S H O R T S T O R Y
BIG BROWN BAG
b y m a r k d ' a n n a ~ p l a y a d e l r a y, c a l i f o r n i a
A FIG tree grew along Parkview Avenue, which was unusual because nothing else grew there. It really resembled more of a desert than a street. A desert that had been paved over in a sad attempt to hide its face from the world. Leila usually used Arboles when she had to get around the big hill to where the nice houses were. Arboles was much prettier and had lush, green trees which had been planted by the city. But Leila lived just around the corner from Parkview, so Arboles didn't make much sense today. She and Eck were in a rush.
That fig tree was an ugly damned thing, too. Parkview would have been much better without it. Its branches and its leaves didn’t look right somehow, almost as if the tree was dying and could fall apart at any moment. And the figs just dripped from the branches like frozen droplets of green paint. They were odd, disgusting things. Eck had stopped in the broken shade beneath the tree and placed his bag on the sidewalk. Frustrated, Leila stopped a few feet ahead of him and watched. Eck didn’t do much. He just stood there, slack-jawed and foolish, staring into the maze of figs and tree branches that spiraled above him.
“Damn it, Eck,” said Leila. “Come on, we have to keep moving.”
Eck didn’t respond. The tree, with its maze of branches, leaves and figs had drawn in his stare and left him standing there with his sad little mouth hanging wide open. Then something else caught his eye. Eck looked to the ground and picked up a brown fig from the sidewalk. He examined it like he intended to put it in his mouth.
"You ever tried a fig?" he asked.
"Come on," said Leila. "We need to be home by noon."
"I thought it was twelve thirty?" Eck turned the fig over on the tips of his fingers. The thing looked soft, like a rotten banana.
"Peter Twiss said noon. Now put that rotten thing down and let's go."
Leila picked up Eck's bag and walked past him. The bag was heavy. Eck had been going on over the last few weeks about how he needed a wok. He claimed he loved to eat stir-fried chicken and that he needed something to cook it in. He probably didn’t even really know what stir-fried chicken was, just thought maybe he’d like it. Eck did things like that sometimes. And now that he had finally dragged Leila to Bloomingdale's to get one, she ended up carrying it. He would probably forget about the damned thing in two weeks anyway. Typical Eck. His attention span was about as short as he was.
Leila turned from Eck and walked on in the dry heat, which weathermen always said was much worse than regular heat. Seemed worse. Not hotter really, just a lot worse. Eck came running up behind her, breathing fast and loud through his nose. He carried the brown, rotten fig in his hand, plus about seven or eight others. Each equally discolored and rotten with an unimaginable foulness.
He took the bag from Leila and carefully placed the figs inside. They were arranged with the focused attention a child might employ to stay inside the lines while coloring. Each fig had a particular spot in the bag. The wok was in a large blue box and it might have easily crushed them had Eck not been so thoughtful.
"What's the big deal if we're not home in time to meet Peter Twiss?” asked Eck. “He can wait ten minutes for us. Your sister can keep him entertained." He chuckled like he did whenever he made a joke he thought was dirty.
"You don't show up late for Peter Twiss," said Leila. "Peter Twiss is an important man."
"Yeah, well, figs are important too. They're full of vitamins and protein."
"Not if they’re rotten like those. And I don't think figs have too much protein in them."
"Of course, they do. And they’re not rotten. When they fall off the tree it means they're ripe." Eck's voice had risen slightly in pitch. A childish tactic he used whenever making a point he wasn't sure he should be making.
"They fall off the tree when they're rotten, Eck. Look at those things. They’re all brown for Christ's sake."
"Yeah, well, I'm going to cook them up with some stir-fried chicken anyway.”
"You don't stir-fry figs. That's disgusting."
"They sell stir-fried vegetables at the store don't they? Why can't I just pick my own?"
"First of all, I don't think figs are vegetables. Besides, you didn't pick them. You found them rotting on the ground. Remember?"
"I'm pretty sure it's a vegetable. And anyway, it's my wok and I can cook anything I want in it."
"Well, you'd better. That thing cost me forty-five dollars."
Leila looked at her watch. It was 11:40. Peter Twiss would be on his way already, so Leila picked up the pace. Eck struggled to keep up.
Leila was tall, but her body was very proportionate, like an athlete’s. She liked her body. She was much taller than Eck and she suspected it made him jealous. Why wouldn't it? He was so short and getting fat with all the weird crap he ate. God only knew what he put in his mouth when she wasn't around.
Leila could hear Eck breathing behind her as she walked. It was so heavy, like a woman's giving birth. They had classes to teach women to breathe like that. Think of a happy place and just breathe, then it'll be alright. Drugs, breathing and a happy place to make a healthy, normal child. That was supposed to be a beautiful thing, according to doctors and religious types. Leila tried to block Eck’s breathing out of her mind. But he was chewing on something now, and that made his breathing more obnoxious than before.
"See," he said. "These things are pretty good. It'd taste great with some chicken and rice."
Leila turned towards Eck. In his left hand was a half-eaten fig, which he held up before his face and examined closely. The other half of the lumpy and rotten fruit was in his mouth, and he chewed on it slowly and deliberately, savoring the taste. The portion that was in his hand was mushy and stringy and the meatier part was almost brown towards the center. There might have been any number of insects and diseases infesting that rotten garbage, but Eck kept eating it. It made Leila's stomach turn. Sometimes he could be like an animal.
"Christ Eck, throw that nasty thing away," said Leila. "It's all brown. You’ll get sick."
"That's just the pit."
"Figs don’t have pits."
"Sure they do." Eck took another bite. He slurped up the stringy brown portion in the center and wiped his mouth with his bare forearm. Small strands of green and black fig flesh became ensnared in his arm hair. Eck did everything with such hopeless indignity. He was like a child or a dog drinking out of a dirty toilet or something even worse.
Disgusted, Leila turned and walked away. She tried desperately to push the sight of Eck eating a rotten fig down to the dark tunnel in her mind she reserved for most everything he did.
Peter Twiss. He was on the way still. Wonderful Peter Twiss. Even Eck had to appreciate that.
Cars passed on the street and Leila watched them with concern. His was a black Toyota Corolla. Cars came up behind them and passed quickly into and out of sight. They all sounded and looked the same. Corollas or Accords or Civics or anything else. It would have been Hell if a black Toyota Corolla passed by. She probably would have started running. But Peter Twiss would never use Parkview. Arboles was so much nicer with its greenbelts and everything else. She was being stupid. Dry heat made her stupid.
Eck's footfalls and obnoxious breathing faded into the nearby distance suddenly and without warning. Leila walked a little further in the comforting peace his disappearance provided before she turned and saw him stopped about twenty feet behind her. He had placed his bag on the ground and his body was hunched over at the waist with his hands on his knees.
"Come on Eck,” said Leila, “what the heck is wrong?"
"I'm alright,” he said, “just give me a second." He stood up straight and took a deep breath. Leila took a few steps toward him and stopped. She didn't want to lose too much ground on account of Eck. Home was still about fifteen minutes away. So was Peter Twiss.
"Oh boy," said Eck. He moved his hands to his hips.
"What'd I tell you?” said Leila. “It’s that fig."
A modest distance down the dusty sidewalk, the fig tree was still visible. It labored toward the mid-morning sun, fighting against the weight of its own malformed branches, which hung low and dangerous from its twisted trunk. Leila smiled. Joshua Trees were not as ugly as that thing. Nothing was.
"Now let's get going," she said. "The sooner we get home the sooner you can get a glass of water and a nice nap."
"Okay," he said. Leila turned around and walked. Faint, weird noises came from behind her. They were hollow, guttural noises. Then another sound, this one like a dead fish being dropped on the sidewalk. Leila turned around and there stood Eck with his mouth wide open and his eyes as big as she'd even seen them. Lying at Eck's feet was his left arm, bloodied and dirty with twigs and other sidewalk things. Further down the road the fig tree swayed softly and silently on the gentle goodness of a late morning breeze.
Eck's arm had come apart at the shoulder. Whatever human elements that were normally employed by one's body to hold an arm in place had, for whatever reason, ceased operation in his small body. Ligaments. Skin. The whole of that balance that made the body such a brilliant machine had given way to a disgusting self-anarchy. His shirt, which at one point in time had been a simple white, was now almost entirely a shade of deepest auburn. A pool of Eck's own blood gathered around his feet in a perfect circle with his skinny, quivering legs at the center.
"My God, Eck,” said Leila, “your arm."
Eck stood motionless and stared at Leila. It wasn't clear if he couldn't move or had simply decided that he was afraid to. Whatever the case, he was perfectly still, except for his right arm, which quivered a little as he held it out in a horizontal line from his body.
"Christ," he said. "Leila?"
Leila looked at her watch. "We haven't much time Eck. Peter Twiss."
"To Hell with Peter Twiss,” said Eck. “Help me."
Leila walked up to Eck slowly. She longed for another person to pass on the sidewalk, but it was empty. Eternally empty. Damn Parkview. Why hadn't they stayed on Arboles? Tiny beads of perspiration had materialized on Eck's forehead. In the direct glare of the sun they glistened like diamonds, trapped against the pale skin of his forehead.
"You can walk, can't you?" asked Leila.
"Okay then." Leila picked up the arm carefully. It was cold and there were still tiny strands of fig meat tangled in the arm hairs. Blood dripped from the stump where it had disjointed from the shoulder. She held it upright with the stump towards the sky to prevent further blood from being lost. Leila then placed the arm in Eck's Bloomingdale's bag next to the wok. There was more than enough room to accommodate both items.
"The figs," said Eck.
"What about the damned figs?"
"Don't put it on the figs. Please."
Leila took the arm out of the bag and fished out the figs. They were unusually soft and ductile. Despicable sacks of fleshy, brown garbage. She hated the fucking figs. They should have been more firm and unrelenting. Healthier figs would have been. She placed them in a row on the sidewalk and returned the arm to the bag. She then carefully situated the figs around the arm. It was easiest to place them in or near the hand because Eck's small fingers could still be coaxed into any number of useful positions. She wrapped them around two or three of the smaller figs and then tucked the rest behind the hand, wedged neatly in the corner of the bag. Leila then picked up the bag and looked at Eck. He was pathetic with his one arm sticking straight out like half a scarecrow. "Let's go," she said.
They started walking again. There was something different in their common motion. Eck moved lightly and quietly, with little distraction to Leila. It was obvious he was surprised over the situation and probably had already instinctively learned to focus his attention entirely on his damaged body's movements. Even Eck was capable of that. The human body had a natural tendency towards self-preservation anyway, and his was no exception.
The bag with the wok, the arm and Eck's figs was considerably heavier than before, and Leila couldn't move as fast as she wanted while carrying it. "Can you take this?" she asked.
Eck shook his head. "I don't think so," he said. "Look at me."
"Fine then,” said Leila, “let's just keep moving."
Eck could have carried the bag. Something in his head must have told him to lie. Desperation had that effect on people. Eck was lost in desperation. Lost deeper than he'd ever been lost in anything before. Peter Twiss had once told Leila about the way people reacted in dire circumstances such as this, and Eck was proving to be a case study. When the body's natural survival instincts take over, the brain's ability to reason becomes a secondary tool at best. The body acts without thinking. That’s what Peter Twiss had told her. He said it was like being an animal.
"I don't feel good Leila," said Eck. "I don't feel good at all." He sounded like he was going to start crying. He placed his hand on Leila's shoulder to brace his partially quartered body as they walked in an awkward silence through the dusty late morning. "I think I'm going to faint."
"You're doing great,” said Leila. “Just keep moving. Once we get you home everything will be okay. Peter Twiss will know what to do. He always knows what to do."
Eck put what must have been nearly his entire sum of bodily weight on Leila's shoulder until his grip, already at a loss for want of blood, gave way and he fell to the ground in a violent heap of dysfunctional flesh. Leila caught herself before falling and maintained her balance. Eck lay on his back at her feet. His right leg had become detached and lay perpendicular to his supine body in the gutter. Blood poured from the ruby stubble of flesh and other physiological oddities, forming a crimson stream which inched its way slowly down the gutter, picking up twigs and crisp shards of dried leaves as it went.
"Jesus Christ," said Eck. "Leila."
"Eck. Your leg."
"I know it's my leg. Please, help me."
Leila dropped the bag next to Eck's head. No left arm. No right leg. He looked entirely ridiculous as his body's odd evolution continued. Legs and arms were the first to go, which seemed somewhat logical. From then on, anything was plausible. Eck's situation was approaching that of the unredeemable. Not quite entirely past redemption, but getting there for sure. Maybe he could still save that sour little soul of his. It didn't need the body anyway. The transient body. That would be it though. Eck was becoming mere parts rather than a whole. It was a sad and burdensome series of events, to say the least, but not entirely unexpected. What had Eck ever done to prevent it anyway? It was a destruction brought onto the self by the self, and what then is left? Death of both perhaps. And what would Peter Twiss say if he saw this mess? What could he say? A prayer maybe. A prayer to God. Thank the Almighty they weren't near the busy street.
"Can't you get to your feet?" asked Leila
Eck sat up straight and then fell to his side. His body was sadly out of balance. He tried again and again, but fell to his side with a more violent impact than before. He furrowed his brow in an uncharacteristic degree of concentration and seemed to be commanding himself to sit up and remain so, like a normal human being would. But his brain's commands were those of a deposed leader falling on the ears of a mutinous mob. He rolled onto his back and lay still, defeated in a pool of his own displaced blood, looking at Leila.
"I can't Leila," he said. "You'll have to help me."
"Okay. Let's just do this fast." Leila took Eck by the arm and helped him raise his body to a sitting position. She then placed both her hands under his remaining armpit and, with the entire weight of her body behind the effort, pulled him to a standing position. He hopped awkwardly on his left leg while using his right arm to balance himself against Leila.
"What is happening to me?" he asked. His voice quivered as if it too might join the corporeal insurrection at any moment.
"Listen, Eck,” said Leila, “just brace yourself against this tree."
Eck grabbed a nearby pine tree for support. It was a sapling that had been planted during construction years ago. Like most everything along Parkview Avenue, it was dead. Its dried remains were still tied to two cedar poles which had been placed originally with the intention of helping the tree grow. Now the only living thing they held up was Eck, who tried to balance himself as he held on by hopping on his good leg.
Leila pulled Eck's other leg from the gutter. It was heavier than she anticipated a human leg would be and the work was difficult in the dryness of the heat. She removed the wok and the entire portion of figs from the bag and placed the leg inside. It did not fit well at first and required some bending at the knee, which fortunately was still warm and supple with the lingering effects of human presence. She bent the leg as far as the governing tendons of the joint would allow and placed it further into the bag. She took special care to ensure that the stump would not drip blood into the bag, rendering the already overly strained brown paper saturated and weak. The figs fit nicely behind the knee with a few returning to Eck's hand, which had stiffened considerably and held its position with an inhuman strength.
"I don't think the wok will fit," said Leila.
Eck looked concerned. "I want an ambulance," he said. "I'm scared."
"Well, I don't have my phone with me. Come on. Peter Twiss will know what to do. Put your arm around me. Let's keep moving."
"What about the wok?" asked Eck.
"Oh, don't worry. I'll carry the damn wok like I'm carrying everything else. I told you buying this thing was a bad idea." Leila picked up the wok and the Bloomingdale's bag. "Let's go," she said.
Eck hopped to Leila and put his arm around her neck. It was a sticky arm and the touch of his flesh against her was discomforting. "Thank you," he said. She could sense him looking at her with his childish brown eyes. She refused to acknowledge him. She hated it when he looked at anything like that. His eyes were so slow and vapid, with very little behind them.
Their progress was slow down the sidewalk, and the corner was still a few hundred yards away. Eck's body leaned relentlessly on Leila's. A car sped up the street and quickly disappeared around the corner. It was a white truck. A Ford. If Peter Twiss drove by she'd hide her face. That would be the best thing to do at this point. She couldn't let him see her like this. She and Eck limping down the street like the only players in some obscene three-legged race. Damn Eck. This was time wasted. Her time. Hers and Peter Twiss'.
With each step they took, Eck's reliance on Leila seemed to increase. His body ceased to be his own and now strove to somehow become an extension of hers. Leila would have no part of it. Eck's problems were Eck's problems. He was at odds with himself and she'd simply been caught in the crossfire. Wrong place at the wrong time. Damn Eck. The things she did for him. She hated to bother Peter Twiss with his problems. Peter Twiss wasn't the kind of man you bothered.
There was another awful sound of tearing flesh, and Eck fell again. He landed in a sad lump at Leila's feet and remained so, looking blankly past her into the sky as if waiting for ascension. His left leg had partially removed itself from his body. But it had failed to liberate itself entirely and now hung limply from his torso in a humiliating mockery of ruined escape, defeated and dying.
Blood leaked onto the sidewalk, originating from somewhere deep within the now partially emptied leg of his shorts. It was funneled into a perfectly straight line by the clothing and flowed across the sidewalk and over the edge of curb, into the gutter. It was a strange little red stream, accentuated by the tiny drop over the curb, from which the blood could then work its way down the street to join up with that which had been left from their previous stops. The many bloods could then mingle into one and form something entirely whole again. Something not so much Eck-like, as they had once been, but something unique and unknown and maybe even better.
The dusty morning horizon absorbed the stream of Eck's blood willingly, while somewhere deep within that white haze of light the fig tree still grew, eternally laboring towards the sun. Puddles of his own blood surrounded Eck as well, each supplied from various sources deep within his body. And now that blood was outside of him, and already hardening in the sun.
"Is it still attached?" asked Leila.
"I think so,” said Eck. “Just a little maybe. It's all numb. Can you, Leila?"
"We've got to move, Eck," she said.
"It's the only way." It was the only way. Leila knew it but had hoped Eck didn't. Damn Eck. He failed at most things he had ever undertaken, and here he was failing again. He was already in three sizable parts, and the fourth clung with an absurd tenacity to a failed body. Its loyalty, perhaps, a misguided devotion to something that had been for so long, but was destined to fail by whatever destined these sorts of things. Leila bent over and grabbed the leg near the ankle. Then she pulled and freed it from Eck with a perfect finality.
There was no noise of torn flesh this time, and Eck showed no sign of pain. Instead he lay lost in some reverie. Images of the old times likely passed through his head and mind. Times when he might have stood proudly and walked down a street or up a hill. Moments when he might have stood beside the likes of Peter Twiss and smiled and shook his hand.
The new Eck would live out his days longing for such moments. They could no longer be. He was lost. Lost in something Leila couldn't understand. Something deep and invisible and known only to itself. A strange something that had changed him to the fragmented bloody heap that lay before her.
Leila watched him, his eyes staring into and through her. "What are you doing?" she asked. "We don't have time for this. We can still make it home in time. Peter Twiss will know what to do."
"I don't care about Peter Twiss," said Eck. "I've never cared about Peter damn Twiss."
"What did you say?"
Eck did not reply.
"How dare you say that?" asked Leila. "How dare you? Peter Twiss is the only one who can help you. The only one who's ever helped you. He's all you've got and you say you don't care about him. Peter Twiss cares about you whether you know it or not. You should be ashamed."
Eck's face showed what it could of regret. Partial regret, at least. "Please Leila," he said. "Soon there won't be anything left of me. Then what? Will Peter Twiss care then?"
"I don’t know, Eck. Will you take back what you said about him?"
"I haven't said anything about Peter Twiss."
"You said you didn't care about him. You'd better damn well care about him."
The pools around Eck had grown and one of the larger ones now encompassed the entire lower half of his body. He sat there silently. Surely the significance of what he said had begun to sink in.
"Okay, Leila," he said. "I'm sorry. I do care about Peter Twiss. I'm sorry for what I said."
"And he's the only one who can help you now?"
"Yes. He's the only one. There couldn't be another. I've said it."
"Very well." Leila dragged Eck's leg to the Bloomingdale's bag. She placed the leg in at an odd angle, bent at its knee and almost interlocked with the other leg. Between them the stump of Eck's arm stuck out. Then Leila picked up what was left of Eck. It wasn't much. An arm. A head. A torso connecting it all. He was just parts really. Parts devoid of anything, a thin reminder of what used to be. He was very light and didn't talk. It was the first time Leila had ever carried Eck, and it wasn’t like she expected. She held him at arm’s length and then placed him into the bag, between the two legs with his head exposed. His good arm hung out of the bag and his eyes were closed like he was trying to die.
"I'm not sure I can carry everything," said Leila. Eck didn't reply. "Eck. Open your eyes. I don't think I can carry the bag."
"So drag it," he said. He didn't open his eyes. His head slumped forward and his face was concealed from Leila.
"That'll take too long. We'll miss Peter Twiss. There must be another way."
"Leila, please, just drag it. There's no other way." He spoke into the bag and his voice was muffled.
"Fine,” said Leila. “I don't see why anything should be easy. I'm leaving the wok behind then."
She grabbed the handles of the bag and kicked the wok into the gutter. She then pulled and the bag scraped along the sidewalk beneath the weight of Eck and his body. They moved slowly. Eck's face was lost entirely within the bag.
"It's very warm in here," he said. "Very warm. Much better." He paused. "Leila?"
"What has happened?"
"What do you mean?"
"My figs. What's happened to my figs?"
"How should I know?"
"I've crushed my own figs. They're crushed Leila. The figs are crushed."
"Will you please forget the damned figs?"
The bag moved slightly easier with some momentum. Leila wanted to put Eck's good arm into the bag with the rest of him in case it too became detached. She could wrap it around the other parts and push his head toward the center, like an infant. It would be more compact that way. More compact and easier to move. But it wouldn't be easy with Eck, and she feared the loss of time more than anything else.
"What will happen to me now, Leila?" asked Eck.
"Oh, I'm sure Peter Twiss will know what to do. He always knows what to do."
"And you think we can make it home okay like this? I've lost the figs already."
"We can make it home okay. I'll have to hurry though, you understand. We can't lose any more time. We can't keep Peter Twiss waiting much longer. You understand that, right?"
"Of course, I understand. I've always understood, really. I just wish I hadn't lost the figs. I might have given one to Peter Twiss. I really would have liked to offer him one."
"I don't think he would have eaten it," said Leila.
"Well, do you think this bag can hold me then? I mean, all the way to the house? I'm scared about what might happen."
"Don't worry about the bag, Eck. It's sturdy as hell."
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