“Here’s his address,” Max said, handing me a small piece of paper. I looked at it. “You know where that is?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Easy to find. But will this Pauly guy have what I need?”
“Of course,” Max said, waving his hand to reassure me. “Trust me. Tell him I sent you.”
I left Max’s apartment building. Walking on the street to the bus stop to catch the bus to Pauly’s place, I found myself ruminating on my life, and why I was hoping Pauly could…help me.
I went over memories of my life with my family, a dysfunctional bunch. My brothers and sister bullied me, the baby of the family. One brother used to spit on my face for the fun of it, laughing as I wiped the spit off my cheek; the other once pulled a chair out from under me when I was about to sit on it, so I fell on my ass on the floor, everyone else in the living room laughing at me, including my mom. My sister once made me do something that was…well…private…with her…
I twitched from that memory as I arrived at the bus stop. I continued going down bad memory lane, standing in the bus shelter and frowning.
My mother never cared how much my siblings hurt me. She made excuses for them instead of defending me. She was hurtful herself, always undermining my ability to develop self-confidence.
I’ll never forget the day my mother looked me straight in the eye and said, “The kind of things you’re good at simply don’t make a lot of money, Paul.”
I was twelve when she said that.
My high school grades weren’t good enough for me to get into university. As a young adult, I roamed from job to job, usually working in either restaurants (in my late teens–a busboy, dishwasher, or cook), or as a cashier once, in a pet food store, when I was in my mid-twenties.
In contrast, my brothers became an engineer and a salesman, and my sister got a job in the government. Mom never failed to point out the difference between them and me.
Just after the cashier job, there was my disastrous experience as a clerk in the reserve army: I’d made an error setting up the monthly pay for my regiment, and when everyone’s pay got delayed, I practically got a lynching.
After getting fired from yet another menial job, I was faced with either moving back home to be reminded by my mother of what a failure I was, or being homeless. Pride compelled me to risk the latter.
I’d been homeless for six weeks before I found my current job, making stuff in a factory.
I felt trapped in that job, working long hours, feeling lonely among a crowd of other workers, with none of whom I had a meaningful friendship. I’d never been good at making friends, as a kid at school, or anywhere: if you can’t be friends with your own family, who can you be friends with?
I’d chat a little with Max (a coworker in the factory as well as my personal drug connection), and take orders from Carl Parshin, my manager. But there was nothing beyond that, in terms of human contact: it was just a drab, tiring job. I could have quit, but then where would I have gone? Back on the streets again, panhandling? Enduring my mom again?
Don’t bother asking about my luck with women–I’m even more pathetic there. (I’m awkward with even the occasional prostitute, for fuck’s sakes. Seriously, I have to pay for it, and it’s not as if I were hideous or something.)
The only escape I’d ever had in life was with drugs. Some marijuana or hashish for my pipe on the weekends, or some LSD if I was lucky enough to score some, could see me through. Now, I was pushing thirty, and my depression, about aging without having done anything respectable with my life, meant I needed something stronger in the hallucinogens area.
I got on the bus, sulking in my seat the whole ride.
Please, Pauly, I thought, have something to help me forget my shitty life.
Ten minutes later, I’d got off the bus, and I was now on the sixth floor of a high-class apartment building, knocking on Pauly’s door. A man in a yellow and black striped suit answered. He looked like a hornet with red hair, more like a pimp than a drug dealer.
“Yes?” he said, looking at me as if I were a cop.
“My name is Paul Turian,” I said. “Max Midea sent me.”
“Oh, Max,” he said, then put out his hand to shake mine. “Pauly Tishin. Come on in.”
The living room of his apartment was roomy, with orange-red wallpaper, and large mirrors on each wall. I could see myself from all angles. What a strange interior design, even frightening: it was like being surrounded by the flames of Hell, where one judges one’s own sins by seeing oneself for all eternity.
“So, what can I get you?” Pauly asked. “You seem tense.”
“I am,” I said. “I need something to take my mind off my troubles.”
“And what would those troubles be? I don’t mean to pry, but knowing something about them will help me get the right…product…for you.”
“Well, I feel lonely, alienated, like I can’t connect with anyone, or anything.”
“Alienated from who? From what? Can you elaborate?” He flapped his upturned hands at himself, as if gesturing to me to come closer, or to draw out more about what was troubling me.
“Well, I work at a factory, making household things, like taps, doorknobs, pipes, and fans…mostly metal stuff. All of us there work long hours, the pay is shit. We don’t really talk to each other, or even look at each other, except for two or three coworkers, Max is one of them. There’s also my manager, Carl Parshin. They’re not really friends, though, just acquaintances. I have no real friends. It’s depressing. I have no real creative outlet in my life. I’m going nowhere.
“I get home late, and I’m really tired then, too tired to do anything creative or social. I just turn on the TV, hoping to be diverted, but the news just reminds me of what a shitty word we all live in. Movies and TV shows are just the same old, Hollywood garbage. As I said, my life is depressing; it feels meaningless. I don’t like myself. I need an escape from it all. Do you have any acid, or ketamine, maybe?” I was fighting back sobs.
“Actually, I have something even better, if you’re willing to try something new. I synthesized it myself. I guarantee it will take away all those problems you just mentioned. Are you in a daring mood?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Anything to make me forget about my problems.”
“I think you and I have a lot more in common than just our names, Paul. You see, I’ve been working on a solution to just that whole ‘alienation’ issue myself.” He put his arm around my back and led me to a corner of that mirrored living room, where he had a large, black garbage bag filled with what looked like hundreds of pink pills. “I’ve discovered something even better than escapism, even better than a drug high. I’ve found a solution to your problem, for it was once my problem.” He took one of the pills and showed it to me. “I once felt lonely and powerless, but having this…and giving it to others…gave me a new power few people have.”
“Really?” I looked around at the opulence of his room, the expensive furniture (antiques?), the golden frames around the mirrors. “This is a nice apartment building you live in, but I don’t wanna be a drug dealer. I’m just looking for a few hours of escape.”
“Oh, I’m not saying you’ll be a drug dealer. I’m not a drug dealer. I’m a realizer of dreams.”
What was he talking about? I wondered. Whatever it was, it sounded too good to be true, and was turning out to be more hassle than a good high was really worth, more danger than dream. I took a few steps back.
“You know the difference between the successful and the poor? The real difference? It’s attitude. You need to believe in yourself. You need confidence. You need to see yourself differently. That’s what my mirrors are for. Take this pill, then look in the mirrors. When you see the difference, you’ll want more. Trust me.”
Well, I thought, I may as well get something out of this dandy. “How much?”
“$20 for one, $30 for three, but you must act now.”
Act now? I thought. He sounds like one of those pushy internet ad-men. “What if I don’t like what I see?”
“Money back guarantee, and you walk out of here as you were as soon as the pills wear off.” His grin was Mephistophelian, an omen I should have thought about more.
“And how long would it take for them to wear off?”
“Oh, just a few hours. No more than that.”
I paused, looking at that pill between his finger and thumb. Was I seeing things, or did it seem to shake slightly?
“The $30 offer ends in a few seconds.”
“OK. Hit me.” How bad could it be? I wondered, giving him my cash.
He dropped the pill in the palm of my hand; again, it seemed to fidget a bit. I thought I could hear an ever-so-faint, squeaky, high-pitched voice calling out: No, no, no!
Where the fuck was that coming from?
Nah, I thought. I’m hearing things.
I tossed the pill in my mouth. I felt it shaking again slightly before dissolving in my throat.
Then, the weirdest thing happened.
I gagged, feeling something metal growing out of my mouth, starting in my throat, pushing my jaws open and pushing past my lips. My tongue was stuck between the steel outgrowth and my lower teeth: damn, it hurt! My eyes widened as I looked at myself in his mirror to the right of me: there was a fucking faucet coming out of my mouth!
I tried pulling it out, but it was stuck in there, attached to my body, as if grown into my jawbone and the flesh of my throat or something. It hurt my tongue even more from trying to pull it out, so I gave up trying. I wanted to say, “What the fuck’s the idea?”, but with this thing in my mouth, I could only whine muffled squeals.
He put his hand in the bag for another pill, but I shook my hands to tell him not to; I could only make inarticulate grunts, so I gestured to him to give me my money back.
“Oh, you want your second pill,” he said, smirking as if only pretending to misunderstand me, while acting as if I had to have the full experience before asking for my money back. Then, he held the faucet still and put the next pill under the spigot, which acted with some kind of bizarro vacuum function and sucked it into my body.
As it went in, I thought I heard another faint, mouse-like No! again.
My right ear started to swell; it felt hard, metallic, it grew heavy. My head tilted from the weight. I looked in the mirror. It morphed into a doorknob, like one of the ones my factory makes! Indeed, I felt like a knob for agreeing to this conman magician’s offer.
“You see?” he said, getting a third pill from the bag. “Now you’re not so alienated from your work. It’s truly a part of you. Wait for more changes to come.” He giggled.
He brought the third pill over to my faucet-mouth, but I tried to back away. I felt my legs stiffen and grow hard. I looked down at them. Below my shorts, I no longer saw the flesh of my legs. They had turned into pipes that penetrated into the floor, rooting me to the spot!
I tried to swat at his hand with the pill, but my arms were now stiffening, though they didn’t feel like metal. I looked to my left and right: they’d turned into tree branches, with leaves and shiny, red apples hanging from them!
What kind of a monster is he turning me into? I wondered. Is this a drug trip, an intense hallucination? Or is it some kind of black magic? I looked at that flame-coloured wallpaper, and had a feeling the latter was the correct answer, for that devilish grin remained on his face.
I could only moan like a gagged prisoner, and fidget with my still-human torso. I tried shaking my head, but he grabbed the faucet and put the pill under it. It got sucked in.
I could suddenly see all of the room, from many different angles at the same time, for eyes had appeared all over my body: on my chest and my back (though my T-shirt was blocking their view), on my tree-branch-arms, on my pipe legs, and on the back of my head, peeking through my hair. The sight of my monstrous new form, from all angles in those mirrors, made the fear in all those agape eyes too easy to understand. Tears formed in all of them.
I kept shaking, trying to hit him with my branch-arms, but he grabbed the left one and plucked an apple.
He ripped my T-shirt off my torso. My chest and stomach eyes, no longer shrouded in darkness, looked up in terror at him. Tears ran down my belly.
I whined in annoyance. Damn this faucet, I thought as it kept pressing my tongue into my lower incisors, still stabbing sharply into it. The steel had a rusty taste mixed with the blood from my tongue.
“Now,” he said, holding the apple level with my belly, “you can enjoy the fruits of your labour.” He laughed as a mouth opened in my belly and ate the apple…which I could feel breaking up not into smaller apple pieces…but into a few dozen, dissolving pills.
My torso turned into a huge fan, with that mouth in the middle axis, and weeping, bloodshot eyes all around the fan’s outer circle. I could no longer move, for I no longer had joints. I tried speaking through that mouth, but I could only make it moan and babble like a madman.
Is this just a drug trip? I still wondered. Will it wear off in a few hours? Or will this be the rest of my life?
The doorbell rang.
“Ah, my guests have arrived,” Pauly said with a smile as he walked to the door. Three young men came in the room. One of them was Max, the second, Carl, my manager. I didn’t know the third man.
Oh, Max, Carl, please! I thought. Help me!
“Paul!” Max said as he and the others approached me. “Looking good!” All four of them laughed at me.
I’m fucked, I thought.
“Holy shit, what a freak-show!” the man to Max’s right said. “This is totally worth the price of admission.”
“Indeed, it is,” Max said, playing with my doorknob-ear. “I promised you a good show, and I always deliver on my promises, don’t I, Paul?” Still playing with my doorknob-ear, he rapped his knuckles on my head, as if it were a door. “Hello? Anybody home?” They all laughed again.
You fucking bastard, Max, I wanted to say.
“Speaking of the price of admission, pay up, guys,” Pauly said, gesturing with his hands. “$50 a man.”
They all paid him. As he counted the bills in his hands, the other three were feeling me up, fascinated with what I’d turned into.
My nose now felt metallic, pushing forwards and swelling. It turned into a valve for the faucet. They all laughed at me.
“Whoa!” Max said. “Check this shit out! Paul, you’re a metal-head!”
Everyone laughed loud, high-pitched howls that stung my human ear, the only one that heard anything anymore.
I looked at the ridiculous monstrosity that I’d become in the mirrors. It made me think of my school years, when I’d been laughed at and bullied, my classmates taking over the duties of the tormentors in my family. At that moment, for a few seconds, I thought I actually saw four of my high school bullies instead of these four men.
The reflections of everyone in the mirrors, seen from all of my eyes from all those angles, from time to time looked like everyone in my old classrooms…all of them laughing at me.
“Does he dispense beer?” Carl asked.
Everybody laughed some more.
“Try his nose for yourself, Mr. Parshin,” Pauly told Carl, who then turned my nose-tap. Nothing came out.
“Useless!” he shouted, then slapped my still-human cheek. The sting of that slap made me so want to hit him, but I could only stand there, motionless. His slap caused a tear in my cheek, which now was dripping blood. “Eww!” Carl said, then wiped my blood on the side of my fan-torso.
In my daze as I recovered from the sting, I thought, just for a few seconds, that instead of seeing Max, Carl, and the third man in the mirror reflections, I saw my siblings tormenting me. I thought I saw myself as a little kid in one of the mirrors, and instead of Pauly, I saw my mother. Then I snapped out of the daze and saw my present tormentors. Again, I wanted to twitch from the memory of my childhood trauma, but I couldn’t budge.
I looked over at Pauly…and saw horns on his head! I blinked, then looked again: the horns were gone.
Did these brief hallucinations mean that my monstrous form was all one extended hallucination? I could only hope so.
“Want an apple?” the man to Max’s right asked, pulling one off my right branch-arm and handing it to Carl.
“No, thanks,” Carl said, swatting it out of the guy’s hand. “I might turn into this kind of freak. This is what happens when you do dope, Paul.”
“I like your fan, Paul,” Max said, laughing at me between each sentence. “Nice and comfortable breeze you’re blowing. Yeah, I got caught with a stash of weed in my apartment, and the only way Carl would save my ass from the cops was if I ratted you out. So I did. But since Carl doesn’t like you–actually, nobody has ever liked you–he said he’d love to see what you’d do if Pauly gave you some of his stash. Man, you didn’t disappoint. The third guy with us here is a cop, by the way. Again, I promised he’d be so entertained by you that he’d drop the charges against me. I guess I’m safe. Thanks, bro!”
Fuck you, I thought.
My many eyes were trying to avoid my oglers, who kept touching me, ripping off pieces of bark from my arms, or running their fingers along the screen of the fan.
Stick your fingers inside, guys, I thought. Let the fan blades cut them off, you compassionless bastards.
Blood flowed from where they’d torn off pieces of bark from my branch-arms. Any drops of my blood that got on their hands, they wiped off on the edges of my fan-torso. They wouldn’t tear off any more: I suppose I should have been grateful for that, at least.
As an hour or so of this ordeal went by–their eyes always staring at me, their hands touching me, their fingers poking a few of my eyes (which spouted blood, too, now), and their mouths laughing at me–my eyes kept looking at my mirror reflection, hoping for my transformation back to normal, or for an end to this drug trip. This has to be a trip. It can’t be real, can it?
Instead, I began to notice myself turning pink. Were those flesh tones I was seeing? My monstrous shape was the same, but everything looked flesh-like. Were the pills finally wearing off? They had to be! In my mind, I was begging for it.
A funny thing, though: I was now all pinkish, but every centimetre of me looked detached from each other. I looked like a man in a Georges Seurat painting–pointillistic, my body was all pink dots.
“Whoa!” Carl said. “What the fuck is he turning into now?”
Max tapped me on the chest. My body broke into thousands of little pink pieces…I was all pills now! I lay there in a pile before my four onlookers, who continued to gaze down on me without any pity, but with contempt.
I looked up at them the way many of us think a fly must see the world; for each pill-unit of my body was an eye of its own, looking up at the four men in utter helplessness.
“Man, that’s the weirdest shit I’ve ever seen,” Carl said.
Max brought his foot up as if about to stomp on me. I actually hoped for it.
“No!” Pauly said. “I have a use for him still. Don’t step on any…of him.”
The others laughed.
“Alright, guys,” Pauly said. “Show’s over now.” He motioned for them to leave. “I’ll have another spectacle for you to see soon.”
“When?” the third guy asked as they all reached the door.
“When she gets here, of course,” Pauly said. “I’ll let you all know. Until then, good-night.”
“Bye,” his visitors said, then left.
Pauly came back over to the pile of me.
“I know you still have consciousness,” he said, bending over. “Enjoy your new life. At least you won’t have to work in that awful factory anymore.” He walked away and laughed.
The next day, his doorbell rang. He answered it. I saw, through my pill-eyes, several dozen images of the same girl–a teenager from the looks of her–entering his apartment and approaching me. All my other pill-eyes saw only a hellish blackness. Was I put into a black garbage bag while I was sleeping?
“You were telling me about your problems,” Pauly said to her.
“Yes,” she said, beginning to sob. “I feel so alone. I hate my parents. No one pays any attention to me. I’m sick of feeling so…ordinary.”
Picking up one of me, he showed it to her. “I have just the thing for you.”
No! I said, hoping she’d hear me.