There was a flight of stairs and he, whoever he was, was trying to get down it. But something was wrong. John wanted to look down at himself but his gaze was fixed on the door at the bottom of the stairs, which was white and so could be seen even in the semi-darkness. There was a thumping sound, and a lurch forward. And a thumping sound, and a lurch forward. And then John woke up.
Or was woken, rather, by Gladys’s six girlfriends invading his tent.
“Gladys doesn’t have girlfriends,” he said, but this was lost on them as they pinned him down with a Dutch wife while they heated the wax and sipped white sangria.
They asked him questions without a proper response, like “What did you do with your love?” and they waxed off a section of body hair for every dissatisfaction. He gnawed on the Dutch wife for comfort.
When his body was bald they told him tales of other men Gladys had sweated through dorm room love with, which was bad, and then when those ran out they told him tales of her love for himself, which was worse. Then they read him passages from The Golden Notebook. Then they performed scene studies from Girls.
He begged them to stop and they said, “Did you think you wouldn’t have to pay penance in order to get our girl back? Did you think there would be no heavy lifting involved?”
“But I don’t want to get your girl back,” he said. “At least I don’t know if I do and if I don’t know you can’t know.”
“Oh come on, John.”
“Don’t make us laugh.”
“You need her.”
“Your story doesn’t get told if it isn’t next to hers.”
“I don’t want her back,” he said, and it stopped them for a moment. It surprised him too. “I don’t. You don’t know. It’s not just me. You can’t know the truth between two people unless you’re one of them,” he said.
This stirred them back to anger.
“What kind of rationalization is that?”
“Yeah, who are you, Woody Allen?”
“No, I am.”
Woody Allen was now in the tent, and the sight of him so enraged the GladysBacchae that they shattered the sangria glasses and gnashed their teeth. They would have committed a felony then and there but after all tomorrow was Monday and they had work in the morning so instead they away from that mandead place, screaming about how now they could never watch Annie Hall again.
“Thanks,” said John.
“I didn’t intend to help you,” Woody said. “I was here for a sorry test and I heard the sounds of women and wax so naturally I was intrigued.” He shrugged.
John knew about the sorry tests. Noah, who was the true holder of the title Sorriest Man Alive, would sit quietly with a person for a moment, hold his or her hand, look into the eyes, and then smile and walk away. Based on his verdict, the person’s name was added either to the Sorry or Not Sorry list. These lists were going to be used, John wasn’t entirely sure how, when the end of days started.
“Did you pass the test?”
“He said my movies did. Which is about as good, in my book.”
There was nothing to say for a moment.
“The heart wants what it wants,” John said.
“Who said that?”
“In real life.”
Woody then took out a scrap of paper and wrote the line down to remember for later.
“Do you still believe it?”
Woody was a little miffed by the question. “Kid,” he said, “I knew I wanted to be able to close the door when I wanted to close the door. With the crazy lady we shall not name, that eventually became too hard. So I started over with some fresh Play-Doh. The crazy lady said that my new Play-Doh is mentally challenged and afraid of men, but she is only bitter because I have been able to shape my new Play-Doh into a house with doors that close and lock when I choose. The worst of it, from the crazy perspective, is that the Play-Doh, and I, are happy. Play-Doh can be happy too you know.”
He pulled a handful of locks out of his pockets. “For your tent if you want,” he said, shrugged, and set them down. “I have to go. The Knicks are playing.”
“No they’re not.”
But Woody was gone. John had five more minutes before he had to get up. He looked at the Dutch wife with unexpected longing. The Dutch wife seemed ambivalent.
That day John joined Noah on his inspection of the grounds. Close to the wall that was to hold back the sea were a number of gated communities. The gated communities, full of inhabitants prescreened for their sorriness, were building their walls higher and higher out of bricks in case Noah’s wall didn’t hold out. Down the road a bit from those communities were much smaller gated communities, of only a few houses per unit, and they were also building higher walls, of sticks. Farther down from that were the smallest gated communities. These were each filled with just one person, building higher and higher walls of mud around themselves. It was here they found Linda Hunt, who was nearly finished with her wall, being as short as she is.
“But why?” John asked.
“It’s no picnic being Linda Hunt,” Linda Hunt said. “You know I won an Oscar. But did you know I had to play a Eurasian dwarf to do it? A MALE Eurasian dwarf. Opposite MEL GIBSON. And now I get some roles playing judges and other cretins but there are only so many Law and Orders in the world, and it’s hard to parlay them into a reason to keep facing the slings and arrows of female-male Eurasian dwarfdom. And don’t think I’m taking the easy way out, pinching myself off here like the mug you make at a ceramics class you had a Groupon for and wanted to take your boyfriend but you broke up first. Yes, I may get the benefits of being CEO of my own private Idaho so to speak; I may get to drink this entire cask of Amontillado by myself, but I also have to be my own policeman and fireman and garbage collector and meteorologist. I’m a whole village now. You’re looking at the Linda Hunt Village. It takes a village to raise a child, you know, but you have to be able to keep all the Mel Gibsons and rising sea levels out of the village and this is the only foolproof way. Not that I’m pregnant but what are you doing tonight?”
Noah gently steered John away.
All over their were little CEOs of little villages, and from the looks of some of the shifty-eyed rich folks peering out from behind their brick curtains, some of the big villages could splinter at any moment.
“John,” said Noah, “I’m sorry we’re having to keep you a little in the dark about operations for the moment. But this thing is sensitive and we’re still waiting for your test results to come back from the lab.”
“Is it? Tell me something, John.”
“Just tell me something.”
“Oh. Well. One time I shaved, and something distracted me and I didn’t rinse all the hair down the sink. I mean I didn’t rinse any of it down.
“I was living with, I was in college at the time, see, and well my roommate’s sister was coming to stay with us that day, and a few hours later she arrived, and went to the bathroom, and screamed, cause there were all my dark hairs plastered against the plaster. And she came out, and they had seen me – oh, that’s the other part – they had both seen me unshaved before, and shaved now. I mean it was clear what had happened. They looked at me, expectantly. And I just said, well…and I blamed it on our other roommate, who was kind of a loser. I wish I hadn’t done that.”
“That’s more regret than sorry.”
“I’m not sure I know what this sorry thing is then.”
“I know.” And that was all John saw of him for the day.
That night John had the second episode of the same dream. He was advancing down a flight of stairs, headed for the white door, shadowed by that thumping for some reason. Again he tried to look down at himself, and then he was woken up by Gladys’s six brothers. Undaunted by the locks on the tent, they had simply ripped the thing apart.
“Gladys doesn’t have brothers,” he said, but this was lost on them as they forced John to take keg stands of their nasty homebrew.
“Why did you marry our sister if you weren’t going to support her child? Why did you inSEMINATE our sister if you weren’t – ”
John tried to explain that no matter what he told them it wouldn’t be true, not completely; it couldn’t possibly be an accurate recreation of the reality of the past. He tried to say there was no truth in reconstructing the past, not even personal truth because no one could remember it long enough or write it down clear enough for it to actually be real. He tried to explain the truth was a wife and all we have is Dutch wives but they did not know what a Dutch wife was and would likely not have accepted the metaphor even if they had.
They got him so wasted on the vinegar swill that he was easily led to the Linda Hunt Village, and didn’t even protest as they packed him in mud not far from her door (now permanently closed). It wasn’t until they were gone that he began to realize he’d been buried alive.
This had happened to him before, and recently. On his New Year’s trip to Alaska he had visited the bus where Alexander Supertramp, aka Christopher McCandless, had ended his journey into the wild. Gladys was supposed to have gone with him. He had watched a number of E. M. Forster movies with her as a trade, but obviously that didn’t work out. So he went by himself and only took rice (when in Rome) and it snowed sure enough and he was stuck and starving when one morning – or night, since one was like the other – someone clawed through the snow.
A haggard-looking man, not unlike himself, with a sack of rice. “I watched both Bridget Jones movies to get here,” he told John, “but my wife ran off with a cardboard cutout of Colin Firth instead.”
So they stayed and it snowed and they starved until a sorrowed-looking young woman dug them out. “I listened to six Ani DiFranco live double albums,” she said. “Then she told me I wasn’t normcore enough. Or too normcore. I DON’T EVEN KNOW.”
They huddled together and agreed that John was the worst of all three of them and they sucked their hard rice pellets but there was no peace, as more and more poor unfortunate souls kept scrabbling through the snow before anyone could die or even get a good psychosis going.
So John set off on his own again and went up to the Grizzly Maze where Timothy Treadwell had died at the hands of the creatures he loved, and also let his ladyfriend be eaten in the process. Treadwell was a self-proclaimed user and loser before he met the grizzlies, the communion with whom gave him something to live for. John figured the choice between a life’s meaning and a quick death wasn’t one to sneeze at.
He had forgotten that bears hibernate, of course.
When he finally dug through into an actual grizzly den, Mr. Chocolate, a Treadwell favorite, raised his head sleepily. John thought, Here we go! Life!
But Mr. Chocolate just went back to sleep. In fact all the bears – Tabitha, Rowdy, Sargeant Brown, even the evil Bear 141 himself – smelled something on the Lake man that made them pity him, which made them ignore him, because grizzly bears ain’t got time for pity.
John ate some raw salmon, made a few cave paintings of Gladys, and went home.
Suddenly, the mud around John began to crumble as giggles filled the air around him. He found himself blinking into the flashlights of a group of rainbow children.
“Oh, sorry,” their Mom-ish ringleader said. “We’re looking for 276 schoolgirls, and you’re not any schoolgirls.”
“No no, it’s better that you aren’t. For you I mean.”
The children pulled John out of his cocoon.
“You’re Mia Farrow,” he said.
She smiled. “I’m me.” She produced a bag of juice boxes for the kids. She let John have one too. Hawaiian Punch.
“These are your children. You just keep getting more and more.”
“Being able to take care of someone is a special blessing.”
“But. I’m sorry this may be the live burial that’s making me so uncharacteristically blunt: Don’t you think it might be a pathological need you have? You help others to help yourself? Or to avoid helping yourself?”
“Maybe,” Mia Farrow said, before taking a crayon out of the hand of a small girl. “We don’t eat that,” she reminded. “I don’t have a lot of time to sit and think about those things. If I wrote a screenplay a year they would probably all be the same. Moses,” she said to a boy, “we ask before touching, don’t we?”
“Can I touch you?” Moses asked. John somewhat reluctantly nodded. Moses touched his hand, too shy to hold it.
“They would all be about taking care, my screenplays, and that’s a story pleasantly exhausting to live and perfectly boring to tell. We should get going.”
Just then a bulldozer beeped its way over. From the looks of it the intention of the driver was to barricade John and/or anyone else into personal vaults. For their own good, of course.
“I think what you’re doing is wrong,” Mia Farrow said to the bulldozer and to the bulldozer’s driver. Bulldozers almost always don’t work without drivers.
“Man is not an island!” Mia said. The dozer wasn’t stopping. She turned to John. She held up a sign. It said, #itdoesn’ttakeavillage.
He said, “What does it take?”
She said, ” – ”
The bulldozer went right over her. John pushed the children out of the way and the children pushed John out of the way and somehow they all pushed each other out of the way except for Mia Farrow and the bulldozer went on.
John got down on his knees to try to dig her out, but Moses said, “Can I touch you?”
John, distracted, said, “Fine,” so Moses put his hand on John’s shoulder and said, “It is okay. This is how she wanted to go.”
“THIS is how she wanted to go?”
Moses smiled. The children left to take care of themselves.
“John!” Linda Hunt called to him from inside her village. “You need to get out of here!”
“Why? I mean other than the obvious reasons, like torture.” His body hair was growing back and it was itchy as SIN.
“Because you’re not sorry, and when Noah finds out – ”
“How do you know I’m not sorry?”
“I ran the tests. I tried to delay the results coming back as long as I could.”
“I don’t know, Linda Hunt, I feel pretty sorry.”
“You might feel sorry, but Noah’s talking about being sorry. I can feel like a firefighter whenever I’m confronted with a towering inferno or the impulse to save cats and babies, but if I don’t train and listen and practice the acts that go along, well, would you want me between you and a fire?”
“I’d want anyone between me and a fire.”
“HA HA old man!”
“Why does Noah get to decide? What makes him so sorry?”
“The flood of course. It was only his family saved, remember.”
“Aha! That’s survivor guilt! That’s not sorry.”
“I haven’t finished. Only his family was saved. Which means his descendants are responsible for everything that’s happened since then.”
“And he figures it’s been a bit more bad than good.”
“Well, the Inquisition and stuff, balanced against the pyramids – ”
“Slaves built the pyramids.”
“Yeah okay. I can see how owning all of human history could make you sorry.”
“Yes. But you are not sorry, John. You are something else.”
“What am I?”
“Oh well FINE. Thank you SO MUCH for that ENLIGHTENING diagnosis. I’m so glad I came to the edge of the WORLD or wherever the hell we are – listen just leave me out of your walls and villages and boats, alright? I don’t want to be in on or near them anyway.”
“Who said anything about a boat?” Linda Hunt said. John was gone. “He can’t possibly know about the boat,” she said to herself.
John walked home. It took a while.
The first thing he noticed, upon turning onto his street, was a trashcan on top of his car again. This was the straw that broke the even-toed ungulate’s back. John took the trashcan from the roof of his car and threw it into the window of the house opposite. The window shattered. A moment. A light switched on. A man stepped out of the broken window. He had large eyes, a bathrobe, and wild steely hair.
“Thank you!” he said.
“But of course, because if you throw something away, you can’t get it back unless someone gives it back to you. Them’s the rules.”
“But why did you throw this away if you wanted it back?”
The man cocked his head. “Oh,” he said. “Pity. I thought you understood.” And then he picked up his trash and walked back through his window.
John climbed into bed and fell into a quick sleep. He was coming down the steps to the white door, thumping, but the thumping was doubled this time, like a thump and its equally thumping echo. He woke up from a knock on his door. His white door. He opened it. A female form stood there, holding a cluster of envelopes and magazines. He looked down at the anchor where her right foot should be. He looked up at the stairs she had climbed down.
“You’re Paloma Palumbo,” he said, in almost a whisper, like a child caught making fun.