Once upon a time, during the Great Recession, a baby was born to two young parents in California. The parents were very poor, and had left the disapproval of friends and family in their hometown in order to have the baby. They were excited about the new life they were about to welcome into the world, but they were very scared as well.
The baby was born next to a dumpster behind a Wal-Mart in Bakersfield. His mother rinsed him off with a gallon of distilled water, and swaddled him in a roll of Brawny paper towels. She nursed him in the back seat of their 1992 Hyundai Excel, which was also where they were living and sleeping, while the father went into the Wal-Mart to shoplift some diapers.
They lived behind the Wal-Mart for several days, moving when they needed to, and eating cheap fast food. After two days, the baby had his first bowel movement, which was audible, and began to cry. His mother gave him a blind wipe with the remainder of the Brawny paper towels, and threw the wad into an empty dumpster. It landed with the clang of metal on metal.
This baby's body, through the process of digestion, excreted pure 24-karat gold. It exited his body in a malleable form, but solidified within seconds; that first lump of gold was in the cast of his tiny buttocks and legs, and was imprinted with the repeating BRAWNY logo on the other side.
The baby's father went into the Wal-Mart and weighed the gold in a produce scale. It amounted to nearly a quarter of a pound. He bought two apples and a hammer so as not to seem suspicious. Out in the parking lot, he used the hammer to pound the gold into two lumps, breaking it in half along the seam, and they drove along the drag until they found a seedy store offering cash for gold and silver. The clerk offered them $900 for one of the lumps and $600 for the other, a pitiful lowball which they happily accepted.
The baby consumed nothing but breastmilk for four years. His parents were afraid that his diet was the main reason for his output, and were afraid to make any change, until eventually his mother's supply dried up. Over those four years, the price of gold had nearly doubled; the family lived in a nice house, and had nice cars, and owned a "gold mine" in Alaska, which was the purported source of their seemingly endless supply of pure gold. They had enough money that they could stop. So they fed him his first hamburger, fries and shake, and that was the end of the breastmilk.
The next morning, a twelve-ounce gold bolus clanked into the special plastic basin that they had set up to catch all of his leavings. So they fed him more hamburgers. In this way, their coffers filled, and their child became very large: the more they put into him, the more they got out.
When the time came, the family opted to have their son home-schooled by tutors; they had food delivered, and they only let him leave the house rarely, to limit the chances that they would need to fish in a public toilet for their profit, or explain their situation to an angry McDonald's manager with a flooded bathroom.
When puberty came, the child was huge and angry and hairy and smelly and surly. He hated living in his house with his mother and father. He hated wearing Depends adult diapers every time he left the house, and he hated most of all the feeling of his bowel movements hardening and scratching him once he filled those Depends adult diapers. The sight of their basement vault filled with the smelted ingots of his feces made him sick to his stomach.
So he planned his escape. He gathered ten pounds of gold, in small chunks. He paid one of his unscrupulous tutors to get him false identification, and a car, and a very nice tent.
The night he was to leave, he waited until his parents went to sleep, drank a whole bottle of laxative, and waited as long as he could. When he couldn't wait any longer, he ran through the house, leaving a gold streak across all the furniture, the carpet, the nice hardwood floors. He got the counters, the wet bar, the trophy room; he painted the inset speakers, the leather sofa, the bookcases. He left a trail to the front door, put on his pants, and ran into the night, never to return.
That was the last time he shat pure gold.
He settled down in Canada, became a CPA. He married, and had children of his own, who all poop normally. Once in a blue moon as he's perched on his stool, he'll hear a small clang; when he does, he just sighs and flushes.
Once upon a time, O children, there lived a fortune teller. She performed her fortune telling in a small building off of a main thoroughfare in a large city, and her building was decorated with many neon signs. She sat in the building at a small round table in a dimly-lit room, wearing a scarf about her head, and gazing into a ball made of glass that was lit from beneath with many swirling colors. In this way, she built up many regular clients, and she had many walk-in customers.
Now this fortune teller, O children, had not an ounce of supernatural talent. Like the vast, overwhelming majority of those purporting to be psychic, she could no more predict the future than she could fly to the moon. However, this woman (unlike most fortune tellers) did not harbor the delusion that she was special. She knew that she was a fraud.
What this fortune teller could do, O children, was read people very well. When someone walked in the door, she could tell immediately their approximate age, relationship status, emotional state, and many other things besides. Why, if a fellow with a bad gray comb-over walked through her door and shook off his umbrella as he sat down, she could look at his hands and tell you if he was single, married, or divorced, a construction worker or a court reporter; she could look at his shoes and jacket and tell you his basic lifestyle and economic status; she could look at his eyes through his glasses and tell you if he was very sad, or hopeful, or skeptical.
Many times, O children, people would come in asking questions that they already knew the answers to. A man would come in and sit down, red-eyed and damp, and ask if his wife was cheating on him. A woman would come in and ask if she was going to get fired. Someone would come in and ask if they would ever see their estranged parent again. She would hold their hands, and gaze into the crystal ball, and confirm for them what they already believed.
One night, a woman came in, looking tired and ragged and soaked through with rain. She sat down at the table, and the fortune teller saw that she was not very well off, middle-aged, married (likely to someone she felt no great affection for), and from a difficult background. She saw that this woman was deeply skeptical.
The woman took out a damp newspaper and laid it down on the table. Then she took out a damp scrap of paper and lay it down next to the newspaper. "I just won two hundred thousand dollars in the lottery," she said.
The fortune teller looked into the woman's eyes. Then she slowly pushed the candle on the table toward her. The woman looked at the candle for a long time, O children. Then she slowly lifted the lottery ticket into the flames.
After the woman left, the fortune teller turned off the lights, and all the neon signs. She locked the door behind her.
Once upon a time, O children, there was a woman who was an accountant. She was a very good accountant, and she lived a long, successful, and generous life. Eventually, through no fault of her own, she became elderly, died, and went to hell.
Now, when you go to hell, O children, the first thing that happens is that your face is removed. All the skin, the fat, the cartilage. Zip! This leaves only the muscular fascia and the eyes. This is for a variety of reasons: so you can't recognize people you knew in life; so you can't make subtle facial expressions; so you will exist in near-constant pain; so you can't judge attractiveness; so you cannot look away from unpleasant things; and so on.
The second thing that happens when you go to hell, O children, is that your fleshless head is removed from your body and placed upon a small platform with wheels. Then your platform is placed in an enormous room, larger than all the oceans, alongside all of the other fleshless heads on their wheeled platforms. And then the floor tilts and pitches and yaws, and all of your heads roll hither and yon, colliding and spinning and moving very quickly.
Now, children, because you have no hands, you cannot protect yourself from colliding with other heads. And because you have no skin, every collision hurts and aches and stings. Because you cannot cover your eyes, you have to watch every impending crash. Because you cannot cover your ears, you can hear every other person screaming and complaining and cussing.
Remember, children, this is not every hell; this is just the hell where this particular woman went.
The woman spent many years in this hell, never sleeping, never knowing the respite of rest, or cool water, or hot food, or the nonviolent touch of another living thing. The sun perpetually beat down upon her, and the hot wind was unceasing. There were days when the tilting of the ground was lazy and slow, and days when it was very steep and fast.
One day, the tilt was very steep. The woman found herself clumped up with a great many other fleshless heads, with more heads raining down upon them and grinding into their tender nerves. The woman grit her teeth and waited for this particular pain to subside, and found that many others did the same, although some of them were doing it to try to keep their mouths shut so nothing would drip inside.
There, in the large pile of heads, waiting for renewed and different pain, she listened to the heads around her, which she normally could not do, because everything moved too fast.
"Boy, this is terrible," said one of the heads. "My cheek meat is raw from crashing into another fellow's forehead. My tongue is torn from flipping over on the surface. One of my eyes burst last year and it's been growing back so very slowly, itching the entire time. This is awful. I mean, this is really, really bad."
"Aw, it's not so bad," said one of the other heads. "It could be worse."
"You kind of get used to it after a while," said a third head.
Aha, thought the woman. After a while, I will get used to it. This, at last, is something towards which I can strive.
Then, O children, the woman crumbled into nothingness and returned to earth, a fresh-faced infant ready to begin anew.
The art at the top of this post is by Grady Gordon.
Once upon a time, O children, there was a crematorium employee. (A crematorium, children, is a building where dead people are turned into ashes. All burned up!) This woman did not enjoy her work for the sake of working, but found that she enjoyed the hours, and she enjoyed the paycheck.
When she was first hired at the crematorium, the man who hired her explained to her all of the procedures and rules that must be obeyed. He explained the necessity for privacy, so no one could see the sometimes unpleasant care and handling of the dead; the importance of a clear chain of custody, so remains would not be misplaced or misidentified; and the importance of cleanliness, so that the crematorium would be respectable, and the remains of different people would not get mixed together.
After working side by side with her employees for several days, she noticed that, when it came time to roll the person into the furnace, the employees always rolled them in head-first. She asked one of her co-workers about it, and he stated to her that it was another regulatory requirement, and she shrugged and continued working.
O, children, this woman worked at the crematorium for many years.
One evening, this woman found herself the only person working after a long day. This was not an unusual position for her to be in, as she had attained a level of seniority. She had one more dead person to cremate before she could take off her uniform and dust mask, and go home to her family and her pets. This dead person had once been a bodybuilder, and she was unwieldy to handle. When the crematorium employee got the coffin onto the rollers, she discovered to her dismay that the body was positioned feet-first. She considered wrestling the corpse onto the conveyor and turning it around, but she was already so very tired, children, that she hit the button and the small pressboard coffin began to roll towards the furnace.
As the door to the furnace opened and the coffin started to roll into it, she heard a small, quiet voice. She immediately slammed the button to stop the rollers, O children, and halted the coffin in its tracks. She yanked the coffin back from the flames, its bottom already having blackened a bit, and pulled back the top, afraid that she had nearly sent an alive person into the flames.
But O, children, the bodybuilder in the coffin was most assuredly dead.
"Please, don't burn me up," said the dead person, through lips, O children, that were beginning to moulder.
"You are very dead," said the woman. "I have to burn you up."
"Then let us strike a bargain," said the dead person, as she wept opaque, multicolored tears through slack loose eyelids. "Leave me unburned for only a little while. If you do this, I will tell you secrets of what awaits us all."
"Fifteen minutes," said the woman, and the dead person agreed.
And so, O children, she told the woman secrets.
And then the crematorium employee burned the dead person up. Poof!
The woman went home to her family and her pets, and she ate dinner, and she watched some light entertainment, and she went to bed. Once there, she lay with her eyes open and stared at the ceiling. She closed her eyes and saw the red-and-yellow tears rolling down the dead person's face as her mouldered and depleted lips flapped. She thought about the secrets that she had been told, and she found herself tossing and turning all night, and dreaming of flickering orange flames and billowing black smoke, and of white ash covering the world.
In the morning, O children, the woman was very tired indeed. But she got up, and she put on her uniform, and she went to work.
Once upon a time there was an owner of a 7-11 convenience store. And O, children, this was back in the times when names meant something; in the days before convenience stores never closed.
This owner cared very much about the well-being of his franchise, and unlike other owners, he was there every morning when the store opened, and he was there every night when the store closed, although he was not there for all of the time in between.
For twenty years, the man did this: cleaned and opened the store in the morning; locked and cleaned the store at night. In this way, the man was an excellent caretaker.
Then one day, the owner got a phone call. This was on a land line, children, as these were different times. "Your store must be like the others," the person on the other end said, "and it must remain open around the clock."
The man did not want to do this, as he was content with his store as it had been since it opened. He thought for a long time about what to do. He could not go against the wishes of the man on the other line of the phone, for they could revoke his franchise license, O children, and that would be terrible. He could not change the name of his convenience store, because he felt a great loyalty. And he could not continue to operate his store as he had done lo these many years.
And so the man sold his store. A young man accepted the keys, and gave the owner money, and promised the owner that he would shepherd the store through the next journey.
The man went home. He spent more time with his wife, and his children, and his grandchildren. His wife was grateful that she was able to be with the man when she awoke, for he no longer needed to get up early to open the store; and she was happy that she could be with the man when she went to bed, for he no longer needed to go out late to close the store.
But O children, the man was still not happy. He woke up aimless and puttered through his day, doing things he liked to do: he built model trains, and read his books. He perfected several recipes which had evaded him, and he completed his collections of stamps and pennies. And yet, O children, he was not happy.
One morning, the man woke up while it was still dark outside and could not go back to sleep. He listened to all the little sounds his house made. He walked through the dark rooms. He started a pot of coffee. He cleaned the large windows in the living room. At seven o'clock, he unlocked the front door.
That night, after he and his wife went to bed, he could not sleep. He listened to his wife breathing for a long time before getting out of bed. He swept the kitchen floor and wiped off the counters. He took out the garbage and ran the dishwasher. At eleven o'clock, he made sure the door was locked, turned off all the lights, and fell asleep quickly.
In this way, O children, did the man live out the rest of his days content.