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.