King and Counselors

Outside the Sober House, he paged through the classifieds, only a few days left before they’d kick him out for not acquiring a vocation. He’d always preferred nothingness, felt the pull of it, the most recent result of that desire a mix of Xanax, Oxycontin, and a pint of Marker’s Mark. A miracle, they said, that he still walked the earth. They all wanted something, ad after ad, describing their company person.

“He look right to you?”

“Gotta measure him.”

The voices pulled him out of the papers, back into the alley where he sat among the squalid discards, a slow rotting, piles of kittens in the corners.

The tall one pulled out a tape. “Do you mind?”

He shook his head, stood up while they recorded heights and widths, circumferences and inseams.

“Close enough,” the other one said. “You need a job. You won’t have to do anything.”

“I can do that.”

They gave him a card with an address and a time, told him to go to a shelter to pick out the right clothes and shoes, then left him.

The tall one shouted down the alley. “You aren’t claustrophobic, are you?”

He didn’t wait for an answer.

At the shelter, a thin man told him to pick out shoes, so that when the bossman shook his hand and glanced down, the bossman would be sure; but he couldn’t decide between the red ones with silk laces or the tan leather pair with the tiny perforations in the toe. Both were impeccably delicate. He imagined fragile hands worked on them until their fingers ached.

“Why these shoes?” he asked the man. “Who would give such shoes away?” The thin man shrugged. “How can one choose?” The thin man said to take both, wished him luck, pushed him outside into the swelter.

Even in the bossman’s lobby, he couldn’t decide, thought of Bartleby, his favorite character from school. He’d taken his shoes off, set both pairs on the ground, imagined stepping inside to some other fate. He preferred the moment of entering them to their being worn. He put his feet in, again and again.

“Yo.” The shoes were snatched away. “Where’d you get these?” The man pushed the red shoes at him. “You know about these? The bishop—” He rubbed his lips with the back of his hand.

“They gave them to me,” he told the man. “To wear for the bossman.”

The man grabbed his shoulder, twisted him around. “I’m going with you.”

In the elevator, he asked the man about Bartleby, and the man said yeah, he read it a long time ago, and he asked the man the teacher’s question and the man didn’t answer it either.

“Shut the fuck up.”

The man pushed him along to an office in his stocking feet. The man knocked, the door buzzed, and he was pushed inside.

“This asshole has Vincent’s shoes.”

The man leaning against the desk, thin like a stick figure or skeleton, reached out his hand. Again, he was pushed forward. He took the hand, and the bossman glanced down—to his socks, his big toe sticking through, the nail long, yellow.

The bossman let go, reached out, and the shoes were placed in the bossman’s hands.

“A bishop gave these to me,” the bossman said. “A pope wore them. That’s no bullshit. A pope.” He set that pair on his desk, held the other pair. “And these, well. Craft.” The bossman hushed the other man, and they stood silent for a long time. Then: “I sent for you and you picked these. Why?”

“They loved them.” Not an easy love, like flipping a quarter or two into a cup. “It hurt,” he told the bossman. Not just the making but the letting go.

The bossman grasped him by the elbow. “What do you know about it?”

He shook his head.

The bossman set both pairs of shows on the wood floor, explained. They were going to show him to the family as Vincent—and all he’d have to do was lay unmoving in the coffin. But they’d want to see him buried, surely you see that, and therein lay the problem. “You’ll have to go in the dirt. We’ll dig you up, won’t cover you the whole way. But you’ll have to go down there. Into the hole.”

The bossman handed him a pregnant envelope and he snatched it, his brain already releasing its chemicals, going down familiar pathways, sparking. He stepped into the red shoes, the ones the pope wore, the ones the bossman had given Vincent for exquisite work. He felt overwhelmed, faint, but also certain.

“You won’t dig me up,” he said, tottering under the truth of it.

“Whatever you prefer.” The bossman held him up, kept him from tumbling out of the shoes. “For now should I have lain still and been quiet,” the bossman quoted. “I should have slept.”


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