As Samsa Gregor awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a human being. No longer built with the slick durability of an oily seed, he was now naked flesh stretched over a living armature of interlocking bones that conspired to create an enormous mammalian beast so murderous in reputation, yet so charitable when it came to producing great mountains of succulent and fetid garbage and boundless oceans of foul and sopping refuse, that he couldn’t help but wonder whether he had been reincarnated as his own God.
He was lying facedown in a cold puddle behind the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., with the tangy piquant of spent petroleum and cat urine trilling through his nostrils with the bright enthusiasm of a fistful of pine needles. Wearily lifting his head just enough to notice the intense sunlight marking the perimeters of his shadow, he felt the warmth of high noon on the back of his neck and imagined the easy mark he was making for any hungry pigeon who might be flying by. Instinctively, he made a frantic move to skitter in the direction of a weeping gnash set deeply in the dented belly of a dead refrigerator, which was capsized and oozing slime the color of applesauce in between a pair of rusty green dumpsters just 10 feet away. Regretfully, though he had willed himself to shoot forward, he didn’t move more than a few inches, his limbs being way too heavy and oversized to coordinate around a leaden torso that seemed anchored to the frozen ground. The effort to move produced in him an involuntary little cry, pitiful really, his new genitals having been rolled hard against the scabrous asphalt and his left nipple having nearly been sliced off by a twisted bottle cap serrated by decay. Hoisting his hips off the ground and taking a moment to let his scrotum hang free from constriction like a tiny purple beehive, he exhaled into the meager relief, taking a moment to push the bottle cap away with his right hand before letting his weight settle gingerly back to earth, resting amid the broken glass and feculent litter once again.
When the telephone rang at 11 a.m. with all the raw fervor of a machine gun being fired into an empty trash can, Congressman Brown, who had enjoyed the night and much of the morning somersaulting blissfully through nimble dreams about flying and relentless intercourse with flexible and grateful strangers, barely reacted. Having spent his entire career demonstrating a real talent for disarming panic by waterlogging it with cheerful complacency, the sudden noise didn’t bother him. He had no problem taking an extra minute to roll over onto his back and to stretch, catlike, his left hand finding his morning wood and misreading it as triumph, before hoisting himself up against the hotel headboard, the pillows around him making him feel like Jupiter weightless upon his throne.
The lawyer on the line had good news. The Andersons, whom the congressman recognized as a shiftless, greedy bunch right from the get-go, had finally agreed to accept the offer from Batoff, Biddle and Reath and to sign the non-disclosure agreement. Of course, this was exactly what the congressman expected to happen, having watched the resolve of the family weaken over time simultaneous with their gradual acceptance of the loss of their two youngest children, the names of which he’d long since put out of his mind. “After a while you get tired of hanging onto the pain and you just want to get on with your life,” he told Batoff. “If you’re smart, you reinvent yourself as a survivor and, if you’re lucky, you get to do it with a shitload of money in the bank. Make sure you call the governor and tell him that we’ve got an election to prepare for.”
Gone were his armor-plated back and his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments. Gone were his antennae and his root beer-burnished legs, as numerous and nimble as fingertips and as agile as smart adjectives made to propel a cunning phrase forward into purpose. Gone too was the innate sense that he belonged in the world.
Dropping his cheek back into the slick puddle on the alley floor, he squeezed his eyes shut and attempted to re-enter his sleep in the hopes that he might discover there the proper door from which to escape this nightmare and re-emerge into the dazzling afternoon as a fully formed dung beetle. But, of course, the more he strained in the direction of unconsciousness, the more he became acutely aware of his wakefulness. He felt a terrible heat erupt inside his chest as he pinched his eyes tightly enough to see sparks swarming his inner lids like algae, his grief so woefully inarticulate as to evade capture by reason. He gritted his teeth and steeled his jaw just as a sudden gust of wind swept through the alley and lifted a newspaper into an ecstatic avian pirouette next to his head, startling him onto his side where he attempted to collapse himself into a full-body fist and found that he hadn’t enough hinges to make himself very small. Immediately relieved to see that the winged monster threatening him was just The New York Times, he sighed and watched the enormous paper bird twist through the air and eventually explode in a striptease so complete that it left nothing in its wake to gawk longingly at, its segments wafting back to earth like so much benign frivolity. Emptiness, it seemed to insist, is the most revealing nudity upon which we drape our most profound understanding of all things.
Stepping into the shower, still chuckling over the lapse in memory he’d just suffered while looking himself over in the bathroom mirror, having momentarily mistaken the lipstick in his ass crack for blood, he thought about his own wife and children and how no amount of money on earth would ever be enough to compensate for any one of their deaths. He thought about how he might tell them the good news when he got home, not that they’d be at all surprised to hear it. After all, they knew from listening to all the talk about damage control from his advisers last summer regarding the incident in the sauna at the Rayburn House gymnasium that presidential aspirations were part of the master plan. He then thought about how grateful he was to his own parents for not making a big deal about what Judge Worthley did to him and several of his colleagues when he was a congressional page back in the 1960s, figuring that had those photographs been known to exist during the indictment procedure his own prospects for public service would’ve been compromised if not totally eradicated. He thought about God and how gracious he was to let people be their own judge and jury. And executioner. And crucified savior. And resurrection. He then wondered if they ever found more than just the judge’s left thumb down by the dock and why none of it ever made the paper.
He picked up the soap and massaged the bar into a fragrant lather.
Rolling back onto his stomach and readjusting himself so that his knees were brought up beneath his chest and his buttocks were resting on his heels, he once again closed his eyes and tried to retreat back into his own brain where he knew with absolute certainty who he was. Detecting no overt madness within the stark familiarity of his own mind, he decided that his metamorphosis was not a neurosis or a psychosis but more likely the result of something he’d eaten or perhaps something he’d contracted by touching or inhaling or being irradiated. Temporary or not, he told himself in the most comforting tone he could muster that the affliction seemed undeleterious of his mental facilities. It was, of course, small comfort, though sufficient enough to steady his heartbeat and to slow his breathing some. He then wondered whether there might be something to his initial assumption about being reborn as God. If he had come back as a more advanced life-form, then at least some explanation of what had befallen him could be embraced with some measure of relief. Satisfaction, even. After all, if his transformation was divinely inspired, then his predicament would be beyond his mortal comprehension and therefore not worth agonizing over. It would simply be his job to discover the cosmic purpose of his holy providence, or at least to sit back and be patient until such a purpose revealed itself—if, that is, it ever did reveal itself.
Then again, perhaps he was never a dung beetle to begin with and thus was not a freshly minted God now. Perhaps he had always been a common human being who had just been spiritually reborn with a refurbished soul, his dung beetle memories merely being a metaphor to describe the unenlightenment of his earlier life. He’d first learned of the phenomenon the previous spring while gnawing on a damp sponge beneath Mrs. Salcedo’s kitchen sink. It was sometime around 10 a.m., and the daffy widow with the homemade glass eye was on the telephone going on and on about how her nascent relationship with Jesus Christ had made her a brand new person. “Honest to God, Tessa,” she said, “after seeing that goddamn Mel Gibson movie on Channel 17 over Easter weekend I’m like a goddamn toddler! I feel like I’m starting my life all over again! I cry uncontrollably, I’m up to three naps a day, I can’t eat solid food! I wet myself just standing there looking out the window. Not only that, I can’t take two steps without my pants falling down and sending me tumbling over the backs of chairs and into lamps and down flights of stairs. I’m just about the cutest thing you ever saw!” Then there was the sound of somebody knocking at Mrs. Salcedo’s door. “Oh, sorry, Tessa. The super is at the door. Remember how I called him two years before Bud died to complain about the taste of the water coming out of the tap? Well, miracle of miracles, the sonuvabitch finally made it up here.”
As the elevator descended, Rep. Brown was on the telephone again, this time with somebody from The Huffington Post who had just heard a rumor that the congressman was planning to announce his candidacy for the highest office in the land within the week. “Listen, I don’t know who starts these rumors,” began Brown, doing his best to project the sort of aw-shucks modesty that one feigns when opening a present that is supposed to be a surprise but really isn’t. “However, I’m not sure that it’s up to me to disagree with the notion, especially if it’s something the public feels passionate about, that I wouldn’t be one hell of a great president. What was it that Mario Cuomo said: ‘You campaign in poetry and govern in prose?’ Well, I still have a novel to finish up on the Hill. The story I’m working on has a plot line that we’re all familiar with. It’s about a middle-class family that’s struggling to get by, with a father who needs to come home from the war, or, if he’s home, he needs to earn a living wage. And there’s a mother, too, who needs decent health care and a good education for her kids, and maybe a simple cloth coat and a nice pair of shoes. And they all need to have peace of mind and faith in their God and belief in their country. I’m still trying to create that ‘happily ever after’ ending.”
“So,” asked the journalist, sighing and checking his watch, “you’re saying that you have absolutely no plans to run for the office of president of the United States?”
“Blessed are you whose worthiness gives scope. Being had, to triumph, being lacked, to hope,” said the congressman. And then he hung up.
Again the wind blasted hard into the alleyway and flowed through Samsa’s body like gamma rays, but he barely noticed, having been blessed with what he now recognized as a brand new and oh-so-delightfully human talent for self-absorption. For the first time in his life he was able to completely lose himself in thought, the outside world be damned! Never before had he ever been so adept at distracting himself from what was literally accosting his physiology and nagging at his cognition for attention. Like climbing into an iron box and closing the lid, he fell into further contemplation of contemplation, itself, his consciousness a flashlight beam being directed to fall only upon mirrored objects flattering to his own egocentricity. The possibilities for self-discovery seemed endless in the same way that a beach will appear endless when considered in increments of individual grains of sand. His flashlight moved its tiny circle of light here and there, the surrounding darkness helping to convince him that, compared with all the invisibility of everybody and everything else, he was not at all insignificant.
Five days later, beneath the fractured rib cage and shredded, stained nightgown of an abandoned box spring, his brothers and sisters, too preoccupied with surviving to personalize their meal in search of a moral, were churning through his bowels, brain and gizzard and turning his corpse into a gory nest of wet leather and flies.
When Congressman Brown pulled his hand out of his pocket in front of the Willard Hotel to smooth his hair against the breeze, a quarter fell onto the sidewalk and rolled away before resting, face up, in a soggy pile of trash at the mouth of a corroded drainpipe. This pleased him, for without even trying to, he and the Father of Our Country made this garbage worth something.