by Stephen Faulkner

Anytime I talked to Shilly it was always the same: me listening, him talking, nothing much being said. At least it kept him awake so that I knew he was alive; and that was really the whole point of it all.

Sometimes he came up with something worthwhile, but that was pretty rare. I had to goad him. I was always goading, prodding, getting him to open his mouth and say something, any old thing that he might dredge up just to keep his mind awake and active so he wouldn’t fall asleep and succumb to whatever somnambulistic substance he had dosed himself up with. I was always afraid that he would keel over like an unbalanced lump of person-shaped clay, soundlessly pooping out into his death dreams and to somewhere way beyond. Neither of us wanted that – or so I assumed he didn’t want it: death, though through all of his talk-talk he never let on one way or another, but now it seems that that wasn’t the point at all. Never was. It was always those ramble-tamble sessions in his room with me in there pushing, keeping him alive and kicking.

Like this morning, goading him on as usual. But it didn’t take much questioning to get him going, less and less of that than to get him on his sliding feet and walking but he did that – got on his feet – and went along with my asinine talk-to-get-him-going-again chit-chat chatter. And he went along with it, answering the final, ‘Tell me about that, can you?’ with, ‘Can I? Why of course I can. Now, let’s see here a minute…’

Then he lapsed, thinking as much as his drug addled mind was able, his eyelids sliding down, his legs buckling out from under him until his rear almost hit the floor but I held him, all hundred and twenty five pounds of him and dragged him back to the bed to let him sit for a while.

‘Can you?’ I shouted and slapped him. ‘Tell me about it, can’t you?’

‘About what?’

I sighed. ‘I don’t know anymore, man. It’s your ball, your court. Do with it what you will.’

He thought about it then, hooked more and more onto the words than on their actual meanings.

‘Can I?’ he muttered, then, louder, ‘Maybe I can-can-can-can… You know, it’s a fascinating word that – can. We’ve had it in the language for so long, in so many forms and I think it started in a much more aberrant form, that of cane. Understand? No? Well, consider this.

In the Bible there was Caine. Killed someone, di’n’t he? But no matter because later it is still used, comes in the New Testament – huh! – later, I said. Couple a thousand years later but, to continue, we’ve got at least two more instances and prob’ly more but I’m no theologian or bibbling Bible scholar and those other two instances, as far as I know, are:

Canaan, the place – a town or such and, Cana, where the water fermented miraculously into an excellent vintage of Zinfandel I think, dig? So there you have cane – variant of can but the variations are still in use today like a cane stick for walking, that hook headed contraption you see old foofs using to get about, not having the stability of balance or strength to keep them upright and going along at a good clip due to the ravages of arthritis, lumbago, gout and suchlike.’

‘But there is more. There is also cane where we get the sugar from and canes o’ candy, all red-striped like a flag for Christmas to hang on the tree – main ingredient therein comes from the ol’ sugar cane then shaped like the old fogies’ helper and, if sufficiently pointed from sucking one end it can be used to kill Able found out too late ‘bout what his brother wanted to do to’im. All ties nicely together, don’t it? Even the red stripes on those candy things mimic blood. Coincidence? Who’s to say? And what about Michael Caine? What evil lurks in the heart of an actor who bears the name of this world’s first murderer? Tell me that, eh? What evil lurks…?’

‘The Shadow knows,’ I said in a deep announcer-like voice, grinning stupidly. I just couldn’t resist.

‘Not funny,’ reproached my bleary eyed chatterbox.

‘Sorry, but what has all this got to do with the word ‘can’?’

I wasn’t really sure how this patter had gotten onto this particular track. I had been there several hours already and originally we had been talking about his mother. But I pursued this line of talk, convinced from past experience that keeping him talking would help to keep him awake until the drugs – whatever he had been taking, he wouldn’t say – had run their course in his blue veins and were properly spent. And I was intent on keeping him that way: alive.

And, lively, he answered: ‘Can? The next room there. A euphemism for a terlit, isn’t it?’

I wondered at the way his mind worked. ‘That’s one,’ I said. ‘What else?’

‘Oh, lots more,’ he said. ‘Hmm; either you can or you can’t and that’s where we came in, but going onward, let’s see…canned from a job if you don’t keep your nose to the grindstone et cetera or if they catch you swiping terlit paper from the can – soap, too, I might add – grave offense, that and…umm…if you work in a grocery store stealing vegetables – canned, of course – can get you canned, too, along with other stuff like fruits? Ham – Dak is my favorite – and all sorts of things: soda, beer, V-8, Hawaiian Punch – all of ’em come in cans, you know. Jars break too easy, you see, and liquid anything can come out and make a mucky mess of everything when all you gotta do is put the stuff in cans like the liquid soap you hang over the sink for folks to use but if you get caught pilfering any kinda shit like that you get yourself canned no matter what excuse you might use and if you’re of the female gender then you raise your skirt doing the can-can for the boss inso promising him that what be under there will be for him if he would only desist from canning you like a sardine with a flat foot placed heavily across the vertical crease of your rump in order to kick you out on your…’

He waited and I supplied the punch: ‘Out on your can.’

‘Yer darned tootin’. Good man.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Take a bow.’

‘I can’t,’ I said. ‘I’ve got a slight slit in the seam of my pants.’

‘Aha! Afraid it’ll go all the way through and then you’ll be showing off your…ahem!’

‘You got it, Brother.’

‘Pity you won’t, though. Bow, I mean. I can’t remember the last time I was mooned.’

‘Some other time, maybe, when we’re both in a less energetic mood.’

‘Promise?’

I raised my right hand. ‘Word of honor.’

We shook hands on it and then – nothing. He clammed up right there, didn’t go on with his tirade. Was the show over? I tried to goad him a little further. I was beginning to enjoy the inanities, this strange entertainment.

‘No more ‘can’?’ I asked.

‘Can’t,’ he said, shrugging. ‘Afraid I’m rather dried up as far as that’s concerned.’

‘Oh, I’m sure that you can keep it up a bit more,’ I pushed. ‘Try and find it again, will you?’

‘Will I?’

‘Yes. You had a momentum going for a while there. You can’t have lost it so soon.’

‘Will I?’ he said thoughtfully. ‘Will – hmmm.’

Shilly paused, thinking. Something was happening. Another something starting to brew. Yes, I thought, good.

There is another one,’ he said. ‘Will. A last testament – like in the New and the Old where Caine first appeared but more – a name, short and nick for William, then there is the word as verb as in I will. Yes, will – very good…’

Another one? My temptation was to say ‘oh no,’ but then again, why not? From one extreme of the dictionary to the other beginning with C for can and ending with W for will. This could go on forever.

And he was alive (perhaps another word to introduce for him to play with: alive, live, enliven, life, life-force… Yes, he could have a field-day with that one). It would go on, I knew, until he fell asleep, soundly snoozing the rest of the day away in mumbling slumbers until…

Whenever he would get a hold of his dealer for a new fix, a new stash of goodies as he called it. And it would begin all over again unless… And I think, do I cherish his friendship, his life that much? Yes, is the answer to that one. And then FLASH! His knife drawer is full; he has some of the best utensils, all sharp and formidable. It wouldn’t take much and it would be for the best, so I tell myself. It would be easy, just find the guy; a single deep thrust and then no more worries or discoursing yakkety talk about Can, Will, Might, Should, Would, Did, Do.

I’ll do it, I tell myself, save him his voice. His stumbling gait as he paces to talk, rubbing the welted tracks on his arms from the pumping himself full of that shit sold to him by…who? I’ll find out, redden the yet to be chosen knife with the guy’s, whoever’s, blood. I’m ready for this.

I’ll sit with Shilly a few more days until I learn the name of his dealer and then I’ll do the deed. Until then back to sitting with him until the last bagful wears out of his drained, pale body. A few days more of his wanton banter for I can’t let him out to find another one with whom to help sate his vein’s appetite, then to be egged on by me to just keep him alive.

I must indulge my need for his talk-talk-talk begun out there.

Him alive, yes. I need that. I do need that very much. Oh, yes.

For without him…it, his life…I don’t believe I could stand it, this world the way it is now or any other way, either. No. The thing is, he has to live. He must go on. He just has to.

Stephen Faulkner is a guy who loves to write fiction that takes the world apart and puts it back together in interesting and imaginative ways. He lives in Decatur, Georgia with his wife and four cats.

His stories have been published in Aphelion Webzine, Temptation Magazine and Unhinged among others.