Pills and Piles

Today I spoke to a doctor about the blood clot in my leg (see Spider man). When the clot was discovered last December, I was put on a three-month course of blood thinners. Now, a month after not taking them anymore, we were to discuss whether I had to start again and take such pills for the rest of my life.

“Megan,” I began, for I always address doctors by their first name, “why can’t we check my leg?”

“Like another sonar?”

I get annoyed with doctors because you have to explain so many things to them.

“Yes, like another sonar. The clot was confirmed by sonar. Why can’t we check if it’s still there?”

She cleared her throat.

“By sonar,” I added.

“The haematology department doesn’t think it’s necessary.”

“And why not?

“Well,” she tried, “it doesn’t really matter.”

“It doesn’t matter that they think this, or it doesn’t help to check?”

“Uhm,” she hesitated, “there’s nothing to check.”

She had a point, I thought. “I see,” I said. “Finding a clot would falsify only one thing, namely that the pills worked. Finding no clot wouldn’t imply that I’m in the clear?”

“Falsify?”

Perhaps she didn’t have the point. “Megan,” I said, “let’s ignore sonar for now. The blood tests, I saw, showed no genetic markers for prothrombin. So the concern is based on incidence alone?”

“Yes,” she smiled, almost relieved. “You have no genetic predisposition to getting DVTs.”

“And?”

“That means that your body is not—”

“I get that bit,” I interrupted. “The concern is thus, what?”

“Well, you could have a clot again.”

“Megan,” I said, perhaps a bit gruffly, “I could sprout an olive from my upper lip.”

She frowned and didn’t say anything.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “There’s a probability attached to everything. Sometimes it’s zero, but it’s not zero for growing a spontaneous olive from my lip.”

She looked at the papers in my folder.

I tried again. “Has this haematology department done some assessment to determine that the risk is high enough to necessitate taking these pills for the rest of time, or are they just saying this to be safe?”

“It’s up to you in the end,” she said. “All I can give you is my advice.”

“And is that to take the pills forever?”

I could see that phrases like the rest of time and forever didn’t sit well with her.

“We could start you on Xarelto again and then assess things in a few months.”

“With a sonar?”

She smiled, which I took to be the end of our exploration.

“Can I think about it?” I asked.

“Totally. It’s your call, like I said.”

She stood.

“You know why I want a sonar?” I asked on a ridiculous impulse. “Doctors always see us when we’re down and out. We had piles, say. They saw the worst of us. But now we’re better. I’d like to call you up and say, ‘Doctor, my anus has healed wonderfully, thanks to the ointment you prescribed. When can I come and show you?’”

“I didn’t see anything about haemorrhoids in your file?”

“I’ll think about the Xarelto,” I said.




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The monkeys of strategy

The same new CEO (see The new CEO) who stepped in to save what seemed to be a faltering software house I worked for in the early 2000s, also did something else worth remembering besides the briefcase-of-shit speech he made. Shortly after this speech, he called a senior staff meeting to talk about strategy. Despite my favourable view of him after the speech, I went to this meeting with some trepidation. In my experience, meetings about strategy were about as useful as campfire stories about snakes—everyone had one, and everyone thought that theirs was better. Real strategy had never been a group thing, any more than composing or poetry or insights of genius had ever been. Real strategies were decided by a single person and communicated in no uncertain terms to others. The new CEO seemed to be a very single person. And so, despite my misgivings, I hoped for the best.

At the meeting was an older woman we did not know. She sat at the far end of the long mahogany boardroom table and stared at a red platform shoe that sat on it in front of her. As we got settled in, I peeked under the table. It was indeed her shoe, not just a spare one she’d brought along as some sort of prop. The new CEO arrived but he didn’t introduce the woman and instead sat at the opposite end of the table and got down to business.

“So?” he said and beamed at us.

We turned to one another. Hadn’t he called the meeting?

“Talk to me,” he clarified.

The woman looked up from her shoe and ballooned her cheeks. There was a moment of awkward silence around the long table. She arched her eyebrows and then pouted like a sulking child and returned to staring at her shoe.

“Alison,” the new CEO pointed at the director of development. “Speak.”

Alison glanced at the woman. “Er—” she began, “—I think—”

The woman grabbed her red platform and knocked its heel sharply against the table, startling a few people. Alison stared at her and then glanced at the new CEO, but it was as though he hadn’t heard.

“—I think we should sell development as a time and materials service. Thus far, we’ve tied our contracts to deliverables.”

The woman cupped her ear and tapped the shoe against the table a few more times, less loudly now, apparently testing some acoustic quality it was rumoured to possess. She mimed a look of exaggerated disappointment and shook her head—it didn’t.

Selling time is just another way to say for prostitution,” the new CEO remarked.

At the word prostitution, the woman dropped her jaw and covered her eyes.

“Mario,” the new CEO said.

Mario was an anal guy who led QA and maintenance. “There’s room to cut costs,” he began eagerly.

The woman furrowed her brow and shook her head the way toddlers do when asked to consider broccoli. She took her hands from her eyes and inspected them, puzzled, as though they had somehow malfunctioned.

“We could—” Mario forged ahead.

She pulled a sour face and covered her ears.

“Wealth isn’t saved,” the new CEO said and folded his hands together. “Malcolm.”

Malcolm, the director in charge of our main contract work, was not going to be caught as the others had been. He paused and looked at the woman. She opened one hand, then the other, and then she held up a finger while she reached beneath the table and produced her other shoe. Then she motioned for him to continue. It was clear by then that we were not there to discuss strategy, even slightly.

“There’s no room for strategy—” Malcolm said and paused again. He looked at the woman. She inserted her hands into the shoes and nodded for him to continue. “—in how we deal with contracts that were signed as part of our founding,” he said.

At this, the woman mimed a little dance with the two shoes.

“There’s room at the bottom and there’s room at the top,” the new CEO said. “Jeff.”

He nodded at the marketing manager, an acclaimed asshole who sat next to the woman. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked as though the new CEO had already taken a dislike to Jeff.

“And you?” he asked.

Jeff cleared his throat and stroked his tie. The woman cocked her head until it was almost level with the table and leaned in to stare at him.

“Er—” he began.

She walked two fingers like little legs up the sleeve of his jacket.

“We could open new markets,” Jeff said while he leaned increasingly away from the woman, “if we—”

The woman sat up and covered her mouth like the last of the three wise monkeys.

“Thanks, Jeff,” the new CEO cut him short. “People,” he said, “we’re at four thousand meters. You know what that means. If my sister can distract you from strategy—”

The woman mimed a little bow.

“—then we’ll never have a strategy as long as Jeff over there has a hole in his arse.”




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The new CEO

Today I remembered—for no reason I can think of—a man whose name I now cannot recall, but who once gave me an atom of hope for the business world. I met him—it must have been in the early 2000s—while I worked for a software house that had recently split from the large insurer of which it had been the IT department. It split, I think, because it hadn’t been a very good IT department. One after the other bean counter did a stint as CEO (see this story) and we seemed to be in trouble. The newest CEO—this man I’ve now remembered—took over and made a speech. At his first all-hands meeting in the cafeteria, he turned up with his leg in a cast and told us a story about once flying with five of his colleagues in a six-seater Cessna, when one of the other guys developed a problem.

“I have to shit, he announced,” the new CEO remembered. “Now.”

The people in the cafeteria looked at one another in surprise.

“The pilot told the guy that there was nowhere to shit,” the new CEO said. “He called over his shoulder, at the top of his voice, Are you out of your fucking mind? We’re at four thousand meters. You can shit later.

But the guy insisted. “I’m gonna shit on all of you,” he warned.

The new CEO smiled to himself.

“The pilot said, If you shit in this plane, I’ll crash it into the fucking ground, I swear.

The new CEO hobbled forward on his crutches and leaned on them.

“You know what happened?” he asked. “I had to empty my briefcase so that this guy could shit in it.”

There was uncertain laughter in the cafeteria.

“I’ve seen it all,” the new CEO said. “I’ve seen a man walking across the tarmac, carrying my briefcase, full of shit.”

The new CEO edged another step forward.

“We were never very close after that,” he added.

After a short pause, he looked us over and concluded his speech. “We’re at four thousand meters, people,” he said. “You can shit later.”




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Standing ovation

My son is given to questions about extremes. What would you do if you lived forever? Would you rather drown or burn to death? What is the tallest, the furthest, the most of this or the least of that, and so on. The other day he asked me something of this sort, but slightly more salient than his usual nonsense. What was the most embarrassing thing that had ever happened to me?

“What do you mean, happened to me?”

“Don’t get technical,” he groaned.

“I mean,” I said, “some things happen because I caused them, others not—”

“What’s the most?” he insisted.

If you know me even slightly you will know that I had a long list of things to scroll past before I could find something embarrassing that I hadn’t caused. There’s the time I mistook a basin for a urinal (see the story The toilet spray of embarrassment), various episodes that involved alcohol or laxatives, social blunders of every conceivable category, and uncountable instances of stupid things I’d done in plain view. But then I remembered something I usually forget about, perhaps because it ended well and perhaps because it was entirely my mother’s fault.

When I was fifteen, I swam for the school team. I had become rather good at breaststroke and had chalked up times during the season that qualified me for the provincial finals. I felt like an imposter because I sucked at the other strokes and couldn’t even do a tumble-turn properly. But breaststroke didn’t allow it, and my good times resulted mostly from a start I’d perfected that always put me ahead. In those days you could stay submerged for as far out as you wanted, and you weren’t penalised for any movement on the block before the starter’s gun as long as you didn’t actually take off. I’d hang around long before my race and listen to the starter’s voice to get used to his cadence. By the time I got onto the block, I could anticipate him to perfection and so make up for what I lacked in true swimming talent. I’d dive and hit the water just right, and stay under in a low arc that always gave me an edge.

The Northern Transvaal finals were held that year at the Hillcrest swimming pool, in Pretoria. I had competed there during inter-school competitions and the place was familiar. I wasn’t very worried. The day before the event, my mother insisted that I get a new Speedo.

“That looks like a pirate’s eye patch,” she said of my perfectly good old Speedo.

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” I said.

“You look naked. You’re getting a new one.”

The new Speedo sagged like a goat’s scrotum.

“This is too big,” I complained.

“Nonsense,” my mother snapped and leaned in to fiddle with the drawstring. “You just tighten it here. See.”

The next day I wore this new Speedo and did my thing to spy on the starter. By the time the boys under sixteen breaststroke was up, I was ready. I was in lane three, with the main pavilion to my right. I remember these details vividly because of what happened next. I fell slowly forward and was off just as the pistol sounded. I dove from the block, hit the water just right, and slipped completely out of the new Speedo. It hooked on my left foot. Until that day, I hadn’t known it was possible to blush underwater. I had hated my mother on many occasions before then—as any boy does—but never as much as during the next few seconds as I pulled the new Speedo back on and remembered her claim that I’d looked naked in the old one.

Embarrassment produces adrenalin, as I found out. I swam on, wanting to die and get it over with. Turning at the far end, I had to hold on to the Speedo as I kicked away, but then I made up for some time—fueled no doubt by having been naked—and ended in fourth place.

The lady official in my lane held up four fingers and winked at me. As we got out of the water, I prayed that no one else had seen me, what with the splashing and the bubbles and all, but it wasn’t so. Everyone in the pavilion was standing and applauding.

Some years ago I asked my mother about that day.

“How come you weren’t there?”

My mother lit a cigarette. “I cannot remember now, but I’m very sorry I wasn’t.”

“You missed the only standing ovation I’ve ever had.”

“That,” she said and peered at the tip of her cigarette, “is not what I’m sorry I missed.”

She re-lit the cigarette. “I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to stand with those people and say to someone, that’s my son, the breaststroke stripper.”




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Xi

More and more these days I dream of terrible things I’ve done. Last night I lay awake after such a dream and remembered what an old man called Elei, a bird juggler I knew more than twenty years ago, once told me.

Elei told me about a San tracker whose name was Xi. Elei spoke staccato English and it took me a few hours one late afternoon to understand what he was trying to say.

Xi was from Angola. When the Cubans came in 1975, he crossed the border and volunteered himself as a tracker at the base where Elei was doing his National Service. Xi ran ahead of the patrol, with Elei, to find the bruises that fleeing guerrillas had left on the bush, sometimes for three or four days on end. For centuries his ancestors had hunted in this way, running down their prey until it collapsed from sheer exhaustion. To track with such endurance was a sacrament of manhood that survived still in the margins of a barren land. The men he hunted were the kudu and the oryx, the sacred quarry he had set himself against. They were worthy opponents, these men, and yet they all succumbed. In the end, the patrol caught up with them and cut them down. When it was over, the soldiers radioed the base and spread out to secure the area. But Xi stayed with the dead men. He squatted in the dry grass among their broken bodies and recounted the hunt. He told of their skill, of their bravery and tenacity, and of his sorrow for their blood. It is true what some say, he whispered to them—to kill is to die in a different way.




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The kiss

Today I cycled to Woodinville along the Burke-Gilman trail for the first time in months. It was a sunny day and the trail was busy. Not far from where I saw the Japanese tourists who wouldn’t smile (see The occidental weakness of smiling), beside the trail, on a bench, two men were kissing. While this isn’t something one sees frequently, it isn’t something worth writing home about either. We live in a free society—for now—and people can do whatever the hell they want to. What made me slow down was not the two men, but a little girl, perhaps six or seven years old. I had passed her family a few seconds before—a mother and a father and two toddler-sized boys on balance bikes—and she must have cycled ahead. Her little bicycle lay on its side in the grass while she stood within feet of the two men, her hands on her hips, her mouth agape.

Sometimes, timing is everything. As I cycled on, thankful for every small decision I’d made earlier that had put me there at that precise moment, I marvelled at what would unfold over the next few minutes. The men hadn’t acknowledged the little girl and were still kissing, either because they couldn’t care less, or because they couldn’t face her. One way or another, they would escape more or less intact. But everyone else would be changed forever. The parents were seconds away from questions they hadn’t thought they’d field today. And the little girl would remember this afternoon the way I can still recall the moment—I was four or five years old—when I learned that my mother and father weren’t related.




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Spider man

The time just after New Year always depresses me. I’ve given up on making bold resolutions even though I desperately need to. But this year it was time for some mental housekeeping. My special Christmas gift was to find out in late December that the pain behind my right knee wasn’t a torn ligament.

“OK,” the doctor said and rubbed his hands together. “You have a long blood clot in your right leg extending from the middle of your thigh to the popliteal vein and a few inches into your calf.”

He smiled. “It’s life-threatening,” he added.

“Uhm,” I began.

“This is the popliteal,” he said and swivelled his screen for me to see.

I said something I cannot now remember.

“Are you South African?” he asked.

I said that I was and listened to his story about doing charity work in Botswana in the nineties and hitchhiking across the border to Potgietersrus.

“What are we going to do?” I asked when he was done. “Can you take it out?”

The doctor waved this aside. “First,” he said, “we’re going to put you on strong blood thinners. They’ll help the body dissolve the clot over time.”

“And then?”

“Well,” he said, “hopefully that’s it. Then we watch you.”

“You said first?”

The doctor turned again to the ultrasound images on his screen. He flipped between two of them, back and forth, back and forth, and then he said, “There are more drastic things we could do, but hopefully it doesn’t come to that.”

“And the life-threatening bit? Is it my heart, or what?”

He gathered some of his papers. “That, yes, or a pulmonary embolism. Or a stroke.”

“Merry Christmas,” I said. “At least I have options.”

“It’s not so bad,” he smiled and rested his hand on my shoulder. “Let me put in an order for Xarelto.”

After he’d asked extensively about my medical history and explained how the blood thinners would work, I was left to wait for around an hour. Sitting there alone, I had ample time to wonder about things. Just that morning I’d told my squash partner that it felt as though I had a hole in my lung. Perhaps I’d had an embolism already? Eighteen months earlier, my brother-in-law, at the age of fifty-four, had died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage. We’re so cocky, I thought, so taken in by the delusion that everything is limitless, and yet we dangle just a heartbeat above the void.

I tried to read a book on my phone, but I couldn’t focus. It wasn’t that the book seemed silly, or that I was suddenly beset by a new resolve to go off and do things. On the contrary, I was quite happy to do nothing more. If everything stopped that day, I wondered, what would it be that I’d done? What was the best thing I’d ever done? And what was the worst?


The answer to the last two questions was a single thing. In 1987, I did basic training as part of mandatory military service in South Africa. Our platoon was on a three-day march across the arid veldt of what was then the Western Transvaal. We’d stopped in the dappled shade of the only tree for miles around to eat some canned food and drink water. We were tired and sunburnt. A sad-faced guy called Dirk sat against a log across from me.

“Watch it!” someone shouted at Dirk.

Dirk leapt to his feet. From a crack in the log he’d sat against, a Red Roman spider had emerged. It was large and hairy and hideous. A few other men gathered around.

“Kill it!” one of them urged Dirk.

I had watched people squash insects and spiders before without saying a word, swallowing the anger that the lessons of my youth had instilled. But that day, something came over me that I still cannot quite explain. Perhaps it was the heat.

‘Wait!” I cried. “Wait!”

Dirk had his boot raised above the spider.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled.

“What’s with you?” someone asked.

“Dirk,” I said, “look at him.”

Dirk slowly put his foot down.

“This is his home, not ours,” I pleaded. “He’s ugly to us, but come here and look closely.”

Dirk hesitated and then leant a little closer. The spider raised its front legs in defence.

“See,” I said, “he’s in there, just like I’m in here, and you’re in there.”

The spider scuttled around the bend of the log and was almost out of sight.

“Let him go,” I said.

In the late nineties, I was doing Christmas shopping in a mall in Port Elizabeth when someone called my name from a distance. Though he was twelve or so years older, Dirk’s sad face was instantly recognisable. He was out of breath.

“I always wondered if I’d ever see you again,” he panted.

My girlfriend and I had just fought and I was in a bad mood. “Hello,” I mumbled.

“These are my boys,” Dirk said.

He had three boys with him. The eldest looked to be around ten years old.

This is the spider man,” Dirk told them.

The boys all looked like Dirk—had the same sad face—but now they beamed and shook my hand.

“I’ve always wanted to thank you,” Dirk said. “What you said to me that day took a while to sink in, but it changed my life.”

My girlfriend scowled at us from a bench nearby.

“And it’s changed theirs, too,” Dirk said.


Sitting alone in that room at the hospital, thinking back on this, I knew without hesitation that it was the best thing I’d ever done. But it was also the worst. Instead of staying for a while to talk with Dirk and his boys, I cut them short. I remember still, with ever-lasting shame, how I glanced back to see Dirk put his arm around the shoulders of the youngest boy as they watched me walk away.




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Compact wisdom

It was our last full day in Bali. At lunch, Mia and I ended up arguing over what I would do next. She was going to a market to buy gifts. I was considering a swim at Kuta Beach.

“The sun is blazing,” Mia said. “You’ll fry to a crisp. You already have a farmer’s neck.”

“But I want to swim,” I said. “I haven’t touched seawater yet.”

“And who’s fault is that?” Mia asked.

She had a point. I drank tap water in Ubud and was out of circulation, so to speak, for two days.

“I guess—”

“Swim at the hotel,” she smiled. “There’s shade and lots of old ladies to protect you should something go wrong.”

I had to admit that the idea of going to Kuta Beach had its downsides, even for me. I’d spend an hour in the taxi to get there from Sanur to begin with. Then I’d have to keep my money and the room key in my pocket while I swam. And then I’d have to sit for another hour or more in a taxi to get back.

“I could swim beyond the reef,” I suggested.

Sanur has a pond of a beach due to a reef about two hundred meters offshore. I could wade to this reef, cross it, and swim in the big waves beyond.

“Are you out of your mind?” Mia asked. “It’s high tide at four.”

“So? I’ll get back before then.”

Mia gave me a look I had seen all too often over the better part of my adult life, a look I have come to associate with the tail ends of arguments.

“You couldn’t even float down small rapids in the Skykomish River without getting banged up. How the hell are you going to come back over a roaring reef?”

She was referring to a recent surge of testosterone which had compelled my friend Xavier and I to float down small rapids in the Skykomish River, rapids that turned out to be much larger when experienced in person.

“I’ll just take a look,” I said.

“You’re an idiot,” Mia concluded.


At the hotel, I walked to the sea and came out onto the esplanade where the hotel security guard sat in his little booth. As I stood, hands on my hips, and looked out to the reef, he spoke up. “What you thinking?” he asked.

“I think,” I said, “maybe to swim at the reef.”

The guard shook his head. “No,” he said summarily. “Stupid. Water stong. Coral sharp. No good.”

As I walked back to the hotel, I wondered what life would have been like if Mia had been possessed of such compact wisdom.




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The occidental weakness of smiling

This weekend, while walking along the Burke-Gilman trail from where I live to Woodinville, I came upon a group of octogenarian Japanese tourists. I don’t know why they were on the trail, nor how they’d come to be there. They looked like some sort of old-person delegation because one of them waved a rather large Japanese flag. Whatever the case, they milled about near the wooden bridge that connects the trail to the town of Bothell. Most of them were pretty frail but all of them seemed to be in good spirits. As I approached, it became obvious that they were making fun of men on recumbent bikes. One had just passed, reclined as though on a wheeled deck chair, cranking handles to propel himself instead of pedalling, with a jaunty flag twirling from a tall antenna. When you walk the trail, you get used to the sight of these bikes and the men who ride them, but the Japanese had presumably not seen such a thing before and fell over one another with laughter. One old man pantomimed the man on the bike and an old woman laughed so hard that her dentures popped out. This caused more laughter and chattering that didn’t sound anything like the archetypal Japanese I had learned at the movies—growled foundations of nouns followed by explosions of verbs, always with a san somewhere in them, always sounding like a confluence of bitter disappointment and strained indignation.

What had become of Japan? I thought. Where were its stoic people, dedicated to perfection and ritual? Set them loose in America, it seemed, and they fell apart.

Suddenly, another old man barked an order. By then I had stopped altogether, as had others. Still laughing and babbling, the group began to arrange itself for a photo. The man with the camera took up his position.

Sei—” he warned.

The old Japanese settled down and frowned at the camera.

No—” the man with the camera continued.

All twenty or so of them stiffened into Edwardian black-and-whiteness, and then he snapped the picture.

Instantly, the old people dissolved into laughter and bantering. As I walked on, I marvelled at this. In the West, people had been posing all smiles and hand gestures for decades, no matter how they felt. With the advent of the smartphone, that habit had spread to the East as well, where, as in the West, it had lowered IQs all around and now infected everyone under the age of fifty. It had always seemed idiotic to me to go down in history with a grin. Who knew what was to become of Japan, I thought as I took the bend at 102nd Avenue, or of all of us, but at least the families of these old people would remember their grandparents for how they truly were, disappointed and indignant at what they saw in America.




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Almond shiner

I’ve been called many things in my life, but last night I heard what I believe cannot be topped in what remains of my days. It was around midnight, and Mia and I had gone to bed after an evening of immigration admin that had brought me within a micron of gouging my own eyes out. I had spent hours stitching together our travel history using emails and a magnifying glass to inspect the entry and exit stamps in our passports. Then I did the same thing to retrace where we had lived, and when, down to the day. Throughout, as is my nature, I ranted at no one in particular and provided a running commentary of what I was having to do. Mia, as is her nature, was calmer than I was. She could afford to be calmer because she wasn’t really doing any of the work. Instead, she viewed the whole business almost as an outsider, with passing interest and mild amusement.

“This is for you too, you know?” I said.

“But you’re so good at it,” she replied.

Now she was dropping off to sleep while I tried, finally, to do something I could call my own, and read for a few minutes.

“I’m glad that’s done,” I said with some resentment.

Mia smiled sleepily and mumbled, “You’re my almond shiner.”

“Your what?”

She pressed her head deeper into the pillow. “My almond shiner.”

It took me a few moments to compute this. “Shining armour?”

“Hmm,” she smiled faintly. “My knight.”

As she sank away, I pictured myself standing on a street corner at a little fold-out table, buffing almonds for a living and talking to passersby. That seemed about right, I thought, and turned out the light.




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