First published by MiPOesias Shorts Series (July 20th 2011) //
The Man Who Stopped To Think
‘So you wanna be a moff then, do ya?’
‘No. Not a moth, man. That’s not the point.’
‘Not a moff. Then what is it?’
‘I was just saying. This moth here. It doesn’t even want to be a moth, does it? Look at it.’
‘That’s obvious, innit. Wanted ta be a butterfly, din’t it?’
‘Yes, don’t think that’s how it works though. But anyway, that’s not the point.’
‘No. Not the point at all. The point is that the moth…’
‘Don’t wanna be a moth…’
‘Right, forget it.’
‘… Wanted ta be a butterfly, innit?’
‘I’m gonna have a cigarette. Couldn’t enjoy that first one. Gave me the wobbles.’ ‘Want one?’
‘I’m good, ta.’
‘Gave me the shits.’
‘Too hot for a cigarette. My face is all sweat.’
Coin on coin on coin on finger on coin, coin, coin, on finger? Flesh hand in one pocket, with a set of thoughtless digits fiddling them about.
He could barely walk but, being stubborn, he had zero desire to push around a frame, even one with wheels, as much as he had loved wheels all his life, up to then at least. Wheel wheeeeel wheeeeeeel, his mind would go (when it was younger) and wheel once more, as there were usually four.
Hermann was his name and he was outside, standing, without wheels, without frame, almost without shape. He could hear the spluttering of his friend Dietrich, a tenant on the bottom floor and, though a brick wall separated them, he could catch the sound and phlegmatic judder of Dietrich’s lungs; he had not treated them so well, alas, but now they were trying to leave him, via his mouth, which seemed somehow rude and also inconsiderate.
But this was not what Hermann was thinking; he still had not yet thought a thought. And it had been 84 years, for he was 84 years of age.
He looked up. Airplanes cutting his sky. But it was theirs too, probably. Machine blemishes in jet streams on an otherwise glorious day. ‘Glorious’, as that was what he had been taught to think, correctly or not.
But he had still not thought a thought, as yet, and he continued to play with the coins in his pocket. They jumped about in there with solemn, stupid faces, the heads of dead people, dead but perhaps breathing, like him. And the faces on the coins wanted something done with them. They demanded it, though without words. Otherwise they would just hop up and down between the old man’s fingers, baited and annoyed. Maybe they would be in the baker’s hands soon, his fat fingers covered in warm copper and flour.
So it was a hot day, one of those on which everyone had decided to hang their clothes out to dry, as Hermann looked down in the non-breeze at his Legs in Shorts, his legs so pale that if not for the dirt on the cream coloured paving, they would be invisible; visible instead, with thick black outlines as in some crude cartoon.
White legs were fine. He did not have to think that, but only assume.
Buzzing, gnawing. There go the wheels, one by one, two by two. He wanted to swear at the kids who rode their mopeds around the block, round and round, afraid to leave safety.
He was standing by the gate when one of them caught his eye. The noise of the lungs and the heaving and the beetle engines did a bastard parade through Hermann’s ear holes. He resolved to raise a finger at them, the most offensive one, but failed and instead lifted his fourth finger, the wrong one. By the time he had gotten the right one up, they had gone and had not understood his gesture, leaving him stood there with the finger raised at everything, instead of something.
He cursed the handful of coins in his pocket, which had forced the mistranslation of his anger. He quickly stuffed the fingers back in, looking around at the linen and the departed motorbikes, the possibility of faces in windows, in case anyone had seen.
And that was it, when it came. His first thought: Hate.
Clear, clean, thoughtful hate. And what a wonderful thing it was, to him, the new product of his un-crumpled mind. For he had hated things before but without thought or reason, just simply hated them. Now, with purpose, it gleamed. Clarity.
He felt a renewed vigour within his white old legs. They carried him hither and thither, along the cream plates, along stone ones, and so on across roads and down alleys. He pulled the glum, idiot faces out of his pocket and flung them at a wall, mid-stride and with purpose.
It was then he had it, a second thought, letting go of the first: Satisfaction. And it melded with feeling.
He kept on going. He stopped to think and it struck him: the many different lives, different selves, like brimming test tubes dropped from an identical height, over and over, but shattering in different ways. Collapsing their glass and their liquid over the floor in fractal formations, all meaning the same thing. But these abstractions made him tired and slowed his step. He hungered for petticoats and trivialities.
He stepped down the road; it was rush hour. Different bodies and different heads emerged from the underground station; suddenly-one-armed cucumber people with one ear listening, the other un-tuned. They looked miserable, they looked happy, he thought. And it kept on going. The third, and fourth, and fifth, until he had more thoughts than hairs on his legs. And they were all good and all contradictory, all of them correlated, anomalous, inchoate and complete.
It was then that a tear ran away from him, afraid of what he might think.
Hermann paid no notice, went on by the movie house not far away, his legs carrying him to where a film was showing. It was called ‘Tra La La and the Eunuch People’ and he thought: ‘Yes’. But he hadn’t time to sit in the dark to be reassured, and neither had others, for the movie house was empty and the ‘Tra La La’ was at nobody, rather than somebody. His toes crept on, past the desolate box-office.
(He wouldn’t go to the church because even the mere thought of it made obvious what he would make of such a building of bricks. But maybe he would go later if he had time, for a laugh, you know, as people often don’t.)
He went down toward the supermarket, following the glum faces that were on the people this time, but also on the coins in their pockets and in their purses and wallets and everywhere all over them. Like lightning clearing up the sky between clouds in his brain, he saw them all afresh and they seemed somewhat enlivened in their boredom. But this time they would be unforgotten, as before, his eyes would aim at things but never hit the target; a translucent veneer of unreal pasted on reality, where both cancelled out to opaque. But this time it was felt, it was seen. A tree luridly winked at him.
His years contracted from 84 to 1. Long odds, sure enough.
The glare inside the supermarket had no comparison with the luminosity of his pomegranate mind. But he thought nothing of it, only acceptance was in him, though the artificial bulbs must be terrible to one who is depressed, he thought (Thought#207). They could end it right there, on aisle three, amongst the cabbages and the grapes, the juice of all of it flowing right out of the source. He thought he could lick it up and laugh, his back no longer hurt and he felt sure he could do it.
‘No’, he thought, he must go back to Dietrich and share it, share it with the lungs and the phlegm, and convince them to stay a while longer, for there didn’t seem much left to hold them. The odds were lengthening back on him, lapping him, and he knew a movie house and a supermarket were only a minor part of the All.
His friend Dietrich on the other hand had a lot of something left in him that could still go far. But it was vague, this idea, and he didn’t quite know if the veneer was simply fooling him. There was no way he could know, so he simply went on as if there were no question.
It did not take him long to return. The linen darkened under a passing cloud.
When he got back there to the building, Dietrich was laid out flat. Limp. Face down on his bed, the window flaps open-mouthed.
Bits of dried orange skin lay by his stockings, beside his wallet (with the unsmiling faces inside), and all of it quiet, quiet and quite solemn. Hermann stared at all these things in the peeling veneer. His once-mechanical, unconscious breathing cut into metronomic anxiety, a change in which he was now acutely aware. He could not control the punches of air exiting his cavities. He felt trembling. Putting his slow hand on the door, he twitched it shut behind him.
Just as the lock’s spring engaged and as the latch clicked, there seemed a sudden breath between the outer noise and the inner. The veneer gasped as a little tear readied itself in the corner of Hermann’s eye, waiting for the signal to abseil, down his rocky features and off the edge of his cut chin. Even the mopeds had fallen short of their constant whirring.
But from between Dietrich’s lips came a little burr, a wheezy one, as recycled air pumped out of the bronchi, then caught the flecks of sputum hanging along his trachea, before rumbling his lips.
The clock resumed its tock.
Hermann’s breathing persisted in its irregularities. He attempted to normalise it with a heavy embouchure, tightening his jaw and cheek muscles and blowing an imaginary cornet. Dietrich continued to whinny at confusing intervals. And so the curtains waved hello and perhaps, in light of the following events, also a goodbye, but not a sustained one, as the stubby flaps fell back to the flanks of the window and waited, not knowing whether their waving was a greeting or a farewell, or neither.
Hermann lay himself down on the bed next to Dietrich slowly, to die, because the moment reminded him of something he had once read and liked without knowing why.
When Dietrich woke up, he found Hermann there spooning him; both of them carving a furry figure outside/around each other.
Hermann thought maybe Dietrich’s would only be a short nap though it seemed in light of his weakness and frailty it might be the final one.
But it didn’t come for him, neither sleep nor death.
‘What’s all this then?’ Dietrich politely enquired.
Hermann shushed him and laid his large shaking hand innocently on Dietrich’s forehead for soothing.
‘No, no. Stop that. What’s all this?’
‘Shhhh now. Be still.’
‘Did you have one of your epiphanies again? Is that it?’
Disarmingly: ‘Go to sleep, now. It’s late.’
There was another gasp, between the curtains, the linen, the train platforms, the cucumbers…
Dietrich shut his lids, feeling quite at ease: ‘You’ve always been a curious one.’
… the bricks in the walls, the grapes, the test tubes, the lips, the cement, the slices of bread…
‘Curious, indeed,’ whispered Hermann, as if swimming toward Island Sleep. ‘But you keep quiet now.’
The light in the room flickered, a moth up there by the ceiling foretold a felicitous moment heading toward that bulb; telling of Hermann’s situation, both artificial and natural. But he didn’t know that. His lids just slid low down.
As the last of the lightning flashed over Hermann’s unafraid eyes, he went from the red into the black, toward the white light, dim-faced like a moth, the daily question mark dissolved.
Dietrich eased himself up. Sitting on the precipice of Hermann’s Island Sleep, dangling his feet over the edge of that white cliff, he lit a cigarette and tapped ash in the orange peel.
He laid down the half-smoked thing on the ashtray and went out of the room, as the moped wheels returned home.
His bowels were already moving.