The Exclamation Mark // fiction

First published on Metazen (October 4th 2011) //

‘I don’t understand why you’re so afraid of me!’

‘Look at you,’ he sneered, ‘You’re all up and down, too tall, so pointless.’ His voice began to get the better of him, his eyes too, filling up with anger. He checked himself and lay down his knife and fork, staring into the thing across from him: ‘And stop your damn shouting, breathing down on me. People can see us. You’re making a scene, you fool,’ Hermann said.

‘I don’t care if I’m making a scene! We all have to make a scene! You’re just messed up! Don’t blame me!’ People were beginning to stare at the ensuing fracas.

Hermann tried reason: ‘Why don’t you just calm down a little, breathe a little, yeah?’

‘No!’ exclaimed the Exclamation Mark.

He continued with his reasoning: ‘Look at you, man. You don’t know what you’re doing.’ Hermann calmed himself again, used breathing techniques as he had begun to raise his voice, then stopped, and looked around the bustling Greek restaurant’s outdoor patio. There were several other Exclamation Marks sitting here and there, leaning into conversation now and then, nipping in like waiters eager for a tip, to help explain or exclaim something, with volume, too much volume, before returning to sit in their wicker chairs all satisfied and smug.

Hermann whispered: ‘I’ve been told to stay away from you. Everyone tells me: Watch out for those, they’re trouble. And I say: Yeah, I hate them too.’

The Exclamation Mark didn’t say anything, just leant back with a jolt (as he had no face), bolted upright in a sudden shock that said it all, but not as loudly as before. Hermann felt a little pity for him at that moment, but persisted: ‘Go home. You’re not wanted here,’ Hermann hissed again, shooting glances around him at the other Exclamations who were sometimes aiming the same at him, all of them untrustworthy, suspicious. Even murderous. He ate his meal in tense silence.

Monday, the next day, the Greek food digested, Hermann was laid back sat at his desk inside his little office at the renowned but not so much respected daily newspaper he worked for. He was writing some copy, an event that involved lots of shouting; it was something to do with a protest. His fingers drifted over the ‘Shift’ key, and the ‘1’, both his hands doing an unceremonious jig as he typed, but avoiding any missteps that would strike that terrible note he so much despised. He held himself in, checked himself, like he had the night before, unaware that The Exclamation Mark was coming for him anyway. There was no place for it, even here, he thought, at a trashy newspaper. Only in a teenager’s text messaging, perhaps, or an oddly uncomfortable exchange of e-mails, can it find a home. This was his irreversible opinion on the matter.

Into the building walked his gangly nemesis, snugly attired in a big red suit and white gloves, scuttling down the corridor asking: ‘I’m looking for Hermann! Hermann!’ Its voice was loud of course and, like many loud voices, extremely irritating, particularly to Hermann.

Through his floor-to-ceiling windows, Hermann saw the mayhem devised by this big red thing’s absurd pointing and shouting. He slyly snuck over and twisted the rod to close the blinds, crouched behind a chair with his trousers over-tightened around his fat, restaurant-fed thighs. But as he was crouched there, almost underneath that chair reserved for visitors, he saw a colleague, a pitiful intern, gesturing toward Hermann’s office with his white, clammy fingers (as when they had shaken hands Hermann vowed it would be the first, last and only time he’d allow contact with the intern again. For the intern was friends with Exclamation Marks; they often accompanied him to drinks, especially drinks, and almost all other calendar occasions, such as birthdays and Christmas and surprise parties, looming over his shoulder and the others’ shoulders too, waiting for their moment, their time to shine.)

‘What the fuck…’ Hermann said to himself. Thinking of the slime dripping off the young man’s digits, angled toward his impending confrontation and possible demise.

With a swift glide, the Big Red Thing was outside his door, banging his silken white gloves, clenched in a rock-like fist.

‘Hermann! Hermann! I know you’re in there! Come on and open up now! Everyone’s looking! I’m making a scene! Look!’

Hermann waited, not knowing whether to let this thing in, this tall red bastard with his white gloves, or to go out there and kick his face in instead. (The Exclamation Mark didn’t really have a face, just a portion of head where Hermann imagined it to be, but it would do, particularly for a good kicking.)

‘Come on now! Be reasonable!’ the Exclamation Mark kept on, his voice reaching an unbearable screech.

With a histrionic sigh, Hermann opened the door a crack, from the inside, and whispered to the Big Red Thing who had now thrust the uppermost part of its being/head toward the door in anticipation of entry, its eager non-existent eyes miles open.

A searing knife of a sentence: ‘What the fuck do you want?’ Hermann enquired. ‘Why are you coming into my building shouting my fucking name? I work here, yeah, this is no place for you, you big red tit.’

‘That’s more like it! Come on, let me in now! Everyone’s looking! La la la la la!’

‘Fuck off, yeah. Just get out of here. You’re not wanted here. This is no place for you. This is an office. A place of work. My place of work,’ Hermann was resisting, firing at him with well-portioned reason and professionalism, but he could feel his hand on the door easing its grip, the years of his inculcation wearing down, the barrage of inappropriate big red punctuation breathing in on his face. His foot was still wedged against the door, preventing the tall intruder from entering, but he was calming down, the breathing exercises getting the better of his commonly truculent manner.

‘If I let you in,’ he said, ‘you have to be quiet.’


‘I said: be quiet.’

‘OK!’ the Exclamation Mark exclaimed, a tad quieter.


This time louder, testing his boundaries like an unruly toddler: ‘Promise!’

‘Come in then,’ Hermann said, ignoring his trained pedantry, opening up the wide door and shooting looks again down the corridor where the intern was standing with some other colleagues who had heard the commotion, all of them perhaps sniffing a story. Hermann bit his lip (as if to curse with a big ‘F’) and gave deathly eyes to the intern, but ignored the others who milled around their office doors, pretending not to be visible.

‘What’s this you’re doing! What are you up to in here!’ the Big Red Thing burst in running around, waving its arms, slapping gloves on the walls and the desk, then across Hermann’s two red cheeks, ‘What are you doing in here then!’

‘Look, you promised, now you’re doing this; being a tit again. Have you no shame?’

‘Lighten up! I was only joking!’

‘I’m getting tired of you, boy,’ Hermann said, with his most threatening voice, which was timid at best, and which got a little implausible at the ‘boy’ part. ‘I told you to be quiet, but you just wouldn’t listen…’ The Exclamation Mark stood there like the scolded toddler he once was, always has been.

Hermann went over to his desk and opened the drawer; he had a solution. ‘Have you never heard of the question mark? The quiet, unassuming one, the one no one suspects. The deadly one?’ In the drawer there he had a gun, not a big gun, but a gun nonetheless and it was a loaded one. ‘Or how about the full-stop? The deadliest of all.’

‘Ha! You’re messed up! No one needs those! Only me! Me! Me and more of me!!!’

‘You see this? You see this, you big red mother?’ He held up the gun with its snub nose lined up in the red flavoured direction.

‘I see it! I see it!’ It started jumping up and down.

‘Do you know what I can do with this?’ Hermann cocked the hammer.

‘Yes! Yes! I know!’

‘What then?’

‘Shoot, of course! Shoot!’

‘What was that?’


Hermann shrugged, obeying the imperative command, let the gun go off, aimed at the big red thing’s sizeable head, and it was loud, louder than any Exclamation Mark. As the red suit flew back with ripples of air and punctuation shattering against the window and the closed door behind it, Hermann meanwhile justified his actions with his thoughts that, sometimes, how you say something can get you into a lot of trouble. Even if you are a Big Red Thing defined only by your appearance.

At that moment, with sound of the pistol still humming, hundreds of Exclamation Marks came scuttling in through the ground floor doors, waited patiently for the elevator, then up and along the corridors they came, where they assisted the newspaper’s employees in trying to explain or exclaim what they had seen.

‘Gasp!’ ‘Oh my god!’ ‘Oh lord!’ ‘Holy Jebus!’ is what they said, amongst other things.

Hermann thought he had blasted the overused Big Red One back to where it belonged; back to forced congratulations, climaxes and enthusiasm; back to the translated mind of Stephen Hawking within his best-selling books; back to where they belonged, silent, cringe-worthy, in his mind. And back to centuries of over-precious poetry.

But what he had failed to realise was that he had shouted ‘BANG!’ as the gun went banging through the Exclamation Mark; a word he had carelessly uttered as if to protect himself from the noise.

‘BANG!’ he had shouted, in complacent joy.

In the momentary silence, the Exclamation Mark roused and pulled itself to its feet, dusting off its snug, untouched suit.

‘Ah HA!’ it exclaimed, ‘That was a big mistake! You’re in for it now, boyo!’

‘Oh, shit!’ Hermann shouted, the gun in his hand, both himself and the metal confused. ‘Shit!’ He exclaimed again.

‘You can’t kill us like that! You idiot!’

Hermann: ‘I should have used a knife!’

Then the Exclamation: ‘Indeed! A knife! Ha! Ha! Good one!’

By now, all of the employees of the egregious tabloid rag had assembled around the door, looking quizzically and shocked at each other, and at Hermann and the Big Red Thing hopping up and down in his office.

Hermann stood there. ‘Bastard!’ He unloaded the gun four and five more times into the red suit standing there, which showed no signs of haemorrhaging.

Everyone laughed at Hermann for his sluggardly epiphany; that you can’t replace an Exclamation with a full stop, even a bullet shaped one. And, even though a gun was being shot right before their very eyes, it all seemed harmless to them and, incidentally, quite hilarious. The coterie kept on sniggering, in unison.

Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! And so on.

The same evening Hermann went out again for a meal, alone, trying to avoid the events of the day by staring into his now empty bowl of soup. He had lost his job, not only for firing the gun, but also for having it unlicensed in his drawer that whole time. As he thought over the events that had brought him to this point, he sobbed a little into his spoon.

The waiter, ignoring the tears filling the silverware, said, in his neutral and polite manner: ‘Will there be anything else, sir?’ He leaned in as he said it, developing an air of intimacy, his ear almost on Hermann’s hair.

‘NO!’ Hermann stood as he shouted, ‘No there won’t be! Thank you very much!’

The Big Red Thing stood behind him satisfied and grinning (without a mouth). Its gloved hand patted Hermann on the shoulder, with real affection, and said: ‘There’s a good lad!’

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