Project Summary: The following is a chapter from my 2004 novel The Sage and the Scarecrow.
At the moment, I am revising the chapters from this book into 3-4 page short stories for posting on my blogs and in literary magazines.
The Novel in Short: Six months after his father has died from cancer, Pierce finds himself in a state of anxiety and crisis. The book follows Pierce through a journey to find his best friend and the only person he thinks can “cure” him.
Manuscript Note: The parts in the text that are in normal fonts take place in the world we know. The parts in italics take place in an apocalyptic landscape that is either in his imagination or in an unspecified time in the future.
I lost track of time for a little while, not thinking.
Now, looking back, my mantra should have been: Brian is an idiot, a dope; or Brian is a selfish prick, an egotistical man-child, who in two more years will have an overpriced degree and no education and will latch on to his parents’ money like a leech.
Something like that.
So there I was, in the food hall, in a state of tranquility and peace on an otherwise shitty day when he arrived, bursting with narcissistic joy. He sat down and slapped me on my shoulder, awakening me from my trance. He slid the Tao Teh Ching away from me and then turned it around on the table so that he could read it.
“What is this?” he said, looking through the book. “What kind of weird crap are you into now?” He flipped through the book, and then asked me, “Is this your handwriting?” referring to the handwritten notes in the margins.
“No,” I said. “I’m borrowing the book from a friend.”
“Is it a chick?” he asked.
“That’s right,” I told him.
He looked through the book some more, then said something like, “Listen man, I need your help. I’m supposed to meet some chicks at a frat party tonight. I figure you and I can go take them clubbing. I’ll foot the bill, and you can woo them with your conversational skills and innocent charm. It’ll be just like old times. I know you haven’t been laid in forever, and I’ve heard that Susan chick in your English class wants you. She’ll be there. I guarantee you it’s a sure thing, dude…”
He went on and on like this for a while, and it was pretty easy to get bored, but not so easy to interrupt. Brian liked to hear his own voice, and, when he got going, he never shut up.
I am alone, fatigued, and have horrible bowel problems. I am close to the city now, though. Or at least the ruins of the city.
I need to find food. The rice I had taken from the university is almost finished. I need to find shelter. It won’t be long before the rain starts. The shitty, rancid, nuclear rain.
The rains could kill you.
The first time I met Brian I asked him why he was a business major. He looked at me, in all my naivety, and answered my question as if there was only one possible answer — “I like money.”
I had helped Brian get through his Finite Math class. It was weakness really, but, also, I didn’t know anyone around campus and I thought getting to know him would help me integrate into university life—not that I cared all that much, but it really does get lonely being around so many people and not knowing anyone.
He took me to a party with him one night and discovered that with the right amount of alcohol and motivation I was actually a pretty good conversationalist and could be quite entertaining. Ever since then he’d been hounding me into going to parties with him or clubbing. I went because I liked the experience of meeting new people. It got me out of my routine and pulled me away from whatever I was into for a little while—whether it was studying, reading, or lately my obsession with the perfect society.
Since I had started working two jobs, I had seen less of Brian. I had barely heard from him since I was so busy. But ever since I’d quit my job at the restaurant and cut my hours down at the library, I’d been seeing more of him. I think Angie taking an interest in me also had something to do with this sudden attention, but I can’t really be too sure.
Angie used to be Brian’s girlfriend. I think it ended in some horrible way, and I think this had fueled Brian’s misogyny—pieces of ass, cunts, pussy, and the rest. I also think that he wanted some measure of revenge. But it’s hard to tell, even from hindsight, because Brian really didn’t talk very much about his relationship with Angie. It must have been a sore subject.
I find sanctuary in what is now the empty, dead husk of an office building. I walk up the stairs of the building. The windows are blown out, but I am able to find old, stale crackers and other things to eat in some of the cabinets. I also find alcohol. Expensive alcohol. Brandy.
“Sorry Brian,” I said. “Unfortunately, I’m busy studying tonight. I was just taking a break from reading my psychology notes. My final is on Tuesday and I still have three chapters to go.”
“You have plenty of time to study. I don’t think you understand what you’re doing. Susan wants to fuck you in the worst way.”
“She wants me to cosign her car loan?”
He paused for a moment. I think it took a full minute to realize I’d told a joke of sorts. He gave something that might be described as a laugh.
“Come on, Pierce. Tag that shit…” and he went on like that for a while. I had trouble paying attention to Brian once he got going.
I’m stuck, because I’m trying to figure out an explanation that won’t provoke ridicule and will make him shut up and leave. Once he stopped, my excuse went something like, “I don’t know, it just seems that I have better things to do. Besides, I’d rather not flunk out this semester.”
There are signs of life in the building. Someone is living here and it isn’t just one of the thumb-movers.
I hear someone in the office rattling around in the shadows.
I want to say something bold and normal like, “Show yourself.” But in reality, madness has crept in. The fringes of my mind are like Japanese o-mikuji papers — wishful thoughts, twisted and tied, left to blow in the wind.
So I say, “Neee! Neeee!”
The rains start and their acrid smell reminds me that I am close to death, or that I am already dead.
I pull out one of the five books in my satchel: Plato’s The Republic. I start reading passages from it.
When I try to read out loud, all I can say is, “We are the knights who say, “Nee!””
I consider the bottle next to me and wonder if Plato will go well with brandy.
Brian liked having me around because it helped him feel good about himself. Brian was crude and very clumsy, socially and intellectually clumsy. Because of this, I was sure he had become ingrained with a deep sense of inferiority, which he shielded with a ridiculous amount of bravado. It was embarrassing and magnificent to watch at the same time.
I was pretty sure he hung around me because it made him feel smart. He told me this once, sort of. He told me that it made him feel good that he had someone he could talk to that had about the same level of intelligence. Sometimes he asked if we could talk about something “intelligent” because he was tired of the talks he had with his frat buddies. Sometimes he even brought girls with him to listen, which I thought was humorous, amazing, and sad.
I humored him. I had all sorts of ways to pass the time with conversations. I had done it so often, with so many people, that it had become a chore.
All his frat friends did was drink, swear, and brag about how they fucked women. Whenever Brian had problems with something he came to me because I was supposed to be sensitive, or a good listener, or something. Lately, though, I really hadn’t felt like putting up with his shit.
Brian was the most materialistic guy I had met in my life, but the problem was, he wanted it both ways. He was ruthless when it came to possessing things, but when his dad forgot to send his money, or one of his girlfriends told him to fuck off, he cried to me about things: he’d whine about things not being fair and women being bitches, even though the foundations for his success were built on the premises of hierarchy and domination. He couldn’t take being someone else’s object, the victim of power relations—it was this paradox in his thinking that bugged me more than anything.
There are voices in the dark telling me to put on the suit. What suit? In the CEO’s suite there are a number of suits that are still wearable. (In other words, the holes from rats weren’t too large. The part of me that isn’t telling me to wear the suit tells me to eat the suit).
There is no reason to wear a suit in the apocalypse. As far as I can tell the apocalypse is not a formal occasion. But then again, there is no reason to do anything in the apocalypse, except perhaps survive. (Eat the suit!)
My radioactive mushrooms can take me places without suits, but the voice from the shadow keeps saying, “Put it on.”
I had lost track of our conversation. “What were we talking about again?” I asked him.
“I want you to come party with me so that you can get laid,” he said, succinctly.
“Oh, right,” I said. “Sorry, but I have all this studying to do. You understand.” He didn’t, but maybe if I assumed he did, he would just leave.
He began to read the inside cover of the Tao Teh Ching. This really made me angry. Jennifer had written a note on the inside cover that was very personal.
“Would you mind not reading that?” I asked. “That’s really very personal.”
“What is she? A girlfriend? Was she your first lay? Let me read,” he kept reading the book, which had me peeved. There really wasn’t anything for him to make fun of in the note, but I didn’t like the idea of Brian just invading my privacy like that.
“Shit, it sounds like you have this bitch wrapped around your little finger.”
I had had enough. I thought about the easiest way to offend him.
“You don’t have to swear. No one else is listening to you,” I said.
“What?” He looked kind of startled (success). He couldn’t comprehend what I had just said to him.
“Nobody else is listening to you. You don’t have to put on your act,” I said, nonchalantly. “So just cut out the swearing.”
This bothered him. He wasn’t enraged, but he suddenly became self-aware. I had never quite been so straightforward with Brian before. I had mentioned a couple of times briefly that I thought he had a deep sense of inferiority, and that sometimes he came on too strong, but I never made a case of it. I never told him what I really thought, which was that he was a phony.
I’m sure that I’m not alone in the office building. Something lives there. Something terrible. It whispers to me in the dark.
Wear the suit, it whispers.
But I am already wearing the suit.
When had I put it on?
I read passages from Plato’s Republic.
From the shadows, I hear the voice whispering. “Gold.” “Rationality.” “Born to rule.”
I had put it to him very straightforward now. I was pushing toward conflict because I needed it.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, fucker.” His face was turning red, more with embarrassment, though, than with anger. He knew he was becoming red too, and he was trying to hide it. I could see his embarrassment turning to anger.
I decided to ease up. Why get into something I didn’t have to, especially with Brian, who despite his crudeness, meant well.
“Fine, you’re right,” I said. “Besides, you know I just get jealous when you swear like that, my being the product of a strict Christian upbringing and all.” He was confused by this last remark. He couldn’t decide whether I was giving ground with an apology or making a joke. Either way, it disarmed his anger, and thus, worked the same as an apology. He still held my book, though, which bothered me.
We looked at each other for a long moment.
He finally said, “Are you coming tonight?”
“No, I’m not. I already told you that.”
“You have to,” he said. “I told Susan you’d be there. It was the only way to get her cute friend to come along…” He spent some more time trying to convince me, but I really couldn’t concentrate on anything he was saying because he was holding Jennifer’s book in his grubby little hands. Eventually, he said something like, “Take Susan and ask her to cook breakfast when you’re done. That way if the sex is bad, you can at least get a decent meal out of it.” It was getting pretty bad, and I didn’t really want to listen to any more of his crap.
“I need my book back,” I told him. He didn’t give me the book back.
“Why are you so mental about this book?”
“It’s not mine, I told you this already. My friend gave it to me. I can’t let it get messed up. See, look, your sweaty palms are already soaking the pages,” I said.
We just looked at each other for a long time, again. The whole situation was becoming annoying, but I could see that he was bent on trying to get me to go with him. I was pretty sure that he actually had promised Susan that I would be there, and he was worried he would look bad if he didn’t deliver. I wasn’t going to go, though. Simply put, I didn’t like hanging out with Brian anymore. And I certainly didn’t want to be a pawn in some scheme to satisfy his sex drive, or social drive, or any other drive.
Then he did something that was pretty incredible, but which I thought was so much like Brian. He simply assumed that I would go, and then he took Jennifer’s book as leverage. He said, “I’m going to hold onto this. You give me a call on my cellphone. I’ll be up in my dorm getting ready. Be there in about a half hour.”
He walked off with her book. I guess I hadn’t wounded his ego as much as I should have. When I had the chance I should have embarrassed the hell out him. I should have just called him a phony, a tool, a douche bag, snatched the book out of his hands and left.
In the executive suite of the office building, I can see that the acrid, nuclear rain has stopped. It has cleansed some of the finger-twitching-zombies and made a rich landscape for mushrooms that could send me to far off places, make me forget about food, and expedite the end of my existence in this world.
I am also, now, wearing a suit listening to whispers in the dark — “Gold.” “Rationality.” “Born to rule.”
The Tao Teh Ching. Is that one of the books in my bag? I want to look inside my bag but find myself drinking brandy instead.
“The behemoth…” I whisper. “He’s here. He’s hungry.”
The whispers echo in my head louder. “Born to rule.”