Little Victorian Heroines
and Their Appalling Behavior
[Excerpted, with generous permission, from the memoirs of Georgina Nesbitt.]
In my early childhood, I was afflicted by a series of governesses. Among them was poor old Miss Benton. Miss Benton was infuriating. She would believe (at once!) all manner of things that Papa told her, even when these things were nonsense. However, if I dared to bring anything interesting to her attention, she treated me as she might a gibbering mongoloid. For Miss Benton, all of human knowledge could be divided into three categories: common sense, madness and filth.
For instance: arithmetic was common sense, algebra was madness and calculus was filth.
I do not exaggerate.
Papa once told her that I was never to go up the stairs to the attic. Miss Benton accepted this - it was common sense. I told Miss Benton that the command was absurd - we had no attic. The stairs that should have led to our attic, I explained, led instead to a cellar.
“Don’t be foolish, Georgina,” she scolded me. “How can stairs that go upward lead to a cellar?”
Miss Benton was all of five and forty, and yet I had to speak to her as if she were a child of three or a man of one hundred and two.
“Stairs that go upward can lead to a cellar, Miss Benton, if the cellar is not our cellar but rather someone else’s. For instance, what if someone lived in a home directly above us? Should he be denied a cellar simply because our home is in his way? Though architecturally unorthodox, might he not place his cellar in the space between our home and his?”
Miss Benton, to her meager credit, allowed that this could conceivably come to pass. Though it would be madness, and quite possibly filth.
“But, Georgina,” she persisted. “There is no one living above us. The house belongs entirely to Master Nesbitt, your father.”
“Very true,” I said. “Our situation is more roundabout. The cellar at the top of our stairs does not exist above us in space, so much as ahead of us in time. It is the cellar of Mr. Gregory Shame, who resides in the early years of the Twenty-First Century. Papa does not like me to visit, because he believes it is a bad influence.”
Miss Benton looked at me pityingly, as if any child who said such things could not possibly expect a place in decent society or God's heaven.
“Let me ask you, Governess,” I said in my sweetest and most deferential tone. “Did Papa say that you were not to go up the stairs?”
Miss Benton’s eye’s rolled backward, as if a transcript of her conversation with Papa were recorded on the ceiling. Perhaps she had scrawled it just behind her forehead and was only now realizing that her vision did not extend so far.
“I cannot recall that he did,” she said finally.
“Very well. I will stay here and busy myself with my Latin, while you go up the stairs and verify that they lead to Mr. Shame’s cellar. If I am right, you must apologize to me for the lack of trust and respect that you have shown the daughter of your employer.”
“And what if, Georgina” said Miss Benton, in a travesty of shrewdness, “I merely find an attic, and not an enchanted cellar at all?”
Dull as she was in the face of anything interesting, Miss Benton was keenly alert when it came to her own needs and desires.
“In that event, my dear Governess, I will reveal to you where Papa hides the key to his liquor cabinet.”
Our bargain struck, Miss Benton left me unattended and marched up the stairs.
I was fully aware that a ravenous ogre guarded the entrance to Mr. Shame’s cellar. And the ogre was fully aware of my difficulty with governesses. Ogres can be ever so useful when properly understood.
If any readers thinks me wicked, I can only ask them what they would have done at the age of six and three quarters, with a magical world above their heads, and a stubborn old cow blocking their way. Might they, too, not have felt a need to overthrow their governess?
She only ever listened to Papa, anyway.
The Mobile Resting Place
I’ve been learning how to play chess.
Most nights, after my nightmares have had their say, I rise five hours before the sun and meet the Goblin who rents my living room.
He’s a ruthless and masterful player. He claims that, for every time he beats me, I owe him another first-born child
“It doesn’t have to be your first born child,” he clarifies.
I don’t think he plans to collect, though. I think he’s glad for the company.
He certainly doesn’t get tired of winning.
Sometimes he’ll draw the victory out. He’ll lean his plump little body back in his chair, and stroke the spider legs that make up his beard, and consider which triumphant scenario he’ll enjoy most. When he finally mates my king, his face will glow so wickedly that it will sometimes catch fire, and his beard will writhe in horrific agony, until he pats out the flames impatiently with his own hand.
Then he’ll look down at the chess pieces and order them to “show how else I coulda done it!”
The pieces will dutifully reorder themselves and play out the many other ways he could have beaten me at any time.
It’s a really good way to learn chess.
The pieces themselves are all monstrous little demon-sprites, indentured to the Goblin for centuries to come. Ironically, each of the sprites fell into the Goblin’s service after betting they could beat him at chess.
One night, the Goblin had already won five games and was looking forward to a sixth, when we were interrupted by what sounded like the cry of a rooster.
I hadn’t realized it was dawn already. Nor had I known there was a rooster in the area.
“There ain’t no rooster,” the Goblin snapped. “And the sun ain’t back yet.” He rubbed his bald and orange scalp, irritably. “If you hear something like a cock crow,” he said, “that probably means the crypt’s come in.”
I was about to ask what that meant, when the floor started to shake. The shaking grew violent. I thought for sure it was an earthquake. The tremors knocked the living room table over. The chess pieces sprouted little bat’s wings just in time, and hovered in mid-air.
Then the shaking stopped, and a deathly silence filled the room.
Far more deathly than I thought necessary.
“Come on,” said the Goblin. “We’d better pay our respects.”
He rose from his chair, told his chess pieces to stay “the fuck” where they were, and led me down to the cellar.
My cellar seemed to be in decent shape, despite the quake. The furnace was still okay, and my washer and dryer hadn’t traveled too far.
The Goblin walked to the center of the room, and spit on the stone floor. His spit sizzled, and steam rose. He dipped his toe into the boiling bodily fluid, and drew a circle with it. Then he yanked me by the arm so that we both stood in the circle.
An elevator chime sounded.
A dark and disembodied voice declared that we were “Going Down.”
The circle beneath our feet began to sink, and we descended gradually through a cylindrical shaft, surrounded by solid rock.
The shaft was narrow and I am claustrophobic. Etched into the rock were statements like, “Trapped and dying – not that you asked.” It was a long trip.
Finally, we reached an opening. The sinking circle came to a halt and we stepped out.
We were on a subway platform.
Subway stations have a somewhat morbid feel at the best of times.
This subway station looked like it had been modeled on the Paris catacombs. The structure was mortar and bone. But the bones were not human. They were too small and brittle.
“Rats,” the Goblin explained. “Rats from other subways. Everyone pays their dues eventually.”
The train that had pulled in, and caused all the shaking above, was now at a halt. It was several cars long. Each car was made of grey stone, and Angel-of-Death statues adorned each roof. Facing us, on the side of each car, were sliding doors.
Once the doors were sure that they had our attention, they slid open. No one came out.
“Hope you feel like mourning,” said the Goblin and pulled me into the nearest car.
All the seats were full. Each one was occupied by a separate pile of disconnected bones. I grabbed onto a handrail. The train began to move.
We rode for a few minutes. The Goblin tapped his feet impatiently. Neither of us said anything. The atmosphere was terribly awkward. Much like a regular subway ride.
Finally the Goblin sighed and looked at me, as if by way of commiseration. Then he addressed the car in general.
“So…” he began, in a dutiful tone. “How’s everyone doing?”
The bones assembled themselves.
Incomplete skeletons sat in every seat. Some were missing ribs, some were missing arms, and some were just torsos stacked directly on feet.
“Oh, you know,” said one of the passengers who only had half a jaw, “can’t complain.”
“Looks pretty full in here,” observed the Goblin.
“You need a seat?” said the skeleton.
“Nah,” said the Goblin. “Be gettin’ off soon.”
“Ah,” said the skeleton, looking a bit downcast.
The Goblin looked embarrassed – almost guilty. “Thanks, though,” he added.
“Sure thing,” said the skeleton.
More awkward silence as the train drove on.
Eventually, another bunch of mortal remains spoke up.
“Say,” it said to me, in what might have been the voice of an old lady. “Are you human?”
“That’s nice. It’s nice to see a human down here. I’m glad some of you still do this.”
“Sure thing,” I said, not at all sure what it was I was doing. “Of course.”
“May it be a long, long time before you end up on one of these trains,” said the mortal remains.
“You’re a good boy.”
We all fell silent again.
An eternity passed.
Then another one of the dead spoke up. He chatted briefly with the Goblin about what the subway had been like a few generations ago.
Then we were all silent again.
And another eternity passed.
I don’t know how long we rode. But after every awkward, eternal silence, the Goblin and I would get engaged in a brief, painfully polite conversation with one of the passengers. Then we’d fall into another endless pause. Then we’d have another short conversation.
Eventually, the Goblin and I had chatted at least once with every passenger on the train.
And then the doors opened up.
“Well,” said the Goblin. “See ya, guys.”
“Take care,” said some of the bones.
We stepped through the doors, and the train pulled away.
All the discomfort and humanity that had dwelled so uncharacteristically on the Goblin’s face now disappeared. “Come on, worm meat,” he snarled. “Tombsday’s over. But your chess lesson ain’t. I’m gonna win me another first-born before sun up.”
On our trip back up through the shaft, the Goblin explained to me that the passengers had been crowded out of their original tombs by succeeding generations of corpses.
“Stubborn old bastards,” he said. “No one remembers them, and they still think they got a claim to space and time. Ain’t no part of the universe wants to be your home forever.”
He told me that, eventually, the traveling crypt would get too crowded, and the bones would have to move on again. Ultimately, they would have to accept that their final rest was over - and so were they. They would turn to dust, and the atoms that made up the dust would get sick of belonging to the remains of some long dead person. They’d move on, and shack up with something more interesting. Maybe a living person. Maybe a mountain. Maybe a moon.
“Ain’t no such thing as an eternal resting space,” he told me. “You got particles in you that used to belong to kings and queens, you know that? Used to belong to artists and warriors and saints. And to beasts and cliffs and oceans. And to things you ain’t never heard about, nor never will. You think those particles wanna be stuck with you forever? You think that you are what they’re all about? Hell no. They move on, and you disappear. Those piles of bones down there ain’t accepted that yet. But you, my mortal little peon, had better get yourself ready for it.”
We reached the level of my cellar, and made our way back upstairs.
“I don’t ever wanna catch you on one of those trains, boy, you got me? Cuz I won’t make no small talk with you. Not after all the lessons I gave you. I see you on one of those trains, all I’m gonna say is, ‘Didn’t you learn anything? Didn’t you learn anything at all?'”
The Dream Players
Readers of this column may have picked up that I am prone to nightmares.
I recently had a dream in which my sister had joined a dangerous cult. I don’t actually have a sister, but in my dream I was quite upset to learn that she had fallen in with this crowd.
She and her new family were trying to indoctrinate me.
The cult was founded upon a fanatic (but vaguely defined) conviction regarding the true purposes of our internal organs. New members had to renounce the heretical ways in which they had used their organs so far, and promise to do better in the future.
And if an inductee hadn’t already had his appendix removed, he was to lose it on a sacrificial-looking altar, without the benefit of anesthesia.
In real life, I have already had my appendix removed. In my dream, it turned out I still had three appendices left in me. One of them would have to be gotten at through my genitals.
I vehemently refused, and I told everyone in the cult, including my dear sister, that they were horribly disturbed and needed to be locked up. “You’re all sick!” I dreamed myself screaming. At this, everyone pulled back from me in awe. It had been prophesied by the cult’s founder that a day would come when someone would tell the cult members that they “were all sick,” and that this person would be their new leader.
This prophecy had already been fulfilled twenty-three times. Each time it happened, the cult’s faith in itself was strengthened.
In addition to the bit with the appendix, every new leader had to have all their glands removed too. I was forced onto the sacrificial alter and stripped naked. My sister was selected to remove my insides. Before making the first cut, she had to recite to the opening prayer. Somewhere in the middle of this ghastly speech, a look of horror came over her face, as if she had come to a dreadful realization.
“Dammit,” she whispered. “Line!”
Another cult member whispered the next horrible line. After that, my sister had no trouble finishing the opening prayer and she proceeded to cut me to ribbons and fish out my glands and three appendices. The blare of my alarm clock did not come until it was far, far too late.
The next day at work was pretty rough. What really nagged at me was that my dream-sister had forgotten what to say. Stranger things had happened in my dreams, to be sure, but this had really jarred. It was just so sloppy. If my dreams were going to put me through such horrific scenarios, I thought to myself, then they had better also put in the work of maintaining the illusion.
When I got home that evening, I was about ready to crash. I kicked off my shoes, without putting them away, and fell onto my bed, fully clothed. As I flitted in and out of consciousness, I heard the murmurs of a tense conversation. Was it my roommates? The neighbors? Only a small portion of my beleaguered brain had any interest in the matter, and I was about to doze off for the night when I made out the phrases “Not yet!” and “We’re not ready!”
My eyes burst open. Everything was silent now - awkwardly silent – but that last phrase had definitely come from inside my closet.
I rolled off the bed, back onto my feet.
There are many things in my closet that I never use. One of these is a chess set. I don’t play chess – a great disappointment to my father, who gave me the set when I was eight.
There is a danger in keeping things you don’t intend to use again.
No noise was coming from the chess set, and it made no movement. But my childhood possession suddenly had a furtive look about it. This, I knew, was where the voices had come from.
I opened it up. There were no longer any chess pieces inside.
Instead, there were some mortified looking little actors.
Garishly made up and absurdly dressed, they looked like they had been rehearsing a ghoulish Elizabethan comedy. Doll-sized tights, corsets and codpieces were piled in one corner of the box, as well as a cat-and-nine-tails and several infinitesimal thumbscrews. The tiny actors were all staring up at me, frozen in fear. The tallest of them sported a long, ornate walking stick, and an immodest goatee. He was the first to snap out of his terror, and he made a deep, ingratiating bow in my direction.
“A thousand pardons, Master Shame!” he intoned, grandly. “We were not aware of your return. Tonight’s performance is still in rehearsal, and if your worship would agree to keep himself conscious for the next three hours, we can promise the finest entertainments ever to be enacted upon your worship’s brain.”
I found it impossible to hide my disgust. “You people are in charge of my dreams?”
The lead player bowed again, taking my disgust in his stride. “It is, indeed, our undeserved honor to hold this lofty commission, and your subconscious patronage is the continued envy of all our rivals. As I said, if you would deign to stay awake for just a while longer - ”
“One of you screwed up last night,” I snapped.
The lead player tightened his lips briefly, before restoring his unctuous grin. “That was Donald, I’m afraid.”
One of the company, a pretty young man in a bright yellow corset, blushed and looked down at the floor. I recognized him as my fake, bloodthirsty sister.
“He has received hard words, and a decrease in wages, Master Shame,” said the lead player. “With your indulgence, he will redeem himself this very night, as will we all.”
These gaudy fops were bringing out my nasty streak. “Your play doesn’t look like it’s up to much, judging by the crappy costumes.”
“It will look better once we’ve crawled through your ear.”
“Once you’ve what through my what?”
“Nothing! These, um, these are just our rehearsals clothes. The real costumes will arrive later tonight. Just stay awake a little while longer. Please.”
“Why do you talentless hacks keep giving me nightmares?” I demanded of them. “Don’t you know any peaceful dreams?”
The lead player pushed out his chest with wounded pride. “We are tragedians, sir!”
“You’re melodramatic hams is what you are,” I said, pointing my finger at him like a cannon. “What the hell was that business last night, cutting through my nut sack to get at my third appendix? You clowns are sick!”
All pretense of reverence drained out of the lead player’s face. “We don’t write the scripts, sir,” he said, dryly. “They are, rather, delivered to us - every day. Each one more depraved and chaotic than the last. It is all we can do to learn and rehearse them before the next night comes. If any of us fails again in our efforts to faithfully execute these perverse hallucinations, perhaps your worship could ask his subconscious to take a little break. Or seek professional help.”
Words abandoned me after that. I muttered some feeble apology for interrupting their rehearsal, and then quickly closed the box.
Occasionally, the actors still a miss a line or an entrance. I pretend I haven’t noticed, and let them get on with the show.
The famous detective has lost none of his powers of deduction.
But he would very much like to die as soon as possible.
Yesterday afternoon, I was endeavoring to chronicle yet another thing that had been discovered in my apartment and Holmes was trying to chase away his demons by beating himself mercilessly at chess. He had not spoken for several hours, which was no surprise – speech has become a torture to my guest. Every time he dares make use of his withered larynx, his voice will creek in such a pathetic way, that I cannot help but imagine some ancient document of forgotten wisdom crinkling in on itself and breaking to pieces.
“I suspect…” began the detective, pausing for breath to fill his crumbling lungs, “that my left ear will soon fall off.”
“Good heavens, Holmes!” I exclaimed. “How could you possibly know that?”
“Because,” snapped the great detective, “it feels like it.”
A quarter of an hour later, Holmes’s ear was on my rug.
How has it come to pass that I, an underachieving, twenty-first century American, am providing shelter for the undead husk of crime fiction’s finest hero?
This marvelous turn of events owes nothing to my own meager exertions. I discovered Holmes, quite by accident, in my neglected cellar. He had spent the past fifty years in hot pursuit of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, the leading figure in a case that not even his faithful partner Watson had ever dared commit to paper. Watson would only refer to it as the case for which "the world is not yet ready." The world may well not have been, but Holmes certainly was. All the evidence gathered by his unsparing mind indicated that the rat now resided in my very cellar, and London’s immortal sleuth was determined to find the beast - so that it might eat him.
“They can’t write me out of that!” he declared.
Holmes, though he had not yet begun his remarkable process of physical decay, was determined that he should meet a definitive end and not be forced into any more convoluted stories.
I had merely aspired to get some laundry done, but instead found myself embroiled in the final chapter of what Sherlock Holmes hoped would be his final case.
“You’ve not heard any scratching down here?” he demanded of me. “Any squeaking?”
I was forced to confess that, save for quick trips to the washer and dryer, I spent no time in my cellar due to the awful and unidentified stench that had blighted it since before I moved in.
My cellar, I was surprised to learn, contains a series of hidden passageways which lead to a number subterranean labyrinths constructed by a variety of secret societies in order to conceal a plethora of ancient conspiracies.
“Not uncommon among old cellars,” Holmes assured me.
I followed Holmes as he located hidden entrance after hidden entrance, evaded deadly booby trap after deadly booby trap, and logically eliminated possibility after possibility, in search of his nemesis.
“I do apologize,” he said at one point. “You must find all this dreadfully tedious. I certainly do.”
Our hunt ended with the solutions to two mysteries: the whereabouts of Holmes’s quarry and the source of my cellar’s enduring stench.
The Giant Rat of Sumatra had long ago found itself a convenient corner in which to curl up and die.
“You lucky, lucky bastard!” Holmes cried at what remained of the legendary rodent. “Lucky, useless bastard! What am I supposed to do now? Moriarty’s kicked it, no one thinks a hundred foot drop off a waterfall is terribly convincing and they’ve just made another damned movie!”
Foiled once again in his quest for finitude, the greatest mind in cheap fiction has taken up residence in my apartment, where, through sheer force of will, he has begun to rot.
“If they won’t let me give up the ghost just yet, my body can at least get a running start.”
Though Holmes’s volatile temper and decaying form have provided more than a few uncomfortable moments, my roommates and I have developed a fondness for the undead icon. Sadly for Holmes, I do not think he will get his wish anytime soon. For all the damage he has managed to do his body, he cannot dismantle his famous mind. Even if he could, he could not take away the idea of it.
In the meantime, whenever we can’t remember where we put something, it never stays a mystery for long.
The Gates of Hell
I would strongly caution anyone against cleaning an oven without first making sure that he is in full possession of his soul.
Readers of this column may recall that my soul and I have been on the outs for a while. She's separated herself from me, ostensibly because I've taken a job as a concierge in a luxury hotel. But I think the job is just a pretext for some larger problem between us that she doesn't want to talk about. Anyway, it's gotten to the point where I've been sleeping on the couch most nights.
As a sort of peace offering, I recently decided I’d make her a nice dinner and dessert. I wasn’t sure if she’d even be able to eat it, her being a just a soul and all, but I was kind of at a loss for gestures.
It was only after I'd bought all the ingredients that I realized I’d never actually used my oven before. Never so much as opened it. I had no idea what the interior even looked like.
It looked like a cave made of grease.
I’m not even sure that’s a metaphor.
So I raided the cabinet beneath the sink, took the nastiest looking cleaners available and got to work.
Hours passed. Gradually, the grease gave way and the oven’s interior walls were revealed.
Except for the back wall.
My unconscious sense of drama had saved the back wall for last. After what seemed an eternity of scrubbing, I learned the truth.
Behind the many layers of grease, there was no back wall.
Instead there was an inviting darkness that my soulless body could not resist.
Before I could think twice about it, I had crawled through the Gates of Hell.
Or the gates of a hell. And a rather shabby one, at that. Just as faiths and gods and nightclubs go in and out of fashion, so too, I learned, do hells. This hell had definitely seen better days. It had started off as your classic fire and brimstone joint, and done fairly good business for a while. But after the demand for that kind of perdition finally dropped off, it reinvented itself several times, desperately looking for another niche of the market. By the time of my visit, it had long settled on a creepy amusement park motif. Sort of as if the Spanish Inquisition had bought out Six Flags.
Before I could enter, I was stopped by a demonic bouncer and spiritually patted down. Apparently, some hells get a lot of trouble from missionaries who have passed to the other side. These saintly citizens of the afterlife, whose souls remain pure and selfless, smuggle themselves into various hells and work to redeem the irredeemable. It’s a very nice idea, now that I think about it. But the proprietors of this little hellhole couldn’t allow that. Business was slow enough as it was.
After the bouncer patted me down, he frowned at me quizzically. I wasn’t a good soul, but I wasn’t a lost soul, either. I wasn’t a soul at all. Though far from the most desirable breed of customer, I certainly didn’t have it in me to save anyone, so he waved me through.
I can’t say exactly why I wanted to be there. I guess, without your soul, you eventually lose your taste for the better things in life. They just make you feel inadequate and fraudulent. At least in a hell, there’s no sense of unworthiness.
Time passed differently there, of course. Kind of like childhood. My memory of it is already hazy, but certain things stand out. I know I spent a lot of time in the Zero-G Booth, which was designed to simulate the complete absence of God. I remember the Ferris Wheel of Suffering. And there was a hall of funhouse mirrors, which reflected back exactly how all of the people you loved had seen you in the precise moments that you had hurt them the most.
What I remember most clearly, however, was Sisyphus Mountain. As you might have guessed, Sisyphus Mountain involved pushing a boulder up a hill and trying to get it to stay there. I must have spent twenty lifetimes pushing that boulder up that hill, and watching it fall down again.
The odd thing was – it got kind of addictive. Almost comforting.
The even odder thing was that, after God knows how long, I finally got it to stay.
For a while, I just stared at the boulder, frightened, a part of me wishing it would fall back again.
I didn’t know what to do.
Then an impatient-looking little demon scurried up the hill and examined my work.
“Well I’ll be damned,” he said. “That doesn’t happen often. Here ya go, kid.”
He snapped his fingers, drew an oversized, stuffed toy penguin out from thin air, and handed it to me.
“Now scram,” he advised me.
Dazed, I walked backed down the hill, holding the penguin by one of its fins. I found the gates of hell, which I only vaguely remembered having come through, and I crawled back into my kitchen.
It was past dinnertime. My roommates were asleep. So was my soul.
I laid the penguin next to her on the bed, went back into the common room and curled up on the couch.
The Carbon Monoxide Detector
The Carbon Monoxide Detector doesn’t have enough to do.
Our apartment is old and drafty, so when a single carbon atom bonds with a single oxygen oxygen atom, they move out pretty quick.
Never once has our Carbon Monoxide Detector really had a chance to do its job.
Which is fine by us, but has created an existential crisis for the device.
Every few days, our Carbon Monoxide Detector will emit a truly piercing alarm that never fails to fill my entire body with adrenaline and panic.
I’ll dash across the apartment and press the “Acknowledge” button.
“So…” the Carbon Monoxide Detector will then say. “What’s goin’ on?”
“Not much,” I’ll reply, with barely contained fury. “What’s goin’ on with you?
“Not much. Some CO molecules just went out the window.”
“Yup. Pretty quiet around here. Say, can you imagine if there really was a dangerous level of carbon monoxide here?”
“The CO would enter your blood stream, turn your hemoglobin in to carboxyhemoglobin and totally inhibit the flow of oxygen to your bodily tissues.”
“But I’d be all like, “BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!” before you guys even started to feel the symptoms, and you’d totally evacuate the apartment in time.”
“Sure hope so.”
“You know it, buddy. You know it.”
The conversations rarely go further than that. The Carbon Monoxide Detector doesn’t really know about anything else. I’ve tried to teach it checkers, but it keeps getting distracted by the insignificant number of CO molecules that form and then leave the apartment.
“Ah hah! I thought those two would get together. Covalent double bond, dative covalent bond - yup, I totally called that. Oh… there they go. They all move on. They know who’s boss. Say, you’re not experiencing any headaches or nausea right now, right? ”
I try not to get annoyed. After all, carbon monoxide poisoning is no joke. And neither is unfulfilled promise. Our CO Detector waits in vain for the day it will be tested. For the day it will know it’s alive. But if I’ve learned anything from the Detector’s experience, it’s that destiny is a crock of shit. For some of us, the greatest battle may simply be acceptance.
Meanwhile, the concentration of carbon monoxide in our apartment refuses to rise above 5 parts per million.
The Garden Gnome
As readers may recall, there is a Goblin who rents my apartment every night between the hours of one and five.
If I want to make use of my apartment during that period, I must pay the Goblin with the sweat of my nightmares.
This is surprisingly cheap currency.
I collect it in the metal coffee cans I’ve never figured out how to recycle.
The cans fill up a whole cupboard.
If ever I can’t sleep, or if I just feel like hanging out, I remove one of these cans and present the Goblin with his fee.
He rips off the lid, takes a loud sniff with his alarming nose, slams the can down on the common room table and declares me a “pussy.”
Then he usually tells me what goblins' nightmares are like, which puts things in perspective.
One night I presented him with a can filled from nightmares about my job. The Goblin was particularly unimpressed with this.
“You think you’ve got problems?” he said in his impossibly deep and evil voice. “What about that guy?”
I followed the Goblin’s gaze, towards our TV and our ugly couch, but saw no one.
“What guy?” I said.
“That guy! The gnome.”
My roommate Jessica had installed a ceramic garden gnome on the floor of our common room. She thought it was funny. It was, but I kept tripping over it on my way to the couch.
“That gnome,” said the Goblin, “has had it far worse than you, ya little pustule.”
I examined the garden gnome closely for the first time. With his conical hat, he stood roughly 18 inches tall. His hat and jerkin were a dirty orange, like a carrot just plucked from the earth. His bushy beard covered half his torso, and was painted white and brown. The exact same white and brown had been used to paint his boots, in almost exactly the same pattern. With his right hand, the gnome held high a lantern, nearly half his own size. Tucked under his left arm was a book. His cheekbones were round and rosy, as was his nose. His mouth was shaped in a smile, and happy wrinkles had been carved around his eyes.
“Poor bastard,” the Goblin muttered.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked.
“Nothing’s wrong with him!” the Goblin bellowed. “Nothing, d’ya hear me, you vile little snot? He’s a goddamn hero – that’s what’s wrong with him.”
The Goblin grabbed me by the collar with irresistible strength, and pulled me within inches of his terrifying face. His giant nose rippled and his breath burnt my skin as he told me the story of the gnome.
“You think he wanted to be a garden gnome all his life? You think that’s the life he wanted for his offspring? Just cuz society says that’s all his kind is good for? Hellz nay, my pampered little enemy. That resilient sonovabitch was taking night classes. He was gonna be an office gnome, come hell or not-very-high water. Every night, once he had the cover of darkness, that gnome would escape his garden post, lantern in one hand, textbook in the other, and study his ass off at a local community college. By sun up, he was back in his place – or the place you people had assigned him – with a fixed smile ready for his masters. Sleep was unknown to this gnome, as was self-pity. He made his boots from his own goddamn beard, for cryin’ out loud. And you come to me with this!” The Goblin released my collar, grabbed the coffee can I had presented to him, and threw it savagely against a wall.
The sweat of my nightmares disappeared into the rug, as if ashamed.
“What happened to the gnome?” I asked.
“What happens to anyone who takes on society with an honest heart? He got screwed. His employers decided he wasn’t needed anymore. Didn’t suit their garden. Years of service to those oblivious bastards, and then they just auctioned him off on eBay to hell knows where. He never even got his associate’s degree. That was it for the poor guy. Couldn’t afford any more hopes, so he just hardened himself. Accepted his fate, and hardened to clay, full time. Won’t ever turn back now. Too late. Way of all gnomes, I guess.”
The gnome still lives in our common room, next to the couch, in front of the TV. But my roommates and I have bought him a chair.
And we never put on any gardening shows.