A new short story by Nino Ennu
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Let me tell you about a conversation I once had with an old man. I was in some sort of spacious room, cluttered with tables and chairs, possibly a restaurant, a cafe, or a bar, who cares? This place was located in the clutter of a pebbled old town, which old town matters not. The old man looked like your typical old man. Again, it’s not important to know what this ‘typical old man’ specifically refers to, life is too short for such detail. Each of you by now can see him already, and to those who can’t I say: get a fucking imagination!
So the old man, weary in his look and weak in his movement, was sitting across the table from me, clutching a cushion to his chest and mumbling. He was wearing glasses, and during my encounter with him they were steaming up as if his tears were not so much salty, as tears should be, but boiling hot.
“Money“, he spat, “I never had any, never wanted any… but recently a tragedy struck and I realised I need some! What do you think about that, eh? Call me names, I don’t care, that’s how things are these days.”
He collapsed into his cushion and started weeping. I did not immediately know how to respond to this strange man’s question. In fact, I was so bewildered at the time I was not even sure he had asked me a question at all. So as to not be rude I attempted to answer just in case he had indeed asked me something; even if I got the answer all wrong, I thought, at least I’d show I wasn’t ignoring him.
“That’s errrrr, mghmph… ve… terrible, that’s terrible”, I stuttered, “just errrrrrrrrrr… terrible mdss..”
“Yes, I knew you’d understand”, the old man whispered. To my great consternation, may I add, I was sure that I had never met him before in my life.
“I always knew you’d turn out decent”, he continued in the same familiar tone which made me secretly glance at the window to make sure it was indeed me in the reflection and not someone else, someone who knew this person. The old man added, somewhat irrelevantly I thought:“Although you should do something about that wretched wart.”
I reacted quickly this time and immediately opened my mouth to protest his mistake, before I noticed that on my right index finger which I was then wagging at him, there was indeed a vile growth. To search for an explanation to this mystery is useless; I have concluded that it, the wart, had up until then eluded me, as small things often do, or it popped up right there and then, right in the middle of my knuckle. When I ceased examining my finger and looked back up at the old man he was staring intently at my wart too, even craning his leathery neck to such an uncomfortable angle that his face turned purple from sheer effort.
Suddenly the old man burst out laughing and pointed at my wart with his rheumatoid finger.
“Why are you laughing at my wart?”
At this the old man sat back and returned to his weeping in an all-too-flawless transition, reminiscent of skills usually displayed on a stage.
“Why are you even sitting at my table? There are plenty – too many actually – the space is too small for such a large amount of tables here!” I exclaimed. I was getting more and more annoyed.
“Other tables have sugar spilled on them”, he answered with a sneer and stared at me as if that in itself was reason enough and I was a fool for not realising it straight away.
“Of course”, I involuntarily muttered after a pause of bewilderment, “you’re very welcome to stay here as long as you want. But please, sir, can we not talk about my wart any more?”, I added with a returning sense of supreme authority.
“You what?! Your wart?!”, he exclaimed, leaning back to get a better look at me, or shall I say scowl, and added, “but how can we not, Terry? You keep saying it’s a wart but it is obviously an eye.’
“My name is not Terry”, I replied.
By then I was mostly concentrating on coming up with a reasonable excuse to take my leave. To tell you the truth, I had nothing better to do because I was jobless. The demented pensioner had also made me grow weary of it all, I mean my life, because he was occupying my field of vision, my personal space and my mind. I suddenly developed this compelling argument for ending it all. Not compelling enough however, it turns out; I remember also trying, at the same time, to focus on what I was doing which was mending a shoe. I would never land a job in shabby shoes. You can imagine my great annoyance then when I inspected my efforts thus far and found that the old man’s inappropriate outbursts had made me misalign the shiny new sole. I concluded that I simply could not afford to continue such business with him there.
“If you look at it long enough, you’ll see it blink’, the old man said to his cushion, “not like your face eyes.”
“My face eyes?”
“Oh aye!”, he added, all cheerful now as I briefly caught my puzzled expression in his foggy glasses.
“I must go now dear sir, I must leave at once”, I finally summoned the courage to make a decisive step, yet the words seemed to have escaped my mouth so hurriedly the old man did not even appear to have heard me. Or he heard me perhaps, I was very sure I made sounds, he just didn’t understand. Of course, it could be that he did hear and understand,he just pretended he didn’t. Anyway, the old man just sat there, clutching at his cushion, weeping again and attempting, with sudden difficulty, to talk about his financial problems.
Despite declaring my departure and almost standing up with full intent to go I was still there, frozen in flight near the old man. After some time I started to get a cramp in my awkwardly bent leg and so was forced to sit back down, only my timing proved excellent because I beat someone else attempting to sneak into my seat.
“Where have all these people come from?”, I asked while looking around, perplexed. The old man had abandoned his cushion and was instead nursing a glass of sparkly water.
“They all came to see that thing on your finger”, he giggled coyly into his sleeve.
Embarrassed, I quickly shoved my left hand in my pocket, not realising yet that the newly-formed wart was actually on my right. This is what probably prompted fresh giggles from the old man that at the time I foolishly attributed to insanity.
“Can I please ask you dear sir, and I really do not mean to be rude here, but can I please ask you not to make that extremely annoying sound with your mouth?”
“I’m laughing at you Terry”, he replied sternly.
“That’s not the sound I meant”, I tried to clarify, “and also my name is not Terry. I was referring to your perpetual lip-smacking.”
“I’ve no teeth Terry! I used to grind them when I was stressed out, like now, but now they’re gone I must use my lips to vent my despair.”
“Can you not do that quieter? It’s very annoying”.
“Oh aye, if you can stop your finger eye staring at me Terry!”
“It’s not a finger eye, it is a wart’, I snapped and banged my fist on the table to the unwelcome effect of igniting everyone’s glares, all as one now directed at our table.
“Ooh, careful Terry”, the old man suddenly changed his tone, “you wouldn’t want them to know we’re here”, he whispered and indicated the span of the room with his trembling hand.
“I don’t really mind” I said vaguely. “Perhaps someone will finally take my order.”
At this the old man started rummaging in his left coat pocket. In order to have a really good look he was using his both hands, shoving one in after the other because both would not fit in at once. After a few minutes of this concentrated activity he appeared to have forgotten the reason for his searching, and resumed quite flawlessly his former position in which I had found him, eyes downcast and clutching sadly at a cushion.
I realised then that leaving was not an option. Neither was convincing the old man that my name was not Terry because by then I had forgotten what it was anyway; and I knew that the growth on my index finger was a wart and not an eye.
Still sure that the disgusting protuberance on my finger was safely out of view in my left pocket I started sucking my right index finger, purely as a way to relax and muse over the strange situation I found myself in. I was soon shocked to realise, with the help of my ever discerning tongue, that I was in fact sucking on the warty finger. I was sucking on a wart. Terrified, I jumped up suddenly and caught the table, resulting in the old man’s glass of sparkling water being knocked over and the contents spilling onto his lap. Unaffected, the old man was seemingly trying to get comfortable for a nap as he was pressing the cushion to his cheek and nestling his head on it. As the water was quickly spreading over his thighs I instinctively put my hand to my mouth, my right hand, a gesture so automatic it’s not always consciously apparent that it’s being performed. However before I could indicate my repeated horror at having yet again brought the vile wart close to my face shortly after having shoved it in my mouth, I noticed that instead of becoming wet the old man’s trousers – and now his legs – were disappearing.
Much as I wanted it to be, this was not a dream. Of course one can never be sure of that, one can only believe what one has convinced herself to believe. There might indeed be a few of you here who might conceive an explanation as to why at one moment a man could be drinking sparkly water and the next this very same water was dissolving his legs. I could not help concluding that what was happening in front of my eyes was little short of being pure witchcraft, the only other explanation being, rationally speaking, that this was not happening at all and I was just imagining it.
Now legless and propped up against the cushions the old man’s torso was addressing me as if nothing had happened.
“Your face eyes, Terry, all three of them are quite blind. That’s mostly why they haven’t noticed us yet.”
Still in shock, all I managed in reply was a few weak blinks and another searching glance at our reflection in the window. When I looked back at the old man he was again weeping into his cushion, glasses askew, while also trying to maintain balance of his lone torso with the support of his hands. Right then, or possibly some time before that, music came on. I noticed a general swaying to the rhythm among the people surrounding us. The sound was gradually turned up until it was so loud I could not make out a word the old man was saying. And saying things he was, appearing completely oblivious to the deafening volume of the music which he either could not hear or had chosen to ignore. This pointless arrangement continued for a while, the old man blubbering words to me with a grave expression, his words drowning in the loud music, while people around us danced with an increasingly unpleasant gait. In another remarkable change of tone the old man must have said something funny because he started to laugh so hard that his torso nearly fell off the seat. Thankfully he managed to catch himself successfully using his spindly arms and simply continued chuckling to himself.
I became curious to know what he found so amusing that even a few of his teeth appeared to have fallen out during the frenzied giggles. He grabbed something from the side of his mouth or from within his cheek and was stuck the objects back in.
I finally had enough of watching the old man mouth words so I put my hand to my ear demonstratively, hoping that he would notice and understand I could not hear his jokes and so could not join him in the punch lines and therefore was bored, frankly. He seemed not to see me or was just ignoring me. I then had no other choice but to lean towards him, my hand to my ear, I kept leaning in eventually getting so close I could smell his revolting breath that reminded me of rotting tree bark. It was then that I noticed that he was not in fact bleeding from the bottom of his torso despite only minutes ago losing the bottom half of his body. I pulled back in suspicion and furrowed my brows.
I started crying. I wasn’t in on the joke. I did not understand any of it. My hand still to my ear, leaning back against my seat, staring dumbfounded at the old man with no legs not bleeding I opened my mouth wide and wept. Tears were washing my cheeks, tears of fear mostly but also tears of feeling betrayed.
This continued for longer than any claim to respectability on my side permitted. The old man then stopped laughing, although I could not be sure because my eyes were itchy from crying and all those exuberant dancing bodies around us were getting in the way. Within this chaos my attention was caught by a sensation of dampness on my right index finger which was at that moment caressing the back of my neck with the rest of my other right-hand fingers. A leak in the roof, I concluded straight away. Possibly my own sweat.
“You can see clearly now, Terry”, the old man shouted into my ear while leaning in closely, so closely I think the bottom of his newly severed torso must have been dangling in the air.
I thought about what he said for a while until I understood what he was referring to. I pulled my right hand in front of me and stared in disbelief at my wart, which was blinking at me. The old bastard was right – it was a finger eye!
This newly-formed eye was crying and watching it made me sad. Like watching your face crying in the mirror, it made me want to cry even more, which my wart, my finger eye, did.
Now for the old man. As I sat there in awe, understandably, examining the unexpected transformation my wart had taken, he waited patiently. Only when I lifted my eyes to him looking for some sort of explanation, in vain of course, did he lean in and shout into my ear:
“Do you understand, Terry?”
I was trying to hold back more tears, “Understand what?”
“There is no right answer. Capitalism and communism, both of them make it impossible for the poor, the willing poor especially, those who willingly choose to reject money in favour of the higher ideal. You see, the higher ideal is precisely that, higher, therefore it is beyond humanity’s striving for self-improvement. These people just want things to get better when good and bad are notions so primal even a child knows the difference between them.”
I blinked in response.
“Exactly Terry, exactly. There’s them”, he said pointing to the dancing masses, ‘and then there’s us. It’ll always be like that, and if you think otherwise you obviously live in illusion like the rest. Are you seeing things Terry?!”
“Yes!!”, I blurted out in a moment of euphoric vision, “an illusion! That’s all it is, an illusion! So my madness is only an illusion… But I am not mad sir, I am sure I can see things clearly, this stuff is happening for real… There’s a fucking eye on my finger and your legs were dissolved by water!”
The old man giggled into his sleeve again. “Aye, this world is fucked up, a strange, difficult, mad place it is Terry ha ha!” Suddenly adopting a grave tone he added, “What one wants is one’s wants, can’t you see?”
At that point he suddenly disappeared from his seat. After bending down and checking under the table I saw him struggling towards me across the floor, his trembling arms dragging his torso slowly forward like a bag of potatoes. “Sir!!” I shouted under the table, over the music. “Terry!”, the old man shouted back as he first grabbed my legs, then hooked his arms onto mine, and eventually clasped himself tightly around my neck. I strained to sit up, completely bewildered however also quite disgusted by the shockingly intimate proximity of the old man. He continued speaking directly into my left ear, “I remember this one time at this place, doesn’t matter where, you don’t need to know, oh yes, I remember, despite my age and because of it I remember Terry!”
“You remember what sir?”, I attempted to distract him while I tried in vain to unlock his arms and release myself from his suffocating grip.
Suddenly I felt someone’s damp breath on my neck, shortly followed by “Shall I take him?” This was uttered in a voice so nasal I thought the words were pronounced through the speaker’s nose, which was so close it was grazing my right ear.
I was taken aback by the stranger’s insolence, not to mention the fact that the old man was still choking my neck, so I failed to reply. I attempted to turn around and have a look at who it was. But the stranger obviously got impatient because I felt a forehead pressing strongly against the back of my head, nudging it with every drab reiteration of the original question, and therefore making it impossible for me to turn it. Then another pair of spindly arms, belonging to the stranger, intercepted the tangle of the old man’s embrace. A hand of unknown origin tickled my armpit. After some intricate efforts the stranger finally unravelled the old man’s arms from around my neck, lifted him up and was carried him off like a baby.
“Terry!”, the old man squealed as he was taken away, “Terry!” The music stopped, the bodies around me came to a standstill, all eyes on me, ‘Terry!’, the old man’s voice was becoming more and more shrill as it attempted to traverse the ever-increasing space between us.
I stood up and extended my warty hand towards him, only I could not see him clearly for all the lifeless statues of the former dancing masses obscuring my view. I caught a glimpse of the old man’s flailing arms at the other side of the room as he was being carried, the only moving figure among the columns of bodies, towards the door.
“Sir!!”, I shouted desperately, finding myself unable to move due to the paralysing glares of the figures in the room.
“Don’t hesitate to come to me for advice, Terry!”, the old man’s voice was thoroughly squeaky now like a child’s, “but remember, I might not be available when you need me!”
“But…”, was all I managed to utter before a gust of wind violently slammed the door shut. The impact jolted the motionless bodies as they all, eyes still fixed on me, dropped one by one to the floor with the aplomb of falling trees.