A change of pace, before I get back to Perrin. I was just about to drift off to sleep in my chair the other night and my dream self dumped the idea into my head just like that. Not sure what to say about it except that it’s darkly disturbing. Is it ironic or just absurd? Is there a point to it? I’m honestly not sure. But I wrote it down anyway. Who am I to question my dream self?
Russian Roulette Brain Soup
The door swung open, letting in a gust of cold wet air decorated with the skeletal remains of a few fallen October leaves.
“Ed! Glad to see you could make it,” came an ebullient voice from the snug interior of the crude one room cabin.
“It’s good to see you, Harry” replied the hollow faced newcomer, shrugging off his bulky parka to reveal a skeletal supporting frame. A shiver ran through his spindly body, giving the impression that he was another fallen leaf driven in by the storm to the welcome shelter of the dilapidated structure with its rosy fingers of fire leaping up the brick chimney and casting a soft ruddy light into the room. “It’s hard to believe it’s been a year already.”
“And what a year it’s been, too. I have so much to tell you, so much indeed. But I might as well wait until Mitchell and Ernie get here so I don’t have to repeat myself. But tell me, how have you been? Or no, maybe you’d better wait too. You look so . . . but what a night, what a night! When was the last time you saw a gale like this?”
Harry’s eyes shone fiercely from the roost of his round red face. His booming voice and robust body spoke health and vigor, making him seem like the generative oak trunk to the dead blasted leaf of Ed’s wizened presence. His expansive irony beard reinforced the impression, looking like a tangle of denuded branches.
Before Ed’s responsive quaver had time to crawl out of his twitching throat, the door flew open again and in walked two more men, already embroiled in a lively discussion about the dirty weather. “Ed! Harry!” exclaimed the foremost, immediately followed by the subdued warmth of the trailing companion’s awkwardly formal greeting, with words to the effect that he wished it might be October every month, just so he could have the pleasure of seeing his friends more often.
The next moments saw a flurry of exuberant greetings, hearty hugs, and lingering handshakes, after which the four old friends settled into their chairs, arranged in a semi-circle around the crackling warmth in the stone fireplace. For a while they simply looked at one another, each face a combination of the exhilaration of the moment marred by the year’s assorted afflictions.
Harry broke the silence with the observation that “We have to start somewhere and it might as well be with me.” All four seemed oblivious to the apparent narcissism of the suggestion.
“And I wish I had some good news to set the tone for this happy reunion,” the glowing giant continued, sorrow darkening his face. “But I’m afraid I’m in a bit of a pickle, quite at the end of my rope, you know. Really, I would have given up hope long ago but I’ve been waiting for this day, hoping against all reason that if anyone on the face of the earth could point out a way forward it would be you, my most treasured friends in all the world.”
An ember cracked loudly, giving expression to the sorrow of the towering fellow. The other three started but their gaze never left his earnest face.
“The truth is, my friends – and I hate to admit this to anyone, least of all you – but I’m on the verge of absolute ruin.” Here, Harry’s voice cracked like the sympathetic ember. “They’ve already shut off the lights, the propane tank is empty, and it’s nothing short of a miracle that the eviction notice hasn’t come in yet. When it does come, as it certainly will, I don’t know what I’ll do to care for my family this winter. Every fresh gust of wind reminds me of the burden of caring for them and I’m out of ideas, simply out of ideas. And . . . I’m so deep in debt. So, so deep. To the tune of . . . well, over sixty-eight thousand dollars.” His voice trailed away so that the other three had to lean forward in their chairs, straining to hear him.
Mitchell let out a low whistle of surprise. “Did you say sixty-eight thousand? That’s a lot of money. What could have happened . . .”
Harry’s head drooped lower until his beard covered all but the last button of his red flannel shirt. “That’s just the thing. It’s my fault, it truly is. I can’t blame anyone but myself. I was so fixated on providing security and comfort for the future. And I was so close, so close I could almost taste it. Every setback just fed my resolve to keep digging and now I find myself at the bottom of a hole I can’t see any way out of. I wouldn’t care if it were only me. No, then I would gladly give up my house and find some bridge or culvert or fox den somewhere to live alone with my shame, and never give a fig’s ass if I lived or died. But to think what I’m doing to poor Darlene when that woman has stuck with me through thick and thin all these years. And little Margaret and Harrieta and Edward. What did they ever do to deserve this? Why would this heartless world punish them for the sins of their father? I tell you, it’s more than this old heart of mine can bear.”
Something glistened in the corner of Harry’s eye, which he whisked away with a huge rugged paw.
“Gee, Harry, I’m awfully sorry,” Ed lisped. “How did you get into so much debt?”
Harry opened his mouth as if to speak, closed it, then opened it again and simply said, “gambling.”
“Gambling! But Harry, you were done with all that. For years you were done with it. Why would you start again now, after all that time?” Ernie’s face was a contradiction of empathy and reproach. Harry’s massive head drooped back down.
“I had a system this time. An ironclad, foolproof system. It would have worked to, it would have, if I only could have kept a few more numbers straight in this big stupid useless head. And honestly, Ernie, and I might as well admit this to you, to all of you, because I love you more than anyone in the world besides my own family and I want you to know because I don’t know what will become of me and I suspect I may not make it through another year – but I wasn’t as clean as I made out to be. Not even for all those years when I pretended to be straight. I’m a liar and a fraud. It’s the truth, no matter how it pains me to admit it. I put up a good front, but I was slowly pawning off everything I owned, taking out more loans, using one credit card to pay off another. But it got worse last year, so much worse, and I’m all out of options.”
“Some system,” Mitchell observed, his voice thick with irony.
“No, the system was good,” Harry repeated obstinately. “I learned how to count cards and make my bets scientifically, so that I was statistically certain to win over time. And I would have to, if my brain wasn’t so damn dumb. It would always start out so well, I’d be winning at first, but then something would happen in my head and everything would start to swim around and get more and more confusing, and I’d lose everything I had won and keep on going. I tried so hard. Believe me, I tried! Every day I would do memory exercises and train my mind. But at the end of the day I just couldn’t cut it. I just didn’t have what it takes. My wretched little brain betrayed me and I was too slow to learn. And now there’s no way out. If I could only go back in time I would do things so differently. But enough of me!” he roared. “If this is the last time I see you guys – God forbid that it should be so, but if, as I suspect, it is – then I don’t want to spend it moaning and crying like I have on my own all this time. I want to hear from you. I want all your good news to make me forget my own troubles, even if it’s only for a night.”
Ed’s jaundiced eyes flicked down to the rough hewn boards of the floor. Ernie heaved a cavernous sigh, letting his shoulders and the corners of his mouth slump with the exhalation. Mitchell’s scowl radiated the bitterness of despair. No one spoke.
After some time, Mitchell finally broke the silence. “I was hoping someone would step in with the good news you wanted, Harry. But since it doesn’t seem to be forthcoming, I’ll fill you in on my own story. Just don’t expect to find any comfort in it. In fact, as impossible as your own situation seems to be, I would rather have your troubles than my own. Money is a cruel master, to be sure, but it’s as fickle as a campaigning politician. As long as your problem is merely financial, there’s always a chance that it might be solved by some windfall or stroke of good luck. You see, I’ve run into trouble too, but speaking philosophically, it seems impossible not only because of contrary circumstances, but by an indisputable logical necessity. I don’t blame you at all, Harry, for what happened to you, and I’m glad you were so open with us. It makes it easier to tell you the Gordian knot of my own conundrum. Only I have no Alexander to circumvent the rules and snatch up a victory. In my case, no victory could conceivably exist. Every step forward involves at least two steps back. Tell me, how can I expect anything but abject failure under those conditions?”
“For Pete’s sake, Mitchell,” Harry thundered. “I know you teach philosophy but can’t you tell us your problem in words that make sense?”
“The truth is, Harry – and Ernie and Ed,” Mitchell continued, trying to subdue the exasperation that clenched at his jaw, “and I trust that you won’t make light of it or refuse to understand the severity – no, the impossibility – of the reality, but I have fallen hopelessly, helplessly and eternally in love with a firebrand of a woman – or not even a woman but a goddess in human form, the incarnation of every grace and perfection that humanity has been artlessly scrambling after since time began. And the fact is, as utterly unlikely as it seems to be, she has reciprocated with a love as unbreakable as my own, a love just as eternal but a thousand times more pure and divine, a love as unsurpassable as her own matchless being.”
An awkward silence followed this profusion of superlatives, finally broken by Ernie’s uncertain voice: “I guess I don’t see what the problem is, Mitchell.”
Mitchell groaned in an agony as profound as his ill-fated love. “The problem, my dear friend – and I thank you for striving to understand, in the best way you know how – is that my love for my own wife, a love so beautifully domestic and as deep as the earth, a love at once warm and familiar and comforting and unbreakable – yes, truly unbreakable – is impossible to escape. No, my own soul will break and die and wither away before a splinter be chipped away from the mountain of sincerity and strength which is her love for me.”
“Yes, I can see that you’re on the horns of a dilemma,” Harry offered, seeming pleased with himself at scrounging up that philosophical sounding expression. “Torn between two loves. Whichever you choose, the other half of you must die. But still, and forgive me if I sound coldhearted because that’s not how I mean it at all – but still, I’d rather half of me die than the whole of me shiver away to a sad lonely death in some hollow log. And that’s not even the extent of it – it’s my family. The torture of knowing what I’ve done to them. And surely they don’t deserve it, in all the earth they don’t deserve it, the poor precious saints.”
“Let two unstoppable forces tear you limb from limb and which half of you will survive then?” Mitchell snapped, his face betraying the sting of Harry’s words. “I don’t expect you to understand fully, but at least do me the justice of refusing to assume that I’m blowing smoke and spinning yarns. I tell you this, Harry, I’ll say it to anyone: if you could feel and see and apprehend the realities that have set themselves so mercilessly against me, you would marvel at my restraint and think my language coldly inadequate.”
“I’m sorry, Mitchell, I didn’t mean it like that,” the colossus protested, squirming in his seat. “It’s just that, well . . . so, say you didn’t choose at all? I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time a man took two women and truly loved them both. And didn’t you say they both love you anyway? It’s a bit unorthodox, I know, but if your love for each is as unbreakable as you suggest, and I’m not doubting you, believe that, well then . . . since when did philosophers of your caliber ever live by the rules of the societies they were born into, anyway?”
“Thank you for trying to help, Harry,” Mitchell sighed. “There are so many ways I could demonstrate the inadequacy of your proposed solution, but I forbear to make this night preeminently about myself. Let it suffice to say that either love is far too vast and all-encompassing to admit of competition, and that to attempt to contain them both in my finite breast would be like striving to pour the ocean into a thimble. The attempt would surely destroy me, and, what is of far greater import, the very suggestion would be an inexcusable slight against the dignity of both of these women. If a god came down from the heights of Olympus – if Zeus himself descended and requested lodging from a humble peasant living in ancient Athens – and the foolish fellow said, ‘I have no room in the house, but might you not sleep in my stable?’ – do you see how intolerable an insult that would be? If the fellow said, ‘My house is crude and rustic, but such as it is, it is all yours,’ well, it might not be an offer befitting the dignity of the god, but maybe Zeus would overlook the slight since it was truly all that the peasant had to offer. Do you see now how derisible it would be for me to offer anything but my everything to a love so godlike and exhaustive as that offered by either of these goddesses to such a fawning peasant as myself?”
“Yes, yes,” Harry acknowledged, “when you put it like that I can see how impossible it seems.”
“But enough of me,” Mitchell announced magnanimously, turning toward Ernie and Ed. “What of you, Ernie? I trust the year has been at least somewhat more favorable to you?”
Ernie’s pallor spoke denial before he opened his lips. “I mean no disrespect to you when I say this, Mitchell. You either, Harry, for that matter. I wish I could give you some good news but the truth is, I came here with my own problem and it seems just as impossible as yours. It still does, actually. I know my own heart isn’t so big and complex as yours, Mitchell, and you might laugh at me for saying this, but I hope you know that I’m not saying my own troubles are like yours – but to me they seem even bigger and more hopeless. They really do. You pointed out that as long as Harry’s problems are only money there’s at least a chance. But when I hear your own problem it makes me think that at least you have love, even if you don’t know what to do with it. At least the woman you love – both of them, actually – love you too. All this year I’ve loved a woman with all my heart. I thought I could make her love me but now I see that she never can. I can’t even tell you how completely hopeless that makes me feel. Can I tell you that I’ve even wished for death? That I’ve even caught myself daydreaming about ways that I could end it all? I know your problem might technically be bigger than mine, Mitchell. I mean, I know if I had your brain I could find a solution. I could figure out how to make Lucy love me. But for someone like me, even what you might think is a small problem is so big that it’s truly as impossible for me as anything I’ve heard yet tonight. Maybe my own problem is like a boulder and yours is like a mountain. But compared to you I’m just a little ant, and to an ant a boulder seems just as big as a mountain.”
“Come on now, Ernie,” Harry butted in, no longer able to restrain himself. “You’re just as important as any of us and so are your problems. Right, Mitchell? Right, Ed?”
Ed murmured his assent. Mitchell nodded pensively and looked as though he were about to say something philosophical, but a glare from Harry made him reconsider.
“So how did it happen?” Ed wheezed.
Ernie sighed mournfully. “I met her at the cafe. She’s a waitress there. She might not be as high and mighty a goddess as you talk about, Mitchell, but to me she is. And of course I don’t have money problems like you do, Harry, but I’ll tell you this: I spend every bit of money I make eating at that cafe, just so I can see her there, smiling so nice at everyone and handing out plates and drinks with so much grace that if I did meet a goddess I don’t know how she could do it any better. It took me months. You know I’m not a very confident person. But finally I got the nerve up to ask her out. She was kind and sweet and everything but she turned me down. And I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to ask again, and again and again, so that now, whenever I come in, she avoids my table and always finds someone else to wait on me. And I see her talking to her friends – and they’re all smart and intellectual like you, Mitchell – and I just think, if I could only have your brain, even just a tiny little piece of it, then it would be different. Then she would love me. Then I could find a way to win her. But I don’t and I can’t and if you could figure out a way I would worship you forever. But I don’t think there is a way. I think my problem is just as impossible as yours, even though I feel bad about saying that because I know how much deeper and more complicated your own troubles are.”
“I would never devalue the reality of your suffering, Ernie,” Mitchell responded at once. “Unrequited love has driven many great men to complete ruin. You have nothing to be ashamed of and no reason to suppose that your life, with the enigmatical barbs that grow up in it like thorns of unbreakable iron, is any less important than anyone else’s. Alas, the sad truth is that there never lived a philosopher so wise as to command a woman’s love against her will.”
“I thought you might say something like that,” Ernie confessed. “But to tell you the truth, I wish you had laughed and told me how stupid I was and said, don’t you know you just have to do this or that and it will all be different? I wouldn’t even have cared if you had laughed at me, I just would have been happy to have a way to win her love. But if even you can’t tell me a surefire way to win her, how can I hope to do any better? The problem isn’t like a boulder at all, it’s like the biggest mountain in the whole world, and that’s the truth.”
The simplicity and earnestness of Ernie’s speech had the effect of silencing his three friends, who sat glumly in their chairs, feeling his hurt.
Eventually, Ed cleared his throat, opening up a pathway for his mousy voice to scrabble up and out of his mouth. “I’ll tell you all right now that I think my own story is every bit as important as any of yours and my troubles are just as deep. I won’t apologize for daring to say that they’re as bad as anyone’s, and I don’t think you should either, Ernie. In fact, and I do apologize if this offends you, but I think my own problem is worse than any of yours. Everyone has money problems and a lot of people figure out a way to make it work anyway. And forgive me, but everyone has relationship problems too and it can really hurt, it really can, and I don’t know the philosophical basis for this but I believe that time can heal everything. But at least the three of you have your health. At least there’s that. Just look at me. Just look. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed how sick I am. You talk about wanting to die. I just wish I could figure out a way to keep from dying. That’s all I want. And you three have it but don’t want it and it’s not fair. It’s not fair.”
“Yes, I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Harry assented, nodding his big head sympathetically. “What’s going on in that skinny little body of yours? I would give up every ounce of my own health if I thought it would help you. I would trade bodies in a heartbeat and consider it a good deal, just knowing that you could take this wretched health of mine and make a happy life out of it. But instead, I’m destined to ruin it on the streets, penniless and family-less, while you, who could put it to a good use, are the only one of us who seems to have been denied that opportunity. But tell me, have you been to doctors? Do you know what’s wrong? Have you heard your prognosis?”
“The doctors haven’t found anything wrong with me,” Ed replied, struggling to breathe from the exertion of his brief tirade. “They’ve even gone so far as to suggest that it’s all in my head. But it’s not. I’m not crazy. I’m sick. Just look at me.”
“No one here questions your sanity, Ed,” Mitchell remarked, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “But tell me, what are your symptoms? Besides the obvious signs of frailty and cachexia.”
“I’ll tell you exactly what it is, Mitchell. I can’t eat anything. Or almost anything. I can eat almonds, a certain variety of raspberry that grows in the northeastern states, and Cavendish bananas. That’s it. At least that’s all that I’ve managed to discover so far. For over six months now I’ve had almost no protein at all.”
“What happens if you eat protein?” Ernie asked.
“It depends on what kind of protein. Mostly it makes me violently ill so I puke it all back up. Turkey legs make me break out in a full body rash that burns like fire. Apples make my hair fall out and give me such severe diarrhea that I become dehydrated. Gluten inflames my ulcers and refined sugars cause asthma attacks that even albuterol can’t mitigate. I get delirious whenever I eat red meat and wake up days later to find myself wandering naked through public places or sleeping in a tree top. A few other things too, but mostly, I just get sick and everything comes right back up.”
“The symptoms do suggest a psychosomatic element,” Mitchell intoned.
“I’m not crazy!” Ed snapped. “I don’t want this. I want to be healthy. That’s the only thing I want. And I can’t help it that eating food ravages my body the way it does, but it’s the truth.”
Mitchell adopted a mollifying tone. “Yes, of course, I certainly wouldn’t suggest that any of it is intentional. It just seems to me that the right kind of doctor–”
“I’ve been to every kind doctor there is. No one has been able to figure out what’s wrong with me. And my time is running out.” Ed’s voice was barely there. Ed was barely there. He looked like he was on the verge of spontaneous dissolution.
“Well, we’re quite a hopeless bunch this year,” Harry guffawed. “Would you just look at us? It’s a pity we can’t just mix and match our problems. If I had Mitchell’s brain power, for instance, counting cards would be no problem at all. I’d be rolling in the dough before I knew it. And Ernie’s sweet simple innocence – I mean that as a compliment, Ernie, really – might be just the thing to heal poor Ed’s nervous body and let him eat again. And not to brag, but my outgoing nature has wooed many a woman like Ernie’s angelic waitress. And then, wouldn’t his old fashioned monogamy hold forth a solution even to the hopeless quandary of our philosopher friend?”
“You’re right!” Ernie exclaimed. “Wouldn’t it be perfect if we could just sort of shuffle our brains together like a deck of cards? Between the four of us, we could solve all of our problems. Although I’d feel bad about whoever got my brain bits,” he added ruefully, scratching his head at the thought.
Mitchell looked thoughtful. “Many primitive cultures retain the belief that ingesting certain body parts of animals, hearts and brains in particular, tends to reinforce their noblest traits in the mind and body of the eater. Many secret rites and mystery cults throughout history give credence to this idea. Modern science would be skeptical, but after all, modern science has had to eat crow more than once. And it’s surprising how much ancient wisdom has been unexpectedly confirmed by science.”
“So what are you saying, Mitchell? We should all go eat animal brains and our problem will be solved?” Harry’s face was redder than normal and his voice was high pitched and incredulous.
“Animal brains wouldn’t help us,” Mitchell answered scornfully. “Do you really think we’ve all agonized over our problems all this time without success but some rabbit or deer will have the answers that have managed to elude us?”
“I was just thinking about how we could help each other,” Ernie put in. “I mean, if I could just borrow a little part of your brains just long enough to make Lucy love me. That’s all. I wasn’t suggesting anything like eating animals.”
“And yet you think, in theory, that it could work,” Harry prodded, turning to Mitchell. “Not with animal brains, of course. But suppose, just hypothetically, that a person could consume the brain of another person who had the traits that he himself needed. Philosophically speaking, is there any way that might help? It couldn’t possibly work, could it? Or could it?”
Mitchell didn’t reply for some time. Finally, in a low murmur, he said, “There’s no way to be certain, of course, but there’s no philosophical reason that it might not have some beneficial effect. Maybe even a great enough effect to admit of some progress or even outright solution.”
No one spoke for quite some time. When Harry did say something it had the effect of a bomb dropping out of heaven. All three of his friends jumped. When they jumped, he jumped too. Then they sat there and observed each other awkwardly.
All he said was, “Russian roulette brain soup.”
Mitchell was the first to reply. “Are you suggesting . . .”
Harry had already pulled out his gun. He fingered it slowly, caressing its smooth nickel surface. “Smith and Wesson .357 magnum. I’m in and out of casinos all the time, sometimes with significant sums of cash. I needed the protection.”
“Are you serious?” Ed wheezed. “Are you crazy? You must be crazy! Tell me you’re not serious.”
“Well, think about it.” Harry’s voice was subdued, scarcely more than a whisper. “We all have a problem that we can’t solve on our own. Correct me if I’m wrong, but we would all be willing to die in order to find a solution to our problems. That’s how serious they are. Except for Ed, who doesn’t want to die, but he will anyway unless he finds his own solution. But it’s like Ernie said. If we could find a way to borrow bits of brains from each other, we could each find a way out of our mess. Mitchell’s the smartest one of us all so if even he thinks it’s possible . . . well, what do we have to lose?”
Ed looked like he was about to vomit. Ernie’s eyes were wide and unblinking. Mitchell was still stroking his chin, his face a little paler than usual. “There’s no logical refutation to the suggestion,” he announced decisively.
“Well, so then?” Harry prodded. He jumped out of his chair and began to pace excitedly in the cramped room. “Speaking as a gambler, I know I would gladly take one-in-four odds of dying for the chance of winning a solution to a problem that, after all, death is the only current way out of. One-in-four. Those are the best chances any of us are likely to get. The loser gets what he would have gotten anyway and the winners – three of them, think of it, there are three of them! – well, the winner gets his life back.”
Mitchell removed his right leg from the top of his left leg and put his left leg on his right. He leaned back with his hands behind his head. “There’s no guarantee that the effect will be significant enough to solve any of our problems, of course. Or that there will even be an effect at all.”
“Of course there’s no guarantee!” Harry sputtered. “Life doesn’t come with guarantees. Life’s a gamble. You’re the philosopher and I respect you for that, but when it comes to gambling you would do well to pay me heed, and I tell you, if there’s any chance at all, it’s our best option. It truly is.”
“I’ll do it,” Ernie said. His voice trembled ever so slightly but it had an underlying strength that was impossible to mistake. “I’ll go first. I’d rather die than live without my Lucy anyway. If there’s a chance at all I’m willing to take it.”
Harry was uncontainable, a ball of fire. “There’s a kettle out back! I’ll dip a little water from the creek and start it warming on the fire. We start with Ernie and proceed clockwise. The first time someone loses the game, the other three scoop out his brains, make soup, and divvy it up.”
“I have no philosophical basis to object, and I am a man of principle,” Mitchell finally replied. “I sit next to Ernie and you have my word that if it comes to it, I will fulfill my part without compunction.”
Harry was already out the door in pursuit of his kettle and water.
Before he returned, Ed screamed out in a voice hoarse with rage and helplessness, “Fine! Fine then! If that’s what you want, don’t let me stop you. I’m dying anyway so it might as well be me as anyone.”
For a long time Ernie stared at his distorted reflection in the burnished nickel. He fingered the cylinder with trembling fingers, letting his thumb rest a little longer on the one loaded chamber than the five that were empty. Finally, closing his eyes, he gave the cylinder a spin, clicked it into place, pulled back the hammer and put the barrel to his head. He hesitated a moment then his finger squeezed. The hammer clicked on an empty chamber.
“Wheeeew!” he exclaimed in a long wavering moan. His body turned limp and he slumped down out of the chair. After a moment, he regained his strength, picked himself up, and handed the revolver, handle first, to Mitchell.
Mitchell was white but he never hesitated and his hands were steady. In one smooth motion he spun the cylinder, cocked the gun and put the barrel to his head.
His finger tightened and the hammer fell.