There I was, literally ready to pack it all in, folding my nondescript shirts and slacks into the colorless case I’d carried when I breezed into town, and ready to catch the train back to nowhere again when the door of the hotel room slid open and one of the bellboys stuck his chin in.
I was in my underwear, which wasn’t as clean as I would have liked.
“Yep, it’s him alright.”
In walked the hotel manager. He had a pencil-thin mustache and shot me a penetrating smirk:
“It’s really you, isn’t it? Mathers Little, the least necessary person alive. No, dead or alive, I probably ought to say, as there are bound to be billions upon billions of old cadavers infinitely more useful than you, Mr. Little, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“No,” I lied. “I’m not me. Leave me alone, won’t you?”
“But you are, Mr. Little, and don’t try to lie, it’s no use trying to cover it up. I can smell it all over you, your mediocrity, billowing out of your pores like fug from a sewer. We’ve been getting complaints throughout your stay, actually, from the other rooms about the stench of mediocrity permeating the hall outside your door.”
“Well, as you can see for yourself, I was just packing my things, so I don’t see that–“
“We can’t afford to have good people seeing you stumble out by the front entrance.”
“It’s the middle of the night.”
“Still, I’m afraid you’ll have to leave by emergency exit.”
“But this is cruel,” I said, pulling up my trousers. “What’s the meaning of this? Why is everybody being so awfully –”
“The people are cracking down on refuse like you.”
“Refuse? I beg your pardon, sir, but I don’t believe that’s a very nice thing to call someone you hardly know.”
“We know enough and we’ve bitten our tongue as it is. Now close that superfluous mouth of yours and come along without any trouble.”
I complied and, I ask you, what else was there for me to do? Two apes escorted me out of the hotel and pointed me in the direction of the nearest storm drain.
I considered. Would I fit? Everybody seemed to think I was negligible enough. I needed to find a restroom and, deciding that was where I would sort the matter out, I crossed the street and went into an all-night noodle diner.
The middle stall of three was unoccupied. I locked myself in. Rather than reflecting on my situation, however, I found myself engrossed in the number of obscene ditties and doodles decorating the walls and, feeling inspired, got out my pen and started drawing a few of my own.
I was enjoying myself and had lost track of the time when I heard coughing on my right and a tiny troll stuck its gnarled head in under the partition, its thick lips dark and glistening:
“How long are you going to be in there, eh? I mean, I know this isn’t the Ritz, but the stench is really getting to me. I’m trying to eat in here.”
“But I haven’t done anything, honestly.”
“Then make yourself useful or get out, eh? Am I on the money, Gretchen, or am I on the money?”
Now another troll, even uglier than the first, popped its mangy head in under the left partition and retched haltingly on the tiles, getting a word out here and there between violent spasms of physical revulsion that spattered my shoes:
“Can’t — stand — awful — tell-tale — reek of — rank — mediocrity! Blaahhh!”
“Come on, honey, let’s get out of here,” the first troll said, and with that the vile things scampered away.
The strangeness of it all hadn’t even begun to register when a knock sounded on the metal door.
“Mr. Little, we’re going to need you to step out of the stall.”
“You’re availing yourself of a toilet seat reserved for real people’s evacuations. Come on, get out, we need the space.”
“But I haven’t quite finished, you see, and –”
“Your time is up.”
Compelled to surrender myself, I opened the door and was promptly seized by a man in a biohazard suit, who, having handcuffed me to the rusty pipe under one of the sinks, inspected the stall for evidence.
“Did you draw this?” he asked, pointing.
“Why, yes, actually, I did,” I smiled fondly. “Tell me, do you like it?”
“Well, I’m sorry, but there were already so many obscene scrawlings and drawings in here that I didn’t see the harm in –“
Others entered, closed in formation, and leveled their weapons at me.
“Your crime, as far as we’re concerned, isn’t simply that you’ve defaced the property; it’s that you haven’t defaced it properly.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We don’t like what you’ve drawn.”
“What’s it supposed to be, exactly?”
“Can’t you tell? There are the legs and tail, down there, and here’s a hula girl with a bazooka and –“
“Not only does it contribute nothing to the decor; it utterly wrecks the tastefully balanced dive ambiance of the facilities.”
“I thought it was rather a nice drawing. Anyway, it’s got redeeming qualities.”
“No, it doesn’t. In fact, it’s the most hopelessly uncalled-for toilet graffito in human history, irredeemably horrible, an abomination unto the good and worthy, and all the more reason for us to take you into custody for the protection of the public. Furthermore, you should and will be punished.”
They wasted no time in effecting this. I was bound into a straitjacket, escorted from the premises, thrown into the back of an unmarked van, and driven to an old, dried-up well in an open field. They lowered me into the well by pulley and yanked the basket back up after I’d been deposited at the bottom.
“Escape is futile and dreams of escape will only make you more miserable. You will be guarded twenty-four hours a day for the remainder of your ignominious existence. You are advised to devote each of your waking hours to sober contemplation of your worthlessness; and, furthermore, to dream about your worthlessness while you sleep.”
I heard the auto’s engine start, listened to the ugly sound of the thing receding into the distance, and felt that my last hope was hauled off with it. I felt things crawling over me.
It was very dark at first, with only a gray disk of twilight above me and, as night came on, not even that. Eventually my eyes adjusted to the gloom and I saw the grimy walls of the well. Occasionally a worm or a roach would poke its head through a small chink and regard me a moment.
“Very well,” I called out, beating my chest with my elbows as best I could in the straitjacket, “go on, eat me. I’ll make a splendid buffet!”
Each time, however, the bug showed no interest, and either walked across me with indifference or disappeared back inside its hole.
It was then that the gravity of my situation struck me. Worms wouldn’t even be bothered with me. I probably won’t even have the privilege of decomposing, I despaired, because the bacteria, taking their cue from the worms, will think me in poor taste!
Late that first night, the sentry yelled down:
“Are you feeling your punishment yet, Mr. Little?”
“No!” I cried defiantly, lies being something they could never take from me.
“Your dungeon is the people’s will,” he replied. “You should consider yourself privileged to have been given any notice at all, let alone the generous punitive attentions of your betters.”
In the morning a morsel of pabulum wrapped in butcher’s paper was tossed down the well for me to eat. I was fed again at noon and night, and this was how I lived each day — alone but for the food and the faceless fool who would crow always at dusk:
“Are you feeling your punishment yet, Mr. Little?”
“No!” I would shout back, each time he asked; and always, too, “Your dungeon is the people’s will,” he would reply.
Determined to maintain the core integrity of my sanity and my individuality, I made a point of reciting my name to myself seven-hundred and seventy-seven times in a row at regular intervals and kept my mind active and exercised with a set of eleven daydreams I dreamed in rotation.
I was still straitjacketed and had to perform the necessary chores of grooming and feeding myself and tidying the little dungeon using only my tongue and teeth, which soon became rotten and crumbled out.
My body wasted away over the months so that the straitjacket loosened over my limbs. It occurred to me that the straitjacket was like a cocoon from which I might emerge unrecognizable to myself. What then would I become?
Years passed, and I was naked.
Then decades passed.
Once my teeth had rotted out, I wasn’t able to trim my grimy nails anymore and my fingers and toes grew into long, grotesque, curling claws. My beard and my hair, which came to serve as my canopied couch, were a tangle of filth and bugs and the wrappers my captors continued to toss to me three times a day.
The bugs would never bite me — all they wanted to do was eat the grease from the butcher’s paper and copulate in my beard — and it never ceased to infuriate me, let me tell you! Legless things and roaches and microscopic life couldn’t be bothered even to lick me. It was an insult, and I told them so, lecturing them extensively on the subject of pride in palatability, the time-honored traditional right to interspecies ingestion, and the enormity of the little ones’ crimes against me.
Sadistically heroic fantasies preoccupied me, but it wasn’t the insignificant insects who figured into my plans of wrath. It was you! And you! All of you who had shunted me out of the world and shut me down. I would make you pay and pay and pay and pay me to let you pay!
As my hatred bloomed like a yeasty bread in the oven of my dungeon, I felt myself rising ever so gradually, lifting toward the sun as the masses of hair and the compost beneath me grew with every passing day. I got halfway up the well one day and I knew that the time for my revenge was close at hand.
I could see the sentry’s back as he sat, as always, on the rim, his rifle over his shoulder and still as a statue. Even after all these long years he still called down after he’d tossed me my pap:
“Are you feeling your punishment yet, Mr. Little?”
“No, sir! No, I’m not!”
My claws, meanwhile, had grown like stubborn, thorny weeds and allowed me to make experimental attempts at scaling the walls. My arms were weak and atrophied from such long inactivity, but with a new drive born from my cruel purpose, I was able to ratchet them back into good working order in relatively little time.
Utilizing geometrical formulae and calculus algorithms, I constructed a complex catapult mechanism using my hair and braided wrappers. My plans were mathematically bulletproof: I had to wait for precisely the one astronomic configuration when atmospheric conditions within the well were ideally suited to vaulting myself up into the outer world and then, when the time was ripe, I sprang!
Bobbing up over the sentry’s head and landing nearby in the grass, I couldn’t have been more flabbergasted. Perched beside the well was a simple scarecrow, and nearby was a clockwork spring mechanism for delivering the food that had barely sustained me all these years; stuffed into the scarecrow’s empty torso was a reel-to-reel machine with a spool of tape.
So I’d been a dupe.
The scarecrow’s rifle, warped and cracked and moldy, almost came apart in my arms, but the bayonet, at least, was still intact. There I was, up in the real world again, with the sun beating down and a chance at death quivering in my hands and an unknowable quantity of pent-up spite and frustration boiling in my heart.
I had to ask myself some evil questions. Where did I want to go? What would I do with myself once I got there? What, after all, was that glorious feat I had steeled myself to accomplish? I stood and wondered: was I really furious anymore, now that I had finally managed to scramble up out of the hated hole, or was I rather terribly frightened?
I revolted myself!
Confronted with the scarecrow of my ignominy, wasn’t I witnessing now for myself the truth of the accusations? Yes! I was a worm, I knew that then, and I belonged at the bottom of a hole in the earth, where no one, not until you two gentlemen happened to happen by this afternoon, would waste a blink of eyesight on me again. And so I threw my weapon away and hoisted myself down here in the bucket, yanking my masses of hair in after me, content to spend the rest of my days musing on the superfluity of my existence.
But wait, friends! Where are you going? I haven’t even told you the ultimate fruit of my long philosophical labors! I have so much to give you, and so many—Hey!