Project Summary: The following is an excerpt from Chapter 6 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.
This chapter is a continuation from the last chapter “Enter Behemoth.”
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.
He took Jennifer’s book from me—it was a kind of violation. Unknowingly, Brian had crossed a line. I tried not to take it personally. I tried really hard.
I watched him walk off with her book in his hands. I couldn’t think of anything to say that would bring the book back or hurt him the way I wanted to. I guess he was used to abusing me this way.
I sat for a long time in the food court, considering my situation. Angie was either looking for me right now, or she had found some other guy to unload her burden on. My final paper was coming up, along with my psychology final, and my history final. Somehow, though, I couldn’t get over Jennifer’s book in Brian’s sweaty hands. The same hands he probably used to masturbate.
I picked at my food and thought about the Tao Teh Ching in Brian’s sweaty hands, him tossing it around, misplacing it, flipping through it with mild interest, general disregard. Brian had no respect for anything. I could hang out with Brian, just as long as I didn’t have to take him seriously. He could do or say whatever he wanted with me. I just regarded him as the punchline to some joke nobody else was getting. The funniest thing about the way people interacted with Brian was that they took him seriously—that both bothered me and humored me at the same time.
I thought of Jennifer painting at her college and being treated with as little regard as Brian had for the Tao Teh Ching. One fine piece of “ass,” “pussy,” “tail,” all the objectifying words in the vocabulary—regarding her as a thing, just as he regarded the book as a thing. And he would use the book to get what he wanted from me, and in turn, he would use me to get whatever he wanted from some girl. The girl wasn’t Jennifer, but it could’ve been.
The Republic is the heaviest of the five. I had already committed much of it to memory. Horrible, fallible, memory.
Beware the one book, the professor’s voice says in my head.
Shut up. Shut up.
The other voice is whispering from the shadows. I rip a few pages out of the Republic. I fold them and put them in my satchel with the other books.
I lift the book like a weapon.
I would kill the thing in the shadow. The behemoth.
I imagined what it would be like fighting with Brian. It always ended the same way, getting in a first punch and then losing badly.
He was bigger. I couldn’t beat him the way I wanted to, but I could beat him. I was sure of it. I thought about his fancy car, his women, the wing of the dorm named after his father: all these things pointed an unequivocal finger toward my objective, and Brian’s demise. When it came down to it, Brian’s luxury bred a very specific type of weakness.
But I couldn’t think about Jennifer anymore. I finished my turkey sub and orange juice. I cleaned up and went for a walk. I took a longer path toward the dorm just to cool off. I walked by the lake at the edge of our school and sat on a bench for a little while. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t leave without me.
After I waited long enough I went to Brian’s dorm and knocked softly. He opened the door. He was with one of his frat brothers. He introduced me. Said something dumb. Laughed with his frat brother. I didn’t. I didn’t say anything.
“There’s no way you’re going like that, are you?”
I told him that I was going, but that first I needed to return the book before I left or else the girl would be mad at me. “Come on Brian,” I said. “You wouldn’t make me look bad in front of one of my ladies, would you?”
I saw that he had just left the book on his table like a dumbass. I took it and then left without saying goodbye.
I went back to my dorm, an Angie-less dorm, thank goodness, and closed the door. I opened up Jennifer’s book, began to read.
I pretend for a moment that I’m not the weakling I am, waiting in the shadows, hiding. This time, I’ll be the hunter. I take a small piece of magic mushroom. It doesn’t take long before its magic begins to work.
My suit is now shaded the color of a lion’s skin. The heavy copy of Plato’s The Republic is strong enough to fashion into a spear: gold, silver, and bronze.
“Gold.” “Rationality.” “Born to rule.”
The Republic is my weapon. I would use it as a spear.
A year ago I would have tried to fight Brian. That was before last summer, before my dad’s cancer had gotten really bad. Before I had to deal with things like the will, and medical bills, and my dad’s violent spells of vomiting.
“What the fuck,” he said, when he entered the room. “Why’d you have to disrespect me like that in front of my friend? You’re still mad because I took your book?”
“What, you mean this book?” I said, holding it up so he could see it.
He just looked at me. He thought I was his best friend. He acted like I was his best friend.
“The book with the inscription on the back cover. I’m sure you didn’t read the one on the back cover. It’s from a girl named Jennifer. Do you have any idea who Jennifer is? She doesn’t go here because she’s dead, Brian. I have talked about her probably a million times, I just don’t think you’ve been listening to me.”
I said this nonchalantly, the same way he handled Jennifer’s book. It was a lie of course. I had never talked to Brian about Jennifer, or anything else that was important to me for that matter.
“Jennifer’s a girl I knew in high school. She was my girl. I fucked her rotten, Brian. Man, I lost track of how many times I fucked her. I had her and then I made her make me breakfast, just like you said. Let me tell you something, she was one solid piece of ass. I would lend you her number, but you see she died of cancer, you colossal, worthless fuck. Have you ever known someone with cancer, Brian? Have you watched someone’s hair fall out, and their skin dry up, and their cheeks hollow out. I don’t think you have. And I don’t think you’ve been listening to me. Because the girl’s name on the back cover died a horrible death. Much worse than you’ll see in your lifetime.”
This was a lie. Jennifer never died of cancer. My dad had died of cancer, not Jennifer. But I was not a nice person anymore. I made him feel worse.
“My senior year of high school she was in-between hospitals. I was in-between girls, because let’s face it, who would ever want to date a girl with fucking cancer? I tell you what, though: if she could have been only half the fuck she was…sure couldn’t cook afterwards, though. Don’t you hate it when the bitches whine and moan like that? All she could do was give me this fucking book. See, look, she even wrote all over the pages. Poor bitches with cancer are the worst, don’t you agree?”
He was crying by this point. I’d never seen a grown man sob like he did. When it came down to it, he was really very weak. I was crying a little too. The things I said hurt, even though I didn’t want them to. It helped my cause, though, because Brian was about to break down. At this point, I just wanted to make him hurt. I wanted him to rethink any ideas he ever had about using women like Jennifer. I wanted him to suffer.
“See the picture inside?” He wasn’t looking. “Look at her, fucker!” I showed him the picture, but he wouldn’t look. “I want you to go out tonight and think of her cancerous body while you fuck whichever girl you’re going to fuck!” I was yelling at this point. I threw the book at him, purposely missing. He walked out of the room, sobbing like a baby. I wiped the tears from my eyes and tried to get a grip.
Originally, I hadn’t meant to be that cruel. I thought maybe I should’ve just hit him, and lost a fight. It seemed like a much better solution afterwards.
Something had happened to me. I had lost control. I picked up the Tao Teh Ching and tried to smooth out the pages. I felt like throwing it away. I felt sick. I went into the bathroom and threw up. I felt like tearing up the pages, but this was not Jennifer’s fault. My losing control was not her fault. I kept telling myself this. I put her picture back in the book and smoothed out the pages. I thought about going to find Brian. But then I thought about people like Brian sitting next to Jennifer in classrooms and at frat parties (even though I knew she would never go to a frat party). I decided not to.
When I find my prey, I plunge my spear deep into its bowels.
Perhaps at one time it had been a behemoth. But when the mushroom’s magic wears off, I am just a hollowed out man in an old tattered suit.
My behemoth is just a decaying corpse in a decaying office.
My copy of the Republic is nowhere to be found. There is nothing in my hand, but my stomach feels lighter. I imagine that in my fever-dream I must have eaten it.
“Gold.” “Rationality.” “Born to rule.”
It was my own voice echoing from my head into the world. The hollow mantra of a world that had destroyed itself.