window Help

f1 f2 f3 f4 f5 f6 f7 f8 f9 f10 f11 f12

! @ # $ % ^ & * ( ) - + delete
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 clear
tab Q W E R T Y U I O P 7 8 9
caps lock A S D F G H J K L enter 4 5 6
shift Z X C V B N M ?/ 1 2 3
control alt


I heard her ask if the screen were up.
"It's there," I said.
"Type in, "Falcon Crest, slash Golden Eye slash booth 11 slash Saturday night September 2 11 pm 1942 slash and then write in my password which is lost romance at-the symbol for at- lonely castle.

Since the screen seemed to float in front of me I reached out and typed, "Falcon Crest/Golden Eye/booth 11/Saturday night September 2 11 pm 1942/lost romance@lonely castle" then pressed the word 'go'.

A feeling of momentary weightlessness came over me as a booth in a dark cafe assembled itself around me like a three dimensional movie. Then my body seemed to fill out into a suit like a balloon inflating and I saw Samantha sitting across from me wearing a white coat, sunglasses and a hat. There was a window to my right, out of which I could see a cobble stone paved alley slick with rain.

"I don't think I'll ever get used to this," I said, feeling the table with the palms of my hands. There really was a table in front of me. And a booth. And a window. To this day, no matter how often it's explained to me, virtual reality makes me absolutely ga-ga with astonishment.

"How do they do this!"

"Memories on a chip and memories in your head," Samantha said. It sounded like something she had heard in a commercial.

"I guess it's like hypnosis, only with computers and such like."

"It's even more amazing than the mall," I said, smelling coffee and liquor.

"I don't care for the mall," Samantha said, picking up a small china cup.

"Yeah," I said. "I know what you mean, but every night I'm in the mall. I guess in time I'll get tired of it."

"You haven't yet."

"You know, I didn't notice something until just now," I said. "But..." I covered my right eye just to be sure.


"I can see out of left eye!" I said.

"Well of course," Samantha said as she planted an elbow on the table so that she could cradle her chin in the palm of her hand. "Why do you think people come to places like this? You can do and be anything you want."

"Amazing," I said, shaking my head.


"So this is where you hang out?" I said, watching a waiter wearing a white apron walk past our table. I wondered if he were real or a computer simulation.

"Is that what you came here to ask me?"

"I don't know," I said, looking down at my hands. Were they my hands?

"Chew the fat?"

"What about?"

"I don't even know how we met."

She wore perfume that made me think of gardens in the cool morning air. Two white gloves lay on the table beneath her hands. Her skin looked cold to the touch but it did not appear that she felt cold. She took off her sunglasses, folded them, and then set them on top of the gloves. There was a faint smile on her lips but her eyes were still and expressionless.

"You were coming down the steps of an office you had to work at, while I was coming up the steps to go to a different office to see my therapist. You recognized me immediately and asked me to lunch."

"I did?"

"We had Chinese."

I looked around me, gathering as many details as I could. The little lamps on the wall, the chords of an accordion that seemed to drift in and out of the doors and windows like beeping ghosts, the intricate pattern of tile on the floor and the clatter of dishes coming from the kitchen. A sick feeling pooled at the bottom of my stomach as I remembered one of my oldest fears, that I would go under water one day and try to breathe instead of holding my breath. I had tolerated the shopping mall because it fit so comfortably in a dream-like state. But there was nothing dream-like about this. It was unnervingly real.

"We thought we had fallen instantly in love."

The accordion had gotten louder, and there was a faint stirring of strings that sounded as if it were coming from the other side of the wall.

"And when we opened our fortune cookies I turned mine over and wrote my telephone number on it."

I looked at Samantha, then looked behind me. When I'm not looking at something, I thought, does it disappear? My old friend Plato came to mind. I knew that what I was seeing was not real and yet I couldn't help seeing it. Would the old Greek, I asked myself, call this another kind of cave?

"So we what? Started dating?"

"We became lovers that night," Samantha said without hesitation.

I looked down at my hands, embarrassed to look at her.

"Oh. Well of course. We were in love, as you say."

"You remember what I was in therapy for?"

"I don't remember anything," I said.

"Sexual addiction."

I tapped the tips of my fingers together, almost choking now on my own embarrassment, wishing I were anywhere but here.

"What's the matter, Fick?"

"Well it's just..."

"We don't even kiss now," she said.

"No," I muttered. "I guess we don't."

"It's plain to see," she sang. "That we..."

The wall on the other side of the room disappeared. A man in a white coat waved his arms in front of an orchestra.

"...were never met to beeeeee."

She had an astonishingly beautiful voice! I felt as if a sack of cement had hit me on the head. She stood up, then began to glide around the room as men and women turned to gaze at her.

Lovers don't kiss
into the night
They walk away before they've even
had their first fight
They say that love endures the test of time
But if that's true
true love was never mine

Violins swooped in suddenly like silken birds.

Lovers-----lovers-----lovers don't kiss
I think it's only on a movie screen they exist
but in this world where we must live and die
how often do we find that love's a lie?
and that there is no perfect world of bliss
when lovers...
don't kiss
Lovers don't kiss
into the night
They think that love will stick around
without holding tight!
When love is true they say it never dies
but if that's true
how can I trust my eyes?

Lovers-----lovers-----lovers don't kiss
I think it's only on a movie screen they exist
but in this world where we must live and die
how often do we find that love's a lie?
and that there is no perfect world of bliss
when lovers...
yes lovers...
when lovers...
don't kiss!

"So," Pete said, standing next to the golf cart. "She sang you a song! What happened next?"

"Suddenly I had a mouthful of popcorn and was sitting in a movie theater, watching Samantha sing," I said, watching him with my hands in my pockets. "Hey, you know, I think I know what movie that song is from."

"Do you?" Pete grunted. "Driving back?"

"Yeah," I said.

"Good. I'm walking."

"What do you think it means?" I said.

"What does what mean?"

"The song."

"That," Pete said with a sigh as he walked away. "Should be obvious even to you, Mr. Fick."

I drove around without paying attention to where I was going, whistling, "Lovers Don't Kiss," and wondering if Samantha really knew how to sing. I parked the cart, then sat, listening to birds and looking down at my hands. The gold wedding band was still on my finger. I climbed out of the cart, began to walk along side a row of guest houses, and then saw, standing in front of me, a very large black dog.

Suzie trotted toward me with her head down, wagging her tail as I ran up to her. I got down on my knees and then hugged her, feeling her rough tongue against the side of my face.

"Oh Suzie, where have you been, girl!" I said.

"With me," a woman said.

I looked up, already knowing who was there.

"Well," my mother said. "Why don't you come in?"

The house was bigger than the last one I had seen her in and yet it was still cluttered with pianos, keyboards and stacks of sheet music.

"Where's," I said, looking around for a place to sit. "What's his name?"

"Milo? He's playing in Fresno. He doesn't have to work but he loves to play. You should hear him some time."

She took a box of CDs and tapes off of a chair and told me to sit.

"Want something to drink?" she said.

"I'm fine," I said, sitting down, happy that Suzie had followed me and was now curled up next to the chair.

She walked over to a cabinet, took out a square bottle and then poured amber liquid into a small glass filled with ice.

"Mind if I have a drink?"

"No," I said, looking at her as she walked back. The large hazel eyes, the brunette hair still cut short and, of course, that fixed smile, always mysterious.

"Heard you had gone crazy or something," she said, tossing newspapers off a chair and then sitting down in front of me.

"No, not crazy," I said, smelling scotch from where I sat. "At least not yet."

"Or something with your brain," she said, wrapping long red fingernails around the glass. "What is it? Amnesia?"

"That's it."

"Well you remember me."

"I just don't remember what's been happening for the last five years. You might say that I was somewhere else."

"Where?" she said, taking a sip.

"Hard to explain. Dead, maybe. Traveling through time. Hallucinating. I guess it depends on how you look at it."

"You were always weird, Fick," she said, shaking her head. "Even as a kid. Although I would say that for the last five years you have been different."

"In what way?" I said, genuinely curious.

"Let's just say," she said, crossing her legs. "That you seemed to know what you were about."

"Well I don't know what I'm about now," I said. The words seemed to rush out of my chest.


"I'm married to a woman I don't even know, a woman who spends all of her time in some kind of virtual reality."

"What kind of virtual reality?" my mother said, leaning forward.

"A musical," I said, reaching down to scratch Suzie's head. "And, to be honest, a cheesy one at that."

"Well I guess you don't want to know what kind of virtual realities I go to," she said, leaning back with her drink.

"No, Mom."

"Do you know that you're father died?" she said, making the ice in her drink clink against the sides of the glass.

"No," I said, feeling cold blood work its way up from my legs.

"You didn't go to his funeral."


"I did. Wasn't sorry to see him go. He'd been in a wheel chair for the last two years. Lost his legs, poor thing. His hair, too. Your's is getting thin on top, I can see. It's in the genes, you know."

"Well, I'm sorry that I didn't go, even if I wouldn't have remembered it," I said, looking out the window at the trees and the shadows on the sidewalk. My father. I tried to picture him, hear his voice, but all that I could summon was a rough morning beard and the sound of cracking pistachio nuts. Is that, I wondered, all we leave behind? I didn't know what to feel. I knew that I was supposed to feel something; I just didn't know what.

"She's all you have now," a voice in my head whispered as I looked at my mother.

"So are you and what's-her-name going to stay together?" she said, brushing a stray hair from her face.

"I don't see how we can," I said. "It's like living with a stranger."

"Maybe you should get to know her." She finished her drink, then tossed the ice cubes to Suzie. "Ever think of that?"

"I don't know," I said, listening to Suzie munch noisily on ice. "She's into this musical and..."

"Yes," my mother said. She looked at Suzie, smiling as if she had just bitten into something bitter while listening to a joke.

"She might be a little...I don't know. I think she's maybe...Ah, disturbed," I said. "About something."

"Like what?"

I couldn't believe that I was having this conversation with my mother of all people; but then, after awakening to find out that I had been someone else for five years and was now the richest prisoner on the planet, everything had taken on a tinge of unreality that increasingly made me feel as if nothing ultimately mattered. I was married with children. So what? And rich! Isn't everyone? My father was dead. Well, what did you expect?

I had the weird feeling that life had turned into a cartoon.

"I think that I might have been cheating on her."

I hadn't expected that to be hard to say, and yet when I did say it my gums and teeth turned numb.

My mother's face brightened as she lurched to her feet.

"This calls for another drink!"

"I'm serious," I said.

"Tell Mommy all about it."

"Not that much to tell," I said glumly. "It's just that the nanny is pretty friendly, if you know what I mean."

"The blonde with the boobs?"

"That's the one."

"Yeah, you probably were doing a little double dipping there," she chuckled as she sat back with another drink. I wondered how many of those she put away in a day.

"I don't mean that I was doing anything," I said, looking at a reproduction on the wall of one of the pictures we had in the art gallery. Two girls, holding their mother's hand, walking on the beach. Not the sort of picture I thought my mother would have liked.

"What I mean is, that, it's not just that I can't remember."

"What do you mean?" she said, looking, I thought, a little plumper than when I had last seen her.

"It's like...," I said, struggling for words. I had gone away and yet I was the only one who really knew that. How could that be and how could it be explained?

"Like... someone else was in my body."

"Oh, the perfect excuse for a man," my mother said, laughing so hard her whole body shook. "I'm sorry, honey, it was someone else using my body! If only your father had thought of that one."

I sat for what seemed a long time without talking, looking at gray hair around Suzie's muzzle, trying hard not to think about what my mother had just said.


"Well, I'd better get going," I said.

"Don't you want to hear the story?" she said, putting the glass to her lips for a long drink.

I rubbed the back of my neck.

"He came to the hospital a few hours after you were born," she said, putting her feet up on a coffee table, then crossing her legs as if she were relaxing in front of the television. "I hadn't seen him for two days. So he comes in unshaved, in a dirty shirt-I could tell he'd been drinking-and I say, 'It's a boy you bastard.' I didn't want to know what he'd been up to, the sight of him disgusted me. But your father could never keep his stupid mouth shut right after he'd gotten sobered up. So he starts blubbering about how much he loves me and how sorry he is and all I want to do is roll over and get some sleep, I was so exhausted from pushing your butt out of me. Kind of as a joke I asked him who it was, thinking that maybe that'd shut him up, and of course the dumb jerk tells me everything. Oh yeah, that was some marriage we had."

"Jesus," I whispered.

"Jesus!" she snorted in a giggle. "There's a guy who should have gotten married."

"I...I don't know what to say."

"Well then take my advice for what it's worth," my mother said, tossing Suzie more ice cubes. "Go home to your wife and keep your mouth shut."


"One more thing. It's simple but for some damn reason men can't seem to get it through their head. If a woman can't find love at home she'll go somewhere else. You understand?"

"I think so, Mom."

"Good. Now do me a favor and take Suzie with you. She's a good dog but she sheds."

"...it's the same old story, hija, some damn fool writes a book and thinks that he's said something profound when all he's done is recycle a bunch of old, mostly bad ideas. But what about the truth? Do we really care to know what it is? Just between you and me, hija, the older I get, the happier I am just to get a good night's sleep."
-Rufus A. Pervus
Letters from Mexico

And so, dear, patient reader, we come at last to the grand finale of this improbable little story which, I think, has gone on quite long enough. There isn't much left to tell because you already know how everything ended up, probably better than I. The accounting "irregularities", the allegations of fraud, of inside trading, the phony off-shore companies, the price fixing and charges of graft, over-inflated stocks, etc. The list could go on for several pages. Suffice it to say that when Wonder World Ko went belly-up, you know what happened to your job, your pension and your savings.

I started out just a guy trying to get ahead and wound up running a scam that demolished the entire world's economy. Sorry if that sounds as if I'm bragging but I'm really not. Toppling the capitalist system was never on my list of priorities, as I hope my story makes clear.

Before we go to the door, then, to yawn, hug and say our final goodbyes, I'll tell you, if you're still interested, what finally became of me.

As you know, I was the first one the authorities seized on when all the cracks in the grand edifice of our new global, high-tech economy began to appear. When the biggest bankruptcy and financial collapse in history finally happened there wasn't a lot of sympathy for me; and who could blame anyone for hating my guts? When I told the judge that I had been a different person at the onset of the criminal conspiracies she just laughed pretty much the way my mother had. Served me right, I suppose.

It was my third strike, so my sentence can be considered light to people who can live a million years. No more "house arrest" business, either. This time it was the Big House, cells, bars and all that.

When I got to prison my old friend Bob the guard was there to greet me. I was glad to see him and he was thrilled to see me now that I was a big shot celebrity.

"How's the wife and kids?" I said, standing naked while holding onto a neatly pressed stack of prison-issue clothes.

"Two new ones since I saw you, Mr. Fick."

"I don't know how you do it," I said. "Must be quite a financial challenge."

"It used to be," Bob said, smoothing down a little mustache that had, like the hair on his head, streaks of silver shot through it.

"But since the state took over this place the pay has gotten a lot better, we're a union shop all the way."

"Well that's good, Bob, I'm glad things are working out for you," I said, touched that he would call me 'mister'.

"Hear you have a family," Bob said after gently clearing his throat.

"Oh yeah. A wife, two little girls," I said, feeling cool air on my butt. It's too bad, I thought, that we can't enjoy being naked more often.

"They're...they're real beauties, too."

"Oh I bet they are."

"Yep," I said, unable to go on. My throat felt blocked.

"Well I'm," Bob said, taking off his cap and scratching his head. "Down right sorry to see you come back, Mr. Fick. Never thought it'd happen to someone like you."

"That's...okay," I muttered, looking down at the gray clothes in my arms. It was the best I could do to thank Bob for his humanity. I know better than most how hard it is to retain that in prison.

For the next 18 months I worked in the laundry and prison store. For some reason I was trusted with money-called 'scrip'- although I have no idea why.

One day I got an e-mail from Samantha. She wanted to know if I needed anything. I wrote a long letter back, she replied, and so began a steady exchange of letters. I found out that she had run away from home twice while in her teens; that she had fallen in love with a fatally sick cousin, someone she always referred to as, "the beautiful boy", after seeing him just once, leaving her with a life-long dread of separation and premature death; that she loves chili peppers so much, even though she is allergic to them, that she eats them anyway, enduring rashes and tiny bumps that last for days; that her favorite color is green and that her favorite movies are The King and I and Annie.

One day, while selling a Snickers candy bar to Lionel, a man who lived on my cell block, I realized that I had fallen in love with my wife.

"You okay, man?" Lionel said. He was a tall, graceful black man who had been in prison for 22 years. His parents died in a car accident and an uncle took him in, teaching him how to be a look-out, then a burglar, and finally a heroin addict.


"It's just," I said, brushing back a tear. "That I don't want to be here anymore."

"Who does?"

"I have a wife."

"A lot of men here do," Lionel said, unwrapping his candy bar, then squinting at me.

"You, like, in love with her?"

I looked down at my feet.

"Well now," Lionel said, taking a bite, then laughing with his mouth full. "There's marriage and then there's marriage, and around here that kind of marriage can make a year seem like a lifetime."

"Yeah," I said. My chest felt as if an icebreaker had just run over it. How do men do this? I asked myself, looking at Lionel. How had I got through it the first time?

"You might have to tell her that it'd be best if you went your separate ways," Lionel said, crumbling the candy wrapper into a ball. He looked at me for a long time without blinking. His deep set eyes looked as if they had taken in all the suffering of the world before he had even come into it.

"I don't know," I said, looking down at my hands. Were they my hands? I had been here before and here I was again. Suddenly I knew what it would feel like to be a million years old and not yet middle aged.

I couldn't bring myself to give my wife and children up, and instead spent so much time thinking about Samantha, writing letters to her and the girls, that I didn't notice how everything around me was begining to break down. Fewer and fewer guards, who openly talked about a strike, showed up for work; there were water and food shortages and sometimes the power went out for a few minutes or for several hours.

And then one day I awakened to find that everyone had decided to pick up and leave.

"You did it, Fick my man," Lionel said. His eyes sparkled and he laughed like a kid who had gotten everything he had ever wanted at Christmas.

"What are you talking about?" I said, sitting up on my bunk, instantly alert.

"Wonder World Ko has finally done bankrupt everyone, even the State of California. There's no money left to run anything, even the prisons. Everyone's leaving, Fick. Come on, that pretty wife of yours is waiting!"

I walked through open doors and gates, stupefied. My crime had put me in prison and then freed me. Don't think that I didn't appreciate the irony.

Men with their head shaved, men with prison tattoos inked into their arms, men taking one last drag on their last cigarette, men wearing prison clothes and men wearing nothing but underwear, men walking as if they were drunk and men walking as if they were taking their first steps, men running together and men standing apart, men arguing and men quiet, angry young men and stony faced old men, men baffled and hollow eyed, men talking to themselves, men sick and worn out, men looking for friends, men weeping with joy, men frantic and men calm swept past me, pulling me forward in a sea of dust, smoke, screams, taunts and curses.

"...now where in the hell are they going...there's not a damn car anywhere...if I don't take my blood pressure pills...first we got to get the food, man, there's got to be...I heard they're coming back with guns and...this is bullshit, bro, I'm just telling you...this is the end, this is in the bible...even my lawyer said I'd never...man would you get away from me...they ain't just gonna let us...we can just break in and...they left us here to die...when I find that...see, they'll send in the army...anyone see that rich rat bastard...I haven't got any money, fool, I...well then come with us...I'm hungry...what'ya thinks gonna happen..."

Some men stood in small circles, listening to someone with a plan, while others formed small gangs armed with pieces of plywood, sharpened toothbrushes and broken combs. One group of black men unrolled rugs and knelt on them in prayer. A skinny, toothy white kid put two fingers in his mouth and whistled in my ear, deafening me. I could hear glass breaking behind me, papers fluttering to the ground, chain link fences rattling, doors crashing against walls, cans and plastic bottles bouncing on the ground and rocks knocking on brick like skeleton fists.

I found Lionel standing next to a small tree in the main parking lot, by himself, wearing a baseball cap that looked a size too large.

"One things's for sure," he said, looking older in the day light than I remembered him looking indoors. I suddenly realized that I had never seen him outside before.

"We got to get as far away from this place as we can and soon."

"I'm going south," I said, looking down the two-lane blacktop that led to the highway.

"And I'm going north, Mr. Howell," Lionel said. He liked to call me Mr. Howell, the millionaire on the old television show, Gilligan's Island.

"Have friends that way?" I said, looking at a small fight that had just broken out. Two men. One held something that looked sharp.

"A sister who never laid eyes on me outside a prison. And she's a sheriff's deputy if you can believe that. Don't know what she's doing now. But she's got kids, a girl and two boys, and I 'speck there's something I can do to help 'em. Hope so anyway. What about you?"

"Going to be with my wife and the girls if a lynch mob doesn't get me first," I said, not entirely kidding.

"Well hey look, here's something might be of help to that," Lionel said.

He rummaged through a bed sheet that he had tied up into a bag until he found what he was looking for, aviator sunglasses and a wrinkled green and yellow Hawaiian shirt..

"Oh I think that's about your size," he said, holding the shirt up by the sleeves, then placing it against my chest. "Might be a bit tight around the shoulders."

"Where did you get that!" I said.

"Most of the guards left in a hurry," Lionel said, retying his sack. "I looked through the lockers that were open and pried open the ones that weren't, looking for shit I could use. Found a few old shirts like this, packages of condoms, a few cigarettes, coins, girlie magazines and even a half pint of whiskey. From the look of things I'd say those guards led pitiful lives."

"You know," I said, taking the shirt and glasses. "I don't have anything to give you for this."

"Oh hell man don't worry about that!" Lionel laughed. "From now on I can tell everyone I meet that I knew the richest man in the world."

"Well, not so rich now," I said, taking off my prison issue shirt.

Lionel looked at me, gave me a rare smile, slapped me on the shoulder, then walked toward the highway with his sack over his shoulder singing, "Oh I got plenty of nothing...and nothing's plenty for me..."

I followed him down the road, watched him turn right at the highway, waved goodbye, then watched him walk away until I could no longer see him. Then I turned left and began to walk, wearing my green and yellow Hawaiian shirt, expecting at any moment to be picked up at gun-point by someone like Lionel's sister. I was desperate to call Samantha but the phones had been out for days. The Direct Cerebral Interface Internet seemed now like some kind of fantastic science fiction fantasy of the past.

Two hours later I stopped beside a patch of pale yellow grass, lay down and watched clouds like clown faces roll across the sky. I took off my glasses, put them in the pocket of my Hawaiian shirt, then put on my new aviator sun glasses. A truck, speeding down the highway, startled me. A small plane, making a noise like the death rattle of an old man, flew overhead. Sparrows chirped at each other on the low branches of a leafless tree. I put my head on my hands and got a good whiff of myself. I smelled like day old meat. Something small kicked up dirt and leaves in the bushes behind me. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again the sun had slipped to the right. The thought that I might have slept frightened me, since I knew the road must be full of cons like myself, only some of them more dangerous. My legs and back ached when I stood up but I knew that I had to move on and find some place to sleep before dark. I began to regret leaving the prison so hastily, without food or even water.

No houses, no buildings of any kind, only grass, rocks, low trees and a long ribbon of road that seemed to lead down to the other side of the earth. It seemed only yesterday that I stood with Pete looking down at Los Angeles, wondering what had happened to everyone. I took a deep breath of ocean air, cleaned my new glasses on green and yellow Hawaiian shirt tail and began to walk along the side of the road.

To make the time pass and get my mind off of what was going to happen once the sun went down, I kept count of beer and soda cans, candy wrappers, empty boxes of cookies, cigarette butts and disposable lighters. The debris of a nomadic civilization.

Which had gone...where?

I tried to remember to keep my mouth shut so that my mouth wouldn't dry out, wondering what would happen to me if I couldn't find water sometime that day. Water. I walked as mechanically as I could, with a growing sense of dread that I would walk and walk and never see a building or living soul.

Two hoboes stood on the side of the road, dressed like circus clowns. I knew who they were right away.

"Look Chuck. It's Fick!"

"Nooooo, I hear they put that slimy weasel away for life."

"I'm telling you it's him. Hey Fick, Fick, get your ass over here."

"You guys," I said, looking at the sun which had turned the color of spoiled orange peel. "Never give up, do you?"

"We never give up!" Louie screamed, turning into a lop-sided wooden fence. "We never give up! We lost our life savings because of you you rotten evil lying scumbag bastard sonofabitch."

"So sue me," I said."

"We already did."

"Well then fine," I said, flapping my arms. "We should all be satisfied. I get shot in the head, lose an eye, wake up to find that I'm rich and married, that I've lived another life I don't know anything about, go to prison-AGAIN-wind up on the road with nothing but this Hawaiian shirt, which smells, thank-you-very-much, in the middle of nowhere which is probably where I'll die on this road to nowhere, talking to fantasies and don't think that I don't appreciate the irony...I get to go home but I'm a thousand miles away AND WHY AREN'T THERE ANY CARS GODDAMNIT!"

"Ain't no gas."

"Ain't no gas!" I screamed.

"I heard it at mass, there ain't no gas."

I stopped, then turned around. That wasn't Chuck. Or Louie. It was a lop-sided wooden fence, really an old sign, it's poster peeled off. A cap with the words "Russian Submarine" and the familiar hammer and sickle logo of the U.S.S.R. floated above it. Was I being watched by the Russians?

"No gas, no gas. Can't read at night or mow the grass."

"Do you," I said, too tired and dehydrated to feel embarrassed. "Know where I can get some water?"

"It's true, I do, now you do, too."

"Because," I said, wiping sweat from my face, then drying my hand on my trousers. "I could really...really use a drink right now."

The cap came around to the other side of the fence, which was really an old sign, or maybe part of an old fence. The person underneath the cap had no head, just part of a spinal column that looked like a stick, which it was, held by a little girl in yellow clothes, her face a canvas for bright red pictures of butterflies.

"That's a good trick," I said, watching her take the cap off the stick, then slap it on her head.

"Trick, trick, a trick with a stick."

"Can you show me where I can get water?" I said, aware now that I was dying of thirst and impatient with a kid who had clearly read one too many Doctor Seus books.

"Come with me and you will see," she said, running ahead of me on the road in sandals that flapped against the soles of her feet.

"We need water, Auntie Ruth," she screamed, running past a small, hand painted sign, then turning left at the little intersection it marked.

"There's a man who's walked all the way from Duluth!"

I stopped to look at the sign. The man from Duluth had walked to Friendship, population 19.

The town, such as it was, consisted of three buildings. Only one of them, with the words, "Friendship Creamery Association" on it, seemed large enough to house more than a dozen people.

Four or five of the good citizens, some dressed in skirts and jeans, some in colorful shirts that looked as if they had been dyed and then spun in the air like a pizza, walked toward me, pointing and smiling.

My hair stuck out in all directions, I was caked with dust and sweat. I felt like a giant fur ball the cat had coughed up.

"Hello," I said, hoping that I didn't look like a deranged bum.

Within minutes everyone who lived in Friendship, all 19 of them, came out to see the man from Duluth. They silently formed a circle around me, then sat down, starring up at my face.

For a few minutes I was frozen in panic, thinking that they were going to hold me until the police arrived; but as I looked down at their pale blue eyes I realized that they had something entirely different in mind.

The sheer, insane horror of it made me forget how thirsty I was.

"It's impossible," I thought, struggling for words. "Can't be!"

And yet here I was, face to face with people who thought that they were still on the internet, waiting to hear from the Greatest Networker on the Planet, Fick. Me. The man from Wonder World Ko.

"Well,' I said, stooping down to scoop up a rock. "Today I'm here to speak to my good friends in... Friendship."

There was a smattering of applause. People sat cross legged, two with children on their lap. Almost everyone wore sandals that looked as if they had been made of rope. There was candle smoke and incense in the air, a sweet mixture of cinnamon and apple.

I looked at the rock in my hands, then rolled it between my palms. What could I say to them? They were a small band of refuges from the 60's living out in the middle of nowhere. What did I mean to them?

What were they expecting to hear?

I closed my eyes, took a breath, made my mind go blank, and then looked into the face of everyone sitting before me.

"A long time ago," I said. "A very wise man, I thought at the time, a very rich man, the kind of man I thought I was supposed to be, said, 'You make money by helping people.' At the time I thought that made sense. I wanted it to be true. It made the idea of making big money seem like, oh, I don't know, something benevolent, like an act of charity. But since then I've come to some different conclusions. You don't get rich by helping people, you get rich by using people. If you want to help someone, then help someone but don't expect anything in return because that's not why you should help someone. We should help one another out because that's what we humans do, to survive and make a good life for ourselves. There's no other reward in it for us. Money is...money is not human nature, it's a corruption of human nature. And you know what? Down deep we're all the same. Flies! We're all flies. That's right. When you die you become a fly. You're a fly right now, dreaming that you're human. If you want to know why don't ask me, I don't know why. So...money won't make you any better than anyone else because no matter how rich you are you're still a fly. So, the life you're living right now is just fine. If I were you I wouldn't change a thing. This is a fine town. What do you do to make a living?"

"We used to make glass, mostly glass," a young looking woman with brown and sandy gray hair said. " We sold them to tourists and then sold them to Wonder World Ko on the internet, but the tourists stopped coming and no one buys anything anymore on the internet."

"Can you grow food?" I said.

"We have a few gardens," another woman, this one with a British accent, said.

"Then make more," I said. "Work for yourselves. Forget the tourists, forget the internet. You don't need them."

"Well," a man said, slapping his knees, then standing up. "That's pretty much what we figured. Don't know what the hell that has to do with flies but it was interesting."

As if on cue they all stood up, turned around and then walked away. I stood alone for a few minutes, lost in thought, until I felt someone tugging on my arm.

"You better drink this," the girl with the Russian Submarine cap on said, holding up a big plastic tumbler.

I looked down into her eyes as I took the water. They were brown, the color of maple.

"Thank you," I said, feeling a pleasant ache in my stomach from the cool water I had just gulped down. "I think you just saved my life."

"I don't want the fly to die."

"I have daughters. Two of them," I said.

"Are they my age?"

"One of them is almost your age," I said, handing her the empty tumbler. "I don't suppose I can get anything to eat around here. Can I?"

She ran off, flapping her sandals against the soles of her feet, and then returned a few minutes later.

"One for the road Mr. Toad," she said, thrusting a small package into my hand.

I looked at what she had given me as she ran off. It was a Snickers bar.

While I ate I considered what I should do next. Staying in Friendship didn't seem like a good idea. The people, I thought, might get annoyed with me for hanging around; and I had visions of someone trying to "turn me off" with a rock or other lethally hard object.

As I started to trudge down the road to the highway I heard a woman say, "I liked him better when he was on Oprah."

"Oh no," a young man said. "He was a lot funnier when he had his own show."

"Well he's just not right in the head now."

"That's what fame does to some people."

"Like Oprah?"

"Uh huh."

"The fame, the sex, the money," Chuck, a two-headed dog trotting along side me, said with his tongues hanging out.

"And it all went to your head," Louie said, his twisted little face blooming on the point of a thousand weeds.

"You're nuts," I wanted to scream at all of them, myself included.

"One for the road Mr. Toad."

By then I was running, and so frightened that I couldn't tell if that was the little girl or one of the voices in my head. I missed my bunk, my job at the store, regular meals, getting e-mail from Samantha. No one was out there to take care of me now that I was no longer a billionaire or a three-time convicted felon. And soon it would be dark. I ran until my knees felt like broken hinges and my lungs burned like old tires on fire. A cool, unsympathetic wind plastered some guard's old Hawaiian shirt to my back, making me shiver. I stopped and turned around, listening for a car, a bike, an angry mob, anything.

"Okay, okay, okay," I said, stopping to wipe my eyes and catch my breath. I started talking to myself, fearful of the silence all around me.

"Just keep going down this road it'll take us somewhere, a town, I'm sure everyone hasn't just picked up and left there's got to be people and homes and restaurants and stores and phones that work all I have to do is keep walking, I'll find people that are okay that are doing just fine, this depression or whatever it is can't be that bad, this isn't like it was in the thirties the government is too big to let everything just go to pieces..."

"The government let you walk out of prison", I thought.

Let a whole army of convicts out of prison.

"Yep you done it, you done bankrupt the whole state of California," I said to myself.

"Maybe more than that," I thought.

"All right then," I said to myself. "A temporary crisis, things shut down but..."

"Life goes on?" I thought.

"Well doesn't it?" I said.

"How do you know?" I thought.

"Because...it has to," I said. "We're not stupid enough to...to..."

"Build bombs that split the earth in half?" I thought. "Convict an innocent man and then make him rich while he's in some kind of prison that looks like a castle? Hook up people's brains to the internet so that they can shop in their sleep? Let some crooked company bankrupt the whole country so that felons can walk out free and then die on some god-forsaken road that goes on and on and creepy people are living in weird little towns and no one seems to know what's happening?"

"Hoo boy," I said, sitting on the ground.

I decided that I had better stop talking to myself, since I had only been on the road for a few hours and I was already starting to go nuts. So I put my face in my hands, calmed myself down by taking slow, deep breaths, then got to my feet. The sun, its day nearly done, relaxed by making a shadow of me on the pebbles and dirt. I began to think of the coming dark, of coyotes, stray dogs, robbers, of walking off the side of the road and breaking my leg in a ditch or falling off a cliff. I took the sunglasses off and put my regular glasses back on.

"Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" I thought, putting my head down and walking as fast as I could.

"Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!"

The sky now seemed to be evenly split between day and night. My feet throbbed and I cursed my thin soled, prison issue slip-on shoes. When I stopped walking and stood very still I thought that I could hear the low rumble of water and a thin, dry whistle of wind, very far away, mixed together. There was land to my left that looked as if it were for pasture but there were no cows. It looked parched, the grass brown and brittle. There was a faint scent everywhere of salt and foliage under thin layers of earth.

A truck came up behind me, sounding as if it had burst through a wall of bricks made of air. I spun around and then waved my hands, like a man marooned on a desert island who sees a plane for the first time.

The truck, a blue pickup, slowed down, and I could see men slouched in the bed like big, rubber dolls, their arms crossed and their head down. I sprinted toward the truck; but when it stopped I stopped too. I knew those men.

"Hey man, want a ride?"

I folded my arms across my chest, unsure of what to do.

"Hey Fick, man, you walk all the fubbin way here?" the driver-I think his name was Lenny, laughed.

I nodded.

"You mean your motherfubbin limo didn't pick you up!" someone else said in mock anger.

I shrugged, listening to a half dozen men giggle at me as if I were either the funniest comedian on the planet or a polk-a-dotted camel with fireworks shooting out of its ass.

If I get into the truck, I thought, they'll beat me to a pulp or kill me just for the fun of it. If I refuse they might chase me for the fun of it, then beat me up or kill me for more fun.

I smiled, tried to look relaxed, as if I enjoyed their teasing, trying to think of where I could run if I had to.

"What the fubb, Fick! Hey is your name Fick or Fubb? Or did you forget that too? See, I heard you had that drug shot in your brain to wire up, you know, YOU GOT MAIL but it fubbed up your memory but I don't 'spoes you remember that anyway so you gettin in or what 'cause we ain't waitin here for no motherfubbin New Year's party."

My lips moved and I heard myself say, "I'm getting in."

I was close enough to smell beer and cigarettes and to see specks of light like cool, reddish sparks from the evening sun in their large, black eyes. They were all young, thin and muscular, with wisps of facial hair and tattoos stenciled on the exposed parts of their arms and chest. I knew these guys. They hung out together in the yard. Even though no one was locked up for a truly serious violent crime in our prison those guys always scared me a little. It was the way they looked at people and joked with themselves. I had heard that they all did low-level work for some kind of mafia outfit, probably a company owned by Wonder World Ko.

Maybe they all just pretend to be tougher than they are, I thought. The oldest couldn't have been more than 25.

I reached out, touched the tailgate, only to have the truck jerk away from me.

"Oh man, I'm sorry Fick," Lenny said. "Brakes must have slipped somehow."

I walked on, but when I touched the tailgate the same thing happened again.

"Goddamn, man, we're takin this motherfubber to Pep Boys."

I pretended to laugh along with everyone else. The engine idled loudly like a big cat with a full stomach. Exhaust from the tailpipe stung the back of my throat. I was tired of being laughed at but too scared to be angry. Lenny's grinning, wolfish face made me think about what we would look like naked in front of intelligent beings from another planet.

Ugly, stupid animals those humans.

"You look like you don't want to get in here with us," the youngest of the men said in a serious tone of voice, sitting with his arms around his knees.

"No," I said, surprised at how deep and calm my voice sounded. "I don't."

"Well you want to know something, Fick?"

The man in the passenger seat spoke for the first time, turning around to look at me with a strong, square face that seemed, neckless, sunk on collar bones.

"My old man worked thirty years for the same company and my mother worked hard all her life too, taking care of other people's kids, working in a laundry and then checking in a supermarket. I always thought that they deserved something for that, something that would make them feel comfortable and happy in their old age. Instead they lose their jobs, their pension and the house I grew up in. All because of greedy bastards like you."

I resented that. Who was he to give anyone a lecture on morality? I hadn't made the system that robbed his parents. I was nothing, a nobody, a patsy.

"I was used like everyone else," I said, feeling cool spots of blood bloom beneath my ribs.

But all I got for my brainless bravado was more guffaws and dust in my face from tires spinning in the dirt.

"Oh, yeah?" I screamed at empty air. "Well at least I didn't steal a truck!"

Tires squealed to a stop behind me. I turned around in time to see men in uniform, rifles slung on their back, jumping out of a large green truck. A man wearing an olive green, oversized cap with one bar on it walked quickly up to me. He looked like a college kid playing soldier.

"You Fick!"

I held up my hands in answer. No use running. My freedom was at an end.

"Well," I thought. "At lease someone's in charge."

"You're him, aren't you?" the kid under the oversized cap with one bar on it said.

"Speaking," I croaked, keeping my trembling hands up.

"Oh man," he said, grinning. His face was pink and smooth as a girl's.

"Sergeant, bring the camera!"

I felt him put his arm around my shoulder while other members of the platoon gathered around me like brothers, uncles and cousins for a family photo.

The flash from the camera left after images floating like pink soap bubbles in my eye.

While I stood there in a daze, half blind, I heard them scrambling back into the truck.

"Hey," I said. "Aren't you taking me with you?"

I made the mistake of running toward the truck. The rifle butt must have hit me on the left side of the head because I never saw it coming. I whirled around on one foot like a ballet dancer, then blacked out before I hit the ground.

Bees, thousands of them, stung my head, face and neck. I rolled over on my side, fighting them off, spitting dirt, sick with vertigo and completely blind.

I staggered to my feet, twisted an ankle and drove a knee into a rock that sent pain like a quivering blue bolt of home-brewed electricity into my spinal column. The scream that followed tore the lining of my throat like a rusty bottle opener.

There wasn't enough air in the world to fill my lungs as I struggled for breath. Every inch of skin on my body had been turned into an oil slick. Panicked, I started to run, tripped and then fell on my hands.

It was hard to get back on my feet. I felt as if I had been beaten everywhere. After a few unsteady attempts I crouched, then nervously felt myself. No bees, just nerves waking up. But I still couldn't see.

It felt like hours before I could remember where I was, what had happened. The truck, soldiers, a blur and the smell of gun oil...

I buried my face in my hands and cried, so overcome with terror that I was barely conscious of shivering in the cold. As I wiped my eyes I saw a glint of moonlight and realized that it was night.

"Okay, okay, okay," I said to myself, as if trying to comfort a frightened child. "We're all right it's just night, just night, just night."

My body shook so hard that if I had been a car all the nuts and bolts would have popped out. The thought of that made me bark out a weak laugh and I felt better.

When I stood all the way up a huge white light snapped on in my brain and I nearly fainted. I put my hands on my knees, dragged air through my nose, then straightened my back, which felt about as flexible as rusty sheet metal. Both eyes were still there, the old righty and the new lefty. I wasn't bleeding. Who knows? I told myself. Maybe I'll live.

I looked around, feeling like a sailor lost at sea, surrounded by an ocean of darkness. Where was the road? Was I on it? What direction had I been walking in?

The last thing I wanted to do was limp all the way back to prison. I looked up and saw a faint band of stars in the sky, like lamps held by people on another continent. Once, a few million years ago or in the future, I traveled right through the thin fabric of matter and into the heart of constant reality. But, like everyone else who had gone on before me, I returned with nothing more remarkable than what people describe after falling asleep in the dentist's chair. After everything I had gone through I was still just one lonely man on earth, hurt, tired, hungry and afraid.

I let my eyes (I should say 'eye' but that doesn't sound right) adjust to the darkness and began to walk. The sea didn't sound so far away now. Somewhere in the dense, dark foliage to my left I heard an owl ask a question.

"Who... who?"

"Me... me," I said, trying to sound quite cheerful. The result was rather mournful, however, and I was glad no one else was around to hear it.

I walked slowly at first, then picked up speed as the black space in front of me began to look more like a road in the moonlight. My head still hurt and my neck felt twisted, as if my head had been bolted onto my spinal column using stripped threads, but I was determined to press ahead and not think about what had caused my most recent blackout.

"One step at a time," I said out loud as a gust of wind blew cold air in my ear and rearranged my hair.

I looked down at the ground, careful of every step, and thought about what people must think of in such situations. Food, soap and water, clean clothes and a warm bed. I was surprised to find myself thinking about my very first apartment, something I hadn't thought about in years. It was small. comfortable and filled, I thought, with everything I'd ever need. A twin bed, a small black and white television that got two stations, a transistor radio, one of those large bean bag you can use instead of a reclining chair, a card table and two folding chairs, a refrigerator and even an electric stove. I had a job at Sears and felt like a millionaire.

It rained the first weekend I spent there. I remembered awakening to the sound of rain drops hitting the window, then rolling over in bed, rejoicing that I had Saturday and Sunday off. Two whole days just for me to do whatever i wanted. I put on my slippers, turned on the heat, made coffee and looked at a stack of paper back books I had brought with me.

How I loved the quiet, with only the ticking of the clock and the soft hiss of the gas heater as I sat in bed that afternoon reading The Time Machine by H.G. Wells.

When I finished reading the last page I was surprised to see that it had gotten dark outside. The rain had finally stopped. I dressed, shaved, put on a jacket and went out into the fresh, clear air. No one was out walking but me. As I passed houses with their porch light on I smelled food cooking, which reminded me that I hadn't eaten all day. I walked all the way to a hamburger place that I usually drove to and ordered a double cheese burger, fries and a milk shake, the best meal I had ever eaten.

On the way back to my little apartment I passed a family getting out of their car. The father held his little girl's hand and the mother carried a little boy who slept with his head on her shoulder. It looked as if they had just returned from a long trip. As I walked away from them I thought about the last paragraph of The Time Machine with an emotion that felt as sharp as grief. The last attribute left to what remained of the human race, Wells had wrote, was gratitude.

And now, stumbling in the dark with an aching head and wooden blocks for feet, I wondered if I could ever again find such peace and security, a sense of knowing exactly where I belonged. I thought about my wife and my children. My mother had told me to go home; but I felt as if I had been going home all my life.

And yet-weird as this may sound-I felt a genuine sense of gratitude for everything that had ever happened to me. Even in the cold, lost, afraid and hungry, I felt as if everything had happened for a reason. I walked on because three people needed me, just as I needed them. Perhaps that was the purpose of my life, the reason for my existence. It may seem simple and quaint, especially when life is comfortable and everything is going your way, but when your life is hanging by a thread you find yourself ready to cast aside everything you once thought valuable for the touch of someone's hand.

"Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall," I sang. "Ninety-nine bottles of beer. You take one down and pass it around, ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall."

For the first time in my life I actually got to the end of that song. I started walking on the road itself since cars seemed to have disappeared. My footsteps echoed, which made it sound as if someone were following me. Then I wondered if I were being followed; but when I stopped to turn around and listen all I could hear was my breathing and the beating of my own heart.

"Ninety-nine bottles of beer..." I began to sing, but then stopped. Counting backwards reminded me of the time I had my tonsils removed.

"The bear went over the mountain," I sang, wrapping my arms around me, wishing that I had something heavier to wear than a silly Hawaiian shirt.

The bear went over the mountain
the bear went over the mountain
the bear went over the moun...tain...
to see what he could see
and all that he could see
and all that he could see
the other side of the mountain
the other side of the mountain
the other side of the moun...tain...
was all that he could see
the bear went over the mountain
the bear...

By the time I got to the end of that song my throat felt raw and I had an image of a bear walking up and down mountains, up and down mountains, up and down mountains that made me feel lightheaded. Then a word popped into my head, three syllables breathed into my inner ear by the bogeyman in the dark basement of my unconscious.


I began to think of all the people I had heard about who had gotten lost on hikes and were found dead. Of


up and down mountains up and down mountains up and down mountains
up and down mountains up and down mountains up and down mountains

"The bear," I mumbled, seeing headlines in my head. World's richest man

Thurston Howell the Third

found dead on the side of a road. Apparently he had wandered

up and down mountains up and down mountains up and down mountains
up and down mountains up and down mountains up and down mountains

"Jesus Christ," I whined. "Doesn't this damn road go anywhere?"

All the energy seemed to drain out of me all at once and my whole nervous system felt like a car battery when the headlights start to dim. I couldn't take another step. When I closed my eyes I flew in a helicopter over a frozen ocean, shopped online for antique faucets, petted Suzie, who thanked me in French. The most vivid dreams that I had ever had unfolded in my brain like vast, photographic panoramas the second my lids snapped shut. This is it, I told myself. I would lie down, fall asleep and let snakes and coyotes eat me. But so what? I was too tired to care what the rational side of my brain told me. It sounded like Chuck and Louie imitating my mother anyway. So there were snakes, so there were coyotes, so there were towns full of lunatic hippies, so there were star-struck soldiers and bands of truck thieving cons on the road. I was so tired

up and down mountains up and down mountains up and down mountains
up and down mountains up and down mountains up and down mountains

that.... I... just... didn't... care.

I don't remember falling asleep. There was a window, and outside the window sheets flapped on a clothesline. I tried to close the window because it was cold but I couldn't, and that is when I knew that I was dreaming. Or only dreaming that I was dreaming.


"Who's there?" I said.

"It's me, Dorothy."

I was walking outside, past reproductions of Greek and Roman statues. They were all midgets in marble, though, very small and getting smaller by the second.

"Where are you?" I said.

"I'm on the other side."

"Oh," I said, watching one of the statues look up at me and smile. "Did you go up the tree?"

"Yes. I'm talking to you on the telephone. We found that we can do that because we use vacuum tubes, which work for some reason."

"But I don't see you," I said.

"Fick, listen to me. I'm on the phone. Do you understand that?"

"Yes. Oh look, this looks just like you."

"What are you talking about?"

"The statues," I said. "But now they're turning into toads."

"Fick, listen to me very carefully. I think that you're dreaming. Is that it? Are you asleep?"

I walked around in the dark, looking for Dorothy, looking for the house. So cold outside. I had on a sweater but it felt like ice.

"Yes," I said. "I must be dreaming even though it's real what's happening. Where are you?"

"Fick you have to wake up and walk on the road so they can find you."

"How do they know I'm here?" I said, sitting in Carl's car, looking at Wang's Chicken and Donuts, wondering who they were, these people who were looking for me.

"The satellites, Fick. And we still have contacts we can use, people who want to help you," Dorothy said.

So much sadness filled up inside of me that my chest felt crushed by it. A girl left flowers in a man's pocket because the world would come to an end and she felt gratitude for his help and I would never see Dorothy again.

"I miss you Dodo," I sobbed.

"Fick, wake up," she said.

"I don't want to," I said, curling up on the floor beneath the steering wheel.


"Can't. Tired."

"Get up, Fick, you can do it. You can do it for me, Fick, you can do it for Dorothy. They'll be two of them, in a pickup truck. Their names are Juan and Cecilia. They don't speak a lot of English but they'll get you to safety. Fick! Can you hear me?"

I stretched out my arms and legs. Something had happened to the floor of the car. It felt like dirt.

"...you hear...think...breaking..."

For a split second I thought that I had fallen out of bed. My head spun so fast that I was afraid to stand up. Someone had been talking to me but I couldn't remember who. I felt as if sleep had left my brain like a freight train. Cold. I staggered to my feet, wrapping my arms around me, feeling my face throb and thinking that the pounding in my head sounded like an idling engine.

I turned around and saw two red eyes looking at me in the distance. How far the animal was from me I couldn't tell. Ten feet or a mile. I began to hobble in the other direction, listening to the crunch of footsteps coming toward me.

As cold as it was sweat broke out on my face and beneath my clothes. I clenched my teeth and forced myself to run, or at least to hobble fast enough to make it up to slow jogging speed. A voice, very soft but clear, and closer than I expected.

"Senior Fick?"

I wanted to tell him to go away, that I didn't know any Senior Fick, but I didn't want to confirm that I was really there, scurrying away in the darkness like a frightened animal. Which I was.

The beam of a flash light shot out ahead of me. I spun around, too tired and beat up to run, and squinted into the light.

"Senior Fick!"

"What do you want!" My throat, so dry and weak, had taken a shout and turned it into a wheeze.

"We are looking for you."

The dream came back to me. Impossible, I thought. But if it weren't? I shielded my eyes (eye) but all that I could see was a blinding light aimed directly at my face. Too late to do anything, I thought. Might as well make one last stupid decision.

"Are you Juan?" I said.

The man and the woman helped me into the cab of the truck. Hands tucked a blanket around me until I stopped shivering. Water from a plastic bottle was put to my lips and I drank until my stomach swelled. Then, between the man and the woman, I looked at the road ahead until my eyes shut. When I opened them again we had stopped and the man and the woman were getting out of the truck. I got out too, keeping the blanket wrapped around me, trying to think of what to say to these two people.

"How did you find me?" I said to the man, who was unfolding a plastic tarp."How did you know where to look?"

The man, who was young and slender, with curly hair and a face that never stopped smiling, cocked his head to one side.

"Someone call us."

As the man assembled a tent I helped the woman build a fire. She, too, was young and slender, with dark, shoulder length hair, high cheek bones and a face that smiled as if it were constantly amused by its own shy beauty.

"You are hungry?" she said.

"Yes," I said in Spanish, using what little I knew. "I am hungry."

We sat near the fire, which was hot enough for me to take off my blanket, and ate thick bean and cheese burettes that had been wrapped in tin foil. It was the most delicious food I had ever eaten.

The man and the woman sat next to each other, holding hands, smiling into the fire, into each other's eyes, at me.

I wanted to thank them. I tried, but when I opened my mouth to speak my body shook and I found myself crying instead. Not because I had been saved, not because I was now warm and fed, but because two people I didn't know had shown me so much kindness. It seemed as if the whole world had suddenly come rushing back to me, reminding me of what it was to belong to the human race.

"I'm sorry," I said in Spanish. "I'm..." I had to think of the word. "Tired. Thank you."

They didn't look away or appear in the least embarrassed.

"It's okay," the man said in English. "You would do it for me."

"I would?" I said, wiping my eyes.

The man shrugged, smiling, holding his wife's hand.

"It is no different in here," he said, putting his hand over his heart.

I was invited to their tent, where I wriggled into a sleeping bag that was the warmest and softest bed I had ever felt. As soon as my head, which weighed a thousand pounds, hit the pillow of rolled up towels I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

The next day I could not move my head since every muscle in my neck had frozen solid. I felt like one of those decapitated ghosts in campfire stories, carrying around my own head in my hands. The woman put some kind of ointment that smelled like mint and camphor on the back of my neck, which helped; but a rifle butt that causes one to spin like a ballet dancer does damage that lasts a while, so for the remainder of the day, as we drove in the truck, I sat as still as I could, wincing every time one of the tires hit so much as a pebble.

I was surprised to see other cars and trucks on the highway. Maybe civilization hadn't collapsed entirely, I thought, and there was life down the road after all. The man turned on the radio, which, to my further astonishment, worked; and we listened to Mexican music, which I've always liked. So happy. It's always reminded me of people, dressed in brightly colored clothing, dancing and laughing in the moonlight.

"Where are we going?" I managed to say in Spanish.

"A town," the man said slowly in Spanish, uncertain, I think, of my comprehension. "You have friends there."

I closed my eyes and tried to sleep despite the pain in my neck. Friends. Ah, yes. A circle of friends. And a family. Somewhere.

We stopped to visit some people, relatives of the man, I think, although by that time I was in so much pain that I hardly paid attention to anything except the inflamed cement the muscles in my neck had turned into. I was offered a plate of boiled chicken and rice by a tall, red headed woman who spoke perfect English with, I thought, a slight New York accent. When I told her that I wasn't hungry and that my neck was killing me she had me lay face-down on her sofa.

"You need cold on that," she said, stomping into the room on boots.

"Oh," I said, smelling cat fur. "Cold."

"Ice," she said, jangling gold jewelry on her wrists.

"That would be nice," I said.

"Electricity is out and there ain't no ice."

" No ice," I said, smelling something other than cat fur. Lavender?

"Ha! But we got ice. My husband's got a generator. I'm going to put a towel on you but it should still feel pretty cold, okay?"


She put the towel on me. I could feel her long fingernails, like plastic claws. The ice was in a bag. I slid one half of my face off the sofa so that I wouldn't smell cat fur so much. The cold, when it came, felt wonderful.

"Thank you," I said.

"Hey no problem Mister Fick," she said. "You helped us make enough money to buy this house near the beach. For a while we were rich. We don't have no money now but, eh, that's not your fault. I think it was the government that did it all you ask me. Sure as hell pissed me off when they threw you in jail and I know it did a lot of other people. I didn't think you did anything to deserve that."

"You're very kind," I said, looking at one of her boots, which looked expensive. So I-or Wonder World Ko-had made her rich.

"Ah, shit, don't worry about it," she said, stomping and jingling away. "That ice should make you feel better."

That night, after saying goodbye to our hosts, I got back into the truck with the man and the woman, feeling almost normal. The man turned on the radio, found a pop station, and the woman sang along to Madonna.

We drove in the dark for an hour before pulling off the road. I got out of the truck and moved my head up and down without too much pain. Remarkable, I thought, what a little ice can do.

I followed the man and the woman up a paved road where we entered another street; and then I stopped, too astonished to take another step.

Booths, illuminated by torchlight, lined both sides of the street. I walked through crowds of people helping themselves to popcorn cooked in large metal kettles, chicken roasted over coals, apples dipped in caramel, skillets of mushrooms and garlic, skewers of shrimp over rice, bananas dipped in chocolate and nuts, clouds of pink cotton candy, barbecued ribs, corn dogs on a stick, huge baked potatoes covered with cheese and broccoli, bottles of beer and wine, cans of Coca Cola, bags of peanuts and even freshly baked breads and pies. Children ran past me, some dressed in costume, some with their face painted. A group of musicians played guitars, banjos and a fiddle. Children and adults petted goats, ducks, pigs and rabbits in a pen. A man dressed like a clown turned balloons into hats. Girls got temporary tattoos put on their ankles and someone had even set up a chair to cut hair. I didn't see anyone hand over money. What people didn't take for free they paid for with other things, like tools, food or clothing. There were booths people went to so that they could volumteer to repair someone's house, grow vegetables or milk cows; and there where even booths people went to for medical help.

I ate an ear of corn, two helpings of fried rice and tofu cooked in plum sauce.

"Hear you're in need of a ride the rest of the way back to L.A," a man said behind me.

I got, in fact, two rides from truck drivers who, fortunately, didn't recognize me but knew where I had to go; and eight hours later I stood on the front porch of my mother in law's house, limping, bearded and smelling like a goat, to greet my wife, my two children and my mother-in-law, who hadn't changed since the day she gave me lunch for waxing and polishing her car. Samantha and I fell into each other's arms, wept, laughed, and then kissed as man and wife.

As lovers, if you want to be romantic about it.

Like everyone else we've become farmers, working along side our neighbors to grow food on what were once parking lots, streets and empty lots. We're poor but so is everyone else and so it isn't so bad. At night Samantha sings (she really can sing) and I strum along on a banjo that I taught myself how to play, a fine old instrument that belonged to Samantha's father. Of course, we all know that this simple, rustic life won't last. People are talking about an "economic revival" and the other day a passenger jet flew overhead.

A few months ago I gathered together some old wood and built a tree house for the girls. Sometimes, as the sun goes down, we all sit up there and I tell the girls about my adventures in the other world. They probably believe me about as much as you do, dear reader, but it doesn't matter. As the day comes to a close we look down at Suzie, who trots through the tall grass, at the gold tipped roof tops of our neighbors, at the tree tops and the clouds overhead, amazed at how peaceful and beautiful everything is.

Those are the best moments of all, when my wife and children are beside me, when there is dirt beneath my nails from an honest day's work, when I feel in my heart that there are good enough worlds to go around.

The end

2000-2003, Monrovia and La Verne, California
-James Hazard, copyright 2005

Posted by james-hazard at 8:38 AM PDT
Updated: Monday, 8 August 2005 8:44 AM PDT

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