Nevin Trebec placed a steam kettle on the stove and turned the element to high. He texted the woman he'd been seeing and told her they were through. He called his broker and left the message, "Buy! Buy! Buy!" He stuck the plug in the bathtub drain and opened the faucet full blast. He switched on his clothes iron, shut down his email account, and cancelled his credit card. Then he smashed his phone with a dolphin-shaped bookend, put on some pants, and skipped out the door.
The morning was glorious, shafts of dazzling sunlight through skull-shaped thunderheads. The birds were singing. The bees were buzzing. The elk were bugling. The pebbles were giggling. The eagles were jiggling. And a dark thought like a cancer made of awful human ideas was niggling in the back of Nevin's head. He found a Bible in a trash can and shoved it down the front of his pants. He walked toward the bridge.
"Can't do this," he said to no one, referring to nothing in particular. Nothing in particular; everything in general. "Can't do it anymore."
He paused by a porn shop. He thought, No. Then he thought, Yes.
He went in. The windows were covered so that minors couldn't ogle, and the place was dark inside. A clerk sat on a high stool behind a counter. The clerk, who looked like a pile of old shoes of indeterminate sex, gawked incredulously at Nevin. Nevin ignored the clerk and examined a stack of used magazines. He pulled a magazine from the stack and pried it open. The images within aroused him, and he felt a weak erection pressing against the Bible in his pants. This seemed too profane, so he slipped the Bible out and surreptitiously hid it between two old issues of High Society. He glanced over his shoulder. The clerk was watching him with that same incredulous look.
"What are you doing in here?" said the clerk.
Nevin felt his face flush. "Oh," he said, "just having a poke around."
"Have you ever heard of the Internet?" said the clerk.
Nevin shrugged and turned back to the magazines. "I've heard of it."
Just then, a cover caught his eye. On the cover was a picture of his high school sweetheart. Well, she wasn't exactly his sweetheart—at least not to her knowledge—but he'd loved her intensely from a safe distance, and he'd thought about her obsessively, and high school was so long ago, and the mind is a master reviser. He remembered her as his sweetheart, or something akin; one for whom he'd felt a profound tenderness and desire, and who had populated his thoughts from dusk till dawn, year after year. At this point in his life, he figured, she might as well have been his sweetheart. The cover price was one hundred American dollars.
"I want to buy this," said Nevin to the clerk.
"Great," said the clerk. "That'll be one hundred American dollars."
Nevin pulled one hundred American dollars from a hidden compartment in the bottom of his left flip-flop and handed it to the clerk.
"Would you like a receipt?" said the clerk.
"Yes," said Nevin. "For tax purposes."
Nevin's heart was pounding as he left the porn shop. His hands were slick with sweat. He stared at the girl on the cover of the magazine, which was much thicker than a normal magazine, Reader's Digest thick. The girl's face was wide and heart-shaped, her mouth well-formed with a highly arched Cupid's bow. She had a button nose and devastating green eyes. She wore a yellow cashmere sweater, a short plaid skirt, and white knee highs. Nevin's heart lunged up his throat. His breath came in choking spasms. Fearing that his legs were about to give out, he slumped down on a bus stop bench. He stared at the face on the cover, which returned his stare. He checked his shoulders to make sure no one was watching. He peeled back the cover, yearning to glimpse her, just a peek. Instead he saw text. He flipped the pages. He saw no pictures, only words, huge dense blocks of words, like something out of a holy book that someone might find in the trash and shove down the front of his pants. He fanned the magazine, shook it to dislodge a centerfold—but he soon gave up any hope of visuals. He flipped to the front and read the first few lines.
Here is the story of how a girl detective accidentally discovered the unspeakable secrets of the universe, and of her harrowing descent into madness.
Nevin stopped reading. He shut the magazine. He stood, stared perplexed at the girl on the cover. Her eyes, he now noticed, looked wild with unspeakable secrets. Words boiled up from his unconscious and he muttered them under his breath.
"I can't wait for my organs to fail," he muttered.
Then he shoved the magazine down the front of his pants and carried on toward the bridge.
He walked through a park. He passed families and lovers, lovers and families, lovers and lovers. He saw lovers staring into one another's eyes, lovers walking hand in hand, lovers tenderly caressing in the shade.
"I need a drink," he said, and he pulled a mini bottle from a hidden compartment in his right flip-flop.
"Do you really need this drink?" said the drink.
"I don't need it," Nevin replied, "but I want it. I don't know what I need."
"Okay," said the drink. "Just wanted to clarify our terms. Bottoms up."
Nevin drank the drink and left the empty in the picnic basket of a pair of distracted lovers. He took the path to the bridge and followed the pedestrian walkway out to the middle. Cars zoomed past on the inner lanes. Nevin climbed up on the rail and balanced there, wobbling a little. He pulled the porno mag that wasn't a porno mag from his pants and caressed the picture on the cover with this thumb.
"We could have discovered the unspeakable secrets of the universe together," he said to the girl on the cover.
Just then, a magpie landed on his shoulder.
"Hi, Nevin," said the magpie.
The bird's sudden arrival and the surprising fact that it could speak caused Nevin to wobble quite a bit, but he stabilized.
"You've got great balance," said the magpie.
"Yeah, well," said Nevin, "I do this a lot."
The magpie cocked its head to look at the girl on the cover.
"Cute," said the magpie. "What is she, Ukrainian?"
Nevin gave his head a wistful shake. "I don't even know."
The magpie sighed. "Look, Nevin, you can't live this way. You can't dwell on the past. You need to let go."
"I can't let go. I regret everything."
"I know. That's why I'm here. Nevin, with one flick of my tail, I can banish all your regrets."
"Really? All of them?"
"Every single one."
Nevin gestured at the girl on the cover. "Even my regret about never introducing myself to what's-her-face?"
"Even that one. You just give me the word, and you'll instantly forget all your regrets about the past."
"Wow." A breeze kicked up and Nevin wobbled a little. He considered the magpie's offer. "What's the catch?"
"The catch," said the magpie, "is that you'll forever regret forgetting."
"Oh. God. That's some catch."
Nevin looked down at the water far below. Who would he be without his regrets? They defined him, so who would he be? In his mind's eye he saw himself, a confused amnesiac, babbling about bird advice as grave personnel checked him into some psych ward somewhere.
"Don't take all day," said the magpie. "It's a limited-time offer."
"Oh . . ." Nevin looked at the magazine he was clutching. He looked at the girl's face. At last, he said, "I don't want to forget."
The magpie gave an exasperated caw. "Nevin," it said, "you suck! You suck so hard!" Then it fluttered its wings and flew away.
The fluttering of the magpie's wings so close to Nevin's face caused him to wobble dangerously, and he fumbled the magazine, which he almost dropped. As he stooped to catch it, he lost balance and fell backwards onto the bridge's pedestrian walkway. He lay there looking at the sky for a while.
At length he stood and walked back to the park. The families and lovers had joined hands in a dancing chain. They all knew the words to the song they were singing, which Nevin had never heard. He carried his non-porno mag to a shady bench. He sat. He opened the magazine and read,
I'm glad you chose to remember me, Nevin. I am no longer of this world, except in your memory and in the words which you are presently reading. In some sense, you have kept me alive on this plane of existence; my connection remains and so I am not yet fully dammed. Now I will tell you my story, and as I do, you will slowly go insane. But we will go there together. As it was meant to be. I hope you're seated comfortably.
The families and lovers sang as, page by page, Nevin learned the abominable truth. When he came to the end of the magazine, the final sentence wiped him out. Later that same day, a coroner would remark in his notes on the "peculiar, unnerving look of satisfaction on the face of the deceased," and would sleep that night with the lights on.