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How to engineer a happy ending...

A Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie story by Greg Swann

There are things I've never learned to pass up. Where anyone else would just walk on by, maybe not even notice, I always have to stop and find out. Nature is just: I get what I deserve... But, then, sometimes I get more than I hope for, too. I suppose the accounts balance.

Watch: I met the strangest man. Unchallengeably the strangest...

I spotted him from a long way off. It's the differences that pop out at you, and the greasy old geezer has a pretty 'outstanding' way of walking. He would take one short step, then wait a long while, then shuffle the other foot, then wait some more. As I drew nearer, I saw he was saying something during the waits. I'm glad the cat pays for it and not me, because curiosity always pushes me closer.

He was well worn. His skin was weathered all over, and his cheeks and nose were wind-burned red, the tops of his hands lobster red and flaking. He was arrayed in a form-fitting armor of filth that had inadvertently become contaminated with stray bits of fabric. His hair was a wild mess, a timorous blend of sun-browned straw and pale grey that would never aspire to white. His eyes were fiery but glazed and teary. As I watched they darted in every direction.

"Should I hit myself in the head with a hammer?," he said and took a step. It didn't sound like a question, more like a litany. "Should I stand on one foot and yell, 'Excelsior'?" Another step. "Should I check to make sure there are no fish in my pockets?" Another step.

I said: "...?"

"Should I smash all the knuckles on my left hand?" Step. "Should I check to see if I can eat through my nostrils?" Step. "Should I count backwards from eighty-seven to forty-four?" Step.

Indeed: "...!"

"Should I say my name a thousand times?" Step. "Should I buy some paint and spray it all over my hair?" Step. "Should I check to see how many Twinkies I have to eat before I throw up?" Step.

I said, "...Uh."

"Should I admit there is a person there?" Step.

I said, "Tell me if I should go away."

"Should I tell him to go away?" Step.

"...? What I'm saying is, I could understand it if you don't want to talk."

"Should I tell him I don't want to talk?" Step. "Or should I tell him about constant questioning?"

I waited him out.

"Should I tell him that moral abstractions are subejective, arbitrary and unprovable?" Step. "Should I tell him that there is no right, only a right-for-me?" Step. "Should I say that I can only know the right-for-me by constantly questioning myself?" Step.

I said, "...?"

He looked away from me. "Should I float a tennis ball at the end of a string?" Step. "Should I try to find out what happens if you feed a cat to a goldfish?" Step. "Should I hang the receiver upside down in every pay-phone I see?" Step.

"...But those aren't important moral issues..."

He ignored me. "Should I ask the president for a car?" Step. "Should I shove glass shards under my fingernails?" Step. "Should I see if I can't get my shoes on backwards?" Step.

"And they're all things there is no reason to do..."

"Should I tell him that I can only know if they're worth doing by constant questioning?" Step.

"But what about principles, generalizations, even rules-of-thumb?"

"Should I tell him that principles are a crutch?" Step. "Should I tell him that I've been questioning myself for more than forty years?" Step. "Should I tell him that I'm always trying to come up with new questions, to make sure I'm checking everything?" Step.

"Forty years." I whistled low and slow. "Maybe I could help you..."

"Should I ask how he can help me?" Step.

"Well," I said, not at all put off by the non-conversation style of conversation, "I could help you think of new questions."

"Should I ask what new questions he can think of?" Step.

"The way I see it, it's got to be something you can't think of a good reason to do. Is that right?"

"Should I say that the idea is to find out if something is worth doing?" Step. "Should I see how many walnuts I can hold between my toes?" Step. "Should I try to find out what happens if I put a firecracker in my ear?" Step.

"...Yeah, sure."

"Should I try to get my toenails to grow out upside down?" Step. "Should I melt a bunch of crayons and see what color I end up with?" Step. "Should I check to make sure there are no invaders waiting to attack from Venus?" Step.

"Have you ever asked yourself, 'Should I take another step?'"

He said, "...Why, no..." He stopped.

"What about, 'Should I ever ask myself another question?'"

And: to my surprise: he shut up...

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