I was leaving the zoo, and I walked out to the parking lot which sat on a high ridge looking out over the city. I could see all the buildings along the horizon, and I noticed that most of them were completely deserted and falling into ruin. There were great cracks along their stone foundations and huge holes torn in the brick where their windows had once been. It was raining, and rank brown water flowed from these holes, sweeping out rust and dirt and debris. Here and there among the ruins, there were a few buildings that were still intact, and I could see the people within in the lit offices in shirts and ties shuffling papers and files, trading them back and forth pointlessly with each other. I wondered why they even bothered. I wondered why they didn’t just clear out, so that the city could officially and completely be declared abandoned, so that this wreckage could all be wiped clean and something new erected in it’s place. I bowed my head and hustled across the parking lot in the rain towards my car. It was the only one there, parked all the way in the last row.
I found myself in a cramped closet filled with costumes and disguises. It was dark in the closet but there was a small skylight which cast down a narrow ray of sunshine, dimly hinting at the fake mustaches and spectacles on the shelves as well as the epaulets on the coat of a fake uniform hung on the clothes rack beside me. Another man came forward out of the darkness into the ray of sunlight. He was small and extremely frail. He looked as though no amount of food or nourishment could ever provide enough strength for his weak body. The light fell across his brow but left his eyes obscured in the shadows as he spoke. He told me that it was his job to follow people, to collect information about them, and he said that being small and hard to spot gave him an advantage. He pointed at the clothes hanging all around us and explained that he had to wear different disguises from the closet here to do his job.
At that moment, yet another man appeared. This one had a tailor’s tape measure and he immediately hoisted the frail man up onto a tall bar stool that he pulled out from the corner of the closet, and he began to take the frail man’s measurements, pulling his face into a long, sour expression as he read the tape. It began to feel close and crowded in the small closet, and I pressed back against the hanging coats and shirts to give the new man room to work. The frail man paid no attention to the man taking his measurements. He just went on talking to me and explaining how he needed to dress as a child for his present assignment. The man with the tape measure nodded to confirm this as he held the tape measure along the length of the frail man’s thin arm.
We all emerged from the closet once the frail man had been dressed in his disguise. He wore a small blue dress and a blonde wig with pigtails. In the bright hallway outside the closet, I had a better look at the man, and I could see that he was just a little over two feet tall, and I could see now that his right leg was missing from the knee down and that he supported himself on a short black cane with a gold handle. The man with the tape measure hurried over and attached a prosthetic leg to the frail man’s knee. It was a perfect match for the other leg, already dressed in the same white socks and patent leather shoes. The frail man hobbled forward a few steps on his new leg and then he handed over his cane to the man with the tape measure. As he started away down the hall, I watched him from behind, and I could tell the man by his walk, like picking someone out of a crowd, their face turned away, their back to you, nothing but their posture to know them by. And I could see it then. It was clearly an adult man with all the struggles and gravity and pain of an adult life. He would never pass for a child.
In the stiff brown pages of an old textbook I found an illustration of a man hanging from a gibbet. A pair of small creatures were drawn clinging to the man’s body. They were dressed in the rough robes of monks, but they had insect heads and long claw-like fingers protruding from their sleeves. One of the creatures clung to the man’s back, and it seemed to be whispering in the man’s ear, but looking closer, I could see that it was actually gnawing at the rope around the man’s neck. The other creature clung to the man’s legs, and it rested its head against the man’s knees as it grinned lasciviously. There were more hands and claws breaking through the ground beneath the man, grasping for his swinging feet. A few inches away a single antenna with sharp spikes was drawn breaking through the soil like an infernal weed.
The caption below the picture explained that back before people knew anything about gravity, it was believed that it was a hanging man’s sins that weighed his body down, that it was the demons trying to pull his soul down into the earth that put the fatal strain on his neck. The counter force of the gibbet and the rope, being applied from above, pulled back and cinched the noose with the authority of divine justice. The condemned man was caught between them, literally made to choke on his own guilt.
There was a terrible accident, and I was rushed to the hospital. Just as the doctor glanced up at the clock on the wall to call the time of death, I began to see things from his perspective. Just a quick drop of the eyelids and a sudden snap of the second hand, and then I was seeing things through his eyes. I had no memory of my own life and I had no tangible connection to the body lying on the bed, but yet somehow I knew that this migration had taken place. I was the doctor now. I went on about the doctor’s afternoon rounds, moving from room to room to see the patients as though nothing at all had happened. Faces smiled up at me from their beds. People sat up and propped their pillows against the headboards. The white curtains rippled softly in the cross breeze. It was turning out to be a pleasant afternoon. I listened to all of the usual questions. I nodded to all of the usual answers.
When the doctor’s shift was done for the day, I walked home. It was a quiet, small town road with no sidewalk, just a soft dirt shoulder. I knew every step of the way. I knew the mulberry tree where the doctor would sometimes stop and rest in the shade and finish whatever food that he had brought for his lunch in his black tin lunchbox. I knew the names on all the mailboxes that were posted along the side of the road, all the names that the doctor read every day without thinking as he passed them by. This was feeling more and more like my life now. I was settling into the old habits, the comfortable routines. I turned down a couple of side streets and I arrived in front of the doctor’s house. It was a modest bungalow with a short white fence around the front yard. The doctor lived there with his mother and his grandmother, and I could hear them in the kitchen fixing dinner as I came in.
That night, I read a few passages from the book that the doctor kept on the table beside the bed, and as I was setting aside the book and the doctor’s reading glasses, I had a moment to reflect. It was a nice quiet life, but it was a lonely life, too. Still I knew that I had chosen this somehow. I had passed on to this after the turbulent storm of my own life had subsided like a whisper. This was the calm place that I had reached out for in that last moment. And as I rolled over and settled in bed and listened to the late summer sounds of the bugs outside in the yard, I wondered where the doctor would go when the time came, where I would choose to move on to when this life was over, what other place would look brighter through the looking glass of mortality. There would always be a little something missing from every life. I drifted off, dreaming of it.
I went over to my mother’s house, and my father was there, staying in the back bedroom. He had come to town for a brief visit. I heard his voice coming from the back as I came down the hall. There was a home hospital bed set up in the middle of the bedroom with an IV and a heart monitor beside it, and my father was laying there talking to my brother on the phone. He kept telling my brother how stupid and worthless he was. He spoke so calmly. He said every horrible, hurtful thing he could think of and he held nothing back. I took a seat in a chair at the foot of the bed and listened to every awful word.
From bits and pieces of my father’s tirade, I gathered the fact that my brother had stolen some money out of my mother’s purse. I waited a while for my father to get off the phone. I wanted to ask him about all of this. It began to get dark out, and my mother came in to turn on a lamp in the corner of the room. I wanted to ask her what was going on, but she just held a finger to her lips and hurried out the door. We had to be quiet while my father was on the phone. I sat back and waited, and when he finally let the phone fall weakly from his hand, I tried to talk to him, but my mother came in and ushered me out of the room. She said that he needed to rest and that I couldn’t get him too worked up before he went to sleep.
This incident ruined my father’s entire visit. As a conciliatory gesture, my brother offered to let my father use his car while he was in town. He said that he would leave the keys at my mother’s house and he told my father that he understood if he didn’t want to see him otherwise. But even this sad gesture didn’t quite come off somehow, and my father left town still upset, and everyone felt horrible about the whole thing. Worst of all, I knew that this would probably be my father’s last visit. I knew that he didn’t have the strength to make the trip again. And this was how we had left everything.
After he had gone, I dropped by my mother’s house again. I still didn’t completely understand what had happened and I wanted to ask her about it. Summer had passed as the weeks had gone by and there were fallen leaves in the front yard. I found my mother alone in her living room, sittting in a chair over by the window. The curtains were drawn, and I could hardly see her across the dim room. I talked for a long time and I asked her all sorts of question and all the while she just sat there. Finally, she spoke up in a low voice, almost under her breath, and she said, “You know that I never should have gotten involved with that monster.”
I knew that she was talking about my father and I resented her saying that. I looked at her and said, “A monster!? A monster could just as easily be someone that does something petty like stealing money from their mother’s purse when they have a perfectly good job and they make a decent living and they have absolutely no reason to be doing things like that.” But then it occurred to me that I still didn’t know the whole story. So I asked, “Did he even tell you why he did it? Did he give you any kind of explanation?”
She hesitated, like she wasn’t sure how much she should say. Finally, she told me that my brother had taken the money because someone was threatening to kill him. I didn’t understand. “Why would someone want to kill him? What does that have to do with taking money from your purse?” She sighed, and then she muttered something about some football team losing a game. I started to put it all together, and I began to realize just how big of a problem my brother really had. I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I said, “He didn’t just take a little bit of money from your purse, did he?”
She began to throw her hands about erratically. She tried to explain that my brother had taken some credit cards that she had had, and he had maxxed them out. But then, overwhelmed by her efforts to explain, she just burst into tears and buried her head in her hands. The whole ordeal had left her financially devastated, ruined. I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. My hands were shaking. I didn’t know what to do. I just sank down into a chair, and I sat staring with my eyes wide.