Superbia

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Under normal circumstances I would have simply said that it was a beach, what one would conceptualize when another mentions a regular, tropical-region area where the sand meets the surf, but I suppose circumstances were indeed far from normal in my particular situation, and in such cases setting can be very important. One always needs their bearings, it could be said. So I will do my best to describe it. Tropical, as I said before, or at least as one could readily discern by its mere corporeal traits, anyway, with sands on the shore before me (that is to say, the kind of sand distinct from that of a more northerly beach which consists mostly of fine granules of quartzes, feldspars and micas, in that it contained not only such miniscule minerals but also fragments of brightly colored corals, sponges, protists and bits of seashell, all of which lend this sand its distinct whiteness), and behind me a heavily forested area of cocos nucifera trees, and above me, a bright sun in a sky. In other words, a tropical beach area one could not mistake for any other if one even tried.

But the more I spent my days on this beach the more I realized I could not escape the notion that I was somehow trapped there, as if kept like a prisoner. I would often traverse the shore as far as I could before I tired of walking, and during each such sojourn I found my surroundings unchanging. That is, sand to my left, flora to my right, sky above, and alone all throughout, nary a single member of the animal kingdom, let alone human company. From this I could deduce that I was either on a circular or otherwise elliptical island and simply walking in never-ending loops, or perhaps even a land form in the shape of a straight line with infinite points on either side. Drawn to this second possibility and to the chance of finally encountering variety of some sort, I continued my lengthy sojourns across the beach shore. I found myself alone on this strange interment-beach for some time, until one day I passed by a young man who was sitting on the sand and watching the surf in front of him. He was eating a chocolate bar which reminded me of a Topic, in that it had the same ingredients, but was encased in a wrapper whose brand name I did not recognize. I almost did not notice him while I was walking until I heard his voice from behind me.

—You’re still trying to get off the beach, aren’t you?

I stopped and turned around, as he rose to his feet and approached me, and took a good look at him. I usually never put so much import into another one’s appearance, believing personally that one’s actions and emotions are the true mark of a character. However, setting can be very important when the situation merits it, and my environment and present situation were rather curious indeed, so I shall do my best to describe him. One, it could be said, always needs their bearings. He was very young, as I said before. He seemed to comport himself behaviorally as if he were in his late teens, and yet physically he looked much like a boy, rather short in stature with slender, undeveloped limbs and a slightly pudgy, baby-like face with curly blond hair, a face that Raphael would have perhaps given to one of his cherubs.

In response to his introductory question, I explained to him my theories about the beach and its possible geographical forms. He nodded as if he understood and offered me another faux-Topic bar. When I refused, he opened the second chocolate bar and ate it in concert with his other half-eaten bar, biting each one alternately; I could tell that the young man was endowed with an appetite that belied his boyish stature.

—Come with me, I’ll show you the others.

Being anxious of company I did not hesitate to follow him. He never told me his name, which I did not mind at the time, as I generally think names are arbitrary and reveal not so much about a man as their actions, emotions, hopes, dreams, etc. However, one always needs their, etc., so I endeavored, as the young man led me along, to devise a name for him that appropriately encapsulated him. Slothrop, I eventually dubbed him. There is something about the name Slothrop, moreso than any other name, that suggests idealistic, childish naivete, coupled with an insatiable passion and hunger for all the delights the world has to offer.

Curiously, it was only at this point, while I was taking such particular note of Slothrop, that I even bothered to note my own appearance, that is, as compared to his. I soon realized that I was about as far removed from my companion in almost every corporeal aspect of myself as possible. Slothrop was young, and I was certainly much older. I plucked a few hairs from my scalp and noted their grayness, and also felt preliminary wrinkles about my face; however, I was yet limber of limb and mind enough for me to realize I was not quite too old to function, as my sojourns to and fro across the shore had proved. As I had dubbed Slothrop, so I decided it would be proper for myself to have a name, should one ask for it. And so I named myself Pantagruelion, for there is no other name that especially suggests a sort of seasoned experience with the alternately tranquil and turbulent dealings of fortune’s ever-turning wheel, juxtaposed with an impeccably refined mien and exceptional learning.

After a minute or so of following Slothrop, he eventually led me to another man, sitting on the sand and reading a thick tome with no cover, which led me to assume that it contained within its pages an exemplar of classic literature. The man was looking at a magazine, apparently enclosed in the middle of the book, which had a page that folded out several times and dangled from the book itself. Slothrop cleared his throat, as if ready to introduce me to him, and this caused the man to jump to his feet with a start and hastily throw the magazine away on the sand.

—Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you there, I was reading some classic literature. Anyway, nice to meet you, put ‘er there!

He offered me his hand to shake and I accepted it, noting his appearance. He was a bit older than Slothrop, but unlike him, this man had quite a muscular frame, and comported himself in such a way that suggested that he had a bit more experience in the sort of wicked dealings the world is known to offer one from time to time. He seemed a bit coarse around the edges to me, perhaps because of this, and so I decided to name him Moncrieff with the hope that this particular name, known for its ability to ennoble, would lend some civility to this man. After vigorously shaking my hand, Moncrieff put his arm around my shoulder and led me away for a walk.

—So, how many have you been with at once?

I did not answer him, so as to suggest that he should specify his question a bit more.

—You know, sluts. How many at once? Four? Five? Seven? I’ve been with five, there’s no way you could have had more than me.

I tried to explain to him that I was a virgin throughout my life, that is to say, I was not privy to the familiar caresses of the opposite sex, or for that matter, the same sex either. Moncrieff seemed confused by my reply, shrugged as if I had said nothing, and continued.

—Ever do an angry slugger? That’s like an angry dragon, except you use a baseball bat.

I tried to further explain my lack of venereal experience, asking him if he was aware of the meaning of an a fortiori. Predictably, he was not. A fortiori, I explained, is an argument proven by an already existing stronger argument. That means, then, that if one were to say ‘I never lay with a woman,’ it would also stand to reason that such a man had never

—Held on to the rodeo while giving the lucky Pierre a rusty trombone Italian-coathanger style?

I told him yes, that is, I meant that that action, however one does it, is also included in my earlier proviso. Awesome, he exclaimed, and pumped his fist with like enthusiasm. Sensing that the conversation would not much develop with Moncrieff beyond the level we had already established, and also sensing that there were others to be introduced to, I finished my business with him, peeled his arm off my shoulder and returned to Slothrop, who I then found eating a cold-cut turkey submarine sandwich. He produced an identical sandwich and offered it to me, which I refused. Eating both submarine sandwiches simultaneously, he then introduced me to the next set of beachgoing fellows, both of whom were sitting on the sand, hunched closely over their own piles of smooth, multicolored beach pebbles, piled in between their splayed legs. They would both take a pebble from a large pile between themselves and carefully place it on top of their own pile, keeping count of each one. The first seemed to be completely ignorant of the second, who was in contrast constantly keeping shifty tabs on the pebble counter next to him.

The first fellow, despite being not much older than Slothrop, I primarily noted as being exceptionally tanned and endowed with a striking physique, as if a Greek athlete poised to compete in a grand Olympic contest, yet clad, unlike the aforementioned ancient Greek athletes. I named this young man Gopaleen, a name fit for his grand stature, a name that suggested a sort of grand, tragic future for the lad, a future full of promise and greatness, and yet, being wrapped up in his own uncertainties and obsessions as he was, a future with the ever-present risk of a bitter downfall, done in by his own hubris. I believe that I was so taken by this young man that I had completely forgotten to note the appearance of the other young man, whom I named Bulgakov, deciding at the time that he should have a Russian name, for reasons that now escape me. A few minutes had passed when Gopaleen, finally noticing Bulgakov’s presence and actions, sprang to his feet.

—What do you think you’re doing?

—Counting my pebble collection.

—But those are my pebbles.

—Oh yeah, says who?

—I have only five hundred twelve pebbles, and I’m supposed to have five hundred forty two! You have thirty pebbles in your pile! You stole them from me and you know it!

—So what? Can’t I have a pebble collection if I want one? Why do you get all the pebbles around here? Besides, you think that’s a pebble pile? I used to have one like, a mile high. I never knew how many I had because, well, you know, I couldn’t see the top of it.

Gopaleen showed Bulgakov his two clenched fists.

—If you don’t give me back my pebbles, I may have to use physical force.

—Big deal, I could use physical force against, like twenty guys. And a pack of dogs. Like Rottweilers or something. And I could do it without feet. Yeah, I just don’t feel like it right now.

Before the disputed could be settled yet another fellow approached them. This man was the oldest of the bunch (with the exception of myself) and well in his prime. Yet he was certainly the ugliest, in terms of mere physical features. He had no hair upon his head; indeed the only hair he had to speak of was upon his face, an awkward clump of whiskers underneath his nose and around his mouth, all the way to the bottom of his chin. Although I tend to think that a man almost always looks better completely shaven, I concede from time to time that a man may look passable with facial hair, depending on the face of the man and style of such hair, but in this case I could make no such concession. This man was also clearly the most domineering of the beach fellows as well, physically speaking, and yet he contained within himself an intangible fury that need not manifest itself to reveal its power (not that it ever stopped this man from manifesting it anyway, and quite frequently also). It was for this reason I named the fellow Epistemon.

—Goddamn it, day in and day out all I hear from you is your goddamned pebbles! This is what I think about your pebbles!

Epistemon kicked each pebble pile back toward the surf, which made the others scramble after them in a futile attempt to recover them.

—Look at you, a bunch of pebble-loving fudgepackers! Why don’t you have like a gay pebble-themed wedding and have a bunch of gay pebble-sex or some gay shit, hey! Hey you! Hey, what the fuck are you looking at?!

I was surprised to find that he had instantaneously broken his concentration on the unfortunate pebble collectors and was now talking to me. I politely informed him that he was not the object of my ocular attention and that I would promptly take my leave of him. To my surprise Epistemon reached toward his belt and produced a revolver. At the sight of this Gopaleen and Bulgakov immediately ceased searching for their pebbles and ran away screaming.

—Six bullets, motherfuck! Two in each eye, two in each nostril, one in the mouth, and one in your head! That’s what you get when you fuck with me!

He demonstrated, pointing to each corresponding part of his face with the barrel of the revolver as if to suggest those parts were my own, and having concluded the demonstration, jammed the firearm back into his belt. I assured the man that such a course of action would be more than unnecessary, as meddling in his affairs was as far removed from my present or future intentions as possible.

—That’s what I thought. You better fuck off before I tie you to the wall and rip off each of your limbs one by one and beat you to death with your own fucking legs!

On that note I took my leave of him, neglecting to inform him of the unlikeliness of such an occurrence happening (i.e. the lack of a wall in our present surroundings, or rope to tie myself to such, the fact that I would mostly likely be already dead, not to mention no longer bound to the hypothetical wall, after such a removal of my limbs, the apparent uselessness of the severed arms after my being bludgeoned by my own legs, etc.). Though Epistemon continued to spout vitriol at me as I left him, I was eventually too far away to discern specific words from him. As I made my hasty escape from the man, I thought about the implications behind the firearm he brandished before me. It allotted him a certain amount of power over the other beach fellows, true, but not complete mastery. Though he was the only armed beachgoer present, he was limited by the six bullets. Being a long ways away from any munitions shops that I was aware of, Epistemon was thus in no position to expend the bullets willy-nilly at the slightest provocation of his formidable ire. No, he needed to save the bullets for an occasion that truly merited them. He could either use all six for one individual, in the manner he described to me earlier, or spread them out in different ratios of bullets to beachgoers.

Though I was quite disturbed at the idea of such a man as Epistemon being armed, it was this conclusion that eventually consoled me. However, being aware of Chekhov’s maxim on firearms, I was also wary of the fact that his gun would most likely go off during our time on the beach. All these in mind, I decided on this policy regarding my dealings with Epistemon: while I would not allow him to use the gun to exert his will against mine, I would also keep my distance from him and not provoke him unless necessary; thus, the bullet that inevitably discharges from that gun would not end up in my person. While such ruminations were turning over in my head I tripped over something and fell flat on my back. I rose to my feet and discovered that an acoustic guitar lying discarded on the sand, the cause of my fall. Next to it was another beach fellow, lying prone on the sand.

—Watch where you’re going!

His groan was barely audible due to the fact that he spoke with his face stuck in the sand. This man was an odd specimen, tall but absurdly gaunt, barely a single inch of meat conjoined to his skeleton. He looked as though a stronger man, perhaps Epistemon, had picked him up and held him aloft, one hand holding the wrists and the other hand his ankles, and stretched him into his current height and scant physical stature. Yet due to precisely this abnormal lack of physique, there seemed to be within him a great storehouse of prodigious energy just waiting to be released. One can readily understand, then, why I decided to name this fellow Ionesco. Ionesco lifted his head up and, seeing, in me, his assailant, rose his arms in the air with a great effort and futilely tried to swing them at me.

—I’ll punch your ankles! Come over here so I can reach you…

I apologized for the mishap in an attempt to assuage Ionesco’s anger, but it was to no avail. Fortunately, he was so drained of the will to act upon his threats that by standing a few paces away from him I was safe from his lackadaisical blows. After a moment he finally gave up his effortless assault, took some deep breaths and dropped his head into the sand.

—The nerve of some people, stepping on things that don’t belong to them…

I asked him if I had broken the guitar, and would he still be able to play it.

—I can’t play it anyway. I found it, bumped into it while I was rolling along one day.

This had confused me, and I confronted him with the discrepancies I had discovered with the hopes that he might clarify them, i.e. the value he places on an object he could not use, the double standard of my lack of respect for objects that do not belong to me, by way of an object that did not belong to him, etc.

—How do you know it’s not mine? Maybe it is, maybe not. But that doesn’t give you permission to walk all over it!

I apologized once again and promised him I would be more careful in the future, but Ionesco scoffed at me, grasped the neck of his guitar and rolled himself away from me. I then rejoined Slothrop, who I noticed was now masticating upon yet another food item, this one being a hard-boiled egg deep-fried in bread crumbs and sausage bits. It was at this time I said to myself, Pantagruelion, you old bag of plum pudding, you might be far older than everyone in present company, but surely your mind has not been withered away by the ravages of a fierce squall of dementia enough for you to realize that something is extremely amiss around here. Ultimately agreeing with myself, I confronted Slothrop on the matter, asking him what he was currently masticating on.

—Oh, this? It’s a Scotch egg, but despite its name it’s actually an English dish. You take a hard-boiled egg, coat it in sausage bits and deep-fry…

I interrupted him, saying that I was well aware of the nomenclature of his snack, and meant my previous question more along the lines of, how does one such as yourself gorge upon such a limitless cornucopia of unhealthy victuals, that is to say, where does it all come from?

—My pocket?

I politely but firmly put forth the possibility to Slothrop that he might have an eating problem.

—No, actually, I don’t gain any weight. I can eat and eat and eat all I want and I stay skinny! Pretty neat, huh?

A passion came over me then, as I informed him no, no it is not pretty neat, it is, in fact, terrible. I stood before the entire assembly of beach fellows and implored them to listen to me. There’s something very wrong going on here, I told them. It is as though we are trapped in some awful, purgative prison, stuck repeating the same meaningless behaviors over and over again. Did it ever occur to anyone present that we could have it so much better? That we could possibly even escape this horrible beach, and find a different place? Predictably, I did not get through to as many of them as I had hoped. I therefore urged them to give me a day or two to myself, so that I could deliberate the exact nature of our situation and determine an appropriate remedy.

After much of this deliberation I came up with what I thought was the answer, which had occurred to me from the illustrious theologians and scholars of old, and summoned the rest of my beach companions for a meeting. The reason why, I told them, we are in this place is, they were all weighed down by some sort of vice, the nature of which erodes the will to do good within a man and leads him to endless perdition. What I hoped to do was teach them some methods that will help overcome their dependence to these vices. And who knows, I added, with a little hard work we might be able to get off this beach once and for all.

—You really think so? We can live in a different place? A place with all the cakes I could ever want? Building-high cakes? Washington-monument-tall cakes?

—Or pebbles. Boxes full of pebbles? Swimming pools full of pebbles?

—Probably not. We might end up in a worse place. Where it rains every day. Where there are no roofs on houses. And the rain, if it touches a kitten, it just instantly dies. Of cancer.

It took a prolonged moment of silence to recover from Bulgakov’s natural ability to murder a conversation, at which point I assumed control of the discussion again. I classified each person’s faults in the proper categories. If one wants to get better, I reminded them, then knowing the problem is half the battle. The first set of vices result from an excess of desires, that is, gula, an abnormal, excessive desire for food (as I motioned to my companion Slothrop), avaritia, the vain desire for material things (Gopaleen), or luxuria, the self-indulgent craving for sexual intimacy (Moncrieff). Now, the other sins deal with inbalances of emotions, such as acedia

I noticed Ionesco was curiously absent from the assembly, and after quickly scanning the beach I found him languishing on the sand, as usual, about twenty meters away, his hand grasping the neck of his guitar. After politely asking of the present company if one would be so gracious as to drag him to our assembly, each fellow present touched their index fingers to the tips of their noses, an odd sort of method among them for drawing lots. The last person to do so was Epistemon, who grumbled and pounded a fist into the sand as he realized the lot fell to him.

—Jesus goddamned cockfucking balls! All I ever do in this place is drag people the fuck around who can’t get up on their own feet…

And so on, as his voice trailed off en route to Ionesco. I continued. Acedia, a vice of too little emotion, and those of too much emotion, or the unnatural emotion of envy, ira and invidia respectively, belong in this latter category. As Epistemon returned, holding the limp Ionesco under his arms and dragging him along the sand, Gopaleen thought it best to politely inform Epistemon what he had missed in the discussion.

—He said you have too much emotion.

Epistemon dropped Ionesco’s dead weight to the sand, his guitar making a loud clanking sound upon impact.

—Your face has too much fucking emotion!

—It figures that I’m the one with the worst vice, groused Bulgakov.

I then informed him that by no means was this the case. Bad as each of these mortal vices are, none are as bad as the very worst vice of all, superbia. This is the excessive love of self, the sin that begets all the others. With superbia one cannot help themselves to get better because such a person already thinks they are perfect. One afflicted with superbia can sin and sin and never even realize that any wrong is being done. I told Bulgakov he should consider himself lucky, then, that such a vice does not afflict him, because as such there would be little, if any, hope of recovery.

—Which of us is superbia, then?

I scanned the present company, whose vices were all spoken for, scanned the beach around me for anyone who might be present against my knowledge, and then, of course, excluded the possibility of myself. I reassured the company before me that none of us suffered from superbia, and thank goodness for that.

There was no time to waste, and much to do. I decided to start with my two favorite beachgoing companions, Slothrop and Gopaleen. I sat them together before me, and I showed Gopaleen a great pebble, or perhaps a smallish rock, but not quite so small as to be classified as a regular pebble. I told him the pebble was his, to do with it what he wished.

—That’s the biggest pebble on the whole beach!

I told him I was well aware of this, but before he could ask me how I knew such a thing I presented to Slothrop a slice of red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting, also allowing him to do with it what he pleased

—Red velvet cake! That’s my favorite!

I told him I was well aware of this, but before he could ask me how I knew such a thing I continued my discussion. Food, I went on, is God’s way of making His love for mankind manifest, and edible. When one gives their own food to someone else, it means such a person cares about another enough to keep them alive. The sharing of food then, is a significant symbolic act for showing another their deep devotion you feel to them. Also, when people care about others more than themselves, they tend to give those people valuable things. That is why we give other people presents on certain important dates or occasions, such as birthdays, Christmas, weddings, anniversaries, and funerals.

—Funerals?

I then instructed them to look to the person sitting next to them. Slothrop and Gopaleen did exactly this, and realized at that moment the deep feelings of devotion they felt for each other. Their strong bond of friendship meant that they would do anything for the other, and they both knew it. Now, I asked them, how would they like to make these feelings manifest? Did either of them really need another piece of cake, or another rock, or would they rather the fellow next to them had it instead? I could tell that they had firmly grasped the gist of my arguments, and after a moment of so of hesitation they each relinquished to each other their own treasures.

My work was, predictably, the easiest to complete among these two, who were counted as my favorites among them, as I said before. It was time for me to move on to the next, and I decided Ionesco would be ideal. I saw him rolling around the sand in his usual spot. I asked him if it was true he could indeed not do anything.

—I’m not even going to try to muster up the effort to answer that.

I did not fail to notice that, for someone with such an aversion to all but the bare minimum of effort, such an answer had far more syllables than a simple yes or no. At this point Ionesco had decided to lie supine, his long bony toes pointed toward the bunches of nimbi gathered in the deep blue sky. I suggested to him that perhaps he could try wiggling his toes.

—Why would I want to do a stupid thing like that?

I sat next to him and demonstrated, showing that even a fellow getting on in years, such as myself, could still at least move the joints around in his toes if he wanted to. When a paramedic thinks someone might have a spinal injury, I explained, they always have the patient try to wiggle their toes. That is how one can tell one is not a paraplegic. And think of all the things one can do when not a paraplegic! Why, such a man could play tennis, or volleyball, or hockey, or even play guitar! I grasped the acoustic guitar by his side, not before asking his permission, and not before assuming that the faint grunt he replied with was an affirmative, and played the preliminary chords to a song of my youth.

—I love that song.

I asked him if it would not be all the more fantastic if he could play it on a guitar, but before he could reply, he was interrupted by Bulgakov, who was eavesdropping the whole time, and demonstrating an enthusiastic wiggling of his toes.

—I can wiggle my toes, why can’t I play the guitar?

I patted him on the back and explained to him that it takes years of practice to become technically proficient at an instrument. I then took my leave of Ionesco, believing that his task was a work in progress, one that his dormant desire would eventually compel him to achieve. Moncrieff was next. I placed a makeshift wig upon Gopaleen, and bade him to sit beside Moncrieff. He complained that the ruse was not fooling him, that he could easily tell Gopaleen was indeed a member of the male sex who was simply wearing a silly wig. I explained to him that, while physical attraction can be a significant part of a relationship, it is nonetheless important to learn how to develop a relationship built on trust and mutual respect. I then instructed him to try having a conversation with his companion. Moncrieff hesitated, taking not an insignificant moment to rack his brain for a suitable discussion topic.

—So, what sort of things do you like?

—Well, I was into pebbles for a while, but now I like red velvet cake.

—Neat.

Again the conversation was dead. I told Moncrieff to ask about some of his own interests, and before I let him bring up the interests that I suspected he had in mind, I suggested his passion as a hobbyist of ships in a bottle. Moncrieff opened his mouth to, so I supposed, inquire as to how I became aware of such a hobby, but before he had the chance Gopaleen interrupted him.

—Really? You like ships in a bottle? Me too, those are my favorite!

Moncrieff, genuinely surprised at their newfound common ground, asked Gopaleen his fastest time for putting together such a ship in a bottle thus far. Gopaleen suggested, out of fairness, that at a count of three they both say their ideal record times simultaneously, which Moncrieff agreed to do. It turned out that Moncrieff had the faster time, at three minutes and twenty seconds, a mere second and a half less than Gopaleen’s, which made the latter suspect that  Moncrieff had cheated, giving a fictitious time so that he could impress his companion. Gopaleen did not mind, and actually found the mild deception endearing in a way.

—I have a bottle with an authentic model of the Titanic sinking. You can actually see the hole in the bottom!

—Wow! Are there lifeboats, and screaming, terrified passengers jumping off the deck?

—You better believe it!

—That’s great. Say, you should see my prize bottle sometime. It’s signed by Harry Eng.

—You mean the inventor of ships in a bottle himself?!

—Whose else could I mean? I’d love to show it to you sometime.

—Is it big?

—Oh, yes, it’s big all right. I can barely fit it around my own hand sometimes.

Moncrieff hesitated for a moment, I could tell he felt odd about something. He had finally learned to care about a person, not merely for their ideal physical attributes, but for their personality, for their hopes, dreams, fears, for the things that truly make a person human. He had a strange desire within him, one he never felt before. He now wanted nothing more than to sit by this person’s side and listen to him talk about ships in a bottle for the rest of his days. Realizing that Moncrieff had recovered from his vice, I stopped the simulation, reminding both of them that Gopaleen was, in fact, a member of the male sex wearing a silly wig. My work done with Moncrieff, I saw Epistemon pacing around the shore and decided that it was as good a time as any to help him.

—Oh, here he is, the big guy himself, Mr. Know-It-All, making everyone better, well gee golly fucking willikers! Let’s all shit ourselves this guy is so fucking wonderful, let’s all line up and suck him right off, cradle those balls right in our mouths, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?!

I wanted to inform him that I felt rather ambivalent about that hypothetical scenario, but he hastily interrupted me.

—Listen you fuck! You think you can change me?! You can’t change me! I’m a man ruled by my own impulses! I do whatever the fuck I want, when I want! You think I’m going to let any social conventions define me you can go fuck a dick my friend! Because I am ruled by my impulses!

To demonstrate his free-wheeling lifestyle to me, he kicked a pile of sand in my direction.

—Look at that! I wanted to do that! My impulses told me to do that! I might do it again, I might not! And there’s not a fucking thing you can do about it!

He hesitated, and, fixing his eye upon a mollusk dragging itself along the sand, emulating the ocean sound, faintly speaking of the trinity to the waking of all creatures who live on the land, gazing at the sun with its wandering eye, Epistemon walked over to the unfortunate sand-dwelling creature and pointed his revolver at it.

—Hey fuck you, mollusk! Who the hell do you think you are anyway, crawling on the fucking sand in your goddamned shell! You think you’re so great with your exoskeleton, you think you’re some hot-shit fucking invertebrate, do you?

Epistemon cocked the hammer of his firearm, keeping it aimed at the mollusk.

—How ’bout I fill your face full of lead six times, wipe that smartass fucking smile off your face?

During this standoff I neglected to tell Epistemon that mollusks typically have no faces, let alone mouths for smiling. After a moment of tense anticipation he let out a deep breath, disengaged the hammers and holstered the gun back into his belt.

—Fuck him! I don’t even feel like it anymore.

He instead took the mollusk and threw it back into the surf, yet another example of his lifestyle recently emancipated from constrictive social conventions.

—There! See, that time my impulses told me to do that instead. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I felt like shooting something else! Man of my impulses, buddy.

I realized that Epistemon was indeed not ready to better himself, and resigned my efforts to the last available beach fellow, Bulgakov. I approached him and gave him a friendly greeting:

—Salut! Il fait beau aujourd’hui, n’est-ce pas?

—I guess so… hey wait a minute, are you…

—Parles le français? Effectivement, oui!

—Since when can you do that?

—Depuis toujours.

—Well, you can’t do that around me anymore.

—Apparement, je peux.

—Hey, stop that!

—Non.

—Yes!

—Non.

—Yes!

—Non.

—Yes!

—Non.

—Yes… wait minute, non? That’s a French word?

—Peut-être.

Bulgakov grumbled and punched the sand, retreating to a spot near the shore, where I followed him.

—I hate you.

—Néanmoins, tu dois t’habituer au fait que je peux parler le français et tu ne peux pas. D’ailleurs, est-ce que c’est vraiment une raison pour détester quelqu’un, juste parce qu’il peut faire quelque chose que tu ne peux pas?

—Well yeah, that’s sort of like, one of the big reasons to not like someone.

—Bien, pense à ceci: tu obtiendrais quoi, si tu pourrais?

—What do you mean?

—Il n’y a aucune avantage, n’est-ce pas? On n’est pas en France, après tout?

—I guess not.

—Et, tant pis si je peux le parler et tu ne peux pas. Tu peux toujours me comprendre, n’est-ce pas?

—Yeah. You know, I think you might be onto something. I mean, all I would gain if I could is, I wouldn’t be able to talk to any of the others. Well, just you, really. And I don’t like talking to you much, so… So, what I guess I mean is… Je suppose que ce n’est pas important si je le parle ou pas.

Bulgakov sprang to his feet, astonished that he could learn to have something if he truly wanted it for himself, not because he simply wished another person did not have such a thing. As I congratulated him of his feat, he looked at me, utterly confused at the gibberish I had just said to him.

—Qu’est-ce tu as dit?

While the loss of Bulgakov’s English was perhaps regrettable, I was nonetheless done with him, leaving one last fellow. I returned to Epistemon, who was looking for more things to shoot or throw into the surf as dictated by his impulses. I told him I wanted to help him in any way I can. I was thinking I could try and get to the bottom of his anger. Maybe something happened when he was younger. Epistemon would have none of it.

—Oh, is that what you think? You’re going to psychoanalyze your way out of this one? Well forget it, motherfuck! You see this psyche here?! It’s goddamned impenetrable! You don’t think other people have told me oh, I bet it’s because you had a domineering father who wanted you to play baseball so he could live out his dreams vicariously through you, even though you were never good at it! And he would force you to go to baseball camp and all the kids would make fun of you day after day after day! And on the way one time he accidentally ran over your dog…

Epistemon hesitated, suddenly struck by the personal truths in his otherwise rhetorical device. He sat himself upon the shore, and as he continued to let out his sordid past I offered a compassionate ear.

—It was a husky mix. His name was Muffles. And you loved that dog, and never really got over his death. And then you found out one day that your mother died of cancer, and no one even told you that she had it. And since there was only one parent left you had to help bring in extra income for the family, and you were forced to work in the coal mines for years and you never did get to go to Juilliard for ballet like how you always wanted to.

The other beach fellows overheard Epistemon’s tragic past and silently offered to help him overcome it in any way they could. Epistemon went on.

—And then 9/11. 9/11 changed everything, you know? I mean, I could die at any moment, even right now. I mean, is this what life is? Just an episode of prolonged suffering until we get to a drawn out, painful death? Is this all we have to look forward to?

The world can be a hard place, I told him, attempting to console him. But humankind does not have to endure it all alone. I motioned to the others, who knew to start singing a popular inspirational song at my signal, which would helpfully cheer up Epistemon and forget the woes of his early life. Bulgakov would sing a couple bars from the chorus and the rest would join in.

—Nous sommes le monde, nous sommes les enfants…

Before the others could join in, Epistemon sprang to his feet and let out a manic howl, causing the others to scatter like a swarm of cockroaches after one flicks a light switch in a tenement apartment.

—I hate that fucking song, goddamn it there’s no worse fucking thing than those smug, self-congratulatory rich assholes polluting the whole fucking world with their treacley godawful tripe! If I ever find out who’s responsible for that rotten fucking miscarriage of music I’m going to fist him till he pukes out his own asshole and bleeds through his gums the tears of Christ!

I was frozen in my spot, my eyes transfixed on him, half of me terrified at his outburst, the other half impressed that such an outburst gave birth to such insults as it did. Finally, I broke the silence, asking him if that made him feel better.

—I, guess I do… Hey, I really do. I feel much, much better!

Important an achievement as it was for Epistemon, he did not have much time to relish it, as Slothrop hurriedly ran up to us and motioned to me toward Ionesco. Epistemon and I ran over to the others, huddled around Ionesco, sitting up and ecstatically wiggling his toes.

–—I can do it! I can finally do it! And you know what, that’s not all I can do! I can play volleyball!

Ionesco leapt to his feet, picked up a volleyball and gave it a hard spike. It was a grand spike indeed, and to show our support we cheered and applauded his effort.

—I can play tennis!

Next Ionesco grasped his racquet, bounced a tennis ball a few times, and with a great thwack hit a fierce, rapid serve, perhaps one of the fastest any of us had seen. A masterful job, and we cheered and applauded it as it deserved.

—And I can play hockey too!

Finally, Ionesco placed his puck on the sand, raised his stick in the air and slapped the puck with all his might. A torrent of sand erupted from the impact, and the puck jumped a meter or so from Ionesco’s feet. He frowned, disappointed that the puck did not slide across the sand as far as he had hoped, and meanwhile the rest of us were not sure if we were to applaud this.

—Well, I guess I can’t play hockey. But I can play the guitar!

He then took hold of his guitar, long neglected until now, and let loose a blistering guitar solo. And all was well. To celebrate we all sang a song about all we had learned. While Ionesco played a simple chord progression based on Pachelbel’s famous canon, Slothrop sang about how he did not need more than one Scotch egg to be the best human being he could be, and Gopaleen sang about how he did not require all the premium pebbles on the beach to be happy, and Moncrieff about how much he enjoyed speaking to other women about ships in a bottle, and Epistemon about how relieved he was that he no longer needed to take out his anger on others or blame himself for the death of his mother, and Bulgakov sang something in French. Quite the splendid little number you composed there, Pantagruelion you old bowl of plum pudding.

*

Well. At least we’re not on the beach anymore. Under normal circumstances I would have simply said that it was an empty white room, but I suppose circumstances were indeed far from normal in my particular situation, and in such cases setting can be very important. One always needs their bearings, it could be said. So I will do my best to describe it. A white room, rather large and spacious, about thirty meters by twenty in length and width, respectively, and about three high. Floor inlaid with small white porcelain tiles, walls fitted with plain white sheet rock. Sparingly lit by a source I was for some reason unable to locate. There were no windows or doors, and when I came to I found myself in the same clothes as I had on the beach, along with my six other companions.

From these two factors alone I could surmise that we were placed on the floor (perhaps already tiled) while we were unconscious, after which the room was erected around us. The other notable feature of the room was the copious puddles of blood spilled all over the floor. I would eventually spend much time in this room, and to alleviate my boredom I would have enjoyed spreading the blood around the tiles to create some nice impressionistic designs out of it, had I not realized the source of it all. I looked up and noticed Epistemon, sitting upon a red velvet armchair, fixing a cold, fierce gaze at me, retaining that hidden fury I had spoken of earlier within himself despite the apparent lack of emotion his exterior displayed. The other companions (including, to my dismay, my favorite beach fellows Slothrop and Gopaleen) were all strewn across the floor, each dead from a single gunshot wound to the head. I rose to my feet and slowly approached Epistemon, careful not to step on any blood, and asked him what happened. He nudged Bulgakov, whose body happened to be lying supine near the chair, with his toe.

—Well, I’m no medical expert, but I think they’re all dead.

I asked him if he was the one who shot them, finally making good on his numerous threats.

—Maybe. Honestly, I have no idea. I can’t remember. Sometimes I like to hide it, maybe one of the others might have found it.

I asked him what could inspire him to do such a thing, or if he did not, what had made the others.

—We listened to you. And we got better. Then we found ourselves here and said, now what the hell do we do? Either they went insane and did it to themselves, or I just couldn’t stand the sight of them and plugged them myself. But like I said, I really don’t remember for sure.

I told him I did not understand, I helped him and the others get better. Consequently he and the others should not have felt those sorts of feelings anymore.

—True, we didn’t want any of the things we wanted before. But we wanted to want them. We might not have been perfect where we were before, but we were happy. You took that away from us. It’s a wonder I don’t plug you in the face myself. Oh yeah, because I can’t get angry anymore, can I? But you never know. If one attains grace, one can always fall. And where…

Epistemon scanned the room and pointed to my ankle. I instinctively stepped back, and realized I was standing next to his own revolver, lying in a pool that used to be encased within Ionesco’s head.

—Six bullets, and seven of us. Not getting any ideas, are you?

I assumed he meant did I mean to take up the gun and shoot Epistemon myself, either to insure my own safety or for personal reasons, which I assured him was not likely the case.

—Well then, that only leaves me to decide: Should I blow my brains out and leave you here, or should I send you to wherever all these other poor bastards went off to? What would be worse, for you? Tell you what, let me sleep on it. And while you’re waiting, watch your back.

And so I am there to this day, sitting on the other side of the room, with the bodies of my five other companions (who since then have decomposed considerably and are creating a rather literal stink about the place), sitting and watching the gun in the middle of the floor, then watching Epistemon, making sure he does not get up from his chair, him watching me, making sure I do not rise from my spot, neither of us sure if we should kill the other person or simply do ourselves in. Even in an awful room like this the threat of what dreams may come still tend to give men pause, I suppose. And neither of us have mustered up the courage to use the gun so far.

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