Introduction: An Elephant Wind

A very old man and a very young man sat on a west-facing porch in front of an Ohio farmhouse. The old man reminded the young man of Ernest Hemingway—full white beard, tan face, squinty eyes all screwed up like he was always looking into the sun. The young man had never read Ernest Hemingway but he had seen his face on the backs of books his parents kept around the house. The two of them sat on rocking chairs, gently rocking back and forth, slightly out of synch with one another. The old man went forward. The young man went back.

A storm brewed on the western horizon. The land was flat and they could see almost all the way to Indiana. A breeze had picked up, washing over them, blowing the old man’s thin white hair back from his reddened scalp.

The old man sniffed the air and said, “An elephant wind.”

“A what?” the boy asked.

“An elephant wind.”

The boy liked elephants. He thought about them a lot more than was probably healthy. When he was even younger he told people he wanted to be an elephant. When he grew out of that he told them he wanted an elephant as a pet. Or a whole herd of elephants. They always told him elephants would be too expensive to keep. They never told him he was ridiculous for wanting a herd of elephants. He liked the image “an elephant wind” conjured but he still didn’t have any idea what the old man was talking about.

“What’s an elephant wind?” He knew the old man wouldn’t tell him if he didn’t ask.

“That’s what the Nefarions called it.” The boy didn’t know what a Nefarion was. The old man pointed out to the horizon. “Look out there.”

The boy did. He saw gray clouds gathered on the horizon. The storm, coming toward them.

“Imagine those clouds were elephants. A whole herd of them, marching right toward us.”

The boy looked at the horizon, shifted his gaze, tried to make his vision go blurry. He forced his sight beyond the field of dancing green corn stalks. Try as he might, he couldn’t imagine the clouds as a herd of elephants. He didn’t even see the point in imagining them as a herd of elephants. The old man, he knew, was not without his quirks and odd beliefs. Sometimes he would make the boy follow him around the yard while he tried to lift things, his wiry old man body straining, all the cords and veins standing out on his neck and arms, almost always unsuccessfully. The old man had told him the stars were Native American arrow holes and before the whites had come the natives had known what it was to enjoy true darkness. He told him when grass made you itch it meant you had done something to make it angry. He said if you were asleep here it meant you were awake in China.

“I don’t see any elephants,” the boy said.

“You have to use your imagination.”

“But why would I want to imagine a herd of elephants instead of a storm?”

“Well, the Nefarions did it because theirs is a rebellious lot. Have I ever told you about the Nefarions?”

The boy shook his head. It sounded like something from one of his storybooks.

“Remind me to tell you more about them some day for theirs is an interesting history...” The old man trailed off, gazing out at the impending storm, lost in thought.

“The Nefarions, Grandpa?” the boy reminded him. The boy’s chair had stopped rocking and now he sat sideways in it, staring at the old man, listening to the wind slice itself against the cartilage of his ear.

“Oh, right. Anyway, theirs was a rebellious lot. All of their children were completely out of control. The out of control children grew to become out of control adults. But the children’s safety was very much these out of control adults’ concern. Anyway, the Nefarions live on a remote island in the Malefic Ocean...”

“I’ve never heard of that one.”

“You will, maybe, someday. Or maybe you won’t.”

The boy, as with many other things his grandfather told him, filed it away in the back of his head in the place of soon forgotten things.

“So this island in the middle of the Malefic Ocean was prone to storms a million times more violent than the ones we have here. It was rumored a bolt of lightning could shoot from the sky and cut a person clean in half if he happened to be caught out. Hair was blown from people’s heads. Skin was pushed back and frozen that way.” Here his grandfather pulled the loose skin on his face back to demonstrate, the result skeletal and terrifying. “Everything was more powerful there. But the adults couldn’t make the children understand that. A storm would come and the adults would tell the children they had better get inside and the children would laugh at them. ‘What is a storm?’ they would ask and then they would answer themselves, ‘It is nothing but wind and water and fire. These are the things of the earth. Are we supposed to fear them because they come from the sky?’ Very philosophical, those children.

“Their island was, however, home of a legendary herd of elephants, rarely seen, but large in number. One day these elephants broke free from the forest in the middle of the island and rampaged through the town, trampling everything in their path. It scared many of the children to see their parents and classmates driven into the ground by the weight of these enormous, vicious creatures. Soon, the adults thought up an idea. Whenever a storm gathered itself around the island the adults directed the children’s gaze to the gathering clouds and told them it was the elephant herd, come back to finish off the villagers. The elephants ran so fast, the adults said, they generated a wind. An elephant wind. They had the children so thoroughly convinced this was the truth that most of the children would say they could smell the elephants on the wind. Coming for them. Rampaging toward them. Hurriedly, they would retreat into their homes and hope the giant beasts were not able to desecrate their modest shacks and houses.”

The boy looked out over the corn toward the advancing clouds. Now he could see how one might mistake them for being elephants. So many shades of gray and black. Rounding curves that could be ears. Thin strands that could be tails or maybe even trunks. And all throughout the bank of clouds, the little glimmers of white tusks, eager to impale any straggling little boy. If he listened carefully, he thought he could even hear their unmistakable horn-like shouts. And, yes, if he thought about it hard enough he could even smell them—the faraway scent of straw and manure, hide heated up in the summer sun.

“I think I’m going inside,” he told his grandfather.

“Of course, here, here we don’t have any elephant winds.” The boy thought maybe his grandfather sounded a little sad about this. “Here we don’t really have anything close to magic at all. So you can stay out here as long as you want and nothing will hurt you. You might get a little wet, is all.”

But the boy couldn’t get the image of the trampling elephants out of his head.

“I’m going to go inside and have a snack.”

“Sure. Sure. I’ll be in in a few minutes.”

The boy knew this was a lie. His grandfather was a weather enthusiast and any time there was anything out of the ordinary in the sky which, in Ohio, was just about every day, he would be out in it, looking at the horizon or up toward the heavens. Once inside, the boy made a peanut butter and marshmallow fluff sandwich and sat down on a chair in the living room. Two large picture windows looked out over the cornfield, toward the approaching storm. He wondered where his parents were. They often left for hours at a time, taking his sister with them, and returning after he went to bed. After eating his sandwich and turning on the television, the boy must have dozed off.

He awoke to what could only be the trumpeting of elephants. Standing up, he ran to the window and watched wide-eyed as something strange and horrific unfolded in front of him.

His grandfather stood in the front yard, clothes flapping around his skinny body, hair swirling around his huge head, arms thrust up toward the heavens. Rain fell from the sky, huge fat drops, turning everything gray. Thunder rumbled under his feet. Lightning slashed the sky. And from everywhere he could hear the trumpeting of the elephants.

Then he saw them tearing through the cornfield. Dividing as they reached his grandfather. Hundreds of them. The boy grew very worried about his grandfather. He went to the door and opened it. The wind nearly ripped the storm door from its hinges.

“Grandpa!” the boy shouted.

The old man was oblivious. It looked like he was confronting the gods and, if so, it was a confrontation he lost. The sky darkened. Rain pelted off the backs of the pachyderm parade, swirling around his grandfather. Lightning strobed the dark day bright and, like that, his grandfather was gone. The boy sat down on the same chair he had fallen asleep in and cried.

Later, he would often think he had been depressed from that point onward.

Chapter One

When I turned twenty-four I dropped out of college for the fourth time and moved to a scummy apartment in Dayton to write a novel. After about a month, I got lonely and invited the copious amounts of homeless people skulking in nearby alleys, vacant lots, abandoned houses, and junked cars to stay in the apartment, establishing something like a flophouse. Their presence helped the writing. I never could think when surrounded by silence or canned creativity like music or television. At first, I wrote on a laptop but someone stole that while I was sleeping so I went to a thrift store and found the biggest, bulkiest typewriter I could find. It would be too heavy for them to lug to the pawnshop and it had a generally useless, ancient look to it. Using a typewriter meant I had to keep a paper manuscript and my bums stole that as well. I don’t really know what they used it for. It was good for editing purposes. I had to write the same scenes over and over. Eventually, when I reached something resembling a finished manuscript, I got tired of them stealing it so I put the ream of paper in a plastic zipper bag and stashed it in the tank of the toilet. As the manuscript grew, the water in the toilet’s reservoir didn’t have anywhere to go and it would run out from the tank. This worked out nicely because no one ever wanted to get caught making a mess in the bathroom so they never opened up the tank to see what was making all the water come out. They just finished their business and got out as quickly as possible.

The actual physical act of my writing (they never read anything I wrote) inspired some of the bums and they would spend entire days writing on the walls. I encouraged this, figuring I wouldn’t get my deposit back anyway. After they stole the radio and the television this was the only way I had to entertain myself when not writing. I never really knew who wrote what but it was all pretty good. Gritty. Realistic. The complete opposite of the novel I was writing. I had trouble keeping the bums’ names straight. They all had nice, solid, Midwestern names like John and Hank and Buck and Mike. Or nicknames like Stinky, Pooptooth, and Blackbeard.

I stayed there for three years.

A guy named Squirt was there, standing right behind me, when I finished my novel. He was enthralled with how quickly I could type and a little sidetracked by the flaking rash on his stomach.

“That it?” he asked.

“Yeah, I guess that’s it.”

“What now?”

“Guess I should try and sell it.”

I bought a guide to writers’ markets and quickly figured out every publisher was actually the same publisher and it was located in New York.

“Well guys,” I announced. “I’m going to New York.”

No one paid any attention to me. One man was hastily scrawling on the wall. Another man was in the corner shooting heroin. One was in the kitchen, cutting his wine with tap water. One was passed out on the couch, snoring loudly. He only wore one shoe. Squirt came out of the bathroom and proudly proclaimed he had fixed the toilet. I told them they were welcome to stay until they got thrown out and, if the landlord asked about me, to tell him I had died that morning. Again, I don’t think anyone really heard me.

With my manuscript under my arm and a suitcase in my hand, I went to the bus station and bought a ticket to New York.

Chapter Two

It was a bright May morning when I reached the offices of Devilment Incorporated, on Fifth Avenue. I read the little placard by the elevators and took the elevator up to the fortieth floor. A horsefaced receptionist greeted me when I came off the elevator. Apparently, I looked fairly authorial in my corduroy blazer. A man lay on the floor behind her, moaning and holding his head.

“May I help you?” The receptionist’s nametag read: “Artemis X.”

“Yes,” I said. “I believe you can. I have a ten o’clock appointment with Mr. Dix.”

“Hm,” she said, putting a lacquered fingernail against her bottom lip and looking down at an appointment book filled with childlike, pornographic sketches. “Mr. Dix is, uh...” She giggled. I noticed she had her shoes off and the moaning man on the floor was tickling her heels. She coughed and kicked him in the head. He rolled back to his place on the floor. “What I meant to say was, uh, Mr. Dix is...”

“A GOAT!” the man on the floor shouted. “MR. DIX IS A FUCKING GOAT!” he shouted again before being overcome with a case of the giggles himself.

No...” Ms. X tapped her fingernail on the counter. “No.” She shook her head. “Mr. Dix is most definitely not a goat.” She picked up the pornographic appointment book, closed it, turned around and swatted the floored man with it after each word. “Why. Don’t. You. Go. Back. To. Your. Own. Floor.” Swat. Swat. Swat.

The man snatched the book from her hands, stood up, and said, “Fine. If that’s the way you want to be. I will go back to my own floor. But don’t expect me to be there when you get home.” Then he stormed out of the office, stalking over to the elevators and angrily pushing both buttons frantically.

“Mr. Dix is...” Ms. X looked at the acoustic-tiled ceiling. “Well, he’s certainly not here today. That’s what he isn’t.”

“I see. Should I come back then? Perhaps I can just leave this with him?” I brandished my bulky manuscript. Although, frankly, I would have felt a little nervous leaving anything in that office.

“Hm,” she said. “Let’s have a look-see at that.”

I plopped it down on the counter.

She read the title aloud, mispronouncing a couple of the words and running her thick fingernail under them.

“David Glum?” she asked when she got to my name. “I’ve never heard of you.”

“Probably not. This is my first novel.”

She laughed and called out, “Lance!” I turned to see who she was shouting at. It was the man from the floor. The elevator doors still had not opened and he continued to push the buttons. They both glowed ferociously and his face glistened with sweat. “He says...” She spoke around her wild laughter. “He says this is his first novel.”

At this, Lance stopped pushing the elevator buttons, clasped his hands around his stomach and threw out the loudest most inauthentic laugh I’d ever heard. He fake-laughed so hard he fell to the floor. The elevator doors opened and he just rolled inside, not even bothering to stand up. The doors closed and I heard his laugh descend with the elevator. My face burned red. Once he was gone from earshot Ms. X ceased laughing and struggled to pull her horsey face into something resembling seriousness.

“If this,” she said, stroking a hand down my title page, “is your first novel, then you would want to see Mr. Half. Not Mr. Dix. Mr. Dix does not work with first time novelists.”

“Well... I assure you my appointment was with Mr. Dix but if Mr. Half is the only one here today then I guess he’ll have to do.” It would have to be okay since my appointment with Mr. Dix was imaginary.

“Just a moment.” She sat down at her chair and picked up the telephone. She enclosed her hand around the receiver so I could neither hear her nor see her lips moving. “If you would like to sit down over there Mr. Half will be with you in a few moments.”

Chapter Three

I crossed the office but before I could even make it to the uncomfortable and stained couch someone shouted, “Glum!” from behind me.

I turned around and a very small man approached me. “If you’ll just follow me,” he said.

I followed him down a long corridor and turned left into his office. The office was very small. Filing cabinets lined the walls. Paper spilled from all of them. Paper was everywhere. Piled on his desk and on top of the filing cabinets. He sat down behind his desk, adjusted his small glasses and said, “If you could give me just a half an hour with your, uh, manuscript there, I’ll be able to let you know.”

I plunked the manuscript down on his desk. He let out an exasperated sigh and reiterated, “One half hour, please.”

“Thank you,” I said, reaching across the desk to shake his hand. It was the size of a child’s and very smooth. I walked back down the long corridor and out to the reception area. Ms. X was crawling on the floor, sniffing the carpet. I pressed the button for the lobby and the elevator opened right up. Lance stood in the back right corner of the elevator. He stood very straight and very serious-looking. The elevator door closed and he moved to stand right next to me.

“Don’t get any ideas,” he hissed.

“About what?”

“Artemis.”

“I don’t think you have anything to worry about there.”

“She’s mine,” he hissed again, giving me a little push.

“Fine. Fine. I’m here to sell a book.”

“Oh, a big time author, huh?”

“Well, not really.”

“Just remember—stay away from Artemis.”

“Okay. Okay. Just...” The elevator doors opened and I immediately heaved myself for them. Lance tripped me and I went sprawling into the lobby. Staying in the elevator, he pointed at me and laughed. I picked myself up and headed for the front doors, figuring by the time I stepped outside, went back in and back up to the fortieth floor, a half hour would have elapsed. Standing on the steps in front of the building I saw a man with the head of an eagle walk across Fifth Avenue and into Central Park.

I also saw my imposter for the first time. He came through the front doors and stood there next to me. Curiously, I stared at him. He wore a wig resembling my hair. He wore the same glasses and blazer as I did. He carried a fat ream of paper under his arm. He surveyed the street in front of him and then, turning, saw me staring at him. He grabbed the ream of paper up to his chest and took off running into the park. I contemplated running after him, thinking maybe he had stolen my manuscript, but I wanted to be able to meet Mr. Half in one half hour.

Chapter Four

I took a deep breath and watched all the people walking up and down Fifth Avenue. Fashionable, well-dressed people. Slovenly dressed people. Moderately dressed people. Some of them entered Central Park. Some of them were on their way to other destinations. Who were these people? What were they doing? Where were they going? And did I care?

I most absolutely did not.

I turned and went back into the building, crossing the drab lobby to the elevators. Gratefully, I noticed Lance was no longer in the elevator. He must have found whatever floor he was looking for. Now there were at least fifty people in the elevator, an impossible amount, all of them dressed like doctors or nurses. I sucked in my breath, trying to make myself smaller, and squeezed in amidst them. All the buttons were lit up and the elevator stopped at each floor. No one waited to get on and no one got off. When it reached the fortieth floor, I exhaled, the surge of people behind me nearly shoving me out into the reception area. Cautiously, I strolled to the desk, waiting for a potential ambush from Lance.

The reception area was completely destroyed. The couch I had been previously directed toward was maimed and gouged, stuffing flowing out and onto the carpet, which had been torn up in places. The coffee table was overturned, the various trade magazines covering it torn and scattered across the floor. Ms. X’s computer sat in a melted lump on the counter.

There was no sign of Ms. X so I let myself back to Mr. Half’s office, again wandering along the interminably long corridor. None of the office doors had any numbers or nameplates on them so I wasn’t sure it was actually Mr. Half’s door I knocked on when I finally reached it. I waited for him to call me in but didn’t hear anything. I knocked again. Again, nothing.

“Mr. Half?” I breathed into the door.

Still nothing.

I tried the knob and entered the office, only to find Mr. Half sound asleep, his head resting, cheek down, on my manuscript, a trail of drool darkening the page. I nudged his shoulder. “Mr. Half?”

He plucked his head up and adjusted his glasses over his bleary eyes.

“Oh... what... I’m terribly sorry,” he said. He removed his small wire-framed glasses and wiped sleep from his eyes with the heels of his hands before putting his glasses back on. “Oh, it’s you, Mr. Glum.”

“Sorry to bother you.”

“Oh, it’s no bother.”

“Did you get to read any of it before you...”

“Fell asleep?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, yes, I read a few pages.”

Then he entwined his fingers and rested his chin on them, staring at me.

“And?”

“Yes?”

“What did you think of it?”

“Not much, really. I mean, I fell asleep. How good could it have been?”

“I see.”

“About how long did you spend on this?”

“Three years.”

“Pity.” He separated his hands and shuffled my damp manuscript around on his desk.

“So, is that it?” I asked. “Should I go? Or are you going to show it to Mr. Dix?”

“No. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“I see. Well, Mr. Half, if you don’t mind, I’ll take my manuscript and get going. I’m very sorry to waste your time.”

“It’s no bother. Really, I’ve got nothing but time. My wife has uh... left me, so I mostly just stay here. Actually, she hasn’t so much left me as... invited a lover into our home. The children love him. He’s a contortionist, you see. They call him Mr. Flexy... A much more interesting character than their father. A gimmick, really, if you ask me but, well... you didn’t, did you?”

“Didn’t what?”

“Ask me.”

“No. I guess I didn’t.”

“Anyway, I really hope you’re not discouraged. This has nothing to do with you or your writing...”

“You’re rejecting it but telling me, at the same time, it is not a reflection of the writing?”

“Exactly.”

“But if it was good you would have accepted it, right?”

Mr. Half chuckled and looked nervously at the teeming manuscripts surrounding him.

“I mean, it’s okay if it sucks. You can tell me. You’re an editor. You must have read countless manuscripts—good and bad. I would think, being a man of education and letters, you would be able to encapsulate your feelings toward my writing in a single sentence or two.”

“You’re obviously a very confused young man, Mr. Glum.”

“You’re probably right, Mr. Half.”

“Let me tell you how things work before you go back out and tell everyone what elitist snobs we all are.”

“I never said you were an elitist snob. If publishers were snobs they wouldn’t publish half the shit they do.”

“Okay... Okay, no need to get insulting.” Mr. Half sat back in his chair and spread his arms to draw my attention to his office and those insurmountably depressing mounds of novels, short story collections, memoirs, and queries. “I am only an assistant editor. Do you know what that means?”

“You’re like a filter for the head honcho, right? A...”

He held his hand up to silence me.

“Not even just a filter. Being an assistant editor implies that I am still some kind of editor. That’s where I don’t want to lead you astray. I am a half-editor. I was born to be a half-editor. Because I am half a man. I am half of Mr. Dix. I am half as tall as he is. I weigh half as much as he does. While I am not completely bald, my hair is very thin and, I can assure you, if a count were taken, you would find me to have half as many hairs as him. My office is half the size of his. I have half as many filing cabinets as he has. But this is where things differ. Whereas I am half the person he is I do a thousand times the work. All I do is read things. Every day. All day. Mostly. So he has time to live his full life and be the full man he strives to be. Occasionally I find something I like enough to pass along to him but if he doesn’t like it, if it doesn’t in some way enrich his life...”

“Yes?”

“The consequences are dire. Mr. Dix is a ruthless man. And he is not afraid to use his fists.”

“I’m very sorry about your situation, sir, but if you’ll just return my manuscript I’ll be on my way.”

“I’ll give it back to you but I should have you know that I might as well throw it away.”

“Why? I worked hard on that.”

“But what are you going to do with it now? Publish it yourself? I can assure you you will be a mockery if you choose to do that. Mr. Dix may not even look at any more of your manuscripts should you choose to do that. And, I’m sorry, but there just isn’t any other place for you to take it. We own everything.”

“I’m well aware of that.”

“Fine,” he said, using the sleeve of his jacket to wipe some drool from the title page before hastily scooting the bulky manuscript across the desk. “Take it. Go read it to the homeless or something. See if I care. And may I make one suggestion?”

“Why not?” I said, collecting the manuscript.

“You should think about giving it a shorter title. To be honest with you, I fell asleep before reading the whole title.”

“I’ll do that.”

“Have a good day, Mr. Glum.”

“You too, Mr. Half.”

I turned to leave the office and, reaching the threshold, heard Mr. Half reading, at top volume, from another manuscript.

Entering the reception area, I noticed a goat had taken Ms. X’s place. The goat sat in her chair and gnawed on the destroyed computer, sliming it with some kind of drooly goat funk. He brayed at me as I once again boarded the elevator. The doctors and nurses had all gone but now there was a patient, stretched out on a gurney, a sheet covering the body and head completely. He may have been dead. I started feeling kind of bummed out. When I got out of the elevator I decided to go sit in the park for a while. Then I guessed I would go back home. Not to the apartment but to my parents’ farmhouse in Grainville. I had wanted to be a novelist since I was in the third grade and had now failed. I was bummed because of the failure but the prospect of finding something else to do seemed exhausting and staggering. And the thought of spending years learning some other skill or craft only to fail once again was thoroughly depressing. It made me want to do nothing at all. Just sit in the park and watch people who undoubtedly had better lives than mine.

I bought a sandwich from a greasy man with a growth on his face and a thick accent.

I found an empty bench and sat down to eat my sandwich, surrounded by acres of fake wilderness. I ate my sandwich and thought about how my life no longer had any purpose. For the past three years, my purpose had been the novel and now... The positive point of view would have been to go back home and start another novel but, after being told, in so many words, that it didn’t matter how good the book was, I couldn’t embrace that point of view. Maybe I would try and build something. Something practical. A man writes a novel and, if no one reads it or it doesn’t make any money, he may as well not have done anything at all. It is just a small ream of paper that sits there and takes up a small amount of space. The only place the work really exists is in the author’s head. Because, undoubtedly, changes did occur in the brain while the novel was being written. Things imagined that had never been there before. People created who never existed before. Walls torn down. Entire cities built. But, in the real world, it was so much shit on paper. But if a man builds a house... well, then he has something to show for it. He can say he built something. “See, there’s that house I built.” And people can look at it and say, “Yeah, that’s a house.” And they might even ask, “Did you build that?” And the man can proudly say, “Yes, I did build that.” And even if no one sees it, even if it is in the darkest heart of the remotest jungle, it will still be a house. It will still be utilitarian. A man, hell, a whole family, can live in it. It would provide shelter from the rain and the wind and the cold and the sun. It would be SOMETHING whereas what I had now was a big pile of NOTHING.

I didn’t want the rest of my sandwich and threw it out onto the walk, hoping someone would step in it and soil their shoes. Then, totally unwittingly, I discovered my new purpose.

To my right, a gaggle of people strolled down the walk, going toward Fifth Avenue. At the center of the group was a tall man with an enormous white beard. He held a pipe in his right hand which he used to gesture with. There were at least three people on either side of him, nodding at him, agreeing with him, interested in what he was saying. Suddenly, I found myself waiting anxiously for them to approach the discarded sandwich. Surely one of them would have to step in it. Which one would it be? I hoped it would be the old man. I wanted to see this stately center of attention debased by having to look at the mess soiling his sober brown loafer.

Unfortunately, none of them stepped in it. As he passed, I tried to catch what the old bearded man said but it sounded like nonsense. Gibberish. Not even words. Just something that sounded like knocking on wood and static. And they all just glided right over the sandwich. It sat there on the walk, looking lonely and pathetic. Then the eagle-headed creature I had seen earlier came toward it, picked it up, and popped it into its beak.

It was at that point I decided to go back to Ohio and grow a beard. Whatever was meant to happen would have to come after that. The eagle-thing squawked at me and I thought of it as the creature’s unique way of saying, “Good idea.”

Chapter Five

I stood up and scratched my chin, imagining the luscious black beard that would soon adorn it, placed my manuscript on the park bench, and walked back toward Fifth Avenue. Reaching the sidewalk, I turned to give my book one final look. This was, after all, the only copy. Three years of work. But if I didn’t leave it there for someone to find, even if they didn’t read it, even if it just ended up in the garbage, I knew I couldn’t feel like I had created anything. This way, at least it would fill a landfill somewhere, which was a little more politically involving than a trunk or my desk drawer.

My imposter stood in front of the manuscript, holding his own bulky manuscript in his arm. He placed it on the bench beside mine. Even from this distance, I could tell they were almost exactly the same size. He picked mine up and tucked it under his arm. He bent his knees a little bit, as if testing its heft. Maybe he thought they were different bonds or something. I started back toward the bench, toward my imposter. He spotted me, clutched the manuscript tightly to his chest, and ran off into the park. I continued toward the bench.

Sitting down once again I lifted his manuscript onto my lap. It was filled with blank pages. Just a ream of paper. A true imposter would at least have tried to write something. But maybe not. Maybe a true imposter was only a shell of the real thing. Something filled with nothingness. Empty. Of course now that manuscript was as much his as it was mine. The only difference was in my head. I knew I wrote it but he could easily say he wrote it. Of course, since he was my imposter, he would also say he was me. Maybe in the end it was all just a wash out.

I couldn’t sit there contemplating all day. I had a beard to grow. And quick.

I passed the greasy man selling sandwiches again and he said, “Hey! Hey, buddy!”

I approached his smoking, heavily scented kiosk.

“You wanna try a hallucinogenic sandwich?”

“I just had a sandwich.”

“You don’t have to be hungry to like this one.”

“Sure. I guess. Is it legal?”

“Hell, I don’t know. Sure. All natural ingredients. On the house this time.” He motioned to his cart. “You fix it up the way you want it.”

“Thanks,” I said. I wasn’t hungry at all but the temptation was too great. While I had never been truly impoverished, I had been hungry enough to know one should never pass up free food.

The only thing on the cart I recognized was the bread. The rest of the little stainless steel bins were filled with exotic-looking vegetables. While I went about making my sandwich the vendor crouched down and started playing with my shoes.

“Hey!” I said, startled.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m also a cobbler. These shoes is all worn out.”

“Whatever. Is that free too?”

“Sure. I just can’t stand to see someone in ratty shoes.”

I assembled a moderately sized sandwich, figuring I would probably be hungry on the bus.

The vendor/cobbler stood up. “Got you all fixed up there.”

I looked down at my once tattered canvas shoes and saw they were now brand new-looking, with no signs of patches, glue or off-colored thread.

“Wow. You do good work.”

“Been doin it for years,” he said with a nod.

“Please. Let me pay you.”

“No need. I have everything I need right here.” He motioned to the cart.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.”

“Okay then. Have a great day.”

“You too.”

I turned and left for the bus station. I didn’t have a lot of money left and I had heard about a cheap and highly disreputable bus company near Battery Park.

Chapter Six

A couple hours later I sat in the back of a reeking bus, idly waiting to take off. The driver, a portly middle-aged woman whose face reminded me of a bag of onions, was out on the sidewalk trying to get people to board the bus. She didn’t have the exciting oratory skills of a carnival barker and everything came out sounding kind of jaded and lazy.

“Come one. Come all. The best damn bus ride in New York. The best bus ride in all the world. You won’t believe the amazing places we’ll see. New Jersey. Pennsylvania. West Virginia. Ohio. And beyond. All for the low low price of free. Hop on just for the experience. You won’t believe your eyes. Experience Eastern and Midwestern America in the summer. Come one. Come all.”

All the while, she made some slow pinwheeling gesture with her arms. I was eager to get home even though I knew my beard growing had already begun. So far, there were only two other people on the bus. An old man with a head like his flesh covered his skull too tightly sat in the front seat with a child’s tricycle on his lap. A boy who looked no older than eight sat in the seat next to mine, smoking furiously and talking on his cell phone. Every other word was “Fuck.” He only stopped to dig his silver engraved flask from his hip pocket and belt back something that smelled like paint thinner. Whenever I glanced over at him he motioned for me to turn back around. I wanted to punch him in the face.

From the window I saw my imposter ready to board the bus. I knew he would not board if he saw me. I was very intrigued by my imposter. I slunk down in my seat. I heard him shuffle down the aisle and sit down with a sigh. I wondered if he still had the manuscript.

The boy next to me stood up and walked to the front of the bus just as the bus driver sat down in the captain’s chair.

“Takin off, little buddy,” the bus driver said.

“Yeah. That guy back there keeps tryin to touch me.” Hooking his thumb over his shoulder, he gestured toward me. I was still crouched down in my seat and the bus driver didn’t see me.

“Whatever,” she said. “I think you need to lay off that stuff.”

“I’ll fuckin do what I want, when I want, you ugly old cunt,” the boy said before descending the steps.

The bus driver angrily pulled the lever, trying to catch him up in the doors, maybe even to hurt him, but the wily little shit escaped unharmed. She pulled a radio microphone to her thick, peeling lips and said in that same bored voice, “Get ready for the ride of your life. All uninsured drivers, all the time.” She hung the microphone up with a shriek of feedback. The bus coughed, sputtered, and started rolling. Something toward the back clanked while something else scraped along the road. The old man stood up, mounted the tricycle and began riding it up and down the aisles. It had very squeaky wheels and a bell he rang continuously and I thought this was going to be a very long ride.

The bus driver picked up the microphone again and said, “My name’s Donna. This bus ride is here for your self-discovery. I’ve cranked the heat up for your enjoyment. It’s a mostly underground ride.”

I didn’t really understand a lot of what she said. My stomach rumbled. The heat made me hungry. I eyed the sandwich on my lap, picked it up, and had it devoured by the time we entered the alley off Wall Street. After that, things were both unreal and ultra real. I looked out the windows and couldn’t see anything but blackness. A great deep blackness like the kind I imagined one finds in caves. I sat there in my seat and wished I had a drink. It was so hot. Why did she turn the heat on? The old man rode his tricycle up and down the aisle. The look on his face encompassed both the ecstatic look of a child having the time of his life and the grim determination of a marathon runner. When he reached the front of the bus my imposter stood up and hopped on his lap. The old man wheeled the imposter to the back of the bus. The imposter hopped off the old man and sat down next to me. He looked pale and sweaty. Up this close he didn’t look anything like me.

“Thanks for sharing your sandwich,” he said.

“I didn’t know you were hungry.”

He scoffed at this. “Why are you following me?”

“I was on the bus first. I think you’re following me. Why are you impersonating me?”

“You know I can’t grow a beard,” he said. Then he reached out and lifted off the top of my head.

“Hey, what are you doing?” I tried to ask but my words came out all swirled.

The tricycling man started breathing heavily, saying, “Yes. Yes. Yes,” under his breath. Sweat shot from his gaping pores.

“I’m just trying to take a little bit more of you.”

I tried to talk again but this time all of my words came from the mouth of the imposter. “What did you do with my book?”

“I sold it.” These words also came from the mouth of the imposter.

“You sold it?”

“That’s what I said, isn’t it?”

“Did you sell it or did I sell it?”

“Does it matter?”

“I don’t know.”

“Who did you sell it to?”

“Devilment Inc. Who else?”

“But I was just there.”

“But you couldn’t sell anything. I had to change some things.”

“What did you have to change?”

“Well, the title for one thing. And it’s a zombie sex comedy now. Those are all the rage these days.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m not talking about anything.”

He assembled a burrito from pieces of my brain and a tortilla he pulled from thin air and proceeded to eat it. “Ain’t this a great bus ride?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, startled to feel the words were now coming from my mouth again. “I guess it is.”

“What are you planning on doing when you get back home?”

“You already know what I plan on doing.”

“Don’t get smart with me. I’ll eat you like a burrito.” He shoved the last bit of burrito into his mouth and belched.

The old man, finished with his tricycle, stripped most of his clothes off and went about furiously trying to cram the tricycle through one of the windows. The heat continued to smother us. “Someone should really help him with that,” I said.

The old man mopped the sweat from his brow and went back to trying to discard the tricycle.

“He’ll melt soon enough,” the imposter said.

I wanted to take the wig from his head. Was it a wig or had his hair been dyed?

“Do you dye your hair?” I asked.

“Do you dye yours?” he returned.

The bus continued to go faster and faster. I decided I didn’t really like talking to my imposter. He depressed me. I didn’t understand why he was here. I couldn’t think of anything more depressing than impersonating me.

“Why are you following me?”

“Didn’t I already ask you that?”

“But I never answered.”

“Then that means I don’t have to answer.”

“What if I die? Then what becomes of you?”

“Good question. I guess I lose my sense of purpose. Although there is a huge market in impersonating dead celebrities... Come to think of it, most impersonators are impersonating the dead. But you’re not a celebrity.”

“I’m your sense of purpose?”

“Oh sure. Look at him go.”

The old man became exasperated with the tricycle and sat down in the seat below it, leaving it hanging half in and half out. The lights in the bus cut off and it was plunged in complete and total darkness.

“And...” I began. “Let me tell you, I don’t think I’ll ever be remotely close to a celeb—”

“If you listen closely enough,” the imposter interrupted. “You can actually hear the old man melting.”

I closed my eyes. My head felt very strange. I discovered the imposter was right. I could hear the man melting and figured, when I opened my eyes again, the old man would most probably be either gone or nothing more than a puddle on the floor of the bus. Colors flashed behind my closed eyelids. Colors like a wild laser light show. It felt like I was falling off my seat. The bus seemed to be moving in ways that no bus could possibly move. I smelled the overpowering scent of onions and knew it was the bus driver. The imposter was trying to steal my clothes even though he already wore the same clothes. I wanted to stop him but felt completely paralyzed. I just sat there moving with the rhythm of the bus and feeling all those up and down sensations like some demonic roller coaster.

“A perfect fit,” the imposter said. And then I felt him trying to steal my skin. “This is how we become something else,” he said, whispering into my ear which was quickly becoming his ear.

All the colors throbbed faster and more vibrant and I felt sure the bus was going to crash. Every few seconds I could feel the impact of the bus smashing into the earth only I didn’t know if it was an actual sensation or if it was just my body trying to slide off into sleep before being rapidly jerked awake. Where were my clothes? Where was my skin? I didn’t feel naked at all. I felt smothered. All that heat. All those colors. Everything so claustrophobic. Everything had become so claustrophobic. I was a man living in a box and this bus was the box and I had to get out. Had to get out. Because if I didn’t get out soon then there wouldn’t be any getting out and damn that must have been one fantastic sandwich because I felt the bus crash land but it landed in water and then all the windows flew open and the water poured into the bus rinsing away all the heat and forcing my eyes open and when I opened my eyes all the colors were gone and replaced with a fantastic blue and all of my clothes were gone and all of my skin was gone and the old man was gone and the imposter was gone and the greasy sack of onions was gone and I was free falling through the water silently wishing and hoping and praying for my own crash landing...

Chapter Seven

I scraped my eyelids open and saw a bright unblemished blue. I felt like I’d been beaten. My whole body was stiff. My eyes were dry and felt like they had been scoured. I lay on my back on something uncomfortable.

“Jesus,” I muttered aloud.

The blue, I realized, was the sky. A gorgeous day to feel like absolute hell. I turned my head to the right and saw a vast expanse of green grass. I had no idea where I might be. I sat up. I was on a bench. At first I thought of the bench in Central Park. Maybe the whole bus ride was a hallucination. Maybe I had never even received a hallucinogenic sandwich. I remembered seeing the bizarre eagle-headed man in the park. Maybe he had cast some sort of spell on me. No. That was craziness. People did not cast spells in this day and age. Especially not in ultracivilized New York.

Studying the landscape around me, I figured I had to be in Ohio. While I didn’t remember much about the bus ride I felt like, somehow, it had brought me where I needed to be. I remembered smashing into the ocean. Everything was blank after that. Now I sat on a bench and recognized it for what it was. It was the battered old bench one found in ancient bus and train stations. Something that could just as easily have been a church pew. I felt greasy and smelled rancid. How long had I been out? Unfortunately, there wasn’t anyone around who could answer those kinds of questions.

There I sat on a bench in the middle of a field in Ohio. I didn’t see any roads or buildings around.

A truck approached from the horizon. It went very fast, speeding right toward me. I thought about diving out of the way but I was too tired and stiff. It pulled to a screeching halt in front of me. A man wearing a black t-shirt and jeans hopped out.

“You seen the bus station?” he asked.

“I think this is it,” I said.

“No. It’s a lot... bigger. I could have swore it was here.”

“Did you come to pick somebody up?”

“No, it’s just something I do, coming to the bus station.”

“When was the last time you were there?”

“Yesterday. I go to the bus station just about every day. Mostly looking for transients and vagrants.”

“Why?”

“Mostly I like to take advantage of them. Teenage runaways are my favorite. Give them some food. Offer them a place to stay and they’ll do just about anything. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a bad person. I don’t kill them or anything like that. I just take advantage of them. I like it. I can’t help it. I talk a lot and usually need someone to talk to. I mean, again, don’t get me wrong. I don’t just want to have conversations with them. I like to take ruthless advantage of them. Physically. Usually sex. The last one... when was that? Last week? Yeah, must have been last week... She was... Christ. You probably don’t want to hear about it. All tits and ass and lips...” He stared, wistfully, at where the bus station maybe used to be. Then he blinked and shook his head, as if trying to erase some fond memory before losing himself to it. “Do you need a ride or something?”

“Are you going to take advantage of me?”

He laughed and pulled a pack of cigarettes from the breast pocket of his t-shirt, shaking one until it rose from the opening and then holding the pack to his lips. He let the cigarette dangle there on his lip and said, “Probably not. I usually only take advantage of the girls. Guys don’t really do it for me. I’ll take donations though. If you have any money.”

He lit his cigarette, inhaled deeply and squinted his eyes.

I patted my pockets. I didn’t have anything. I didn’t even remember what I did with my suitcase. The only things I’d had in it were the blazer and the manuscript. Two things I felt went hand in hand. Now I only had the blazer and it was filthy and, feeling it, maybe even crusted in blood.

“I’m sorry. I don’t have anything.”

“Where you from?”

“I took the bus from New York.”

“You from New York?”

“No, I’m from Ohio. Do you know where we are?”

“Right outside Grainville. Ever hear of it?”

“Yeah. Actually, that’s where I need to go. A house on Paradox Road.”

“Which one?”

“Old farmhouse. Sits back a long lane. Surrounded by corn. Invisible in the summer.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the man said, taking another drag from his cigarette. “I know exactly where that’s at. You need me to take you there?”

“If you would.”

“Sure. First I’d like you to fill your pockets with grass.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Don’t do that. You heard me. I’d like you to fill your pockets with grass.”

“Why?”

“Look... It’s really hard to take advantage of someone who has nothing. I will have a giant hole in my soul if I do not get to take advantage of someone. Since you’re not a reasonably attractive wayward teen runaway and you don’t have any money you could at least provide me with the entertainment at your humiliated expense as I watch you wander around and shove grass in your pockets. Come on, you only have to do it until I’m finished with my cigarette and then we can go. Deal?”

“I guess.”

“You could walk. But it’s pretty warm out and you look pretty lazy so I doubt you want to do that.”

He was right. I was incredibly lazy. And tired. I really just wanted to get back home and take a nap. While the man smoked I wandered around and shoved grass in my pockets. The man either smoked his cigarette very slowly or lit a second one when I wasn’t looking because it seemed like I crammed a huge amount of grass in my pockets. First the blazer pockets until they were bulging and then my pants pockets.

“Okay,” he announced. “We can go now. I don’t guess anyone else is coming. Strangest damn thing. Yesterday there was a whole bus station here. Maybe it’ll be back tomorrow.”

“Maybe,” I said.

The man crossed to the driver’s side, opened the door, and hopped in. I climbed in the passenger side. The cab of the truck smelled like cigarette smoke, semen, and the cloyingly cheap perfume favored by indigent teenage girls. Although it was difficult to smell anything over the odor of grass that now encapsulated me.

“You smell like grass,” the man said.

“I know.”

“That was pretty damn amusing though. Watching you stuff all that grass in your pockets. You got a lot in there.”

“Thanks. I guess.”

“What do you mean, ‘You guess?’”

“I mean I don’t really know if I should be thanking you for having me fill my pockets up with grass.”

“No, I was complimenting you. Complimenting you on entertaining me. It’s pretty high praise. Especially since the only thing that usually entertains me is tight teen vagina... Or, really, any orifice... as long as it belongs to a teen.”

He fell into a contemplative silence for a second and then said, “I take that back. Because tits amuse me too. As long as they’re firm. Okay, actually, everything about vagrant teen girls entertains me.”

I didn’t even know what to say to that.

“So, I’m Action,” he said, extending his hand to me.

I took his hand and gave it a little shake, “David Glum.”

“Nice to meet you, David. Can I call you Dave?”

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

“I don’t really have many friends. As you can probably imagine. Most people I think are really just here for my amusement. Are you familiar with solipsism?”

“I think. Isn’t that the theory that you are the only existing person and everyone else is just a figment of your imagination.”

“Oh, you’re a smart guy. I should have been able to tell. With the dorky glasses and the dirty blazer you look very literary. Are you a writer?”

I chuckled. “Hell no.”

“You have to be something.”

“What are you?”

“I just told you. I’m a solipsist.”

“Oh. I’m an out of work philosopher.”

“Tough gig.”

“You betcha.”

Action pulled the truck onto an ill-maintained back country road.

“By the way,” he said. “I should tell you now that we’re neighbors. I live in the woods behind your house... It’s not really your house, is it? It’s your parents’, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I say that because I’ve never seen you around before. I’m also a voyeur. I stare in windows whenever I get the chance. I own a pretty powerful telescope. I’ve never seen you at that house.”

“I lived there a few years ago.”

“Well, I was traveling then. I just moved into the tent recently.”

“You live in a tent?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Not like an Indian tent, though. What do they call them, oh, yeah, right, a wigwam. Not like one of those. It’s a big circus tent. We get along just fine. I picked it up used.”

“A used circus tent?”

“Yeah. You can come over whenever you want. I’ve got a lot of free time and a lot of theories.”

“I’m sure you do.”

“You wanna hear one of my theories?”

“Why not.”

“Okay.” He pulled out another cigarette from his breast pocket and lit up. “You know how when you go into a store and it has these narrow aisles you’re almost always stuck behind some old lady who moves way too slow?”

“I guess.”

“What? You’ve never had that happen?”

“No. I’ve had it happen. It just doesn’t like happen all the time.”

“Okay. Well, it does to me. All the fuckin time. Like every time I ever go into a store, it’s just wall to wall elderly. That’s what happens when you have a lot of free time. You get to go out during the day because you don’t really have any job to go to or anything and that’s when all the elderly are on the prowl. Anyway...” He took another drag from his cigarette. “I think what these stores need to start doing is putting roller skates by the door so when these slow moving old folks come in they have to put on the roller skates and then when swift moving people like me come in we can push the old people along at something resembling a normal pace.”

“But if you go into stores and they’re wall to wall elderly people, wouldn’t it just be a lot of old people in roller skates tripping over themselves? I mean, if you were the only younger person in there?”

“It’s not without its flaws, I’ll give you that. But it’s just... It’s just brainstorming, man. Ideas don’t come out all fully formed. Most of your ideas, like the shit that actually gets patented and that kind of thing, hell, those are thought up by like a whole fleet of engineers but they all just started as one man’s little retarded idea, you know?”

“I guess.”

He reached over and smacked me on the arm. “What do you mean, you guess? You know I’m right. Look alive! You’re like a... fuckin dead fish or somethin.”

“Sure.”

We entered the modest town of Grainville, a lot of two and three-story buildings that looked like they hadn’t changed d├ęcor since the Fifties.

“Now,” Action said. “I’m gonna pull up to this stop sign here and when I do I want you to hop out and just fuckin shower that old lady in the grass you have in your pockets.”

I put my hand across my forehead, massaging my temples.

“I also want you to shout ‘Grass!’ the entire time you’re doing it. Got that? Can you do that?”

“Do I really have to? I’m pretty tired. I just want to go home and take a little nap.”

“Of course you have to. I could close my eyes and wink you out of existence.”

While I thought that was ridiculous, I also remembered the bus ride and how my imposter had seemingly opened the top of my skull to sample pieces of my brain.

“Fine,” I said.

“All right!” Action sounded very enthused. “Get ready. I’m gonna slam on the brakes so she doesn’t see it coming.”

He slammed his brakes at the stop sign. I hopped out of the truck, trying not to really look at the old woman because if I did and felt sorry for her then I probably wouldn’t be able to go through with it. I reached deep into my coat pockets, grabbing two handfuls of grass. I ran over to the old lady, standing helplessly waiting to cross the street, and shouted, “Grass! Grass! Grass!” Showering her with the blades.

Action squealed the truck through the stop sign and sped away down the street. I looked at the old lady, standing all hunched over. She smacked me and then turned into my mother.

“David!” she shouted. “I taught you better than that.”

“Jeez. I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t know it was you. Why did you look so old?”

“Because he wanted me to,” she said, waving her hand after Action’s truck as it squealed and took a turn on two wheels. “He’s the biggest jackass in town.”

“Your neighbor, huh?”

“Unfortunately. Where did you come from?”

“The bus station.”

“Grainville has a bus station?”

“It’s not a very good one.”

“Where were you going?”

“I was coming home.”

“Oh, well, I guess you can ride with me.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

I followed her across the street to her car, a gold fleck El Camino. This wasn’t the car I remembered her having.

“New car, huh?”

“This one’s more fuel efficient,” she said.

The bed of the car was filled with sticks. She pulled a box of matches from her purse and tossed a couple of them on the pile of sticks.

“Good thing it’s such a dry day,” she said. “This car’s a real pain in the rump when it’s raining.”

After a few moments, the fire was roaring in the bed of the car.

“Door’s open,” she said.

I climbed in the passenger side of the car and we rode out to the house in silence.

Chapter Eight

As soon as we got home, I said, “I’m going into my room.” Then I went to take a shower instead.

“Yeah, welcome home,” Mom said. At that point, I knew exactly how it was going to be.

I took a three hour long shower, put on a t-shirt, some pajama pants and my favorite brown robe, all left in exactly the same places. My parents had never really liked to change things (except for their cars, apparently). I went into my room and slept through the next day. When I finally woke up, I went into the bathroom and urinated for several minutes. Then I went back into my room and lay on my bed. I ran my hand over my face and contemplated the nature of beards. I was, I guessed, already about three days into what I had assumed as my new purpose in life.

A beard, I figured, was power. Grown properly, a beard was like a mask. The man beneath the beard looked out at a world with clarity but that same world could not necessarily see into him. The beard rendered a plain man into a mystery, at least from the eyes down, and I never really believed all that stuff about the eyes being mirrors to the soul anyway. A beard left so much of the bearded’s face unexplained. How big was his mouth? Did he have a weak chin? Perhaps he had a cleft in his chin or a harelip. Was his jaw line rounded or chiseled? Did he have a double chin? All of these questions would go unanswered until the beard was removed.

And what about the nature of a person who grows a beard. Was it vanity? Did he think he looked better with the beard? Was the beard there to hide some sort of physical flaw? Was the beard meant to convey a folksy sensibility? Was it there to make him seem more at one with nature, more comforting? Perhaps the person who grows a beard was simply too lazy to shave. Or maybe it hurt to shave. Maybe shaving was more excruciating than the bearded could take. In that case, he definitely would not be a masochist. Or maybe he had better things to do. Maybe he just didn’t want to take the time to shave because there were so many other things he could do. This, ultimately, was the reaction I strove for. I wanted the beard to be a sign to the world. I was too preoccupied with finding my purpose in life to shave. I spent too much time wrapped in deep thought and, besides, what was the point in shaving anyway? Furthermore, what was the point in cutting one’s hair? It was just vanity. Why not enjoy all this hair while I had it?

Maybe I was just depressed but I stayed there for three months, rubbing my hand across my cheeks and chin, feeling my beard grow thick and full. I hardly ever left my room. I had a stereo and a lot of records. I tried to find the most depressing stuff imaginable. I didn’t like it when the singer or even the music sounded remotely happy. When that happened, I would pull the record from the player and break it in half. It made me angry to hear happiness. I couldn’t run the risk of listening to that same one again. It gradually occurred to me that I might not have been so much depressed as working on my sense of anger. I went through all the album covers and liner notes and drew big frowny faces on all the band members. I didn’t want them sounding happy and I most definitely didn’t want them looking happy. Which wasn’t a big problem. Most of them looked pretty pouty and brooding anyway but I couldn’t get it out of my head that all the pictures were still taken at some photo shoot somewhere and that photo shoot wouldn’t have existed if they hadn’t just recorded an album that was going to prove at least moderately successful. Therefore, even though they were pouting and broody they were still happy. Even worse, they were very happy people pretending to be very sad people. The world was just full of poseurs. After I got bored with the frowning faces I decided to draw beards on all of them. Big black beards made with a thick black marker. I covered their mouths and everything. Even the girls. All those bearded ladies made me happy. My being happy made me mad. I shouldn’t be happy because I had failed in my life pursuit.

I had to comfort myself by stroking my beard. That made things all right, at least for a little while.

My father worked at the factory all day and slept all night. My mother ran errands all day and slept all night. My sister was modeling in California. I only left my room at night so I didn’t have to talk to my parents. It wasn’t that I hated them or anything. We just didn’t have a lot to talk about so we just said the same things we’d said a hundred times before and all of that made me pretty bored. I also had the feeling they were hiding something from me. I had never really had that feeling until I watched my grandfather disappear in the front yard but, after that, the feeling became a little more palpable. Like there was some big family curse they weren’t telling me about. Like they knew, no matter how hard I tried at whatever endeavor, I was going to fail. My sister, Cassie, didn’t have this problem, but I had come to suspect that she was adopted and, therefore, exempt from the curse.

Action came over a few times and asked if I wanted to play but I told him to go away. Actually, I never really told him to go away. I just locked my door and pretended I wasn’t there.

One morning, shortly after masturbating, I heard a knock on my door. Thinking it might be Action, I silently slid my pajama pants up over myself and tried to remain as quiet as I could. Again, there was a knock on the door.

“David?”

It was Dad.

I didn’t really want to talk to him either. Of course, he knew I was in my room but maybe if I didn’t say anything he would think I was asleep.

“David?”

He knocked louder this time.

“What!” I shouted. “What the hell do you want!”

“It’s your mother...”

“What about her!”

“She’s dead.”

“What!”

“She’s dead. She died this morning.”

“She wasn’t even sick!” I yelled, not really believing him.

“I’m sorry, Son. Sometimes these things happen. Are you going to come out of your room?”

I knew I should have left the room, to comfort my father if nothing else, but I didn’t want to. The inertia was too strong. It had welled up so deeply inside of me I didn’t really know if I could feel anything except anger.

“Later!” I shouted before going about trashing everything in my room. I smashed the stereo, broke all the albums, ripped all the books and anything else made of paper. And then I collapsed in the rubble in my sweaty bearded stink.

Chapter Nine

A note about my father:

He was a large, robust man, about twice my size. Growing up, I didn’t see him a whole lot. He worked in a factory that made hot air balloon baskets. Mostly, while growing up, he worked second shift, from about five in the evening until about five in the morning, and my sister and I always held the assumption these hours were kept to minimize his contact with us. Not that we minded. Mom was a very sweet lady. A little headstrong. A little sterile. A little crazy and a lot depressed, but my father seemed to actively hate life and was not greedy with his worldview. He hated life and he wanted you to know how bad life really was. Life was going to work for twelve hours a day in some factory you didn’t want to be in so you could put a roof over your unappreciative kids’ heads. His father, my grandfather, the one who had disappeared in a storm of elephants, had been an anthropologist. Much like my father, he was away from his family most of the time. My father probably felt like a disappointment. He did not go to college. He had no interest in going to college. He had no interest in making the world a better place. His world was his family and when it came to keeping families happy, to my father, it came down to money. He didn’t need to go to school to make money. He only had to work long, grueling hours creating hot air balloon baskets for rich hobbyists who made more in a year than he probably would in his lifetime. Sometimes, I felt like he and my mother had separated a long time ago and participated in something like shared custody of us kids. Except we were usually out of the house when he had his visitation.

When I arose from my stupor and dazedly trudged into the living room it was to find my father standing in the middle of the room, holding a mug of coffee in his right hand and looking down at my mother sprawled on the floor.

“I thought you said she was dead,” I said.

“I’m pretty sure she is.” He didn’t cry. He didn’t really seem shaken up or sad. He just stood there, took a sip of his coffee (always black) and stared down at the unmoving corpse.

“Did you call the ambulance?”

“I called somebody.”

“An ambulance?”

“They said they were.” He took a deep, shaky breath. “But that was hours ago.”

“And you’ve just been standing here since then?”

“Pretty much.”

I sat down in a chair and stared at my father staring at my mother. “Did you call Cassie yet?” I asked.

“Tried.”

“And?”

“Couldn’t get a hold of her.”

“What happened?”

“She said, ‘I think I’m dying,’ and then she fell there on the floor.” He pointed. “Right there where she is now.”

“This is horrible.” I ran my hands through my greasy hair.

“She’d been ill for quite some time.”

“I didn’t know that. What was it? Cancer?” Most people in my family died of cancer. We were lucky if we saw seventy.

“No. I’d rather not go into it.”

“Was she like a closet alcoholic or something?”

My father turned slowly. He took a sip from his cup, staring over the rim at me with his icy blue eyes. “I said I’d rather not go into it just yet.”

“Fine,” I threw up my hands. “When did this family get so fucked up anyway?”

“Excuse me?” he asked, still staring at me.

“You heard me.”

“I think you need to go to your room.”

“Yeah, well, I like it better there anyway. Call me out for the funeral.”

“It’s tomorrow.”

“Don’t you have to make arrangements or anything?” I asked.

“Already did.”

“So you’ve managed to make arrangements while standing here for the past three hours.”

“Made them before.”

“You made arrangements before she died? Don’t you have to put things in the paper and reserve a time for the funeral and all that?”

“Yeah. I did that. I told you, she had suffered for quite a while. In fact, we both knew the exact minute she was going to die.”

“And you didn’t think to tell anyone?”

“I think I told you to go to your room.”

“I’m not a child anymore.”

“Then get out of my house.”

“Maybe I will.” My father was acting like a ghoul.

I left through the front door, slamming it loudly behind me. I stood out there on the porch, barefooted and robed. It was a clear day. The sun was bright. Too bright. It gave me a headache. People should die on overcast, gray days, when the beginnings of depression are already beginning to sink their little black hooks into your soul. I turned and went back in, crossing the living room, exactly as it was a moment ago, entering my room and slamming the door.

I went to my stereo to play the saddest music I could find as loud as I possibly could and then remembered I had smashed the stereo to bits only moments before. I lay back down on the bed, listening for sirens, listening for anything resembling something close to normalcy. Hearing nothing, I drifted off into yet another nap.

Chapter Ten

I overslept the morning of the funeral. My alarm clock was broken. Actually, I didn’t have an alarm clock. I didn’t have an alarm clock or a watch so I guess I really had no way of knowing I overslept. I always just assumed, upon waking, that I had overslept something or the other. Usually, living without any timekeeping devices, this was the case.

I rushed to my closet and rifled through my old clothes until I came to my charcoal funeral/wedding/special occasion suit. I had had this suit since I was fourteen. I stripped off my clothes that had grown thin and stretched and felt like they were almost a part of me and stroked my beard. It had a calming effect, stroking the beard. It told me that life moved slowly and there was no reason to rush anything. The beard did not rush. It flowed from my skin at a steady rate. I didn’t know exactly what that rate was but I knew it was slow. Glacial. A glacial rate.

I put the suit on and realized either the suit had shrunk or I had grown. Or maybe that was just what happened when the dry cleaning instructions were ruthlessly disregarded over such a long period of time. Regardless, it was very ill-fitting. The hems of the pants came up well above my ankles and I couldn’t even button the jacket. I felt like a fat ape. Not that I really cared. On my best day I wasn’t very concerned about appearances and I found myself even less so now. I was the grieving son. No one was going to criticize me for my slovenly dressing habits. I tore around the room, looking for a pair of shoes but couldn’t find any. I couldn’t even find any socks. When was the last time I had even worn shoes and socks? I figured it was probably the day I had returned home. What felt like so many months ago now.

I went out into the rest of the house. No one was there. I half-expected to see mother still lying there on the floor but the house was still and dark and empty and the only sound was the rain pelting on the windows. Outside, heavy dark clouds hung in the sky, too high to be elephants. A perfect day for a funeral. I didn’t know how I was going to get there. I didn’t even really know where the funeral was. I felt lost.

I searched the kitchen for keys. That was where the parents always kept their keys. But I couldn’t find anything. It looked like I would have to walk. Where was Action? Why hadn’t he picked today to creepily stalk around the house and ask if I could come out and play? Maybe he was at the funeral. Like a good neighbor. He probably didn’t really have anything else to do. He would probably go just to see if there was someone there he could take advantage of which, at a funeral, there almost always was. Funerals and weddings. Joy and grief, two polar opposite emotions that end up sharing a lot of the same fallouts.

I went outside and looked at Mom’s El Camino. Did it even need keys? Probably not. It seemed to run off some kind of magical power but I was too late to try and harness that magical power and magical power, like good luck, was something I would probably never have.

I took off walking toward town. If my dad had anything to do with the burial, then the funeral would be at Baruk’s Discount Memorial Garden and Crematorium. The commercials had always said it was a no frills kind of place for a no frills kind of budget, or something like that. I’m sure they had some sort of seductive adman way of saying it. “Why pay for something you’re going to bury?” I sloshed along the grass on the side of the road, the rain beating down on me. At least it was a warm day so the rain didn’t seem as cold.

Why the hell didn’t Dad wake me up for the funeral? It wasn’t like I needed my sleep or anything. Since returning home, it seemed like all I did was sleep.

A car filled with teenagers passed me. Two of them had their asses stuck out the windows, mooning me. They shouted and screamed something that sounded like “Fag!” They were gone before I could come up with any kind of retort. I was never very good at that sort of thing anyway. I stroked my dripping beard and realized yet another function of the increasingly utilitarian beard—it kept a lot of the rain off my face. If only my head could have been made of this coarse, oily, wiry hair, I wouldn’t have been nearly as uncomfortable. Only, the hair on my head was very thin and left my scalp almost completely exposed to the elements. My suit was nearly soaked through and I was still quite a way from town and the cemetery was on the far side.

It became mechanical, my walking. I tried to walk along at a steady clip and not think about being late at all. I would probably end up at the wrong cemetery anyway and then what? I mean, not attending your mother’s funeral is a pretty heinous act, right? I think if I missed it completely, I would just have to keep on walking. Maybe back to Dayton to see if my apartment full of homeless guys was still there. That was one of the beauties of being around the homeless guys. They lacked a home and all that it implied, mainly family. Sure, some of them had family but they were the mean ones who had written them off and the bums, in turn, had written them off. So it was like if they had any living family then that family was already dead. I’ve often thought family can be the source for more sorrow than one can find anywhere else.

The carload of teenagers came back by. This time, one of them was strapped to the roof of the car, completely naked. He brandished his sizable genitals at me as the car sped past, kicking up a mist of disgusting road water. If they came back by, I was worried they would just throw me down, strip off my clothes, and anally rape me. After all, that was the kind of day it was turning out to be. But I managed to successfully zone out and after my legs felt like rubber and my feet were so sore I didn’t think I would be able to walk anymore, I looked up and saw the neon lights at the cemetery gate.

A group of people stood at the top of the hill and I went toward it.

Chapter Eleven

Baruk’s beckoned me into its realm. Here, death was cheap. Because, outside the gates, life was cheap. Why celebrate a cheap life with an expensive death? We are only people to ourselves and some of the people who know us. To the people who make money from us we are not people. We are dollar signs, hash marks in their ledgers. We are the fabled, lauded, and sometimes dreaded bottom line. No fuller of life than the corpses they put into the ground. If anyone, it’s these people, champions of commerce, who are aware there is no heaven and there is no hell. There are no countries and there are no religions. Unless they can make a buck off it. If they can make a buck off it then they’ll tell you the sky pisses lemonade and your car will make a perfectly satisfying sexual partner.

The inside of Baruk’s contained, as the half-remembered commercial from long ago said, no frills. The markers were little more than laminated paper, held into the ground with wooden stakes. There were no trees. The grass was brown in some places and missing altogether in others. And this was where my mother’s corpse would be spending the rest of its life. At least until some developer came and decided they would pay more than the ground was worth so they could install their McMansion developments or upscale strip mall.

The rain continued to fall from the leaden sky. I finally reached the group of people at the top of the hill panting and out of breath. I looked for my father but I didn’t see him. I almost thought I might have been at the wrong funeral except I noticed my sister from across the grave. Action stood next to her and I was pretty sure he was feeling her up. I made eye contact with her and expected some sort of acknowledgement but didn’t receive anything in the way of a long distance greeting. Maybe she didn’t recognize me because of the beard. Maybe she was too distracted by Action’s groping. Maybe she was out of her head with grief.

I stayed on the outer perimeter. There were more people there than I thought there would be. It was interesting how they were all dressed in very somber clothes but each of them held a brightly colored umbrella. A couple of them were black but most of them were bright green or red or yellow or rainbow striped. I almost wanted to laugh. Yes, a funeral is a very serious occasion but not serious enough to buy a new umbrella for and definitely not serious enough to stand out in the fucking rain without an umbrella. Besides, the deceased wouldn’t want everything to be all doom and gloom, would they? No! They’d want happiness! A party! They would want those left behind to know they had moved on to a better place in a better bargain afterlife!

A minister stood at the head of the grave and read from something that sounded like the newspaper. Behind me, a man was digging in a grave and shouting, “Maria! Maria!” I looked back at him, sternly. He was being rude and disruptive.

He looked up at me and said, “She forgot her pills! If she takes her pills she won’t be so dead!” Now I noticed he was only digging in the dirt with his left hand while using his right fist, undoubtedly filled with pills, to punch at the loose dirt.

I turned back to my mother’s grave, trying to tune out his ravings.

The minister held up his thick book, took a swig from a flask he kept in this thick book. It wasn’t actually a book at all. It was one of those faux books teenagers use to stash their drugs in. He put the flask back in the book and closed it.

“And that, ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “concludes this life of conclusions and something and good night. You’ve been great!” He held the book up and began walking down the other side of the hill, staggering only slightly. Even the minister was had at a deep discount.

I now approached the grave and looked down. It wasn’t very deep. Maybe three or four feet at most. At the bottom was a knotty pine coffin, the kind I imagine prisoners got. I found it impossible to believe my mother was actually in there.

“David,” I heard from behind me.

I turned to see my sister, Cassie, standing next to Action. Action kept smelling his fingers.

“That was a great funeral,” he said somberly. “Really top notch.”

“Do you mind if I have a few words alone with my sister?”

“She’s your...” he began. “I’ll go ahead and apologize for my completely inappropriate behavior then.” Then he walked away. His truck was parked only a couple of graves away. It seemed to be parked right on top of other graves. Since there were no tombstones there weren’t any real obstructions to prevent people from doing this, I guess, although his was the only vehicle in sight. He entered the truck and revved the engine. “You guys need a lift back home!” he shouted.

“No!” I shouted back. “Just piss off!”

He put the truck in gear and sped away, kicking up some grass and dirt as he did so.

“That was rude,” Cassie said.

“You don’t know him. He’ll want to take advantage of you if he does you any sort of favor.”

“Yeah. He felt me up the entire time. I kind of liked it though.”

Cassie held a stylish green and yellow umbrella. She was a model, working in LA, and I hadn’t seen her for many years. She wore a very tight t-shirt that said ‘Bitch’ under a tailored tweed overcoat.

“You lost your shoes.”

“I couldn’t find them.”

“You’re late.”

“Yeah. Nobody woke me up.”

“So you moved back home, huh?”

“Yeah. How did you know? Have you talked to Dad?”

“No. Mom mentioned something about it a while ago.”

“So who told you about Mom?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if you didn’t talk to Dad, then who told you that Mom was dead?”

“No one had to tell me. I knew she was dead. I knew exactly when she died. I thought we all did. It was... what do you call it?”

“Predestined.”

“That’s right. You always were the smart one.”

“Then why didn’t I know she was going to die?”

“I don’t know. You were probably doing other things. Besides, you always knew I was their favorite.”

“I guess I did. But I was Grandpa’s favorite.”

“And look what happened to him. I think they went with the safer bet.”

“But now Mom’s dead. Maybe Dad’ll change his mind.”

“Aren’t we a little old for these games, David?”

“You’re never too old to be the favorite.”

“Oh God, like he would choose you over me. I’m beautiful, successful. You’re a failure. And that beard looks ridiculous. You look like a little kid playing dress up.”

“Isn’t that what you do, though? Play dress up?”

“And get paid for it. What do you get paid for? You get paid for growing that stupid thing? What are you now, anyway? A writer? Oh wait, no, that was last year, wasn’t it? Maybe, oh, I know, maybe you’re an artist now?”

“I’m an out of work philosopher.”

“That sounds gainful.”

“Why do you always have to be like this?”

“Because I’m better than you.”

“And you’re adopted.”

Cassie’s jaw dropped. “How did you find out? Did you rifle through their papers?”

“I just added it all up. How could two people spawn one person like you and one person like me? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re aware of that.”

“Again, however, it seems like something they might have mentioned to me.”

“Look, you can take all that up with Dad.”

“Have you seen him?”

“No. I already told you that.”

“No you didn’t.”

“Yes I did.”

“Are you coming back to the house?”

“No. I’ve got a plane to catch.”

“Are you upset?”

“Why should I be upset? It’s just death. It happens all the time and, eventually, to everyone.”

“But it’s our mom.”

“Your mom. My adoptive mom. I’ve moved out. I would have only seen her like a few more days even if she’d lived to be a hundred and six.”

“Jesus. How can you be so cold?”

“Practical, David. Not cold. Just practical. If you want to keep entertaining your ridiculous thoughts and sensitivity and all that shit then you can go ahead and live with Dad for the rest of his life and I’ll even let you have the inheritance when he dies just to see how fast you can squander that away and then when you come crawling to me because you’re poor and broke and don’t have a friend in the world I’ll ask you why you came to me and I want you to say this: ‘Because it was the practical thing to do.’ And, don’t worry, I’ll take you in. You can clean my pool or wash my cars or something. But you’ll have to shave the beard. If there’s one thing I draw the line at it’s the help looking like the homeless.”

I wanted to push her into the grave. Why couldn’t it have been her instead of Mom? I focused on a small blemish on her chin and hoped it would blossom and grow into something covering her entire nasty face. Her entire nasty face that was also beautiful and structurally perfect.

At that point, a helicopter landed in the cemetery and she said, “I have to go. See ya, David.”

“I thought you were catching a plane?”

“Yeah, that’s the helicopter that’s going to take me to the plane. Want me to have it drop you off at the house?”

“No thanks,” I said.

She turned to leave, folding her umbrella before climbing into the helicopter.

Chapter Twelve

I stood under the blinking neon lights of the cemetery entrance. Another funeral party was descending on the cemetery. They had to keep it rolling. I stepped out of the way to let them pass. I didn’t really want to go home but figured I had to. After all, without any shoes, no place would let me in. Apparently, barefootedness is something completely despicable in our society. Eventually, we’ll all be wearing biohazard jumpsuits and rubber gloves.

On the other side of the road, sinister and idling, sat the car that had carried the mooners/exhibitionists from earlier. Remembering my thought about the anal rape, I contemplated running, but there was only one person in the car. The one who had brandished his genitals at me. He opened the door and approached me. I covered my eyes.

“No, I’ll keep my clothes on,” he said.

I uncovered my eyes. I thought maybe he was just here for the funeral and had parked down here on the street because he was embarrassed about his car or something. It was primer black and missing the lid to the trunk.

He put a comforting hand on my arm. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry,” he said.

“Sorry?” I asked.

“Yeah, for mooning you and flashing you. I realized, after we drove away, how uncomfortable that must have made you feel. No one wants to see that. I mean, if I had known you were on your way to a funeral we never would have done that. In fact, we shouldn’t have done it anyway. I assure you, it will never happen again. To anyone. That was our first time. I don’t want you to think we just drive around doing that to everyone. I mean, I wouldn’t want you to think we were doing it to you just because of who you are but... well, you get the idea. Anyway, like I said, we’re all real sorry. Keith and Dorian, those were the others in the car with me, they went to the community college to enroll in classes. We realized, after making such asses of ourselves, that’s not who we really are. We’re better than that. They’ve decided to seek higher education and me, because my family is very wealthy, I’ve decided to throw myself into philanthropy and acts of good citizenship.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“Well,” I stammered. “That’s great, I guess.” I was still kind of waiting for the joke in all of this.

“So, who died?”

“My mom.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that. If there’s anything I can do for you, just let me know. You want my shoes?” He started taking his shoes off. I stopped him.

“No. I don’t want your shoes. Thanks for the offer. I just... I just couldn’t wear another person’s shoes. I’m sorry.”

“Well, maybe I can give you a ride home then. You live in that farmhouse on Paradox Road, right?”

“Yeah, how did you know?”

“Well, we saw you walking earlier, for one thing. We’re also really good friends with a guy who lives out there. Action? You know him?”

“Yeah. We’ve met.”

“Anyway, he’s a horrible person. We’re thinking about trying to run him out of town. I mean, for a while, we thought he was pretty cool but after a while... he’s just so nihilistic, you know?”

“Actually, he’s a solipsist.”

“Is that worse?”

“I don’t know.”

“So, what do you say? Can I give you a ride?”

“Sure. That’d be great. Thanks.”

The rain stopped about halfway back home. We reached the end of the lane and I saw Mom’s El Camino parked up by the house. It made me very sad. I remembered her piling the sticks up in the back of it, proud of her new energy efficient car. That, I realized, was the first time I had seen her in four years and might as well have been the last time. I had gone to my room and focused on growing a beard and napping. If I had known she was going to die like just about everyone seemed to know then I would have tried to spend a little more time with her. It made me mad at Cassie. If Cassie knew she was going to die then why didn’t she try to come home and spend some time with her? If Cassie had come back, I would have known something was wrong.

We reached the house and the boy stopped the car. “My name’s Chair, by the way,” he said.

“I’m David Glum,” I said, shaking his hand. “Thanks a lot for the ride.”

“One of the other guys in the car is going to school for grief therapy so, if you need anything in the way of counseling, I’m sure he would cut you a pretty good deal.”

“I think I’ll be okay.”

“Really? Because, you know, sometimes you think you’re all okay and then, bam, one day, just out of the blue it hits you.”

“Well, if that happens, I’ll go pick a fight with somebody.”

“Being a man of the people I can’t really condone that,” Chair said. “But, just between you and me, if it makes you feel better and nobody gets hurt too bad I think you should go ahead and do it.”

“I’m glad I have your approval. It means a lot coming from such a conscientious person such as yourself. Take care.”

“Later,” he said, speeding away into the gray day.

I turned toward the house and wondered if Dad was going to be there. If so, I had a few questions for him. Missing your mother’s funeral is bad. Missing your wife’s funeral is reprehensible.

Chapter Thirteen

I walked in the door to find my father standing in the middle of the family room much like he stood staring at my mother’s corpse. Full of anger, I took a wild swing and punched him in the throat. He collapsed to the ground, rolling around and coughing. I then noticed he wasn’t my father at all. This man was very thin. He had a mustache that drooped slightly and he was bald except for a half ring of hair curving around the back of his head.

“Who the fuck are you?” I shouted.

“I’m your dad,” he choked out.

“You’re not my dad.”

“No. It’s me. It’s Dad. Why did you punch me in the throat?”

“Why the hell weren’t you at the funeral? Where were you?”

The man, this couldn’t be my father, pulled himself up to his hands and knees. A string of drool came out of his mouth and stretched all the way to the carpet. Watching as he struggled to stand, I wanted to push him back down. And maybe kick him. He stood up, partially, and made his way over to my father’s chair, collapsing into it.

“You are not my father,” I said.

He coughed again, holding his throat. He was really playing it up.

“You’re right,” he said.

“Then who are you?”

“I’m Gary Wrench.”

“Gary Wrench?”

“That’s right.”

“Where’s my father?”

“Like I said. I’m your father.”

“Stop confusing me.” I trudged toward the chair and kicked him in the shin. That oughta stop his lies, I thought.

“Let me explain,” he said, trying to wave me away with one hand while using the other to rub the abused shin.

I sat down on the couch next to the chair and looked at him.

“I’ve been your father for about the past twenty years or so.”

“How can you say that? You’re not even the same guy I saw yesterday.”

“Actually, I am,” he said. He motioned over to the corner. Hanging in the corner was a human sized suit. This was the father I had always known, hanging there deflated and empty-looking.

“A suit?” I asked.

“A disguise. A very high end disguise.”

“Okay. I’m afraid I’m still confused.”

“That’s why I’m going to explain things to you.”

“Okay. I’m listening.” I sat back on the couch, brought my legs up to lie supine, as though this Gary Wrench fellow were some kind of psychiatrist. I stared at the bland white ceiling, occasionally peeking over at the suit hanging in the corner. Maybe I expected it to move or something.

“Damn,” Wrench said. “My throat really hurts. I think I need a drink of water.”

“Fine. Then explaining.”

“Yeah. Sure. I’m just, damn, my throat.”

He stood up and went toward the kitchen. Then I heard quick footsteps. He was trying to escape. I launched myself from the couch and charged into the kitchen. He was headed for the French doors that lead to the back porch. I threw myself over the kitchen table and brought him down. I heard something crunch and wondered if he had broken something. Grabbing him around the upper arm, I dragged him back into the living room. While limp and rubbery, he was much less substantial than my real father. Of course, I guess, who I thought was my real father was just a costume.

He made a high pitched whining sound.

“Just let me go. My job here is done! I did everything I was supposed to! Let me go!”

“Sit.” I lifted him and shoved him back into the chair and then, so he wouldn’t get back up, I plopped myself down on his lap. Now we were like a real father and son. “Explain,” I said, my mouth ridiculously close to his sweaty forehead.

“Jesus. Now I can barely breathe. Have you put on some weight?”

“I just want to know what’s going on.”

“Fine,” he said. “See that costume over there.”

I nodded.

“I’ve worn that costume for the past twenty years because that was how your father looked when he left.”

“My father wouldn’t have left us.”

“I’m afraid he did. He didn’t really plan on it. I wish he hadn’t. If he hadn’t then I wouldn’t have been drawn into this whole mess.”

“So why did he leave us? Why did he leave Mom?”

“Have you ever heard of the Nefarions?”

I thought back, scanning my brain. I remembered the story my grandfather had told me before he was taken away by the elephant wind. I thought that had people called Nefarions in it.

“I think so,” I said. “They live on an island with really bad storms, right? And their children all misbehave or something.”

“Well, you’ve got part of it right. Will you get off me if I promise not to run away?”

I thought about it. I guessed it didn’t really matter. If he did decide to run away then the only thing he was really taking with him was the mystery of my childhood and possibly my entire adult life. Maybe I’d be better off not hearing it anyway. I stood up and flopped back down on the couch, resumed staring at the ceiling.

“It’s fine if you want to go, anyway,” I said.

“You don’t want to hear this?”

“I want to hear it but I can’t make you stay. I don’t even really know who you are.”

“I’ll stay. I’ll tell you. Someone needs to know.”

“Okay then. I’ll listen.”

“Good,” Wrench said. He leaned back in the chair and stared outside at the miserable weather. “Your grandfather, Grady Glum, was a world renowned anthropologist. Did you know that?”

“I knew he was an anthropologist but I didn’t know anyone else knew who he was.”

“Oh, there was a point in time when anyone who knew about the field of anthropology—admittedly, not a vast number of people—knew his name. His name was synonymous with the field for a while. Anyway, he grew bored with the mundane ritual of field study, that is, going to live with a tribe or group of people over a period of months and, sometimes, years. I should say, he grew bored with the field studies he had grown accustomed too. There are only so many ‘uncivilized’ people. By the time he really hit his stride, he didn’t suppose there were any new ways of looking at these ancient people. So he listened. He listened to myths and whispers and legends. Some would say he listened to the voices in his head and, maybe, some hallucinogenic drugs.

“He uncovered a group of people called the Johnsons, living in a desert in Kansas. Yes, you may tell yourself that there is no desert in Kansas. But that is common knowledge. Your grandfather, Grady, wanted to go beyond common knowledge. He wrote very detailed reports of these people. He lived in their midst for six months. Of course, if everything had worked out, his reputation would have been solidified. He would have been the most groundbreaking anthropologist in the history of the field. In other words, if he could have taken a camera crew and documented the Johnsons this way. Which was what he planned to do. This, quite possibly, is what ultimately made him a laughingstock. He took a camera crew to Kansas, where they holed up on an Indian reservation for a fortnight. He had been drinking some potent tea made from the bark of an ancient Arapahoe canoe and convinced the crew they would have to do this as well, to enter the secret dimension of the Johnsons. Naturally, these people were adventurous and they desperately wanted to believe. So many hopes lie in anthropology. Ethnobotanists believe the cure to cancer might lie in one of these cultures. Maybe even the secret to immortality. So the crew went along with him and ingested this strange, terrible tasting bark tea.

“At the end of the fortnight, most of the camera crew had been sent home with horrendous intestinal cramping. Even Grady had lost hope. Perhaps he had not just stumbled upon a unique place in space but in time as well. Maybe that time had passed and could never be reclaimed. He was willing to admit defeat and his once scholarly papers were reduced to pulp, esteemed by colleagues as highly as a paranormal ghost hunt. It was then your grandfather could have retired to some quiet college and taught from a text book. A text book that would probably contain his earlier work. But it was the adventure he loved. Maybe the Johnsons could never be found again but, if he had located them, it was possible for him to locate another, possibly nonexistent, tribe. Maybe one that was even more remarkable than they were.

“I should make a side note here. The Johnsons, other than the fact they lived in what amounts to an imaginary desert in Kansas, were entirely unremarkable people. They behaved and looked exactly like other Americans of the time. The only differences with them were that their homes seemed to be powered from sorcery and, instead of any kind of jobs, they just kicked around in the sand all day and mercilessly berated one another.

“Anyway, this took your grandfather to the extreme Pacific coast. He boarded a raft and set off from Pugot Sound, headed into the presumably well-charted waters of the Pacific. Some say what he underwent was merely a near death experience. Others think he just made the whole thing up. What your grandfather reported when he came back was a whole other ocean, hidden beneath the Pacific...”

“The Malefic Ocean,” I said.

“That’s right,” Wrench said. “The Malefic Ocean. And he found a group of people living on an island in this ocean. Those people were the Nefarions. Their legends said that, essentially, they were everything bad in the world, at one time, the time they called the Great Beginning, and were therefore banished to this island that could not be seen by other humans. There was great debate amongst them as to whether or not they were human at all. Anyway, at the center of the island, they kept a flame they called Brilliance. This flame, they claimed, had been burning since the original cosmic big bang. It was, in many respects, their most popular cultural icon...”

Wrench rubbed his chin, rubbed his throat, and continued to stare out the window.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Your grandfather, meant to be taken seriously, stole Brilliance from the Nefarions. He brought it back to the coast with him, through the raging storms of both the Malefic and Pacific Oceans and when he washed up on the shores of Oregon, the flame still burned. Still, no one took him seriously. Scientists explained the flame away. Now no one wanted your grandfather to be right. If what he said was true, it would throw all of humanity, the origins of humanity, into question. Not that that hasn’t been done before. But the academic world was going to make damn certain it would not be done by a kleptomaniacal, drug-addled old quack.”

“What happened to it?”

“The flame?”

“Yeah.”

“I think it’s still up in the attic.”

“He kept it?”

“He most certainly did. But not without a price.”

“That’s why he disappeared.”

“That’s what we all assumed. We assumed the Nefarions had sent their elephant wind to claim him, hoping to bring Brilliance back. That was also when your father disappeared. He went searching for him. And no one has seen him since.”

“That still doesn’t really explain you.”

“Oh, I’m mostly the fault of your mother. She couldn’t stand the thought of her two children losing their father at such an early age. She had amazing foresight. She honestly thought your father would come back but she had to allow for the very small chance that he wouldn’t. And, even if he did, how long would it be? Two weeks. Two months. Two years. To a child, two years might as well be a lifetime. So she hired me to wear a costume that looked exactly like him. He wasn’t around you much anyway so it was only for a couple hours a day. Of course, I was always on call. In case one of you ever asked about me. I was there to provide the illusion of safety. Your mother assumed your father would come back one day and take my place and the transition would be very smooth and neither of her children would be traumatized.”

“That’s a lot to digest,” I said.

“I agree,” Wrench said.

“I think I need a nap.”

“Don’t let me stop you.”

I stood up from the couch and crossed over to my room. The house suddenly felt very sad and empty. Nothing was at all what I thought it was and just when I thought the world was a strange place it seemed to get even stranger. The bed felt good. I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep in no time at all.