the slow destabilization of dread: the opening pages of brian evenson’s last days

Imagine Kafka handling company paperwork not in an insurance office but a charnel house while channelling Jim Thompson at his typewriter. An odd scenario, to be sure, but you can also be sure that Franz would hammer out memoranda in the mode of Brian Evenson’s Last Days: brutal, hallucinatory, pitiless —
and funny. If you don’t enjoy this next bit, then there is something terribly wrong with you, maybe even — should we say it? deformed . . .


The Brotherhood Of Mutilation

And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast if from thee . . .

And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee . . .

Matthew 5:29-30


It was only later that he realized the reason they had called him, but by then it was too late for the information to do him any good. At the time, all the two men had told him on the telephone was that they’d seen his picture in the paper, read about his infiltration and so-called heroism and how, even when faced with the man with the cleaver—or the “gentleman with the cleaver” as they chose to call him—he hadn’t flinched, hadn’t given a thing away. Was it true, they wanted to know, that he hadn’t flinched? That he had simply watched the man raise the cleaver and bring it down, his hand suddenly becoming a separate, moribund creature?

He didn’t bother to answer. He only sat holding the telephone receiver against his face with his remaining hand and looking at the stump that marked the end of the other arm. The shiny, slightly puckered termination of flesh, flaked and angry at its extreme.

“Who is this?” he finally asked.

The men on the other end of the telephone laughed. “This is opportunity knocking,” one of them said, the one with the deeper voice. “Do you want to be trapped behind a desk the rest of your life, Mr. Kline?”

The other voice, the one with a lisp, kept asking questions. Was it true, it wanted to know, that after he had removed his belt with his remaining hand and tightened it as a tourniquet around the stump, he then stood up, turned on one of the burners on the stovetop, and cauterized the wound himself?

“Maybe,” Kline said.

“Maybe to what?” asked Low Voice.

“I have it on authority that you did,” said Lisp. “Was it electric or gas? I would think electric would be better. But then again it would take awhile for electric to warm up.”

“It was a hotplate,” said Kline.

“A hotplate?” said Low Voice. “Good Lord, a hotplate?”

“So, electric?” asked Lisp.

“I didn’t have anything else,” said Kline. “There was only a hotplate.”

“And then, once cauterized, you turned around and shot him through the eye,” said Lisp. “Left-handed no less.”

“Maybe,” said Kline. “But that wasn’t in the papers. Who told you that?”

“I have it on authority,” said Lisp. “That’s all.”

“Look,” said Kline. “What’s this all about?”

“Opportunity, Mr. Kline,” said Low Voice. “I told you already.”

“There’s a plane ticket waiting under your name at the airport.”

“Why?” asked Kline.

“Why?” asked Lisp. “Because we admire you, Mr. Kline.”

“And we’d like your help.”

“What sort of help?”

“We must have you, Mr. Kline. Nobody else will do,” said Low Voice.

“No?” said Kline. “Why should I trust you? And who are you exactly?”

Lisp laughed.

“Mr. Kline,” Lisp said, “surely by now you realize that you can’t trust anyone. But why not take a chance?”

There was no reason to go. It was not a question, as Low Voice had suggested, of either a desk job or their offer, whatever their offer happened to be. The pension he had received was enough to live on. Plus, right after he had lost his hand and cauterized the wound himself and then shot the so-called gentleman with the cleaver through the eye, he had taken the liberty, in recompense for the loss of his hand, of helping himself to a briefcase containing several hundred thousand dollars.
This he saw as a profoundly moral act in a kind of moral, biblical, old testament sense: an eye for a hand, and a bag of money thrown in. The fact that the eye had had a brain and a skull behind it was incidental.

So, in short, there was no reason to accept the invitation. Better to stay put, have a lifelike prosthetic made to fit over the stump or, at the very least, wear and learn how to use the hooks that had been given him. Perfect a game of one-handed golf. Purchase a drawerful of prosthetics for all occasions. Buy some cigars. All of life was open to him, he told himself. Opportunity could knock all it liked.

And besides, he was having trouble getting out of bed. Not that he was depressed, but it was hard to get out of bed especially when he remembered that the first thing he’d be doing was trying to brush his teeth left-handed. So, instead, he spent more and more time rubbing the end of his stump, or simply staring at it. It seemed, the termination of it, at once a part of him and not at all part of him, fascinating. Sometimes he still reached for things with his missing hand. Most days he couldn’t even put on the hooks. And if he couldn’t bring himself to strap on the hooks, how could he be expected to leave the house? And if he didn’t leave the house, how could he be expected to go to the airport, let alone pick up the ticket, let alone board a plane?

Things will get better
, he told his stump. Someday we’ll leave the house. Things are bound to improve.

A week after the first call, they called back.

“You missed it,” said Lisp. “You missed the flight.”

“Is it because of fear?” asked Low Voice. “Are you afraid of flying?”

“How can you say that to him?” Lisp asked Low Voice. “A man who cauterizes his own stump isn’t going to let a little something like that get to him, is he?”

“So he missed the flight,” said Low Voice. “He didn’t allow for enough time. Got held up at security, maybe.”

“Yes,” said Lisp. “That’s sure to be it.”

They both fell silent. Kline kept the receiver pressed against his ear.

“Well?” asked Lisp.

“Well what?” asked Kline.

“What happened?” asked Lisp.

“I didn’t go.”

“He didn’t go,” said Low Voice.

“We know that,” said Lisp. “We know you didn’t go, otherwise you’d be here. If you’d gone we wouldn’t be calling you there.”

“No,” said Kline.

The phone was silent again. Kline listened to it, staring at the veiled window.

“So?” said Low Voice.

“So what?”

“Goddammit,” said Lisp. “Do we have to go through this again?”

“Look,” said Kline. “I don’t even know who you are.”

“We already told you who we are,” said Lisp.

“We’re opportunity,” said Low Voice. “And we’re knocking.”

“I’m going to hang up,” said Kline.

“He’s hanging up,” said Low Voice, his voice sounded worn out and exhausted.

“Wait!” said Lisp. “No!”

“Nothing personal,” said Kline. “I’m just not your man.”

Almost as soon as he hung up, the telephone began ringing again. He let it ring. He stood up and walked around the apartment, from room to room. There were four rooms, if you counted the bathroom as a room. In every one he could hear the telephone clearly. It kept ringing.

In the end, he picked up the receiver. “What?” he said.

“But you are our man,” said Lisp, his voice desperate. “We’re just like you.”

“There’s the ticket—” said Low Voice.

“No ticket,” said Kline. “No opportunity. I’m not your man.”

“Do you think we are acquaintances of the man with the hatchet?” asked Lisp.

“Cleaver,” said Low Voice.

“We are not acquaintances of the man with the hatchet,” Lisp said. “We’re just like you.”

“And what am I like, exactly?” said Kline.

“Come and see,” said Low Voice. “Why not come and see?”

“If we wanted to kill you,” Lisp said. “You’d be dead by now.” It was odd, thought Kline, to be threatened by a man with a lisp.

“Please, Mr. Kline,” said Low Voice.

“We don’t want to kill you,” said Lisp. “Ergo, you’re still alive.”

“Aren’t you even a little curious, Mr. Kline?” asked Low Voice.

“No,” said Kline. And hung up the telephone.

When the telephone began to ring again, he unplugged it from the wall. Rolling the cord up around it, he packed it away in the closet.

He walked around the house. He would have to go out, he realized, in a day or two, to buy food. He went into the bedroom and took, from the table beside the bed, a notepad and a pen. Going into the kitchen he opened all the doors of the cabinets, the refrigerator, the freezer, and sat thinking.

Eggs, he thought.

Eggs, he wrote, though doing it with his left hand it came out looking like Esgs.

My left hand doesn’t want eggs, he thought. It wants esgs.

He kept writing, his left hand mutilating each word slightly. What do you think of that? he asked his stump. And then wondered if he was speaking to his stump or to his missing hand. Did it matter? he wondered. He wondered what had become of his hand. Probably it had stayed on the table where it had been cut off. Probably it had still been there when the police arrived and had been taken away to be frozen and marked as an exhibit. It was probably still frozen somewhere.

Esgs it is, he thought. And dread. And maybe a glass or two of nelk.

He stared at the notepad, stopped staring only when he heard water dripping out of the defrosting freezer. He was not sure how much time had passed.

He got up and closed the freezer and fridge, and then stood waiting, listening for the motor to kick in.

A few days went by. His electric razor broke, emitting only a low hum when he plugged it in. He stopped shaving. The food mostly ran out. I need to get some food, he thought, but instead drank a glass of sour milk.

He lay in the bed, holding the milk-ghosted glass with one hand, balanced on his chest. He could get up, he thought. He could get out of bed and get up and get out of the house. I need to get some food, he thought, and then thought, later. There would always be time to get food later. Esgs and dread. At some point he realized that the glass he had thought he was holding was being held with his missing hand. The glass was balanced on his chest, the stump stationed beside it, a blunt animal. He was not quite sure how the glass had got there.

He was not going out, he realized hours later. The milk still ringing the bottom of the glass had dried into a white sheet and had begun to crack. Perhaps it was days later. He had missed his chance, he realized, and now what little will he had had slipped away and it was too late. He closed his eyes. When he opened them it was dark outside, so he closed them again.

When he opened them, a pale daylight leaked into the room through the curtains. Beside him, sitting on kitchen chairs they had dragged into the bedroom, were two men. They were bundled in heavy coats and gloves and scarves despite the warmth of the room.

“Hello, hello,” said the first, his voice bass.

“We knocked,” said the other. His upper lip was mostly missing, a ragged scar in its place; it looked as if the lip had been cut into with a pair of pinking shears. “We knocked and knocked, but nobody answered. So we let ourselves in. It was locked,” he said, “but we knew you didn’t mean the lock for us.”

When Kline didn’t say anything, the one with the torn lip said, “You remember us? The telephone?” The man lisped on the us, but having seen the lip it was hard for him to think of him as just Lisp anymore.

“The telephone,” said Kline, his voice raspy.

The torn-lipped man raised his eyebrows and looked at his companion. “He’s pretending not to
remember,” he said.

“Of course you remember,” said the one with the bass voice. “Opportunity knocking? All that?”

“Ah,” said Kline. “I’m afraid so.”

“Look at you,” said Torn-Lip. “Do you want to die in bed?”

“You don’t want to die in bed,” said Low Voice.

“We’re here to save you,” said Torn-Lip.

“I don’t want to be saved,” said Kline.

“He doesn’t want to be saved,” said Low Voice.

“Sure he does,” said Torn-Lip. “He just doesn’t know it yet.”

“But I—”

“Mr. Kline,” said Torn-Lip, “we have given you every opportunity to be reasonable. Why didn’t you take advantage of either of the tickets we left for you?”

“I don’t need your ticket,” said Kline.

“When was the last time you ate?” asked Low Voice.

Torn-Lip reached out and prodded Kline’s face with a gloved finger. “Clearly, you are your own worst enemy, Mr. Kline.”

“Depression,” said Low Voice. “Lassitude, ennui. I so diagnose.”

“Look,” said Kline, struggling to lift himself up a little in the bed. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“He sits,” said Torn-Lip.

“Or nearly so. Who says the man doesn’t have any fight left to him?”

“That’s the spirit,” said Torn-Lip. “That’s the man who can have his hand cut off and not flinch.”

“Come away with us, Mr. Kline.”

“No,” said Kline.

“What can we say to convince you?”

“Nothing,” said Kline.

“Well, then,” said Torn-Lip. “Perhaps there are means other than words.”

Kline watched as the man grasped one of his gloved hands with the other. He twisted the hand about and levered it downward and the hand came free. Kline felt his stump tingle. The other man, he saw, was doing the same thing. They pulled back their sleeves to show him the bare exposed lumps of flesh in which their forearms terminated.

“You see,” said Torn-Lip, “just like you.”

“Come with us,” said the other.

“But,” said Kline. “I don’t—”

“He thinks we’re asking,” said Torn-Lip, leaning in over the bed, his damaged mouth livid. “We’re not asking. We’re telling.”


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