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.”

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