Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Stalker's Punishment

The next day, after The Drunkard called me into the courtyard at nine in the morning and told me the story, he called The Stalker outside for his punishment. I was hung over from drinking a bottle and a half of red wine during my Risk game, but still, one has duties as a friend. “What did you decide on?” I asked.
The Drunkard took a sip of coffee from his travel mug. “There’s an animal shelter in town. Chretien and I decided that the best way for him to make amends for his actions would be for The Stalker to volunteer at the shelter for the week.”
I nodded. It seemed like a just plan. Though the animals in the shelter probably weren’t rabbits, they were still animals that needed a break and a helping hand—definitely more than the rabbits on campus, at any rate. So, in a way, by helping the injured and abandoned animals, The Stalker might be seen as coming out on top. “Why am I around?”
“You’re here in case The Stalker decides that maybe he doesn’t want to come along and help the abandoned kitties and puppies of Canterbury. Congrats, Narrator,” he said, “you’re the muscle in this operation.”
The idea of me being the muscle in any sort of operation scared the hell out of me, for it implied that there was literally no one else insane enough to go along.
“Don’t worry, though,” continued The Drunkard, stretching after another sip. “I don’t think Stalker’ll do anything to make it harder on himself. After all, the bastard came one step away from being decapitated by a Frenchman last night, and that’s enough to shake even the hardest of hardasses among us.”
“Speaking of the guillotine,” I said, sitting down on one of the benches, “what happened to it?”
“After I made sure that The Stalker got back up to his room without being hurt, I convinced Matthieu to dismantle it out into the woods out back.” The Drunkard shook his head. “I can’t believe the crazy bastard had a fucking guillotine in his room. The space it must have taken up alone is enough to make you think that the guy’s certifiable.”
“You think that’s bad?” I asked. “You should see the iron maiden I keep in my closet. I barely have space to put in any of my clothes.”
“I know you’re joking,” said The Drunkard, “but after seeing all that went down last night, I honestly wouldn’t put it past anyone to have a torture device in their rooms.”
The Stalker stepped through the frame of what was previously a door. Like every other time I’d seen him, he wore his black hoodie, black jeans, and black contacts. What with my white Dickens College hoodie (which had a picture of the author on the back) and The Drunkard’s brown leather jacket and fedora (it actually looked pretty good on him), we made quite the trio. “Hello, Narrator,” said The Stalker, “I wasn’t aware that you were going to be joining us on this day of repentance.”
“Week of repentance,” corrected The Drunkard.
“Whatever,” The Stalker said, not moving his eyes off of me. I wondered what the man did to make it through British Customs a few weeks ago. “Either way, the more’s the merrier. As they say.”
The man’s monotone voice was starting to grate on my nerves. Just for a moment, I wished that I had been there when he faced Madame Guillotine, so that I could have seen that The Stalker was capable of instilling some emotion other than terror. (I still wasn’t convinced that everything had happened like The Drunkard told me it did, and it wouldn’t be until he took me into the woods and showed me the giant steel blade that was the heart of the guillotine that I believed him. Even then, though, I doubted that Julie had behaved like a leading lady in an Indiana Jones movie.)
“Wrong again,” said The Drunkard. “You’re the only one who’s going to be doing any of the volunteering. We’re just along to make sure that you go to the shelter and start on your work.”
“I see. And where will you be while I am in thrall to the RSPCA?”
“Don’t know. Reckon we can grab a drink or something for a couple of hours.”
I checked my watch. “It’s half-past nine.”
The Drunkard shrugged. “Fine, coffee then. I don’t understand this aversion to drinking before noon that you guys have. You haven’t experienced the day until you’ve had a Guinness to start off the morning. Now,” he said to The Stalker, “here’s how this is going to work: You’re going to walk in front of us and we will be on either side of you. We will walk—”
“You’re treating me like a prisoner,” said The Stalker. It was true. I thought that The Drunkard’s method of getting The Stalker to the shelter was a bit unorthodox.
“No,” said The Drunkard. “I just don’t trust you standing behind me, and I’d rather have someone else here in case you mistake me for a rabbit and try to take a knife to me.”
The Stalker responded in his usual way: he stared at The Drunkard for a few seconds—eyes blank, like a shark’s—and then went on his way. We followed and, thankfully, made it down the University Foot Path without incident.

The shelter was a large building—for England; in the States, it would have been on par with a stand-alone McDonald’s—with a small reception lobby in the front. The lobby was clean with tile floors, potted plants, and posters of sad looking animals on them, with text asking people to donate to the RSPCA. I started feeling sad that I didn’t have my dog around—a big golden retriever named Mr. Floppy—so I put a ten pound note in one of the donation jars. From the back of the building, we could hear dogs barking, cats meowing, and some birds chirping. It sounded like any vet’s office I’d been in.
The Drunkard walked up to the desk and rang the silver bell. A middle-aged woman in white scrubs on which cartoon dog bones had been stitched opened a door behind the reception area. “Help you?” she asked, sitting down at the chair.
“Yes, ma’am,” said The Drunkard. “My friend here,” he said, indicating The Stalker, who was glowering from a corner, “wants to help you guys out for a week. See, he’s really missing his dog back home—Snuffles, he calls her—and this is about the best way he can get to feeling like she’s right here with him.”
The woman smiled. “Well isn’t that just sweet?” She stood up and waved The Stalker over. “Come on, love. I’m sure we can find something for you to do.”
“Fantastic,” said The Drunkard. “The only thing is, he’s got some things planned during the afternoons, so he’ll only be able to help out for a few hours a day. We’ll be back to collect him around half past noon.”
The woman said that was just fine, they could use whatever help they could get, and she’d see us in a couple of hours.

We went to the French café on the High Street to pass the time. It was getting to be that the mornings were, as a rule, cool and crisp. I preferred to think of the temperature as needlessly cold at a needless hour, but The Drunkard insisted that it was merely crisp. I bought an espresso, thinking that the heat of the beverage on top of the energy it produced would help keep my mind off the weather, at least until I got used to it. The Drunkard ordered a large glass of red wine.
I checked my watch, saw that it was twenty past ten, and said, “You sure about that?”
The Drunkard looked at me, arched an eyebrow, and took a sip from his wine.
“You know,” I said, “I’m just saying that cause it’s half past ten in the morning and, generally speaking, drinking before noon is a sign of some problems.”
The Drunkard took another sip from his wine.
“I’m not trying to say that you have problems, you know. I’m just saying that, you know, the passerby might look at you and think, ‘Wow, that guy there, he’s got some weird stuff going on with him. Why else would he be drinking wine at half past ten in the morning?’”
The Drunkard looked at my steaming espresso and took another sip of his wine.
“Course, what do passersby know? There’s a reas—”
“Shut up.”
I nodded.
“Thanks for the concern, Pops,” he continued, “but I’m fine. It’s even recommended that you drink a glass of red wine a day. I’m just getting a head start. Besides—” A woman about our age walked by our table wearing tight jeans, long black boots, a black t-shirt, and a leather jacket. The Drunkard watched her until she turned into an alley. “Besides, if you’re worried about someone going past their limit, you should be worried about The Student. No way that guy’s been drinking enough to handle the sorts of volume I’ve seen him put away over the past couple of days.”
“Nah,” I said. “I wouldn’t worry about him.”
“And why not?”
“He’s the sort of person who drinks like that because he thinks it’ll stop him from thinking about something. Now, there are two reasons why he’ll stop drinking so much: The first, because he finds out that alcohol forces him to concentrate on whatever he’s thinking about—just happens like that, doesn’t it? The second, because he’ll wake up with such a disgusting hangover that, when he looks into the toilet and sees bits of matter colored in ways he wouldn’t have thought possible, he’ll stop drinking to such excess.”
The Drunkard nodded. “Yeah, he does strike me as that type.”
“And you? Why do you drink like you do?”
The Drunkard grunted. He took a chair from the table next to us, brought it over, and propped his legs up on it. “Would ‘it’s something to do’ be too trite an answer for you?”
“Worse, it’d be a nonanswer.”
“True.” He took a drink from the glass. “I’ll think about it, get you an answer in a way that tries to make some sense in terms of logic and coherence. How’s that sound?”
“Works for me.”
We sat and people watched for a while longer. The Drunkard finished off two glasses of wine while I put an Americano on top of the espresso and thus ensured that I would be extremely alert for about two hours before dropping nearly dead in the middle of my seminar at one. After, we collected The Stalker and went our separate ways.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Drunkard and the French, Part Two

The Drunkard’s night, though, ended up being much more interesting than mine. I should note that, due to my impromptu game of Risk, the following narrative is based solely on his telling of events. As such, what happens may be skewed towards the more unhinged by his outlook on life, as well as the copious amounts of wine consumed at the bar.
When he and the French returned to the flat, they noticed an odd smell pervading the air, as if they had left a few pounds of raw meat in the open. They checked the corridor, noticed nothing, and opened the door into the kitchen. There, hanging from a hook that had been hammered into the ceiling, was a skinned rabbit with a note stapled onto its chest. The note read, in shaky block letters: Never Criticize My Work Again.
The Drunkard, being a man of well above-average intellect, even while drunk, immediately knew who committed this act of vengeance. While Julie and another one of the French fled the room with hands to their mouths and a green tint over their faces, The Drunkard, Matthieu, and Chretien (the Existentialist who originally told The Drunkard that he could have the world, for it was shit) unhooked the rabbit and put it in the trash. Chretien tied the bag and took it to the woods behind the college. The Drunkard sat on the kitchen couch and poured a glass of whiskey. (Most of the following conversation was in French. The Drunkard translated it for my benefit.)
“Who would do such a thing?” asked Matthieu. As it turned out, the Existentialists were all pacifists, having come to the conclusion that, unless someone directly attacked them, it would be worthless to hurt another being—for doing so would unnecessarily prolong and increase suffering on the planet.
The Drunkard sat Indian style on the couch and took a drink. “A man of extremely loose morals, who has no compunction about crossing societal taboos if someone or something crosses him. A man who, put blatantly, may be the most pants-shitting terrifying man in this University.”
Matthieu stood next to the window and stared out at the night. Wind blew the trees at a nearly horizontal angle. “He killed a rabbit.”
Oui, Matthieu. He killed a rabbit,” said The Drunkard.
Matthieu paced over towards the wall. He shook his head. “He killed a rabbit!” he shouted, punching the wall and leaving a dent. “Un innocent! Un petit lapin!
The other Existentialists rushed into the kitchen upon hearing the raised voice and exclamation. “What is it, Matthieu?” asked Julie.
Matthieu spun on his heels and addressed Julie and the others (Chretien had returned by now). “My friends,” he said, taking on the air of someone addressing not soldiers in an army, not underlings, but fellow citizens in a People’s Army. “My friends, we are faced with an evil so decadent, so base, that it would lash out against an incontrovertible symbol of good in this world. It would lash out and kill a rabbit, that—”
“Ah,” said Philippe, the other Existentialist. “But, to the farmer, is the rabbit not evil for uprooting crops, for eating the foundation of his livelihood?”
“Now is not the time for philosophical debate,” said Matthieu. “We are not farmers, we are students. We are the intellectual class. For us, a rabbit, though a rodent, is a symbol of quick wits, the necessary reaction against that which would destroy it. The rabbit does not use force against a threat, it uses its wits to escape danger,” he began pacing, taking on the air of an ancient Roman orator, gesturing with his outstretched index finger and with waves of his hands. “It is that which we aspire to be. It takes what it needs to live, and depends on its reflexes to survive.
“This beast, the rabbit-murderer, has decided that, instead of attacking that which he is afraid of—or hates—he should attack a thing of beauty. A process of evolution so progressed that, even with the world’s most destructive hunter—”
“The fox?” asked Philippe.
Mattieu took a wine glass from the countertop and hurled it at Philippe, who dodged. The glass shattered on the wall behind him. “No, you fool! Man! Man is the world’s most destructive hunter.”
“Ah. Oui. D’accord.
“Even with the world’s most destructive hunter, the rabbit has managed to survive. And this wretch has killed an innocent member of the species. American Drunkard,” he said, turning towards The Drunkard.
“Ayup,” said The Drunkard.
“You know who this person is?”
“Ayup. Goes by the name of The Stalker. Lives in E Block.”
Magnifique! Then you shall bear witness to what the French can do when roused. Chretien, bring the guillotine. We shall end this man tonight. Go, Drunkard, wait outside and we shall join you momentarily. Think about which room he is in and then you can lead us.”
The Drunkard, even when he stood outside, huddled in his pea coat, didn’t think the French Existentialists would actually bring out a guillotine. Surely that was a metaphor for their sharp wit—for The Drunkard had gained a respect for the Existentialists once they stopped harassing him on account of his nationality—and not a legitimate guillotine. I believe that there is a certain part of the brain, which I call the Justification Realm, that has the purpose of making outside stimuli make sense in relation to what we hold to be true in the world. I believe that, when The Drunkard saw the Existentialists walk out of the front of his block carrying a guillotine—a giant wooden one with a sharp, steel blade positioned at the top—The Drunkard’s Justification Realm went into overdrive. “So they have a guillotine,” the portion of his brain must have said to another part of his brain. “Surely they wouldn’t actually use it. These people aren’t barbarians, after all. They aren’t storming the Bastille. They’re just going to scare The Stalker. People who read Camus and Beckett don’t go around chopping off the heads of people who go around killing rabbits. They go around drinking wine and talking about Camus and Beckett.”
“Drunkard,” said Matthieu, “it is time. Lead us to the offender.”
The Drunkard cocked an eyebrow. The Justification Realm had won him over, and, leading the Existentialists towards the window he believed to belong to The Stalker, he still didn’t believe that they were going to hurt anyone. “That’s the one,” he said, pointing to a window on the first floor.
Chretien and Philippe took a handful of rocks from the garden and began hurling them—overhand and with all the speed of a seasoned Major League pitcher—at the window. After a few minutes, The Stalker opened the curtains and peeked out. “There he is!” shouted Chretien.
The Drunkard could see The Stalker glare in the light of the lights in the courtyard. He retreated into his room.
“My friends,” said Matthieu, “the offender will not come outside of his own accord—it is time that we force him out. Philippe and I shall bring him out here to make the acquaintance of Madame Guillotine.”
Even as the two Existentialists broke their way into the block—smashing the glass door and roaring “La Marseillaise”—The Drunkard’s Justification Realm told him that, really, the Existentialists weren’t going in to bring The Stalker out to his death. They were just going in to give him a little scare. Maybe mess up his room a little bit, sort of like what The Drunkard himself did to the gubernatorial candidate in Nashville. People who read Camus and Beckett might very well haul out a guillotine and chuck rocks at people’s windows, but they didn’t actually bring them outside to meet Madame Guillotine. 
The Drunkard turned to Julie. “So what’s next? They upset The Stalker’s room? Maybe rip up the curtains, steal a few books?”
A wolfish, predatory grin took over Julie’s soft face. Surely, the Justification Realm said, girls like Julie who looked like they should be painting Impressionist portraits of the Champs Elysees didn’t yearn to see blood stream forth from a decapitated head. “And now, we see how a man meets his death.” Ah, said the Realm, that must be an example of French black humor.
Now the glass pane next to the door shattered outwards, with the Frenchmen still shouting the lyrics to La Marseille. This time, though, they had The Stalker in tow, a length of rope tying his hands behind his back. The man looked like a captured animal making its way from the wild to a cage in a zoo. His hair was ruffled, and his eyes (the natural color, brown—it would appear that he didn’t have time to put his black contacts in) jumping around in his skull. He grunted, and The Drunkard could make out obscenities in the guttural noises that came from The Stalker. Then, suddenly, the two fellows made eye contact. The Stalker straightened and became silent. He gained a sense of dignity that, until then, The Drunkard would not have imagined The Stalker possessed.
Okay, said the Realm, they may very well bring the man outside to meet Madame Guillotine, but there was no chance that they would actually decapitate The Stalker. After all, these were people who read Camus and Beckett, and people who read Camus and Beckett never kill people. They may scare the living daylights out of them, but not kill them.
Matthieu came to a halt and moved to stand in front of The Stalker. “Killer of un petit lapin, we, the citizens of Dickens College, find you guilty for the destruction of an innocent being in order to make a passive-aggressive attack at our flatmate, The Drunkard. Do you have anything to say in your defense?”
The Stalker straightened up. His chest jutted out, his chin took on definition, his eyes had a spark of courage that he previously lacked. One could have mistaken him for a freedom fighter facing the firing squad of an unjust ruler. The Stalker looked at his accusers and settled on The Drunkard. “I have no regrets,” said The Stalker. “All that I have done, I have done because it was what I had to do.” The Drunkard admitted that, had this been a completely different situation and not one in which The Stalker had flayed a rabbit, the man’s words would have had a certain respectability in them.
Matthieu and Philippe led The Stalker towards the guillotine, forced him to bend down, and stuck his head through the hole in the bottom. This time, The Drunkard’s Justification Realm stayed mercifully silent. “Now hold the fuck on a second,” said The Drunkard.
Mattieu and Philippe looked at The Drunkard in shock.
“This is getting a little nuts,” he said.
“But Drunkard,” said Chretien from behind The Drunkard, “this man killed a rabbit!”
“Yes!” said Julie. “Because of this…this demon, a little, innocent rabbit is dead.”
The Drunkard nodded. “Yes, of course, but don’t you think that this isn’t the right way to approach the situation? Sure, you may get a certain amount of joy from seeing The Stalker’s head roll, and God knows that there are probably a lot of people back in the States who would as well, but that doesn’t make it right.”
“What do you mean?” asked Matthieu, releasing his grip on The Stalker.
The Stalker shot The Drunkard a surprisingly warm grin.
“Citizens,” corrected Matthieu.
“Citizens,” continued The Drunkard, “does taking a life bring back a life? Of course not; it only perpetuates the myth that murder is a form of justice. If we are doing this because of the creation of suffering, or the taking of a life, then it stands to reason that we are opposed to the act that brought us here in the first place, yes?”
“Of course,” said Philippe.
“Then why should we, as the people who are trying to correct the ills of society, perpetuate murder in the name of justice? No, fellow citizens, that would be senseless. What we must do is find a way for this man to work off his crime. We must consider all options that would replace the murder of a rabbit, and then put him to task on the best one. So, please, citizens, remove him from Madame Guillotine, in the name of Justice.”
Matthieu and Philippe looked at each other. Mattiheu nodded. “He is right,” he said. They pulled The Stalker’s head from the hole and stood him up.
Julie spun The Drunkard around and said to him, “Who do you think you are?”
“I’m trying to keep us from becoming that which we despise.”
Julie’s face burned a deep red. “Because of your actions today, another innocent rabbit may die.”
“If that happens, then I am just as responsible as the murderer, and I shall gladly face the consequences. However, babe, people can change.”
Julie slapped him in his face and kissed him. She broke away with tears in her eyes and ran back into the block.

“You’re putting me on,” I said at that point.
The Drunkard held up his hand and held up his index and middle fingers. “Scout’s Honor, that’s what happened.”

The Drunkard looked on, stars in his eyes. Matthieu walked up to him. “She cannot abide rabbit murderers. Her father, who was a drunk and a scoundrel, killed rabbits.”
“People can change,” said The Drunkard. He looked into the sky. Somewhere in his ancestral memory, one of his progenitors told him that the proper way to feel after saving someone from Mme. Guillotine—for, it turns out, one of The Drunkard’s ancestors was a French Jew who was instrumental in storming the Bastille and then making a case for saving some royal fiend’s life—was to feel as if a castle were burning at your back, and the only place you could look was to the horizon—away from the burning and destructive past and into a future that, for the moment was filled with hope.