He was a small man in a Czech suit. It was made in China, of silk, which he insisted was nothing but the vomitus of certain caterpillars. He ate only honey, which he insisted was nothing but the vomitus of the bee. A little truculently, if truth be told. In addition we were revolted by the tiny wattle under his chin, which waggled. He never brought us presents; rather, "I make you the gift of my self," he'd say, striking a pose. "Good things come in small packages!" he'd add, waggling his wattle. Miriam ran shrieking from the parlor. The package he came in, by the way, included a pince-nez, a fob, a hat, a walking stick, and, to everyone's surprise, batteries. His skin was a milky pink and covered with a pelt of fine hairs visible only under a magnifying glass. "Too hot! Too hot!" he'd mew if you held him under the lens too long. He professed to be fascinated by the Weather Channel, which he would watch all day and all night if we weren't careful. On those long summer drives to the cabin, seated in back between Miriam and myself, he talked the whole time about the Weather Channel. "The people they hire, they're not just pretty faces! They're not just talking heads! I've seen more than a few talking heads in my time! No, these are real meteorologists!" At this point he'd watched it for about a week solid and was really wound up. "Last night, for example, I learned the following. Each person carries with them their own weather system, which envelops their bodies in a sheath of variable pressures and currents to a depth of seventy micrometers." His voice was thin and without texture but could be as loud as a transistor radio with the volume all the way up. Miriam tried to squeeze as close to the window as she could. "A truly comprehensive account of global precipitation, for example," he went on, "would include how much perspiration was secreted by all the bodies around the entire globe during that day, a sum the meteorologists are working towards as we speak. The increase in the productivity of labour on a world scale has altered the weather patterns in significant ways that are only now being understood!" Nobody wanted to hear this, especially as he insisted on pronouncing "labor" with the British spelling. We tried introducing antidepressants into his thimbleful of mead, but he could always tell. "Gah!" he spat, "Who ordered the metheglin?" Admittedly, our garden flourished at this time (the zucchinis and the zinnias were splendid) and the shed had never been better organized, yet he appeared not to lift a finger unless it was to thrust his walking stick into my calf, crying, "I remember when you were this high!" He had a horror of being compared to Mr. Peanut, whom he had known in his youth when they'd both been employed in that murky business whose termini were the ports of Marseilles and Montevideo. "If you think I bear any resemblance to that blackguard, you need to have your eyes examined!" was all he was willing to say. But on at least one occasion Miriam made a tent of the sheets with her knees and allowed him in to play the Bedouin, unless I am dreaming this. With a martyred air he took to reading books of economics. "Somebody has to!" he'd sigh (sighs and burps had to corkscrew through his entire body before popping out of his mouth). "The dismal science," he fretted dismally. His studies revealed that the planned obsolescence of even the smallest appliance was part of a massive and accelerating wipeout of fixed capital that the system required to avoid an even more spectacular collapse. Soon, he concluded, the lifetime of all automobiles, microwave ovens, and iPods would have to be reduced to a single day, and then a single hour, a minute . . . His mood was not improving. We tried taking away his books. He moaned, clutched at his head and staggered around the bare tabletop. "I am a nerve o'er which do crawl the else unfelt oppressions of the earth!" he quoted in anguish. In a sulk he disappeared behind the wainscoting for an entire week. Finally it was easier to give in, although horrible to watch. Orange-ish spots of crust appeared on his flesh, and he shivered like one of those small shivering dogs. "My youth – was it yesterday, or an eon ago? We think we can go anywhere, be anything; we are pure potentiality . . . And yet with each little decision, no matter how incidental, with every word out of our mouths, no matter how trifling, we annihilate avenues! With no thought to the future we freely make our decisions, and in no time at all they hem us in! The grand boulevard, lined with lindens, narrows to the width of a coffin!" He tried to tug at the folds of our sleeves with his tiny paws to keep us from nodding off, but he had grown weak. "And then what's left but to offer a kind of testament, that our lives . . . were this and that, or thus and such, and so on and so forth . . . and no more!" Coughing, his little body quaked and the small orange crumbs flaked off his scalp. His eyes sank behind feculent custards. By this time his monologues had become riddled with ellipses . . . dashes—, "inverted commas," (parentheses), asterisks*, and superscriptions, until finally no words at all came out, just strings of punctuation. His mouth-hole got smaller and smaller until all that could fit through were semicolons; a few days later, it was just commas, and at last, like a lone poppy seed, out dribbled the final full stop. His limbs withered and his features were effaced; his form sagged into itself and flattened like a kind of fish (a flounder, I suppose), or a kind of worm (I suppose a fluke). By this time his flesh – or whatever it was that was left behind after we brushed away the last of the husks – possessed a bleached or a blanched appearance. At first we went every day to check on his progress, then every other day, and finally we took notice only when we happened to go into the room for something else. One morning Miriam came out with something pinched in her fingertips. It was smooth and dry and white, cool to the touch, a leaf or tissue or sheet. We put it in the drawer with the others.
About the author:
Edmond Caldwell is a writer living in Boston. His work has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Beat the Dust, and Thrush litzine, and his play "Hotel du Petit Mouton" was a finalist for the 2008 Source Festival. His first novel is THE CHAGALL POSITION, and he has just completed his second novel, ENEMY COMBATANT.
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