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August 08, 2022

The Book

By Kevin Landis

Cory's life, so far, could be summed up well by his hair cut. It was short, not military short but short enough for him to get by not combing it at all (which he didn't do, at all) Cory was just under thirty years old. His hair was clean, but untended. His life was simple and lacked direction. He was a young man who hadn't discovered his place in life, and incidentally, wasn't searching.

With no thought to his life ahead, but only to his present discomfort, Cory leaned, taking quick shallow breaths, against a park bench. The cool morning air was sharp to his lungs, but nowhere near as sharp as the pains in his legs.

Running seemed like a good idea a few minutes ago when he was tying his shoes in his small intercity apartment. Now, though, it seemed like a tedious and excruciating waste of time at best and a prelude to death at worst. Central Park, from The Book. Illustration and photo by Kevin Landis.

Cory was a little over weight, that together with his desire to be the lean and muscular man seen displayed on billboards and magazine covers took him as far as the city park's bench, it would take something else to take him back home.

"Outta air?"

Cory looked around to locate the source of the question. A dirty man was grinning from the other side of the bench.

Cory quickly gave a non committal nod and turned away. He could swear the man hadn't been there a moment ago.

"I've heard it said that runners are chasing something." The man continued.

Cory gave the man a quick look.

Cory decided he wasn't very threatening, sitting cross legged on the bench with his bald head cocked to one side. The man's features were sharp, his eyes were wild. His clothes looked old and dirty his appearance was very consistent with the kind of homeless man Cory routinely ignored.

"I can help you." The man said, taking his look as permission to continue.

Cory first inclination was to take off jogging. The man was probably crazy, listening any more would only encourage him.

"Do you feel like you know the meaning of your life?" The man asked, the grin still pasted on his round face.

The man 's smile grew as Cory displayed a look of deep confusion. He shifted on the bench bringing his hands up behind his head, confidently leaning against the park bench.

He was a thin little man, with short legs an untrimmed beard that was mostly gray with only remnants of black. A dirty green tank top covered his skin and bones torso. It was tucked into undersized jogging pants that stopped just four or five inches short of his sandaled feet.

Cory let the question have a quick run though his mind.

"Everybody's got a different take on that." Cory said dismissively, "I guess the short answer is 'no'."

The homeless man grinned wider still.

"I didn 't ask if you new the meaning to life." the man said, "I asked if you knew the meaning to your life."

Cory didn't know how to respond, so he decided to look away.

"I'd like to give you something," the homeless man said reaching down into a small bag that sat beside him at the bench.

He produced a small book, it was brown leather and of very nice quality. The cover bore a single name in bold caps: Cory Martin.

Cory leaned back in surprise, taking his hand off the bench. He blinked and looked at the book again.

"I don 't want anything for it." The man said, "I want you to have it, you don't have to read it if you don't want, it's yours to throw away if you like." He placed the book on the bench and slid it toward Cory.

Cory hesitated. He was madly curious about the book, he couldn't take his eyes off it. However, he was also deeply bothered by the feel of the situation.

Trusting his gut is something Cory learned early on., It never failed him. His gut said to leave the book where it was.

"How do you know my name?" Cory asked, his eyes trained on the book. It almost seemed to glow.

The man didn't answer.

Cory looked up and the bench was empty except for the book, glittering in the early morning sunshine. He quickly scanned the park, it was far from crowded but still, a surprising number of people had come out for walks or runs. No one who resembled the little man was nearby.

"What 's going on here?" Cory asked, to no one in particular.

No one answered.

Cory walked around the bench and felt the seat where the man had been sitting. It was warm, or was he imagining it?

Cory looked around the park again, a knot tying in his stomach.

He sat down on the bench, between where the man had been sitting and where the book now sat.

He examined the book carefully lacing his fingers together so he wouldn't be tempted to pick the book up.

He stared at the cover, his eyes drawn to his own name, embossed in gold. The brown cover was speckled with a luminescent material, the cause of the glowing appearance.

"Information can be a dangerous thing."

Cory almost jumped off the bench. A bike rider had come to a stop a few feet away and was looking at him with a concerned gaze.

The man was tall and built like a cyclist. He wore a white and yellow cycling jersey and the customary matching biker shorts.

"It's all a matter of knowing the wrong thing at the wrong time." The man continued. " I have a word of advice for you."

Cory waited, confused, but the man didn't speak.

"Yes?" Cory prompted.

"Keep on running, Cory, reading that book won't tell you anything that you wouldn't find out later. It's really a mistake to even touch the book. It's words are poison, they will kill you and make you happy to be dead."

The man stared at Cory for a long moment. Long enough to make Cory extremely uncomfortable. Then he looked away and pedaled off.

Cory's eyes darted between the book and the departing rider.

"Why's it dangerous." Cory yelled to the man.

"Just think what it would be like if Mozart had heard Hendricks." The man yelled over his shoulder, not slowing down at all. Cory watched as the man disappeared behind a corner of the park.

In the six months Cory had spent living in New York City he'd seen some strange things. He'd seen an old lady feeding diced up rats to stray cats in Battery Park. He 'd seen nuns sell drugs off the corner where the oldest Cathedral in New York was. He'd seen a two Chinese women in a knife fight in broad daylight in south Chinatown.

Central Park was where he went to get away from things like that. But this morning, as the rising sun tinted the whole scene yellow he felt more uncomfortable than ever before.

Cory stared down at the book, his insides turning. He'd never been much of a reader, no more than a novel or two a year. This book, however was more appealing to him than any he had ever picked out to read.

At the same time, though, the book repulsed him. From deep inside he felt an urge to run from the book.

In the end, curiosity got the best of Cory Martin. He reached out and picked up the book.

It was heavy in his hand, weighing more than it appeared to. The cover was smooth like fine fabric, silk perhaps. Cory rubbed it, noting the pleasing feel.

Gently, he cracked the book open. The was no title page, no copyright statement, no dedication, no blank pages, and no table of contents.

"You were born." It began, in small type and unbroken text, "Your father was happy, your mother had wished for a girl so badly she has never really loved you."

Cory slammed the book shut and closed his eyes. The words stung like a slap to the face. When he opened his eyes tears ran down his sweaty cheeks. The words were true. Cory had always felt, but never really know for sure how his mother felt. As he held the book, though, he was sure that it had only truth in it.

Cory hated the book. He hated it's sharp, decisive font. He hated the simple nasty prose that reduced to paragraphs what he'd struggled for years accomplish. Yet he couldn't put it down. It was impossible for him to resist.

It was simple obnoxious truth that brought to conclusion every inner debate he'd ever had. It finitely stated things his subconscious mind had whispered his whole life.

Hours passed and the sun arched though the blue and cloudy sky. Cory read on, and finally, just as sun reached it's highest point at the horizon Cory stopped.

It was exactly noon when Cory first sat down the book.

"You went for a jog, read the book and went home," The book said, "Then you took a nap and watched a few hours of boring television."

Cory stared at the cover in amazement, his finger in the book.

"It's true." Cory said aloud, laughing, "that is what I'm planning to do."

A little girl who happened to be walking her puppy nearby stopped.

"Maybe you ought not read that book, mister." She said in a clear, authoritative tone that didn't really match her cute and young appearance.

Cory glanced up at her, noticing another human being for the first time in hours.

"What?" Cory said.

"Books like that aren't good, they tell you things you don't need to know"

"How do you mean?"

The girl eyed him suspiciously, like he might be some threat to her.

"You said: 'It's true, that's what I'm planning to do.' Why read a book that tells you things that you don't need to know."

"I like it." Cory said, feeling foolish explaining his actions to a weird little girl.

"You won't like it. Will you keep reading it?"

She didn 't wait for his answer, she tugged her puppy's leash and together they trotted on into the park.

Cory looked back to the book. Not even hesitating he flipped it open and kept reading.

It laid out his future life in short narrative. He read with a smile the way he met his wife. He shed tears the day she left him.

Pages flew by as the sun slowly sank down toward the west side of Manhattan. He felt his stomach churn as the book described his old age peppered with illness and sadness. He wept again as he met an older lady who made him feel happier than his first wife ever had. A smile returned to his face as they raised one of her grandchildren.

Then, just as the sun set, Cory read his death in car accident on the way to play cards with some friends in Long Island.

Cory's teeth clenched. He couldn't believe the awful finality of it. Paragraphs ago he'd been happy, and content with his wife and granddaughter.

The book wasn't over, though. It continued on, switching to an analysis of Cory's life, what it showed, proved, represented, meant. It was only three paragraphs long, but it reduced Cory's whole life to a synopsis of a bad movie.

Cory turned the page and found the back cover. There was no more. It was sickening.

It all felt so completely hollow to him. He completely understand what his life meant. He grasped it's true value and it left a crater in his chest.

For more than an hour Cory sat on the bench, grasping the closed book, as the twilight turned to dark.

What Cory wanted now was death. Death was the only way for him to end what had become mockery to everything he believed in, his life.

"I can help you." a voice said.

Cory's head snapped to his right. Sitting right next to him was the dirty homeless man. Grinning as wide as ever.

The man extended his hand, sitting on his palm was a small red pill.

"What is it?" Cory asked, only slightly shocked to see the man.

"Your wish." The man said simply.

Cory didn't even hesitate, he snatched the pill from the mans hand and swallowed it dry.

He waited. Nothing happened.

The dirty old homeless man stood up and backed slowly away. He was staring fearfully over Cory's shoulder.

"Suicide isn't the answer, Cory." A voice said, from over his shoulder.

Spinning again Cory saw a man dressed in a yellow and white cycling uniform. The man was walking his bicycle with one hand and holding the hand of a little girl with the other. The cute little girl was walking a puppy on a leash.

"You think you know the meaning of your life, don't you?" The little girl said.

"Yes." Cory said, he glanced over his shoulder, the dirty homeless man was nowhere to be seen.

"You don't." The cyclist said.

Cory scanned the park quickly, there were people walking about, none paying attention to what was going on with him.

"The meaning of your life isn't written in the last few paragraphs of that book." The little girl said.

"That was cynical talk about what your life amounted to, inaccurately tabulated." The cyclist added, "The meaning of your life is no different from that of any other man or woman."

"What is it?" Cory asked, standing up, feeling a little threatened by the pair's tone.

"The meaning of all our lives is to find meaning," The little girl said, "If we rob ourselves of the search, the destination can become more important that the JOURNEY."

Cory nodded slowly, understanding.

"The Journey is what it's all about." The cyclist said.

The hollow and sick feeling in Cory slowly changed, to a warm feeling of electric energy.

"Now go," the little girl said, "and this time LIVE your life."

Cory smiled and jogged off, he cut off the path into the trees. He'd always wondered what was in those trees.

Article © Kevin Landis. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-10-09
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