Paula is not pretty. "Great body; shame about the face" is a phrase she overheard once. Maybe twice. It left its mark like tobacco juice; something spat that stains. "Not pretty", for a girl growing up in the Dairy State of Wisconsin, meant unpopular. Boys guffawed; girls raised eyebrows, reinforced by smirks. This changed when she changed, when her figure, of a sudden, ceased mimicking a fence post. Boys gawked; girls knitted eyebrows, reinforced by xenophobic sneers. Not that Paula's ancestry cast her as a foreigner. True, her parents were immigrants, spoke English with thick Polish accents, but their daughter was born in America, an All-American girl; "with a good head on her shoulders" was her father's favorite idiom when referring to his beloved only-child...who was not pretty...and whose breasts developed early—the actual source of her green-eyed-peers' xenophobia. And all too often the source of Paula's feeling spurned:

wearing two boy's T-shirts, two sizes too small, under her blouse, to flatten out the bumps, until her mother, doing the wash, discovered the alien garments, assumed them Laundromat refugees, and sent them as donations to the local Goodwill—three weeks worth of milk money, scrimped to buy them, gone to help the handicapped.

Blessed and cursed by curves en route to detours (should she follow them), Paula learned to veer from leers that led astray. Mostly she attracted boys, then men whose motives were salacious. Mostly she rejected their advances, ruing three mistakes—the first the worst, the next two reconfirming her allure was problematic. Henceforth she evaluated suitors by the zeal with which they courted. Those too aggressive she summarily dismissed. Others she held suspect, taking none to bed as potential lifelong partners, though she did take some to bed. When the mood suited her. When loneliness overruled her self-possessed ambition—to become a nun, initially, then, once virginity absconded, to become a nurse in the mode of Florence Nightingale. Neither occupation lent itself, in Paula's mind, to hunting for a husband (or to have one hunt for her), resulting in the curious means by which she sought out sex whenever carnal cravings churned:

she selected a man unlikely to approach her (making sure he wore no ring) and asked if there were something she could do for him "underneath the covers", or something he could do for her in turn, that maybe he had dreamt about, but for lack of chance or nerve, had left to date undone.

Conquests might have proliferated had Paula been promiscuous. For the most part, she was not—sex having proven an embarrassment on more than one occasion, when over-stimulation by some over-zealous lover had exposed her "other" anomaly:

viscose, copious, and 'pheromonally' pungent, her emissions flowed like lava, inundating blanket, sheets, and mattress in the process, while dampening ardor—of those who viewed such volatile events as excessive hence off-putting.

As did Paula herself, utterly abashed at her outlandish discharges (no matter how sporadic), persuading her to proposition men who were borderline unsightly—training her, in effect, for her chosen vocation.

Because nursing, first and foremost, captured Paula's heart.
To mend the broken, cure the sick, alleviate the afflicted,
was her passion,
was her calling...

(none too promising at the moment, catatonic, or pretending to be catatonic, his motive yet unclear, beyond eliciting Paula's undivided attention, currying her solicitude in the misplaced hope she might help retrieve his wandering wits, or conniving to maintain contact with those anatomical parts he covets without remittance—breasts squished up against him as she leans, hugs, grunts, and lifts, Paula's strength surprising for a woman whose dimensions, next to Pierpont's, are the lesser; she at five foot eight while he stands six foot two, though Alex's skin-and-bones scarcely outweigh her who hoists him)

...a condition destined to deteriorate, reach a stage that warrants legal intervention by said court-appointed guardian—in charge of an estate appraised at half-a-billion US dollars.

alizarin crimson inks twin membrane-cloaks drawn slack cracked blinds admitting nothing light unfiltered scorches pupils egg-white irises wilted sideways crows-feet grown to clown-size-lengthy left-right super elongations for inspector general warnings under either neither gaze equipped to offer recognition much less erudition currently due to limbo cast as psyche's shadow swallowing thoughts sensations numbing neurons nerves conjointly through an ill-conceived reconnaissance flown by raven's wing across and down across and down precipitous steeped in humors vent from ether's wake 'neath basements born unconscious hypothalamus leaching peptides for recovery put on hold awhile whilst wiles yet lag in a waltz whose two-four step evokes progression miming stasis redefined as standing still per se malingering in a malaise severed from reality...

...Pierpont's gape, become a facial-feature fixture reinstalled in the master bedroom (Paula's strenuous huff-and-puff deposit long since engineered) recalls a death mask, eerily lit by day from above through a skylight's lens, by night from muted beams emitted through a tassel-skirted lampshade, fez in shape, antique, a camel caravan—woven into hand-embroidered sand dunes—trekking nose to tail to nose to tail unendingly around a vista vast within its constricted confines, intricate in their needlework, each humpbacked nomad circumnavigating—silently irascible—under intermittent blows from a sullen driver's cane, applied judiciously, punishment meted out to instigate dumb compliance, using pain to prod, to motivate shy of inflicting mortal lesions; ends would be unreachable if their lumbering means succumbed to overdone abuse, no-love-lost nonetheless between these burdened beasts and him who exploits their vaunted endurance for benefits more complex than their need for fodder, water, rest, and rigors of the rut, for he, the driver, aspires to riches weighed in coin-of-the-realm-paid profits turned to luxuries bred of commerce alias culture—appetites sustained by taste-refining delicacies, joys of sensuality lifting basics to pursuits demonstrably excessive, deplorably expensive, demonically subversive, the light on Pierpont's rigid face illuminating virtue-vice vacillations: tragicomic, happy-sad, innocent-reprehensible, phases ever-shifting:

character transmogrifies,
noble-ignoble alternate,
truth and falsehood flip,
while feminine vies with masculine for sexual orientation,
Alexander / Alexandra patently interchangeable...

...whipped beyond the pleasure threshold masochism warrants to despair of leather, iron, hemp, and polyester thongs affixed by impish fingers feminine and diabolically heartless when adjusting assorted clamps, re-rigging ropes, securing cinches, winches exercising tension at a plethora of points designed to stretch, contort, disfigure overstressed appendages whose pronounced discoloration bodes debility, bodes not well should Alex survive the retribution she, by proxy, is dispensing, retain his strangled scrotal sack and balls despite their hue that signals circulation severed, trapped by coils deployed to squeeze, distend, torment, assault his penis, no less captive hence grotesque in its livid misshapenness, bulbous glans and shaft turned purple, pinched past stunned sensation, numb as fright—excruciation masked by surges of adrenaline...

Laughter is the sound that ushers Pierpont from his reverie, instigates the process whereby thoughts regain composure, while memories / sensitivities rally, seep like welcome dewdrops into soil left parched from days and nights of sun-scorched wind traversing solitary spaces...recognition of specifics slow to dawn, details sketchy, yet an overall belief that time has passed without his knowledge makes amusement at the situation paradoxical; Alex chuckles—but cannot, for the life of him, fathom why.

You think it's funny?

'Something's' funny.

What is?

Couldn't tell you.

But you're laughing.

So are you.

Because you started.

Okay; stop.

I will if you do.

I don't want to stop; it's fun.

But nothing's funny.

Must be.

What must?

Nothing. Nothing must be funny. Why else laugh?

You're playing word games. Nothing isn't something. You said 'something's' funny.

True. And you said 'nothing's' funny. Could both of us be right?

The laugh produced is phlegmy, like a whiskey voice made mirthful, come from deep inside the chest, its cavity resonant as a drum, proclaiming Alex Pierpont's most attractive feature. Sonorous to a fault, his vocal chords produce sounds as dulcet as any anchorman's.

I fail to see how you can lounge here after days no doubt of stupor and behave as if it's humorous; it is not.

You'd rather weep?

I'd rather focus on repentance and atonement for our lapses.

To redeem us?

If we're lucky.

In the eyes of who, pray tell?

You never pray; and that's the problem. We have sinned; debased our soul. Yet you refuse to ask our Maker's forgiveness.

Our "Maker"? In the superstitious sense, you mean, rather than procreating parents, egg and sperm and fertile fucking by consensual adults?

Pretend that God does not exist, if you insist, defame religion, mock the many who believe in something holier than themselves, but be advised that I protest, and if it be His will to listen, I shall humbly beg for mercy on our behalf.

The laugh resumes. Amused his alter ego waxes ecumenical, Alex marvels at the mind's adroit resistance to demise—his own included—early childhood evidently having programmed rote responses resurrected by the trauma of encountering (once removed) an end before the end, his coma like a dry run, a rehearsal for the sleep from which one never wakes, exit into nullity—his reprieve a giddy respite bound to be short-lived. Why grieve beforehand? Why not chortle at the irony of one's self-destruct self-consciousness—geriatrics playing back-up should fatality be postponed? Avoiding death throughout one's youth, one's middle years, might cloak its specter, but the masquerade is over once confronting ripe old age when skull and crossbones loom like a half-mast Jolly Roger.

"Paula, Nurse Glomotski, what a sight for sore eyes, thee! The Holy Ghost could not stir more delight as a bedside guest for me (for us). A vision, in your whites, you are, a pristine apparition. Prithee, come and lay your palm on 'our' resuscitated cheek so we might kiss the hand that delivers us from evil; Amen."

Stunned, as much by Pierpont's first-time-ever mention of her surname as she is by his miraculous recovery, Paula enters haltingly, pleased yet displeased, vexed yet lured. Hiatus over (she enjoyed, if truth be told, the scaled-down maintenance her employer's stint of stupor all-too-briefly put in force) this reclamation of his wits (of which he seems in full possession as bespeak his upright posture, perky smile, and playful verbiage) reinstates the status quo (lest she misreads these edgy symptoms) that includes cerebral elements she (despite their bombast) missed—as though, in coping with the antics of a miscreant (self-described) who makes no bones about his past or present wickedness, she were privy (in an intellectual sense) to the Devil Himself, a queer conceit but one she entertains regardless, or because of isolation, introspection, like the desert sun, unavoidable, scruples strained by pithy arguments, caustic wisecracks, and sacrilegious drollery, most offensive, yet inclined to make her think in lieu of shrugging off affronts to preconceptions she believed to be inviolable; Paula's Faith (expressly Catholic thus definitive in its strictures—if imposed on her obliquely, her interpretations vague) appears to be a sorry sort of shield against his onslaughts; she can neither ply it deftly to deflect his swipes and jeers, nor blame the Church for her unlearned vulnerability.

"Feeling better?"

"Well, we're 'feeling'; whether 'better' aptly states the case is dubious. We are feeling 'back' as from the brink, the pit, the great abyss, and if you'd like to know how that feels, we'd say swell !"

Unsettling is the impact of this mini-speech on Paula who grows goose bumps on the flesh her nurse's outfit leaves exposed—the starchy whiteness of her uniform, next to newly suntanned limbs, enhancing contrast skin to fabric, cotton duck, for pimply pores, a snowy boundary. Tiny hairs, like startled cilia at her neck's nape, stand on end as if the timbre that accompanies Pierpont's tones extends its wavelength as a creepy-crawly tendril.

Could he have died then been revivified, as many have reported after vital signs blinked off for a spell then—Bingo—blinked back on (?)...because if that is what has taken place, no matter how obscurely, Paula's interest in an explanation could not be more roused...though he was breathing every time she checked...his pulse, though weak, was steady...there was drool she had to wipe, a dirty diaper needing changed...her visits measured, always punctual—albeit time between them 'stretchy'; every hour, of late, becoming every other hour...except from 10pm to 6am when Alex had to buzz her should some crisis warrant intervention...none to date ensued—besides his quasi catatonia, rather spooky, maybe genuine, inconsistent with the trappings of senility, still unfeigned in spite of Paula's vacillation; if the man was playing possum he would surely have betrayed himself by this point; days have passed since he first...

"Croaked then resurrected; that the upshot of your musings?"

Paula, startled, is abashed to learn her subtext is transparent.

"Fie! Gadzooks! Are you retarded Miss Glomotski or devout past rhyme and reason? Do you really picture angel wings and psalms and pearly gates? I mean, I'll happily oblige by painting Sistine Chapel ceilings or by paraphrasing Dante to evoke the horrors of Hell, but for a practical account of what befalls both saint and sinner, he who supplicates for redemption, she who flips-the-bird with scorn, remark the candor in mine eye, attend this countenance grim with pallor, note the skeleton that protrudes through skin as slack as ruined sails which not a wisp of wind can rescue from the doldrums ushering death but needs must yield by turns to gravity, to infirmity, to decay with neither penance nor salvation for a soul mate...watch...observe...regard the vein that mars my temple with its pulsing intumescence...count the heartbeats...mind their cadence...heed the rhythm of my voice...obey commands...embrace suggestions...follow orders...mull persuasion...do not stray, digress, or drift, but rather focus...concentrate...glom...allow your lids to laze...relax...to laze...relax...release their tension...close anon...at ease...at rest...at ease...unwind...at last asleep...awake to nothing save the sound, the measured source of strict instructions you are honor-bound to carry out, perform without complaint, in fact exult in every act toward their fulfillment...wanton...chaste...ignore the judgments others cast upon indulging whims and cravings, grant whatever secret wishes you have longed to entertain, the only stop sign yours—renounce it—overcome your inhibitions, and be ruled by inner forces that are subject to direction when the murmurs made within adhere to outside murmurs—mine—whose Word is Law, whose Will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven."

So now what? Is she really under?

Put her to the test yourself.

I would not think of it.

Oh?

That's your thing.

What is?

Making people do your bidding.

I resent that. I pay well. What people do, they do for money.

Funny; I thought what they did, they did for survival.

Need, lust, greed; I dare say no one's motives measure up to your high-minded prudery. Lighten up; we're having fun, is all.

Like last time?

'Last time'; when? We haven't hypnotized since college.

True. That freshman; George Souvakis.

Christ! Your memory is like some Holy-Roller Ledger, chiseled in. We both were young, impulsive—foolish, if you like—but far from criminal. Why blame me for his proclivities? No one knew that George was gay.

You made him choose, when he snapped to, whom he most wanted to seduce that night.

And he waltzed straight to the captain of our Varsity football team who took it pretty well, as I recall, when George asked him to dance.

Until the crowd of lookers-on made him self-conscious, hollering how he must have been a closet queer himself the way he reeled around, letting poor George take the lead. Slugged him; you remember? Broke his nose with one fierce punch. Next day they found George huddled in his dorm bunk—dead from a self-inflicted gash in the middle of his jugular. Good clean fun.

You're morbid, Alexandra. I will not suggest that Paula dance with anyone—me or you—and, if it makes you any happier, simply snap her out of it.

Paula, seemingly unaware of Pierpont's schizoid discourse (not surprising insofar as neither voice is aired aloud), remains inanimate.

Even mesmerized subjects aren't entirely vulnerable. My guess is she'll balk, if you attempt to warp her soul.

Who suggested warping anybody's soul? Leave that to vicars. You're projecting, Alexandra; yours not my designs are suspect. Think. What would you have Paula do that might reveal some penchant she has heretofore kept under circumspection's lock and key? And don't pretend you haven't wondered why so prime and ripe a specimen has marooned herself in exile with a withered crone like me, a dried-up geezer whose sole virtue is good-for-nothing affluence—wealth without the wherewithal to buy back youth or health.

Not even tempted. What this woman's heart may hide from prying minds is hers, and she deserves, by those she serves, to be respected. You would superimpose some vile manipulation, Alexander, and mistake the twisted shape for something not your own. Behave with honor, for a change, why don't you? Power never wins what power covets most.

And what might that be?

That which is gratuitous, meaning that which can't be bought; that which is expressed without the least compulsion, unconstrained, relieved of force applied to dictate, even to influence its bestowal on a subject not an object, on a fellow human being no less imperfect, vain, or inconsistent than any other mortal, no more virtuous, kind, or caring than the average Joe or Jean, be he/she rich or disadvantaged, hale or handicapped, fair or ugly, blessed with genius or retarded irrespective, svelte, obese...

Will you stop listing things and make your point?

LOVE is what you long for—and you haven't got a clue about its essence.

Alex smirks...in cynical refutation of his alter-ego's thesis—which is one that he discounts as sentimentally naive...his smirking a crushing blow Alexandra's fledgling coup.

You thought I'd falter in my dotage and concede the upper hand to sappy platitudes and your Hallmark-card mentality, Alexandra? Pshaw! A pox on your pontifications. Stuff 'em. Step aside. It's time to put young Miss Glomotski through some wild and wacky paces. Either ante up your two-cents-worth or scram.

You still with us, Miss Glomotski? Nod your head if ye be conscious.

Good. Now listen very carefully to Svengali's signal voice,
for my suggestions are your ultimatums.

Nod, if you acknowledge.

Now, allow your arms to spread like they are weightless,
light as wings that ride an updraft toward the cirrus clouds
above Sonora's desert.

You can feel the lift,
the rush of air supporting your anatomy,
warmed by sunshine,
cooled by altitude,
buoyed by thrills and chills of flight.

For you are soaring, Nurse Glomotski,
  you are gliding like Ferruginous,
who extends her pinions spread like fingers spanning octaves twain,
performing chords above the organ pipe, the cholla, the saguaro.

As conducted by your Maestro,
I,
whose intonations reach you irrespective distance grown
—though more substantial than our age gap—
indiscreet the way they whisper like some wayward whirlwind,
fickle,
unpredictable as the madcap dash of dust devils far below
that traipse with carefree disregard
through spiny prickly pear,
ocotillo,
and the unforgiving catclaw.

Look!
An airborne rival.
Veer!
Avoid those talons; they are lethal.
Did you sense the outstretched hazard?

Nod.

Compose your ruffled feathers,
raise your hackles,
brace for combat with this interloping raptor
lest dominion be conceded
and your territory lost
through lack of aeronautic prowess
or avian temerity.

Launch your counter-offensive.
Dive!
A near-miss.
Mind his tactics.
He is banking. Swooping.
Don't lose sight!
He will strike you unawares.

Unless his first assault was merely meant to capture your attention;
more a suitor than a saboteur;
the hawk might seek a mate,
in which case caution should redouble.
Climb!
He is older, swifter, wiser.
You were helpless as a pigeon
on that last pass;
meet his challenge.

The survival of your species rests
with tried and tested traits
that favor fleetness, fierceness, fitness
over feminine forms of frailty.
Do not mince when waging warfare
—be it amorous or belligerent,
be it bent on termination or its opposite, procreation:

made self-evident as the motive for persistent harmless fly-bys,
each a threat without infliction
each a feint that fails to hurt
despite the weapons undisclosed within a pair of gnarly fists
designed to snatch at will,
to pierce on contact organs prone to rupture,
then to grapple prey through spirals downward,
corpses come to ground for reassignment of their parts
through piecemeal disassembly.

Not so thine,
for it is destined by the hormones
of your airborne cavalier
that you be mounted not devoured
whence you alight
in treetop swaying,
you below maintaining purchase on an undulating limb
while he above inserts the means by which his seed will be instilled
through energetic thrusting.

Fan your tail!
Receive his hypodermic semen,
each injection like Elysium,
molten bliss,
the piss of god,
as procreation
in the form of liquid extract
wet and gooey
floods the channel
into which it is infused

portending eggs,
a clutch expected to evacuate mother's chamber
once the alchemy of life transmutes carnality into brood,
converting passion into parenthood,
devotion from desire distilled
to nurture this and future generations.

Are you through? You couldn't help yourself, of course.

How so?

It all comes round to sex. It always does, when you're in charge.

You had your chance.

I'll take it now.

For sloppy seconds? Be my guest.

You are depraved.

I made her climax.

What? With that insipid verbiage? You did no such thing.

Sure did.

If she's the least bit damp it's pee from having had to sit so long. Your purple prose is too palaverous to inspire much more than boredom.

What would you have Paula do, my dear? She's yours. Implant suggestions. Mine, if nothing else, endowed the lass with a bird's-eye point-of-view—quite altruistically, I might add. She'll have no lingering obligation to reward her figment's author once released from Mesmer's trance. Whereas injunctions you are likely to concoct will be self-serving, if your soapbox speech on love is any indication.

Paula burps. The sound and smell (replete with pepperoni pizza she ingested two hours earlier) disrupt proceedings (momentarily) and remind her puppeteers that strings they wangle to attach are mutually contingent.

What say we get on with it, shall we? Jump her through some hoops. I fear our audience may be wavering, shaking off our spell.

Paula, can you hear me? Nod your head, if you're still conscious.

Nod again, if you're still willing to obey.

You are? I'm glad. I need to ask of you a favor.
one I'm certain you will grant,
because a nurse's duty dictates
and compassion makes demands that put a patient's welfare first,
no matter how he proves unworthy
of the care and comfort you are trained to tender,

unabashed by his unseemly misbehavior,
undiscouraged by his setbacks,
predisposed to overlook his most offensive gropes and slurs,
forgiving faults the size of giant squid,
his blasphemies symptomatic of a man whose lack of fellow-feeling leaves him bitter,
churlish,
and inclined to see the world as through-a-glass-darkly,
lonesome,
worse

for Alexander is estranged from more than peers and friends and loved ones;
he is ostracized from Heaven;
he has damned his soul to Hell,
without acknowledging that he owns so indecipherable an appurtenance,
something of himself beyond himself,
subordinate to the Other
whose existence he denies with such pomposity,
spleen, pride, nerve
that his salvation shall be forfeit—should you fail at intervention,
should you break the solemn promise I endeavor to extract by asking:

Please, no matter how the end may come,
prolonged or pronto,
whether struck down by disease,
or by some mishap,
please, please, please
make sure a priest is called,
or a rabbi,
or a mullah,
some such personage who can claim to speak with Him
who takes possession of our Spirit
when the body gives it up,
when that which dies turns loose its hold
on all save that which lives forever
in the everlastingly bosom
of whomever you choose to call
Almighty God.

Amen. Good grief. Have you been storing up, rehearsing? Or was that extempore? She didn't nod. You have to make her nod or your pretty prayer won't stick. Before you do, however...

Paula, nod; you'll honor our request?

At this point Paula, apropos of nothing, clucks like a chicken—flapping arms that bend at the elbows in a mock-attempt at flight.

    "Or was I supposed to bark like a dog, or mew like a kitten?"

    "You weren't under?"

    "Oh, I was; I was deeply under, meaning 'under the impression' your poetic gift of gab is wonderfully hypnotic. Quite remarkable. I could picture what it must be like to fly; I really could: the sense of weightlessness, the swift maneuvering, darting, dodging, diving, the excitement of a rival-turned-to-a-Romeo; wow. Fantastic. Thanks. And don't you worry one little bit; I'll call a priest, when the time comes. I know several. One or two on a first-name basis. Rest assured. Unless a rabbi would be better. Are you Jewish, Mister Pierpont? Or a mullah, if you're Muslim. I can have one air-dropped in. The most important thing is asking God's forgiveness. God hears everyone. I know Holy men are comforting, but we all can talk to Him. I mean directly. Heart to heart."

    "Would that be 'sacred' heart?"

    "Exactly. If you're seeking true salvation, speak to Jesus."

Shit, shit, shit! See what you've started, Alexandra, with your pie-in-the-sky petitioning? We'll be harried with hosannas for eternity.

Praise God, yes! We have an ally...

An apologist.

...in this nurse. You should be grateful.

Oh, I'm overwhelmed with gratitude. Let's talk suicide.

Don't you dare! Of all the options you have entertained when plotting our departure, self-destruction has been off the list.

Says who, pray tell?

Says me.

You're out of touch. It's been Plan B for many moons.

Since when?

Think wardrobe.

Huh?

It started when 'it' started.

'It'?

Our passion for pastels. You haven't noticed that we old folks often transform our ensembles once confronted by the Reaper's spectral shadow?

Out of spite?

Out of wanting to identify with the living, pre-demise, knowing full-well death is draped in undertaker black.

How quaint. How grim. So you've been contemplating 'snuffing it' since...

We bought those pink pajamas.

That was years ago.

Correct.

Without my knowledge? That's absurd. What you know, I know. How can egos keep their alter-egos clueless?

By insisting that reality be the focus of cognition, casting stuff-and-nonsense—yours—in the role of trifling stooge.

   "May I butt in?"

Aware that Pierpont is engaged in conversation with himself (his head inclining right to left apace with the half who mutely speaks), Paula tries to circumvent a relapse into stupor—her diagnosis apt; one is on the verge.

Alex. Yes? The nurse. The nurse? Is tugging at our elbow; Miss Glomotski. Right. Glo-who-ski? Could have sworn her name was...what?

A look of puzzlement overwhelms the animation in his features, fixed as a snapshot save for slaver...bead of mucous...film of tears...the liquids gathering unselfconsciously, unrecalled by slurp, sniff, blink...in the absence of decorum, jointly flow beyond their brinks to moisten jowl and upper lip and either sallow sunken socket, eyes indifferent to the hand that passes side to side in front of them as a means to test the depth of their encroaching insulation from appeals to reconsider, to abjure the barren mindscape that extends in all directions cleared of whims, ideas, pipedreams in the mode of a Magic Slate, its plastic lifted to erase all trace except for ghostly palimpsests that betray the intellect's scribble when allowed to write or draw sans inhibitions, unsuppressed by the exigencies of coma which bewitch the senses senseless, draw a blind of blinding veils obscuring vision focused inward / focused outward irrespective, cast a spell that spells oblivion for its victim; Alex stares, his disconnection from surroundings once more absolute.

While Paula frets...recalls the blue-black, tattooed letters—D N R—on Pierpont's breastbone, like an oath to some society-or-other to which his-nibs belongs—DO NOT RESUSCITATE—that promotes assisted suicide as a right and what's more lobbies, state by state, for the concept's legalization—mortal sin regardless—as if lawyers, writing laws, could contradict the Ten Commandments, as if something were ambiguous in the phrase "Thou shalt not kill", as if one's exit from among the living ought to be deliberate like one's entrance—in accordance with Planned-Parenthood-style ideals which Paula spurns, the Pope's position proof enough that death like birth is not Man's province, both being mysteries Faith alone can comprehend. No man of science can describe the state of 'not-yet-being born' with any more accuracy than describing the state of 'after-being dead', though each state is and both are subject to our scrutiny—us alive—while neither lends itself to scrutiny of those unborn or those deceased, without whose input truth is forever in the realm of speculation...hers as true as others'...hers as valid as are any truths that elude corroboration; 'When no one is to say for sure, for sure grant God the say-so" is, to Paula's way of thinking, sound advice...

...thus her dilemma: Mister Pierpont has prevailed upon her agency to comply with his request that no "heroic means" be utilized to sustain him. Should he lapse into a coma, case in point, that proves protracted, she cannot resort to artificial life supports. She is sanctioned to relieve whatever pain he might be suffering. She is authorized to administer drugs—not nourishment—intravenously. She can render aid to counteract effects from some emergency—should he choke on food, or fall, or have some similar type of mishap. But beyond the natural course of things, Nature must take its course. And Nature, Paula acknowledges, is Death's unflinching arbiter.

God did not make Man to make God's choices, Paula argues—to herself, for he has lapsed into that distant, vacant stare.

Would she assist? Abet his suicide, if he asked, as she was asked at her pre-hire interview?

"It is our official policy to uphold the Hippocratic Oath. Regardless the situation, be it dire or beyond all hope, regardless the client's wishes, be they desperate or considered, you, in our employ, shall DO NO HARM."

She had agreed. In truth, the rule was in congruence with her own long-held beliefs, so when the interviewer added:

"It's our unofficial policy to allow you some discretion in dealing with special circumstances,"

Paula was more upset than she was reassured. You can 'put down' dogs and cats, if need be, euthanize a lab rat, you can shoot a horse if it breaks a leg or mercy-kill ailing pets, but you cannot take that which God has given to those created in His image. If Paula believes in anything, she believes in the sanctity of life—human life—with nary an if, and, or but to counter her conviction.

Therefore why belabor it, Paula asks herself, unsolicited? Neither Pierpont nor the agency said anything explicit. Could he have 'suggested' something, implanted it while—ostensibly—she was under(?)—for she had, despite denying it, lost a degree of self-control, albeit briefly, inconclusively; having never before been hypnotized; uncertainty as to what the state engendered gives her pause...the cloying dampness in her panties a reminder of reactions his beguiling voice induced without her leave...against her will, when she considers how compelling were his orders, how seductive his depictions of those birds of prey in heat, and how offensive any thought was of his rousing her libido; so decrepit is he physically, so repulsive is he psychically, so demeaning is he spiritually, she would rather kiss a turd than have to suffer intimate contact with Alexander Pierpont—professional aid and comfort notwithstanding.

Yuk, double-yuk, she reiterates on review of his offensiveness:

Otherwise (Paula almost laughs at the zeal of her revulsion), his integument hangs from his bones like slag divorced from heap.

A limb fallen asleep due to faulty circulation apes a brain fallen asleep under coma's dulling influence, pins and needles stabbing at near narcoleptic neurons barely rousing re-cognition from its enervated stall, shocks of sorts advised to kick-start inklings, vaguest notions onto semblances of concepts, active memories, cogent thoughts, the latter lingering in a limbo-like suspension kin to quicksand insofar as that which seems to float is poised, instead, to sink, sped up by struggling, doomed regardless by whatever weight accrues with comprehending life's cessation in advance should it retreat, retract its pall perchance to stay the sentence none will see commuted for another taste or nibble at the supper table spread, a crust of bread, a sip of wine, a host of tipsy dreams on offer to the lucky stiff whose pending rigor mortis gets delayed albeit tersely, granting time enough to fathom depths revisited once arisen from their lightlessness, delivered from that Dark to which all sentience in the end needs must return, afraid or fearless, buoyed by optimistic forecasts or encumbered by despair, off guard or ready, wise or foolish, in the know or in a quandary that confronts all souls who ask (in spite of answers apt to hide, concealed by ignorance, trepidation, myth, and the superstitious blindfolds donned by priests and politicians as both church and state conspire to stage some cryptic masquerade wherein respective visors vie, reciprocal eye-holes left, by each, uncut hence sightless) what bodes death?

Does Alex know? Could his adventures through the looking-glass (darkly) cast enlightened glimpses at what consciousness has struggled to deduce since consciousness dawned, an intuition verifiable, a conclusion-drawn reliable, an assurance irrefutable minus proof? He does.

That's it! What's it? I think I've figured out the lesson taught by blacking out...for minutes?

Alex checks the digital clock beside his bed: 6:30; checks the day: same one, the fourteenth; checks the skylight: dusk, he estimates.

A fleeting sojourn it has been, no longer than a catnap... What? ...or coffee break. Which reminds me; let's buzz what's-her-name... Paula. ...for a cup of mocha java. Death. I beg your pardon? 'It.' You asked what 'it' is; Life gone missing. Death's a minus sign, a negation, which is why it has folks stumped. You put a blank in front of any human being and he does what? She fills fill it? Because a blank, or vacuum, is a conscious contradiction that induces us self-conscious souls to posit, to invent an explanation for what isn't when what was has disappeared and left remainders—us—an omission we are hard-pressed to accept upon acknowledging ours and theirs is the selfsame fate; to cease, to end, to vanish—abracadabra;  now you see us, now you don't; the sack we animate while we're here is a soggy sort of package once we've left, except to be and not to be are less about staying-put-then-leaving than they are about existing-then-existing-not. Again, it's all about absence. We are added then subtracted for a sum that equals zero. How depressing. Disappointing, maybe, for afterlife subscribers. Disillusioning, if you're heart is set on joining an angel choir. A great relief, if, on the other hand, you're expecting fire and brimstone; I should think all Hell-bound mortals would rejoice at Death's true nature—i.e. nothingness being preferable to everlasting torment. Whereas nothingness to the virtuous might suggest that they've been gypped—were consciousness to survive its vehicle's expiration; it does not. At the risk of sounding arrogant, Death spells nonexistence.

That's definitive? Yes, my final word. You expect me to accept it? I expect you to resist it with all your schizophrenic might.

 

"You buzzed?"

"Come in! Or rather fetch us first a cup-o'-joe then join us, Nurse Glomotski; we have insights to impart; our eyes hath seen the Second Coming. We'll impart 'of what' whence returned with our caffeinated brew."

Paula, less nonplussed than pleased by Pierpont's speedy turnabout (his stupor, this time, lifting inside an hour of its commencement), is content to play barista, buoyed by the reassuring prospect of engaging her employer in some meaningful tête-à-tête, their two agendas, if she gets his drift, atypically aligned—or so she feels in light of Alex's proclamation and her own faith-based resolve to interject Jesus, Lord and Savior, to bolster their discussion.

'And blessed is the fruit of thy womb' Paula mutely recites upon repairing to the kitchen, prevailing upon the cook to fill their boss's order 'Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners' waiting for espressos exactingly prepared 'now and at the hour of our death' pondering Pierpont's quote (or quip?) with respect to the Day of Judgment when Christ would come to adjudicate the living and the dead 'Amen' then reign, His Kingdom come as in reestablished 'on Earth as it is in Heaven'.

Give us this day... (Give who which day?) Our nurse seemed poised to sermonize. (God forbid.) That cross around her neck... (Between her boobs?)...appeared to glow. (A beacon for brainless bumpkins.) Mavens, too, are sometimes Christians. (Morons doubtless far-outnumber them; faith-based bunk has broad appeal. But ask a genius, if you like, about the nuts and bolts of Heaven: how it operates, who's in charge, the rules for getting out or in—or what a disembodied soul might do to enjoy supernal pleasure—and intelligence turns to silliness save to the faithful's most ingenuous who believe the Tooth Fairy reimburses for gramp's and granny's dentures.)

There are sunsets native to each locale on the planet, solar signatures made with inks admixed by airborne dust and distance through which bleed arrays unique and so splendiferous, sometimes

—now for instance, beckoning, coaxing Alex from his winding-sheet-like bedclothes to escape, exchange his blankets' morbid warmth for evening's energizing briskness, brave his bones' evacuation from the mattress, knobby knees and spindly ankles steering one foot, both feet floor-ward, planted shakily as his shifted weight above bears down with tentative, unsure confidence on supports grown frail as fossils yet resolved to shuffle, creep, convert a toddler's crawl to upright posture bent on independence from an elbow (Paula's) interlocked, imprisoning his securely with an aim that serves to holster gumption, undermine bold initiative, trade adventure for insurance; he would rather run the risk of falling flat on his avid face to chase the daystar's phased departure, catch its crimson blushes' farewell fade to pink / peach / purple / mauve, the clouds, like blotting paper, soaking up each color in succession, till the vibrant lose their luster to an overcast sky gone gray like he who cranes his skin-slack neck as might some overcautious tortoise making sure the coast is clear before extending limbs from shell to plot a course through stiff agave needles, fixed like bayonets, impaling passersby unwary—and old folk in pajamas—a pain-exclaiming "OUCH!" the upshot of his spree.

"Mister Pierpont!"

Unescorted? Sure the nurse's arm and his are snugly knotted, Alex falters. At a loss to understand how she could vanish, reappearing, with the coffee service, several yards behind on the veranda, cups and saucers faintly glowing in the twilight, Paula too, a soft refulgence oddly emanating from(?)—must be from 'around' her, like an aura or a halo, though her features shimmer through as might a lamp's in the form of a glass statuette, frosted flesh ignited by an eerie incandescence growing brighter; misconstrued, an apparition might describe the figure floating, almost, hovering, clothes translucent, sheer, transparent; Miss Glomotski rises—nude—immune to gravity, Alex muses idly, spellbound by a spectacle no less beautiful than the one his mind's eye claims he just beheld...unless the stroll that he has undertaken contradicts reality and the cactus cluster clinging to his pant leg is pretend—a prospect gaining credibility as phenomena grow implausible, Paula's seeming levitation seeding doubts in this regard, as she advances over terracotta tiles to flagstones onto earth, unfazed by obstacles in her path, ungoverned by normal ambulation, neither leg exerted to transport her ever closer, come to rest at last in a most peculiar setting lit obliquely by both risen moon and Paula's wondrous opalescence—shed by skin unclad and palpable in proximity to him whose trembling hand extends, takes hold of a proffered cup, raises it in a tacit toast to her who mirrors the gesture, then anoints his lips with a satisfying sip un-distracted by the taste...
though it be savory, rapt as Alex is by emotions irrepressible, awe and gratitude underscored by unrequited longing, galled by debilitations he would rather not admit but cannot help expose...as she is exposed, naked and unashamed, Eve before the apple wormed self-consciousness into Eden, Mother Nature resplendent in the innocent days of yore, Goddess of Gondwanaland well-disposed to revel in prehistoric grandeur; Paula looms surreal / table and chairs materialize / wooden surfaces gleam with reflected lunar light / starlight / ethereal light / as Alex takes a seat directly opposite his attendant, stunned by her effulgence like a deer by headlamps dazed, dumbstruck when her manifest pulse discloses, midst her cleavage, veins like tree roots fanned toward either lobe from a muscle-mass framed therein, contracting, frowning black and blue in its subcutaneous chamber, raw as viscera, rare as steak, its meaty multi-chambers pierced; a spike of century plant transfixes Paula's heart without it stopping, drawing beads of blood transmuted—as they steadily drip, drop, drip—to beads of milk, it would appear; turned white, the creamy liquid trickles down her midriff, toward her navel, bound for pubes undisclosed...except the table, like the bosom Alex eyes, is insubstantial, granting glimpses through its tawny grain of private parts beneath, a lap accumulating sap until its adumbrated labia swim in an appetizing pool of half-and-half—beguiling him whose motives rally to revive him, to renew inert obsessions, to rekindle dormant flames that once consumed his every act with abominations baneful; which is not to say they plagued his conscience...tirades launched by Alexandra, notwithstanding, she who took advantage of his physical incapacity and his fragile mental state; an opportunist in the most egregious sense, said alter ego reasserts herself like the third wheel she aspires to be and is, perchance to spoil or otherwise curdle Alexander's pipedream...figment...phantasm—apt description hard to hazard while the freak-show reconvenes, unfolds: the thighs he craves, for what their crook hath gathered, slowly parting, granting access to the portal through which life, for every mortal at its outset, must egress—enticing other sexual predators keen on following Paula's scent to sound off solely, then in unison, howls from coyotes sending chills down human spinal columns tense with expectation as the glistening muzzles lift, as nostrils flare en masse, inhaling balm perceived as primetime estrus, thereby signaling jaws to salivate, manes to bristle, loins to clench; a score of scrotums musters sperm enough to seal the pack's survival as the fittest specimens snarl at their inferiors, challenge peers, compete for mating rights with her on whom each ember-eye is focused, stares refracting Paula's luster in their glowering, canine leers, intent on mounting then defending her whose chair upends (dissolving), haunches taut upon assuming a receptive posture, spread, each buttock buoyant as the nurse, on all fours, lifts, presents her vulva to the alpha male approaching with his tongue out, prick outstretched, its scarlet tip and shaft extended like a water witcher's branch, erect and twitchy as it enters, spawns a pang as wild and brutish as the beast whose forepaws rake, tattoo the back of her who wriggles to engulf the obscene member as its semen squirts, injects a substance foreign to its hostess, act accomplished all-too brusquely for indulging carnal pleasure—though an aftershock of quivers wracks the groin awash with froth, as Paula topples in a swoon of orgiastic rapture so indecent it incites desires in creatures typically aloof from human vice: a flock of bats, diverting flight paths, veers to dive bomb limbs and torso of the prostrate figure wallowing in iniquity—fallen fruit. The food they feast upon, in frenzied landings made twixt limp appendages, is the very manna Alex covets, stoops to reach, collects, conducts a dollop to his coffee, stirs—elixir turned hallucinogen once he swallows, with a greedy gulp, impatient for effects, predicting further saturnalia from the symptoms of delirium he deduces is the wellspring of proclivities unsuppressed, and no doubt damning insofar as they must stem from his subconscious—on a rampage, evidently, to exult in abject smut...until arrested, apprehended by a meddling crow (or raven?) come to roost upon the re-hypostatized table, hackles raised, adjacent her whose heart still pounds while Alex watches disbelieving as the bird adjusts its jester's hat then displays an outsize schlong—no less outrageously erect than those of the prowling prairie wolves, no less bent on some unorthodox copulation with—Ms. Christ(?)—for it is clear the sacred organ lodged in Paula's comely ribcage beats prophetically, beats canonically, beats pontifically, eager, poised to disabuse the would-be suicide of iniquitous self-destruction lest his soul for once and forever plummet into Hades. Crow speaks next.

You miss the point—caw—mixing metaphors—caw—the sacred and profane are realms aloof from one another, save wherever they overlap. You choose offending over understanding, ranting over listening. You're a cynic, Alexander Obadiah Pierpont—caw—in lieu of a sage.

Shit; a talking sparrow!

With a boner this size? Hardly. I'm called "Crow" despite my surname—Raven—sobriquet Prankster Smartass—caw.

Pleased to meet you, Prankster. May I introduce our nurse?

The fem I'm summoned here to violate? Hm. What's with this crude fixation? Miss Glomotski—whom I've met already—does not share your letch. In truth, the fiction you have conjured up bears Paula scant resemblance—caw—except for features strictly anatomical. Mine you spoofed. This silly prick, for instance, suits me not and smacks of adolescence. Were you damaged psychologically in your youth?

An 'analyst' scavenger?

I resent that. We, of the genus "Corvus", fancy ourselves recyclers—caw—Confess. What put this kink in the Pierpont Family's psyche?

Paula, who regards Crow with a wary disaffection, seeks to hide her see-through bosom under crisscrossed hands and wrists. 'Modest' reads the resultant pose, her homely face transmogrified, reinstated to the grace from which bestiality made her fall—radiant like the crescent moon that lends its borrowed light to cast a shadow down the table; Crow's distorted legs and shoulders stretch like a lengthwise ink-spill, splayed, their aspect blacker than obsidian, spookier than a specter whence illumined by a mismatched pair of ultraviolet eyes, the left vindictive, the right accusatory, both intensely sinister as they fix a look on him whose wits are taxed to comprehend, interpret symbols he should know as author, augur abstruse imagery, trace its impetus deep in the catacombs home alone to him, to Alexander Pierpont—Alexandra Pierpont knocking on the door of his perceptions, misperceptions with respect to what he sees (or imagines?) next, for Crow, though masculine in accoutrements, lays an egg, from beneath rouge testes, that is speckled, colorless, huge, its disproportion much enhanced the while it slowly rolls toward Alex, gaining girth with each rotation, come to rest, at last, transformed, become as lucent as a crystal ball when pregnant with the future; egg and embryonic essence start to glimmer, pulsate, moil, reveal their secrets like a planet seen from afar in fleeting glimpses through an atmosphere disturbed by random winds and turbid clouds, the latter scrambled by the former, rending vents and vivid windows into continents dark as that on which the species Man evolved, exotic landscapes, seascapes, skyscapes set in motion—mad, perpetual—patterns plain to not one soul save his and hers who jointly spin, revolve in dervish states of dizzy speculation—hopes and fancies that decelerate, usher doubt and disillusionment: cheer / despair / anticipation / gloom-and-doom, the axis turns, the Age of Opposites haunts a lone celestial body in a vast indifferent space, hubris fashioning heroes of its captives cum inhabitants who inflate their insignificance into legends, fables, myths, who align themselves with gods created in their own vainglorious image, casting all else as subordinate, nay subservient, means to ends, those ends an arbitrary symbol of the crib to coffin cycle that could only be ignored by beings dubbed "Supreme."

Alex lifts his feet from the desert floor—first left, then right—adjusts his heels on the chair so they share, with his hips, the seat's now-crowded surface, wraps around his withered arms to hug thighs flush with chest, then bows his head to kneecaps, cradling boney brows, his silhouette conforming to an ovoid correspondent with the animated egg, its outline framing this fetal pose, once Alex, in suspension, rises / hovers / tilts, a tidal tug at bodily fluids coaxing safe-return to the universal tide-pool, molecules unique to him whirling round a vortex gaining influence, with momentum, to accomplish acquiescence and to subjugate mortal fear in the face of imminent anonymity—grown quite familiar; recognizing nothingness as the state from which he came, he recalls its fleshy threshold, welcoming, in truth, his destined conflux with inception as the shell reverses course, rolls with Alexander / Alexandra / Alexander redefined as One within, back between Crow's bandy legs, under, through, beyond them to the table's far-side edge...where Paula floats, palms upward, unsupported, buttocks airborne, roughly level with the egg—teetering until rescued from a fall by outstretched fingers that surround / enfold / caress, then, rearranging supple limbs to expedite induction, Paula spreads apart her pubes, squats, makes contact for insertion as her sphincter muscles flex, create a vacuum that ingurgitates, and, with a monumental slurp, swallows the ovum whole...sounds internal amplified: blood rush, gastric gurgles, and the drumbeat of a heart—still visible inside Paula's ribcage...into which Crow hops, a witting prisoner, shrunk to fit and flit like an isolated lovebird—caw—outcry heard as amniotic echo by the uterine inductee, gingerly transported from the site of his infusion to an undisclosed locale, arriving slightly agitated, footsteps sending shockwaves through his carrier's cushy pith—jostles well-absorbed en route by an insulated membrane like a pouch within a purse—finally come to rest in terms of outer motion ceasing though an inner motion stirs; womb walls squeeze / secrete / and squeeze...causing an ejection not at all to Pierpont's liking; he is "laid" as in extruded on the counterpane of his bed by her who straddles, shifts, then stands, no longer nude; something shining brilliantly, escaping Paula's bodice, hangs suspended in the lamplight, to and fro it freely swings as she administers to her muddleheaded charge: inspecting either pupil, taking his temperature, thumbing his wrist—vital signs, per usual, scarcely worth affirming so enfeebled Alex feels, so once-removed from corporeality; better total oblivion than this peek-a-boo self-awareness, better to make an end than mindlessly persevere; or are the states of being and its opposite merely flip-sides of some existential presto-chango coin?

You mean to tell me I've been dreaming? Who's been dreaming? I. The ovum? I. The fetus come full circle? I. The elder? I. The egg? The egg and I, discussing who came first, while mind renounces matter. Does it matter if an insight has its roots in realms unreal? It does if insight equals truth and what is true proves incontestable once examined in a context free of whimsy. Reasoned truth? Do you know any other viable kind? Things true repeat when rational, whereas dreams (if I've been having one), even dreams that might recur, are unreliable validations of actual phenomena. Hm. Says who? Says those deferring to intelligence as the arbiter of fact instead of those deducing fact by leaps of faith. Our nurse perforce? It is a crucifix 'we' see dangling twixt her titties; is it not? Like any talisman it purports to ward off evil, importune good, and thereby symbolizes Mankind's struggle to recognize which is which. Or witch from witch, the white, the black performing magic no more apt to reap results than prayers and penance. Chaos dictates what transpires by dint of lawless Chance, whereas the order we attribute to design our brains infer is inconsistent once projected past our consciousness. How astute! So dreams, indeed, can lead to drawn conclusions glittering with enlightenment. What a prophet, you are Alex, what a wizard, what a seer. And what a shame I'm unacquainted with the personage I'm addressing. You're not Alexandra Pierpont. No. Nor Ms. Glomotski's double? With her paradigm right beside us poised to minister, soothe, and serve? Then who? We're running out of characters in this soporific swansong. You're a voice I hear distinctly, if intangibly. What's its source?

As if to underscore that Alex talks to no one on the premises, he inspects them with his senses, shifts his focus, cocks an ear, sits up to free his head and torso from the pillows that support him to enable full reconnaissance of the spacious, dim-lit room, detecting:

silence—not a sound disrupts the odd, unearthly quiet that pervades his bedroom's furthest reaches, not a peep beyond, no dull-roar generator, motor, or machine, no humming air conditioner, nary a creak or ping or tick-tock-tick from an analog clock, no hint of wind outside nor air astir, save Pierpont's labored breathing which he halts to isolate Paula's(?)...too inaudible...held in check, for she stands...

motionless as her context, each unnaturally in suspension, curtains lifeless, dust inert...while Nurse Glomotski, scare-crow stiff, has failed to budge from her position by the pill-box studded nightstand where she pours a glass of water from a half-full Pyrex pitcher, neither vessel showing any loss or gain...arrested...fixed...the fluid frozen, inexplicably, half-way in between.

Okay; what gives? Are you some presto chango figment of my lame imagination or an "undigested bit of beef"? A ghost? A ghoul, perhaps? You're getting warmer. Not the Devil, I presume, nor Satan's go-fer? You profess no faith in God; it is unlikely that His nemesis would arrange a late-date call for our appointed tête-à-tête. Don't tell me; Death? Memento Mori? Thief-in-the-Night? Pale Horse? Grim Reaper? Alias Prankster Smartass, at your service. Wonderful. Swell. I'm dead and gone, is what you're saying; up Shit's Creek without a paddle? It's the River Styx, but never mind. You are at the point of crossing. Which suggests there is an 'other' side? You won't be making landfall. Ha; I knew it! Death spells E.N.D.; Fini, kaput, extinction. So why this chummy sendoff for a one-size-fits-all shroud? Because, dear Alexander Obadiah Pierpont, yours should be unique. How so? You've chosen, unlike untold others, to weave the cloth yourself. The vast majority of your fellow species seek not ends themselves, preferring me to pick the time and place and means for their disposal. Death, for them, becomes generic, whereas yours may prove irregular—provided you commit what you've been contemplating. Gee; I have an option, some alternative? None. In terms, that is, of dying. You, like every other living thing that was, that is, that will be, won't be. Death is non-negotiable. How you it happens has liquidity. Let's get to it. You're impatient? I thought Death was everlasting. With Eternity as your time frame, you can surely wait a sec? I don't mean 'stay' my execution; simply grant a tiny respite? As you say, it's up to me. To be proactive, not equivocal. There are countless folks who chicken out, try to leave me in the lurch. To no avail, I trust? Attempts to Cheat the Reaper are ill-advised. Who's talking "cheat"? I'm only asking for a moment to prepare, regroup my all-too-scattered thoughts. For you may likewise "rest assured" I do not lack determination or resolve. Nor tools, I take it, having made a whole career of merchandizing me. You're in my debt? If that's the case, and you would like to show your gratitude... Stow the stalling. You have seven seconds. What?! You heard me. Six...five...four...three... Wait! The gun's not loaded. How propitious. Would you prove that, please? No problem. As you know, I keep it... Do you? Do I what? Know where I keep it? You're procrastinating, Alex. Take the gun from beneath your mattress, put the barrel to your head, and pull the trigger, or I'll knock you off myself. Hey, ho! A threat? As if whatever you might have in mind could be worse than blown-out brains. Try me. Ever seen an exit wound from a 38 caliber pistol? Ever feel the headache it inflicts when it fails to kill?

Spurred by Prankster Smartass, sobriquet Raven, nom de plume Crow, alias Death Personified, Alex gropes for the firearm close-at-hand .

Point well taken.

Gun retrieved, he lifts its nickel-plated muzzle to his temple.

You're not going to let me botch this, are you? Squeeze. I am. I'm squeezing. See? The hammer's passing through the cocking phase to...

CLICK! Trembling irrespective his bravado, Alex exhales with a pent-up sigh that hints of his uncertainty.

Satisfied? Yes; you have cojones, but appear to be relieved, which bodes not well. If you were truly suicidal... I'd be disappointed? Right. I am! I'm inconsolable; can't you see? I could be D.O.A. by now instead of bantering with some phantom—Angel Azrael. No relation. Eh? Death is nondenominational, nihil ad rem. Mon Dieu; a scholar. Multilingual, are you? Load. Plus pertinacious. Put a bullet in the chamber, Alex. Steadfast to a fault. What is your rush? I proved my metal, squeezed a round off, dodged a bullet—or would have, had there been a slug in the goddamn gun to dodge. You can't blame me if I forgot to use live ammo; I'm half addled. To be honest I was unconvinced that the gun was there at all. However, you betrayed no doubt about its hiding place. Omniscient? As beguiling as I find this discourse, prudence counsels quit. You have overstayed your lifespan, not to mention my indulgence, your excuses lacking merit, your digressions disingenuous, your devices to distract me brazenly ignoble. Maybe if you'd condescend to reveal yourself... Stop quibbling. ...I could lay to rest my qualms before I lay to rest myself. You have misgivings, Alexandra? That's a low blow; she's no factor. Yet you've waited, put me off well past the stage when life's worthwhile. Because you fear for your immortal soul? Ridiculous. Do I have one? If it comforts you to think so, Alexandra. Okay, stop. I misremember where she stashed the bullets; care to give a clue? I'm losing patience. In the closet, maybe. Top shelf. At the back. Inside a chocolate box, I think it was. Heart-shaped. Yea big. Red. You're not expecting me to fetch it for you? Can't you lend a hand? Or are you strictly immaterial, just a disembodied coach? I'm not your coach. I'm not your friend. I'm not your priest. I'm not your helper. I am merely here to usher you from the living to the dead. Alright already. Don't get testy. Just an "Usher"? Such humility. I can manage, thank you very much, to get from here to there, if you can hold your horses long enough to oblige an old man's shuffle. It's the standing up that's difficult. Once I'm vertical...

Alex shifts, extends his legs beyond the counterpane, allows his feet to drop, plants them in a V-shape to support his wasted weight, inches—hips then heels then hips—sidling toward the headboard, then hoists himself like a flag, shinnying up the bedpost.

...locomotion is a snap. I simply launch myself and physics does the work. "An object in motion tends to stay in motion with the same speed and direction unless acted upon" saith Sir Isaac "by an unbalanced force." Might that be you?

After rummaging for a period disproportionate to the task (if  mindful surreptitiously of Death's exasperation), Alex finds the heart-shaped box, removes it from the shelf, and carries it to the chair adjacent Paula (by the nightstand), ogling her as he starts to sit—without the gun—recalls it, hastens to retrieve it from the middle of his rumpled bed, returns to the vacant seat and settles down to business, the weapon tucked between his legs, the (purported) shells atop it, attention once more straying to his strangely paralyzed nurse, water still immobile as she pours it from the pitcher, crucifix still suspended as her torso slightly tilts, poised-in-place posterior plumply protuberant, hovering on a level with Pierpont's roving eye—prurient thoughts arrested by the disembodied specter.

Curious, at so late a date, is your penchant for pornography. Though I have, on rare occasions, led an aged pervert hence. A few priapic individuals got erections, come to think of it; sex and death are often viewed as mutually erotic. Not that I approve or spurn; I pass no final judgments; how you lived the life I come to claim is neither here nor there. But there are times—this being one, perchance—when the soon-defunct delay, procure postponement (by my leave) of that which is Inevitable, allowing me to query my hapless quarry about attitudes toward demise. Come again? My public image, these days; who thinks what and why?

Alex, disconcerted by the voice's interrogative, fidgets with the metal lid that secures the heart-shaped box, shaking with an aftershock from his suicide's dress rehearsal, stricken by a momentary fit of retroactive panic—close, so close to nonexistence, teetering on its brink, rescued by a fluke of absentminded happenstance, poignantly recalling what he very nearly lost, conscious it can never to be regained.

Aye, there's the rub. I beg your pardon? Once you're gone, you're gone for perpetuity. Do the masses really think that? No. The masses spin and weave. They fashion fairytales to reconcile the truth with aspirations that project ideal postmortems based on faith in daft reprieves, belief in prayer, belief in sacrifice, belief in penance, grace, redemption, resurrection, reincarnation, karma, transubstantiation, the salvation of souls, the forgiveness of sins, and life everlasting, amen. Anything new? As in ostensibly less farfetched? Nothing showing promise of catching on soon. Mostly your effect is unanimously denied. Excluding present company? Not if you're including Ms. Glomotski, who will die and go to Heaven, according to pop verisimilitude. Well, half right. Thank you for the update. Mind if we proceed?

Alex lifts the box's lid; it resists with a sound like suction, as if it were reluctant to divulge its lethal cache of 38-caliber cartridges crammed in row-by-row...

identical remedies, take your pick, each spelling out "The End":

Would you object if I loaded only one of these fond-farewells? Is that a sportive proposition, Alex? A game of Russian roulette, perchance? To make my parting shot more interesting. Keep the ball rolling? To prolong our charming chat; yes. I have questions you could answer while my luck holds. Fire away. You mentioned 'nondenominational"... Tut, tut; load, spin, aim, fire first. You get a question answered every time your trigger finger flexes. I'm averse to doing interviews ordinarily. Fair enough.

Alex plucks from the box a single shell and loads his pistol, pointing the barrel up as he spins the cylinder clockwise; round it turns;

 round and round and round she goes,
where she stops,
nobody knows.

CLICK!
The hammer strikes at an empty chamber.

Momentarily stunned as when ones blood abandons brain (on standing up too fast after having too-long squatted) Alex loses consciousness...partially...blank for a full ten seconds...self-possession gradually, woozily regained.

"Nondenominational," you said. Meaning nonsectarian? I have no affiliations, religious or secular. Spin, aim, fire. Hey, don't short-change me! That reply cost you next to nothing; I paid dearly. If currency is at issue, yours and mine do not compare—for yours being temporal, mine being permanent, as in Now versus Everlasting.  Spin, aim, fire!

Cowed into compliance with the psychic order issued, Alex sets in motion the means for his self-extermination, listens to the well-oiled revolutions tick like tumblers in a combination lock he wants, of a sudden, not to crack, the rationale he used for dragging out his infirm dotage haunts him, resurrecting lame excuses for sustaining less and less, attrition warning him that parts were wearing out, life's pleasures dwindling, each diminished sense accepted as a casualty to be mourned but borne, regretted albeit tolerated, rued yet disregarded as sufficient grounds for putting his existence out of...

CLICK!

Reprieve...reprieve..."Believe in Me"...a phrase revives from Pierpont's psyche...wherein devils duel with angels...wherein reason yields to rhyme...the laws of logic laying low to welcome love, hope, faith, and charity on the cloak-tails of a Prophet who would hex the Reaper's scythe perchance to neutralize its damning souls to a nondescript oblivion and deliver them instead to the Throne of Almighty God, Him who holds His hand out to the sinful and the virtuous with a mind to grant salvation or condemn one's soul to Hell...

Are you aware of any afterlife, be it physical or metaphysical, that corroborates any forecast made by mortal Man thus far? And if I were, would you continue with our game of Ask & Shoot? That's not an answer. True enough. I caught you glancing at Glomotski, at her décolleté, I thought, until I saw the cross she wears. If you are holding out for last-ditch schemes that bypass termination, you, like untold human beings throughout the course of human history, are ripe for disappointment. Nothing? Nada. Spin, aim, fire.

Alexandra begs to differ, shrieking mutely, apoplectic at the gag rule put in force when dialectics won the day and made a farce of faith in anything unsupported by deduction (based on data one could test, repeat, cross reference, thus confirm), convinced that something in a system prone to scoff at all theology must be lacking, must be missing an intrinsic side of truth that is revealed instead of reasoned, more intuited than examined, truth that dawns on people dumb or smart, elite or common equally, universally. Not one culture, past or present, disavows its rites and rituals, disrespects its monks and martyrs, disregards its sacred texts. So who is Alexander Pierpont to ignore, insult, or gainsay genuine Spirituality?

Stop right there! Don't pull that trigger, Alex. Ask yourself why death denies our Maker, how creation and destruction co-exist without a Cause, and while you're at it check credentials; who's this self-appointed "usher" if not Satan come to trick us into ceding Hell our soul.

Would that be Alexandra, Alex, once more meddling, staying your finger, making you hesitate, possibly welch on our agreement? Tsk-a-tsk. She'd have you what; await some cause of death more aptly titled "natural"? Be my guest. There's no distinction. Dead is dead. A stiff's a stiff. But do get on with it, will you? That which I mistook for something novel is degenerating rapidly into standard-brand routine. I deal in corpses not in credos. I collect, as it were, cadavers. Yours is due, nay overdue, for dust-to-dust recycling.

BANG!

A dream? The glass of water Paula pours resumes its normal filling motion, almost spilling as her arm jerks in response to Pierpont's jolt. Awake—bolt upright in his bedclothes as opposed to bare-babe naked—Alex reels as from a slap, his head snapped sideways, neck oblique, a look of horror on his face until he recognizes Paula who is quick to reassure him, placing palms on either cheek, that he exists still, has not shot himself...or wandered from the premises(?)...or rendezvoused with Venus, Prankster Smartass, and the egg(?)...or relapsed into fetal form, been hatched, thenceforth delivered from a woman who had mated with a coyote(?). Too bizarre to be authentic, too perverse for make-believe, and yet the imagery and the discourse leave impressions so distinctive he relives them in his mind the way a film replays, post-credits once the audience has departed and the screen, gone blank, glows dimly as with faded recollections of the few who choose to stay, project their insights post absorbing vivid scenes and pithy dialog from his...what; hallucination(?)...make connections so the reel world with the real world is aligned. He owns a gun. He keeps it loaded. He insists on ready access. Hence the mattress hides his means for opting out of life, indeed. Would he employ it(?), is the upshot of this recapitulation, put conviction to the test, curtail his cowardice—aptly named for how else characterize reluctance to accept responsibility for determining termination knowing winter bodes no spring? Even Paula's newfound tenderness—has she overcome revulsion(?)—fills his heart with bitter longing for emotions lulled to sleep, sensations dulled by disability past the point of reinstatement, decimation of his will to persevere a steady gnaw, consuming optimism also—what remains of looking forward if the onslaught of senility turns ones subtext into scribbles that a child could not decipher(?); more depressing an adult should have to struggle for coherence and endure its fickle opposite, never certain which to countenance, which to bear with disesteem, the fact that some might be less fortunate more pathetic than consoling when reminded by the grizzly evidence haunting every mirror that age is acid, unrelenting and irreversible?

Mercy me.

The premonition whereby Paula feels 'invented' by her patient, an extension of 'his' consciousness not an independent self, disrupts her effort to retrieve him from the fog wherein he loiters, eyes like shutters blinking vagueness / blinking plaintive I-know-you that seeks salvation, she intuits, yearns to make a good confession, beg forgiveness, say Contrition to redeem his tacit sins, unless she gravely misinterprets the appeal his look evinces on emerging—Alex frames the hands that bracket jowls so lax they feel like putty to the palms caressed by palms that sandwich youth between unsightly spots and flesh worn thin as parchment, hers so supple, soft, and succulent, his so wrinkled, raw, and slack, the nurse allowing Pierpont's touch to strum her sentimental heartstrings, Alex reveling in the kindly contact fingers, thumbs bestow by simply cradling; being cradled Paula's knuckles bear the pressure that encloses them contritely, sweetly, shyly almost, male and yet so skeletal that their gender lacks definition, could be female when considering how the elderly seem to swap some traits once old; the men grow breasts, the women moustaches, manly muscles turn to blubber, feminine figures lose their shape, relinquish curves, accumulate folds, while other features share in time-lapse degradation, swelling, shrinking, into indiscriminate blobs or emaciated rails, Paula no doubt destined to achieve the former status, whereas Alex, skin and bones already, is glad to tip the scales at weight sufficient to withstand an exhaled zephyr; understandable, then, that one would be the comforter (though demurely), one the comforted (if pathetically), one expand her magnanimity to forebear a hug less chaste from him who bows his head toward Paula's bosom, wishes it were naked, presses firmly as one might to leave and imprint—bust inflating, to afford, as Alex leans, a bifurcated cushion for his homage, paid by burrowing nose and lips and chin in the humid cleft between and breathing deeply, lungs ingesting an aroma almost palpable, reminiscent of Elysium if ones infancy serves as fount, said state for Alex near idyllic with respect to delectation, every sense indulged by her for whom a need unmet is wrong, for whom ones hormones are disposed to render aid, relief, and succor, she who nurtures, cleanses, swaddles, cares for each unspoken urge as if the cord that once connected him to another plush maternity has been spliced to her whose nervous system links to his in sync, attuning pulse-beats, coinciding respiration, brain waves melding in an ebb and flow as primal as the moon's effect on sea, associations shifting now to then to now to then contiguous with the bosom hosting Pierpont's sobs, co-equal in importance to the ones at which he suckled as an infant, as a boy, and yet again as someone drawn to mother's milk beyond the norm through adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, well onto dotage, his fixation on lactation (why the tears?) without control, or rather steering his behavior (misbehavior?) goading choices that would nourish an attraction (an addiction) so perverse it made demands that he refuel it, feed it, feast upon accomplices (namely victims he exploited, cleverly duped, or richly bribed) consuming nipples and vaginas like a vampire sucking plasma, slaking thirsts considered loathsome (when combined with pedophilia) for emissions from which Alexander's id was never weaned, corrupting minors (big boohoos, contained by Paula's sternum, muffled), little virgins (others' daughters) left to blush shamefaced and bleed, polluting peasants with requests obscene or curiously macabre, converting pride, for those solicited, into wages of regret, albeit intermittently flexing unfeigned beneficence—for Evil wants for pathos in the absence of its foil, as Goodness, uncontested, smacks of the disingenuous...

Well, isn't this a toothsome tableau: nurse-muse-Mother-Nature giving suck to inner-child!

Crow, inside the bosom that envelops Alex snugly, eyes both subjects from his ribcage-perch where he swings on a bare-bone swing, its ropes of sinew fashioned cleverly—braided hair with strips of viscera—that extend from Paula's clavicle to the crossbar...to and fro...tail flared for balance, he propels himself invisibly...shifts of weight the means by which he maintains motion in the excavated thorax...dark...his fist-foot talons, clinging tightly under male and female sex parts, anchor features rendered farcical by the jester's cap he wears adorned with three round bells that jingle with each rhythmic back and forth...Paula, gone translucent where she squats, on Pierpont's mattress, hips astraddle his extended legs and emaciated shins, his brow still buoyed by breasts resplendent in their comfort-lending fullness...this triumvirate enigmatic from the standpoint of its roles:

the one who soothes
the one who sobs
the one who coolly reconnoiters

she who gives care
he who needs care
'it' who cares not in the least

Paula
Alex
Prankster

Glomotski
Pierpont
Smartass

Nurse
Alexandra
Crow

Paula, unrelated to her patient or his nemesis save for certainty she, like him, will age, will manifest doom like "it", resents the morbid shadow cast by her appointed situation, wasting youthful joie de vivre on a man so hopelessly past his prime she often wonders what sustains him, asks how she herself might cope when faced with injuries slow to heal, disease which offers no recovery, and debilities that outnumber those few functions left intact, the very enterprise of empathy seeming tedious, dour, depressing; Pierpont's psyche, like a turgid cesspool, guzzling while it drains, procuring company—hers—to which he cleaves as though she were a lifebuoy he would sooner sink than suffer turning loose to drown alone—perhaps the worst of his afflictions;

isolation, like an enemy that can stalk with skills uncanny, for it knows ones every move, harasses Alex night and day, she senses, hounds his halting footsteps, and indicts him for offenses she would rather not deduce, her being privy to enough of his depraved preoccupations to discern that his forlornness is a penance justly earned; no wife, no children, nary a phone call or an email or a visitor, not a colleague, peer, or business partner deigning to stop by, and it is months that she has labored at this waiting-game employment, feeling guilty when impatient for its end, knowing end means..."Die!" exclaims her counteractive conscience, she confesses, when the blame for staying on enjoys a shift from her to him, as if release from daily drudgery were contingent on its sponsor who is stubbornly, egocentrically bent on dragging out subsistence to the detriment of everyone he has hired, all paid top wages yet consensus is among a large platoon of specialized staff that Mister Pierpont is a first-class cramp in the ass, her sentiments, too, except unlike her grumbling cohorts who can make encounters snappy, she must undergo protracted, close-quarters contact, all the more unpleasant when he blubbers like he blubbers now, skinny shoulders quaking, backbone bent, its vertebrae jutting like a sprocket, bald pate flushed—from lack of air, no doubt, so smothered is his pinched face by her cleavage, into which he burrows deeper, her brassiere become a chinstrap under sandwiched jowls and cheeks, the fabric soaking up his slobber as it trickles down her midriff; she can feel it fill her navel, thickly, swamp it with saliva—which is flowing more profusely than his tears—which reach her briefs, for they are damp—from either him or her or both—a strange osmosis mating moisture he contributes to the extract she emits—part perspiration, part maternal excitation spurred by suckling insofar as

Alexander—discontent with civil solace—has maneuvered toothless gums to Paula's left mammilla, licked, and then engulfed the puffy nipple unresisted, uncontested, nay, permitted to unhook, unbutton clothing back to front, her breasts unfettered, hips dismounting, torso twisting in a manner that preserves his hungry antics, that condones  his mastication of a gland devoutly suckled like a baby playing tricks, his lips and tongue intent on stirring an indecent brand of pleasure overcoming the contempt in which its impulse may be held by her who cradles,

rock-a-bye-babies him, invites jejune regression to the treetops, pampers whims and windblown fancies of a bough's break, breath that balks, a heart that stalls, on falling, lullaby sung in the major key of C, no flats or sharps to spoil descent through time and space; a dulcet plummet is the one transporting Alex from senility to damnation—should a Judge, indeed, be waiting, should a jury hear his plea, for he is guilty albeit unconcerned with acts of rote contrition while en route from life to death when so rhapsodically disinclined to think of anything save for Paula's pending vaginal ebullition—poised to gush from stimulation centered solely on her teat and that which inexplicably seeps from its hypertrophic hub—manna of the gods or demons' dross or mother's milk, the liquor flooding Pierpont's grateful gullet rounds the age-old sphere, as head joins tail, completes the cycle known to every creature crawling, swimming, flying, reunites the egg and I; the I and egg are coalesced, made indivisible, interchangeable, end and origin, under Allah, God, Jehovah, Yahweh, Brahma, Buddha, Zeus..."with liberty and justice for all", Amen.

Crow spoofs the spoofed, his bird's-eye-view (a tad occluded by the pieta in progress) puts proceedings in proportion, poking fun at Man and Myth, aware that each defines the other from perspectives so exclusive as to qualify both as ludicrous, strange, preposterous to absurd...the random nature of his own snap judgments proof of the existential pudding, no more subject to Divine Design than eeny, meeny, miny, moe, a victim here, a victim there, a just dessert, a total travesty, his behavior misperceived unless described by Rules of Chance, which has no Rules, of course, conforms to neither creed nor code of conduct, independent of prediction, bound by no ones master plan—assorted theories to the contrary sources for Crow's amusement—caw—

he laughs, or rather chortles to himself; disguised as a raven, Death mouths mirth, but must express it through a crop in lieu of a proper larynx—caw—he flirts, considers killing Alex helter-skelter in the arms of his subordinate via stroke, cerebral hemorrhage; suffocation might suffice and make a sappy sort of sense to have the senior cease while suckling, so obsessive is his nursing, so engorged the bosom sapped, so thin the thread by which hangs Pierpont's life Crow's options are enumerable, not that causes less conventional must be ruled out, all apply regardless implications reasonable, supernatural, sane or crazy; when a human being expires it is survivors who decide how the inducement can be forced to fit even circumstantial facts, for mortal minds, confined to rigid grids of limited understanding seldom glean their insignificance in the greater scheme of life because that greater scheme, in truth, is superimposed, a mere projection, like a tartan swatch afloat on a fog-occluded sea...subjective...false...

CONTINUE

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