The Life and Times of the Fat Man

A story of a man held prisoner in his apartment by a clock.

Download the story here.

The TV screen was blank. It was a blank TV screen, you understand. It was empty… nothing there. The fat man looked at it all the same. He was alone and so the TV screen reminded him of simpler days. Whenever he looked at the TV screen it was like a vacation. He was very hard at work most days being alone and the TV screen was like a vacation. The fat man was the only person there, that’s why he was alone. That’s what he thought. He thought he was alone, because there was no one there.

The sweaty, wrinkled skin of the fat man’s neck rippled like a wave on the beach as he looked beside him. “It was time for his vacation to be over” the clock was saying. The fat man cried on the inside. All the people were gone, but the clock stayed. The clock was his father. The clock made sure he was always on time to be alone. The clock looked out for the fat man, and the fat man’s heart cried, “Because he did not understand why he didn’t love the clock as much as the clock loved him.”

The fat man had a whole apartment. He had written his name all over the walls. His name was on the apartment so it was his. “this is his apartment,” said the fat man as his big sad legs tried so very hard to lift him. Outside of the apartment there was sunshine. The sunshine made all the butterflies, and flowers, and crawling things that lived on his body come to life. The fat man did not like the feeling of all the moving. The moving made him want to fall. The moving, of all the things that lived between the rolls of his body reminded him of when he was not the fat man.

Too much, too much to take. The fat man had to get up or else he would be late for his work of being alone. He could not have all these thoughts here. There was no room in the apartment for both his name and the thoughts. The clock… the clock began to scream. “Why does he not move quickly?” the clock loved him and called him names. He was such a good father and the fat man was really sorry, but his oily breath slid slowly down his throat. The air hurt. It was so hard to lift himself. There was a kitchen where he went. It was a kitchen to be alone in. It had all of the bells and whistles, but they made no music. Sometimes, a long time ago, before the fat man’s stomach was all crumbly, and saggy, he would sit next to the dish washer and love. He would love the dishwasher, ‘cause it made sounds. It made sounds, and it was warm.

The clock in the other room heard the sounds one day and SCREECHED. So the fat man’s ears did not work. He was a bad man. He should not hurt the clock. The clock was his protector from all the messiness. The dishwasher was not his friend. The fat man missed his ears. After the screech, the fat man had to peel them both off. They were seeping into his brain. The clock made them collapse, and seep into his brain. It was not the clock’s fault.

The clock was screaming more and more, “no memories. He cannot have them” but all the fat man could hear was a tiny special thing he saved under his eye ball. He saved it when he got his new apartment. The special hands of the clock checked his whole body. They checked the whole thing, but not his eyes. Even the special magic hands can’t change his eyes. The hands scared him though. He was afraid. He was afraid, so he saved his special thing in his eye. The special thing was a picture of another thing like him. When he went to sleep sometimes after the canola oil tears would dry, and the clock was not looking he would look at the special picture.

The image would tell him to stab the clock. Kill kill. Burn all the apartment. Smash the mirrors and take the glass to smash himself. The fat man was also afraid of the picture, but he liked the warm feeling of the fire burning everything. Now, he could not be brave. He had work to do. He had work to be alone. When he looked around him he saw he was in his kitchen. The walls were GREY. The table was white. The chair beside the table was a million miles away. He did not fit in the chair. So he ate on the floor. The clock was no longer screaming. The fat man smiled. It hurt his muscles to smile. It was very hard to lift his face. All of his skin drooped and was filled with puss and ugly things. The fat man hated his face and everything attached.

He went to the pantry and got two squares of brick. “The brick was good for him,” the clock used to say calm and soothing. It was clay and hard, and it hurt. It hurt the fat man’s tongue and made it heavy. It was ok. That was how it’s supposed to feel. The brick made him feel strong, and stupid, and wonderful, and hurtful, hungry. Most of all the brick made him hungry. As punishment for wanting to be with other people, the fat man had to drink cement with his brick. The fat man pleaded not to have it, but the cement was good for him. He was strong and big, and most of all independent. He was as free as a wall.

The fat man sat on the floor with his smile cracking his lips. He ate, and he drank. He began to notice something. He began to notice he was dying. With every bite of brick he died. He started to breathe harder and harder, but there were rocks that made his lungs too heavy. He had to stop, but he couldn’t. He was going to die. The fat man kept eating so he could forget. The wet cement got into his brain and made him happy and forget.

As he kept eating the blood came. “no, no not his blood,” the fat man cried. The blood made all the poison come out again. The blood made him look at his insides. The blood was mud actually. It was mud. It was so very thick and it seeped out of holes in the fat man’s body. The fat man did not know what holes it came from, but he wanted it to stop. It would not stop. No matter how many times he told the blood to stop it kept coming. Why couldn’t his body listen?

He turned to the calendar for help. The calendar had a band-aid on the day of that day, and told the fat man “it was not up to him.” He was a baby again. The fat man was a baby again and it was bad. The fat man wanted to live, but the blood kept coming out, and he was a baby. He tried to think, but the calendar just laughed. The baby had to find a way to survive, but it was just a baby.

Then a dark funny thing happened, and no one expected it. Not even me. I did not expect it. The baby found a crayon, and started to mutilate the calendar. It got all drawn on and the baby laughed with its broken face at the calendar’s pain. The calendar was dying too, and the baby forgot so was he. Many minutes went by as the baby tortured the calendar with the crayon. Many many minutes went by. The blood kept coming, but there was the calendar’s pain was like a lullaby. The baby forgot about the blood.

As the baby took the pill the clock heard the commotion. The clock revolved all the way to the kitchen to see what was going on. “It is finally time for him,” laughed the clock at the baby. Then the clock noticed its fallen comrade. “He is a fucking bastard,” rhymed the clock as its needles sprang to hurt the baby. The puss and oil, and bad blood dropped out of the baby as it turned into a child.

The child jumped from the needles, thinking it was a game. In the needles was an impatient lethal injection. The clock was angry, but the earless child did not care. The child began to run. The child began to leap. There were many room in the grey apartment where the walls were bare. Many rooms the fat man had never seen before. The child thought it was an adventure, and began to play hide and seek with the clock. The clock refused and growled. “He comes out now,” the clock rasped, “or I find him and make it all slow.”

The child could not hear and did not understand, so he giggled. “Catch him, catch him,” shouted the child. The child found his legs and a closet. In the closet there was a whole universe, and the fat man in the child’s heart cried. The child’s heart began to beat again. The lungs began to push. Finally the nose could smell all the putrid vomit and stagnation in the apartment. The child got scared. Suddenly he didn’t want the clock to catch him. The clock did not love him. He was not his father.

“I am coming for him,” roared the clock. The child began to make a fort out of cushions ready to defend his aching body. The child’s little bones snapped under the weight of the responsibility. There the child lay paralyzed in the pillow fort in the dark. He needed to get away somehow, but the child could not remember where the apartment ended, and he could not move. The ticks of the clock neared. Suddenly an odd organ pulsated in the child. He began to twitch, and bleed, and sweat. Slowly but surely, as his eyes rolled back in his head the child found his own imagination.

He could no longer hear the clock, but it wouldn’t have mattered there were too many colours. All at once the child could see colours again. Just then he had realized how much grey had been in the apartment. So much dust for his soul. That did not matter now he was swimming in colours. All of them and they all tasted so good. The child began to get chubby again, the feeling was good. He was no longer just skin and bones, and his bones were stronger now. The child stayed in his imagination for an eternity and got strong.

CRASH

The child woke up older in a collapsed pillow fort. It was no defense at all. Dazed, he stood to find the clock staring right at him. There was a beat, and then the oddest thing anyone had ever seen took place. The older child lunged at the clock, and they fought. Hand to hand and death to death. The older child felt all of him push. The clock was a bit confused, but so very angry. The angry hurt, but so did the want. The want and the angry mixed and matched and punched and kicked. Dancing things popped out of the older child’s head. He looked away for a moment and the clock broke his jaw.

The older child fell next to his broken jaw. No more music. There was no more music the older child remembered. The fat man was sobbing and weeping in the older child’s heart. Right next to his jaw lay rage. It was all of the angry and want mixed up. It had made a hammer. The hammer was changing and shifting. The older child grabbed it, and suddenly was the fat man again.

“No, no, no he was not,” cried the fat man, but he knew it was so. He held the hammer and looked up at his wrathful father, crooked with a tinge of terror gleaming next to midnight, his arms were approaching. The fat man, with all of his oozing wounds and sad crumbling muscles under the mountains of waste, stared the clock right through for the first time, and saw the door out.

He threw himself, hammer and all, at the clock. The fat man and the clock collided, but the weight was too much for the clock, and it folded. The fat man hit the door. He fell right onto its knob. The door swung open, and hanging just barely the fat man could see under him was only darkness. He let go of the knob with a smile. With a smile he plummeted to his death.

The Alarm

A story about a town where an alarm started ringing some decades ago and never quite stopped.

Download the story here.

I would ask that everyone put their noise cancellers on now. We’re walking close enough that the sound is harmful to all and may be fatal to children, pregnant women, and people with heart conditions. In fact, here’s a bit of sad trivia for you, the original team that tried to shut it off spent two weeks so close to it that, even with all the cutting edge noise cancelling equipment of the day, almost all of them had to be hospitalized, half lost their hearing completely, and one was admitted to a psychiatric facility permanently.  Your average household alarm may be annoying, but this one is dangerous and I ask that as we continue the tour you all be mindful of that fact.

Before we continue are there any questions? What’s that you say? How was it started? Please forgive my laughter, I don’t mean to be rude. It’s just that I’ve been doing this tour for ten years and that is always, without fail, the first question.  There are a lot of theories out there and you probably read a few before deciding to visit, or maybe you noticed some of the books at the gift shop. Some say it was an environmental toxin that set it off; you know pollution from a nearby industrial plant or something like that. Others say that some poor young woman hit the panic button out of fear of some violent pursuer maybe even someone she knew. There are lots of reasons alarms get set off in the world. And if you’re interested, after the tour, I would love to discuss some of the research that’s come out of the Institute of Alarmology. It’s one of the finer parts of the government’s response to the whole situation in my opinion. So like I said, there are a lot of theories out there about how it got blaring its sad song, but the truth is we really don’t know. If you ask us locals what we think, we’ll tell you some kid probably pulled it as a joke. It may not be the funniest, but it sure as hell wins for the longest joke ever. It’s been almost 100 years now (you’re all welcome to our 100th anniversary this June) and, well, we’re still all waiting for the punch-line. Anyway, I hope that answers your question!

Anyone else? Yes, you there with the stylish fanny pack. Why was it built? Well that’s a very interesting story in its own right and one of the more mysterious pieces of it all. Some respectable academics say the alarm must have been built in the Cold War in case of a nuclear disaster. After all, why else would they build an alarm so strong an entire town and its surrounding area could hear it for a century? Of course, that’s a rhetorical question. Besides a nuclear war or a natural disaster, there really aren’t too many sensible reasons to build such a thing. The trouble with the Cold War theory is that there are absolutely no documents to prove the government built it. There are no flags or trademarks or anything like that on the alarm itself or its surrounding structure. Of course, after the government failed to shut it off and it blared so long the government actually evacuated the town, everyone was pretty embarrassed. This is not a part of the official tour, of course, but if you ask me, it’s not crazy to think that they started hiding and destroying evidence when they realized what a mess it all was. Anyway, if it wasn’t the government, then who could have done it? Actually that one isn’t a rhetorical question. If you want to e-mail us your most creative theory about who could have built The Alarm, then you may be published in our annual book “RIIIINNNNGG!” Also, one lucky story will be chosen to receive a free vacation to some of the quietest places on Earth.

Ok, so we’ll have to move on, but if you want to save some of your questions for the end of the tour I’d be happy to answer them then. Our first stop is the town library. Before it all happened, this used to be a place of quiet reflection and study, a place for community members to gather and speak calmly to one another about the books of the day. Well, you can imagine what The Alarm did to all that! For the first couple of weeks, everything was in such a panic and upheaval that there wasn’t much need to go to the library anyway. People don’t think of comfortably reading their favourite copy of Jane Eyre when there’s a disaster going on. Mind you, a few diehards did keep going for the first few days. As things got more tense though, and the riots started, people barely left their homes altogether. When the evacuation was finally called, the library was totally forgotten. I guess with all the running about, (you may have been taught in school about the controversial decision to call it a national emergency) well, most people just don’t remember books in a time like that.

The only reason we know anything about the library is that the security cameras kept running and so we have a lot of it on record. If you have time before leaving here, then I recommend you check out our archives. Some of the footage from the early days depicts strange and often downright haunting behaviour. For instance, those people who stayed in the library despite the blaring in the early days demonstrate such an intense determination. Watching them sit there and read is almost heroic. But I’m probably just getting carried away. The last thing I’ll note about this stop on our tour is how the library came back into use once people started returning from the evacuation. Some studies have been done on our residents. Experts have tested the effect of its noise on students’ ability to learn and older people’s ability to remember, you know, that kind of thing. What these studies found was that members of the first generation, the people who were born before it all, were significantly harmed. There was even talk for a short while of passing a law considering it child abuse to raise a child here. Well, wouldn’t you know it, tests on the second generation found that things like memory and learning not only weren’t harmed, but were actually improved! I’ll just let that speak for itself, whatever that might mean.

Now we’ve come to an average family home of this town. When we think of home a lot of us think of peace, tranquility, rest. Home is a place to withdraw from the world and its troubles. In our town, it’s no different. Anyone who can name the four things different about the homes built here after it started gets a free pair of ear plugs. Sorry, could you speak up. Yes, that’s right! I’m glad someone has done his homework. For those of you who didn’t hear, our friend here with the reasonably short shorts pointed out that the walls are twice as thick as the standard in the rest of the country, the paint is made from a special noise resistant substance, and the windows are made of a special noise absorbing glass. The one thing you may not have noticed, but our friend here did, are the noise-resistant junipers. Yes, in the 20th and early 21st century these were used to block out road noise, which was then quite out of control. It therefore made sense to start planting them here. Well, a special strain of the tree was grown to adapt to the rather unique sound environment of this town and so now you see the dense, hearty junipers before you. Really a marvel of modern science. Of course, that could hardly cancel out all the sound, but people find a way to live anyway. Yes, throughout history humans have found a way to innovate for some of the harshest conditions. From the igloo of the Inuit to the tents of the Bedouins, people find a way! I know it’s a little corny, but, to be honest, this has long been my favourite stop.

Now you know about the house, you may be interested to know about the kind of people that live here (this house is actually still occupied!). Specialists, as with just about everything else in this town, came to assess the psyches of the kind of people who moved back after the evacuation and the kind of people who actually came to live here for the first time once the ringing started. Ongoing tests are still done on we who continue to live here, though with not as much interest from the wider world. You can really get a picture of the kind of person we’re talking about from Doctor Fredrick P. Johnston’s rather poetic field journal. The passage that I think sums us all up best goes as follows:

“The noise does not seem to bother them, or else if it does, it is a matter of essential pride and identity that they not reveal this fact. Their chins all seem to be turned up denoting, I believe, arrogance or maybe simply defiance and their voices all seem to be in constant competition, not with the overwhelming sound of the environment, but with the world itself. Some must be here out of sheer economic necessity, but for the vast majority choosing to live with it day in and day out is something much greater, like a cult on the slope of a volcano. I can only imagine what these people must have been like before the incident.”

Our next stop is the music hall, perhaps one of the greatest artistic feats of our time… sorry, sorry, I’m being called. Oh. Oh my… I’m very sorry about this everyone, but it looks like we’re going to have to cut the tour short. It seems there’s been a large fire along our tour route. Again I’m very sorry. Everyone will be offered a voucher to take the tour again and a $10 gift card for our local book store “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. Could you repeat that Miss? Well I guess you’re right. While we’re walking back I’ll just explain what our well-perfumed friend here just pointed out. When people started to move back, there were some major accidents that stemmed from the fact that fire alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, and so on were pretty much just ignored. We had to find a way to make alarms work on  people again. Surprisingly, or maybe not, this was one of the longest standing problems for our little town. We tried everything. We tried alarms that were even louder close up then the big one. We tried buzzing and flashing lights, but nothing worked.

Well the answer came to us in a pretty unexpected way. For twenty years after it began, the sound was constant and unbroken both in its volume and its pace. Then one day in the middle of the night, for just a few moments, it stopped, as if to take a breath, before continuing even louder than before. You know what’s funny? It’s said that people were actually woken by it. Not by the louder blaring noise, but by the seconds of silence. Some of our sharper citizens realized that alarms aren’t about the loudness or the brightness or anything like that. A good alarm is out of the ordinary. So now, whenever a real alarm needs to go off, we have a system of strange notifications. It changes constantly so no one can ever get used to it.

Are there any final questions before we part ways and our unfortunately short adventure ends? Sorry? Could you please repeat the question? Why did I choose to live here? Well, you see, I was born here, so in a sense I didn’t choose it. I mean that’s not a problem if you ask me, but I just want to clarify the question. I chose to stay here because when you grow up with something (this will sound a bit odd given what we’re talking about) it becomes a part of you in a way. It’s not just that if I lived anywhere else people would think I talk too loudly. It’s not just that quiet places make me nervous. There’s something more. I don’t know how to put it. I doubt anyone does, but there’s something honest about the alarm and it makes you honest to live with it. I don’t know, just saying it out loud makes me question what I mean. Well I don’t know what to tell you. Why does anyone live anywhere? Is any town perfect?

The Waiting Room

A story about a man waiting to obtain a form so that he may make an application.

Download the story here.

I am waiting. It is a curious thing to be waiting. It is very much like a midnight transit from one event to the next. A person who is waiting should feel as if they are journeying on a dark road somewhere; he should never feel quite safe. A person who is waiting should treat each person he meets as a stranger. Until one has returned to some period of time without waiting, there can be no friends, only vague unsympathetic faces.

The room is too well-lit. The light shows all that a good light should, but it cannot restrain itself and pours over into the dirty corners as well. In these corners, behind cheaply made tables, are the corpses of insects and bits of dust. There is a person responsible for taking these things away, for cleaning these unclean corners. It is obvious that this person does not feel that responsibility. I would someday like to meet this person so I can tell them of my time in this room with the dirt they left behind. I would not condemn or berate them; I would simply recount my story.

I am seated. I require a form to file an application request. That form is located behind a number of hours of men and women seeking similar things for similar reasons. I do not begrudge them their task. Though, for each satisfied moment that passes between now and my own obtaining of a form, I am made slightly more their enemy. It becomes slightly more in my interest to see that someone should be too sick or too weak to wait in line. Perhaps someone could be called away by the news of a close friend’s accidental death at the hands of some purely random event. It would certainly be to my benefit if a homicidal maniac–a murderer of countless, nameless people–were in line in front of me. A police officer might also be waiting and recognize the creature. One would pursue the other in chase. The police officer would not need to catch this man; they will have already given up their places in line. The rules are the rules, after all.

There is a woman’s voice. I believe it has something to do with the woman beside me and it feels very far away. I turn my head slightly so as to be able to see the woman without being noticed. It is distant because she is speaking into a phone. The conversation is meant to be private and I am not to listen to it. Despite every word I hear, I cannot help but note how anonymous it remains. Words like “love” are said. The name Bernard is mentioned (a name which could belong to anyone, the least of which being the Bernards of the world). These words are moist and wanting and they feel even farther away. The words that come before and after are stretched as if they are trying to keep these special distant words in line. They are failing. The woman’s voice begins to crack.

I stare. I suddenly realize my head is turned completely towards her and I am watching her intently. She sees me and her face becomes red. I can feel myself become hotter and my ears become very itchy. I wonder how long I have been staring and how much shame I should feel in proportion. I am frozen slightly. Her conversation has now completely stopped. She places one fine delicate hand over the receiver of the phone. Her nails are painted a dark, rich red so as to denote a certain acceptable lust, but whether she knows this is unclear.

She accuses. She looks me straight in the eye and says, “Do you mind?” I believe the words are an accusation, but I don’t know what it is I am being asked if I mind or not. There are certain things which bother me. There are many things with which I am at peace. There are many more things I could simply never express my opinion about to a woman with red nails. What can I tell her? My answer does not seem to come quickly enough.

She moves away. The place she has moved to is perhaps three feet farther away. This is a meaningful distance to her. She seems to have put some thought into her new place. Her new seat is beside one of the many small brown plastic tables. It is located directly under an opaque glass window which obscures the darkened elementary school outside. Beside her is an old woman. Perhaps she trusts this old woman in a way she could never trust me. The old woman looks as if she may know something no one else does. I very much doubt that she would tell it even if tortured. The woman on the phone takes one last disapproving look at me and returns to her conversation. I imagine she will apologize for the interruption brought on by the rude man in the waiting room. That is all I will be.

I am the rude man in the waiting room. I did not want this. I look down at my hands. They look like the hands of a rude man, so perhaps I could not help it. My ears only become itchier. The urge to scratch them becomes unbearably strong, but I realize that this would be an improper, wrong thing to do in public. My hands make an attempt, but I manage just barely to keep them under control. After all, they are my hands.

A gruff male voice calls out. A number is called and I am reminded that I am waiting. I am waiting for my number to be called. I am waiting for my turn. I look at the occupants of the room. There is the lady, whose beautiful nails are too far away now. There is the old lady with the secret. Among the many other men and women seeking similar things for similar reasons, there are whispers and, no doubt, conspiracies.

I joke to myself. Among this collection of individuals, there may be one desperate enough to hold up the entire room like a bank and take all the forms. There is no reason to take more than the one as long as one uses pencil–pencils are key in this world–unless, of course, one wanted to deprive all others of them. This must be a person who has been passed in line by other more cunning people. This is a person who has been forced to the back of the line one too many times.

I search the room. I am looking for this wild-eyed maniac hoping that I might be in time to stop her. Perhaps I will be a hero. I begin to smile at how embarrassed the woman on the phone will be. She should have considered herself lucky to be the object of a hero’s stare, but instead she spurned him. I search the room with increasing energy, until I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I look like a wild-eyed maniac.

There are only strangers.

Duty of Care

A story about a young man who would like to be left alone to write but must instead care for his ill sister.

Download the story here..

John woke, as he did all days, to a room covered in bare cement walls, a writing desk, chair, and a dresser. He lived alone but for his sick younger sister. Outside of his work and his writing, she was his constant concern. His parents had died some years earlier and he had inherited the burden of her sickness. On those days in which she was clear headed and coherent, John would be reminded of their lengthy childhood spent among trips to the country and plentiful Christmases; however, all this joy had come at an invisible cost to the children—a meagre inheritance.

John’s sister was not feeling well on this particular day. She was feverish and would need his constant attention. He exhaled and moved to the dresser to get dressed for the day. On the top shelf of his dresser was a service revolver and two medals which had been passed down to him from his father, who had enlisted as a volunteer in the War before the draft and shown bravery above and beyond the call of duty. John thought the medals ugly. He had only ever once meant to fire the revolver, but it had not been loaded. John’s hands had shaken too fiercely to attempt the shot again. John had also given service, though he had been drafted. “It is sometimes necessary to fight for one’s freedom,” his father had proudly said. He too had received medals but he thought them just as ugly and–unlike his father–had not once worn them. He could remember one thing and one thing only of the war (the rest he had put away): in the moments he had been left alone to write, he was happy.

John shut the dresser’s doors contemptuously and moved towards the kitchen. John’s sister was still sleeping and would need her breakfast immediately upon waking or else he would have to deal with her extreme, though only imagined, nausea. John opened the refrigerator to find there were no apples and no milk. John’s sister would need both of these things. “wretched,” he thought about nothing in particular and everything all at once. Additionally, there was no bread for dry toast and there were no longer any soda crackers for her mid-morning snack.

He would need to run to the grocer’s and purchase these things and return all before his sister’s waking. He would not write the list down as every scrap of paper in the small apartment was being dedicated to his novel, “Solus”. He could not afford to purchase paper for the things he could as easily commit to memory. As he grabbed his coat he began to repeat his list of priorities: apples, milk, bread, crackers. It was a simple enough list, but each item was essential or else all the other items would be useless and John’s sister would be as sick as if he had completely forgotten.

John left the apartment, nearly forgetting to lock the door. The brief moment he spent fumbling for his keys left him open to his neighbour, Mrs. Finkel. She would undoubtedly want to speak to him about nothing of importance. He took great pains on a number of occasions not to have to endure her pleasantries. He had more important things to worry about. He worked far too long so he could afford his survival. He didn’t need his valuable time eaten up by this vulture, who probably thought he was lonely and in need of conversation!

“Good morning,” She said in a far-too-chipper tone.

John smiled thinly and said quite briskly, “I am terribly sorry my dear Mrs. Finkel, but I must be off to the grocer’s in quite a hurry.” She would regard this as rude, there was no doubt. It did not matter that this hurry was to avoid the nausea of a young girl who had been barred from enjoying the fruits of her flowering beauty. She made an indeterminate sort of noise and entered her apartment. John waited for the door to close completely and broke into a near-run down the hallway.

The weather had remained the exact same from the day before. It was as dim and grey as the walls of his room. John did not mind this except that the cold that came along with this disposition necessitated a coat. This was one more expense, but of course it was entirely up to him to purchase one or not. Still, no respectable man walked around without a coat. “apples, milk, bread, crackers,” he repeated in his head.

“apples, milk, bread, cra…” he nearly finished the list again when he noticed a certain dampness in his feet. He looked down to see that he had forgotten to put his shoes on. His socks were a pale black colour and were tearing at the seams from wear. People on the street would think him a madman. They would refuse to meet his gaze. John knew it, he just knew it. They would hide their children and hold their women more tightly. A man needs a pair of shoes if he is to live among respectable people. John considered returning to his apartment, but then Mrs. Finkel would think him a liar or else a fool for returning for the reason he was returning. He could endure no more insults unsaid from that or any other woman.

He would carry on and complete his mission. He would feed his sister, and then he would lock himself in his room and go undisturbed until his sister required her medicine. “apples, milk, bread, crackers,” he thought, “Nothing will deter me.” Though his steps were slightly ginger, he moved with intent. It was only three blocks to the grocer’s and he meant to accomplish his task. He crossed one block without any further interruption, but then a sight most foul emerged on the horizon. Not half a block away were carollers preaching Christian love and charity. Did they not know that those who walked these streets had nothing to give? He was disgusted at their ignorance. “There are few things more loathsome,” he contemplated “than those who preach to the poor about the poor.” He thought it would be far more useful for such carollers to ask the goodly occupants of this street to place a list of tasks in their donation box, so that a woman decked in pearls and gold somewhere might have to do them.

The sidewalk was narrow and there was little alternative but to run like a mad dog straight into oncoming traffic. It would be necessary to face the carollers head on. He considered merely showing the carollers his dirty socks and speaking nonsense. Then maybe they would understand. This bit of mischief brought a smile to John’s face; a grave mistake. The carollers did not look at John’s feet and were instead won over by his warm smile. As he walked to them, their hideous song crowded him with requests and pleas on behalf of the needy and the poor.

John wanted to show them his monthly expenses. He wanted to say, “Look! Don’t you see? I am a poor man who no one will leave alone! Not only have I no money, but I have no time either.” What he said instead was, “of course,” and withdrew a nickel from his pocket, which he could well afford to give and placed it in the donation box. He moved swiftly past them all. He would not linger long enough to see their reactions to his nominal donation. He had a simple task and he would accomplish it.

“Apples, milk, bread, crackers,” it was amazing he remembered the list at all with all these distractions. The grocer’s was in sight, however, and he saw no more obstacles in his way. As he made his way to the entrance, he noticed a ride for children; which, for a nickel, would offer minute-long amusement to any child with lungs large enough or eyes wide enough to extort the pleasure from their parents. He paused a brief moment and watched with envy as a care-free child laughed at the world. He may as well have been king, though his laugh was both freer and more sincere than a king’s.

The ride ended and the child’s mother hurried the boy along. After all, she had brought the child there for a reason. She too had a special mission, an essential task, which needed doing. John cursed himself for his momentary pause, as it had caused his socks to absorb the moisture beneath his feet and become heavy with the undignified street water. This was very uncomfortable and John could not afford to catch cold. There was too much to be done.He moved into the store and grabbed one of the tired old baskets. “apples, milk, bread, crackers,” he repeated in a lacklustre voice.

He moved to where the apples had always been. There, in place of the apples was a sign which read “New and Improved Apples”. The sign went on to list the benefits of this “new and improved” apple along with the commandment to “be better to yourself”. The apples were a strange shade of green and red and looked nearly fake. John knew his sister would never eat these. She was not accustomed to new things; her general condition made experimentation a risky thing. John hissed at this needless innovation and spent precious minutes searching for where the Old and Worse Apples had been moved. He found them and placed an ample number in the basket.

John moved to where he expected the milk to be. There, instead of the regular glass bottles of milk, sat “New and Improved Plastic Containers.” The sign went on to list the benefits of this new method of packaging and finished with an instruction to “do your part.” John had grown sick from all these recommendations, orders, injunctions, pleas, and instructions. He just wanted to be left alone so he could purchase groceries, so he could be alone again!

John came very close to picking up each and every milk carton, dropping each of them on the floor and individually stepping on each of them until all of the newness and improvement became just one more sorry puddle on the ground. John fantasized about this until he remembered that his feet were soggy enough. This made John furious and he moved towards the bread and the crackers with the agility of a man screaming for help on a deserted island. Finally, he made his way to the cash register where there was an unusually long line up.

In front of the register were a series of items he couldn’t in a million years ever need. He resented these because they seemed to reaffirm the hold on this world that those with money to spare had. After too long a time, he advanced to the front of the line. The cashier was a young girl with a kind, but largely apathetic look on her face. She began with a chipper, “Hello,” and moved to a “would you like to donate just a portion of your groceries today to your local church food bank?” Each item of the list was absolutely necessary. No one even began to attempt to understand his situation. He could not handle much more of this.

In a rather uneven tone, John responded, “no, not today.”

The young lady glanced down at his feet, saw his soaked and torn socks, looked up and nodded a nod of understanding. John followed her eyes as she did this. As her head completed this subtle societal waltz, he could take no more. “That’s it! You look at my socks and judge me to be some sort of madman or rabble. You decide this is enough to exempt me from any expectation of a food donation as if my free will were not enough. You tell me of all the good things there are for me without once asking what it is I want.” He was no longer looking at the cashier. With his first angry words, he had put her in a frozen state of shock. He was addressing the world now. “You ask me for money as if I had money to give and condescend if I do not. I just want to be left alone to write in peace. You will talk to me all about the weather and the television all carefully ignoring how my sister is doing. You do not request any details of my military service which I served for you and not myself because I could not care less if our country is occupied by one government or another. You, who purchase things in front of the cash register because you can. I am a human being and you crowd me like vultures. I am a human being!”

There was a stunned moment of silence all across the store as all eyes fell upon him, half in wonder half in accusation. What was it this shoeless man was talking about? Was he calling me a vulture? Such questions made the air in the grocer’s thick. The woman with the child spoke in a quiet and calm voice, “You speak as if you care how your own sister was doing, but if you did you would not keep her shut in her room alone, away from the world like you do, preferring the company of your dead paper and dying ink to your own flesh and blood! The world has no time for little boys who want to be left on their rides. You speak of the war as if you served for anyone at all, but you were dragged like a corpse. Perhaps you are a human being, but perhaps not.”

All eyes were on him as the words settled into the fabric of the store. The whole building seemed to inhale the very nature of the woman’s accusation. John became as pale as a man who has seen his noose. John began to breathe quite quickly and unevenly. He placed money on the counter, gathered up his groceries and ran out of the store without once looking back. He ran to the apartment and made breakfast for his sister.

She woke to a loud “bang!” The breakfast lay ready on the kitchen table just as it did every morning. She sat down to eat. Although she did not like these foods, her brother worked terribly hard and so she felt obliged.