Adam wakes in afternoon fog. The sun glows bright and indistinct. Two hands are upon him. Each belongs to a different person. They grab hold and shake him into consciousness. He had fallen asleep on the baseball diamond again.
“Adam,” the person says. “Adam,” the other person says. “Wake up.” “Wake up.”
Their faces resolve, side by side, identical, unfamiliar, framed by long blond curly hair. Adam recognizes a third: Helen, blond also and sitting at a distance, beyond the foul line, in her wheelchair. She pulls forward. The features of her own face are lit by the sun and lit by a large holographic billboard mounted above the dugout. It advertises urban luxury units for seniors.
“Adam.” “Adam.” “Wake up.” “Wake up.”
The blond pair must have gotten his name from Helen. No priors exist as far as he knows. But Adam and the crippled woman have a business relationship. It involves the exchange of particular fluids. Helen crosses the foul line and wheels onto the artificial turf. Another job needs doing evidently.
“Have you been robbed again?”
Adam sits upright and checks the pockets of his coat and checks the pockets of his jeans, all of which are empty. Only a cough drop remains. Lint clings to its ruby colored surface. Among other things, a wallet and a small folding utility knife have been taken. The blond pair shake their heads. They could be said to do this in unison.
“Well,” Helen continues, “you’re in luck—another free meal this time, same as before.”
They spend the hour at a nearby cafe. He orders chicken and waffles. She orders no food but a liquid preparation made for those on a special diet. Adam recalls the name of this diet but certain other details remain vague, such as whether fruits are allowed or disallowed. His client believes in the near limitless efficacy of nutrition.
“We could wait at the condo,” Helen proposes, “You could eat there.” “I’m hungry now,” Adam says. He rubs a hand up and down his belly as if that would convince her. “Rob will be home soon,” Helen continues, speaking of her husband of twenty years. “He could fix you something nice.” “I’m hungry now—I’m famished.”
They sit at a tall leather booth to the rear of the establishment. Helen occupies the head of the table with her wheelchair. Adam cranes his head to look about the surroundings. Through broad distant windows, the sun shines more brightly now and distinct. The fog has cleared. The streets are busy again, with persons returning to work or with persons returning home. The lunch hour has ended.
“What’s this philosophy you have?” Helen asks. She seems at a loss to fill their time together. “What do you call it again?” “Antinatalism,” Adam says flatly. He cranes his head from left to right and then commences to fold his napkin. He cranes his head from left to right again, searching for the waitress. “Which is?” “Which is what?” “The philosophy you told me about.” “Antinatalism.” “Antinatalism, yeah. What does it mean?”
Adam sighs. He sets the napkin apart and puts his hands flatwise on the table. “The belief that life,” he says, clearing his throat, “the belief that life consists more of suffering than of pleasure. So it’s better to have never lived at all. Having children stands as a gross violation of consent. They come screaming out of the womb. The bliss of nonbeing is preferable to them and preferable to us.”
The waffles are brought to table. So is the liquid preparation. It sits in a special tall glass trademarked with the logo of the company promoting the diet. Also included is a wide plastic reusable straw. The preparation has the color and consistency of drying plaster. Adam offers a correction: he ordered chicken as well. The waitress is also blond. She draws back her lips into a grimace and leaves for the kitchen. A passing unseen cloud darkens the street outside.
“So do you actually believe this?” As posed the question sounds fully rhetorical. “I do,” Adam confirms. He bisects a waffle with his knife. “I do.” “Well, I have three kids—all of them adults now—a son and two daughters.” “Were those your daughters?” Adam brings a large slice of waffle to his mouth. He chews and swallows. “Your daughters—there in the park?” “No.”
Helen leans and takes a big suck. The plastery liquid climbs through the transparent walls of the straw. It must take great effort to suck this way. There is bone meal and bone broth in this preparation, Adam recalls. His client takes her own napkin, which has remained unfolded, and wipes her mouth. “I don’t know about you, but my life does have value. It bothers me, the way you think. And I’m proud of my kids—they have value too—I’m proud of what they’ve accomplished in life. They’re all gay and I love them.”
Adam grips the corners of the table. He feels dizzy. “It’s not a personal judgment,” he says, working up some emotion, “not a judgment on you. It’s a general principle. Most people have the desire to procreate. I understand that, I guess. But the implications are sometimes unclear.”
The waitress returns, bringing the full order. An extra piece of chicken has been added and the cost of the entree has taken from the bill. The waitress says all this as if it should cause Adam shame. He needs no assistance on this count. He squirms as his client thanks the waitress and compliments her professional demeanor. Payment is requested.
“You’re taking this all home—to my home,” Helen demands and then clarifies. “You can eat later, after we do the thing.” “No,” Adam says, finding some measure of inner strength, “no, I want to eat now. I haven’t eaten a good meal in days.” “All the more so, then.” “Sorry, I’m just sorry, but I can’t wait.” “If you get sick, if you puke on my carpet, I might not pay you.” “Then I won’t ever come again.” “You’ve been robbed. You have no money. What would you do if I didn’t take care of you?”
This poses quite the dilemma. Adam folds his napkin and looks at his plate of food. The breading glistens with oil. What was unsaid has now been said: he needs her. The material circumstances are undeniable. “Well,” Adam says, “well, I don’t know—I might just, you know, die.” His tone of voice conveys less sarcasm than intended. “And so,” Helen answers, bringing it all together, “and so, if I’m understanding you right, that’s not such a loss.” “No,” Adam concedes, “no it’s not.”
Robert lays the contract on the table. It has been printed on scrap paper. Below the text lies other text, the ink faded, the letters inverted. Adam squints through each of the items. His attention is flagging. He will sign all the same but looking matters. The appearance of thoughtful consideration matters. The clients might be less honest with him otherwise.
The scenario is familiar: Adam sits on the couch while blood drains from him. It travels from his arm by means of tubing into a large clear plastic sack. The manufacturer of this equipment manufactures the liquid preparation mix. The logo is the same: an abstracted sun rising from abstracted mountains. The bag is halfway filled.
“Sorry,” Robert says, moving into the kitchen, “the black printer cartridge was spent. I hope it’s not too hard to read. The main difference is pay. You’re getting a bonus. How do you feel about that?” “Pretty good,” Adam says. This one subject is enough, at least, to muster his enthusiasm. “What do you think?” “Pretty good.” “I should hope so.”
Helen wheels into the living room. At her command the blinds open, revealing the city skyline and the sea beyond. Late afternoon sun glimmers, raw and bedazzling. It plays over the distant cresting waves. Adam shades his eyes. The glass polarizes. The light dims. He lowers his hand to look once more at the contract.
“No big changes,” Robert says, “except that bonus.” The man of the house busies himself in the kitchen. He takes a skillet from an overhead rack. He heats it on the range, adds chopped onion and olive oil. The blood drawn from Adam will be fried there: black pudding made the traditional way, more or less.
“This is the best way,” Robert says. His voice strains above the sound of onions frying. He bangs a wooden spoon against the skillet. “This is the best way of preserving certain fluids. You’re sure you don’t want any?” He turns to face Adam through the open doorway. The older man sounds almost demure in his request, a certain embarrassment creeping into his voice. But Adam declines. He shakes his head and turns to Helen.
“Your wife already offered. But I’m on—let’s say—a different eating schedule.” “Suit yourself,” Robert says, adding skepticism to his embarrassment. “If that’s what you really want.” “I told him,” Helen interjects, “I told him he would be queasy if he ate before.” “That very well might happen,” Robert adds in a philosophical tone.
The man of the house comes to the doorway. He wears an apron adorned with the city seal, a retirement gift following decades of service in county and municipal government. His dinner parties, Robert says so himself, were legendary. “I broke and made so many politicians.” The scent of onion fills the air from kitchen to living room.
The trio falls silent. A siren goes off in the city below. Helen glances nervously between her husband and her guest. Robert stays in the doorway. “Well,” the former councilman says, “I have another offer for you—no contract this time.” He mutters something, wipes a clean hand across his apron. “Would you mind—I mean, do you want—do you want to fuck my wife?”
Adam starts coughing. He looks for a glass of water but remembers he was never served any. “Sorry, I’m flattered,” he finally manages, “but—I grateful really—but.” “Oh, Rob, he doesn’t want to. Go back and mind the kitchen.” Adam nods and searches his pockets. He puts the linty cough drop in his mouth.
“Well, that’s his prerogative I guess,” Robert says, remaining in the doorway, eyes downcast. “His prerogative—but people are talking. People like, you know, like Dan in 320. He wonders who we’re letting in. And so I have to tell him something. I have to tell him a story. Might as well make it true.” He looks up at Adam. “But tell me this: why the hell not? It’s the age difference right?” Robert addresses his guest and the desired lover of his wife with arms open and chest out, as if he, a man over sixty, might fight him.
“No, no,” Adam sputters, “Your wife is beautiful I’d say.” “So what’s the problem?” “Rob, go and mind the kitchen.” “It’s the disability then?” “No, no. I’d never discriminate on that count.” “So what’s the goddamn problem?” “To be blunt, I don’t have that desire. It just leads to more people.” “Listen to this guy.” “Not everyone has thought of the implications.” “Just listen to him, throwing that opportunity away.” “Rob, he sleeps in the park.” “Not always.” “All the more reason to be game then. Who else would take you?” “Rob, go and mind the kitchen. Go and mind it now.”
Adam sinks into the couch. The clear plastic bag has been filled. The kitchen resounds in clanging noise as an empty copper pot falls to the floor. Helen sighs and folds her arms and looks down at her legs. She evinces a feeling Adam has never seen in her before. He feels sure he can even name it: hatred of life. There has to be a remedy for this.
“You know what,” he says, trying not to sound perfunctory. “I think I will join you for dinner.” Both husband and wife voice heartfelt approval. The tenor of the room brightens immediately. Adam smiles, knowing that, once again, he is alone in his feelings.
Robert clears the plates away. Only darkish smudges remain from where the pudding had been. Adam raises a glass of water to salute the culinary skills of his host. He might say he enjoyed the meal, at least he feels better for eating it, no nausea at all but pleasant fatigue. This man really must have been a powerhouse in his day. “Delicious,” Adam says.
“My pleasure,” Robert answers. He moves back into the kitchen and sets the plates down on the counter. He seems at a loss for something. The copper pot gleams, overturned, on the floor. There are other random utensils and cookware objects scattered about. “My pleasure,” he says again. “Was it good for you, dear?” Helen nods that it was quite good, really quite thoroughly enjoyable.
“Can I help you?” Adam volunteers. He tries to stand but sinks into the couch again. The air has grown woolen around his face. “Can I help?” Robert waves him away as he stoops to retrieve a saw from a low cabinet. The steel gleams. “Can I help?” Adam says once more, questioning himself as much as anyone.
“Are you queasy?” Robert asks. “Yes,” Helen chimes in, happy once more, “are you doing all right?” For once, Adam feels as if he can answer in the affirmative. His entire adult life he objected to the phrase “all right” and now the situation does it justice. “Yeah,” he says, “surprisingly enough, I do feel that way.”
Adam wakes, never having asked for consciousness, once again on the baseball diamond. Deep night has fallen and the stars shine obscurely above the floodlights. There are figures by the dugout, men and women in sweat-stained uniforms, their faces shadowed under their caps. They pack their bags with bats and catching mitts. The game had ended some time ago.
From up his thigh a hollow ringing pain spreads throughout his body. It exists where his left foot should be. A bandaged stump, clean and expertly dressed, terminates at his ankle. Some extra provisos had been added to the contract.
And now the nausea hit. Adam vomits over the foul line. He turns over and vomits again. In the rapidly diminishing haze, he discovers several new objects attached to his body. A new wallet has been placed in his jeans pocket, several high-denomination bills stuffed within it. A folding knife has been included as well, far more valuable than the one he had previously. A bag of cough drops lies unopened, ready for the taking.
The throbbing of the stump will continue. It will continue a long time. The nausea will crest and dissipate. Helen believes in the efficacy of nutrition. Robert believes in fine cuisine. Adam has no great desire to eat, not at the moment, but he thinks also to the future and how he will sustain himself. Even small changes could lead to a very great quality of life.