by D. Patrick Miller

The old man standing on the precipitous edge of the bluff couldn’t remember how he got there. Only moments before, it seemed, he had been joking with the small group of guys he liked to play golf with — men who applauded his every move, and showed only poker faces when he cheated. These men made sense to him, and the world felt right when he was striding down the green with their appreciative laughter behind him. Not too close, though — because he often needed to find the ball that had landed in the rough or on soggy ground or in shallow water, and get a lie he preferred without being noticed. There was nothing wrong, he’d always felt, with improving his lies.

But how he had gotten this far out in front of his buddies was a mystery. Looking back over his left shoulder and then his right, they were nowhere to be seen. For that matter, the green was not to be seen either. Somehow he had left the course, clambering up a rocky outcropping to find himself facing the biggest water hazard of all: a wild and greenish-blue ocean. He was frightened for a moment by its infinity, the way it stretched out to the horizon… and the way that vast expanse was strangely tugging at him.

He sighed, leaning heavily on the nine iron he’d been carrying. A rumble in his stomach was growing, and he was far from any fast food, always a near-instant cure for the rumble. The rumble had to be stopped because it could rapidly grow into a piercing ache, an ache that made his big belly feel like a cold, lifeless cavern inside him. He hated that hollowed-out part of himself, and it had been there as long as he could remember.

Whenever he tried to remember how it had gotten started, he would see blurry, dreamlike images of his father in black-and-white, like an ancient filmstrip slipping on the gears of a rickety projector. His father was coming at him with a shovel, cackling with an angry glee, like he was going to scoop out his insides. His father was so big and he was so little…

The man on the bluff shivered. That couldn’t have actually happened, could it? His father cackled and blurred right in front of his face now, and he suddenly felt the urge to run — but there was nowhere to go but deep water. He closed his eyes, and tried to remember his father more accurately, without the blurry slippage. Now his dad was older, looking contrite. He was no longer threatening to attack, but instead throwing stacks and stacks of green bills.

The man on the bluff smiled faintly, remembering how he once believed that all that money would eventually fill the hollow inside him. It sure had made many things in life easier. He learned early on that he could buy almost anyone’s help, obeisance, or pride. He had gotten into decent schools and managed passing grades by paying smart-alecks to take tests for him. He paid a doctor to keep him out of a deadly war so he could spend time dating. Later, when he entered real estate, he wheeled and dealed with abandon, using every mean and devious trick his father had taught him to bleed all the stupid losers dry. He tried every business he could think of, failing more often than not, but he had learned to bluff his way through catastrophes and come out on top every time.

And oh, the women! There was a certain kind of woman who would let a rich man do anything to her — grab, attack, demean without mercy — then walk off smiling with her payoff. Or was it really a smile? He couldn’t remember ever actually enjoying these countless sexual transactions, perhaps because women frightened him more than anything. They were total mysteries, creatures who felt things tenderly and sometimes expressed remorse, doubt, even the need to be forgiven. But sometimes they would recoil, rebel, or seek revenge, forcing him into ever more expensive agreements for silence. He had married a few he genuinely liked, but never without a detailed nuptial contract chockfull of non-disclosure riders. He tried to think fondly of his current wife… but all he could see in his mind was her staring impatiently at her priceless watch. She was wearing that damn weird jacket with the words I REALLY DON’T CARE DO U? on the back. He never liked that jacket, even asked her once what the hell it meant... but she only smiled glacially in return.

Truth be told, it felt like not a single woman he ever touched really cared for him. And he wasn’t sure his own children cared about him, or even his closest well-paid friends. So many of them had betrayed him, after all. He could never tell which one might turn against him next: a niece, a son-in-law, a daughter? He grimaced and shivered again as a chill wind blew off the ocean and right into the cave inside him, swirling and twisting into a tornado. Now he was so hungry he could kill, or at least throw something. Desperately he flipped through face after familiar face in his mind, searching for a trustworthy one… and then he saw the crowd.

The crowd! The mass of nameless faces who would cheer his every utterance, no matter how off-the-cuff, confused, or cruelly he spoke. He could make up anything he wanted, and they would applaud. He could mock the disabled and they would chuckle. He could ridicule a war hero or some dead soldier’s family, and they would celebrate. He could claim that he'd never lost any contest and the crowd would not only believe him, they'd act violently en masse to defend his myth.

He could even bluff right through his own misery — always more deeply felt at any given moment than anyone else could imagine — and they would keep right on cheering, and cursing, and attacking anyone he pointed them toward.

Yet the cheers were never satisfying, never melted the icy stalactites in his gut, never warmed him up. Somehow he kept expecting they would, so he had gone endlessly in search of those clapping, shrieking, thoughtless crowds. They sure had taken him a long way; all the way to the top of the world, in fact. Yet here he stood, now alone on a rocky vertiginous slope, as cold and hungry as hell without a friend in sight.

The wind off the ocean was howling inside him now, breaking off the stalactites which fell and pierced the floor of his gut, causing sharp stabs of pain. He really needed to get out of here, get back over the course and back to his big estate, pacify his agonized belly with something quick and greasy. He wheeled about, slipping to his knees on the bluff, then managed to scramble up a few feet when he heard it: the soft, seductive susurration of a far-off crowd. Did they want him back? That must be it! He smiled broadly and stretched his neck so he could peek over the top of a boulder, but couldn’t see anyone coming toward him. In fact, there was just a grayish blur where he had come from, like a storm cloud of dirty snow.

Yet the sound of the crowd quickly grew louder, and as it did, he began to feel disturbed. Wherever it was, this crowd wasn’t cheering. It was rumbling like a rockslide, shouting like an angry mob, its savage static pierced by cries of pain and racking coughs. For a moment, he thought he heard the wail of a caged child who couldn’t find her parents. Then he clearly heard the chant of a militant dreamer defending his birthright, and next, the strangled choking of a black man. Soon, overwhelming it all came the horrific, amplified chaos of hundreds of thousands of death rattles, the soundtrack of a pandemic.

The man on the bluff sank to the ground in shock, realizing for the first time that this unseen crowd was his real following. There was little but awful suffering and recurring waves of anger, violence, and death in his wake. He wanted to cry like a woman, but instead felt the rise of his father’s ancient, poisonous bile within him. Grunting, he got back up on his feet and turned around, assuming a wide stance. He grabbed his club firmly with both hands, and muttered “Fuck it!” before executing a magnificent swing which, at the very top, unexpectedly propelled the iron into the sky. He watched numbly as it sailed out far over the sea and then dropped, spinning down toward the glassy surface. It was too distant for him to hear a splash, but he could see it slip cleanly into the water like a skeletal anchor, tethered to nothing but his starved, exhausted soul.

And now the pull of the infinite was irresistible. The man on the bluff felt the sandy shale beneath his feet giving way, and finally it was time to fall.



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