ASTRAYby Andrew Farkas
An unlit cigarette dangled from my lips.
Outside there was no one. Looking to the right provided a view of no one at all, looking to the left offered a scene devoid of people, while straight ahead was strictly unpopulated. There was no one. I lit my Chesterfield, and immediately a man asked me for a light. Normally, a person asking for a light already has something to smoke. Yet he had nothing. His hands, which he clenched and unclenched, were empty. He sat down next to me, unperturbed at my immobility, and delivered this speech:
“I am the one who will lead you astray,” he said, smoking, though I gave him neither cigarette nor flame. “I am the one who will lead you astray.” I looked down and found my own Chesterfield was missing. I removed one from the pack and lit. “I am the one who will lead you astray. There, I’ve said it three times, and what I tell you three times is true. So you can believe it. Three times. You can trust me. It’s true. Though, I only tell lies. I only tell lies. Lies, I must warn you, are all I tell. So you can’t trust me. You can’t. You just can’t. Not a blessed word,” he said taking a drag from the cigarette in his left hand, exhaling, and then taking a drag from the one in his right. Meanwhile, I lit another. “However, if you don’t follow me, you’ll never get to where you’re going. Where you want to go. I am the one and only, the only one who can lead you to your destination. Your questions, the ones you want answered, will remain questionable, will remain querulous, will remain queer beyond your understanding if you stay here, if you follow someone else, if you allow me to walk into the distance shrinking – shrinking – shrinking until I am gone, yes, if you do not join me there will be no resolution for you, no, you will not get to where you need to go, no, you will not find that knowledge you wish to attain, no, you will not end up in the place you wish to be without me, though I,” he said inhaling on the two cigarettes in his left hand, slowly lowering that hand to his knee, exhaling, “I will lead you astray,” punctuated by a drag from the right hand Chesterfield and a grand gesture with that same hand, sweeping the smoke away from his mouth. I lit a fourth cigarette and … handed it to him. He thanked me, and said, “Ah, but now I have said it four times, so we enter tricky territory. For: what I tell you one or two times is, let us be frank, a bald-faced lie, what I tell you three times is true, but what I tell you four or more times you just can’t tell, you just can’t tell, I am afraid to inform you there is just no way to know,” he said inhaling from the two right hand cigarettes and the two left hand cigarettes simultaneously, then exhaling, his hands in a flourish as if he were a conductor. “So, should you be ready, together we shall follow the path to your destination, a path only I know, a path only I can lead you along, though in doing so, inevitably, I will steer you off course and into oblivion.” He stood and began walking.
I lit another cigarette.
I admit, I did not follow. I did not allow myself to be led astray. I watched him walk into the distance, ever into the distance, up to the point where the land meets the sky, just before he disappeared inhaling on the two cigarettes in his left hand, and then, with finality, the three others in his right as he stepped over the horizon. It has been years since I’ve seen him. And I wonder everyday if I made the right decision. If perhaps my resolve to remain stationary was incorrect. If perhaps choosing to stagnate smoking on the stoop was wrong. If perhaps, in the end, my destination was to go astray and I never made it, or if, after all, I am astray now.
Andrew Farkas is the author of Self-Titled Debut and is a frequent contributor to The Brooklyn Rail.