"he was outcast from life's feast." - james joyce, "dubliners"
when bob reached the bottom of the stairs, he felt proud of himself for taking it so well when the doctor told him he had six weeks to live. the doctor's office was in a small commercial mall, over a t j maxx discount store which was beside a burger king.
it was the middle of december, and night was falling early. bob turned to get to the wider part of the parking lot and his car, and his eye fell on the signs in the window of the burger king. bob had always been an assiduously healthy eater - and a lot of good it did me, he told himself ruefully - and had never in his life been inside a burger king, a mcdonalds or any similar establishment. he started to pass by, then stopped.
although he had only six weeks to live, he had nothing in particular to do. he was just going to go home and watch reruns of seinfeld and drew carey, like he did every night. suddenly he was hungry. on an impulse he went into the burger king.
he wandered wide eyed up to the counter. he stared up at the illustrated menus on the back wall. the two young women behind the counter didn't seem to think it odd that he took so much time looking at the menu.
a whopper! he had heard the term, but there was something unreal about actually seeing it on the wall. he stepped a little closer to the counter and one of the young women asked, "can i help you?"
"i'll have a whopper, please."
"anything with it? fries, onion rings?"
bob didn't laugh, although he might have if she had actually said, "do you want fries with that?"
"anything to drink?"
"uh - coffee."
"how do you want it?"
incredible! he was actually ordering in a burger king! this was much more amazing than dying in six weeks.
when the order came - in less than a minute! - bob took his tray and moved to a table in the back as far from the other customers as he could get. he realized he had forgotten to take any napkins and got up to get some, keeping a careful eye on the tray he left on the table.
he returned to the table and sat down. he suddenly noticed how bright the whole place was. why did it have to be so bright? he picked up the whopper in two hands, hesitated, and bit into it.
and his whole life changed.
for the first time in his life, bob knew ecstasy. and that was just from biting into the whopper. when he actually started chewing, swallowing, and digesting it - tears erupted in his eyes.
time dissolved. his consciousness stood outside himself, watching himself devour the whopper. slow down, slow down, it told him - don't choke, don't choke yourself. and enjoy the moment.
he finished the burger and swallowed a couple of mouthfuls of the black coffee, barely noticing how hot it was. normal consciousness drained back into his body.
he looked at around at the other patrons of the establishment - mostly overweight teenage girls in blue or gray sweatshirts. nobody seemed to have noticed him and his transcendant experience. they were concentrating on their portions, in a manner both businesslike and blase.
he wanted another one.
now the problem began. bob was a very self conscious person - perhaps the world's most self conscious person. would he look silly going back for another one?
would the girls at the counter, the other diners, laugh at him, openly or secretly? no, he told himself, they didn't laugh or even notice when i stood gawking at the menu like a martian. surely they won't laugh if i just order another one? people must order seconds every day - wasn't that why americans were overweight? and yet - and yet -
with a supreme effort of will bob forced himself up out of his chair. the girl hardly looked up when he ordered the second burger.
he went and sat back down with a barely suppressed sigh of relief.
he hardly had time to start thinking about the strange turns his now shortened life had taken when the whopper was ready. this is great, he thought, this is what the word "fast" really means.
he ate the second burger more slowly, "like a civilized human being" (one of his favorite phrases). and as he devoured the burger and sipped his black coffee - maybe he should start putting cream and sugar - two sugars! - in it - terrible and regretful thoughts started percolating in his brain.
late at night, in a cottage in a bleak countryside.
heidi senberg hears a knock on the door. she puts down her knitting and gets up from the table. she opens the door.
"good evening, aunt margarethe. what brings you here at this late hour?"
"what brings me here? as you know, heidi, i am your aunt margarethe, and i have known you since you were a little girl. you were a curiously joyful little girl, prone to laughter at the most inopportune times, and as such, you attracted the attention of the ecclesiastical authorities. then, when your mother, my younger sister sillibet, ran off with an imperial guardsman at the time of the first forty year war, i took you in, even though i had already seven children of my own, with three more to come.
although i was only following the dictates of common charity, i would quickly pay the price of my folly. as the years went by and the ecclesiastical authorities gave way to the peoples tribunals and then back to the church and then to the revolution until a poor person's head began to spin, it was always you, heidi, who remained curiously untouched. whenever a new archbishop or a new commissar or good king matthew or his ill fated son augustus rode through the village, who did their eye fall upon, but the little girl with the strange laugh, who became the darkeyed wench with the even stranger laugh."
"this is all very well, aunt margarethe, and quite a speech from someone normally so taciturn as yourself, but what exactly has brought it on?"
"what has brought it on, you little fool? you have brought it on by stirring up trouble again, bringing yourself to the attention of the authorities with this ridiculous complaint about getting strange packages in the mail. only today the malignant and implacable inspector bohr visited me and pestered me with questions about you. me, a broken old woman only hoping for a few moments of peace."
"and what did you tell him?"
"nothing good, i assure you. my days of protecting you are long past, my girl."
"but aunt margarethe , i have indeed been getting these strange packages and as a citizen like any other i have a right to make a complaint. as you know, the days of turmoil are over and a dull peace has settled over the land. you can make all the nasty insinuations you like about coming to the attention of the commissars or prince augustus or anyone else, but today i make a humble living with my knitting and selling my oat cakes. i am just a poor citizen like you, getting along as best i can one day at a time."
"hush! i hear someone!"
the door was flung open and the malignant and implacable inspector bohr stood before the two women.
aunt margarethe threw her shawl over her face as if avoiding the evil eye.
"good evening,sir," heidi addressed the visitor. "would you like one of my oat cakes? they are the best in the village, if i say so myself."
"no thank you. permit me to introduce myself. i am inspector bohr, or as the ignorant and superstitious villagers like to refer to me, the malignant and implacable inspector bohr. i am on special assignment from the ministry of the interior to investigate any curious happenings which might indicate a crack or fissure in the structure of society."
"i trust, sir, that i am not a crack in the structure of society, or even a fissure."
"as you know, miss, the villagers regard you as a sorceress or witch. those with long memories hold you accountable for the untimely fate of prince augustus. in these enlightened times we in positions of authority smile at such ignorance. of course you are not a witch. but you are a troublemaker, which is the same thing. "
the malignant and implacable inspector drew himself up. "yes, with these ridiculous allegations of strange packages in the mail. you know very well that you are sending them to yourself, simply to bring attention to yourself."
"but, inspector, the packages exist. i not only reported them, i brought them to the station."
"of course they exist, you made them yourself. do you think you are dealing with commissar gratz, or prince augustus now?"
"ah! i see, sir, that in your enlightened state you do not disdain the malicious prattle of idle tongues!"
"hark!" cried the inspector. "what is that?"
"yes," exclaimed aunt margarethe, "i hear something too."
the night outside the window and the open door was suddenly illuminated with torches.
"bring out the witch! bring out the witch! avenge prince augustus!"
heidi fixed inspector bohr with her gaze. "hold them off as long as you can."
"no." cried aunt margarethe, "let them have her!"
heidi snatched a couple of oat cakes off the table and wrapped them in a cloth and put them in her pocket. then she ran out the back door.
she ran across the fields until she reached the high road.
the skies were filled with strange burning stars.
a blue star exploded and sent a rain of red sparks to earth.
a riderless red horse with three heads passed her, headed back to the village.
a green horse with a guillotine on its back passed her going in her direction.
heidi saw prince augustus riding past her on his white horse. she rushed forward but when she touched the horse, both horse and rider disappeared and she landed on her face in a ditch.
she picked herself up and ran on. frogs and salamanders and tiger cubs began to rain down on her.
the full moon exploded and the souls of the saved emerged from it and drifted down to a mountain on the horizon.
then the sun suddenly rose and exploded, and the souls of the damned emerged from it and filled the whole horizon and the whole sky.
heidi kept running. an old woman in rags grabbed at her arm but she shook her off.
the curtain fell on act one. polite applause rippled through the cafe rousseau.
count witte and colonel osbert mccutcheon silently rose from their seats at one of the front tables and repaired to the foyer.
mr gibsen's coterie were assuring him of a triumph, even though there were two acts yet to come. miss gertrude gainsworth was not in evidence.
the colonel took a railroad timetable from his coat pocket and tapped it.
"we have just time to catch the express to naples. from there we can ferry to sardinia and meet the cairo-gibraltar packet."
"there you go, boys, i don't want to see you again until monday morning."
boss barlow had already changed out of his straw boss clothes and into a suit and tie. as he handed andy and conrad their pay packets he exhibited a smiling and friendly demeanor nowhere in evidence during the week. andy thought of asking him where he was headed in his finery, but decided not to.
the pay packets were heavy. conrad almost dropped his. he looked inside it and it contained only real money as promised, solid gold coins.
andy pocketed his without looking inside it. "do we have to come back here tonight?" he asked boss barlow.
"your time is your own until monday morning. go or do anything you like, just be here at 5 am on monday." with a smile, boss barlow closed the pay window in their faces.
"guess we were the last ones to get paid," said conrad.
"some of the fellows don't get paid. they are in arrears."
"that's a big word," said conrad. "do you know what it means?"
"not too exactly."
they went outside and down the road a ways to wait for the bus.
andy and conrad had arrived at the camp by different routes.
andy was coming he knew not whence, going he knew not whither. conrad had had, until that week, a clearer path. he was scheduled to enter stanford in the fall, where he would study architecture and medicine, and compete on the cross country and baseball teams.
but just that week his grandfather and father had been exposed as intercontinental swindlers, involved in a scheme to build a nonexistent coast to coast highway with the savings of spanish-american and russo-japanese war widows.
as a result , the father, grandfather, an aunt and uncle and conrad's older brother and his wife had all fled to mongolia and taken refuge with the bolsheviks - the largest group from america on record to do so.
the story had made the san francisco chronicle and conrad had bought twenty-five copies and passed them out to all the fellows in the gang.
"when does this bus come?" conrad asked andy.
"when it comes, i guess." andy leaned back on the bench. andy was a little older than conrad, and had seen and done things too terrible to contemplate.
"what do you want to do when we get there?"
"i don't know, what do you want to do?"
conrad lowered his voice. "you know, boss barlow said we could do anything we liked. do you think he meant robbing banks and raising cain and stuff?"
"i don't know, i think sheriff john brown might have a few things to say about that."
"and mr j edgar hoover and the fbi too."
"so what do you want to do?"
andy looked down at his shoes. "you know what i like?"
"no, what ?"
"i like excitement."
"hey, that's what i like, too."
"well then it's settled. when we get to town ,we'll look for some excitement."
a gentleman in a flat straw hat spotted them when they got off the bus.
"evening, boys. in from the camp?"
andy looked him over. "are you the mayor?"
"but some folks call you the mayor."
"some might. some might not. anything i can help you with? this is friendly town, boys, with liberty hall on every corner."
"we're looking for - " conrad started but andy held up his hand to stop him.
"we'll just look around ourselves," andy told the man. "but you'll be here if we change our minds?"
"i surely will."
"i didn't like his looks," andy said as they moved off.
"i didn't like that hat. it looked like he bought it in costa rica. or even belize."
an unlit sign above some stairs said "dance". they went up the stairs.
a man with a handlebar mustache sat behind a desk like a hotel clerk. there was a large door behind him but no sign of a dance floor. some men and boys were seated on a bench along a wall facing the desk. andy and conrad recognized some from the camp and nodded at them.
"having a dance tonight?" andy asked.
"we're trying. for the special introductory price of nine cents you can take a seat."
"expecting any women?" conrad asked the man.
"hard to say. this town's not as lively as it used to be." he shook his head. "can't make any promises."
"that's a good way to do business," andy told him.
"one of the recurring problems in this world, young man, is people making promises they can't keep."
"well if we was to leave and come back, chances are you'd still be here."
"the chances are very good indeed."
a faded sign in front of what looked like a rooming house said "show." a man in a gray suit stood outside it. it was a good suit but he wasn't wearing a hat!
"we got a good show tonight boys. looking for some excitement?"
"that we were,"said andy. " i guess you are some kind of mindreading mastermind."
" can i ask you a question?" conrad asked the man.
"go right ahead."
"how come you're not wearing a hat?"
"my head gets a little warm sometimes."
"so what's the show?" andy asked.
"the show - the show - is - a vampire sinking his teeth into a woman's neck. what do you think of that?"
"wow, that does sound exciting," andy agreed.
"a real live woman?," conrad asked.
"as alive as you or me."
"one thin dime."
"we don't have any thin dimes," conrad said. "all we have is gold coins."
"i can make change."
the show took place in the front parlor of the rooming house. the parlor was unlit. there were three other spectators but their faces could not be made out in the darkness.
"i like these seats," conrad told the man as they sank into them.
"we have seances here sometimes. you have to have comfortable seats."
"people who go to seances insist on a nice comfortably upholstered seat."
suddenly a single lamp went on and the vampire and the woman appeared.
he sank his teeth into her neck. the lamp went out. it was over in thirty seconds.
"did you see that suit the vampire was wearing?" andy asked conrad. "you could feed a family of sixteen for three years for what that suit must have cost."
"were those pearls real?" conrad asked the man. "that the woman was wearing?"
the man turned on another, larger light, illuminating the room. the vampire and the woman and the other spectators were gone.
"i don't know," the man answered conrad. "pearls are not my road game. and it would be rude to ask."
"well boys, if you liked that show, i've got an even better one next week, same time, same place."
"and same price?" andy asked.
"the same reasonable price."
"and what might the show be?"
"st peter chasing judas across the desert."
"that sounds seriously exciting," andy agreed. "what kind of horse will he be chasing him on?"
"actually they will both be riding camels. i hope that's all right."
"i guess so. horses would be more exciting, but camels are ok."
"and then the week after that i've got the best show of all. the best show of all, for the same low price."
"don't keep us in suspense." conrad said. "what is it?"
"two weeks from today, right here in this parlor, you can see that dirty little coward bob ford shoot poor jesse james in the back. yes, sir."
"wow! " andy and conrad exclaimed together. "we'll be here!"
"wish that bus would get here," conrad said. "it's getting cold." they were the only ones waiting for the bus.
"it will be here."
conrad got up and started stamping his feet. he looked out at the deserted street.
"i'd like to get out of here. see the world. go places, do things."
"i've gone places and done things," said andy. "it ain't so much."