Tuesday, March 22, 2011

More Short Stories

Here's the end of The Brain Eater

Part I

Part II

The Brain Eater

written by
Alan Green

Part III

Just a little while longer. I'm almost there. I go up this street, turn the corner, (Good. Nobody on the sidewalk), then a little bit more, a few seconds, and I'm home. My apartment. I'll go in, lock the door, and all the idiots and schmucks will be on the outside and I'll be on the inside. Alone. Safe. Almost there. Left, right, left, right. Why does it take so much time?

These groceries are heavy. Almost there. Bob comes in and closes the door, flips the lock to keep bad guys out. All in one motion, he grabs the remote, turns the TV on, and picks up the guide. It's already turned to the right page. He scans it, makes a quick decision (like there was any doubt which show he'd watch), puts the guide back in its place, changes the channel, turns it up, puts the remote back, pivots, and heads for the kitchen where he sets the groceries on the counter: three cantaloupes, milk, a short stack of frozen dinners. He pops one of the dinners in the microwave, setting the controls without looking, leans back on the counter, closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. The day is finally over. He can be himself, drop the facade, relax, not give a shit. He stays like this until the timer goes off. Beeep. He pulls the top off the dinner, grabs a fork, heads for the TV, and a night of no thought, no responsibility, nobody to answer to, nobody to be afraid of. He sits in front of the tube and eats without taking his eyes off the screen.

TV is his only friend. Had been since he was a kid. Its picture and sound had always been the only thing he trusted or relied on. He and the audience always laughed together at the funny parts and clapped together when they were happy. The shows didn't make him feel stupid like people and family did. No talking necessary. He never had to say anything or think anything. It was all taken care of for him and he liked that.

He liked how he could watch with no lights on. With the lights off, immersed in the image, the past didn't exist. His spot on the floor, in the TV's light, was a cocoon. After a couple hours the pool of blue would expand and became a lagoon, warm and flickering and safe -- a tropical hiding place. Sanctuary from the distastefulness of reality.

Soon, the pictures and jokes and music seemed to have physical substance. He could almost see them float toward him and feel it when they entered his body. The threads would wend their way into his brain, search and probe, entwine themselves into the folds, stitch themselves into his mind.

He freely melded with the shows. It was the closest he had ever been to anything. The only intimacy he had ever known.

They fed him and provided a barrier against things he wished he could forget. As long as he kept watching, his past, and really, his present, was at arm's length. Outside the blue pool. In the blackness, where it could be ignored. TV had always protected him. Before, it kept him safe from family and the pain of growing up. Now, it gave him shelter from the reality of what he had become.

His favorite shows were about happy families. Mostly, he liked the half-hour sitcoms. The gags were a little dumb but he still enjoyed them. He wanted to. One-hour dramas were okay, but sometimes he had trouble following the plotlines and found his concentration fading before the show was over. He found himself thinking of other things: his inadequacies, stuff he watched TV in order to avoid. So, hourlong dramas weren't his first choice.

He liked shows with live studio audiences that were cued by flashing signs when it was time to clap or laugh. This in turn cued him and he would chuckle, even if he didn't really get the joke or hadn't been paying attention. Still, it was good to watch pretty people in nice houses with wacky neighbors get into funny situations, then get out of a bind in a way that wasn't too predictable. Their lives were so much better. His life was the same boring thing over and over.

But, over the years, even half-hour shows had gotten more difficult to follow. Even episodes of Lucy and Gilligan. What was she in trouble for this time? Why did The Professor need a supply of coconuts?

Sometimes, the fake laughter was too much work and, often, he simply stared dumbly at the screen. Hour after hour, year after year, night after night. He sat in the dark and never took his eyes off the screen, except for bathroom breaks and snacks during commercials.

It was time for a feel-good snack. During a commercial for a car he would never be able to afford, he goes to the kitchen, cuts all three cantaloupe in half, scoops out the seeds, and returns just as show starts again. Holding a half-shell inverted in his left hand like a bowl, he dishes out the goo with a spoon in his right hand and raises it to his mouth without spilling a drop. And, for the next few minutes, while he is scooping up cantaloupe flesh and eating, he feels pretty good. His hand gets sticky against the fruit's skin, making it easier to hold. A couple times, without noticing or thinking, he flashes a healthy smile. Juice runs down his face and he wipes it away with his sleeve, again, without taking his mind or his eyes off the happy blue picture.

He puts the empty shell on the cardboard box that serves as a table, gets another. Eats them all, stacking as he goes. They are inverted. Six half-shells that, to him, look something like the tops of leathery skulls squished together, one inside the next, making a wobbly tower. Like the tops of people's heads, bad evil people not good, emptied out, brains eaten. Now, belly full, he's his own boss. Doesn't have a care in the world. He's strong. Happy.

Commercial break. He puts the empty shells in the bag he carried the groceries home in earlier and places it next to the door so he won't forget to throw it out in the morning on his way to work. Then, it's time for bed.

He hates to see that white dot in the middle of the TV screen after the picture has died. On weekend nights he'll just leave the TV on, watching from the mattress on the floor with his head craned at odd uncomfortable angles until his eyes hurt. He'll fall asleep, usually during a commercial. He'll turn the TV off in the middle of the night on his way back from the bathroom. But, that's just for weekends. Tonight is a weeknight and he has to get up early and go to work in the morning. So, he waits for the proper moment. He'll stand there, holding the remote with his thumb on the off button, sometimes for several minutes. His thumb will get cold and go numb. He has to wait for the right moment. He can't just turn it off in the middle of a punch line, or an ad for an upcoming episode. He waits for just the right time. Usually, it'll be a commercial. For something he'll never be able to afford. Tonight, it's one for a cruise line. Ships... Who would spend their vacation on a ship? He presses the button and the screen goes black, except for the white dot, and he is left alone in the world again.

Pain skitters up on insect legs to fill the void and silence. It's now. This moment. This time is the worst. When the friendly TV families, well-dressed hissing lawyers, cartoon characters that talk too loud, and all the comedy and drama are gone, faded into a white dot in the middle of a black screen. The worst. Until  blissful sleep comes the pain is at its peak.

He walks barefoot the three cold steps to his bed, gets in and covers up. He is at the bottom of of an ocean of blackness. An airless place where aloneness presses on him with crushing weight. It will stay that way until the shows start up again. Then he'll be able to breathe.

The joy of the shows and eating cantaloupe 'brains' is gone. There are no laugh tracks, stunning interiors, or punch lines. The most dreaded part of the day. Delightful imagination is replaced by alien reality. His mind turns to cold, dark things. He always thinks of the same thing. There has never been a night when he didn't. He tries not to, but it never works. He thinks of how he never had a conversation with his parents. Not even a trivial one. How he never had a friend. Not even a casual one.

In his mind he examines all the various endless things, touching every familiar sharp corner with sticky fingers, the same way he has a million times, until the dull ache in his chest swells and grows, and until, on some nights, the tears roll down the side of his head and fall off the tips his ears and make cool wet patches on his pillow. The memories were always exactly precisely, down to the last detail, the same. Each time, every time, countless times. This time too. Playgrounds with happy jeering kids, clothes that didn't really fit, girls that suppressed snickers, boys that made it clear they would beat him up if they had to, teachers that reprimanded, and all the times his mom or dad told him to shut the fuck up. He figured he was no different than everyone else, though. At least he hoped not. Sure, the 'brain eating' thing was a little off. Weird maybe. But, it made him feel better. Strong enough to face another night, and the morning that followed and the day that followed that.

And, how was it different, really, from somebody drinking themselves into a stupor every night? Or, smoking dope all the time? Or, buying jewelry or fast cars to make yourself feel good? He figured it wasn't. He figured everybody had a way of coping. His way was just more internal, more imaginative. What was wrong with that.

Later as his thoughts would slow and cool, as he drifted off, he would smile, a fragile sweet boyish gesture. Sleep would sweep away the grit of the day, and muffle the chattering memories that vied for attention. He would dream of when the world was a fresh, clean place, before it whispered about him behind his back. In dreams he could be a happy child. He could soar in sunshine, strut across a spotlighted stage, properly command an army. He could smile.

Every night, before the veil fell, he would use the last of his mind still under his control to consider that one thing. To examine it carefully, once more. He turned it over with the same sticky fingers, but there were no sharp corners to be pricked by, and no thin edges to be cut by. He would hold the thing up close, and admire its perfect facets. How they caught the light, twinkling. It never disappointed. He was always proud. Because, even though he was a loser, a soft schlub that no one would give the time of day, there was one thing he was not, and, for sure, a lot of things he would never become or do. Not because he was above it, but because it was so offensive to him. What others accepted as normal he could not allow of himself.

He saw people sink to that forbidden level in a flash, an instant, as a reflex and without regret or even consideration. He had seen the look in the woman's face as she watched the old man at the bus stop -- the bum that smelled like urine and ammonia who sat at the end of the bench blaming some unseen enemy for his circumstance. The woman hated the old man's fucking guts and thought he should be shot and dumped in a hole out in the woods. She wondered why she should have to share a bus with someone whose life was over and smelled like a urinal.

He could tell what the man in line at the grocery store was thinking while he scrutinized every move the elderly woman made as she wrote a check for an impatient clerk. The man thought she was a stupid fucking bitch and wondered why any dumbass cunt of a bitch would use a check to pay for groceries when plastic was so much faster. Who the fuck writes checks anymore? Fucking whore-ass cows, that's who. Was it that difficult to carry and use a debit card? Just swipe it and, poof, you're done. Shit man, that dumbass bitch should be shot and buried out in the fucking woods. Fat-ass old bitch.

The endless stream of stories of suicide bombers or fathers who killed their families then themselves bothered him too, but it was the trivial crimes he saw everyday, all day, that impressed him the most. The infractions most people didn't notice. They weren't as dramatic as a serial killer's trial where weeping relatives point and call 'it' a monster and hope he burns in hell. What they lacked in severity they made up for just by being there, everywhere, no matter where he looked, no matter when he looked. The offhand condemnation of another person. The dismissal, as if they were less than human.

He could never think of another person that way. It just wasn't in him. He had been the subject of so many whispered asides, nods, and winks. His entire life, to a day, moment to moment, was a series of belittling episodes. Like TV episodes, he had often thought, but without the laugh track or commercial breaks. He couldn't bring himself to deride another person. To him, it seemed like a crime against his own soul. He'd rather be dead.

It was this quality of himself that he examined before he fell asleep. His conviction. This one thing he knew very few others could lay claim to. A jeweled object that shimmered in the pure illumination of his mind. He turned it, enthralled as it refracted cosmic energy, focused it, directed it, changed it into the substance of his soul.

Even though he was pretty much a loser and knew he would never have a hundred dollar pair of shoes, or a new car, and would never live in a nice neighborhood in an apartment that didn't have roaches, and would never take a pretty girl to dinner who would be interested in what he did for a living and find his spontaneous comments about current affairs witty and laugh a real laugh and turn away shyly and cover her mouth and be impressed by his knowledge of wine and pasta and music and movies and books and watch with dewy soft intelligent admiring eyes as he paid the bill and left a proper gratuity, and look forward to getting him home -- even though he would never have or be any of those wonderful regular things that people took for granted -- he knew he never treated people like shit or thought they were less than him, even if they deserved to be treated like shit and were less than him.

He knew he had grown up to be a schmuck because his parents and their parents had been schmucks and didn't care about him and because the house they lived in was an embarrassment, and the car his dad drove was junk and the job his mom had was lousy. From the time he was a kid he had learned to seek the companionship of the people around him and, at the same time, hold them in disdain for the way they were and how they regarded him, even if, outwardly, they regarded him not at all.

He had come to understand he had no future. It was practically guaranteed. He knew he would probably spend his life in front of the TV and play silly and, yes maybe...weird games, pretending cantaloupes cut in half were nasty people's skulls and eating their brains was a proper punishment.

Despite all that, he was still happy. Maybe it wasn't a fancy kind of happy, but he could trust his own mind and he knew the difference between right and wrong, and lived by that. The brilliant sparkling thing he examined every night just before falling asleep. The absolute sureness that, despite it all, and no matter how tempting it was, he never treated people the wrong way and he wasn't one of those freaks you read about in the paper.


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