Read an Excerpt
Bastards said they had some good news and some bad news.
“Stop,” I said. “I’ve heard this joke before.”
“What joke,” said one of them, the Mechanic.
“He means that joke,” said the other, the Philosopher.
“That bit about the doctors. He thinks we’re doctors.”
“Aren’t you?” I said.
They had white coats, their own wing.
“This ain’t no joke, Jack,” said the Mechanic.
My name’s not Jack.
My name’s not Steve, either, but we’ll get to that.
“We have some good news and some bad news.”
I can’t remember what the good news was.
The bad news was bad. I was dying of something nobody had ever died of before. I was dying of something absolutely, fantastically new. Strangely enough, I was in fine fettle. My heart was strong and my lungs were clean. My vitals were vital. Nothing was enveloping me or eating away at me or brandishing itself towards some violence in my brain. There weren’t any blocks or clots or seeps or leaks. My levels were good. My counts were good. All my numbers said my number wasn’t up.
Fine fettle for a dead man, they said. Days, they said, months, maybe a year, maybe more than a year. It was difficult to calculate. Nobody had ever died of this before. By their calculations there could be no calculations.
“You’ll have to live like the rest of us,” the Philosopher told me. “Just less so.”
“You mean more so,” I said.
“No time for semantics,” said the Mechanic. “You’d best get ready.”
I readied myself for the period in which I’d have to get ready. I waited for the time during which I’d have to wait. I tied up loose ends, tidied up accounts, put my papers in order, called old friends. I didn’t really have any papers.
I did have friends.
I had Cudahy.
I called Cudahy.
“I’m coming to see you,” said Cudahy.
“Come soon,” I said.
I called my ex-wife, nothing if not a loose end, or at least a bit of untidiness, what with all we had left unaccounted for.
“I knew you’d call,” said Maryse. “I had a dream about you last week. You were walking through the pet food aisle at the supermarket and a kind of viscid bile was streaming down your chin.”
“It wasn’t a dream,” I said. “I’m dying.”
“I know, baby. I’m dying, too. But we’ve tried so many times already. We just have to learn to live with things the way things are. Things are not so bad. Truth be told, I’m not unfulfilled by William.”
“William’s a very good fellow,” I said.
“He’s not you,” said my ex-wife, “but then again, you’re not him.”
William had once been my hero. Then he whisked away my wife. Now he was a very good fellow, a fucker, a thief. He deserved to die of whatever everybody had ever died of before, but with more agony, a heavier soiling of sheets.
“You may not hear from me again,” I said.
“That’s probably a wise choice,” said Maryse.
“I don’t think it’s a choice,” I said. “I’m really dying.”
“Don’t threaten me,” said Maryse.
I quit my job, jammed a letter under my supervisor’s door. He waved me in anyway. It appeared I had to interview for the right to quit.
“What kind of contribution do you feel you’ve made to the agency?” said my supervisor.
“I was quiet in my cube,” I said. “I never fastened personal items with tape to the wall. I leered at female coworkers in the most unobtrusive manner possible. My work, albeit inane, jibed with the greater inanities required of us to maintain the fictions of our industry. I never stinted on pastries for my team.”
“What makes you think you’re qualified to relinquish your present position?”
“All of the above,” I said. “Plus the fact that I’m dying.”
“Dying of what?” said my supervisor.
“It’s new,” I said.
Home, I threw away my watches, my clocks, my clock-radios. I kept my Jews of Jazz calendar up on the kitchen door. The knowledge of days was crucial, I decided, the marking of hours a mistake. I spread old photographs out on the coffee table, Scotch-taped a nice lifetime of say-cheese to the walls. Tacky, maybe, a mural like this, but what’s tacky to the terminal? I studied the faces of all those friends and family and friends of the family. There they posed, on throw rugs, on sofas, in fields. Sitting or standing. Alone, in groups, in tandems, foregrounding fountains, friezes, pagodas, squares. Some of them were still living, others still dead. They had lived known lives, died, well, understandably. What I was dying of, I mused, nobody anywhere had a picture of somebody dead from it.
I mused this for a damn long while.
I mused this for almost a day.
I called up my daughter at the School for Disaffected Daughters. My ex-wife and I had agreed it was the best place for our Fiona to flourish and grow. We’d married out of school, Maryse and I, maybe just to be rebellious, fallen into factionhood the way rebels at rest will do. The worse things got, the more we cooed our devotion. Maybe our devotion was a blister we were waiting for the proper time to pop. I guess we wanted to see the pus.
“Fiona,” I said, “I have some news.”
“Don’t tell me,” she said.
“I have to tell you.”
“Tell me later,” she said. “I’ve got a lot on my plate.”
“I’m going to tell you now.”
I told my daughter I was dying of something no one had ever died of before.
“A rare disease?” she said. “Wow, that’s wild.”
“Not rare, Fiona. Mysterious. Rare would imply other sufferers. I’m the only one. Or at least the first. The pioneer. Think mud barns and locusts, rough cotton bonnets.”
“I don’t follow,” said Fiona. “Do you feel sick? Is it some kind of therapeutic bonnet?”
“I feel fine,” I said. “I’m in fine fettle for a dead man, in fact.”
“Is that from a song?” said Fiona.
“Maybe it will be,” I said. “Maybe I’ll write a song.”
“I’ve got to go,” said Fiona. “I’ll check in to see how you’re doing.”
“You mean to see if I’m dead.”
I’d been a bad man. Bad hubby. Bad dad. Well, not bad. Less than bad, which was worse. But I’d paid for it. I mean, I was paying for it.
“Please, Daddy, don’t say that,” said Fiona. “What if this is the last time we speak?”
She hung up on me, on “speak.” Typical of her disaffection. Typical of her disbelief. I figured she figured it all for a song or a game. What else is it when you’re thirteen and test just shy of genius? When she has to pick the suit they bury me in, then she’ll believe it. When she has to pick the urn they pour my burnt bones in.
Weekdays were clinic days. The Philosopher and the Mechanic wished to meet with me often as I was such a special case. Already my malady had begun to further their careers. They were collaborating on a book based loosely on my autopsy.
“You look amazing,” said the Mechanic. “Doesn’t he look amazing?”
“Luminous,” said the Philosopher. “Luminous with this mysterious rot.”
We sat on overstuffed sofas in the Special Cases Lounge. A man in black surgical scrubs brought us tea and lemon cake.
“Can I get a drink around here?”
“Not officially,” said the Philosopher, “but here.”
He plucked a bronze flask from his coat.
“Brandy?” I said, sniffing it.
“Cognac,” said the Philosopher. “With a dash of methamphetamine.”
“Tell us,” said the Mechanic, “how are you coping with the emotional devastation of your predicament? How do you go on living knowing you are going to die?”
“How do you?” I said.
Both men nodded, made noises in their mouths, scribbled on the notepads in their laps.
“What?” I said. “What are you doing?”
“I don’t know what he’s doing,” said the Philosopher. “I’m just jotting down some top-secret notes.”
They were both bastards, but at certain moments I got the feeling the Philosopher was also a prick.
“Did you run those tests yet?” I said.
“Which tests would those be?” said the Mechanic.
“The ones you said you were going to run to get a better idea of how much time I had left.”
“Have left,” said the Mechanic. “You’re not dead yet.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Fascinating,” said the Philosopher.
“We conducted the tests,” said the Mechanic. “Frankly, they left us more baffled than before. Honestly, I can’t tell you anything more than we’ve already told you. You’re dying. You’re dying quite quickly. The rest is a mystery better explored in our upcoming book.”
“Your book,” I said. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about your book. What about the cure?”
“Cure for what?” said the Mechanic.
“You know damn well it doesn’t have a name,” I said. “You’re the ones who didn’t name it.”
“You see our problem,” said the Philosopher. “Who’s going to grant us the time, the money, the facilities to research a cure for a nameless ailment from which one person presently suffers? What are we going to do, mount gala events to raise funds for the Fight to Save Steve from Whatchamacallit? By the way, how’s the hooch? The speed gives it a nice bite, right?”
“My name’s not Steve.”
“No, but my point stands.”
“We need more clients,” said the Mechanic. “Or patients, if you prefer. Until then, I don’t know what to tell you. We’ll do what we can.”
“What’s in our powers.”
My daughter disaffected, my ex-wife whisked, me dying quite quickly of radically accelerated Whatchamacallit, I decided, here in the grips of aimless urgency, to sin.
By sin, I mean fun, harmless.
I got a deal on some pharmaceutical-grade cocaine from the Philosopher. The Mechanic gave me a phone number, instructed me to ask for either Greta or Clarice.
I got Greta.
Greta brought Clarice.
Both of them were tall and bony with bone-colored and ash-colored hair.
Both of them were professionally, abnormally delicious.
“Kiss the dead man!” I said, throwing off my robe. “Fondle his fettle!”
We passed some days this way, prancing, sucking, snorting, heaving, shrieking. We ordered in dinner, Indian, Chinese. Greta, an aspiring dramaturge, directed us in choice bits of Aristophanes. Clarice hand-tinted my knees for a ritual dance of our own device. We built cities with popsicle sticks, baked peanut brittle, fudge. We invented a game whereby each woman pissed down my throat and I, blindfolded, guessed by odor alone whose water it was.
Easy, what with Greta’s penchant for wheatgrass juice.
When the sun rose on the last day Clarice shook me awake.
“Time to settle up,” she said.
I figured it was money well spent. What’s seventy-three thousand dollars to a guy with Whatchamacallit?
I sat there the rest of the morning wondering how to tell Fiona she was now officially a hardship case.
Then someone was knocking the knocker on my door.
“You’ll feel better once they come up with a name for it,” said Cudahy.
He stood in my kitchen and stirred his tea, an enormous man in a neon-flecked track suit.
He’d once captained the national shot-put team.
“I don’t give a damn about the name,” I said. “I just want to live.”
“I want you to live, too, buddy,” said Cudahy. “Believe me.”
“I do believe you,” I said.
Cudahy was my best and oldest friend. Best and boon. Maybe we’d drifted apart at times, I into the smoked-glass murk of corporate life, Cudahy into his far-flung entrepreneurial endeavors, which included a stint in foreign bride importation, but we’d never let the thread of our friendship snap. There was too much truth and not enough language between us for that.
We’d run the beet fields and subdivision lots of our boyhood together, slept under the yard stars, stolen off with the family whiskey into the wooded night. We’d scorched town birches with our homemade flamethrowers, burned out all the gypsy moth cocoons. Moth-O-Caust, we’d called it. We’d stood behind the toolshed and listened, amid the clatter of rake tines and paint tins, to our fathers make shuddering men of each other.
This last we’d never discussed.
“You know,” said Cudahy now, “you should have called me after Maryse left. I could have gotten you a new missus for less than ten grand. Tits, an adorable accent. Grateful to be free of the emerging-market yoke.”
“What’s done is done,” I said.
“That’s the attitude,” said Cudahy. “That’s the attitude of a man who wants to live!”
“Don’t saw the pine for me yet,” I said.
“That’s it, baby!” said Cudahy. “No pine, no crepe, no wreaths!”
He spun a hard orbit on the linoleum. Tea ribboned out of his cup. The cup shattered on the wall.
“Shit,” said Cudahy.
“Nice put,” I said.
Cudahy took the spare room, kicked in expenses from the fat roll in his track suit pocket. We cooked lavish meals from newspaper recipes—veal marsala, rack of lamb—played blackjack past midnight, watched old westerns on the VCR.
Every time there was shoot-out Cudahy would recount his own days of gunplay, usually some kind of pimp jump in the lime-colored corridors of a formerly Socialist apartment block.
“They got my driver Vlad in the head, point-blank,” he said one night. “I figured I was a goner until I stumbled across a ventilation duct. Hard to believe I fit, but I did. And so here I am. And here you are. Death’s luck goes south, too, you know. Hit me.”
“I think the reaper’s due for a run.”
“Don’t talk that way,” said Cudahy. “This living and dying shit, it’s all a matter of attitude. It’s like you’re at the Worlds with a couple of fouls and you need one clean put to qualify. The Swedish judge is gunning for you and you’re thinking, ‘I will stay in the circle, there is nothing for me outside the circle. Fuck Scandinavia.’”
“What are you talking about?”
“Say it: There’s nothing for me outside the circle. Fuck Scandinavia.”
“There’s nothing for me outside the circle. Fuck Scandinavia.”
“Exactly,” said Cudahy. “Worked for me. I silvered. Then I got out of the shot-put racket for good. I mean, chucking a steel ball over and over again. For what? The travel, sure, but all in all it was a waste of time. And you know what else? When you’re a great shot-putter, they hate you for it. They really do. Not true of, say, the discus. The discus-throwers have a feeling of community. They have that statue. Hit me. Fuck, busted.”
When I phoned the clinic to confirm my next appointment, the Mechanic took the call himself.
“We’ve got some exciting news,” he said. “A breakthrough. I can’t tell you over the phone, though.”
Cudahy popped a bottle of raisin schnapps.
“To beginnings, breakthroughs, fresh starts,” he said. “May the upshot of all this be nothing more than a beautiful newfound invigoration that informs your long years ahead.”
“That’s nice,” I said.
“It’s an old peasant saying,” said Cudahy. “The literal translation is ‘Better you fuck yourself than they fuck you.’ Good luck tomorrow. I’ll be waiting with some coq au vin.”
The next day the nurse led me past the Special Cases Lounge and through a slim metallic door. We stepped into a bright amphitheater, a room like a grooved well. The Philosopher and the Mechanic stood down at the bottom of it behind a semitranslucent scrim. Dozens of others filled the raked seats. Some craned back to catch my eye, nod, enact hopeful semaphore with their thumbs. The Philosopher stepped out from behind the scrim. A lectern rose into his hands from some hushed hydraulics in the floor.
“Good morning,” he said. “Shall we begin? Now as some of you from the press may be unfamiliar with medical jargon, I’ll try to stick to layman’s terms. But first, a small caveat. While our tests can’t be considered foolproof, the sheer quantity of data and the unequivocal agreement of it cannot be wished away. Since we have nothing comparable by which to judge the subject’s condition, there is, to be quite candid, some element of faith involved, but I would by no means refer to it as a leap of faith. Consider it more on the order of a small hop. Or perhaps even a skip. Okay, then, on to the main presentation of our body, or rather, well, you know what I mean …”
There were giggles in the gallery. The lights dimmed. The Mechanic slid a videocassette into a dark notch in the wall. Out of speakers mounted in the ceiling came the whir and sputter of an old film projector. Nice touch, I thought, listened as a chimey melody, familiar somehow, seeped into the room. It was American educational music, that old warped hope in major chords, and it bounced along to the vistas skating by on the screen: mountains and mountain valleys, jungles and jungle clears, lakes, rivers, streams, each yielding to the next in a bright ceremony of splice and dissolve.
Last was a light-filled forest, where all manner of creature began to stir, make their first nervous pokes from burrow and mound. I’d seen footage like this before, felt fourteen again, dozing in my snowboots, waiting for the afternoon bell. How much I’d always envied the tight life of voles. The hidey hole was happiness.
No expectations down there.
Now the shot pulled out a bit. Here a stunted horse drank from a creek. There an odd bird jerked worms from the earth. Here came a rustle in the brush, a gentle tremoring that sent bugs the size of bullets to wing. Something huge burst into view, a shambling immensity I knew from coloring books, dioramas of yore. The woolly mammoth. Hairy-hided. Shoveltusked. A great shaggy thingness. It looked about with what could have been innocence and not a little fear in its eyes. I wondered how much it cost to rent a toothless elephant, trick him out for another geological age. There wasn’t much time to wonder. The music tripped into a darker key, some molesteron-the-carousel lilt. It was the end of innocence, or the end of something.
It was bum luck for the mammoth.
A band of humanoids lumbered up, a hunting party, crude men with crude spears in their tufted fists, loud language on their tongues. They whooped and hollered, circled the beast, rushed in and out and in again, stabbed until the mammoth’s hide blew bright spouts of mammalian blood. The woolly fellow thumped to his knees, bellowing, bellowing, us thrust up now into the black pain of his mouth. His cries and the taunts of the hunters started to fade. There was darkness now, silence. There was darkness with a few faraway pricks of light. The universe. Universal shorthand for the universe.
We were moving through it now. We were gliding toward a greenish-bluish ball. Our ball, the home sphere. Sea and tree and all those organic shenanigans, all that fluke life. We were flying right smack into the middle of the fucker, flying and flying until it wasn’t flying anymore, it was falling, and we were falling now through clouds and sky and down upon the body of a city, row house bones and market hearts and veins of neighborhood, arterial concretions of highway and boulevard and side street, falling now to a low float over pavement, a hover here in some lost alleyway, a superannuated little gland of a place, where a solitary figure walked with his hands stuck in his windbreaker. The figure began to glow, as though suddenly sensor-read, his organs swirls of grained color, his skull a glassy orb of dim pulses and firings, the lonely weak electrics of homo erectus. The man stooped for his shoelace. The picture froze at the beginnings of a bow knot. Through the speakers came the sound of sprocket jump, the flutter of reel’s end. The screen swiped to test bars. The music leaked away. The lights went up.
The Mechanic took the lectern, spoke into a thimble he’d slipped upon his thumb.
There were questions.
“Should we assume the figure, the visible man, as it were, is the subject?” called a woman with a series of laminated cards clipped to her pantsuit.
“What’s with the woolly mammoth?” said a kid with a video rig strapped parrot-like to his shoulder.
“Forget that,” said an old man in a hunting vest. “What is the point of any of this? Is this some kind of gag?”
“I assure you,” said the Philosopher, leaning into the Mechanic’s amplified thumb, “this is no gag. Nor could it be construed as a bit. The visual aid is merely meant as a tool to help you better understand the scope of what we’re about to tell you. Ladies and gentleman, the subject, who, as some of you may already have ascertained, is seated here among us, which I note as a precaution against insensitive comments regarding his condition, this subject is the first known sufferer of what I believe will and should be referred to from now on as Goldfarb-Blackstone Preparatory Extinction Syndrome, named, I might add, for its discoverers, Dr. Blackstone and myself.”
“Without being technical,” said the kid with the parrot cam, “what exactly is the nature of PREXIS? PREXIS for short, right? I mean, what’s the deal, nontechnically speaking? And why should we care, given all the diseases out there right now?”
“To put it bluntly,” said the Mechanic, “those other diseases already have a name. And with it, a cause: viral infection, chemical compromise, cellular glitch, inheritance on the genetic level. This syndrome, though now named, still has no identifiable cause, which does not mitigate its unquestionable fatality. This man is going to die. But here’s the kicker: he’s going to die for no known reason. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually, and irrevocably. He may show no signs of it yet, but he will, trust me. And though he may be the first, I assure you he is not alone. Like the beast in the film, and the prototypical bipeds who felled it, all of us here, too, will someday be extinct. And not from nuclear catastrophe or chemical weaponry or environmental collapse, but from something else entirely. Who knows? Perhaps the cause is sheer purposelessness. At any rate, be advised, this subject, Steve, this mild-mannered thirty-seven-year-old ad man, is but the first in line. Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to dodge everything else, the cancers, the coronaries, the aneurysms, but do not consider yourself blessed. Goldfarb-Blackstone, or PREXIS, if you will, is guaranteed to claim us all.”
“Aren’t you just talking about death?” said the old man.
“Unfortunately, yes,” said the Mechanic.
“But don’t we already know about death?”
“What do we know? We know nothing. Now at least perhaps we have what little light the work of Dr. Goldfarb and myself can shed on it.”
“I’m interested in what you mean by purposelessness,” said the woman in the pantsuit. “Do you mean boredom? Do you mean to say this man is actually going to die of boredom?”
“That’s one way of putting it, yes,” said the Philosopher.
“Dynamite,” said the woman, darted out of the room.
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” I said, back in the Special Cases Lounge.
“We weren’t sure.”
“We couldn’t be certain.”
“All the data accounted for.”
“All the numbers in.”
“Until a granular quality obtained.”
“Then checked and counterchecked against findings in our database.”
“Adjusted for error.”
“Human and otherwise.”
“Human and counterhuman.”
“We had to be precision-oriented on this one. Or orientated.”
“We had to be scientists about it.”
“If we’re not scientists, what are we?”
“If we’re something else, who are the scientists?”
“So,” I said, “how long have I got?”
Cudahy was waiting on the corner near my building. It looked like there’d been some sort of accident. News trucks and radio cars cordoned off the better part of the block. Cudahy threw a parka over my head, guided me up a hillock of root-ruptured pavement toward my door.
“Don’t answer the vultures,” said Cudahy.
“Which vultures?” I said.
Here they were upon us, pressing, pecking through my fuzzy sheath.
“How does it feel to be dying?”
“Do you believe you are bored to death?”
“Have you had any further contact with the mammoth?”
Cudahy shouted them all down. I felt his huge arms wrap around my head.
“Scum,” said Cudahy, bolted the door behind us. “Wish to God I had Vlad with me. That guy sure knew what to do to a journalist.”
I let the parka slip to the floor.
“What’s happening to me?” I said.
“Hell if I know,” said Cudahy. “Why can’t they let a man die in peace?”
“I’m in fine fettle,” I said.
“Sure you are.”
“All I did was go in for a checkup.”
“That’s how they get you,” said Cudahy.
He cracked a bottle of beef-flavored vodka, turned on the TV. The woman in the pantsuit beamed up from my stoop. She fiddled with a coil of metal in her ear.
“Yes, Mike,” she said, “he appears to be barricaded in this building you see behind me. And, truthfully, I can’t say I blame him. Who wants to be the pace car in the race to oblivion? But there’s another question, Mike, which I think you broached, or maybe breached, earlier. How do we know he’s the only person on the planet with Goldfarb-Blackstone, or PREXIS, as it’s so rapidly come to be known? It’s hard to believe that this man, this so-called Subject Steve, is even the only victim of terminal ennui in this city. And if there are others, are they dying, too? Are we all, perhaps, dying? Have we, perhaps, always been dying? It’s too early to tell.”
“This is insane,” said Cudahy. “A mass hallucination. I’ve read about this kind of thing. You do a lot of reading on the track and field circuit. Downtime. Cafés. You get educated. History is full of this phenomenon. It’ll blow over.”
“I don’t see it blowing over,” I said.
“It’s just started to blow, buddy. There’s a whole blowingover process. Anyway, you’ve got more important things to think about. You’re still, on a personal level, dying.”
“But I’m in fine fettle,” I said.
“Fettle is irrelevant,” said Cudahy. “Science has proven that much.”
Now a man I knew appeared on the screen. He sat at an office workstation, his thin hair blending with the fabric of the cube-wall weave.
“One thing I can tell you about the subject,” said the man, “he always bought doughnuts for his team.”
“Pastries!” I said. “Better than doughnuts!”
“It’s okay,” said Cudahy. “Calm down.”
“It wasn’t doughnuts.”
“It’s okay,” said Cudahy.
“What are they talking about, boredom?” I said. “I’ve never been bored. Lonely, tired, depressed, of course. But not bored.”
“I think they mean that as a euphemism,” said Cudahy.
“A euphemism for what?”
“I’m not sure I follow,” said Cudahy.
This was about the time I started to weep. This was the kind of weeping where after a while you’re not quite sure it’s you who’s still weeping anymore. Some wet, heaving force evicts your other selves. You’re just the buck and twitch, the tears. You fetal up and your thoughts are blows. Phrases drift through you. Rain of blows. Steady rain of blows. There’s no relent. There’s no relief. The hand of a comforting Cudahy is a hunk of hot slag. The world is a slit through one bent strip of window blind. The noise of the city, the hum of the house, the hiss of the television, is wind.
I fell asleep, woke to a bowl rim at my lips.
Dimly, men in Stetsons rode past boomtown facades and out onto a pixilated plain.
“I love this part,” I heard Cudahy say, dimly.
“Fennel soup,” said Fiona. “Drink.”
“They’re doomed,” said Cudahy. “They know they’re doomed, and they also know their only shot at grace is precisely in that knowledge. There’s an army of vicious Mexicans out there waiting to shoot them to pieces.”
“I’d like to see the Mexican side of the story,” said Fiona. “I’d like to read an oral history from the Mexican perspective.”
“An oral history,” said Cudahy. “I bet you would, honey.”
“What’s going on?” I said. I figured they needed a chance to adjust, to my state, to their consideration of my state. My worry was that I could sleep too much. A dying man sleeps too much, maybe his power slips away.
I needed all the power in my purview, my ken.
Cudahy muted the doomed hooves.
“Daddy,” said Fiona.
“So,” I said, “you heard. You came.”
“PRAXIS,” said Cudahy.
“PREXIS,” said Fiona.
“You didn’t seem so worried before,” I said.
“I didn’t know how serious it was.”
“Baby, I have some bad news. About your educational opportunities.”
“It’s okay. Uncle Cud told me. I hope the fucking was worth it.”
“Only time it’s not worth it is when it’s free,” said Cudahy.
“Daddy, I want you to know I’m going to be here for you. That part is settled. Don’t argue with me. It’s what I need to do now. For me as much as for you.”
“Thank you, baby,” I said, and sang to her, weakly, the song about aardvarks I had sung to her in the days before her disaffection.
Then I spit up some fennel shreds.
The next morning Cudahy went out for food, the early papers. I watched him pilot his bulk down the stoop, disappear behind a satellite truck. My good Cudahy, back from the wide strange world.
My fondest Fiona.
“You’ll ruin the paint with all this tape,” she said, pulling my scrapbook mural down.
I thought back to the time Fiona was six, seven, caught a double zap of chicken pox and scarlet fever. She got so quiet there on the living room carpet playing divorce with her Barbies. The sores spread and her blood boiled. We watched her body take on the silken deadness of her injection-molded friends. It all came to high drama, or my high dramatics, me running crazy through the neighborhood with my doll-daughter in my arms, Maryse screaming for me to come back.
“I’ve got us a cab, schmuck!”
The doctors shamed us for our delay. Maryse and I, we’d been inches from the abyss of nefarious parentage, practically Christian Scientists, but Fiona would live. It must have been our luck that got us so hot, basted us both in visions of hump and dazzle. Or maybe it was some awful need to screw within wad’s shot of the abyss. Home, we drank a little wine, put on some of that sticky saxophone music we used to keep around to drown out the bitter squeaks in our hearts. We gripped each other’s privates and started to kiss, but our mouths were pruned things, insipid divots. My wife’s wetness was all for William the Fulfiller now. We conked out drunk on the carpet, woke up around dinnertime, checked in on our baby. Fiona was bent up in her fever’s waning. Maryse and I held hands beside the little plaid bed.
“I’m leaving you,” said my wife.
“I know,” I said.
Fiona claimed she remembered none of it, but she still bore a mark from those days, a pock where a scab must have flaked, smack between her dry green eyes.
It was about the size of a sunflower seed.
Cudahy came back with cabin food. Siege supplies. Soup cans and sandwich meats and bouillon cubes in silver foil. He pulled a newspaper from the grocery sack, folded to an item: “Doc’s Prog for Our Kind: Game Over.” Beneath my ex-wife’s picture was a caption: “Ex-Hubby the New T. Rex.”
“Where’d they get the photo?” I said.
“Eye in the sky, probably,” said Cudahy. “Or the DMV.”
“Mom gave it to them,” said Fiona. “She left a message on my cell. She’s getting calls from talk shows. She wants to know how you feel about her speaking publicly on the matter.”
“You mean whoring herself.”
“Sharing her experience, hope, and strength.”
“Tell her she can do whatever the hell she wants.”
“I knew you’d say that so I already said that.”
“There’s a guy out there,” said Cudahy. “He’s offering his help.”
“Reporter?” said Fiona.
“Don’t think so,” said Cudahy. “He told me to give you this.”
It was a mimeographed brochure, lettered in splotchy monastic script.
Have you been left for dead?
Do you number among the Infortunate—
shrugged off by family, friends, physicians, priests?
Have you been told you’re beyond all hope?
Are you incorrigible, inoperable, degenerative,
degenerate, terminal, chronic, and/or doomed?
Are you lost, are you crazy, or just plain sick?
Maybe you should snuff it, friend.
Pull the Trigger.
Turn up the Gas.
Do it, coward.
Did you do it?
You didn’t, did you?
Okay, don’t do it.
You’re not worth the
mess you’ll make. Not yet.
Here’s a better idea:
Call the Center for Nondenom-
inational Recovery and Redemption and deliver
back unto yourself your dying body and your dead
No malady, real or imagined, is too difficult to
Forget the scientific phonies and the quacks of
Forget the false love of New Age shamans.
Forget the false touch of healing retreats.
Your health, your freedom, your salvation is a
toll-free call away.
Ask for Heinrich.
All major credit cards accepted.
Squeezed along the margin in fountain ink was this: “I Have the Cure.—H.”
I made of this inanity a nice coaster for my coffee mug.
“They’ll really be coming out of the woodwork now,” I said.
“What woodwork?” said Cudahy. “We’re on an island of concrete.”
THE SUBJECT STEVE. Copyright © 2001 by Sam Lipsyte. All rights reserved. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.