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William crossed a stray T and handed the list to Elisa. “Three hundred,” he said. He knew they wouldn’t all be available — some would have planned their holidays, fallen ill or even begun dying their own silly deaths—but if a hundred came, there’d be lots of racket in the house to enliven his hazy hours towards oblivion. His guests could dance and munch on snack mix in the living room while he lay aloof like a legend in his bed, thumb poised on his methadone button.
“We could move the bed into the living room,” said Elisa.
William considered this; he did. There would be quite a lot of racket, though; and since he got his food from a tube, he obviously wouldn’t care for snack mix—or dancing, for that matter. His guests would be clambering and slobbering all over him, spilling this or that, sputtering scads of industrially produced mini-pretzels in his face as they told their tedious, awkward death jokes. “Are you serving death on a biscuit?” and all that. No, he’d rather they came to his bedroom individually, on his horizontal turf where it was calm and he could doze if they were awful.
The night of the party came. Though Elisa had named the affair FAREWELL WILL PARTY on the Facebook Event page, William found this too Elmer-Fudd so he called it his Death Party.
Pumped to bursting with methadone, William smoothed the thin sheet covering his body, “like the sculpture atop a white marble sarcophagus,” he said to his empty bedroom and hummed: a random melody, one reminiscent of an ancient burial ceremony but also remarkably similar to the latest Beyoncé song. It was going to be a lovely party. He expected heartfelt apologies most of all—the deathbed kind, the making-peace sort. He practised smiling pitifully and saying, “It’s all right. I didn’t like you much either,” exploding with laughter, because who was going to tell him to go to hell now — on his deathbed, when it was an imminent possibility? The dying were so lucky: they could say whatever the hell they wanted.
William moved his hands to a cooler patch of sheet and waited. He had to pee, and he knew it would hurt. The nurse had changed his catheter that day brutally. Even with the methadone, his penis was a tiny ember of pain. Staring at the door, waiting for his guests, William dreamed of happy, smelly dogs and relinquished control.
published 2 September 2013
“Lots have come?” William asked. Elisa stood like a garden gnome at the foot of his bed, the cup of crushed ice he’d ordered dripping on the floor. He couldn’t tell if the obnoxious laughter coming from the living room was a hundred people guffawing with their mouths full of snack mix or Two Broke Girls, which Elisa thought was funny but he didn’t.
“Oh, lots,” Elisa said flatly and handed him his dinner.
“They’ve all come?”
“Why don’t you close your eyes awhile, William, and I’ll tell you a story.”
William adored stories. They’d tickled and pricked at the centre of his long life, but lately his eyes — which were closing now — had become too weak for them. His own stories lived in libraries the world over, had been translated into 24 languages and even adapted for EFL learners in tiny booklets called Strange Stories for Strangers. To William, stories were like love and flowers: they covered a multitude of sins and rotten odours.
“Once,” his wife began, “there was a small boy, smaller than most but also much much cleverer, who had an even smaller cat . . . no, a dog.”
William’s face relaxed into a smile, the kind that happens when someone has finally found that elusory, figurative itchy spot. The sweet image of a small boy with his even smaller dog bruised something near William’s heart, in a good way. “Happy end,” he whispered. “Don’t kill the dog this time, Elisa. Not at my Death Party.”
Elisa always killed the dog in her stories. She was a dyed-in-the-furball cat person and took every opportunity to kill fictive dogs in the most horrific of accidents. William dozed as his wife surely went about constructing a story whose climax would leave a dog dangling from the ledge of a twenty-storey building or inching toward the razor-sharp blades of an aeroplane motor or strapped to an operating table with tubes and saliva snaking from its mouth and a flat-line screaming above it all. He just knew it.
As William began to snore, Elisa turned toward the man she’d been married to for 42 years and said, “Sweet William. Sweet horrible William. You were always more about your own body than mine. You kept me on the string like a big fat carp gasping for air, waiting. For what? For you to have time for a family? For you to have time for anything else besides your ridiculous stories? You kept telling me we’d have children. Someday. Until it was too late, and we never talked about it ever again. I should have left you when we stopped having sex.” She watched her husband’s pale, emotionless face. The drugs had actually improved his complexion. “You ruined my life, William.”
“And then,” Elisa said, “the boy dropped the lifeless butterfly onto the scorching pavement, turned and walked away, down the path toward the cool, green meadow. The End.”
William opened his eyes. “Oh, Elisa. It’s like your allegory got dressed in the dark. You know how I hate the obvious.”
“I know. I know. You should rest now,” said Elisa, “while I go and scrape my desiccated carcass off the pavement.”
William smiled, closed his eyes again. “Lots have come?” he whispered.
published 9 September 2013
The overbearing odour of cheap aftershave woke William. He opened his eyes, blinked. A silver crucifix dangled an inch from his face, behind it the young face of a confused priest. William winked at the man seductively because he found the whole deathbed experience freeing. “You know you didn’t have to come,” — which was to say that William had not put this priest, or any priest, on his guest list — “handsome.”
William squinted at the moderately attractive yet completely foreign priest’s face. This was some random priest from some random church. William couldn’t even remember whether he was Catholic or Protestant. Probably neither.
The priest leaned over, said he’d been in the neighbourhood and that William’s wife had asked if he’d pay her husband a visit.
“Damned Elisa. Always inviting door-to-doorers in, making them tea and chatting about God and the world. Well,” William said, “as you will have noticed by all the racket and snack-mix munching, I’m having my Death Party, so make it quick if you’re going to save me or perform the last rites or whatever you people do.”
“I thought I might tell you a story.”
“Oh, well now you’re talking, Padre.” William smiled and closed his eyes. “So you know: I’m partial to stories with dogs.”
“Once, a very long time ago there lived —“
“Oh.” William opened one eye and frowned.
“A bit clichéd, don’t you think?”
“Fair enough,” said the priest. “How about this: It’s summer. A boy sits on the edge of a gravel road. There are no cars, haven’t been for years. The boy has been sitting here for so long that he can’t remember who left him or why. Dirt courses down his cheeks as he weeps and calls out for people. Any people. Anyone at all. Anything, in fact, that has a body temperature of 98.6. The boy needs warmth.”
William made his I’m-well-impressed face. “No dog handy?” he asked. “Dogs are quite warm.”
“The boy’s name is Billy. He is quite old but you wouldn’t think it. His skin is so fair and clear. He looks like a baby, like an old man in a boy’s body — because he has never processed his fear of being loved. Every person in his life abandons him until finally he sits alone oceans away from a petrol station or a farm or even an internet café. Inexplicably, the people in his life haven’t been cruel. There’s been no conspiracy. The people simply began to tire of his bullshit. It’s Billy’s own fault and he knows this. He is a cruel boy, cruel to everyone who tries to love him. He’s like King Midas except different. He touches people with hands of burning thistle. He’s toxic, and he’s realised this much too late.” The priest paused to clear his throat.
“Dog years too late?” William suggested and exploded with laughter but immediately fell asleep. When he woke, the priest’s moderately handsome face was hovering over him and a damp cloth was stroking his forehead. William sniffed the man. “Smokers,” William said, “just want to meet their Maker as quickly as possible, don’t you think, Padre?”
The cross dangled a bit further from William’s face.
“Now it’s my turn” — William punched his methadone button—“to tell you a story.” William inspected the ceiling dreamily for a moment to give the impression he was inventing the story on the spot. “Ah,” he said, “OK. There was a king, you see, who commissioned a great church to be built in honour of the virgin mother. He posted the event on Facebook so that the entire world would know of its grandeur. When the Devil heard of the king’s plans — because the Devil was a Facebook friend of the king, you see — he joined the event and even signed up to be one of the builders.”
“You should rest now,” said the priest.
“But, you see, the Devil had a plan to destroy the church by throwing a very large cigarette made of concrete through the flying buttress ceiling—or whatever you people call it—on the day of the church’s consecration. All he’d done during the construction of the church was build that cigarette. An enormous concrete cigarette.” William pressed his methadone button again. “A fucking big concrete cigarette.”
“No dog?” asked the priest but William was dozing.
published 16 September 2013
The racket from the living room was sounding more and more like the I Love Lucy Show — unless William’s guests were all Wahhhh Wahhhh Wahhhhing like Lucille Ball. It was possible, he thought as he opened his eyes to an oddly fierce yet hollow face; he sort of knew it but certainly couldn’t place it. The nose was too broad, the lips too thin. The ears stuck out perversely, but the brown eyes were a perfect distance apart: just near enough to reveal the humble honesty of this stranger’s soul. It was the sort of face one should fall in love with, but also a face William surely hadn’t put on his guest list.
“Um, hey?” William said.
“Hi, William,” the person said. “You look good.”
“Oh, bugger off,” said William. It was his stock response to compliments of any kind. He enjoyed the surprised — often appalled — expressions on people’s faces when he threw up his ramparts against their slimy, ass-kissing niceties; but this man only laughed and said, “Same old Will.”
“I’m glad you’ve come,” said William. His blinking bordered on batting now. He was sure he’d shake off his nap in a moment and recognise this person as one of his dear invited guests: maybe one of the Albanian men from the grocery store on the corner, the man who delivered the mail on Fridays, the scruffy teenager who’d come to the door a few months ago selling something or other. He blinked and blinked again, shook his head. “No,” he said. “Sorry. Who the hell are you?”
“Peter. It’s OK. You should rest, Will.”
“Why do you people keep saying that? No. No. No. I’m having my Death Party, and there are lots of guests to see and lots of heartfelt apologies to accept—from guests I invited, and not you random gate-crashers. I can’t sleep through my own Death Party.”
Peter smiled. “No, I suppose not.” He sat on the edge of the bed for a very long time without saying a word, without moving, as if he were waiting for William to recognise him.
Wide awake now and dry-eyed from all the blinking, William stared at Peter quizzically and said, “You’re not much of a talker.”
“No, I rarely have anything to say.”
“Why don’t you tell me a story?”
“A story?” said Peter. “I’m not very good at —”
“Go on, Pete. Give it a go.”
“Call me Peter.”
“Sorry,” said William, sounding as if he might be apologising for much more than a missing R. “Um ... the story?”
“Oh, right. Well, I’m not very good at this, but here goes: you see, there were two lads, right, two very similar lads from similar families, so they were, like, destined, right, to be mates. Right.”
William was already dozing.
“They did everything together, right, and when I say everything” — Peter looked over to see whether William cared — “I mean everything. And then one day the shorter, meaner fellow got married and moved away. He didn’t even tell the taller one that he was leaving or where he was going.” Peter looked down at William, who was snoring peacefully. “You had no idea how important you were to me. I’m sure you didn’t care; you never cared about anything except escaping into your stories. Loving you was a mistake. It took years for me to unlove you. Even now it’s hard. It turned out you were just in the next town, but it felt like, I don’t know, like continents drifting ... like oceans.” Peter stared silently at his old love for a very long time because he really was the silent type. “When’s the last time,” he said finally, “that you connected with someone, Will? Connected, like really talked to someone?”
“Ah.” William was awake. “That’s the sort of thing you usual people talk about.”
“It was good seeing you again, Will.”
William blinked and smiled. “I remember now,” he said. “I called you Pete when I was angry.”
“You never called me anything else.”
published 23 September 2013
The noise from the living room had settled to something like silence with commercials. The Death Party had certainly been a success with lots of dancing and lots of snack mix. William was sure the only reason he hadn’t remembered entertaining his guests was the drugs. He was sure hundreds of guests had come to make their peace with him, to eat his snacks and to endure his legendary sarcasm. He was sure he’d been a good host.
After all, he’d told Elisa to buy all the snack mix Sainsbury’s had. “No crisps! Crisps will kill you,” he’d joked. “Snack mix is much better because it’s baked not fried. OK, OK, a couple bags of crisps, but nothing more. It’s not like I’m feeding these goddamn freeloaders dinner!” Oh, he laughed when he thought of how he’d joked. Goddamn freeloaders. Priceless.
“Elisa?” William looked around the room. His wife had left a new cup of crushed ice on his bedside table, demonstratively out of reach — deliberately one might think. The methadone made the table and the walls feel like oceans away. To get that cup of ice, he’d need to purchase a ticket and board a train. “Elisa!” he called. No answer. She was probably cleaning up tiny pretzels and peanuts ground to powder in the carpet. People were such ungrateful slovens.
“Be a dear and hand me that cup of ice, will you?” William said to the dog sitting cross-legged on the edge of the bed; and then he laughed. “Oh, I see. Never mind. No thumbs.”
The dog growled.
“Oh, get over it. You were made that way.” William kept his eyes on the dog—a Doberman, possibly? “Well,” said William. “I don’t suppose you’d have a story to tell me?”
The dog uncrossed its legs and crossed them again. “I do, but are you sure you’d like to hear it?” it asked.
“I love stories,” said William. “You might say I’m a story lover.”
The dog yawned. “I probably won’t say that.”
Though he hadn’t invited any dogs to his Death Party, William was enjoying having this dog around. It smelled dirty in a comforting way. Dogs were natural creatures who didn’t repress their instincts, who didn’t disguise their fear or worry about dying a horrible death, who didn’t much care where they shit. Dogs ruled.
“I’ll tell you a story, but I have to warn you: it will kill you in the end, this story.”
“That’s what we’re here for! Shoot!” said William and laughed. “Shoot. Get it?”
The dog didn’t laugh. “Are you afraid, William?”
William smoothed his sheet but didn’t answer.
“The story I’m going to tell you is not the usual type of story.”
“How do you mean?”
“You and I are the only characters, and the story is happening now. This is the story, William.”
“I like it so far. At least there’s a dog.”
“Yes, well. I’m not your usual dog, William. Have you heard of Cerberus?”
William chuckled. “You’re not Cerberus. Where’s your other heads if you’re Cerberus?”
“A three-headed dog, William. How unrealistic is that?”
“A talking dog, dog. How unrealistic is that?”
“You have a point, but those legends with three heads were a fluke. The sculptors and the artists back then were trying to show my two sons — rather poorly I’m afraid. I have only one head as you can see.”
“So we’re off to the Underworld, are we?”
“That’s not exactly how this story works, William. I’m here to keep you in the Underworld.”
William considered the implications of this statement. If Heaven could be a place on Earth, in the immortal words of Belinda Carlisle, then he supposed Hell could be as well—or the Underworld, but since he wasn’t really religious he felt comfortable jumbling things up a bit. He looked up at the dog and said, “Are you a Belinda Carlisle fan by chance?”
“The early stuff was fun,” said the dog.
“Let me get this straight,” said William. “I’m in the Underworld right now?”
“Nice, isn’t it?”
“No. How long have I been here?”
“Let’s see. The day you left Peter. The day you found yourself sitting at your computer far away from affection. The day you married a person you knew you’d never want to fuck. The day you decided to stop wrestling with your fear.”
“My my. That’s a long time.” William became pensive, jabbed his methadone button and cursed. This was all Elisa’s fault of course. He couldn’t think why, but he was used to blaming her. “I have to get out of here.”
“Ah. But you have to kill me to do it,” said the dog as it spooned up next to William, its heavy belly already warming William’s back. “And we both know you won’t kill a dog in a story,” it said and pawed the methadone button.
published 30 September 2013