“I ain’t no genius of any kind,” said the old man in the banana-shaped hat right before he rose from his chair and began to walk down to the shore. The sun hadn’t been out in weeks, but the old man didn’t mind. He just kept walking, down desolate streets which showed no faces. Past the abandoned post office, the crumbling stadium, the empty park. He was thinking about his long past stretching behind him like an endless robe. He looked down at the sidewalk with its cracks and creeping ivy. His shadow was nowhere to be found, but this did not bother him. He just took a deep breath and kept on walking. He happened upon a soulless convenience store that had been empty for years, the windows of which were covered in dust. The old man lifted his index finger to scribble in the dust a thought that sprung from his gut like a firefly. What he wrote cannot be printed here. It made the old man feel ashamed. Where had it come from, he thought? How could this have originated within me? He looked at his abomination and shook his head. Then kept on walking toward the shore.
Soon he saw an old dog. It made him smile, seeing the dog so happy in its old age. The dog panted, dangled his tongue. But when the old man reached down to pet his new friend, it vanished. In the old pup’s place was a pile of bricks with a phrase spray-painted on it. It read: USE THESE TO CHANGE YOUR FUTURE. The old man felt sad and confused. What future? he thought. He pulled himself together and kept walking.
When he reached the shore, the destination of all destinations, the sand made him happy. But then he saw that the sand was gray and it was cold on his feet. It made the hair on his forearms stand up like razorblades. He meandered down to the water and stuck an aging toe in the salty brine. It was warm: so warm that his heart filled with honey-like joy. He laid his banana-shaped hat in the evil sand, said goodbye and started to swim.
He swam and swam. He swam so long that he could no longer see the shore. All blue-black water in every direction forever. Then his arms went numb and he began to sink. He thought: “This is it. I have my paid my dues and am ready for the fall.” He treaded water for as long as he could, not wanting to let it all slip away. But the water kept rising and rising. No wish or prayer could stop it. With his last breath, right before he was swallowed by the sea forever, he shouted a sentence so wise that it would have made kings bow to him and titans weep like cribbed babies. But there was no one there to hear it and his words were lost forever, swept into the wind like silly ash. Then the old man sunk until there was nowhere left to sink. That was the end of that.
The men often meet in the center of the Dungeon to discuss what is wrong with their lives. They gather around the fire pit, the only light in a black prison, and even hold hands when life feels particularly dark. No one talks, but they communicate. There are three men, all named Franz: one from the seaside, one the mountains and the last the desert. Their origins are of no consequence, however, because they all live in the Dungeon now. There is nowhere else to live. There is nothing outside of the Dungeon. Or so it seems.
They talk for hours about what they can remember of their lives. It has been so long since any of them have been outside the cold, wet walls, and all three are beginning to doubt that anything but the Dungeon has ever existed. They know, deep down, that there is a life full of flowers and sunshine beyond their dank encasement. Yet they cannot ignore the nagging sense that this is the only existence that ever was, the only existence that ever will be. As time passes, this dull feeling creeps in more and more, like syrup filling the cracks, until it becomes the only thing — the Holiest Thing.
When the Franzs aren’t gathered around the fire, they hang their heads. They hang their heads and stand in corners for days, maybe weeks, at a time. It is simply impossible to measure the duration. There is no natural light. No way to tell time. Once, many days or years ago, the Franz from the seaside, yelled: “WE NEED A WATCH! GOD DAMN IT, WE NEED A WATCH!” He said this though he actually said nothing. No one heard him, so nothing changed. The light of the fire dulled a bit as the first Franz began to weep, silently. The Dungeon ate away at everyone.
The only solace the three Franzs have is each other. Though that is very little. When they gather around the fire and touch hands the dopamine flows through the valleys in their brains like hot molasses. It is the only happy thing in their meager lives. Yet the pleasure is brief, too brief. Not long after first contact, the touch ceases to mean anything. Old hat, as they say. The Franzs get used to the touch, thus it becomes like the Dungeon: unfeeling, pointless and dark. Yet they keep coming back to the touch, driven to communion by that first immaculate flash of undiluted beauty. It is all they have, however fleeting and ultimately meaningless.
It is in this way that the three Franzs live out their existence, an existence as unending as the universe. The three Franzs have always been in the Dungeon and will always be in the Dungeon. Right now, as I write this, they are in there, hanging their heads in separate corners, dreaming of the seaside or the mountains or the desert. Their dreams keep them alive, though they desperately want to die, all three of them, and badly. They pine for it. And they can die, if only they wanted to. The only barrier separating them from the afterlife is a bright white door glowing in a far corner of the Dungeon. It looms over everything. It is not locked. To escape one can simply turn the knob and walk through. Yet no one ever has, and no one ever will, because they are fearful, because they are courageous, and because there truly is nothing outside the Dungeon. At least it seems that way, from the inside.
I’m not one to believe in vague portents, but after living through a year as awful as 2020, I’m not really sure what to believe anymore.
On the opposite end, there are the forgotten. The lottery nobody wants to win, but must be won by some. The unluckily lucky ones, the one-in-a-million that nobody wishes to be.
Jo never thought of himself as a river guy, per se, yet one morning he awoke in a canoe, floating down a body of water that clearly was a river.