Rooftop party at our house, drinks, familiar guests, view of the sunset, but Case strays from the group, strides to the east across the flat white roof, stops close to the knee-high rail. My friend Gaspar, like me, takes notice of his movement, and we drift separately toward him, as if drawn by his footsteps, and stop a distance away. Case peeks down at the garden, seeming to judge how high he stands at two stories up, and Gasp glances at me, I suspect, due to the alignment of our thoughts, our resentment of Case and our desire to knock him over the edge. My wife, Reva, on the other hand, finds Case charming and invites him to our parties because she admires his wit. He sees himself as an expert on human nature, and he’s pegged me and Gasp, who own restaurants together, as human cash registers, absorbed and flattened by the narrow world of commerce. Case has never created anything but trouble and has always lived off his family’s money, luxuriating in the conceit that his expressed opinions are a gift to the world. We’d like to ignore him, but his mind keeps striking out against us. Gasp quit a long-time poker game after tiring of Case’s mockery of every comment and facial expression he made. But Case still lies in wait inside his head, the sight of him enough to activate expectations of further cracks. I have an idea Case knows we’re standing behind him with thoughts of flipping him into midair. I’m convinced the only reason he chats up Reva, regaling her with his so-called wit, is to get me ranting inside. The more she loves Case the more it angers me, and he relishes every moment of the escalation. If I ever find out he’s put his hands on her he’ll be eating his cereal with his face in the bowl. Reva’s shout hits my spine: This is supposed to be a party, Jerry. What ideas are jerking you around now? I don’t answer and see that Case looks to be amused by her question, perhaps because Gasp and I are acting according to plan. I hate that he abuses our hospitality and doesn’t even have the respect to look me in the eye while he’s doing it. I hear Reva’s voice again: You boys aren’t thinking of giving him a push, are you? It won’t be that easy getting rid of your memory of him. Gasp looks back at her, probably wondering as I am if Case has somehow planted this zinger in her, her tone boiling him over. The latest news on Case, as Reva recently informed me, is that he’s considering running for state office. I shared this nugget earlier with Gasp and he’d already heard it. He commented that these days Case could go all the way. I didn’t ask what he meant. Gasp’s anger begins pushing him in Case’s direction, maybe just to say a few carefully selected words, but I can’t let him get too close if his intent is more aggressive. Case senses activity, his ears perk up, yet he does not look around to judge what’s about to happen, sending us a message that we’re not worth taking seriously. My hand is on Gasp’s chest, Reva laughing in the background, is she watching us, and then Case chuckles. Better slow down, Gasp, I say, too many eyeballs on the roof, too much mess to clean up on the stones below, think what horrible stuff will pour out of him if he crashes. He’s enjoying himself, as usual, Gasp replies and turns and walks to the other guests. With Gasp retreating, Case abandons the suspense of the roof’s edge and steps near me. Gasp has always been smarter than you, he says, though he’s too stupid to know it. He heads for Reva, who’s at once amused by whatever he tells her and rubs his arm and shoulder as if to heat him up. In my imagination they’re in bed together, heaving themselves in unison and crying out. I take the back stairs down and stand in the garden, looking up at the rail. I picture Case falling toward me, Gasp above him, arms extended, Case’s face filled with horror at his miscalculation. He lands on me, and we crumple, groaning, unable to get disentangled, my arms too twisted and broken to punch him in the face. We struggle without force, until, slowly, our movements cease.
“I can tell by looking at you. Your fundamental problem is that you believe you can remain alone in your own mind. It’s impossible.”
For some reason this man, without ever having met me, has appointed himself as my mentor. I’m at the mall, taking a breather after several laps around the lower level, seated in a vinyl chair. My mentor has parked himself in the chair at a right angle from mine. If I get up and walk away will he follow me? If I take another lap will he be sitting in the same place when I come back around?
“You want to know what I think?” he goes on. “I’ll tell you anyway. You see very little of everything around you. You don’t take people in as you walk past them. There’s an invisible wall around you, a boundary that dissuades entry of others. I’ve decided to cross that boundary. I can see tension twitching to life in your body right now. Words are running through your head, and you’re asking yourself why bother to answer a stranger. You wonder how someone you’ve never encountered could see inside you. It scares you to feel exposed and transparent, as if your deeper nature could be on display to anyone. You ask yourself if I’ve been following you and for how long. I’ve seen you here before, but only today did I really focus on you. I see that you wear a ring. It’s difficult to imagine you as an intimate partner, and I’d guess your spouse is lonely and miserable with you. Are you hoping for a lengthy future as a disconnected person? Earlier today I saw a family of five spread out in front of you as you walked toward them. You got jittery and refused to slow down. You didn’t consider interrupting yourself but barged through, impatient with them for occupying what you saw as your path. You see other people at the mall as part of an obstacle course, and you consider it a challenge to get by them as quickly as possible. You disrupt the calm of shoppers drifting through the temperature-controlled calm, weaving through everyone with no regard for how close you’re passing, unless it disturbs your urge for mindless momentum. Why do you think others should get out of your way? Do you believe you have some importance that only you have the acumen to see? This presumption has no reality outside the realm of your self-regard. Are you leaving? I have more to say, but I can understand why you don’t want to hear it. You prefer the comforting lie that you inhabit a special category of existence, a super-platinum-level view that exists only in your mind? Is that why you want to isolate yourself? To protect and cling to your illusions, fearing what you’d be without them.”
I’m up and moving away. He follows, his mouth running all the way through the doors to the outside. Has my wife hired him to torment me? How could she have recruited him? I keep walking toward my car.
“Do you wonder if I’m a projection of yours? As you drive away will you consider the possibility that you imagined me? People like you cause damage they don’t care enough to dream of because they don’t bother to accept the reality of anything beyond themselves. You can get in your car and speed past everyone within eyeshot, but my voice will not be silenced. No matter where you go I’ll always be talking to you whether you want to hear me or not. You’ll answer me, again and again, though you’d never give me the satisfaction of hearing you. If I stand behind your car, will you back over me and drive away? Even then I’d reverberate inside you, someone who wouldn’t let you escape without holding you to account. You can’t quite accept that you could have imagined me. If I’m not real, then I must have come from within you. Why would that be? Why do that to yourself? Think about that and think about this. You come to a person who’s a dead end: what do you do? What does your nature tell you? Do you keep going? Are you a fool wasting your time if you sit down and talk?”
Glen Pourciau’s most recent story collection, Getaway, was published in 2021 by Four Way Books. His stories have been published by AGNI Online, Green Mountains Review, New England Review, New World Writing, The Paris Review, Post Road, The Rupture, and others.