The rabbit palpitation shook the little man again, but he knew he was still clear. Nothing was proven!
“Why,” he gasped, “would I prowl some downtown lousy tenement I wouldn’t dream to live in, why?”
“Because,” I said, “you were looking for Lonelies. And damn fool stupid dumb me, blinder than Henry, helped you find them. Fannie was right. Constance was right! I was the death goat after all. Christ, I was Typhoid Mary. I carried the disease, you, everywhere. Or at least you followed. To find Lonelies.” A drumbeat of breath. “Lonelies.”
Almost as I said it, both Shrank and I were seized with what were almost paroxysms. I had spoken a truth that was like a furnace lid thrown back so the heat scorched out to sear my face, my tongue, my heart, my soul. And Shrank? I was describing his unguessed life, his need; all yet to be revealed and admitted, but I knew I had at last yanked the asbestos up and the fire was in the open.
“What was that word?” asked Shrank, some ten yards off and motionless as a statue.
“Lonelies. You said the word. You described them last month. Lonelies.”
And it was true. A funeral march of souls went by in a breath, on soundless feet, in drifts of fog. Fannie and Sam and Jimmy and Cal and all the rest. I had never put a proper label on them. I had never seen the carry-over that tied them all and made them one.
“You’re raving,” said Shrank. “Guessing. Making up. Lying. None of this has to do with me.”
But he was looking down at the way his coat was run up on his skinny wrists and the weathermarks of late-night sweats down his coat. His suit seemed to be diminishing even as I watched. He writhed in his own pale skin, underneath.
I decided to attack.
“Christ, you’re rotting even as you stand there. You’re an affront. You hate everything, all, anything in the world. You told me that just now. So you attack it with your dirt, your breath. Your underwear is your true flag, so you run it up a pole to ruin the wind. A. L. Shrank. Proprietor of the Apocalypse!”
He was smiling, he was overjoyed. I had complimented him with insults. I was paying attention. His ego roused. Without knowing it, I had made and baited a trap.
What now? I thought. What, what, for God’s sake do I say now, now? How draw him out? How finish him?
But he was walking ahead again now, all inflated with insults, all magnificent with the medals of ruin and despair I had pinned to his greasy tie.
We walked. We walked. We walked.
My God, I thought, how long do we walk, how long do we talk, how long does this go on?
This is a movie, I thought, one of those unbelievable scenes that continue and continue when people explain and others talk back and people say again,
It can’t be.
He’s not sure what I know and I’m not sure that I know, either, and both of us wonder if the other is armed.
“And both of us are cowards,” said Shrank.
“And both are afraid to test the other.”
The Carpenter went on. The Oyster followed.
And it was not a scene from a good or bad film where people talked too much; it was a scene growing late at night and the moon vanishing to reappear as the fog thickened and I was having a dialogue with Hamlet’s father’s idiot psychiatrist’s friend’s ghost.
Shrank, I thought. What a name. Shrink from this, shrink from that, you wind up shrunk! How had it started? Out of college, on top of the world, hang a shingle; then the great earthquake of some year, did he recall? the year his legs and mind broke and there was the long slide without a toboggan, just on his skinny backside, and no women between him and the downfall pit to ease the concussion, lubricate the nightmare, stop his crying at midnight and hatred at dawn? And one morning, he got out of bed and found himself, where?
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