[A snippet from a writing project in gestation, which will probably make very little sense if you haven’t read these other snippets: Square one, No importa, New tables, Belly of the beast, & No turning back]
Fortunately I managed to transcribe a good bit of the Scroll of Charmin before it disappeared. Yes, one moment it was resting peacefully atop my new refrigerator, the next it was in the back seat of Jesús’s car, bouncing around on its way back to the ocean town from whence it came. Of course, it was never mine to begin with, and how could I expect Jesús to know how much the thing meant to me. I can’t even say, “Pass the rice” in Spanish, much less communicate the idiosyncratic intricacies of my creative process. Shit, I can’t even make sense of all that in English. He knew I had already read through the thing, so naturally he thought to return it to his nephew on his next trip to the coast. I say “naturally,” as if we’ve all seen how people handle rolls of toilet paper inscribed in a foreign language! Anyway, I’m already planning a trip to the coast myself, not only to transcribe the rest of the roll, if possible, but also to see if there is anything else like it kicking around town, or any other clues related to the author’s existence or identity. I’ve started referring to him as Mr. Whipple (“Don’t squeeze the Charmin!”). I’m still thinking “archeology grad student trying his hand at short fiction,” but I can’t completely quiet that itty-bitty voice whispering, “What if Whipple’s for real?” If it were to turn out that some dude was (or even still is) being held against his will in some makeshift prison, well, then I’d feel pretty shitty about ignoring his cry for help. Also, however much I hate to admit that I’m thinking along these lines, I can’t deny that the whole thing would make a pretty good story for me to write about. Truly extraordinary.
Anyway, I did manage to jot down a bit more of Whipple’s message-in-a-bottle. Some of what follows seems a bit too lighthearted, if I am to believe that it was penned by someone held captive, terrified, and nursing a head injury. Again, not that I could possibly know how a person would “naturally” behave under such extraordinary circumstances, but still, it’s hard to buy into the narrative with all these red flags cropping up. See for yourself:
I’ve spent a lot of time in front of mirrors. Too much time. As a kid I would make faces, practice impressions, and make believe I was on TV. My sister and I sometimes played the “News Game,” whereby we would sit on my parents’ bed, facing their big dresser mirror, and pretend to be television news anchors. We’d begin by delivering the news straight-faced – “The weather will be sunny today; the Yankees beat the Red Sox 4-3 in extra innings” etc. Then, without warning, one of us would start acting like a maniac – screeching, laughing, making silly faces, bouncing around the bed – until the two of us burst into uncontrollable fits of laughter.
Once puberty hit, I’d spend interminable stretches in front of the bathroom mirror, picking at zits and fooling with my hair. Even as an adult my family makes fun of me for spending so much time staring at myself. My mother says I’m like Dorian Gray, checking each day to see if the devil is keeping his end of the bargain.
As you might expect, there’s no mirror here in the cell, no reflective surface at all, in fact. My beard’s coming in full and it itches like crazy. I’m curious what it looks like, what I look like. Considering the memory issues and the cloudy, surreal ambiance, I’m not entirely sure I’d recognize my reflection as my own. This thought terrifies me, bringing to mind a recurrent childhood nightmare. I’d dream I was in the middle of a casual conversation with my father when all of a sudden I’d notice a slight change in his facial features. He still looked almost exactly like himself, but something was slightly off, as if a look-a-like actor had sneaked in to take his place while I glanced away for a moment. The realization that this man was not really my father, was an imposter, would shake me awake with fear, set my heart pounding, my lungs gasping for air.
This whole fucking thing has got to be a bad dream. Nothing makes sense. I am a man without a face, without a voice, without a clue. Perhaps I’m dead, waiting in some sort of antechamber as a jury of angels and devils deliberate on the state of my soul. Perhaps there’s such a long delay because the swing vote is in the hands of a mixed breed, a devil-angel with pitchforks for wings who’s prone to epileptic fits and extended periods of catatonic stupor. Or maybe I’m already in hell, and El Diablo really is just the devil in disguise, fattening me up for slaughter with his flavorless gruel.
But why not be optimistic, right? Who’s to say this isn’t heaven? After all, nobody’s strung me up by the toenails yet, or branded my backside with the sign of the beast. Maybe there are seventy-two virgins in the cell next to mine, very quietly primping, readying themselves for the official induction orgy, tentatively scheduled for next Saturday.
Or better yet, perhaps I’ve been bitten by a very rare form of psychedelic insect, or a toad maybe, whose venom has set me wildly tripping, distorting all sense of time and place, and in reality I’m just sitting on a rock alongside a hiking trail, holding on to my wife’s hand as we wait for the effects to wear off.
Shhh… The devil in disguise approaches… He speaks, with a forked tongue: “Ocho mesas” – not a word more, then he slithers back toward the steaming shadows…
I’ve been thinking about it all day. “Ocho mesas.” Eight tables? I think not. And my “new” table never did arrive, undoubtedly because it wasn’t new, but rather “nine.” “Neuve,” of course, is “nine” while “neuv-o,” if memory serves, is “new.” What a difference a letter makes. You thought you bought a farm, but what I actually sold you was a fart. Didn’t you catch a whiff while we were shaking on it? Don’t beat yourself up, though. It was a mistake anyone could make, but sorry, all sales are final.
Now, I can’t be sure just yet, but if El Diablo says “siete mesas” about thirty days from now, then my suspicion will be confirmed – he’s counting down. And probably by months rather than tables. So, if the Final Jeopardy answer is “Nine months,” then what, pray tell, is the Final Jeopardy question?
Me: “Well Alex, I’ll have to go with ‘What’s the time I need to serve in this prison cell before I’m released a free man?’”
Alex: “I’m sorry, that’s incorrect. How much did you wager? Everything? My apologies.”
Me: “No wait, I meant to say: The time I have to wait before the big Welcome to Heaven orgy.”
Alex: “I’m sorry. You forgot to put your response in the form of a question.”
Me: “Fuck you, Alex, you smarmy bastard!”
Alex: “Thank you for playing. The correct response is ‘How long before you hang from the toenails for all eternity.’ Bwa ha ha ha ha…”
I always suspected Alex Trebeck was the anti-Christ, but in all seriousness, I could be waiting to mount the gallows. It’s doubtful they’ve locked me in here to protect me from myself. I don’t remember any men in white coats or Thorazine injections. Then again, I don’t remember anything at all.
It’s strange how desperately I want this all to be real–a man’s pain, suffering, confusion, terror–just so I can feel special by association. After all, the Scroll found its way to me. It’s my destiny we’re talking about here, my salvation. But it has to be the genuine article–at the very least based on a true story–or else I’m just being taken for a ride.
What’s real is what matters. It’s all that matters. It’s like the divinity of Jesus to the faithful. It makes all the difference who you think the real father is: God, or some woodworker named Joe.