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Pound of Flesh


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iktor slept clean through the long, typically uneventful ride home, and when he awoke from disturbing dreams to find the other passengers queuing up to leave, he jumped against his seat belt, unlatched it with fumbling hands, and rushed to abandon the train. His mind seethed with turbulence; his sense of taste wrestled with a fetid tongue. Almost home, he thought, I will not stop until I get home. I will not.

...there is nothing unremarkable about this micro-infinite universe, nothing at all that one can attach insignificance to, nothing, nothing, no, nothing at all... from a distance of thirteen googolplex light-eternities, all that shows is everything, less nothing... absolute zero can never begin to describe the anguish inherent in an apathetic reality; entropy rules, but does not conquer....

Viktor stepped off the grimy train platform, clutching his briefcase full of actuarial tables like it were a beloved idiot child with a tendency to stray. The dreams had left nothing behind, except for the usual feelings of displacement, and one odd little tickle of dissociation. Like his internal organs did not belong together, like they fomented mutiny, planned war against each other. The other train passengers, his neighbors, fragmented into purposeful bits of shrapnel, bee-lining for their various homes. Viktor bought a paper from the poor old man with mis-matched eyes, and began the depressing walk home, through the long, hideous corridor of second-hand boutiques.

...nowhere does it state that things must necessarily work toward positive ends, but the inverse is equally true... if one's life began in throes of fire and agony, one cannot automatically assert that it shall also end there... even though the one unified law of physics presumes circularity, on an individual basis there are no guarantees... and if life does begin in orgasm, it generally ends in something somewhat less disturbing; death comes, but does not linger....

Viktor tried to keep his eyes focused on the street's receding distance, forced them away from the display windows full of used goods. His muscular right leg strode forward; his blue eye drifted toward a store-front containing racks of faces. His wiry left leg stepped, and his burnt-umber-brown eye caromed to the left, to a window reflection of penises, penises of every color and description. Viktor held the paper up to the left side of his face, an improvised blinder. This street never failed to test his sanity, but there was no other way.

...the true value of a thing is inversely proportional to its mass, divided by the square root of its beauty, times its functionality, times its... in most cases of importance, value can be seen to mimic love, and it may someday be proven exactly equal... when one describes one's desire for an object as a function of one's need, one commits an egregious error; desires compel, but do not dictate....

When Viktor came to the middle of the block, a large woman with the heavy fists of a man stood in his path. He felt his heart beating panic, in some alien person's rhythm. The woman made no move to let him pass. "Excuse me," he said, with a polite movement of his hand. "Stuff it in your nose! Shake a leg! Stomach! Armpits! Toes!" she spat the obscenities, the foul, forbidden words. The woman grinned, and opened her shirt. Seven nipples stared out at him, each a different color, each a different size. Viktor made a little squeak, and hurriedly pushed past her, back on course, heading for the pale sanctuary of home.

...the concept of eternal life, while not unusual among mortal sentients, manifests most often among those creatures with the most wretched of lives... once one has determined the ferocity with which a species asserts immortality, one can make a variety of provable assumptions concerning them... where there are dreams of life immortal, there are also exclusionary rules manifest therein... no one who fears death can stand the thought of surviving it in the company of those who do not; love-of-life clings, but does not embrace....

In his mind, Viktor placed himself safely in his little room, the paper unfolded before him, a glass of sherry at his elbow, a small tray of crackers balanced on his knee. With violent effort, he willed his gaze away from the shop windows into a narrow beam, pointed straight up the street at its vanishing point. "Almost there," he chanted beneath his breath, "thirty steps more." A flashing glint of metal caught in the extreme of his peripheral vision; he turned to it out of reflex, and regretted it immediately. He stopped in his tracks, staring straight into an artful display of limbs. Each of the used body parts had been carefully cleaned and hung against a foil backdrop in positions of action, intended to communicate a sense of life. He absently rubbed at the thin pink scar that circled his right wrist.

...if the average thinking creature were asked to express its most cherished philosophy, ninety out of ninety-one would mention something about love... as a recurring theme, love (or any other description of great affection) is easily the dominant melody in a universe of strange music... it should be noted, however, that there is not even one documented instance of the true love of one creature for another... in every case, love can be proved to consist exclusively of varying degrees of self-love; love sings but all are deaf....

Viktor hesitated only a moment. As he entered the shop, a tiny bell above the door rang happy. He walked slowly between the rows of arms and legs, not touching, just looking. A huge neon sign hung across the back wall; it said "A PREVIOUSLY OWNED BODY PART IS A PROVEN BODY PART." The proprietor, a portly man with a brilliant green eye, watched a small television, a rapture across his face. "Excuse me," Viktor said, "but could you tell me the price on this?" The shop keeper turned to him, and pointed to a poster at the back of the aisle. Viktor read the list, blushing at the nasty words: FULL LEG, 40.00; ARM, 25.00; ALL JOINTS, TWENTY PERCENT OFF; FEET, 75.00 A PAIR; THE ABOVE PRICES INCLUDE INITIAL EXAMINATION; INSTALLATION EXTRA. He picked up a strong, tanned knee, and felt its cool surface. It bent easily, in all the right places, smooth and powerful. "Excuse me." Viktor placed the knee on the counter before the proprietor. "I think I'd like this one." The man nodded an automatic nod, pointed to a curtained booth. Viktor swallowed hard, pulled the curtain, went inside.

...the conscious mind (and consequently the conceived resting place of the self) is frequently experienced as a tiny mote of awareness, some small distance directly behind the dominant sense organ... some argument can be made for the truth of that assumption, but generally speaking, "self" exists merely as a thin soup of brain chemicals, amid the enigmatic neuronal patterns and pathways they inhabit, with the possible complication of an instigating electrical impulse... some scientifically advanced cultures tend to think of self as equivalent to that electrical current, with the chemical elements playing the roles of thought, memory and emotion; the self feels, but cannot be felt....

Viktor lay naked on a cold, hard table, his hands clenched into hard, tight balls. A bored nurse ran some noisy instruments around the pit of his stomach, jotted numbers onto a clipboard. "You're okay," she said, without commitment. "It'll take." She handed him a slip of paper; it read: THIS CERTIFIES THAT ______________ HAS BEEN EXAMINED, AND IS DEEMED MENTALLY AND PHYSICALLY SOUND. DONOR'S SIGNATURE INDICATES THIS VENDOR IS RELEASED FROM ALL RESPONSIBILITY FOR COMPLICATIONS, EXCEPT IN CASES OF VERIFIABLE NEGLIGENCE, AS REQUIRED BY LAW. "Just fill in your name," the nurse said, "and take it back to the doctor. Follow the blue line." "Uh, excuse me," Viktor said quietly, "but this is wrong. Shouldn't it say DONEE?" The nurse glanced at the paper, clucked her tongue in annoyance. "Look, pal, it doesn't matter what the damned thing says." She scratched out the word DONOR with a surprising violence, and replaced it with a scribble that looked to Viktor like the word "DAMNED." He clutched at the paper, and with his clothes under his arm, he followed the blue line. creatures can be classified into two main groups: the kind that function with complete communication and cooperation, almost as a single organism, and those that are only bound by that peculiar system of regulation and mutually-agreed upon hallucination known as "culture"... in the case of certain social insectile species, each member of the colony (except for the central, procreative individual) behaves as if it knows itself to be dispensable... if one understands that one is completely replaceable, one is far more likely to engage in heroic, altruistic behavior... can be compared to the proverbial trapped animal who chews off its own foot to survive; an organism is as good as its parts, but only if the parts know their place....

Some small time later--a time filled with small pains, small tools, small adjustments, and not-so-small fees--Viktor lay back in his favorite chair, the paper unfolded before him, a glass of sherry at his elbow, a tray of crackers balanced on his brand-new slightly-used knee.

Safe in his own sweet home, for another day, safe at last.




© Max E. Keele. All Rights Reserved.

Originally published in Nocturnal Lyric, 1998.

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