Hollow

by

Frank Byrns




Remember us -- if at all -- not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men

-- TS Eliot, "The Hollow Men"


The labs came back today. Theyíre pretty confident in the results, even if they wonít ever be one hundred percent sure. Itís the Big C.

Cancer.

When I got popped this last time, on that cigarette truck thing for the Marzano Family, it was the lovely Blackbird that put me away. When she turned me over to the Containment Unit, she looked me square in the eye, and with that dead sexy voice of hers, told me that I was going to spend the rest of my life on The Farm.

I laughed at her then. Even with the interstate crime thing added on, I wasnít planning on doing more than six or eight years, and that was only if I didnít bust out before then. Thereís only so much room here on The Farm, and thereís always somebody crazier, somebody more violent, somebody they need locked up more than me.

I guess Iím not laughing now. More than likely, I will spend the rest of my life here. What Iíd like to find out, though, is when she said that, how did she know that the rest of my life was only going to be six weeks?

####

As best they can tell, the cancer started in my colon. By the time they found it, it had spread to my stomach. A week later, my small intestine; my liver the week after that.

The prison doctors had never seen anything metastasize so quickly, and called in a specialist, a meta-physiologist from Philadelphia. He theorized that my super-high metabolism was the cause of the rapid spread, and I tended to agree with him. The same super-high metabolism that helps my body process enough energy to carry around this 800 pound steel skin, the same one thatís saved my life more times than I care to remember, the same one thatís now killing me.

####

I wasnít born this way, you know.

I used to be plain old Eddie DiSilva, just some big mope from The Flats. My old man always said that I wasnít the sharpest knife in the drawer, and I took that to heart. He was my old man, right? Just looking for whatís best for his boy, trying to steer him right.

I was going along to get along, getting by, working a few things here and there with my man Phil Mirabelli, a guy Iíd ran with since grammar school. Another dull knife, but one that was always there, loyal, steady. I donít know, but I always felt more comfortable with a dull knife that I knew, rather than something slick and flashy thatíd just as soon cut me as what was on my plate. But maybe thatís just me.

So me and Phil did this Italian sports car thing for this guy Joey Fish, who as it turned out, was connected; he was working for a guy who was in with the Marzanos. Not in in, he didnít have his button or anything like that, but he knew some people.

And thatís how my name got put in the hat when the word came that Big Bennie Mars himself was looking for someone special. Fish dropped my name when he heard what the boss was looking for: a steady hand, a level head who didnít rattle easy. And the bigger the guy was, the better.

Even then, I went about six-four, two forty. The sports car thing had gotten a little dicey in spots, and Fish had given me some off-hand compliments about my composure. I donít know, I just didnít want to look like a big stupid kid, so I kept my mouth shut and did my job.

But whatever works, right?

So next thing I know, Bennieís sending a car around for me, and Iím headed downtown to meet with the big guy. It was a nice car, a Lincoln; the driver wore a little hat and everything. Say what you want about his business practices, but Bennie Marzano was first class.

We get to Bennieís building on Pravatt Street, and Iím escorted right up to his office without a wait. Itís me, Bennie himself, his punk kid Tommy, and a little guy in a white labcoat they called Dr. Trillo. Trillo stared at me from the second I walked in the door, and I made him for a swish. But as Bennie started to explain things to me, I slowly understood Trilloís interest. He wanted my body all right, but not the way I thought he did. He wanted me for an experiment.

####

I started feeling poorly about a month ago; according to the prison doctors, my symptoms were consistent with cancer, but they had no way of knowing, not for sure. There are no x-rays that can penetrate my skin; well, not without frying everything underneath it at the same time. They couldnít operate, of course; itíll be another fifty years before someone comes up with a blade strong enough to cut my skin. They settled on a colonoscopy, and even that was difficult. But thatís how they found it. By then, it had spread to my stomach, and my days were numbered.

They couldnít operate thanks to Trilloís experiments. Essentially, he grafted liquid steel onto my skin. The way it was described to me, dumbed down for this dull knife, of course, the steel intertwined with my original skin, way down at the molecular level, absorbing some of its qualities, discarding others, over and over and over until there was nothing left of the original layers, either my skin or the steel. What was left was something entirely new, something Trillo called an Exodermis.

Big Eddie DiSilva became Eddie Metal.

The Exodermis was designed to make my skin impenetrable, to let nothing harm me, to make me invulnerable to any outside agent. An unstoppable force at Bennie Marsí beck and call. It worked -- real good. Too good, in fact. It never took into account things which were already inside me, working to destroy from within. And now? Now that those things inside have been discovered? Thereís nothing they can do to save me.

####

Morphine.

The end is near. Everyone can see that. Iíve been given control of my own drip, straight down my throat. This would never fly on the outside, not in a real hospital. But The Farm has always been a different kind of place. You break the rules to get in here, and once you do, you find out all the rules inside are different. Irony, maybe.

I drift in and out. Up is down, day is night. Shapes without form. Shades without color. Iím writing this, Iím dreaming this. Whoís to say.

I remember odd things. I remember a rubber-banded stack of Donruss baseball cards. The 1982 set. Gorman Thomas. Jamie Quirk. Mike Squires. Mike Squiresí birthday -- March 5th. Same as mine. Go ahead, look it up. I remember.

I remember a school trip to Washington, DC. Eighth Grade. I sat behind Leslie Haren on the bus. Her red hair, the exact color of my old manís couch. The freckle on her neck, just below her ear. Do I dare? Too much. Too beautiful.

I remember the tour guide at the White House on that trip. The story he told about a paint crew in 1979, a few years before. They found out after coat after coat of white paint, the walls of the house could no longer hold fresh paint. So they got after it. Scraped away layer after layer, president after president, memory after memory. Thirty-two coats later -- thirty-two, I remember clearly -- they finally hit bedrock: the original stone, 175 years old. They could see the burn marks from the War of 1812. I remember all of this.

A thought occurs: How many layers of myself would have to be scraped away before they hit original stone? How many licks to the center of this big dumb Tootsie Pop? I wonder if thereís even anything original left. Would I even know it if they got there? Would I feel anything? How much paint can I hold?

Another thought, the cancer. When itís done eating away at me from the inside out, and thereís nothing left, and Iím hollowed out -- then what?

Will they take my hollow body, headpiece stuffed filled with tumors (I remember a poem, maybe?), and put it in a park somewhere, for pigeons to shit on my head?

A sign underneath, warning the kiddies to stay away from crime? Would it help?

####

I couldnít even kill myself today.

I tried, though. I thought maybe if I bit down hard enough on my tongue, still pink and original, I could bite it off, and maybe bleed to death. But when I bit down, nothing happened. Maybe it was the morphine. A weak jaw. A broken jaw. Weak teeth. Who knows. Maybe it was a dream.

I guess the old man was right. I canít do anything right.

####

I never killed anybody, you know. Never even hurt anybody who wasnít trying to hurt me first. At the bottom of it all, down at the roots, I was just a B and E man. Strictly smash and grab. Grab all you can, then get out of Dodge before the heat shows. Now, sometimes the heat showed up before I grabbed all I could, and things got dicey. But it never got lethal.

I remember a brawl with El Torero down on The Waterfront, leveled two warehouses before we were done. I remember tossing a U-Haul on Nighthammer. I remember punching Firefly so hard that my hand hurt. I remember it all like it was this morning.

What I canít remember is what I had for lunch today. Or even if it is today. Or tomorrow, or 1987.

But I never killed anybody. I just thought someone should know.

####

I dreamt of my sweet Blackbird today.

See, I know it was a dream because she was nice to me. She said she had come to say goodbye, and that -- get this -- it wasnít fair, and she wished it didnít have to end this way.

I wonder if she knows that I love her. That Iíve always loved her, and that maybe if she had just loved me back, things could have been different. For me, for her, for us. Love of a good woman, and all that. Those eyes, eyes I dare not meet, even in dreams. (A different poem, maybe?) That voice. . . Finally, they sing for me.

In my dream, she leaned over and kissed me, right on my cold metal forehead. I could feel my skin fog up from her moist lips. I told her that I never killed anyone, and that I wanted her to know. She said that she did.

In my dream, one single tear rolled down her cheek, and then it was gone.

She told me that sheíd miss me, in my dream.

If that was the last dream I ever have...

####

Not with a bang, but a whimper. . .

(with apologies to TS Eliot.)

THE END



© 2006 by Frank Byrns

Bio: Frank Byrns says "I have previously published several stories in Aphelion, including "American Lenny", "Hollywood Ending", "Barflies", and most recently "Asalaamu Alaikum" (June 2005). My second collection of short fiction, "Requiem", was published this summer, and contains several of my Aphelion stories.

E-mail: Frank Byrns

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Lettercol
Or Return to Aphelion's Index page.