Number Two


from the novel A Hard Time To Come

by Nick Fuse

Robert turned the three locks on his Bank Street apartment door and sank into his easy chair, raising a cloud of brown dust.  He hardly remembered the cab ride home, except that the cabby didn't speak English and refused to let Robert into the cab at the Airport until he flashed the money from his ticket in front of the windshield.  Money was the universal language, Robert thought.

The airport seemed like a dream to him now, or more accurately, a nightmare.  All he wanted was a few days of dreamless sleep on his familiar couch and a sunny day to wake up to.  He fished through the creases in his chair, pulling out the bottle he had stashed there.  He felt light-headed and dry, wired after his experience, weary but not tired.  A drink was just the thing he needed, he thought, to put out the lights behind his eyelids.  Otherwise they would keep him up all night.

He unscrewed the top of the bottle and was about to take a drink when he noticed a giant cockroach crawling out of his typewriter on the table next to him.  He had never seen such a large cockroach in his life, though Claudia claimed to have seen monster roaches up to three feet long, depending on her state of mind.  He felt no fear, no desire to kill, especially after his trying ordeal; but he felt ill-at-ease with this undesired company, finding himself unable to take a drink or look away.

"Greetings," the cockroach seemed to say, moving its feelers slightly.  Robert swore he heard a voice in his head, sounding something like George Plimpton's.

"Kafka?" he said aloud, holding the open bottle tensely in his hand.

"Do not delude yourself," he heard the voice say.  "I am only a cockroach.  Nothing more, nothing less."

"Yes, I can see that," Robert said aloud, wondering if he might be on the verge of another mental breakdown.  The cockroach sat motionless on the space bar, unconcerned.

"Well, what do you want from me?" Robert asked irritably.  His head burned with pain.  He took a drink, keeping a careful eye on the cockroach.

"Nothing," the voice in his head said.  "A cockroach has no desires, and very few needs.  We can survive for months without nourishment, for weeks without water.  We neither want nor need anything from you."

"Then why are you here?" Robert asked, frightened by his own voice filling the room.  He took another drink to calm his nerves.  The cockroach remained on the space bar, watching.

"Why indeed," the cockroach seemed to say.  "I could ask the same question of you."

"Me?" Robert asked, caught off guard for the moment, forced to think about himself.

"Yes, you," the cockroach said.  "Why are you here?"

The more he thought about it, the more he convinced himself he had been seriously injured somehow.  Had Sergeant Jim turned his brain to jelly? It certainly felt like it now.  Or he could be hallucinating from advanced fatigue.  He might even be asleep in his chair and dreaming this conversation.  He took another drink to test his theory, feeling no sensation of warmth in his throat.  The large size of the cockroach suggested fantasy, and it had not moved from the space bar since it crawled out of the typewriter.  Why should he feel obligated to justify his existence to an imaginary bug?

He closed his eyes and very slowly opened them, hoping to make the cockroach disappear.  It remained perched on the space bar, as if waiting for his answer.  He decided on a hard line of denial.

"I do not believe you are a real cockroach," he said seriously.  "You are merely a product of my imagination, brought about through stress and fatigue.  You are not really there at all," he said, feeling satisfied.

"You may be right," the cockroach said.  "Don't forget, you have injured your skull, and you have been drinking far too much alcohol lately, poisoning your mind, destroying your already limited powers of reason.  But consider this: Whether you imagine me or not, I am here.  You can see and hear me, can you not?"

"You are a cruel and heartless cockroach, taunting me this way," Robert said, feeling maudlin.  "I could kill you, but I won't.  I don't want to kill you, and I don't want to talk to you anymore.  Please go away now," he said.

"You cannot kill us," the cockroach said calmly.  "We have been here since the dawn of time, and we will remain long after you and your kind wither and die.  We will survive.  We will not go away."

"Is this really necessary.  Have you no feelings?" Robert asked, irrational tears welling in his eyes.  He cried for the fate of humanity and for himself, destined to spend the last of his days talking to bugs.

"We tolerate you because we must," he heard the voice say.  "Soon you will be gone and another will replace you.  It hardly matters.  Your life is meaningless, in the grand design.  Think about it," the cockroach said, turning and disappearing into the typewriter.

Robert stared at the typewriter and tried to hold his hand steady.  He could not seem to raise the bottle to his lips.  The telephone rang and he jumped, dropping the bottle to the floor.

Copyright © 1998 by Nick Fuse


Complete excerpts from A Hard Time to Come

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