Chapter Fifty-seven

   "Calling all citizens!" cried the Town Crier, anachronistically. "Calling all citizens! Calling all citizens! Be advised that at two o'clock this afternoon in the village square there will be a contest, a grand and heroic competition matching this town's two grandest heroes! Come one, come all and witness the eating contest between Ed 'The Bottomless Pit' Bottomley and Jim 'The Character' Reynolds!"
   The town of Eclair, Wisconsin was known for its big eaters. Other towns may produce more powerful lumberjacks, or more expert fishermen, or more first-time novelists, but Eclair had the biggest eaters, bar none, no argument, hands down, don't ask. So, naturally, when the two biggest eaters in the town known for its big eaters got together to determine who really was the biggest eater, all heads turned, all eyes opened, all breathing stopped.
   "Ten bucks on Bottomley!"
   "Twenty bucks on Bottomley!"
   "Fifty bucks on Bottomley!"
   The betting was furious, but nobody was betting on Reynolds. No one gave him a chance in hell at beating the man they called "The Bottomless Pit." (How did he get the nickname "The Bottomless Pit"? Legend has it that his first choice, "The Stomach," was already taken.)
   So, with a crowd numbering in the thousands, the two contestants made their way into the village square, stepped up on a rickety platform overflowing with civic officials, and sat down at opposite ends of a long table covered with turkeys, hams, roasts, pies, cakes, and, for the first time at an eating contest, a selection of low-calorie diet foods. Bottomley, practically drooling, couldn't wait. He ripped a drumstick off one of the turkeys and sucked it dry in one pass, leaving nothing but bone. Jim, meanwhile, was still feeling the effects of his big meal at the Sizzler and could barely look at the food, he was so full. But, there was no turning back: The Mayor of Eclair raised a starter's pistol and -- fired!
   Immediately "The Bottomless Pit" turned the turkey into a turkey carcass. Then he grabbed a couple of hams, one in each hand, and just about inhaled them. Jim, meanwhile, was listlessly picking at a small boneless chicken breast with a knife and fork, taking occasional sips from a glass of Bromo-Seltzer. Some boos could be heard from the rear of the crowd and, as the level of discontent grew, poor old Jimmy Boy realized he was in for a heap of trouble if he didn't at least try to eat something. A town's pride was at stake here, and there was no telling what the reaction might be to a poor sport, a quitter. He knew he had to force himself to eat. He just had to.
   And then, something came over him, a feeling of absolute and total invincibility, and along with it a tremendous, ferocious appetite, and he began to devour everything, from chicken to beef to pork to fish to anything that was on a plate, plus the plates themselves, and the silverware, and even the table -- he was gnawing away at the table like a ravenous beaver, or, better, a woodchuck! "The Bottomless Pit" even stopped to watch, dumbfounded by this demonstration. Then, having finished off all the food, the plates, the silverware, and the table, Reynolds got down on all fours and began to eat the platform! Spectators in the first few rows were getting uneasy, and they had a right to be since Reynolds had so far given no sign of letting up.
   The Mayor, sensing something dire and sinister, called for calm -- then ran for his life. That opened the floodgates. Everyone fled, including "The Bottomless Pit," as Reynolds went on to eat the entire platform, the chairs, the flowers, the grass, the dirt, the trees, the concrete, the parking meters -- everything -- leaving a large gaping hole about a mile wide where the town had once been. It was awesome.
   And then, Reynolds belched.
   Well? What do you think?
   "Oh. Brilliant. Brilliant. Worthy of Twain."
   "Steve Twain."
   I should have seen that coming. Which is curious, Maureen. I should have seen it coming. Why didn't I?
   "Don't ask me. I don't know the next word I'm going to say. Not lately, at least. You ever get that feeling?"
   Sometimes, sometimes. Often, in fact.
   "You were seeing a doctor for it, weren't you?"
   For awhile. He couldn't find anything. And then I discovered that he, the doctor, was part of the problem, part of the whole hallucination in the first place, all made up, a figment of whatever the hell it was, and I don't know anymore, and I could care less and... maybe I should go back and see him... what do you think?
   "That's just what I was going to suggest. Maybe he can prescribe some medication for you."
   Like what? An anti-hallucinatory drug?
   "Don't laugh."
   "Jim Reynolds to see Dr. Farley" was how I announced myself to the receptionist.
   "Have a seat, Mr. Reynolds, the doctor will see you in just a minute."
   "Is someone using the bathroom key?" I asked.
   "No," she replied, and nodded in the direction of the key, which was attached to a large wooden paddle, the paddle apparently serving as a deterrent to people thinking of stealing the bathroom key. I knew that I, for one, would never steal it. Not with that paddle attached to it, no sir.
   Once in the bathroom I was able to get at the money packs I found strapped around my waist and chest, money packs that contained, in total, approximately one-and-a-half trillion dollars. I flushed the toilet and returned to the office.
   "Mr. Reynolds? The doctor will see you now."
   I went in and there he was -- jolly, unflappable Dr. Farley.
   "What is it this time, Reynolds -- Flying Saucers? Another after-death experience? Ate some shellfish in a month ending in 'r'?"
   "Doc, don't be so flip. I need your help, and I'm willing to pay good money for it."
   "You're insured, aren't you?"
   "Forget insurance, Doc, I'm talking real money, fuck you money, money that does all the talking money. Capiche?"
   "How much?"
   "Let's say, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars?"
   "Come on, you've got trillions, Reynolds. Let's say, two hundred and fifty million."
   "Well, all right, you've got me. Here." I took out a wad of large denomination bills and peeled off two hundred and fifty million.
   "So? What kind of help?"
   "Here's the problem, Doc: Last time I told you I was having difficulty adjusting to living in a Xerox copy of my world. But I've come to accept that. My problem now is more serious. My problem now is -- I'm losing it. I'm losing my grip. I'm not in control anymore. They took it away from me, they took it away... "
   "Took what away?" he asked, showing compassion, the last thing I expected.
   "They took away my novel! I was writing this at one time. At one time every thought, every word, every square inch of this page -- was mine. And now? Now, I don't know who's in charge. Who's in charge, Doc? Who's in charge?" I fell to my knees and started sobbing. The doctor offered me a Kleenex from one of the new "Designer Series" pop-up dispensers.
   "Look, Reynolds, you've been through a lot, that's obvious. But where did you ever get it in your head that you were writing this thing? You've got delusions, my boy, and that kind of problem is better handled by a psychiatric specialist, so if you'll excuse me... "
   The good doctor turned his back to me and opened a drawer and seemed to be pasting something on his chin, and then he turned around and there he was, sporting a Vandyke, a pince-nez, and a broad and silly Viennese accent.
   "I'm Dr. Van Dyke now. Tell me vot is troubling you, Mr. Reynolds. Vot is zis feeling you have, zis feeling zat you are, somehow, in control of everything and everyone, that you are somehow, omnipotent?"
   I wasn't sure how to take this fraudulent Freud, or whether to even stick around, but when you're paying someone a quarter of a billion dollars for their advice, you wait around to find out what it is.
   "Well, Doc, this feeling of omniscience and omnipotence -- I'm not sure when it first started, quite frankly. I might have gotten the idea from the TV commercials."
   "Commercials? Vot commercials?"
   "Yes. You know. They run them in the middle of the day, when out-of-work losers like myself might be watching, the ones that begin with the question, 'OMNIPOTENT?' and then a voice that asks, 'Are you omnipotent? Embarrassed because you are in command of everything and everyone and space and time and infinity and all matter and anti-matter and even quarks? If you or someone you know suffers from omnipotence, call us at 1-800-GOD-HEAD. A trained expert in omnipotence will advise you on the proper course of action.' You know, those commercials."
   "I'm afraid I've never seen zem, Mr. Reynolds. But, tell me, if you really are all-powerful and all-knowing and all-seeing, zen how is it zat you're always so miserable and depressed? How come you're not enjoying yourself more? I know I vood if I vuz God."
   "I guess I should be having more fun, but I'm always being pulled back by guilt."
   "You feel guilty? For vot? For murdering all zose billions of people?"
   "I did that?"
   "Vell, according to you you did."
   "I don't remember killing billions of people."
   "Are you sure?"
   "Pretty sure."
   "Zen, you know vot I tink? I tink you've repressed ze memory, that's vot I tink."
   "You tink -- I mean you think so? So where does that leave me? I'm God, but with a terrible memory?"
   "I vood say yes. Who knows? Vy not try it on, see if it fits."
   Outside, waiting in the Aston-Martin, Maureen was anxious to learn the doctor's conclusions. So I told her.
   "He's nutty as a fruitcake. Now, let's get going -- you know what? -- we're not far from "The Thing," maybe we can get there before nightfall." And off we went.
   It was still light out as we approached, with great anticipation, "The Thing."
   "Next exit," I reminded her, since she was doing at least ninety and might miss it at that speed.
   "You're sure you want to see this?" she asked. "It's probably a two-headed cow, or an albino skunk, or something really stupid."
   "Let me be the judge of that," I countered. "Get off here -- "
   She abruptly jerked the car to the right and we swerved across three lanes, cutting off an eighteen-wheeler in the process and barely making it onto the ramp.
   "It might be one of the great wonders of the world," I wondered aloud as we pulled into the dusty dirt-covered parking lot.
   "For a dollar fifty? I doubt it," Maureen snapped. "You go in, I'll wait in the car."
   "You don't want to see 'The Thing'?"
   "No," she reiterated.
   "Will you be all right out here by yourself?" I asked, thinking of all the weird things that can happen to people who stop along our interstates.
   "I'll be fine," she said reassuringly. "Just don't complain to me when you find out that 'The Thing' is nothing more than a pig with an unusually human-like face."
   I chuckled, and then strolled over to the ticket booth. A buck fifty, how can you go wrong? We, consisting of me and this family of five or six that -- wow! I think they're the same ones from the elevator! -- anyway, we were pointed in the direction of a wooden fence with a faded red arrow on it, and we followed the arrows from that point on through a labyrinthine path that was closed in on both sides by a ten-foot high wall, a little too high to peek over. This was quite a maze we had to walk through, let me tell you. It kept on going and going and going -- it was endless! I began to think that "The Thing" was the maze itself, and that led me to think that "The Thing" may be something far more frightening than that -- I began to think that "The Thing" was really some kind of dumping ground for inferior members of the species, humans foolish enough to fall for something as obvious as "The Thing" in the first place and who deserved to be eliminated -- that this maze was truly endless, that we'd never get out of it, that we'd never find the exit, that we were doomed to wander inside this maze forever, for eternity... I began to shake, and shiver, and cry, and weep, and --
   "Hey look!" said one of the kids. "Is that a man with a pig's body or a pig with a man's face?"
   And there it was, a pig with an unusually human-like face. I wiped away my tears and stared at it, fascinated, just like everyone else. A buck fifty? It was worth it.
   "So? Was it worth a dollar fifty?" Maureen asked as I climbed into the car, sucking on a pecan shake I picked up at a Stuckey's somewhere between the last paragraph and this one.
   "You bet it was!"
   "Hey, why didn't you get one for me?" she wondered, perplexed.
   "Didn't think of it," I riposted. "Now, how about some miniature golf?"
   "It's too late, Jim. Let's find a small motel run by a moody psychopath and turn in for the night."
   "Fine, I could use a restless, sleepless night right about here."

(This ends Chapter Fifty-seven. I know, I promised a torrid love affair with Maureen. That's been postponed and will now occur in Chapter Sixty-five which, I've just decided, will be the last chapter. Let that be a lesson to you: Trust no one.)

   Chapter Fifty-eight