He ran his oily fingers along the street window, leaving four parallel streaks framing the suit-adorned passersby in geometric patterns. Moving to the lobby furniture, he felt his thumb squeak rubbery as he dragged it along a black leather chair, his splintered fingernail leaving fibrous, permanent scratch marks in its wake. Bare feet trod on polished slate; as wingtips and pumps went click-clack, his steps sounded in wet and intermittent clops, leaving a red and slimy trail wherever He went. What was yet another day of “work” for him was a disgusting imposition upon office employees everywhere. Walking in dirty circles around marble lobbies was to him a sort of stroll in paradise, and as he studied the words of the dapper bourgeois as they complained to someone on their cell phones about his unseemly presence, he could only imagine himself in their polished shoes.
Dream or grievance just the same, the truth was: security chiefs all around the city dealt with similar complaints every morning, yet no one took preventative action for reasons inexplicable. Quite simply, He was the type who maintained an uncanny ability to glide, to drift, and to fade. In a city like this, no one really took the time to look a stranger in the face, much less a soggy, virulent tramp as He, and He unknowingly capitalized on this during his morning treks.
Nevertheless, after a few minutes of his painting loopy business models on the marble in his trodden blood, enough was enough, and whatever security guard would usher him out of the building, as this one did, here. In each and every instance, that security guard, though resolved in his mission, would be careful not to dirty himself upon the sleeve of this mess of a bum.
He, now outside, licked his blistering lips, and popped a pustule with his teeth. There was a bit of chilidog sitting atop the trashcan on the sidewalk, the fat only barely congealing orange in the winter cold; he snatched it, and then gobbled it up in a crane-like scoop. For an outsider, it may have appeared as if he were slurping with a proboscis – some sort of pelican-moth hybrid – but certainly one would certainly understand the disregard for manners if their diet occurred as fractionally as did his.
It’s important to note that while He was not necessarily conscious of his proclivity toward anonymity, to call him passive in these proceedings would deny him something. In fact, he was quite adept at avoiding eye contact, and did take a certain subconscious pride in breaking someone that tried to communicate with him. When one bumped into him, shouting or crying at first glance, He need only look downward and sidestep toward the street, rendering any potential stress relieved. Loud noises terrified him when they occurred in daylight, and, ultimately, non-sociability was his strong suit.
Taking a weather-warn seat on the granite embankment of his occasional choosing, He studied The Old Men play chess, as they always did. The peli-moth coughed a pea-sized hunk of phlegm onto his upper lip, and watched a Scruffy Dog watch him lick it back in place. The Old Men moved those tiny colored things that around, back and forth, gleaming pleasure from such simplicity in a way that wasn’t dissimilar to his own morning routine, yet their lives couldn’t be further from his. He didn’t consciously envy The Old Men for their constantly renewed enthusiasm or camaraderie, but He profoundly couldn’t understand either trait, which was a very subtle version of disdain. His teeth, chipped and yellowed, rotten soft to the nerve, grinded together so often, so vigorously, so autonomously, as to where he came to enjoy the chalky flavor of calcium as it mixed with the saliva on the sour part of his knobby, phallic tongue. He enjoyed a fair shake of things, but often perversely, and when such indulgence occurred, it would cause something in his swollen, purple right eyelid to twitch like a feeding tick. The Scruffy Dog watched this, too, and for its loyalty in companionship, He let the chilidog foil float to the ground, its contained condiments being quickly lapped up by the lonely canine. That was enough for today, anyway, a day’s hard work complete.
He watched his breath rise before him as he chugged down the sidewalk, and sucked in its acrid moisture through his nose circuitously. Keeping one lazy eye out on alert for others, He began to descend into his lair, parting the dead brambles like cinematic cobwebs from a haunted mansion. Here, deep in the shade of an abandoned overpass, the symbolic cellar was a grand competition between bat shit and broken teenage condoms. He ducked beneath the exposed wiring, dodged the broken glass, and settled into his room, onto a woolen mat embroidered with someone else’s blood. The beloved lair was full of empty, tinny trinkets from his childhood, the walls scrawled in colors fecal and sanguine, the furniture splintered and industrial. It was a nursery, a playground, an office, and a sewer, and looked as if each were run through a blender together, but right now, only that mat mattered, and he settled into it. Under his weight, a billion scabies crunched; his right eye throbbed ever so slightly.
Scratching his head, clumps of oily hair coming away in bunches under his fingernails, he commenced what seemed to be his best skill: idle, thoughtless sitting. Here, few thoughts came, and few thoughts went: he heard echoes and saw shadows, but that was the extent of it. Rainwater trickled down the wall and he slurped at it with a mouth like an anemone, uprooting tasty streaks of algae in the process.
The lair was mostly quiet and impenetrable for its pungent, obscured qualities, and He remained there for these reasons. Occasionally, however, came the snap of a twig, the rustle of branches, leaving him on full guard until a giggle would steam in through the thicket, dripping with lust, and at this He would spring into action. Grabbing a stone from a stack, sending a family of roaches scrambling in the sun, He would hurl the rock with great force toward the source of the sound. Typically there’d emerge the sight of two heaving, youthful bodies, all tan and bare in the bushes; when the typical feminine shriek came about, accompanied by hurried whispers and the collecting of cotton and leather, concluding with the hasty sound of leaves crunching under fearful and hastened shoes, He could relax again. He didn’t understand youth and certainly never knew intimate proximity to anybody during the course of his entire life, but the disruption of his silence was reason enough.
His dreams were an overwhelming force, and he avoided them at all costs by devising a line of communication amongst the vermin around him: the matrix of parasites, woven throughout that woolen cradle, were trained to bite when he turned, flit and fly about when his breathing grew too heavy, and engorge themselves with his plasma when his heart grew too full. It was true, then, that they were more in tune with him than any human, were these bloodsuckers and disease-carriers, and yet despite their sympathetic efforts to make it a benevolent relationship, occasionally his friends would reach their fill when his blood really swelled in his veins, when that fist-like muscle in his chest was freely agitated and the marrow really vibrated within his bones, and, in his ideal location between contentedness and complete depravity, he’d dream.
His earliest memory as presented through dreams was of his father. He would see the man’s angular silhouette at one end of the lair, using a restaurant’s discarded crab shell to dig frenetically into the earth while shaking his head, screaming about unintelligible things. His father was always yelling, always throwing, never direct and hardly even detectably angry. They didn’t speak to one another, and hardly even interacted unless He, at the time infantile and incredibly dirty, managed to lure in a few dollars from pitying passersby. This was all He had, the only seedling from which He could sprout, and it such distractions seemed to exist as the only properly tangible connection to the world that he had, however fleeting and obligatory it was. Everything about his upbringing seemed unnatural, as if he might have been birthed from a pillbox of a flurry of expletives. To that, a mother figure was never so much as even remembered, even when at rest, as she, as if by miracle managed to escape from any sort of trace whatsoever.
There was really only other dream He had that was worth noting. Not psychedelic, psychotic, or ever necessarily riddled with perversity, it was flat and plain like office paper and simply the most appealing aspect of his day-to-day life. In this dream, He would sit at the head of a polished dinner table furnished with chicken, peas, and a child. Here, his young daughter boasted chestnut-colored hair that shone modestly from constant, perfunctory brushing, and she sat at the table with her hands folded politely before her, napkin on lap, utensils untouched. In fact, within his dreams, the girl never seemed to touch the food that steamed before her, the food that she’d surely helped to prepare, the food that glistened wet like glass. Rather, it was only He who interrupted the icy glaze on his plate with a rather pale chicken leg and, gazing at it contently, he’d smile suggestively to his daughter who, catching the message, would smile back, then, as if cued, beg, “Father, would you please pass me the salt?” Again the daughter would smile, pushing her cheeks back into mounds of baby fat, and then, with a polite tilt of the head, He would pass it to her, as desired, and all was settled and all was right.
These dreams were indeed quite unsettling of his definition of normal just the same, and left him shedding skin in his sleep from all the stress, an undeserved reward for the mites. It was true that these pesky, pursuant dreams were the crown and bane of his life from the inside out, instead of the obvious, consistent squalor that surrounded him every day. As with most things, however, He didn’t know how to treat these nuisances and instead learned to coexist betimes. Soon, they ceased to chew painfully at his membranes, ultimately leaving his nights in a rather repetitive cycle of reverie and unrest that always left him cranky. Tonight was another haunting night, leaving to echo in his brain that unmemorable phrase: “Father, would you please pass me the salt?” He mewled wistfully in his sleep, wind whistling through the traffic in his beard.
Upon waking, he itched his bloodied back, it plated with scabs and burrowed ticks, then yawned hard, badly in need of cheering up. A fresh wave of feces flooded through his living room from the warm homes above, carrying with it a creamy mist smelling of fennel and sourdough, that he always looked forward to: anyway, it would have to suffice for today. Packing his knapsack with a dried banana peel, an empty coffee cup, and a rusted, moldering pile of demin, He tidied his hair in the ureic reflection pool with a licked hand, then emerged to the surface just in time for work.
Once on the street, He passed the familiar trio: Moonfeline, Gunpowder Jane, and their mastiff sat on the usual corner, screaming at passersby about contradictory politics in words He didn’t quite understand, hoisting tin cans that rattled with nickels. They saw him and Moonfeline hissed, batting a territorial paw in his direction while showing her sharpened fangs. Gunpowder Jane began muttering at light speed, and the mastiff calmly licked its foot. The women despised him, though (and perhaps because) they once thought they could enlist him on their side. Instead, they quickly, bitterly noted his elusive nature, and that bled into whatever expletives they shouted his way. Once a prospective friend, nearly a Compatriot Of The Street, He was now the only one in the city from whom they consistently failed to elicit a response. They’d scream acerbic, they’d hurl heavy, they’d flash pubic, but He neither strayed from his course nor looked up from his coffee cup. This was how He treated everyone while en route to work, as his mind was geared up for only that one thing. Anyway, He couldn’t understand a damn word that they said to him.
He went into a bank, and the marble floor again cooled the soles on his peppered feet. A woman that smelled like licorice blossoms greeted him with the smile of a nervous prostitute, simultaneously sexual and threatened. He nodded with official severity, chin-to-chest, and as he streaked blood onto the carpet, dragging his heels like a zombie, and the Incredulous Licorice Lady eyed the hulking, simplistic security guard. She, always searching for his eyes anyway, had to make her appeal slightly audible before he noticed the intruder in their midst, and by then it was too late: He was leaning into a loan applicant, nodding quickly, mumbling, “ahem, aha, yes yes,” in imitation of the bank manager, while shaking crumbs from his beard onto the mahogany desk. The security guard rolled his eyes to the Licorice Lady, and moved quickly to apprehend the man, but his determination crumpled at the smell, and he was forced to feign determination by ushering the urchin out by way of a phantom grip. As always, He was used to such treatment: human contact itself would be the grand surprise, were it to ever occur.
Out on the street, the air felt hairy, but no different than after any normal day at work. He girded himself with typical slavishness, holding his bowels, searching the trash for digestible remuneration, finding some peanut shells and a molten apple core. He wasn’t picky, though so happy was He with the day’s work, were there a spare porterhouse in the garbage, he’d have eaten that, too.
The following effectively ended who He was, then sparked who He was to be.
Wandering along with clarity, a stomach full of protein and potassium skins, He finally saw her. She stood about three feet, seven inches, sported a dark grey cashmere sweater over a woolen gray skirt that hung past dimpled knees, and, perhaps because of the robotic braces over her teeth, never seemed to smile. Her skin was soft and rosy everywhere, still filling out at eight years old, and her hair was a featherweight chestnut brown. He instantaneously recognized her from his dreams, and might have called out her dream name had he the tongue for it. Instead, He stared, stared, stared, guiding her with his milky, desirous eyes as she walked alongside a tall weathervane of a person, she all hollow bones and antiquated brooches and sunken formaldehyde cheeks, she who stood gaunt as a rail, changing directions on a moral axis that was bursting with grease. The little one was the sun, the elder the moon, and yet neither stood in the shadow of the other, each orbiting at a calculated distance from one another. The girl’s rosy cheeks sat like two plums, though her nose jutted proudly, bravely into the air as she remarked with flat expertise at the stamen of the daisy, the nimbus of the sky, the mineral of the asphalt. The elder, to whom the little one referred as Geraldine, was hardly discernable in her nod, and her hair crowded a fragile face with the stark grace of a black halo.
Geraldine, reflecting only the most pallid of light, emerged and sank from each candlelit shop with a sterile glide, assessing objects d’art and exotic trappings with precise interest. Her daughter, Marjory, stood before the ostrich eggs and crocodile leathers with one hand pensively supporting her ripe face, warning Geraldine of the standing virtues of brain coral over that, the downside of this over platinum filigree, joined by a litany of other facts that no other little girl would concern herself with. Nary a smile cracked nor a wasteful word was uttered between them, and He quickly recognized this otherwise alien intercourse. “Father, would you please pass me the salt?” This fuse burned dangerously in his brain, and He licked his chapped chops.
It took Geraldine the worst part of thirty minutes to notice that her daughter had disappeared, and even then, it was only when her private shopper at Maxwell’s inquired after the tyke, who came on such shopping trips with constancy. She might have heard the screams of her daughter had they been raised: Marjory was too busy inquiring with stern curiosity where exactly she was being taken and why, while commenting on the sanguine state of this stranger’s feet and the general smell of vinegar that oozed into public space, to emit any sort of fearful plea. Even as she was lowered into his lair, she remarking with great interest over these strange fruits the likes of which she’d never previously found, Marjory’s voice wavered not. From a child’s eyes, human feces was rarely seen dried, thereby obscuring its identity, and next to that grew a bed full of a rare sort of mold, dark as onyx, that would nary grow on a piece of expensive cheese. Light trickled in through the overgrowth as naturally as her home’s skylight was distant and cold; the greedy shriek of ravens and bats stood in complete opposition to the parlor cellist her parents favored at most events (though Marjory always regarded her playing style as stilted at best). It was a feast for the little girl’s brain, which began to spin at rates she hadn’t known before, so incapable she was to process what lay strewn before her.
Marjory Blythe Adams-Showalter inspected the lone chair on the premises. The arms were splintered like a scarecrow’s, and stuffing spilled out of the seat with glee. “This is polyester, which is produced from a chemical reaction,” she proclaimed in her typically proud voice, which now finally began to dither. “This polyester does not smell pleasant at all.” He flopped a hammy arm in the chair’s direction, which ushered her to sit, at least in his own mind, but she wouldn’t think of doing such a thing in this dress. He mumbled something unintelligible. “Yes, well, I must be off, sir,” she said with strained civility. “Thank you for your kind hospitality.” He smiled, and some dried chili cracked out of his beard. “Oh dear,” whimpered Marjory.
Armed with a grand idea, really the grandest of all, and once Marjory was tethered to the chair with some rawhide and rusted chain, He was positively sprinting down the boulevard, giggling maniacally in the process, in a way not dissimilar to how his father might have sounded at times. He, in stark contrast, seemed to have a clear goal in mind.
The mastiff barked as He whooshed past, while Moonfeline and Gunpowder Jane threw trash and cursed. Before long He was in a steakhouse alongside brokers and princes, slipping past the tuxedo-clad host, and, having grasped a shaker of salt, He was gone before anyone had time to notice. Once again, he cackled as he ran, shaking the seasoning all over Gunpowder Jane, who nearly burst from her famous temper. “SALLLLL,” He mispronounced!
Back in his lair, sliding through the thicket and splashing into a small brown lake, he composed himself, for Marjory had begun to cry. Streams of tears made her sweet cheeks savory, and he could only offer, “sal. Sal.”
Marjory looked at him, at a loss for the first time in her memory, and said, “I want to go home.”
He handed her the shaker. “Sal,” was all He could say, and his eyes watered, too. He knew what needed to come, but kissed her on the cheek just the same, leaving a dark rainbow of refuse on her face. She quieted, sniffling, and stared into the ground.
His giggles subsiding, He repeated his saline larceny upon other restaurants in the city over the next few hours until He had hoisted a roasted chicken, peas, two chairs and a table. As He hobbled slowly down the street with the last, He was blindsided by Gunpowder Jane, sent crashing to the ground as Moonfeline howled and the mastiff tipped its head curiously. Moonfeline kicked him in the stomach while Gunpowder Jane spat upon him, shouting, “no salt-throwing elitist gonna git me!” They flashed him once for good measure, and knocked the table onto its side.
Waking bloodied and swirled around, He spat onto the pavement some teeth that had cracked like stale cake. One puffy eye opened a slit and took in a world quite unfamiliar, one in which the cars were yellow, the ground was black, the sky was silver-blue, and He wondered what brought him here, and why. He wiggled fingers that sparked with fuzzy pain, and sat up on his side; the streets were completely empty, the air was soggy and turgid. Few things he remembered: waking to complete darkness with a rumble in his belly, watching his father dancing naked in the shadowlight of a candle; his father sitting in a rusted wheelchair with a hat in his alarmingly still lap as passersby looked at He, just a boy, with a mixture of pity and disgust. Now, as He sat in a blackened pool of his own blood, those similar pedestrians shot him similar glances, yet He was still completely disarmed of the ability to protest against or negotiate with any of them. So many things they took for granted; if he could think of one example, he’d have had one less thing to envy.
Thoughts congealed in his brain a bit more upon seeing a waterlogged paper on a post, which boasted a confusing collection of letters as well as one recognizable face. These papers were everywhere – arriving in a matter of hours as if by some miracle – along with a giant billboard that hovered accusingly over the city, intimidating but for that rotund, powdery face. Slowly, reality returned to him, all of those memories that caked on, stinging his skin dully for having failed to fully wash them clean. Waking every morning with rats; slicing his finger while scouring trash bins for food; quavering in dysenteric pain on the floor from having eaten yet another rotten fruit, with nothing left to retch up; never knowing the company of another. He thought of that last feeling, of that constant loneliness. Most things in life are relative, most things can be assimilated or normalized, and He proved that. Loneliness was unlike a warm bed or a hot meal, as these need be first tasted to be desired or needed; He was fine with the floor as He’d never known different, but, as when He was a child, his heart ached to be warmed by the love of another. Thankfully, he was recalling, one such “another” was waiting for him underground.
She didn’t look much different from the posters outside, or from how she’d looked when they first met those distant hours ago. Her distinctive cheeks were dirtied and wet by tears, nearly obscuring their rosy glow, and her tiny lips were chapped and parched. She snapped to attention upon seeing him drag a battered table and a whole, rubbery chicken in from the storm. He set the table before her, the poultry carcass on top of that, and then plopped his own onto his bed. Sewage washed the blood from his feet, and little Marjory squealed, “oh my, you brought me a chicken, didn’t you! You know that these have hormones, don’t you? Mother says that one shouldn’t eat hormones.” She started crying again, when she saw the blood on his face. “But whatever happened to your face?” He shrugged. “Geraldine, my mother, she doesn’t like blood, but Josie the Nurse, she helps me if I hit my knee. Do you have a nurse?” He picked a fresh scab, and looked to her with hollow eyes. “You look scary,” she said, really crying now. He saw her struggle in her chair, her tiny hands pale from the restraints, and released her from the straps. “Thank you,” she said, sniffling. Marjory Blythe Adams-Showalter quickly reached for the chicken with hungry hands, additives be damned. His capacity for love existed, if on a different plane from most, but He nevertheless pulled the chicken away before she could have a bite. Again, she cried, but He only put the shaker before her, and then pointed to it encouragingly.
“Sal,” he mumbled. “Fddr, mud yu pit pad yu mi da sal,” he said, trying to translate the foreign words from his subconscious. Marjory simply couldn’t understand, and her lip quavered in fear. He slapped the table twice, but a bent leg allowed for little resonation.
“You are scaring me,” she said, but he only sat in his seat across from her, eating a chicken leg as in his dream, holding the saltshaker in his hand. His eyelid was throbbing with increasing rhythm, and he wiped the chicken fat from his fingers into his hair. “No one seems to have taught you your manners, mister.”
“Salllllll,” he moaned. This was not how it was meant to go. Not at all.
“Bad manners, and I can’t understand you one bit. Geraldine would have a field day with it.” She did not know what this last phrase meant, but heard it often before her mother crossed her arms and clucked her tongue, which was precisely what she did next. He, meanwhile, held his hand to his head and pretended to be on the phone; He crossed and uncrossed his legs assertively; He covered his chest and gasped at an imaginary person, as if that imaginary person tried to grab his imaginary breasts; He did a variety of things that he perceived in “normal” people, those little things done on park benches when seemingly no one is looking, but none of them seemed to work: He, himself, was still himself. The salt would not be requested at this time.
That was it for him. He flipped his chair into the curved sewer wall and, knees falling to the floor along with his tears, He inched his way to the urine pool. Sniffing mucus deeply with his potato nose, cries sounding like coughs or vice-versa, he gazed into the yellow surface and stared at himself: throbbing eyes, blotchy, crusted beard, bloody lips: He looked nothing like The He of his dream, and He couldn’t. He started pulling at his beard, yanking hair out in painful chunks, howling deeply in the process. Marjory could only watch, her little mind terrorized yet again. As his ugly face twisted and contorted into horrific forms, Marjory observed the moment where a youngish man grew quite old, where a grim dreamer became a grim realist, and with nothing else to do, Marjory ran.
Marjory did run, most absolutely, with all of the power she had in her little body. She had never exerted anything sub-mental before, but her feet churned the dirt into a plume until she reached the spiny entryway, and even then she muscled her way through each bramble until she found daylight.
Somewhere inside him, everything soured into hatred. He went right after her just for the sake of straining himself, navigating his way with slightly more expertise, until they were both sprawled out in public view; why would she run? Marjory was out into the street in no time, kicking thorns from her ankles, wiping tears from her eyes, as He followed in aimless pursuit, desperately stirring up that poisons had dared to settle inside of him. She hit a main boulevard, sprinting beneath giant billboards of herself offering a bounty for her capture, emerging in front of a mass of public with great agility, and shot out across the street; He followed blindly on her trail.
The truck only glanced him, but at its speed it certainly doled out a fair punch; his pelvis shattered like candy, and He lay on the street as still as was necessary. The pain was brutal, as physically brutal as anything He’d known, but his mind was sharpened, focused on the sky above and little else. But for his chest rising and falling, it was a surprisingly calm moment, and Marjory Blythe Adams-Showalter was graciously spared of it, so quickly was she snatched up by a rather perceptive reward-seeker.
As Marjory’s mind jumped back to the Adams-Showalter Estate, MEDEVAC scooped him from the sidewalk, securing his bones in place on the gurney as a plumber might tape up running water. Paramedics bombarded him with questions, and sirens melded purple on the ambulance ceiling, but nothing meant much of anything. He caught a glimpse of Marjory as she was guided into a squad car across the street and, his ears ringing with pain, managed to consider, just for a moment, what it’d be like to go with her.
A week or so passed, but He couldn’t tell you what it entailed, so deeply lost He was in linguistics and morphine. He was bathed; He was shaven; He was looked at for the first time, even by his own eyes. He stared confusedly into a mirror and, instead of seeing a bloodshot, scabby beard tangled by the web of window panes on the side of a skyscraper or in offered plaintively from a pool of piss, He saw something strange: features that were so drably common and indistinct that they could have belonged to anyone. He was now a businessman, a police officer, a father, a guest, a host; most significantly, He was no longer himself. The vein under his eye throbbed ever so sedately, as he watched the IV go drip, drip, drip.