walter williams had long prided himself on being the last well-dressed man in the ever-expanding metropolis, and he had inured himself to the taunts of boors and riffraff and hooligans as he made his way down the various boulevards of the city in his homburg and spats, with his rolled umbrella and his perfectly starched collars and his pointed handkerchief in the breast pocket of his jacket.
he had, indeed, welcomed the jeers, and found his destiny in them, as surely as he looked forward to the day when taste and civilization returned ascendant, and he, walter, would be remembered as the lonely hero who kept the banner flying and the light burning in the darkest hours.
but of late, he begun to doubt, and to feel the stirrings of despondency.
not that his reception in the street had grown harsher. if anything, it had become milder, much milder, and instead of hoots and rude remarks, he now experienced only the occasional quizzical or milldly amused glance.
“is this the end,?” walter thought, as he sat on a park bench one late afternoon, “ am i, and my dreams, to simply fade away, without even a chance to take the battle to the enemy? am i the last of all my tribe?”
walter realized he must have spoken the last sentence, at least, aloud, for a voice from the other end of the bench replied,
“i, too, sir, often feel the same way. i, too, am the last of my tribe.”
walter turned his head and saw a completely nondescript individual, whose arrival he had not registered, leaning back against the slats of the bench and regarding walter with the trace of a wistful smile.
“do you now, sir?” walter addressed the nondescript personage politely, for he always extended to others the courtesy he expected himself, “and what might that tribe be?”
“the tribe of wizards,” the man answered.
“really?” was all walter could think to reply.
“i am indeed. and in my time i was the most powerful of all wizards, the veritable master of all time and space. kingdoms and empires whirled through my fingers like grains of sand, universes wobbled on their axes, and galaxies vanished at my touch.” the nondescript man shook his head with a rueful smile. “as for what use i made of my powers, delicacy bids me be silent.”
“i am sure you used your powers wisely and well,” walter murmured, as he considered the best way to make his escape from the wizard.
but before the conversation went any further, it was interrupted by the arrival of a third personage.
a fellow almost the twin of the wizard, but smaller and shabbier. who stood before walter and announced,
“i could not help overhearing you gentlemens’ conversation. i, too, am the last of my tribe.”
“and that tribe is - ?“ walter managed to smile.
“for many years,” the little man said, “i collected the labels of whiskey bottles, and in time i amassed what was undoubtedly the world’s greatest collection of such. but all the other collectors passed away, and i was left alone with none but myself to admire my carefully accumulated treasures. and then, just last week, my attic room was broken into and my life’s work stolen. no doubt by ignorant thugs unaware of its uniqueness, who probably consigned it to the nearest dumpster. so you see, gentlemen, i too am the last of my tribe.”
walter nodded, but the wizard exclaimed, “good grief! do you equate the collection of the labels of whiskey bottles with wizardry, with mastery of all time and space? what impudence!”
“now, now,:” said walter, with a philosophy he did not know he had in him, “who are we to say? when we each choose our path through this life, how do we know with what laughter, or with what indifference, the gods regard us?”
and all three fell silent, as the twilight closed around them.
it all began on the rainy afternoon that emily discovered that glen was a murderer.
emily had always trusted glen completely, and paid no attention to the other women in the office, with their lurid tales of the mischief stay at home husbands could get into.
one afternoon emily was feeling unwell - probably from the terrible chicken croquettes she had had at lunch with a client - and she went home early.
when she got to the apartment she recognized a car parked on the street as belonging to glen’s friend richard, whom she had always found a very polite and pleasant individual.
she had described richard once to her friend at work marcia , and although marcia had never even seen richard, and had met glen only once or twice, she pronounced that glen and richard were “absolutely” lovers.
how ridiculous people were!
nevertheless emily decided to enter the apartment as quietly as possible, so as to “surprise” glen and richard at their no doubt innocent conversation. and put the silly insinuations to rest once and for all.
emily turned the key in the front door lock and slipped noiselessly into the carpeted front room.
she could hear richard’s voice in the kitchen - surprisingly loud and a bit grating. the two men were probably sitting at the kitchen table. drinking beer? talking about football?
but if they were in the kitchen they weren’t making love, were they? so there!
emily crept a little closer toward the kitchen.
“then she really started crying,” richard was saying, “and i told her, baby, there is nobody out here to hear you, nobody at all…”
and glen laughed, as emily had never heard him laugh before, and said “yeah, they get that way, don’t they, especially when they know the end is near…”
emily listened some more, and it got worse. much worse.
somehow emily found herself back outside the apartment. she got down the stairs and out on to the street, and the cold air and light rain slapped her in the face.
waking her up? had it been a dream? a hallucination?
no, it had happened! she had heard what she had heard.
glen was a serial killer! maybe a member of a cabal of serial killers.
emily hailed a cab, and went to see her best friend, jeanette.
jeanette was married to a junior hedge fund manager, and spent her mornings practicing karate and her afternoons baking chocolate chip cookies which she sold on the internet.
jeanette went on calmly ladling freshly baked cookies onto china plates as emily told her tale.
“what do you think?’ emily asked, after describing what she had heard. “do you think - do you think - they were maybe playing some kind of role-playing game?”
“they might have been,” jeanette said, “or running through a screenplay - guys with nothing to do are big for writing screenplays - but i wouldn’t count on it. “
“should i - do you think i should i confront glen?”
“no, don’t do that! that’s the last thing you want to do! what you need, babe, is a lawyer. get a lawyer, and then go to the police. let them sort it out, they are professionals.”
“but this is so awful! how can this be? how can such a thing be?”
“well, you’re not the first woman something like this has happened to.” jeanette finished putting the cookies on plates and checked her oven to make sure it was off. “it is all just part of the general misogynistic malaise of the planet. men, as you may have noticed, are not taking kindly to the revolt of women against them, and this is all just part of that.”
“but - but what can i do?”
“i told you, get a lawyer. you must know some lawyers, from your job.”
“yes, but they just do taxes and stuff. i don’t know any real lawyers, like perry mason.”
“you could find one online.”
“but how long will that take?” emily slumped down in jeanette’s kitchen chair. “no, i think i will just - go to the police and get it over with.”
“i tell you what,” jeanette said. “i will drive you to the station. then i have an appointment, and when i’m through i’ll come back to the station and see how you are doing. maybe i can pick up a lawyer on the way. jeffrey knows a million lawyers, there must be one who can help you. how does that sound?”
“all right,” emily agreed.
jeanette dropped emily off, and emily entered the police station by herself.
inside, the station was quieter than emily had expected. a young woman in uniform was seated at a front desk.
“can i help you, ma’am?”
“yes, i think my husband is a murderer. probably a serial killer.”
“please have a seat. a detective will be with you shortly.”
emily sat down on a bench. there was nobody else on it. the station was dreary enough, but not nearly as sinister or bustling as one in a movie or tv show.
how had it come to this?
emily remembered when she was young , and how her mother and dad had aways seemed to just get along. the closest they ever had to a disagreement was dad grumbling about having roast beef for dinner every single sunday afternoon.
as i recall, there were four of us left, myself, gunther, agatha, and lord george, slumped on the sofas of mr richardson’s not very tastefully appointed drawing room.
the party had been a solemn affair, without much scintillating conversation or scintillating anything, and we had dedicated ourselves to nothing more than the systematic depletion of our host’s liquor supply, punctuated by the occasional gaze into space.
gunther broke the silence.
“we had one of those old fashioned family councils,” he began, “and it was agreed that it was all up, and that it was only a matter of a few weeks at most before the bolsheviks arrived.
that being decided, we were ready to pack up what we could carry and be on our way. there was no time to sell the castle or anything else by the time honored procedures, even assuming the time honored procedures were still available.
but germinie had another idea, an idea to at least realize a bit of money that would come in handy in the first stages of our journeys.
she had read of a proceeding that was, according to her, common among the brits or maybe the yanks, and that was to empty the contents of a house, or in our case the castle, out on to a lawn or thoroughfare and offer them for sale - at ridiculously low prices - to passers by or to such persons in the vicinity who could be made aware of the occasion.
so germinie, in her energetic way, and assisted by her faithful lieutenants clara and sophie, and by the few servants who remained, set to, ‘with a will’, and on the appointed day, about a week after the decision to flee, i beheld, with what emotion i refrain from attempting to describe, many of the familiar objects of my childhood spread out nakedly in the sunshine - for it was quite a nice day - on the great green lawn i had so loved, and that had been tended for so long by so many faithful servants.
germinie and sophie and clara had attached little tags to most of the objects - or to the tables on which they stood - indicating prices, but it was understood that these were subject to bargaining, and that the bargaining on our side would be perfunctory and that we would take what was offered.
the greatest space was occupied by the contents of the old count’s vast library - which no doubt contained many so-called priceless volumes, but which were offered for small change along with many also priceless pictures and knick knacks and tables and mirrors and whatever.
i was assigned the duty of overseeing the sale of the books.
as the morning proceeded a not inconsiderable crowd materialized, of the peasants or middle class or bourgeiosie or however they were called, and with much shouting and jollity they picked their way through the scattered debris of my shattered existence.
germinie was at first delighted by the results, and happily exclaimed her surprise at the amounts of money accumulated - by such small amounts! - in so little time. i had always suspected her of having a merchant’s soul.
but as the day wore on, it was apparent that there was a loaves and fishes quality to the whole proceeding, and that no matter how much was sold, it seemed that hardly a dent had been made in the whole array, especially in the books, at which i proved but a poor hawker of wares.
so germinie and sophie and clara began circulating through the crowd, announcing that the prices were cut in half, and later by two-thirds , and still later as the sun began its descent, to ten percent of the original prices on the tags.
and this achieved some success, but still the peasants shuffled about, and poked and prodded, and scowled, and considered, and wished to haggle. and a great deal remained to be sold, again, especially the count’s beloved books, which excited little interest in the multitude, even when offered for literally a half-penny a volume.
finally, as dusk approached, germinie, faced with the prospects of bringing the books and other goods back into the castle , threw up her hands and shouted, ‘it’s free! it’s all free, good people! just take it - take what you will!’
and at that point the locusts descended, and the lawn was speedily denuded, or virtually so.”
gunther paused, but as none of us made any comment, he continued,
“i have often thought that this episode perfectly encapsulates the whole story of the modern age, the rise and fall of capitalism, of marxism, of the idea of progress, of post-post whatever, and the whole lot of it.”
“maybe,” said lord george, “people just like free stuff.”
aristide, a young man from the provinces, was walking down the boulevard of the great city when he was accosted and surrounded by a gang of hooligans.
“say you love slug,” the young man who was obviously the leader of the gang, addressed aristide.
“slug? who or what is slug?” aristde asked.
“he doesn’t know who slug is,” the hooligan at aristide’s right elbow said with a scornful air.
“then i guess he doesn’t love him,” another hooligan, a young woman, said.
“if you don’t love slug,” a burly young man added. “you have to give us your wallet.”
aristide looked around. although the hooligans had surrounded him, there was enough space between them that he could see people walking past on the sidewalk with complete unconcern.
“come now,” aristide addressed the hooligans with a show of such confidence as he could assume, “what is the point of taking my wallet? i have no cash, not even a tuppence, and you know my credit card will be cancelled in a matter of minutes.”
“not if we kill you,” the young woman who had spoken before said.
“i really don’t think you are going to do that,” aristide replied with an air of authority - or resignation to fate? - that surprised himself. “not here on this busy street.”
“come on, bro,” the leader said. “we all know what’s what here - we are not going to kill you. but you will give us your card, we will get what we can with it, some sodas or beef jerky or whatever, you will get a new card, life will go on, and everybody will be happy.”
“i suppose so,” aristide sighed. and handed his wallet over to the leader. he hoped that the wallet itself, cheap as it was, would be returned to him, but this was not to be.
as the circle of hooligans melted away , one of them - a fellow who looked a bit older than his mates, and entirely too old to be dong what he was doing, turned back to aristide.
“can i put a question to you?” he asked aristide.
“do you think life is real?” and with that the fellow turned back and followed his companions.
aristide proceeded along, with his thoughts but without his wallet, not exactly happy, but alive, and with life going on around him.
curiously, the question the hooligan had asked - whether life was real - was one that had been occupying aristide’s own thoughts for the previous few days, provoked by some odd incidents.
aristide had been keeping a diary. and the diary had mysteriously disappeared! burglary seemed unlikely, as nothing else in his room seemed missing or disturbed.
and he had attempted to call his uncle charles in the northern territories, only to be told that no such person existed. or ever had.
now aristide noticed coming towards him on the street a man who reminded him of uncle charles. a distinguished looking gray haired gentleman with a kindly look in his eye.
“excuse me,sir,” aristide accosted the distinguished looking man.
“may i ask you a question?”
“if you like.”
“do you know who ‘slug’ is?”
the gentleman looked puzzled by the question, and aristide briefly recounted his encounter with the hooligans.
“slug?” the gentleman repeated thoughtfully. “no doubt one of the myriad gods and godlings that are springing up like weeds, or mosquitos, as they always do in the declining days of empires. or - it may simply have been a private joke of the barbarians who accosted you. i wouldn’t worry about it.”
“no?’ aristide asked. “have you had similar experiences yourself, sir?”
“of course,” the man smiled. “but i do as i intend to do right now - go home and read my beloved ovid and catullus, and pour myself a stiff drink. i advise you to do the same, or something similar.”
“do you think that life is real?” aristide blurted out.
“why, as to that, wiser men than i have declined to pronounce definitely.”
aristide thanked the man for his sage advice, and went on his way.
but the day was not yet done with him.
on arriving at his lodgings, he was handed an envelope by the concierge.
it was a letter he had been awaiting with trepidation for weeks.
he opened it and his worst fears were realized. his application for employment at the imperial bureau of culture had been rejected. the letter went on to say that the bureau was being reorganized and that there would be no openings in the foreseeable future.
it had been his last hope.
what is to become of me, aristide wondered. with all my charm and savoir faire and sangfroid, am i to perish miserably here in the faltering heart of the disintegrating empire like so many unfortunates before me?
and , he thought despairingly, i do not know if life is real, but at this moment i surely wish it were not.
ralph jackson was a senior concentration consultant at a midlevel psychological consulting firm, and he took the 7:23 express into the city every day.
but he had not always been a senior concentration consultant who took the express into the city every day.
in his time he had seen and done things too terrible to be described.
one cool foggy morning ralph was waiting for the express and glancing at the headlines in the times - which he bought every morning to do the crossword puzzle - when he felt somebody’s eyes on him.
ralph turned and saw a stranger staring at him, a man of the same age and as nondescript as himself, though somewhat shorter and thinner. ralph thought he looked familiar.
the man noticed ralph’s gaze but continued staring at him, not with any hostility or curiosity but as one might stare into a shop window.
ralph’s years of seeing and doing things too terrible to be described had left him no blushing violet, and he put his times under his arm and approached the staring man with the sangfroid he had exhibited in times past when he was interrogating his fellow humans and being interrogated by them.
“do i know you?” ralph asked the man politely.
“of course. don’t you know me?”
“why don’t you refresh my memory?”
“glad to.” the man smiled wearily. “doctor madison. doctor carter madison. surely you remember?”
ralph looked around. there were three other commuters waiting for the train - two women and a man, all familiar to ralph by sight though he had never spoken to any of them.
ralph discreetly moved out of earshot of them, and the stranger followed.
“doctor carter madison,” ralph resumed the conversation. “i believe he fixed me up in jakarta back in the day.”
“he did indeed,” said the stranger. “but is that all you remember?”
“i would say,” ralph replied carefully, “that is all i remember that might be worth remembering.”
“you don’t remember the experiments he performed on you?”
“are you sure you are not confusing me with somebody else? and what was or is your connection with doctor madison?”
“i am not confusing anything, mister jackson. my connection with the good doctor is the same as yours. we - or i should say i - was the subject of his experiments.”
“i am afraid i don’t follow you, “ ralph smiled. “who was experimented on - you or i or both of us?”
“the doctor expanded your consciousness. don’t you remember?”
“you mean he gave me acid or some other drug? i am afraid i don’t remember. but then it was a long time ago, wasn’t it?”
ralph glanced down the track. the train was a couple of minutes late - but it often was.
“i don’t mean that at all, “ the stranger continued. “i mean that he expanded your consciousness into another body. a body he had specially constructed for the occasion - mine. so you see, we are one and the same - one person.”
“you mean we are identical twins - or clones or whatever?”
“nothing so simple. we are one - one person in two bodies. i am you and you are i.”
ralph turned and looked down the track again. “sounds too mystical for me. perhaps you and the doctor spent too much time in the mysterious orient, if you get my drift.”
“you think so?” for the first time the stranger seemed a bit annoyed by ralph’s indifferent attitude. “look here.” he took a penknife from his pocket. “as we are one, you can feel my pain. as i can feel yours.”
he stabbed the penknife into his palm, sharply, drawing blood. “did you feel that?” he asked ralph.
“a little bit,” ralph admitted. “a pretty good trick. but i have been to the mysterious east myself, and i have seen better.”
“have you now? well, since we have the same brain, how about if i describe the disgusting fantasies you were indulging in just before we began this conversation - where you encounter a group of - “
“that won’t be necessary,” ralph smiled. “i suppose i could read your fantasies too, eh?”
“if you care to. they are by no means blameless, though not completely depraved or unmanly.”
“here is the train,” ralph announced. “are you getting on it?”
“not today, mister jackson. but we will meet again, and resume this conversation.”
“au revour, then.”
what a bore, thought ralph, as he settled into his seat. he would have to contact doctor madison and tell him the fellow was loose, and he wondered what the most secure way to do it would be.
ralph was sure nothing would come of it, but they couldn’t be too careful.
nothing could be allowed to jeopardize ralph’s and doctor madison’s plans to conquer the universe.
xina had heard bad things about planet e, and especially about the city of satan which was its capital and largest city, but she had nowhere else to go. she was a big girl, she had been out of work for months and her mother would not support her any longer.
her cousin, mary lou, had gotten a job for xina on planet e , and she expressed the hope that xina could do the job and not make her, mary lou, look bad.
xina arrived on planet e and found her way to the office where she was to work. the office had a number on its door, but did not seem to have a name.
a woman named cathy, who looked a little meaner than xina would gave liked, brought xina over to a row of small tables. each table held a small video display and a tiny keypad and a set of small headphones.
about two thirds of the tables were occupied by women with the headphones on, who xina assumed were doing whatever cathy was going to instruct xina to do.
xina sat down at one of the tables and cathy, standing beside her, pressed a button on the side of the display and it lit up.
“this is some pretty simple shit,” said cathy in her nasty voice. “look here.” she pointed to the top half of the screen. it consisted of a list of numbers, which xina recognized as probably being phone numbers, although some were quite long, indicating they were from other cities or planets. the top nunber was highlighted.
“you will be going through these numbers,” cathy said. “just hit the enter key to call the number. and when you finish with one call hit the down arrow for the next one. simple enough. if the number doesn’t answer, and 83 percent of them won’t, they will get an automated message and the highlight will turn pink. so just hit the down arrow and go to the next message. all right. now look at the bottom of the screen. that is the message, if the number does answer, read that message exactly - exactly. got that?”
“o k, read the message to me.”
xina looked puzzled, and cathy laughed and said, “we get some dumdums in here who can’t read, so i just want to make sure you can read.”
“oh.” xina read off the message which was “your health coverage is going to expire at midnight. i repeat, your health coverage is going to expire at midnight. to ensure continuation of your coverage, please press the number 1 to speak to a customer representative, or press 2 if you no longer wish to have health coverage.”
“that’s good,” said cathy, “you got a little sex in your voice. that’s good. this isn’t phone sex, but it doesn’t hurt to have a little sex in your voice.” cathy scowled and looked around at some of the other women at their tables, who presumably did not have a little sex in their voices.
“you can see the numbers 1 and 2 on the bottom of the screen,” cathy continued. “if they press one it lights up, and you move on.”
“and that’s it?” xina asked.
“almost. now, sometimes the person will try to ask questions. just repeat the message. you can leave out the “i repeat, blah blah, but get in the ‘your health coverage is going to expire at midnight’ and the ‘please press 1 to speak to a customer rep.’ don’t try to get creative or be their friend or any shit like that. repeat one time , then rinse and move on. got it?”
xina nodded. “i think so.”
“good. now, once in a while somebody will get really nasty and smart-assy, but just ignore it, repeat one time like i said, and move on. all right, go ahead, let me see you do it.”
xina pressed the enter key. she could hear a phone ringing on the other end, but after two rings the number lit up pink. she hit the down arrow and the enter key for the next number.
the first twelve numbers xina hit turned pink, and cathy said, “fuck, i can’t stand here all day. you’ll be all right,” and she moved off.
xina finally got a hit on the second number after that.
“hel-ooo?” a snarky young male voice answered.
xina read the message. neither number 1 nor number 2 was pressed and there was a pause.
“what happens if i press number 2?” the voice asked. “do i die like a dog in the streets?”
xina was perplexed for a second, but remembered to repeat “ your health coverage is going to expire at midnight - “
“is that right, bitch? is that fucking right? listen up, now, you think i can’t find you? you think i can’t see you right now? they probably told you i can’t see you or know where you are, but they lied, bitch, they lied. i’m going to track down your skinny ass - your skinny fucking ass that no man in twenty galaxies would fuck - and i’m going to cut your lying scamming heart out and your lying scamming cunt out - oh, i forgot, you’re a trannie - and i’m going to put them on a sesame seed bun with a special sauce and serve them to satan - “
could xina hang up? was there something else she was supposed to say? yes, she remembered! “please press 1 to speak to a customer representative - “
“fuck you1 fuck you! fuck you! “ xina thought she heard something in the background of the call but hit the down arrow.
“adam, what are you making all that noise about down there? you’re upsetting grandma again.”
“get up here and help me move the couch. i want to get behind it with the vacuum cleaner.”
xina got through the rest of the day. a couple of the other women invited her to lunch and were nice and that calmed her down a little bit but she was still upset when she got back to mary lou’s apartment, where she got no sympathy.
the next day xina went back to her home planet. her mother was very angry and threatened to beat her with a stick “like in the old days” but did not actually do so.
an old prospector was sitting in front of his campfire and a rattlesnake came along and bit him.
when the old prospector expired, a coyote came along and took a few bites out of his carcass.
then the rattlesnake and the coyote sat around in front of the dying embers of the old prospector’s fire and swapped yarns.
the rattlesnake told this tale.
once upon a time there was a little grain of sand.
the little grain of sand lived in the middle of a sunny beach.
one day a senior systems analyst came along and told the little grain of sand that she could be granted four wishes.
the grain of sand’s first wish was to become a pearl, in a string of pearls around the neck of a beautiful princess.
that is one wish, said the senior systems analyst, what are the others?
i will save them for later, replied the grain of sand.
very well, replied the senior systems analyst, i will see you again next year.
a year went by and the grain of sand was happy being a pearl, but when the senior systems analyst returned to hear the second wish, the pearl asked to become a princess herself.
this wish was granted, and the senior systems analyst promised to return in a year.
when the year was up, the princess told the senior systems analyst that she was happy being a princess, but that she would like to be married to a handsome movie star and to be taken away by him to an estate on a private island .
very well, said the senior systems analyst, but you understand that that counts as two wishes, one to marry the movie star, and one to live on the island, and that you will thereby use up all your wishes.
the princess agreed, and found herself on the private island under a blue sky, married to the handsome movie star.
when the princess went for a walk on the beach on the island, she realized it was the very beach she been a grain of sand on herself.
and she was walking along stepping on all her little brothers and sisters who were still grains of sand.
and she began to cry.
“and that’s it?” asked the coyote.
“that’s it,” said the rattlesnake.
“that’s the stupidest story i ever heard,” said the coyote.
“well, that’s just too darn bad,” said the rattlesnake. “if you don’t like it, i suggest you take a hike, because i got here first.”
the coyote took the rattlesnake at her word, and trotted off and howled at the moon.