One morning Carlos caught me not writing in my unworlding journal again. He placed the journal on the table with exaggerated calm and took a five dollar bill out of my wallet, which he no longer kept in his pocket since it had gotten too full and fallen apart at the seams. He mumbled something about "going to Greedwill" and before long he came back with an old machete and a small sledgehammer and dropped them on the kitchen floor with a loud clatter. Then he popped his head out the door of the third-story apartment into the hallway and hollered, "Ned!" He stood still, listening, but nothing happened. Again he hollered, "Ned!" and again nothing happened. Finally he disappeared into the hallway. I shuddered to think of who this "Ned" fella might be. Another homeless savant capable of dissolving yuppies? I didn't think I could handle any more company; living with Carlos was like getting stuck in three Fellini movies at once. I halfway expected "Ned" to be a talking dog that could fly.
Instead, Carlos pranced back into the apartment with a little blond boy in tow, his little blond head bent over a heavy load in his arms. Carlos was chewing him out: "I swear, Ned, if you walked any slower I'd have to bury you." The poor kid was hugging a foot-long length of railroad rail, a solid slab of steel, and when Carlos pointed at the kitchen floor he dropped to his knees with heaving chest, and I was afraid the rail would go through the kitchen floor when he dropped it the last few inches so it wouldn't smash his fingers. He was dripping with sweat. He was wearing baggy old clothes that made him look like a time traveler from the slums of Dickens' London. As the poor kid hugged the steel rail, panting desperately, face down to the floor, a song from the musical Oliver entered my mind and wouldn't leave: "Consider yourself... Well in! Consider yourself... Part of the family!..." The same two lines went 'round and 'round in my head and I couldn't make the catchy tune stop. Carlos was washing his hands at the sink, telling Ned he should stop feeling sorry for himself and wash his hands too. Ned just kept on panting face down on the rail as if waiting for a train to come along and put him out of his misery. It never occurred to me that I hadn't yet seen his face. Finally Carlos came over and winked at me, signaling the start of a song with his fingers counting a-One, a-Two, a-Three... and he launched into song:
"Consider yourself... Well in! Consider yourself... Part of the family!..."
Nothing from Carlos surprised me anymore. Privacy was a thing of the past. I somehow knew that this street urchin would be moving in with us. I considered leaping out of the window to see if I was dreaming, but Carlos had warned me not to try that if anyone else was around, "Because nothing can kill you better than consensus reality." I had no idea what he was talking about.
Obviously pleased with himself for again guessing the exact contents of my mind, Carlos stopped singing and pounded me on the back. I hoped he was trying to alter my state of awareness or at least cheer me up, but nothing happened. Then Carlos said, "Yoodey--" that's what he always called me. He said it was short for "You d'Guru." But when he left me notes, he addressed them to "Judy," explaining that this was the Peruvian spelling of the Russian name he pronounced "Yoodey". He was obviously making it all up as he went along, but once he said it the first time, that's the name I got stuck with.
"Yoodey, meet New Age Ned. He's my other student. He's an unpaid slave down at Greedwill. I found him shackled to a work table in the back room, fixing broken toys with a rusty old screwdriver and sniffing glue, and took pity on him and made him part of our little clique."
I groaned and thought of jumping out the window again. An 8-year-old glue-sniffer rescued from slavery? Living with me in my house? I was truly on the verge of panic. I thought I might throw up, but I hadn't eaten anything in nearly 24 hours.
Carlos continued with his introduction. "New Age Ned--meet Yoodey, your new cohort in unworlding."
The poor kid gradually started to lift his head, but before I could see his face, a deep voice came growling out of him, "It's Nuage. My name is not Ned and it's not New Age nuthin'. It's Nuage. It's French. It means 'cloud'. You're saying it wrong on purpose, you psychotic old coot."
The growl coming from the face I still couldn't see sent shivers up and down my spine. I was afraid Carlos was going to strike us all dead with lightning bolts when Ned called him a psychotic old coot, but when I turned to my right to look at him, Carlos was clutching his sides and laughing so hard his face had turned beet red. While trying to catch his breath, he made stabbing motions in the air with his index finger, indicating that I had to see what the sweaty little boy was doing.
After hearing that growly voice I was afraid Carlos really had brought home a talking dog in baggy pants. I wouldn't put it past him. With trepidation I turned back to the small figure crouched on my kitchen floor.
It was looking straight up at me. Looking me right in the eyes.
A middle-aged dwarf with a stubble of gray beard, kneeling at my feet, leering up at me. His thick blond hair was streaked with pure white. His eyes were lime green.
My mouth must have dropped open as I took an involuntary step backward. The dwarf spoke.
"Whatsamatter big fella? Midgets don't bite."
I heard the loud thump of something soft and heavy hitting the wood floor. It shook the whole house and rattled the windows. Now the dwarf was giggling like a fiend from hell and I turned reflexively to the left expecting to see Carlos rolling on the kitchen floor, clutching his sides and laughing, but there was no one there.
But from the empty kitchen came a huge gust of solid wind that hit me like a boxing glove in the solar plexus, knocking the air out of me and sending me reeling blindly backward into the adjoining little dark living room where arms that looked like Carlos' grabbed me from behind and dragged me backward, twirled me around and dropped me face first onto the shabby old lime-green sofa which I tended to avoid because I'd once seen a giant cockroach disappear into it and because it smelled like the sweat of tenants past.
Pulling my face out of the ratty upholstery, I managed to cough out a few words, but was unwilling to open my eyes. I was pretty sure that the old coot had brought the dwarf here to do something bad to me, just bad enough to scare me, and after that they would cut me open and eat my liver raw. But all I could choke out was, "How did I not see--" but the dwarf's hysterical laughter doubled in volume and I didn't see any point in finishing the question. Instead I grabbed a sofa cushion and pushed it down over the back of my head, unconcerned with the pungent aroma of the ancient upholstery.
The last thing I remember was Carlos' voice whispering right in my ear as if he had somehow managed to get under the sofa cushion with me: "How do you manage to not see anything? Anything at all?"
I was wondering what this was supposed to mean when I had the sensation of floundering into a timeless state that I could only later describe as a dark breathable liquid.
I seemed to flounder in a timeless, semi-drowned, blind state for what could have been hours, but when I finally managed to grope my way to the top of the darkness and my head popped out into the air and I took a gasping, panicked breath of light, I was lying on my back on the kitchen floor with the steel rail under my head like a pillow. I immediately suspected that the dwarf and the old man had dragged me over here as a joke. I looked toward the living room expecting to see sofa cushions out of place, but all was in order.
The sound of chewing caused me to turn my head and Carlos sat alone at the little wooden kitchen table eating one of his huge homemade Philly cheese-steak sandwiches. This was his single daily meal, although some days he only ate a combination of fruit, cheese, peanuts, or yogurt. "Arise and shine, Little Mary Sunshine. Get over here and eat your sandwich before I do." All my joints popped as I struggled to my feet. My head was ringing and I felt like I'd been pummeled in my sleep. I staggered like a drunk into the kitchen and fell into the chair. There was only one thing on my mind...
"I got rid of it."
"It? The dwar--"
"Whatever. I sent it back to the ass end of the Unworld."
I was seized by a shiver running up my spine. I was trying to take the bread off my sandwich since bread was forbidden, and noticed my hands were shaking.
"Eat the bread too," Carlos said. "You need a little treat after what you just went through." He chewed thoughtfully and I found myself devouring the sandwich as if I hadn't eaten in a week.
I finally managed to ask the next question... again.
"The Dream Usher."
That wasn't gonna sink in very fast, so I tried to get back to the real topic at hand: "Why was I so afraid of that dwarf?"
"The midget? That was just the Dream Usher puttin' on a show so you could see it. It lives in the Nowhere so getting you to notice it was not easy. You took a big step today. I guess I'm sorta proud of you in a way. Most people just try to kill it on sight."
Another shiver ran up my spine.
I had more than one question now. Carlos saw me eyeing the section of steel rail next to the old machete and the steel-handled small sledgehammer that he'd carried home from the thrift shop. He said, "That stuff's just borrowed from the workshop down at Greedwill. It'll have to be returned." He swallowed another bite of his sandwich and went on, "Ned'll be back to get it."
I swallowed a bite of half-chewed meat down the wrong pipe and choked it back up. Carlos was just smiling this time; at least he wasn't rolling on the floor laughing.
When I could speak again, I opened my mouth but Carlos spoke first. "Shut up and eat. Questions later. You can't meet your Dream Usher all at once. Your head might explode."
"My Dream Usher?--"
"Later. Save all questions for later. Just let them build up in you like piss. Builds character to wait."
I'd lost my appetite but forced myself to finish the huge sandwich, knowing it might be my last meal of the day, but halfway wishing I'd choked to death on it. For all I knew, it could be my last meal ever. Why else would he break his own rules by offering me bread. Worse, I had no idea what I was afraid of. I'd seen midgets before. I mean dwarves.
Carlos spoke again. "You know, if Mama Cass had shared her sandwich with Karen Carpenter, they might both be alive today." Any other time the joke would have made me laugh, but under the circumstances it barely made me want to live. Somehow I got the rest of the sandwich down and Carlos said we had to go to the dark living room to rest after the big meal. I sat in a hard wooden chair and Carlos plopped down in the smelly old broken down recliner. He asked me why I never slept on the couch or recliner and I said they smelled bad and I was afraid they might have cootie bugs in them. I had bought a new piece of foam to sleep on when Carlos had moved in and taken over the bedroom. I didn't mind; the mattress in the bedroom could have just about anything living in it.
Then I realized what he'd just said. He'd never seen me on that couch. Either he was a liar--and I was sure he was--or else...
Another shiver went up my spine. I didn't bother to say anything.
After a 30-minute period of silent meditation which Carlos called "Blaffinveigle" because it "inveigles the inner blather," Carlos slapped his knees and sprang to his feet. "What you need is some exercise," he said. I followed him into the kitchen. Usually he wouldn't let me use the jump-rope this soon after a meal, but the jump-rope was apparently not what he had in mind. He signaled me to get down on the kitchen floor in front of the section of steel rail. I couldn't help wondering how something ephemeral enough to be called "the Dream Usher" could have carried such a solid, heavy object all the way from Goodwill. I found myself wishing that New Age Ned was really just a glue-sniffing dwarf that Carlos had rescued from slavery in Goodwill's back room. As long as he wasn't planning to move in.
Carlos squatted down across the rail from me and picked up the rusty old machete. Its wooden handle had split open from old age and had been wrapped with electrical tape long ago. It was a sticky mess. Carlos pointed at the once-sharp edge of the blade. "This is the sharp edge," he said. He flipped the blade over. "And this is the dull edge." He pointed at the section of rail and said, "This is your anvil."
He placed the dull edge of the blade on the anvil and picked up the hammer. "That's a hammer," I said. He ignored me.
He started tapping carefully straight down on the once-sharp edge of the machete. He was obviously trying to remove any usefulness that the old, rusty blade once had. I knew better than to ask what he was doing or why. I just watched him gently tap the length of the whole blade until the whole edge was smashed down. In this condition it would obviously be useless to cut a blade of grass. After satisfying himself that the blade was completely ruined, he held it up to show me. I saw that the metal wasn't bent or broken; he'd carefully squashed it down to thicken the edge. He finally spoke. "This is a good blade. It cost me five bucks down at Greedwill, even with my senior discount. This blade is made from relatively soft steel. If it was too hard, it would be brittle. It would crack if you hit it on a big rock." After a pause he went on. "Let's say you just got done whacking a whole field full of weeds, a very rocky field, and you forgot to bring a sharpening stone, so every time you smashed your blade on a rock, the blade got duller, until it wouldn't even cut grass." He paused again, looking me in the eyes.
"Look at the blade carefully," he said. "Look at the edge." I did what I was told, but saw only a purposely dulled machete.
Carlos went on. "This is your unworlding journal with nothing written in it."
I wanted to laugh in relief. "So that's all--"
"No, that's just the beginning. We will now find us a parcel of weeds to whack with our newly designed cutting tool."
He flung the apartment door open and left. I followed him like a zombie. "Leave the door open," he said without turning around. "Ned might be needin' to get in."
My blood froze. I hurried to catch up with the old man. I didn't want to be there when Ned came for his hammer and anvil.
Once outside, I noticed that Carlos was doing the Breath of Flight so I mimicked him. Walking quickly he took every turn I'd never taken and went down every street I'd never gone down, seeming to double back on himself many times, but we never passed anything that seemed familiar to me. For all I knew, he had led me directly to a foreign country like Mexico or Peru, maybe even a large city in Asia. The signs in the shop windows seemed to be in English, but when I'd look at one, it would blur or the letters seemed to be in the wrong order. People on the sidewalk turned away from me as if I were a ghost. I wondered what they were afraid of, and finally realized I was staggering down the sidewalk breathing hard and fast in a semi-delirious state with a machete in my hand.
I tried to compose myself, afraid I might be arrested. I stopped to the left of a broken-down old iron gate and tried to stand up straight. I took some slow breaths, then realized in a panic that I was completely lost and had been wandering aimlessly. I hadn't seen Carlos in several long... minutes? hours? The timelessness was so thick I could have sliced it with a knife. The weight of the machete in my hand was almost comforting; it was the only thing I could see that I recognized. When I looked down at myself, I didn't even remember owning the shirt I was wearing.
Something like a huge gust of wind slammed into me from the left side and for a moment I was afraid I'd been run over. Had I been standing in the street? I would have toppled over if not for the broken-down iron gate to my right which was not latched, but because it was almost rusted in place on its hinges, my weight forced it open only slowly. It didn't just creak on its hinges; it screamed as it opened and I stumbled through.
A hand pushed me again and I was in a medium-small yard full of tall pungent weeds. Not far away stood the rotten shell of what had once been a huge wooden three-story house. The walls had so many holes in them you could see into the back yard. But oddly enough, while it was daylight where we stood, I got the impression that it was nighttime in the back yard. I started toward the house to investigate, but Carlos seized me by the shoulder.
"Don't you touch Ned's house," he hissed. "And whatever you do, stay well away from his shed."
Somehow it was not comforting to learn that the Dream Usher had a place of his own.
I followed Carlos' gaze to a ruined old shed on the edge of the smallish yard. It was so fallen down that I imagined I could see something green inside it through the gaps in the walls. For some reason I imagined a weather-beaten old ping-pong table or pool table in there. Then somehow the thing I thought I saw turned into an old piano. I even thought I heard someone playing it. It sounded exactly like a piano that had been out in the weather, plunking like a dead thing.
A hand came down over my face to break my gaze. Carlos spun me away from the shack. "Don't look at Ned's house, or his shack, and don't go near them. Look at the ground. Look at your hands, your feet, but not the shed. Especially not the shed. I don't need to spend the next 200 years trying to find you in the Nowhere."
"Where's the Nowhere?" I managed to blurt out between panic attacks.
He just spread his arms apart and looked from side to side. I followed his gaze.
The yard was much too small for the vast house as if it had once been a rural estate and the city had gradually encroached upon it, all but swallowing it. What had once been an iron fence was now so thoroughly vined over that the vines could have been all that was holding it up. I recognized the vines as morning glories by the bell-shaped sky-blue flowers. I hoped he wasn't going to make me eat morning glory seeds. I knew from experience that they would make me sick and I'd had my fill of hallucinating for the day. Carlos spoke, as usual betraying my total lack of privacy.
"Don't eat anything in this yard. If you do, you will learn the true meaning of 'dizzy'."
Using my free hand to try and shield my eyes from any accidental viewing of the shed or the house, I looked around. Other than the flagstone path we stood on, there was nothing here but the tall pungent weeds. I asked him what kind of plant this was, and he shrugged. "We're here because you need exercise. You brought your nice sharp tool. Start chopping."
Carlos turned toward the house, walked straight in after pushing the door open with his shoe, as if he was afraid to touch it, and was instantly swallowed by darkness. I turned to run. I wanted to leave, right now. Wherever "the Nowhere" was, I didn't want to be there alone. But the flagstone path had disappeared from under my feet and the weeds actually seemed to be getting taller and closer together. I told myself to be calm and tried closing my eyes, but that was worse. I stared at the plants and dared them to grow, but they wouldn't do it while I was watching. I heard footsteps behind me, but no one was there. Then I noticed that the plants had grown a foot taller when my back was turned.
My only hope was to find the gate and escape this "Nowhere" place, wherever it was. I could see that Carlos was not going to help me this time. I started to push my way through the forest of smelly plants. I couldn't even see the shed now, not that I wanted to.
With no other choice than to hold myself together until I could find the gate and escape, I vowed to make it out of there on my own efforts. It was absolutely clear to me that I would not survive if I gave in to panic. I even thought that my adrenaline surges were feeding the weeds, making them grow. There was only one thing I could do. I looked at the "nice sharp blade" in my hand and firmly resolved that it was gonna have to do. It was my only hope.
Pouring my all into the blade and my swinging arm, I attacked the plants with a savage fury. It had been an overcast day, but the sun chose this time to come out. It took several whacks to force the dull machete through each woody stalk; most of them just shredded or buckled. I half imagined that the plants were cursing me in their own language. In seconds I was drenched in sweat. Sweat poured off of me, ran down my face, burned my eyes. Twice the blade flew out of my sweaty palm, and the second time this happened it took me over a minute to find it. It was the longest minute of my life. My heart was pounding as I imagined myself stuck in "the Nowhere" without a weapon. I hoped that my impending heart attack would be fatal. Finally I saw the dull glint of rusty metal up against a weathered old board and dove for it. Standing up, I realized too late that I was surrounded by what had once been the wall of the shed. I was in the shed of Ned.
Blade in hand but not bothering to swing the useless thing, I took off running, trampling old boards underfoot to escape the shed and crash through the aromatic foliage in the general direction of the gate. Still no gate. Surveying what little ground I could see, I not only couldn't find the flagstone path, I couldn't see one chopped-down plant, as if everything I'd managed to rip through with the dull blade had just gotten back up again.
I felt weak, stupid, more than a little crazed, near to heat stroke, and so sick of fearing god-knows-what that I wilted to my knees and decided to give up. I decided that I, a mortal man, had no power over whatever was doing this to me--none at all. I was ready to quit, to beg for death.
And then I realized I couldn't remember my own name.
Darkness, and someone screaming in abject terror. I realized it was me screaming. I knew who did this to me. The powerful enemy was my only hope. I screamed for the Dream Usher. Over and over, I screamed the Dream Usher's name, but the fear just clutched at me deeper. Finally, in true desperation, I decided to be conversationally specific about my actual needs of the moment, forced myself to calm down enough to decide what those needs were, and spoke in a quavering voice that I'm sure only I could hear: "Dream Usher! I'm ready to die! Anything but more of this! Just take away the fear! Dream Usher! Take me somewhere else!"
All the tall smelly plants fell on the ground. I was standing on the flagstone path facing the house. Carlos was sitting on the front steps ten feet away from me, sniffing one of the fallen plants. He ambled over to me.
"Pretend you're not afraid of anything," he whispered. "Act normal like your life depended on it and just pick up all these chopped-down weeds, roll them up in a bundle, and get ready to carry them home. Do not give one more speck of your energy to fear."
I quickly gathered up all the plants with the last of my strength. As glad as I was to see Carlos, I was afraid he would disappear through the gate and the gate would disappear with him.
Fortunately the yard was tiny and the plants were few. By the time I had rolled them all up into a bale I could hold in my arms, I wondered what I had been afraid of. With my arms full of weeds, Carlos grabbed the machete and tossed it into a basement window. I expected to hear it clatter to the floor inside, but there was not even a thud. Instead, someone--or something--screamed. It was behind me. I spun around. It was coming from the shed--that evil little shed. Something else screamed, again behind me. When I spun around, Carlos was gone. From high above, as if from the rafters in the attic of the house, came a plaintive wailing in an obscure European accent: "Who cut down all me muggons! Aaaaahhhhhhhhhggggggggggg...!"
Frantically looking around, I saw Carlos already across the street waving his arms at me. "Run, you idiot!" But his mouth hadn't moved. I heard his voice in my head. Not knowing what else to do, I ran like hell. I don't even remember going through the gate. Once out on the sidewalk, I dared to glance over my shoulder. I was sure that I saw the Dream Usher from a distance, standing silent and motionless on the front porch of the house, but at the same time I could see the black holes in his lime-green eyes. I ran the rest of the way home, my arms full of muggons, and didn't look behind me again till I got home and slammed the door behind me. The hammer and anvil were gone, and I realized that I had no idea how I'd found my way home.
Seeing Carlos snoring in the recliner--and no one else there--I grabbed the quart of beer he allowed me to keep in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator--what he called my "emergency stash"--and guzzled it. Halfway through the bottle I suddenly felt so glad to be home alone with Carlos that it made me sob a few times before I got myself together. Eventually I got my foam pad out of the closet and tried to go to sleep, with all the lights on.
But not before checking the bedroom, the closets, under the bed, and behind all the doors.