“As long as that swarthy Slavic word merchant is in the business of telling stories about infectious disease doctors and the lovely lobes of pestilence they encounter, I might as well tell you about the universal affliction.” Mangey Paul always liked to talk about the so-called universal affliction and he was going to take this opportunity to indulge himself.
“The universal affliction makes us groan,” he said, stretching back into his wicker chair. “Listen to that wicker cry out under the pressure. If I were naked, I would have read Marx! Ha! Sumblymitch!” Mangey Paul always made that joke while sitting in his wicker chair, and I know that I have shared it with you before.
When you cop, either cop from the best or cop from yourself.
“The universal affliction was not achieved by choice. You might say that we all just kind of fell into it, the same way that some very lucky sumblymitch falls into an inheritance. 'Ceptin' it sure wasn't an inheritance in the typical sense. You know how some inheritances consist of a block of rabbit culture and a 78 of Hoagey Carmichael? That's more of what it was like. And still is.” Mangey Paul took something out of his pocket, brushed off an imaginary (or real?) piece of pocket lint, and stuffed it into his mouth. He chewed vigorously and held up an index finger (his own) to indicate that his story would continue in but a moment. At length he swallowed, cleared his throat, rolled his eyes, and went on with telling the tale.
“I am not immune to the universal affliction, you know – I just duck down low behind something whenever it draws near. That way I am mostly kept free from its ravages. Do you know what I mean?”
I tried to speak, but no sooner did I open my mouth than Mangey Paul waved off my comment with a dirty-nailed hand.
“You don't know. You don't know. You CANNOT know,” he said. “If you knew you wouldn't be sitting here, waiting for the help such as it has ever been. Now...here.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out another piece of whatever it was that he had been chewing on. Brushing off another imaginary piece of pocket lint with his dirty-nailed hand, he offered it to me. “Stick it in yer' kisser,” he laughed.
I did not want to stick it in my kisser. I felt a little nauseous, and whatever it was that he had just handed to me gave off a funny smell – a little like cat urine, and little like a female gingko tree. A little like death and taxes.
I stuck it in my kisser.
A minute later, after I had blown my nose and wiped the little bit of vomit away from the corner of my mouth, Mangey Paul continued.
“If ever there was a single person who did not suffer the universal affliction, I suppose that he would have been a pretty special sort of soul. I use that word lightly, as I do not understand what a soul is...exactly. I was once told that a soul is...how shall we say? Bestowed upon the person in question. I rather liken it, also, to the universal affliction.”
I looked around for something to drink, as I felt a great need to kill the taste in my mouth. Nothing was to be had, and I instead opted to tear off a button from my jacket and place it beneath my tongue to stimulate saliva flow. This was a trick that I had learned from my great uncle (nickenamed “the hairless wombat of Scranton”) who was an explorer and who specialized in desert crossings. He had died an untimely death by choking on a ram's-horn button torn from his favorite wool blazer.
“And as affliction, inheritance and soul, then (all the three), bestowed, in a sense, are nothing that one can give oneself, likewise is the cure. The cure for the universal affliction.”
“The cure?” I asked.
“The cure,” he said.
Mangey Paul rolled his eyes and vigorously rubbed his upper lip with a dirty-nailed hand. He coughed and spat. Coughed and spat. The spittle looked silvery-inky on the pavement.
“The cure is that guy over there,” and he motioned with a dirty, bony finger.
I could not see anyone in the direction that Mangey Paul motioned, so I squinted hard until he slapped me on the back of the head.
“Stop that,” he said, “you look dumb.”
I felt really stupid, and I flushed hot and red. I put my chin on my chest and my tail between my legs.
“No one sees him, it seems, anymore. So don't feel bad. Here...let me make it up to you.
He reached out his bony, dirty hand in my direction.
“Go ahead,” he said, “pull my finger.”
Something told me that I really didn't want to pull his finger, but something else told me that I was going to pull it anyway – no matter how hard I might try to avoid it.