I woke up on Saturday morning. Grayish light filtered in from the crack in the window; more than enough to illuminate the sparse bedroom: a 5-drawer dresser topped with a depressed-looking snake plant, the rumpled quilt my mother had sent me from abroad, the unfinished bedside table housing all manner of detritus, my curled-up cat, and finally a small man, standing at the foot of the bed. I opened and closed my eyes several times and he watched sympathetically. I reached slowly for my water bottle. Still he made no move. I anchored my eyes closed and drank the whole thing down in one. When I opened my eyes he was still there.
“Hm,” he said. I could have jumped out of my skin. I waited and he waited.
I slowly realized the small man looked just like me. The spitting image. He scratched one small thumbnail against one small central incisor. The same way I do. I felt that neither of us wanted to speak first. He reached out and patted the cat.
“Hm,” he said again, “ah. Well.”
I felt my mind booting up slowly, as if for the first time in months. I tried clearing my throat to confirm that I could. I could.
“Well,” he said, scratching the left side of his small head, “maybe we better talk about this. Maybe we better get a cup of coffee.”
Maybe we better, I thought. But I couldn’t get up quite yet.
“Hm,” he said again, now running a small hand through a small head of curly black hair. Exactly like mine. “Hm. Well. I think I can explain. But first maybe we better get a cup of coffee.”
How coffee factored into this, I wasn’t sure. It was to be a day of mysteries. I felt suddenly transported to a dark and unfamiliar place; a vast room filled with hidden walls and invisible obstacles.
“Right,” I said, shifting my body against the headboard, “maybe we better.” My voice didn’t sound like my own.
The cat slept on.
In my inconsequential kitchen he watched me boil the water and grind the beans, set up the carafe and fill the filter basket. As if he’d seen it a thousand times. I worked at the counter and he stood on the marble top of the small kitchen island behind me. He took in the process with utter familiarity. I poured the first round of boiling water gently over the basket. I turned and looked at the small man who looked exactly like me.
He was wearing a gray shirt of some indeterminate material, black pants, some pale brown shoes that didn’t seem to have any laces or fasteners. When I looked at him he looked back at me and my sense of object permanence began to slowly dissipate. I found myself completely unsure of whether the ground coffee was still swelling with the boiling water, whether early drips had begun to fall into the carafe. Half of my kitchen – the sink, still full of last night’s dishes, the small window, the overhead cabinets and the small range and its clamorous fume hood – all slipped into nothingness, like the tail end of a dream. The small man looked back at me as I looked at him. Then I turned around and everything was as I left it.
I poured us each a cup of coffee. The small man lifted his with both hands and sipped gingerly. I held onto my cup, the heat radiating through my hands and reminding me of the inescapable reality of this moment. There was a small man in my kitchen. I woke up to him at the foot of my bed, he asked for a cup of coffee. Now he was sipping fresh coffee out of a white mug wrapped with a black silhouette of the Ontario cityscape. My palms were scalding. Here we were.
“Hm,” he said appreciatively, wiping his small mouth with his small hand. “Hm.”
We sat there with our cups of steaming coffee. The morning took on a faraway feeling.
“It’s like this,” he said finally, rubbing his hands together.
“Have you ever considered the process of perceiving? And all that goes into it? I happen to know you haven’t. That’s at the core of this, I think. That disregard. But I’ll get to that.” I took a sip of coffee. He ran a small hand through his hair again. His curly black hair.
“For the purposes of explanation, let’s say you have five senses. Each of these is a means of reacting to a stimulus – a physical one, an olfactory one, a visual one, et cetera. Here is the stimulus – “ here, he raised his small left hand, “and here is the reaction – “ then his right hand.
“Focus on the space between.”
I did so. The small hands and the gap between them filled my field of vision, and everything outside of them blurred.
“Very good. Observe the space. Appreciate this – I occupy this space. The space represents the translation between the stimulus and the reaction. You might call this a timeline of perception. Here on the left are the inputs, here on the right are the outputs, and here in the middle is the single-direction process translating the former to the latter.” I rubbed my thumb along the rim of my coffee mug.
“The point here, is that this gap is not empty. Like I said, I occupy it. I’m the one who takes in the inputs and does the work of translating them to the outputs. Think of it as a gumdrop factory. The inputs – sights, sounds, smells – come in. These are the sugar, the preservatives, the artificial colors and additives. Your sensory perceptions – the meaning you create from these things, they come out in perfect, uniform shapes on a conveyer belt at the end. Like little purple sugar-coated hills. And in the middle, there are enormous boilers, automated mixers, massive, industrial drums shaking and mixing and pulverizing. Extruders, extractors, enforcers, that sort of thing. All of that – that’s me. Do you see what I mean?”
I saw what he meant. Gumdrop factory. I had to hand it to him.
The small man pointed at his left temple. “For the purpose of explanation, imagine me here, right behind your eyes. This is where the factory is. Or was, rather. That’s what I was getting at – I was there, for the purpose of explanation, but now, as you can see, I am here, drinking coffee with you.” He waved his small hand across his small body, head to torso. This struck me as unnecessary and a little gauche.
“I’m sorry that it’ll be an inconvenience. Really. Especially because – and please don’t take this the wrong way – I had to put in quite a bit of work. The factory operated at full steam, you might say. What 8 out of 10 people would recognize as a gumdrop was all Greek to you. I’m not blaming you. If anything, it forced me to do the best work I could, no cutting corners, no stone unturned. Out came gumdrops with nutrition facts, bright labels, arrows and diagrams and instructions. That’s what it took. Metaphorically, of course.”
“But it’s the kind of thing you can only do for so long. There comes a point where you have to cut the cord, power down the machines, dim the lights and close up all the windows, lock the gate behind you, hop on your bicycle and head home. So to speak. Again, try to see it from my perspective. You have to draw a line, or it’ll consume you. It’s just the nature of the beast.”
“And here’s the thing about a gumdrop factory – it doesn’t run by itself. What I mean is, sometimes someone’s gotta do an inspection. Oil the machines, update the software, do a quick handful of spot checks here and there. Maybe reevaluate the process of quality assurance. One way or another, there’s maintenance involved. That’s the only way to keep such an enterprise running. Without it, things start to go to hell, piece by piece or all at once.”
“What’s more, it’s not just a mechanical thing. Sometimes the people in the factory need to feel acknowledged – they need to know that the thankless hours they spend cranking out gumdrops are being seen by somebody, being appreciated. You think they love making gum drops? You’ve never worked in a factory – not even a metaphorical one. So you have to trust me on this. Without a little support, a little encouragement, everything will fall apart. It’s inevitable.”
Everything would fall apart. He made a compelling argument.
“Now the factory’s shut up and out here’s where I am – taking my talents elsewhere. Going away from here. Where does this leave you? I’m not sure. Maybe nowhere.”
“Frankly I’m not optimistic – nothing personal, of course, but I’ve been in there, you know. In your head. I know how things work up there. Let’s call it an uphill battle ahead. And I’m sorry for that, like I said. I wish it could be another way. But I’m out here now, and there’s no looking back. As far as I can tell. Time to move on, time to get going, you know.”
After he’d finished speaking, the kitchen took on the deep silence of an abandoned gumdrop factory. I turned away and looked out of the small window behind the sink, taking in the usual nothing – a blank square of television gray, divided pointlessly by a single set of power lines. What were Saturday mornings for? I stayed like this for a while, wondering if he was still behind me. I first tried picturing him, then myself, then both of us side by side. None of this went particularly well.
Perhaps as a function of these newly implemented limits on my perception, the unfamiliar room took the form of a long tunnel. Unfamiliar, but with an entrance and an exit. Things went in and things came out – like a gumdrop production line. Some fundamental facts had not changed. I followed this tunnel to an idea.
“There’s a problem here.” The small man toyed with some silverware left on the countertop, inspecting himself in a teaspoon, then lifting a fork and peering at me through the tines.
“Hm. Well. I apologize again, of course.”
“No need to.” I scratched a central incisor with a thumbnail. “I think it’s more a problem for you. Or, at least, a problem for both of us.” He tilted the fork left and right, capturing and reflecting what little light he could. I could tell he was paying rapt attention.
“I’m not sure I follow you.”
I took a small sip of coffee. Coffee I’d brewed without the small man – after his departure, but in his presence. Was this of consequence?
“I noticed we look pretty similar. And therein lies the problem. Therein, and herein.” I pointed to my left temple. He pointed to his left temple quizzically. One by one, I indicated his small eyes, his small mouth, his small hands, his small nose, his small ears. As I did so, he ran his hands through his hair with increasing agitation. I pointed at my left temple again.
“What I’m saying is, just as you have come out of me, necessarily, there has to be another of you, doing exactly what you did for me, for you. Do you see?” He blinked at me through the fork.
“You have five senses, I have five senses. Things enter and take on meaning. What I need, you need. You are me, but smaller. You don’t explain the role that you play, you only invite and necessitate its repetition. Here outside the gumdrop factory, you create questions, you don’t settle them.”
“Even now – you are taking in sights, hearing. This conversation is inherently sound without meaning before it is processed – you explained that to me yourself. Before the inputs are translated, your view of this kitchen is just light and its absence, particles bouncing off of barriers.”
“And finally, it comes down to this: there is a small man inside of you, in your head, behind your eyes. A man running a gumdrop factory. Time will pass, he will leave, make his bid for freedom, and you will be where I am now. Exactly like this. And the same thing will one day happen to him. It’s infinite recursion. Turtles, gumdrops, all the way down. Do you see my point?”
Gray window, powerlines, the early of the day. The words – his words, my words – hang heavy above us in interwoven layers, mixed up in the steam from the kettle and the mystery of it all. Underneath these, silence.
“I see your point,” he said. “Regrettable.”
The small man lifted and rotated the fork. In one motion, he ran the tines firmly through his abdomen. Exhaling softly, he closed his eyes and toppled backwards, out of view.
I ran behind the island and got down on all fours. At the sight of his landing spot I recoiled – inexorably, like a marionette yanked upwards by its strings. And in doing so, I slammed the back of my head on the underside of the marble countertop. My face hit the cold kitchen floor and the linoleum tile swam briefly before my eyes.
Everything had been shaken up. Like a jar of multicolored gumdrops. It occurred to me that I might be bleeding quite heavily. But this came and went quickly. Like the rare flying insect that understands that an open window is both a means of entrance and egress.
Entrance and egress. I could only keep one idea straight at a time, and my mind was fixed on this one: The absurdity of life was such that at times, there was a benefit in viewing things from a safe distance. In this case, taking in from afar the story of a man who wakes up to see a small man at the foot of his bed, who drinks coffee with this small man, before possibly driving him to suicide. And who, in investigating these events, smashes his skull against a giant slab of marble. Not only that – he might have been on the verge of making a discovery, or might have just made one.
On the other hand, he might not have.
Towards the end of the story, the man is face down on the kitchen floor. He may or may not be bleeding quite heavily. He feels like he was on the verge of something, but it is quickly slipping away. Out of sight, out of mind. He remembers having had a thought about object permanence, but can’t be sure what it was. Then he thinks he should laugh, but he’s not sure why.
Time is slowly passing in the man’s apartment. It is a Saturday morning, and there are two coffee mugs on the counter, still steaming. One has an illustration of a cartoon cat on it, one who is wearing sunglasses and resting on a hammock, sipping a tropical drink through a straw stuck into a coconut shell.
He thinks about how there is a specific process to making coffee. Each particular step has a singular appearance, smell, and sound. Understanding them uniquely and all in tandem is, as they say, critical to the enterprise. This idea and ideas of its kind are necessary, necessary for a smooth-running gumdrop factory. Without them there is nothing but the sound of wind through a locked and rusting gate, the wide sensory absence differentiating the present from the past. An absence that might span the length of the space between two small hands, held parallel.
The man on the floor imagines that the experience of perception resembles the passage of light through a series of increasingly small holes. Wide at the beginning, narrowing to an infinitely small point, forming the shape of a cone. Like a cone of light, or like a row of identical people, each of a slightly smaller size, lined up from largest to smallest. He wonders if this is the time to be thinking about this. So instead he pictures a million uniform rows of purple gumdrops, chugging down a conveyer belt in perfect lines. Each of these, he knows, serves an important purpose, and carries its own unique message. He’s indescribably pleased by the image. He wonders whether any image, whether any thought will ever please him this much again.
He then wonders whether he hears the sound of small footsteps, and in his voice, or in the voice of a small man who was once behind his eyes, the words: “This has been an illustration of a concept.”