by Nicholas Stillman
The week always started with Terry crumpling the letter into a tight ball. The letters came once every Monday over four years, and Terry Jamison crumpled all of them. He knew better than to tear them into slivers. It would only add an arts-and-crafts hour to his routine with an added cost of Scotch Tape.
Instead, he squeezed the paper ball harder than he did on any previous Monday morning. He then uncrumpled the letter and read the demands he had typed for himself over four years ago. Outside his bachelor apartment, the rumble of city traffic waited to annoy him further. The myriad of cars waited like circling, growlsome lions, eager to get closer and even more intrusive. Today’s letter, from his old extroverted self, would throw him into that swirl of noise and stenchy exhaust.
The letter recapped his orders from previous years: he had to dress up and continue becoming a master street magician, a sort of clown, really. He had to practice, privately and publicly, for two hours each day in rain, wind, or whatever tortures the winter out there dumped on him. Today, however, his old self gave an extra instruction, one Terry could hardly remember having written all those years ago. The old Terry wanted more humiliation for the new, starting today.
Terry closed his eyes, but the gist of the demand remained as though typed on the inner side of his eyelids. He blocked it out with the help of a long grunt. A couple thumped past his apartment door, discussing their nighttime adventures. For once, he listened in, just to distract him from the nightmare in his hands.
He slid the crumply letter into a binder which loosely held the previous unballed letters. The folio sat on his steel kitchen counter for convenience. The cover had gathered grime and spatters from the nearby stovetop. A good housefire would take care of the whole collection, but even the old freewheeling Terry wouldn’t like that.
He opened the steel cupboard and whisked out the one pill bottle among the stacked, alphabetized cans. He swallowed two pills with 50 milliliters of tap water from a steel mug. The meds doubled his metabolic rate. Logically, the pecan shake he had guzzled earlier should replace some of his bodily atoms at a faster-than-natural speed. A femur bone regenerated itself entirely, atom by atom, over three months. The brain took only two. A whole human body, however, took over five years to replace itself via diet and breathing. Terry looked at the dust on the binder, his dead and shed, dried and drifted skin cells. The dust layer looked about twice as dense as anything he had ever neglected to clean under his bed. He tried to smile.
He paced, wondering if he could really win, if regenerating his body and brain a bit faster would restore his personality to that of the old, chattery Terry. He hated that Terry, but that former self technically existed first. The old Terry had primacy. And that young man had wanted to live out a sociable, frivolous life with all the embarrassments included. The first letter to himself had made a surprisingly logical case for self ownership.
Each step on the kitchen floor, however, made him feel as rigid and stuck as the metal tiles. He grabbed an equally durable steel pitcher and chugged a liter of water. It would flush out more ions, slowly erasing his newer, opposite self. But could it really change him back when combined with four meager years of remolding himself as a card magician? No one had beaten the justice system before by reclaiming the old self, one’s original deportment, through gradual reversion.
Terry put on his costume, a tuxedo and ascot over a pinstriped vest. He wore two sweaters under that to protect him from the cold. The tight top hat pressed on his ears with a fleece lining he had sewn on for added warmth. With a loud sigh, he donned his modified, felt-lined gloves and polished shoes. The weighted coattails practically clamped down on him too, so the suit jacket wouldn’t flop in the wind.
The accouterments shackled him. They felt like the straps of the Reverser chair, the colossal machine which had punished him for murder four years ago. The chair certainly had tighter straps than the tuxedo cuffs he wore now. However, even that most severe legal procedure had seemed less humiliating. The transcranial magnetic forces had modified his neurons in billions of ways, all while he slept under a state-administered sedative. He remembered how the guards treated him respectfully before and after he awoke as the new, opposite Terry. They had bored expressions on beefy, lax faces.
Life had seemed just as lax and procedural afterwards with his new, reversed personality. Seclusion and routine soothed him. The thought of shooting another wounded, helpless burglar felt grotesquely illogical, something a flailing gorilla might do. But the old Terry had wanted to shoot based on a spontaneous lifestyle and the whims of an overemotional brain. And the original Terry wanted those things back.
So the letters came. The court needed months to wrap up a murdered burglar case, and old Terry wrote plenty in those months. He had plenty of freedom too, so he paid an obscure delivery company to mail the letters in sequence.
The self-imposed punishment felt far worse than anything the state intended. Terry went outside and instantly wished he had a weighted scarf around his neck. It would break audience immersion, though, even without flopping in the wind. A scarf would remind spectators to hustle away to escape the cold themselves. Thus, the freezing wind cut into Terry’s face and loitered there, as it did every December morning. The fog of his breath blew away before it could warm the tip of his nose.
He stifled his sighs all the way to Garden Road, a 16-minute walk from his apartment. Despite the name, the commercial strip looked neither like a garden nor a road. Frost and filthy slush nestled along the lanes. A minus-ten wind calmed the regular noise that came with all the ugly faces on warmer days. Schmucks and people in their prime alike lacked cars and looked disgruntled about it. They clacked along to their nine-AM shifts like funeral goers, staring at nothing along the way. The cold kept their eyes down and their chins bent into their scarves.
Terry took from his pocket a folded hat, a little bowler the damn old Terry had loved and would still love. He unfolded it and punched the inside to restore its dome shape. He placed the bowler on the sidewalk just before his feet. It stayed there against the wind, secretly weighted, right-side up, and with a little sign attached which read FREE MAGIC. Terry rose with a groan, knowing some spectators still wouldn’t get it and would toss coins onto the hat’s tiny rim where they could.
He took one of the decks of cards from his pocket and began holding up aces to no one. They vanished into the deck again and reappeared in his pockets. The jacks and kings hopped through the deck as though chasing one another, until the jacks teamed up in a quartet to make the kings run off for good. Across the gray street with its frozen-out stains of road salt, the buildings themselves watched every trick–a perfect, silent audience. Waitresses flicked past the windows of a tiny restaurant in front of him. The place looked almost squashed, tightly wedged between a larger restaurant and a barber shop that charged fools quadruple what a haircut cost in the country. The gelid wind watched him harder. It slapped his face for its applause.
Pedestrians did occasionally stop, their interest piqued by a random trick in Terry’s 24-minute looping routine. He spotted one dumpy woman, dumpy as everyone else in their winter wear, who stayed annoyingly long. Terry had to stretch out the last several tricks by slowing his gesticulations. Otherwise the woman would see the routine loop over. Slowing down felt childish, probably even more so for the crowd. The woman finally scampered to the nearby bus stop, and the tricks resumed their normal speed.
Spectators looked at the bowler hat with its sign and repocketed their money. Some held up coins, forcing Terry to interact and shake his head. He waved their gestures off with operatic gestures of his own. Some set their coins on the hat’s rim anyway.
They eventually walked away, sometimes confused by the FREE MAGIC sign, but always smiling. At the one-hour mark, the puffy man in his more colorful suit arrived by the bus stop. He played his regular saxophone tunes to the urbanites who stomped past. Terry performed to the drifting music. He even matched a few card reveals to the climatic parts of whatever familiar radio songs the sax man played. The letter from last Monday said to draw from the environment.
A fluke housefire could still burn that letter, burn all of them, and the thought of it kept Terry warm.
More passersby came along and huddled to watch, bored with the junk and clutter of consumerism. They seeped from their steely, utilitarian apartments to the freezing urban circus outside. They gawked at Terry’s arms which swung robotically as though cleaning invisible windows with fanned cards. The grumpy kings and stoic queens did funny feats and dances Terry’s old self would enjoy. In the music he leeched from the sax man, Terry could almost see a stuffy pub interior, the curb no longer his stage.
He plucked out every preselected card and palmed them, all while wearing thick gloves against the brutal Canadian cold. His forearms twirled smoothly just like the magicians he had admired in childhood. His fake smirk never flinched, even as he recalled how the Reverser had utterly changed his attitude. Fumbles and failures would make that long-gone Terry giggle. Now, however, in the frozen rot and gusts of winter, a slip-up would feel excruciating. Only his stiff gestures and perfectionism gave him any relief at all. The wind tilted his top hat despite its tight strap, and his hands could only press on through the maze of pockets and moves.
After his two-hour performance, Terry picked up the bowler hat and shook off the coins. They tinkled onto the concrete and rolled away. He folded the hat and stuffed it in his pocket next to a stack of hidden kings. He walked away from the little crowd. They all clapped except for one familiar mustachioed man at the back of the huddle. He followed Terry in a suppressed huff, a plodding man with too much bulk around the middle for sure and more bulk likely hiding under the rest of his trench coat. Inspector Hanlon appeared for the act once a week like a joker ruining a flush. Lately, he had learned to do his legal stalking on Mondays, the same day the letters arrived with new instructions.
Terry sped away from the applause. He pretended the boom of loafers behind him belonged to a stranger, someone in a hurry for eggs cooked in a diner. Then, the greater boom of Hanlon’s voice hit him like yet another gust.
“Have you tried transcranial magnetic stimulation?” Hanlon asked. “I’ve seen felons walking about with homemade TMS helmets four times bigger than your top hat.”
“No,” Terry said. He stared ahead while he walked, as though the card show went on.
“Well, good,” Hanlon said. His mouth contorted into a simper which would probably last all Monday. “Dangerous stuff, trying to warp their brains without the proper warehouse-size machinery. They can, at best, manage to knock out some brain areas–nothing even close to the big switch back to their old selves.”
“Hm,” Terry said.
Terry stopped and waited for a crosswalk sign to signal walk. He checked the traffic eight times. Inspector Hanlon nearly huddled against his shoulder, blocking the view of South Street. With no winter hat, his ears turned a comical red.
“Yep, some people go pretty far trying to cheat the criminal justice system,” Hanlon said to himself as he checked the traffic too. “But not everyone. I just checked up on this one guy, actually, who choked a prostitute to death. Hated prostitutes. Wanted them burned off the Earth with godly fire. Well now he goes up and down Hollis street cracking jokes to them. He buys them coffee, the expensive stuff.”
“Right,” Terry said as he frowned at the sky.
Terry inhaled deeply and hurried across the street a second before the lights switched. Hanlon puffed along, all smirks and glances.
“Naw, I didn’t see any funny hats or geek-helmets on that guy,” Hanlon said. “He pays for his crime by embracing his new self. How about you, Mr. Jamison? Got any proclivities about trying to become the old you?”
“Yes,” Terry said.
Hanlon feigned a boyish look of surprise. He caught up until he and Terry walked abreast. Pedestrians swerved around them, around the wide waist of one and the stiff, weighted suit jacket of the other.
“Well, I have a duty to check up on your freaky new experiments,” Hanlon said. “I assume the old Mr. Jamison often replied honestly and abruptly, all spontaneous and carefree. So I guess you answered honestly just now to adopt that old personality, even though it stings a little.”
Terry walked into the headwind, his lips pressed closed and his gaze aimed at the pavement.
“Now, I appreciate all the times we’ve chatted, Mr. Jamison,” Hanlon continued. “You’ve got a respectable coolness about my sleuthing. But you must realize this reversion strategy of yours, including whatever you do at home, won’t work. You come off as stilted, stressed out, dogged, and dour. Only your dapper appearance gives you enough dignity to avoid a mental breakdown. It must feel painfully awkward, deigning to do this ridiculous act everyday. Despite your costume and card tricks, you still appear reserved, solemn even, just as the Reverser rebuilt you.”
“Sounds like a fitting punishment to me,” Terry said.
“But the system wants you reformed more than punished,” Hanlon said with a majestic wave of his own. “Our sunken economy can’t support life sentences anymore. The Reverser absolved you by giving you this new personality. But you INTJ types try to beat the system more than any other felons. That Introversion-Intuition-Thinking-Judgment combo gives you all the stubbornness and willpower needed to force your old self to reemerge. They try to restore their Extrovert-Sensing-Feeling-Perception lifestyles. But they live in constant stress trying to emulate their former ESFP selves. Give up pretending, Terry, or you’ll end up on the same heart medications as me.”
“I suspect the Reverser tampers with more neurons than it should,” Terry said. “It certainly changes more than the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, your simplified version of the science.”
“It ought to,” Hanlon said. The pitch of his voice lowered. “You brutally shot a man in the face while he lay wounded with one in his gut. You did it with those same graceful hands of yours. With all this stress of reinventing yourself, maybe you’ll kill a second time and get the automatic death penalty.”
“How illogical,” Terry said. After a long, annoying walk in silence, he added, “Satisfied?”
“A few INTJs get desperate,” Hanlon said. “A gang of them broke into the Reverser facility. They tried to start up the machine without the committee. They would have strapped themselves one-by-one to that chair unsedated if the police didn’t haul them out of there hogtied. I wonder what you will do instead, when the faces wear off those cards.”
“I see a worn-off face everyday,” Terry said.
Terry turned sharply. He flounced through the narrow driveway to enter the parsimoniously small apartment complex where he lived. Hanlon stayed behind, whether from laziness or from having reached the limit of his legal encroaching.
Terry felt the cold still embedded down to his bones, even while he stood over his kitchen counter. He had turned the heat up instead of down prior to leaving, in preparation for the upcoming sauna routine. He pulled today’s crinkled letter from the binder and reread it with a groan. As with previous letters, it summarized his orders from the original Terry with his old ESFP preferences. The old self had known how sickening such demands would sound: looking up trendy magazines to learn about current fashion and fun, calling relatives and old friends often, buying them birthday cards, and espousing a lifestyle only a blabbermouth would enjoy. The old Terry had assumed temptation would arise to skip such orders, to crumple the letters and leave them crumpled for months or to burn them on the pavement just outside. The demands, then, needed repeating.
Terry skimmed the instructions, those draining, agonizing tasks which he still had to complete today. He looked up and bared his teeth to the ceiling fan. The last paragraph introduced a new technique, one even more humiliating than all he had accomplished so far. It told him to perform impromptu card tricks, to combine them spontaneously, to do them in random order, and to risk screwing up the whole routine. The last line told him to do what feels right.
He had failed to do any of that today. He had performed as procedurally as a parking meter until his two hours ran out. Only returning home felt right, even with Inspector Hanlon nagging him all the way.
The cupboard before him had a bank receipt taped to it, and the little numbers offered little hope. He could stay unemployed and keep the magician facade going for another 16 days. Then, the money saved from his old secretary job would run low, and his temporary retirement would end. Then, the job hunt would commence just as the letters dictated. He dug through the stack of them in the binder for guidance, but gave up. He already knew one of them hinted at a career as a gallivanting showman. He remembered writing the letter himself, to himself, but with a different attitude.
Terry slammed the binder shut and closed his eyes. He could at least appreciate the financial strategy of magic shows, if not the fun his old self had intended. He might even earn decent money in a world of recommodified human performance. The era of materialism died a bit more everyday out there.
Decent money. He could almost smell the beer breath of pub goers flowing over him, their chuckles and burps soaring up to the stage in a disgusting chorus. Their applause would surely sound like chaotic gunshots.
Terry stripped off his costume and the clothes beneath it and threw the bundle on the kitchen table. The big ball of cloth looked like a boulder to him, more permanent than the steel tabletop on which it rested. To fold everything neatly as he usually did would seem uncharacteristic of the original Terry, too obstinate for sure. But leaving the costume unfolded would save time in tomorrow’s dress-up routine, a more efficient move–also uncharacteristic of the old Terry. Either choice meant failure.
In the tiny bathroom, Terry placed a scorched clay flower pot on the bottom of the bathtub. He donned oven mitts and brought in the pan of baseball-size stones from the oven. He had let them slowly heat up during his torturous routine outside. They hissed and steamed while he poured tap water into the pot. With the door closed, and with a towel pressed under it, the cramped bathroom became a makeshift sauna.
He performed free-weight squat presses until sweat rolled off him like rain. Once exhausted, he sat on the toilet lid. It felt like another boulder of sorts, hard against his sweat-drenched boxers. His skin excreted not only toxins, but molecules of his INTJ self. Somewhere in the mix of today and tomorrow, a bit of the old Terry would replace whatever got pushed out of his sweat glands.
The steel walls seemed to breathe with him. Clouds of steam bounced off them in rhythm, as though the bathroom also wanted to transform its rigid design. Water dribbled down like sweat in the spaces between the indestructible panels. The heat rejected the ceiling and suffused through Terry instead. It hurt, but not as much as going out there among those ugly, gawking strangers. Their warm breath, full of chatter and random breakfast, always hurt more.
Terry stood and wiped the steam off the mirror. He stared while the glass quickly fogged up again. He saw only a ghostly blur, a man without eyes. He saw the soft capital punishment the cheapskate society had given him, the death of his old self and the slow, self-imposed erasure of the new one. The vague creature which struggled to look back at him could indeed break the system, but perhaps only by committing murder again. If the new personality strove to destroy itself, then the state had simply made a suicider.
He waited for the alarm timer to buzz in the kitchen. Instead, a series of thuds and clacks made their way through the door. It sounded like a raccoon clawing at garbage bins just outside. The city, however, with all its lifeless concrete and metal, had no raccoons.
The sounds came from the little window behind the refrigerator. Terry hurried to the kitchen. All his efforts to endure the sauna now dissipated, his time wasted like the steam which billowed out the bathroom door. He stood in his boxers before the fridge, staring at the puny curtains drawn across the window. The beads of sweat and steam on his skin turned to goosebumps.
A set of impatient hands fiddled behind the glass, hidden by the curtains. They jammed a levering tool, probably a short crowbar, between the sliding window’s stile and its casing. The plastic creaked, but the latches held. The tool slipped repeatedly, but the clumsy hands kept trying.
Terry sidled to the counter and grabbed the two biggest carving knives from the kitchen drawer. He returned to the window and waited with both blades raised and ready. A hand would soon slip inside. He would pin and yank it further inside, and kill anything above it with a dozen upward jabs. Any man could die with the right stab through the armpit. The oaf out there had interrupted the sauna, the one sure task that pushed out the newer self, if only an ion at a time.
Surely, Hanlon deserved multiple stabbings for his infringement. The man probably wanted it, and what other man would break in at noontime besides the Inspector? He wanted to take the bullet or the blade himself. It would spare Terry’s next random provoker the trouble of dying. Hanlon admittedly had heart disease anyway, and though he probably couldn’t fit through the window, he did know the first-story address. He knew who lived here: the nation’s most likely reoffender, the system’s greatest risk.
Terry’s blood both burned and chilled. He felt every rhythmic wave of adrenaline. He saw his future self strapped to a different padded seat, the one that administered lethal injections to repeat murderers. He didn’t care. Logically, Hanlon would keep overstepping his legal boundaries. He would only get snoopier and push harder to prevent a crack in the justice system. Even better, he could cause that crack now by creating the first reoffending murderer to leave the Reverser chair. Hanlon would give his life for the state to eliminate that flaw quicker.
The timer buzzed from the oven clock. It toned only once, but loud enough to feel like electrocution on Terry’s nerves. The bumbling hands outside froze, but soon resumed their prying on the window. Who else but the persistent Inspector would continue a break-in now? Hanlon even knew the daily routine. He knew the renter stayed home at this hour, exhausted and bitter from a morning full of social interaction.
One of the latches cracked off the window frame. Terry squeezed the knives like handlebars just before a motorcycle crash. He looked at the oven which stood there stiffly like a giant, waiting tombstone. He too stood just as solidly and still. The digital clock ticked away the last seconds before his commitment to murder and suicide. It would free him from the unbearable stress of extroversion. It would free others from the intolerable Inspector Hanlon.
By rote–he did everything by rote now–he pictured the original Terry standing so rigidly in his place with a calculated plan, one that included geeky levels of stealth. He had to smile. That old Terry had, of course, simply grabbed his handgun in a panic and shot. He had shot again much later in spontaneous rage.
Now, Terry felt the weight of the tuxedo, four years of it, pressing his whole, nearly nude body. He felt the hellish layers of it, the sweaters in winter, the underarm deodorant clinging to him in summer. He felt its hundreds of pressures all donning him at once and a new, eccentric street magician confined within that heavy, black cage. He felt the top hat clamped on his head, a black ball and chain. The second latch popped off the window casing. It clattered on the floor, and the window slid open enough for a chubby hand to slip through.
Terry screamed. He bellowed long, the way he imagined a howler monkey might do it in the steam and frightful shade of a jungle. The old Terry would have done something almost as crazy, though not as preposterous as an eight-second roar.
Outside, a metal object fell and clanged on the concrete driveway. A scuffle of loafers ensued followed by a scrape sound as hands rushed to pick up the tool. Loud footsteps thudded away and faded. An ever-pesky wind pushed its way through the curtain, making it bulge like a pumping heart.
Hanlon had probably run away from the apartment permanently. He would not face such a pent-up howl again. It would put a pounding into his ailing heart fast enough to kill him in a less heroic manner.
Terry put the knives away and closed the window. Neighboring tenants open their doors, and their muffled sounds annoyed him. Though clammy and cold, he donned his heavy tuxedo and went outside again. He returned to his spot on the street, his least favorite block of concrete out of all those ever stepped on. People gathered before him again, up close and breathy and full of blubbery giggles and susurrations. The ones who had watched on their way to work now watched again on their lunch break. Their snickers at each trick sounded just as squealy and grating. They did, after all, get to see a man perform graceful card tricks in puffy winter gloves.
While he mingled determinedly, Terry plucked a balled-up paper from his pocket. He held it up in feigned and exaggerated surprise, an improvised move to satisfy the demands of today’s letter. The audience expected a card, and they got garbage instead. With their ensuing chuckles, a pang in Terry’s chest also ensued. He paused to ease the strain of breaking the safe routine, to help temper the chaos, to calm the fire still in his blood from the botched break-in. He stared at the paper ball pinched in his fingertips, the first letter which he always kept with him on the street. It still served as a sort of ugly eyeball. It watched and made sure he obeyed.
He could almost see the words folded over themselves, crumpled and compressed. The old Terry had written one of his many whims there: he never knew why he picked street magician over all the other bubbly careers.
But now Terry knew. Beyond the fascination, the boy in him had always wanted to master the tricks. Although a reversed personality could never change back to its old self, he could instead change into his very old self: a child with a dream. The justice system never thought that far back.
He pocketed the ball of paper and found the king in his other pocket. To the crowd’s laughter, it had become a jack. Hanlon watched from the back as always, though paler now. He clapped along with the crowd, his eyes stoic and his mouth hidden behind his big mustache. For once, Terry didn’t know which trick the Inspector clapped for.