Issue #67

Summer 2018

Ash

by Michael Chester

As usual, I have strayed from the riders of the bicycle club and I'm somewhere in the city, where an old guy in a preacher's collar, a black suit, and a flat straw hat is hating a book. "I hate this book," he says.

"It should not be allowed to exist," says the old gal next to him on the bus bench.

I've stopped to rest. I have leaned my bike up against a wall while I take a drink of water.

"Perhaps I should destroy it," he says uncertainly.

"Yes," says the old gal. "You certainly should." She is wearing an Elizabeth II hat and a long dress with a flower pattern. If these people looked behind them, they would see me in my biking helmet and iridescent, skin-tight synthetics. But they don't look.

"I'm troubled," he says, "because it is written thou shalt not destroy the book."

"That's only written in this book." She points at the open page. "And this is the only copy in the whole world. If we destroy it, it will no longer be written thou shalt not destroy the book." She's passionate about this, her face furrowed, her nostrils flared, and she's trembling a little.

"True, true," he says, still a little reflective.

"Aren't you going to do anything?" she asks.

"Yes!" He speaks with sudden determination. He feels as if she's calling him a wimp. He takes the book (which definitely has a one-of-a-kind, home-made look) and tries to tear it in half. The book, thick and tough, on heavy laser printer paper, resists his initial action.

I realize suddenly that this is the most important book in the world. So I step over to the bench and say, "Stop! Don't destroy it."

They look at me like people discovering a Martian, and the man says, "It must be destroyed, sir." He wrenches at it again, this time partly tearing it.

I grab at the book and he frantically yanks it out of my reach.

"Oh, what shall we do, Henry?" cries the woman. "What shall we do?"

At this moment, a boy comes skating along the sidewalk, and the old guy thrusts the book at him, shouting, "Take it, sonny. Take it and throw it away. Don't let him get it."

Sonny, apparently not one to question anything, skates away at top speed, carrying the book.

I hop on my bike and start after him. He's already a block away.

"Don't let him catch you, sonny," yells the old guy. "He's a demon, not a man."

I catch up with the kid after another block and, coasting alongside of him, I gently say, "Give me the book, kid. It's an important book."

But Sonny is true to his mission, even though he hasn't a clue as to what his mission is, so he doesn't answer me. Instead, he skates into the library driveway, with me right on his tail. He goes past the outdoor wall-slot for returning books, drops the book in the slot, and skates away.

This isn't so bad. It hasn't been destroyed, and somehow I should be able to get it.

I chain my bike to a rack and go into the library.

I go up to the front desk, where a dark-haired woman in a green dress is standing. She's the librarian who checks out books—so, even though I'm not exactly trying to check out a book, this seems to be the place to start.

I say to her, "A manuscript was accidentally dropped in the outside return slot—a bound manuscript. Could you help me to get it back?"

She looks at me thoughtfully, and says, "How could a manuscript be accidentally dropped in the return slot?"

"Well, not exactly an accident. A kid dropped it in there. A prank. It's a very important book."

"Why is it so important?"

Just my luck to have to deal with this woman who wants to know reasons! Almost anyone else would say, "Sure, I'll get it for you," and go cheerfully and get it.

This is also difficult because I don't even know what's important about the book. But I can feel the passion within me, because I know that this book contains a truth, a world view, the ultimate word, The Secret—that there is no other book like this book. I know this without knowing how I know it. What can I tell the woman?

Having to improvise something, I say, "It contains a philosophy. Ideas that haven't been written down anywhere else."

I see her green eyes looking most directly at me as she says, "There are many philosophies in the world."

I can't believe this. No matter what I say, she parries me.

"The stuff that's in this book is important to me,” I tell her.

"Did you write it?"

"No."

"Who did?"

"What does it matter?" I say.

"I should think it would matter quite a bit."

From the corner of my eye, I detect motion. I look to my left.

A grizzled, bulky old guy in overalls is carrying the half torn book. He seems to be a janitor, a ring of many keys clipped to his pocket, and he has obviously taken the book from the return bin.

Turning away from the librarian, I follow him as he goes out through a glass door into an atrium.

I start to run because I see that there is a fire pit in the atrium, where leaves are burning. I know what is about to happen.

As I step into the atrium, he flings the book into the fire pit. I try to get past him, but he grapples with me.

He's a strong old bastard and, when I throw him against a wall, he comes right back, keys clanking, as he swings his big fists at me. I duck and ward off his punches.

For an instant, I glimpse struggling reflections in the glass door, blue overalls against iridescent biking outfit. Then a vortex of wind, a dust devil, sweeps into the atrium, swirling sparks and ashes all around.

I see a storage closet with its door ajar and an open padlock hanging there. I grab him and rush him into the closet full of tools and brooms and whatnot, slam the door shut, and lock it with the padlock.

I turn back toward the fire pit. The book is mostly gone now, but I see one intact clump of ashen pages that may still be legible enough for me to make out a sentence or two.

Behind me, I hear the janitor thumping inside the closet.

As I reach for the ashen pages, someone takes them. It's the librarian in the green dress. As I start to grab her wrist, she stuffs the ashes into her mouth.

In desperation, I press my mouth to hers, trying to get the ashes —maybe to get one burnt, wet fragment of a phrase.

I taste the ashes in her mouth, and I feel our bodies pressed together in the struggle, ashes in my mouth too. I feel a thrill of exaltation as we stand, pressing, moving in our deep and ashen kiss.

As the kiss ends, I look at her face. Her lips are still parted and I see the soot and char all around her mouth and nose and cheeks, knowing that I look the same—and, in my mouth, the taste of the truth, the world secret, the ash, the word.

Author Bio

gears


Michael Chester's story, "The Episodes of Noon," appeared in Issue #11 of The Cafe Irreal.