The old man lay dying, kept alive by the machines gathered by his bedside. Other than the hiss-click of the oxygen that maintained the spark of life within him there was silence, until the woman arrived. She slipped into a seat by the bed and put her purse on the floor, under it, then waited for the man to wake.
The room and its furnishings, in spite of the hospital bed, spoke of wealth and power, rather than the aseptic surround of a hospital. But still, that wealth and power would delay his demise by not one day.
After a time the man woke, and she said, “You don’t look like a John, to me… Wrong face, for that name, I think.”
He studied her for a moment then shrugged as well as his wasted frame would permit, before saying, “Yeah, like you figured, my name wasn’t always John. I was born Gordon Brown.” There was silence, as he gathered his strength, then a chuckle, and, “Living where everybody had a name like Martello and Catelli meant I got in a lot of fights. But, that was okay. I liked beating the crap out of shitheads. It made me tough, too…ya know?
The woman nodded a yes, then, “So, why did you change your name to John?”
“I didn’t. It got changed for me, because of a…” He was silent for a moment, before saying, “I guess you could call it a kind of dream.”
The old man shrugged, again. “I woke up one morning hurting…a lot. It wasn’t just the hangover. That was bad enough. I felt like… Well, it was worse than being kicked in the balls. It was like knives were shoved into them. But when I reached for my crotch my hands couldn’t make it. They were tied to the bed. I could move a little, but not enough to either reach my nuts or untie myself. That’s when I noticed that my legs were tied, too.” He was silent for a moment, before, “All this happens before I open my eyes, mind you. But then, there’s a brand new pain, added to the rest, and that got my eyes open quick, to find a bitch I never saw before, shoving a straight pin right into my balls. I lifted up to look and there must have been dozens of them in there already, like a goddamned pincushion. And when she saw I was looking, she just smiled, and said, “Good morning, honey,” and pulled another pin from one of those pincushions made to look like a tomato.”
“And used it?”
“Used it? Hell yes she used it. And that one, I swear, was as hot as if she’d held it in a flame. But bad as that was I could see there was worse to come. There was one pin in there that was as big around as a damn railroad spike.”
“And she used that one, too?”
There was silence for the space of ten breaths, before the man on the bed said, “I don’t know, because that’s when I woke up.”
“Ahhh…so it was just a—”
“That was no fucking dream, lady. Not…not… I don’t know what in the hell it was, but I can tell you that my balls hurt for more than three days afterward…bad. I even went to see a shrink, ‘cause I was afraid to sleep. Hell, for months afterward, if I saw my mom’s pincushion in her sewing basket, it freaked me out.”
“But, you got over it.”
“Yeah. I got over it. The shrink, he made me carry a pincushion with me for a while, and when I got comfortable with that he had me push in a bunch of pins. That worked.” He laughed. “Hell, it better than worked. I’d finally managed to get a job as an enforcer for a loan shark. Then, one day, I was about to break some jerk’s finger, as a reminder to pay on time, when I had a thought. I remembered how the dream freaked me out, so…”
“You did that to the man, instead of breaking his finger? You stuck pins in his—”
Weak as it was, there was a smile in the old man’s voice as he said, “I figured, what the hell, ya know? It hurts like hell but it don’t keep you from work, and it’s so damn embarrassing that it’s even better than a whacked shin or a broken finger.”
“I’ll bet. So…”
“So I tied the bastard down and used those pins. You should have heard him scream. I left him, tied that way and hurting—for his wife to find when she got home.”
The old man closed his eyes, wearing a self-satisfied smile, before adding, “It worked so good that I started doing it regular, like a trademark. And that was so crazy it made me stand out, and got me promoted.” Unable to lift his hands to point, he gestured with his head, to indicate the room around them, saying, “And, it got me here, for all the good it’s doing right now. That dream is the reason I ended up running the local family, and it’s why they changed my name.”
For a time there was silence, as the machines went about their business. Finally, the woman said, “It’s funny, how an event that momentous can travel all the way to the end of a life and then reflect back as an echo, carrying both the way to that end and the ending, itself.”
“You don’t remember what you said before you had that dream?”
“Said? I don’t—”
“You’d just met the top people in the family, and to them, you said, ‘To be like you guys… Hell, I’d sell my soul.’ ”
“I… You have to be kidd—”
“Offer made…offer accepted. That dream was a reflection from this end of your life.”
“… then…then I’m…dead?”
“As of a few seconds ago, yes.” She smiled, gently. “You don’t recognize me? I thought you would by now. We met, about sixty years ago.” With that she reached into her purse and extracted a pincushion, bristling with pins. She pointed toward the hand that held it, saying, “It never runs out.” Then she gestured in the direction of his lower body, adding, “And there’s always room for one more.”
“Yeah, isn’t it?” She extracted a pin and held it up for his inspection. “Welcome to Hell, Johnny Pinball.”
- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
One morning I woke with an image in my mind. Someone had a pincushion and was about to use the contents on me. It was not the kind of dream you’re pleased to wake from. But still, I knew there was a story in there, if I could only think of the “why and when” of it.
Through the day I could feel the details clarifying as my warped mind gnawed at the corners of the image, trying to shape it into something with a useful shape and texture.
At evening I sat at the keyboard to see what my auto-editor had come up with, and it flowed well, though I still didn’t know how it was to end. That was a puzzle for later, I decided. First came the shaping to see if it read as well as it felt. But apparently the shaping had gone better than I’d hoped for because I finished it, but for editing, in one short sitting. In fact, though, I didn’t know what I would use for the punch line until I found myself typing the last line, and laughing.
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