Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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The Jar and the Juggernaut

by Daniel Ross Goodman




Never in my thirty-one years of life had I imagined that the dimensions of my existence would be reduced to the miserable six-by-eight feet of this solitary prison cell.

‘This is not how my life was supposed to end,’ I say to myself during what I am sure are my last moments on earth. ‘I should by dying sixty years from now, at home in my bed, surrounded by my family and friends—not here in this stale, unventilated, windowless prison cell, with only a single jar of food to eat and this giant steel boot looming over my head…’

I was arrested on November 1, 2054, and imprisoned the next day for the crime that everyone seems to be arrested for ever since Prohibition went into effect five years ago. It was the day after Halloween, the day when most Prohibition-related arrests tend to occur. I was on high alert; I was as careful as I could possibly be. I had thoroughly cleared out my apartment, making sure that there were no traces of prohibited substances left from the Halloween party that I had hosted the previous night. I had given away my entire supply—well, almost all of it—to my friends at the party, knowing that the next day my home could very well be searched. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to get rid of my entire supply; I love the forbidden stuff far too much to have done that. The fact that what I most love is now strictly illegal to own or consume couldn’t deter me from buying a new batch every week from the makers of the stuff, all of whom had gone underground ever since Prohibition went into effect. I would often hear about the new arrests, the new rounds of roundups every week, and even though I had begun to worry that they might eventually come for me, and despite my monthly resolutions to cut myself off from the stuff, I could never completely bring myself to do so. Simply said, I was addicted; I couldn’t live without it. And so, after having gotten rid of most of my supply at the party, I kept a small stash for myself; I hid it inside an opaque jar of wheat germ and placed the jar inside my refrigerator, figuring that if my apartment were to be searched, they’d never look in there. I felt safe—but I should’ve known that these days, during this error of terror known as Prohibition, no one who loves what I love is ever truly safe.

At three o’clock in the afternoon the following day, while sitting at home in my apartment reading a book, I heard a loud knock on my door. “Police!” shouted a harsh, shrill male voice from behind the door. “Open up!”

My heart skipped a beat. How had they gotten to me?! Someone at the party must have tipped them off, I thought; or maybe it was one of my suppliers who had snitched on me. When my heart resumed beating, it began to pound franticly, and my breathing became strained; still, though, I was confident that they would never find my secret stash.

“Police!” the shrill voice rang out again, accompanied by an even louder knock on my door. “Open up! Open up now or we will break down this door!”

I tread warily to the door. As soon as I opened it, two tall, clean-shaven, stoutly built officers, wearing the now-familiar red-and-white-striped uniforms of the Prohibition police unit marched into my apartment.

“Raymond Jay,” announced the first officer, a black-haired, broad-shouldered man, looking at me out of a pair of small, black, button-shaped eyes. “We have a warrant to search your home. You are under suspicion of harboring prohibited materials.”

“You can go ahead and search every nook and cranny of my home,” I responded, thinking that if I maintained a confident appearance they wouldn’t search for too long, “but you’ll never find anything of that sort here. I live a completely clean, one-hundred-percent healthy lifestyle. How you ever got a warrant to search my apartment is beyond me. Someone must have been telling lies about me, because I haven’t done anything wrong; everyone who knows me knows that I would never in a hundred thousand years ever have any of the kind of stuff you think I have.”

“Be that as it may, Mr. Jay,” said the second officer, a blond-haired, blue-eyed man with a snub nose and a lantern jaw, brushing me aside and striding into my kitchen, “we are under orders to search your home. If what you allege is true, then we’ll be out of your place in no time, and you can go back to whatever it was you were doing before. But we do have to search your home, Mr. Jay, so if you will please stand aside…”

“Yes, sir.”

I stood by the wall near the door and watched with a frenziedly pounding heart as they searched my apartment from top to bottom, rummaging through my closet, opening up drawers, leafing through dressers, rifling through my bookshelves, poking through my medicine cabinet, inspecting my refrigerator and freezer, examining my cupboard, lifting up my rugs, and even running their hands through the spaces between my sofa cushions and digging into the pockets of every pair of pants I own.

“Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Jay,” said the first officer after a good half hour of searching. “We are satisfied that you are indeed clean.”

I nodded my head triumphantly, still trying to maintain a façade of facile self-assurance; internally, though, I felt a boundless sense of relief.

“We do appreciate your patience,” said the second officer, as both men moved toward the door, “and we apologize for any inconvenience.”

“Not a problem at all, officers. I hope you have a good rest of your day.”

“Same to you, Mr. Jay,” said the first officer, tipping his red-and-white-striped hat.

“Take care, now, Mr. Jay,” said the second officer, walking out of my apartment and stepping into the hallway.

I nodded my head again and moved toward the door, but before I could close it all the way, the second officer put his foot between the door and the doorway.

“Sorry to bother you again, Mr. Jay,” said the officer, reaching into his left pants pocket and pulling out a sandwich wrapped in wax paper and plastic cling-wrap. “But I’ve had a really long, busy morning and haven’t had a chance to eat my lunch yet. I’m usually very careful to mix flaxseed and wheat germ into my tuna fish, as mandated by the Government, but I was in such a rush this morning that I completely forgot to add the wheat germ. I noticed that you have a jar of wheat germ in your refrigerator. You wouldn’t mind, Mr. Jay, if I sprinkled some of your wheat germ into my tuna, would you?”

My palms suddenly began to sweat, and my heart began to race.

“Um...uh…well, officer,” I began, swallowing hard, “the thing is that, uh…you see…my wheat germ is stale….Yes—very stale. In fact, before you came in, I was just about to go out to the market to pick up a new jar…you wouldn’t want stale wheat germ, officer, would you?”

“One teaspoon of stale wheat germ never hurt anyone.”

“Well…maybe not…but there’s a grocery store just three blocks away. How about I go out and pick up some new, fresh, tasty wheat germ for you? It’ll only take me ten minutes.”

“We have no time to wait, Mr. Jay. We have a very busy schedule today.”

Five minutes,” I persisted, my heart pounding in my throat. “Just give me five minutes—I’ll run. And I’ll be back right away with a whole new jar of fresh, tasty, delicious wheat germ.”

“We don’t have time, Mr. Jay. We have twelve more searches to conduct before 6 pm. Now if you will please let me have one teaspoon of your wheat germ, Mr. Jay…” The officer trailed off, looking at me sternly as if trying to impress upon me that he was an officer of the law and that if I were to refuse, he’d simply take it anyway; the gnawing realization set in that I had no choice in the matter. I took the jar of wheat germ out of the refrigerator and handed it to the officer, my heart sinking and my face turning ashen.

“Thank you very much, Mr. Jay,” said the officer, taking a teaspoon out of one of my kitchen drawers. He grasped the jar, and as he opened it and gazed inside it, he let out a startled gasp and dropped it, shattering it into a thousand little pieces and scattering my secret stash of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups across the kitchen floor.

I breathed in deeply, inhaling so hard that I hurt my lungs; the officers looked at me earnestly but sorrowfully, as if saddened by the task that the law now required them to carry out.

“Raymond Jay,” declared the first officer, pulling my arms behind my back as the second officer placed a pair of iron handcuffs around my trembling wrists, “you are hereby under arrest, pursuant to the Thirty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits the purchase, sale, production, distribution, and consumption of any junk-food, which includes chocolate, candy, caramel, and cookies, and any food or beverage item that the United States Food and Drug Administration has deemed to be unhealthy.”

Then, grabbing my arms and prodding me with a brass baton, the two candymen pushed me down the hallway and guided me out into the street. I knew it was pointless to resist; there would be nothing heroic if I put up a fight. All that was left for me to do, I knew, was to try to maintain my sanity and composure till the end. They shoved me into the back of a Prohibition police unit vehicle—a refitted ice cream truck—turned on the siren (it was still the old, familiar ice cream truck jingle), and drove off toward the station. I had heard many reports about the candymen; I had no illusions about who they were or what they did. I even knew that there were now almost as many candymen as regular policemen, and that they could come for anyone at any time. I just never believed that they would actually come for me.



*****



And so here I am, lying prostrate in this solitary cell like a medieval prisoner being stretched upon the rack. A plastic spout poking through a slit in the wall is my only source of water; when I’m thirsty, I twist my head to reach it and drink out of it like a rabbit in a cage. My only source of food is a clear glass jar filled with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups; whenever I finish the jar, a small hole in the wall opens up and a new batch of Reese’s cups are poured into the jar. I would have been profoundly grateful to the prison guards for providing me with my favorite food were it not for the fact that every time I eat a Reese’s cup, the giant steel boot above my head is lowered an inch. I have of course tried to restrain myself from eating the Reese’s cups, but I can only hold out for so long; after two or three days—but much more often after only two or three hours—the hunger and the desire for that sweet, chocolatey, peanut-buttery crunch becomes overwhelming, and I give in. I pluck a cup from the jar, carefully remove that bright-orange plastic wrapping—how wondrous it was that the good folks at Reese’s chose my favorite color for my favorite food!—and bite straight into the rapturous core of the cup, my tongue like a spaceship penetrating directly into the heart of a pleasure-filled planet; as soon as I make landfall upon the sphere’s sweet, sugary surface, I pause, slowly savoring that familiar, irresistible flavor that is the very definition of gustatory bliss. The boot drops another inch, but I can never eat just one Reese’s. And so I scoop another cup from out of the jar, gently remove the round palm-sized piece of joy from its pumpkin-orange wrapper, and this time begin to bite around its circumference, my teeth marching like little soldiers around the little wonder’s jagged edges, parading all the way around its chocolate city walls before finally bringing down its delicious defenses and infiltrating into its euphoric peanut-buttery center. The giant boot above my head drops another inch, but I immediately crave another. I reach into the jar, unearth another orange-covered treasure, tenderly take it out of its pumpkin-orange packaging and, as if it is the chocolate-peanut butter sandwich of my dreams, I break it in two and eat one glorious half at a time, diminishing my objet de désir but doubling my pleasure, quel grand plaisir! The giant boot drops yet another inch, bringing me two-and-a-half centimeters closer to my death, but I don’t care; I may have hell in my cell, but I have heaven in my mouth.

No, the greatest torture in this infernal cell comes not from the gruesome reality of the ever-lowering steel boot above my head, but from the muffled conversations that I frequently hear on the other side of this concrete wall. The wall is thick enough to muffle those conversations, but not thick enough to completely silence them, so all day long I hear muffled sounds, fragmented voices, and disjointed statements, but never an entire unbroken conversation. Just yesterday, I could hear two girls talking to each other; from what I could make out, it sounded like one of them was on the verge of having a breakdown because she was afraid that her professor was going to give her a C, and her friend was trying to talk her off the ledge. "But you met with him, right?...I don't understand what he wants from me...why don't you just summarize (inaudible)...wow...he has an ego...that's really gross...that's nice...I don't know, I think it's your personality...that's a good thing...yeah, I think so...why? (laughter)...okay!...she always gives good advice, I'd listen to her...What'd she say?...Mm-hmm...(laughter)...yes, I do remember...try and just, like, (inaudible)...it's all gonna be fine...(sigh)..." My legs were shaking with the annoyance of a scholar working in a library who keeps getting interrupted by the idle chatter of unchaperoned children. I couldn't make up my mind whether I wanted to punch through the wall so that I could beg them to stop talking or whether I wanted to punch through the wall so that I could actually hear the entire conversation. But I cannot even make a one-inch dent in these concrete walls, let alone punch a hole through them; the only way of snuffing out the god-awfully annoying talking was to snuff myself out. So desperately did I want to put an end to that particularly torturous conversation that I swiftly swallowed seven Reese's cups and caused the boot to drop so low that I am now no longer able to stand in my cell. But as soon as those Edenic delights were inside my mouth, I immediately forgot about that most cruel auditory torture, so completely immersed did I become in the infinite sensory pleasures playing upon my ecstatic tongue.


*****



I have now been in this cell for ninety-three days, and the giant steel boot is now within two feet of the cell’s solid cement floor. I lie flat on the floor like a man being buried alive. I have to contort my head and neck like a candy-cane to reach the waterspout. The boot has long since crushed the glass jar, but there are still twenty-two tiny treats scattered around my head like a halo of orange Easter eggs.

I let out a miserable sigh, but there is barely enough room left to breathe. The steel boot is now so close to my head that I know that the next Reese’s cup I eat will be my last. Gingerly, I reach for one last orange-wrapped bundle of joy—one last sweet, crunchy, chocolate-peanut-buttery delicacy before all goes black. My deathbed confession is one last confection, a delicious delight that is infinitely tastier than any last rite. Slowly—because I want to savor the experience, but also because I barely have enough energy left to even blink—I unseal the pumpkin-orange wrapper and take the tasty morsel out of its warm bed, welcoming it into this cold, cruel world, but only for a moment. As I chew my final Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, my mouth fills with bliss and my eyes fill with tears, remembering the first time all those many Halloweens ago when I had my first unforgettable taste of that glorious treat, that miraculous synthesis of chocolate and peanut butter that would be the love of my life and the agent of my doom.

I chew on the chocolate peanut-buttery pleasure piece for as long as I can, holding infinity on my taste buds and eternity on the tip of my tongue. When I finally swallow, I feel my heart rattling and my pulse slowing, as if my life itself is made of cocoa butter, dextrose, peanuts, and preservatives; when those hallowed, incomparable ingredients complete their passageway through my esophagus and finally dissolve inside the netherworld of my desolate digestive system, I will cease being, and will melt like the milk chocolate that I have become—and that I have always truly been—into the ether of eternal oblivion.

Cold, hard steel now touches my forehead; I close my eyes and grit my teeth, hoping that it will be over quickly. The steel starts pressing against my temple, and only one last unswallowed chocolate-peanut-buttery speck stuck on the roof of my mouth prevents me from screaming out in agony. I lift my tongue to the roof of my mouth, vainly trying to peel this one surviving scrap—this scrumptious ember saved from the fire—off of the ridges of my palate, until—wait! What it is that? Light? Air? Sound? I see a strange source of light creeping into my cell, and feel the steel boot beginning to lift from off of my head. The concrete wall in front of my dust-encrusted face splits in two, and fresh air floods into my cell.

“Mr. Jay? Mr. Jay? Can you hear me, Mr. Jay?”

It is a woman’s voice—the same voice that I would constantly hear on the other side of the concrete wall, except now I can hear it in its full, soothing, blessedly unmuffled state. I swallow a few drops of saliva that have somehow formed inside my dried out throat; all I can manage is a startled grunt.

“You can come out now, Mr. Jay.”

I shield my eyes from the light; the sunny glow is too shocking for my dulled senses, which have become conditioned to the darkness of this dank, dreary cell.

“You can go home, now, Mr. Jay.”

I labor to pick myself up off of the ground, but I cannot succeed in standing on my own two feet for more than a few seconds; my wasted limbs are too weak, my malnourished muscles have entirely atrophied. I slide back on to the ground like melting ice cream dripping down the side of the cone.

“Thank you for playing, Mr. Jay. We’ve arranged for a vehicle to transport you back to your home.”

“Th…th…thank you,” I somehow sputter—my first words in more than three months—before quickly realizing that something about what she had just told me seems slightly askew. “Thank you…for playing?”

“Yes, Mr. Jay. Thank you for playing. You’ve been our most successful contestant in the history of the show.”

“Co…contestant?....Show?...I…I don’t understand…”

“Why, haven’t you ever seen ‘The Jar and the Juggernaut,’ Mr. Jay? It’s been the highest rated show on television for the past three years.”

“I…I don’t own a television.”

“Really? Then boy have you been missing out, Mr. Jay!”

“I…” I scratch my beard, which now touches the bottom of my chest, and try to open my eyes, but the light is still too bright; I’m forced to keep them closed. “I don’t understand…what show…”

“The show that you’ve just been on, Mr. Jay! Oh, silly you, Mr. Jay, I can’t believe you’ve never even heard of “The Jar and the Juggernaut”!”

“No…I…this? My cell? Inside my cell?...this is a television show?...but…”

“Don’t you remember that first year after Prohibition, Mr. Jay?”

“You…you mean…after the candymen started coming, and crime spiked?...when crime levels skyrocketed to never-before-seen levels?…yes…yes, I remember…all the robberies and assaults, the car thefts and constant muggings, the rampant vandalism, and much worse…it was horrible…”

“Well, Mr. Jay, after that first year of Prohibition, the Government decided that instead of locking up every single violator of Prohibition in jail forever, it would randomly select one out of every hundred convicted felons like yourself, place them inside a narrow, solitary cell like the one you’ve just been in, with nothing to eat but a jar of the very kind of illegal foodstuff they were found to have been possessing, and with a giant steel juggernaut perched on top of their heads—and, as you immediately found out, with every one of the prohibited foods that they consume, the jar drops another inch. The Government’s genius was to then place a miniature camera inside the cells and televise the travails of these random convicted felons like yourself. Within a year of the premiere of “The Jar and the Juggernaut,” crime was back down to pre-Prohibition levels; instead of restless people roaming the streets and making trouble, they were back sitting in their homes in front of their televisions, riveted by the spectacle of “The Jar and the Juggernaut.” This show has completely solved our national crime crisis! You have to admire the Government’s genius!, don’t you, Mr. Jay? Well, they really fixed it, Mr. Jay, they really did. And best of all, you, Mr. Jay, have been the most successful contestant in the history of the show! 93 days, Mr. Jay! Ninety-three! No prior contestant has ever gone more than sixty days before the juggernaut has reached their heads! Congratulations, Mr. Jay! We hope you’ve enjoyed playing. And now, if you don’t mind, Mr. Jay, I need to go attend to the contestant in the cell next to yours, his jar of Butterfingers needs to be refilled.”

After she departed, two candymen entered my cell, picked me up off of my feet, escorted me into a Prohibition vehicle, turned on the siren, and drove me back to my apartment, which looked exactly the same as on the day they came to arrest me, save for a flat-screen television which they installed in my living room—for the purpose, I can only assume, of keeping me from committing any more crimes.


*****



It has now been seven months since the day I was released from prison. I now really do live a completely clean, healthy lifestyle—those terrifying ninety-three days in that dreadful cell left a lasting impression on me, frightening me from ever trying to violate Prohibition again. I haven’t gone within three blocks of the corner of Greenwich Street and Park Drive, the old spot where I used to meet my Reese’s dealer, for fear of being arrested once again. I wonder whatever happened to Jordan, my old reliable Reese’s dealer—is he still in business, still supplying addicts like the outlaw I once was from his underground stockpile, or have the candymen come for him too?

I can’t bring myself to turn on the television they installed, and I certainly can’t bring myself to watch “The Jar and the Juggernaut”—the miserable memories of my own horrifying time inside that cell are still too vivid, the intermingled feelings of pleasure and horror still too raw. But every now and then, as I bite into another brussels sprout or force down yet another mouthful of kale, I remember a better, friendlier, unhealthier time…a time before Prohibition, a time before the candymen came, invading our homes and ransacking our cupboards, extracting the fat from our bodies and the joy from our souls. I remember those wonderful, lovely, unhealthy days, those carefree days before the candymen came, and I yearn…I yearn for a return to a simpler, tastier time; I yearn for just one more taste of that chocolate, crunchy, peanut-buttery emissary of ecstasy, that orange-covered avatar of happiness which I still secretly crave with an unspeakably strong desire. And I think to myself, as the fall pumpkins begin to decorate the neighborhood doorsteps—as my tantalized eyes once again come across that bright-orange color that speaks to my soul like no other color can—maybe, just maybe, when my favorite holiday comes ‘round again, I’ll throw another Halloween party—or venture out to the corner of Greenwich and Park—I’ll risk it all, the horror of the cell and the dread of the juggernaut—all for just one more taste of that love that dare not speak its name. It’s sweeter than any sweet potato, scarcer than any crown jewel of the queen; it’s all I truly want in this world—and it’s all I want for Halloween.



THE END


© 2019 Daniel Ross Goodman

Bio: Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer from western Massachusetts. A former contributor to the Books & Arts section of The Weekly Standard and current contributor to the National Review, he has published in numerous academic and popular journals, magazines, and newspapers, and his short stories have appeared in over a dozen literary journals, including aaduna, The Cortland Review, Aurora Wolf, and The Acentos Review. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York and is studying English & Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

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