CAVERNOUS, the Editor and I make our way up the Strip, after lunch, to ULTRA MAX, across its empty quarter of parking lot.

 

A few Italian tour buses are parked in the X-Wide spaces – an image that always comes to mind when I dream of this place, though I’m still fairly surprised and gratified every time I see them there for real, as if I’d otherwise have to aspire to mistrust the part of myself that tends to see things before they happen.

 

In through the automatic doors, facing all those crinkly push-pinned sketches of missing children, Cavernous explains his principles of editing – at first he calls them his “6 Principles,” then revises them down to 5, then finally 1:

 

“Just put it in me.”

 

This much, as we’re perusing the Hardcore Knives section, crushing bugs with our sneakers, I promise I can do.

 

ALONG THE VERY back wall, so far back there are no price tags or descriptions on the items (which include a basketful of posters for Peter Jackson’s early alien romp Bad Taste, a title that used to mean more to me than, sadly, it does now), we run into Face & Star Simpson, the moment I’ve been dreading and wondering about since Thanksgiving (and now it’s the day after Christmas).

 

Cavernous seems to know them, exchanging shrewd half-glances like there’s something each knows about the other that neither wants me to know. Like they all did time in the same joint, where things went down that no one wants to talk or hear about ever again.

 

No one looks at me, and I look nowhere.

 

When this glance-lock loosens up, Face & Star Simpson hurry away into the Homesteaders’ Clothing section, riffling through bonnets and aprons like a couple that’s just moved out here on some government grant to raise a couple of kids and till an acre or two, the year 1900 still a long ways off.

 

Cavernous leads me on, shuddering.

 

“Was she pregnant?” he asks.

 

I laugh the question off, to show him how focused on the present and not the past I am.

 

SHE WAS, though. Thoughts of her child, whether sired by Face in the usual way or somehow drummed up by Dead Sir, will stick with me, lapsing out of view and then bobbing back in, inducing in me the sense of myself as a soon-to-be grandfather.

 

Perhaps my failure to responsibly father that baby’s parents can be rectified in my relation to the baby itself – perhaps I’ll find it in me to build a short story, even a novella, around what- or whomever is born, something sturdy and dignified, though, because of the novel, I can’t go there just yet.

 

The actual Knives and Needles are bought with no input from me. I’m sent off into a playland of popcorn and sno-cones while Cavernous, the Editor takes care of it, charging it all to some expense account he appears to have come equipped with.

 

*****

BACK IN MY ROOM, Cavernous lays the tools out.

 

They look different arrayed side by side rather than all conjoined and entangled in the ULTRA MAX bag.

 

“Gather your attention,” shouts Cavernous, the Editor.

 

It looks like it’s work-time already.

 

He pulls my older editing implements out of their Barbicide and chucks them in the trash, then removes his shirt and pants. He is not a young man.

 

“Okay,” he says. “Step A: remove the belly organs.”

 

The thing about our novice-mentor relationship, so far, is that I seem to know what he means.

 

The work gets off to a start. I press into his side with a medium-sized Deer Knife, along the lines of scars that are already there, and find the blade slides in with barely any resistance.

 

Some gas escapes his side, but I find I can breathe it. I find, even, that I prefer to breathe it. It clears the parts of my head I don’t need for this work, and sharpens those I do.

 

It doesn’t sound like he’s breathing at all, but there’s no alarm latent in this lack of sound.

 

I drop the removed organs into the bottles of Barbicide and avert my eyes as they fizz and splutter.

 

WHEN ALL THE GUT-MEAT IS OUT, I take a first handful of novel from behind a loose chunk of plaster in the wall inside my closet.

 

I heft it in my hand, all slippery with moss and hair, like a soft potato that’s sprouted roots after a while submerged in a dank bucket.

 

“In,” whispers Cavernous, hoarse now, and turns to expose the hole under his ribs.

 

I close my eyes, as if there were something I ought not to see here, not quite sexual but private along those lines, and, squeezing past the tendrils of remaining flesh, slip the whole handful in.

 

I can’t quite describe what it feels like to lose it in there. I’m doing it, but, thanks to modesty or simple dearth of vocab., I can’t quite say what I’m doing.

 

Pieces of my novel are disappearing into him, being taken up, like things planted that find the dirt familiar and begin right away to extend roots, punching into the substratum and refusing to be shaken.

 

I order room service coffee, two cups in case Cavernous wants one, though I prepare to drink both and, in short order, I do.

 

*****

WE WORK through the night. Outside, it’s snowing. This reminds me of something, but I’m too busy, for once, to think of what.

 

Soon his gut-carriage is stuffed, and too hot to touch, like his body is combusting the novel slops I’ve been feeding it, living off them, thriving already.

 

N’wonder he didn’t have room for coffee.

 

“I’m nearly full,” he gasps, his accent still decorously British despite appearances.

 

He nods toward a giant pair of bone shears we haven’t used yet, and I understand it’s time to open his chest cavity.

 

I take a nap first – he doesn’t seem to mind, or notice.

 

WHEN I WAKE, clotted in meaty runoff that’s hardened into a kind of shell or crust, I grab the shears and, overcoming squeam before it has a chance to build up, crack his sternum and crunch through ribs two at a time.

 

He doesn’t so much scream as pant, but I can tell he feels it. I remove the heart, Temple of Doom style, and drop it into a fresh bath of Barbicide, where it shrivels like a slug into the size of a kidney.

 

His chest open, I use the same shears to chop into a fresh section of wall in my Room, and remove an untouched pile of novel, ranker than anything before because I haven’t once looked at it since the first draft all those years ago in Germany. An artifact from a previous life just about, something undead.

 

Prime heart material for an Editor like Cavernous, I think.

 

Holding so much it leaks down my shirt, I pitch forward and shove it into the chest cavity, holding my hands in there as his body reacts, fresh arteries snapping out of remission and connecting up.

 

He moans with relief and passes out.

 

So do I.

 

A WHILE later, maybe a great while, Cavernous, the Editor, barely moving his mouth, mutters, “Please, I need to make a phone call.”

 

I see that he’s put his clothes back on, though his torso is so bulbous and misshapen his dress shirt no longer buttons shut.

 

I hand him my cell phone and he uses it to make a please step outside gesture, so I do.

 

When I come back, Cavernous, the Editor has his shoes on and his briefcase, tremblingly, in hand.

 

“I am full up,” he says, both sadness and pride in his voice. “I will repair to a sort of camp to process what you’ve put in me. I’ve called for a reinforcement. See you around.”

 

*****

WITH THAT, he’s gone.

 

I take a long shower. The Room feels draftier with less novel in its walls.

 

There comes a knock at the door. I know who it is, but still I shout, “Who is it?”

 

No response.

 

When I open up, there stands Cavernous, the Editor.

 

His reinforcement, that is, who looks like a pretty good if not a spot-on rendition of the pre-surgery man I knew.

 

I let him in and he says, “So, tell me about this novel.”

 

We talk. Then the tools come back out.

 

LIKE SO a routine is established.

 

Each Cavernous stays until he’s full up, always with the heart last, and then calls for a reinforcement.

 

The removed organs keep shrinking in their bottles of Barbicide, so that now the older ones are barely the size of almonds, and probably just as hard.

 

I enter my debit card info into Barbicide’s website so they can keep sending me fresh bottles on a rolling basis, and use it to order more coffee and Chinese food as well.

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