VI — I stab the cherry tomato
I stab the cherry tomato with my fork; trying hard not let it shoot off the plate or squirt seeds at me. Each of the three tomatoes I’ve eaten so far taste of the smell of a moldy fridge. I worry I’m being poisoned. Numerous times in history whole, populations have been laid-low by a witches curse or evil spirits. Only later the spirits turn out to be some crazy fungus that makes your ears go black and fall off and your skin burn to the point of madness; the point at which you scrape it all off with a sharp stone. Imagine what that looks like! Imagine seeing your own family do that. I don’t imagine what peeled-people look like.
What’s the worst thing you can think of? Being peeled is on a few peoples lists. Imagine being peeled in your own bed in the middle of the night. You’re fast asleep. Off in some dream; already awake in the morning and having breakfast. Somebody hits you on the head with the ashtray off the window sill. When you come-to, your partner’s already dead beside you and the ceiling-light illuminates your face center stage. Your eyes sting and your face feels wet. The beauty of the night. Most of you are asleep, but the rest of us hang around outside your back door; slowly turning the handle to see if it gives. Trying the window so quietly. Moving around the house, patiently looking for the entrance. Methodically. Silently. Systematically. You haven’t the faintest idea we’re out here. You sit watching TV. Not really in any kind of feeling-state; just ticking over on reduced power. But on the other side of that wall we’re running across the wide field that runs away from your rear window. Getting closer and closer and bigger and bigger and then bursting through the wall with our teeth to rip out your throat. One day you will be awoken in the night by some strange sound, but by the time you get your act together the skin’s already peeling away.
The cherry tomato poses a challenge: do I ignore the taste and go for the goodness or do I get black ears and toes? I’ve eaten three and this is the forth. I like tomatoes. Eating tomato is a good thing to do. I look at the forth tomato impaled on the fork. I eat it, but that’s the last one. I finish the rest of the meal; tuna, salad greens, piece of cheese but two more cherry tomatoes remain. I position them on the plate like two bloody eyeballs and lay the fork between them. What’s everyone else up to? What’s that guy in the wheelchair doing? Last time I saw him wheeling along in his power-lifter gloves he had a black bag on his lap. A briefcase. No; a case like a doctor’s bag, but not a doctor’s bag. Smaller; a trendy brief case. What was in the case and what’s it doing right now? The red wheelchair passed me by with a whoosh. Guy glared up at me as he passed and I was the one who had to get out of his way. I remember stepping to one side in plenty of time; I watched him come along the path like a he was on a mission. Perhaps he was. A secret agent deep under cover; chopped off his legs for authenticity. The bag was part of it. But what if his mission just stopped as soon as I turned my back? What if he just stopped existing? Became part of the white nothingness just beyond the range of my senses. Where are the people? Are they white-nothing or do they sit in their homes waiting to sense me; to come to life?
I can hear men calling out somewhere. Can’t tell if they’re fighting or kidding each other. Could go either way. The guy in the wheelchair wheels round to turn the TV on. Black-bag sits by the TV. One eye on the bag, one on the TV. The shouting has shifted down the street some distance. Bottles smashing on the road. I can’t see what’s going on. I’m sat on my own in this restaurant booth. Sat on a c-shaped blue velour bench seat around a round table. I can see straight into the booth opposite but all round the periphery is the whiteness. And yet those voices and bottles? Sat in the booth opposite is just one man. He’s eating tuna salad. I put my hand down under the table and touch the black bag. The man in the booth opposite has a black-bag under his table. He looks up at me, and then touches his black-bag. Okay. I know. We need the wheelchair guy. We need his black bag. We sit patiently. He finishes his salad. Reaches into the breast pocket of his jacket and pulls out a photo. Every now and then he looks up from the photo to stare off into the distance. It’s a hot day. The guy slips off his jacket and lays it beside him. He loosens the black and white diagonal stripe tie and jerks his next once to each side. I saw a guy in a movie do that once. Waitress. Waitress, he calls. There’s the merest hint of irritation in his voice. The waitress comes over and stands with her back to me. I can see stretch marks on her fat back as the white blouse strains upwards. He says something to her I can’t hear or see and she nods; goes off to the kitchen. He’ll be here in a while, he calls across to me and I nod without saying anything. Then he asks me where we’re gonna put the three bags together, and I tell him right here. He doesn’t question this at all or show any sign of disagreement. So I take it that here is ok. He glances up as the waitress comes back from the kitchen with a pot of coffee in her hand and a couple of ring donuts.
She fills up his cup with black coffee, puts the pot on the table and a ring donut on a napkin. Then she picks up the pot and comes over to me and smiles; fills my cup and puts the other ring donut on my table on a napkin. I put sugar in my coffee. Only my ring donut is pink iced and his is white iced. Thank you. We eat the donuts and drink the coffee. The man’s looking across at me, having put down his cup and wiped his mouth with a paper napkin. He didn’t mean what he said, he says. The guy in the wheelchair. He didn’t mean it, he says to me, and then waits for a reply. Oh. He just gets cheese on his screen every now and then. Makes him angry and he goes spinning off in that chair, tries to run people down. Well. I think he should be more considerate. Needs to look at it from the other persons viewpoint; somebody’s gonna let his tires down. He grins at me. Now come on! You know that’s impossible. There is only his viewpoint. No, I don’t see it that way. When we put the bags together you’ll see then! The guy snorts down his nose; flares his nostrils at me. His eyes flash amber for a second, indicating what’s inside him, but he says nothing more. Amber eyes for the Here, red eyes for the Animals, and white eyes for the Gone. The white-eyed people gather unnoticed, until massive and critical and become a shadow dense. My eyes are not white. I call out to the man: my eyes are not white! I think he understands. The disinterested stony un-emotion of his face verifies my thought.
Okay. Here’s the man in the wheelchair. He’s wheeling up the sidewalk across the way. He’s whipping across the street. He butts the door and stops inside. The bag on his lap. This table down here, he calls to us, and nods to a booth equidistant between the three of us. Whoever puts his bag down last gets to take all three away and lay them side by side and open them up. We all start for the booth at the same time. The wheelchair guy was always first. The guy opposite me is up all fair and square and so am I. None of us linger; fate has to play its hand. We already know who takes the black bags so there’s no point in pre-empting it. It’s a beautiful morning. Getting hot and very blue. The city’s wide awake to the smells and sounds of the day. The people going about the town like they have a purpose. We three came here like some natural catastrophe. But the people are lucky ‘cos we’re holding it back for now. But when the black bags go down and the wheels set in motion, things change. The three lack bags lay on the table side by side by side. A telephone rings in the back of the restaurant.