THERE ARE TREES, AND CURRENTS of air. The sun smiles. I am empty. I have fought for so long I am worn out, the juices have dried. What I want now is peace. But I dont want to be alone. God save me from that. I am exhausted with myself. My image in the mirror frightens me. Is this what I have become? I do not look old; I look young and almost cheerful. My hair is carefully trimmed. I am tidy. I am afraid to leave this room: I do not belong outside, on the street. The streets near me are empty, no one walks any more, there are only old men sitting on porches and people driving by in their cars. They stare at me: a walking man. In the town there are others on the sidewalks, but they all have places to go, even the few who are alone, they stride into the stores, full of purpose, consumed with plans. I am aimless. I try to look purposeful also: I bend my head forward, I frown at the air before me, I consult my watch. Am I late? I ask myself. Have I time? Shall I just stop for a moment, and look in this window—can I afford a moment to rest? But they see through me, even those who are blind, it is not difficult to see that I am out of place. They want to ask me: What are you doing here? Who let you out? How did you escape? Why dont you go back, wherever it is you came from? Even if I go into a restaurant, they see who I am right away. It is difficult to find a place to sit. The waitress will look at the cook, and say, Do I have to serve him? She frowns, and comes to me, and tosses a menu on the counter. I tell her I only want coffee. She sniffs. Of course. What else could she expect, from one like this? Coffee he wants, no doubt all he can afford, no sense of proportion at all, he comes in here and orders coffee, just sits right down and says he wants coffee. The coffee slops into the saucer, and I apologize for her clumsiness. I am sorry to have bothered you. I am sorry to have come in here. I will drink my coffee and leave, as soon as possible. But what is the point of that? If I go home—if I go to the place where I live—I have nothing to do but stare out the window. How long can a man stare out of a window, without going mad? My neighbors do not know me, and I do not know them. I see my landlord only when I pay my rent, and he takes the money as though he were doing me a favor. I expect him, momentarily, to double the rent. I would be unable to refuse it. I would give him everything I have.
My money comes once a month. It arrives in the mail. It has been like that for a long time, and I am no longer sure whether I am paid to stay away, or if someone once felt kindly towards me. If they stopped, I would die. I do not know how to work. I have no talent, no skill, no trade. I have been to no schools that taught me anything. I would not know how to look for work. What does one do? Stand on the street with a sign? How could I go to a strange place and ask for work, I who can do nothing? I could not speak to a stranger.
I dream. What else can I do? It is expected of me. I am the dreamer, the one who sits and dreams, I crouch in my chair and wander over the earth. Today I dream of darkness, tomorrow of light. I dream the trees are black, next they will be silver, their leaves will shine in the sunlight. Now all is dark. The trees are huge and damp. It has rained, and even now, hours later, the water still drips through their leaves onto the ground. Beyond the clearing is jungle, the jungle is violent on the hillsides, it is impossible to walk through it. I have tried. I am covered with leeches and bumps from insects, scratches from the thickets. Snakes crawl over the ground. Birds fly in the air. Among the tangled vines animals twist their way. I can smell their damp fur, the odor hangs in the air with the smell of crushed mushrooms and bruised flowers.
Yesterday a woman came to my room.
You have been truant, she said.
I am too old to go to school, I said.
You are never too old to learn. Besides, you can play chess.
I opened with a queen's gambit pawn.
Tut-tut! she said. Always trying to take advantage! I shall have to handicap you.
She took my queen, crossed her legs, and smiled.
Isnt that what you want? she said.
I caught her rook and bishop in a knight's fork. She polished her nails, and buffed them against her silk dress. It isnt right, she said. She rubbed her nails against her thigh. How can I look pretty, and play chess too, if you do things like that? She removed my horse and put it under her chair. Now, she said, you cant use that one again. I marshaled my forces, and moved my pawns forward, attacking on her king side. She castled over her queen, and when I protested she smiled, took the cuff of my shirt--forcing me to bend over--and polished her shoes. Isnt that better? she said. See how they shine! Isnt it pretty? Listen to the wind! Her legs were long and dark. Her hair was brilliant and sparkling. The wind came in through the window, and all the lamps outside had gone out. We were in a little space of electric light. The walls were very bare, I had nothing to hang there, no pictures of any kind. Only along the base at the edge of the floor were marks where some child, perhaps years ago, had scrawled figures in crayon. At night the stick figures danced, but always, by morning, they came back to the same spot. I saw one now, twitching a leg. There was nothing to be done about it. The woman moved her rook, then her bishop, and took two of my pawns from the board. She put them in her handbag. Theyll make a handsome set of salt shakers, she said to me. I'll have them hollowed out. Arent you pleased?
It was time to eat, and I crushed mushrooms in the sink.
I'm sorry you lost the game, she said. But isnt it nicer this way, in the evening?
A fire burned on the stove, and she put her arms around my neck. Later I abolished her. But not before I stripped her of everything she owned. You have to go, I said. She shrank from me in fear. She turned haggard, and wrinkles appeared in her skin. I smelled her damp fur. Her silk clothes were lax and lusterless on her bones. Her silk stockings hung in folds on her thin legs. She tried to tempt me once, quickly, opening her thighs and drawing up her dress, but she was too late and I shot her. She became dust. The dust slithered over the floor with the wind. I swept her into a pile, along with some bruised flowers, and deposited her in the dust bin under the sink. I put the chess pieces on the board again, and practiced a variation of the Giucco Piano. It ended well, and I made myself a cup of tea and hummed while I sipped at it. I had nothing to fear from anyone.
I LOOK AT MYSELF IN THE MIRROR, and am frightened. Is this me? I cannot believe it, in the glass everything is backwards. I do not part my hair on that side, my right eye is his left eye. Yet he knows me. If I dream I am in the jungle, my mirror-self says, You cannot fool me, you are here, I know where you are all the time. I would like to smash him.
In the street below my window the cars pass with their headlights on. It is a dark night. A car races its engine, then dies. A truck roars past, carrying a load of food, perhaps furniture, perhaps bodies, going through its gears one by one. There is no end to it. The truck whines away into the distance.
My mirror-self says: You cannot fool me. Yet he is not myself. Nor is he himself. He has no name, so I give him one: he is Uncle. I have no uncles, no aunts, so it is fitting that he be called Uncle. During the days and nights he may talk, and I will treat him with respect, although I hate him. In the day I will peddle alms from people I will never meet, and he can talk to me. At night I will dream, and he can still talk. In the end it is the same thing. The heat and the cold. The light and the dark. The sun smiles. I am empty. My empty mirror remains, hanging on the wall; my empty Uncle remains, hanging in the glass, his eyes reflecting sardonic amusement as he waits, patiently, for me to die. I must not disappoint him. Slowly I shall get up from my chair. The tables and knick-knacks will part for me, the walls will bend back, whispering. I can hear them: Make way, let him pass, they whisper back and forth. The narrow hallway opens onto a flat plain. The trees cower into the dirt. A black river, like a snake, darts into the underbrush, hiding. He will wait there, his scales crawling with vermin, his teeth dripping poison, until I pass. When he springs his eyes will be bloated with delight. Like a lover, his passion will fasten onto me. I can see the sun burrowing away into the stormy sky, making the shadows grow. Confidently the creature awaits me. He knows there is only one path, and the path leads into his gaping jaws. From him there can never be any escape, even in my dreams. As I look past my mirror I see my Uncle cock his head. He opens his mouth into a laugh, and I shut my eyes and turn away: I know what he will say, and I am too weary to listen.
NOTES: The Night-Dreaming Alms Peddler, written in about 1967, was published in Degenerate Prose: Writing Beyond Category (FC2/Black Ice Books, 1995)