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The Heritage

26 Jun


The Heritage

A Short Story by

L. Stewart Marsden


It might have begun with Alex Haley’s phenomenon “Roots,” with its fictitious tracing forward of the ancestry and heritage of Kunta Kinte. When the TV series hit the airways, the nation became obsessed with the story — even though it was historical fiction.

My dad was crazy with the idea that our family was somehow linked to an Adjutant Lieutenant who was a close aide to George Washington, and who had left the British military to fight on the right side. Oh how he sifted through yellowed letters and cracked photographs to prove that association. Notes folded and tucked into family Bibles. Photos with illegible notations, some with nothing to identify the stoned-faced subjects. Guess-work and some liberties were taken in developing a narrative of the family, how it came to be in the United States, and then in the Midwest and Minnesota.

This was long before and others bought up most of the public records, foiling the best efforts of family researchers. We were’t Mormon, so that avenue wasn’t available.

And then came the pièce de résistance: DNA testing.

“Oh, you definitely do not want to submit your DNA!” warned my paranoid sister. “They’ll find something genetically wrong with you and you won’t ever be able to buy Life Insurance — or any insurance for that matter!”

Actually, I figured anyone who had any doubt as to his legitimacy might be compelled to send in a little spittle. I remember how growing up, my little brother and I sparred verbally, announcing the other had been adopted and was not a real part of the family.

That was actually the reason for my buying into the ancestry ploy: I was so different from the rest of my family, and had often wondered had I been adopted?

“No, Son. You weren’t adopted. I still bear the stretch marks on my belly. You were the largest of the three.”

Mom started having children almost immediately after marrying Dad. The first, Marylee, died as a two month old suddenly. Back then they called it Crib Death. I guess it would be called SIDS, now. But my parents were from Minnesota and the Midwest, where the mentality was infant mortality was almost a given. The solution, according to Dad, was to have another child as soon as possible. So my paranoid sister was born ten months after Marylee’s death. And then I came along two years later, and my younger brother, a year and a half later.

From the start I stuck out like a sore thumb. My sister and brother were beautiful babies and children. Fair haired and blue eyes like Mom. But I was gawky and had ears much too large — that stuck out of the side of my head like radar detection saucers. Plus I had a long, thick unibrow that ran above both of my brown eyes. Mom thought I looked like a monkey, and called me her little Monkey Man. I hated that.

But, unlike my siblings, I had two things going for me: I was extremely athletic, and I could sing. So I was in harmony with the music of my times, and the music of nature. Dad loved to sing, too, and awoke every morning singing “Oh, what a beautiful morning!” from the musical.

One Sunday Dad took us to the Plantation Supper Club, which served the best buffet in three counties, and featured a live band. All us kids loved going there, because sometime during the band’s performance, the conductor would ask if any kids would like to come up and perform? Nearly all chose to lead the band, waving the conductor’s baton to a rhythm that did not match the band’s tempo in the least. The reward was a huge multi-colored lollipop that would last for days. 

So we all went up, my sisters and I. Mom was pregnant with my younger brother at the time. The girls waved their arms while the band played, received their lollipops, and returned to the family table.

“Do you want to lead the band?” the conductor asked me.

“No. I want to sing.”

“And what song do you want to sing?”

“Je-sus luffs me!” I said loudly into his mic.

“Well, I — uh, I guess the band knows that one,” and handed his mic to me. The band began a rather tentative rendition of the song — musicians unsure of the beat or the notes.

“Je-sus luffs me, this I know!” I sang and continued to sing in my innocent and crystal-clear voice. The band dropped off behind me while I continued a cappella.

“Yes! Je-sus luffs me!” I could see just beyond the apron of the stage where diners sat, enrapt. Tissues were out and dabbing eyes.

“Yes! Je-sus luffs me!” The waiters stood in their tracks, not knowing whether it was okay to tend tables or not while I sang the song.

“Yesss! Je-sus luffs me! Da Bi-bull tells me so!”

Silence. Do you clap after “Jesus loves me” is sung? No one knew. Mom was blubbering into a large dinner napkin. 

Finally, Dad stood up and clapped, and the other diners followed suit.

I grabbed my lollipop from the hands of the stunned conductor and raced back to my seat. My two sisters glared at me.

And that’s pretty much why I decided to send in my DNA.


The company letter came a few weeks later. Basically, it was an apology, stating that sometimes DNA samples were erroneously contaminated — either by the sender or during some part of the testing process.

“This happens very rarely. In fact, only on nine previous occasions have we ever had to send an offer to retest DNA for free, and we test thousands of samples, comparing them to our growing DNA bank for matches, every day.”

Whatever. Someone screwed up at the testing site. I was very careful to follow the instructions meticulously, and knew it wasn’t my fault! Inconvenient? Sure, but you pick your battles, and I sent in another sample.

Three weeks passed and the same letter came back to me.

So now I’m frustrated. All I want to do is disprove my younger brother’s decades-old assertion that I was adopted — something Mom and Dad had continued to deny.

“They’re lying!” my brother hissed, snakelike.

As it turns out, they weren’t lying — not exactly, at least according to the man who showed up at my door one day dressed in a black suit with black tie and fedora and sunglasses.



Before the Blues Brother showed up at my front door, I gotta be honest and say this thing about the DNA FUBAR had begun to get to me. This feeling I considered too silly to mess with had sunk into my head. I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t concentrate at work. I was short-tempered with people around me — impatient to the max. I’ve never sunk into such a dark place in my life — yet, here I was.

So when I answered the doorbell early one Saturday to greet this whatever and whoever he was, there was a mixture of tension with relief! Somehow I knew this funk I was in was going to see some light of day. I knew this guy was some sort of key to getting out of my pit, and I was damn well ready to be rescued.

He identified himself so quickly I missed half what he said, still, I held the door open and he walked into my house.

“We alone?” he asked.

“Unless you count my fighting fish in the bowl over there.”

“No girl friend?”

“With these ears?”

“Yeah. No girl friend.”

He carried a locked briefcase, spun the combination dials, and it popped open. He set it on the small table in front of the couch where he sat. He pulled out a manila envelope and opened the silver clasps, then slid out photos of people.

“Would you mind looking at these and telling me if any of them are familiar?”

I picked each up and briefly studied them. Various ethnicities — Hispanic, black, Asian, a few different caucasians. Male and female. Adults and children. While I couldn’t say for sure, I was fairly certain I didn’t know any of them. And yet … there was a sense of underlying familiarity about each person. But I couldn’t put a finger on it.

“Nope. I don’t know them. Should I?”

“Unless you travel the world a lot, I doubt it.”

There were three adult males, three adult females, two male children and one girl. Nine photos in all.

Nine. I remembered the letter.

“This happens very rarely. In fact, only on nine previous occasions have we ever had to send an offer to retest DNA for free, and we test thousands of samples, comparing them to our growing DNA bank for matches, every day.”

“This about my DNA test about my ancestry?”

“It might be.” He was stone-face. I think if he smiled his head would crumble apart. “I can’t really tell you much …”

“… or you’d have to kill me, right?” 

He didn’t appreciate the quip.

“I’ve read your files.” (They have files, plural, on me?) “We’ve been waiting for this for a number of years.”

“Waiting for what?” I was getting more uneasy by the second.

“You to get your DNA tested. Of course, our operatives are the ones who messed them up.”

“Why would you do that? Why are you interested in me?”

“Same reason you wanted to get your DNA results. To find out who you are related to.”

“So I’m am adopted?”

“Not in the classical sense.”

“What other sense is there?”

“We ran your DNA years ago.”

“YEARS AGO!” I am now officially freaked out.

“It’s a long story.”

“I’ve got time …”

“Actually, we don’t.”

“Tell me the short version then — skip all the boring stuff and get to the highlights. I AM an American, and have rights, you know.”


“WHA — ?!”

“Calm down, Sir. I’ll tell you this,” as he reached into his coat pocket and removed something that resembled a gun.


“Sit, Sir. Please. Take a deep breath.” 

I did.

“Those photos I showed you? The people you say you know nothing about? Those nine people are the only people on this earth — as far as we can determine — who are genetically related to you.”

And then he pulled the trigger, and I blacked out.


I awoke with a clear head, and no grogginess or dizziness — which surprised me. I’ve had surgery before and have gone under the knife, so knew what coming out of an anesthetically-induced sleep was like. This was definitely not that. 

There were lights, but not blinding. Blues Brother guy was among several others seated about a stark room all about me. I was stretched out on some sort of sofa, or bed. I remember I felt completely relaxed and unafraid. Including The Blues Brother, there were nine others forming a ring around me: Three men, three women, two boys and one girl. They were of varying age and ethnic look. All were smiling.

I sat upright and swung my feet around to the floor. No one spoke. Slowly I looked about the room, studying each face. I realized after the third person there were similarities too obvious: the ears, large and prominent, as if satellite dishes, scanning for the visually undetectable; mono brows, dark and thick.

Just like me. The nine were the DNA rejects! 

“You are the others.” It was not a question on my part, but a statement of realization.

They smiled and nodded.

“Your DNA is a match to me.” Again, a statement.

Again, they smiled.

The Blues Brother stood up and walked to me.

“You asked if your were adopted. You weren’t in the usual sense. Your birth mother basically cocooned you in her womb.”

“What? There was an immaculate conception?”

“Interesting you asked — more like an immaculate switch.”


“You, and your brothers and sisters, took the place of feti already growing in your ‘birth mothers’ wombs.” He couched the words birth mothers with finger quotation marks. “They were not, of course, your biological birth mothers.”

I was stunned. The news of being adopted is impactful enough, but to find that your birth mother was not your biological mother goes well beyond shocked.

“So you implanted me in my mother’s womb?”

“In a way. More simply put, we switched you out. Like replacing a carburetor in an engine, or a lightbulb.”

“And what happened to the feti that were in these mothers’ bellies?”

“We don’t speak of that.”

“Why not?”

“It is not germane to your purpose. It will do nothing for you to have that knowledge.”

“Try me!”

The other nine also turned to the Blues Brother, seeming as interested in the truth as I.

One in particular, a light-skinned, white-haired and blue-eyed middle-aged woman stared at him intently, to which Blues Brother reacted with immediate nervousness to the point he began to sweat profusely.

“Well, if you must absolutely know — we recycled them.”

“What?! What the hell does that mean?”

“They were ingested.”


In the span of a little over three months, my life had turned upside down. Not only was I not my parents’ legitimate offspring, but I was no longer a part of the human species! And, my race was not of this world. And we were cannibals, apparently.

“The precise definition of cannibal is one that eats the flesh of its own kind. So, technically, the feti that were ingested was not an act of cannibalism.

Blues Man was very careful in his use of words: feti … ingested. Terms of sterility, and very little direct inference to what really happened. They ate babies, by God! He made it sound as if humans were little more than part of the Four Main Food Group’s of his — or our — planet!

I remembered the classic Twilight Zone episode, To Serve Mankind — the realization as a group of earthlings shuttled onto a space vessel that the “manual” the Alien had brought with him was actually a cookbook.

And while my nine relatives and I were not grossly obvious as outerworlders, we were still distinct in our appearance. The ears. The eyebrow. I had never had the slightest inclination to eat anyone, though.

That wasn’t all. Each of us also had special abilities. Talents, you might say … but not normal. My brother from Ecuador, Josue, had the ability to see around corners. No idea how you would use that, or how you develop it. Genetic mutation? He wasn’t sure either.

Each was different in that regard, except we did share perfect pitch, and could spontaneously break into a long strain of melodious and harmonious song. That experience was incredible! I likened it to a pack of wolves baying in the moonlit night air — their parts wrapping around each other’s, lifting the pack to unequaled heights of ecstasy! My siblings and I matched and exceeded that of the wolves — or of the whales — or of any other earthbound creature. Then I realized all earth’s creatures — with the exception of humans — spontaneously broke into choruses — from katydids and tree toads to rutting Elk. Perhaps we were more like they.

Blues Brother reminded us humans were quite capable of exquisite song — but not all. I thought of my human siblings and had to agree. Each was tone deaf. But at Christmastide the televised performance of Handel’s Messiah always sent shivers throughout my body.

“Why do we sing?” I asked.

“Two reasons,” said Blues Man. “We enter into a oneness with each other, with nature, and with the Universe; and we’re horney and want to mate.”

Once Blues Man had answered all of our various questions in various languages (we all understood each other perfectly), he addressed the one question no one had dared ask, but was paramount on our minds.

“You are probably wondering why you’re here. I would be, too. I’ve long waited for this moment. The annuls of our world will highlight this moment. Your thoughts will be heralded for millennia to come. You are here to save this planet, pure and simple.

“Not for our use. Not as a breeding farm for food. Not for resources or any other reason than its direction is perilous. Humans have so distorted this planet’s balance that it stands on the precipice of destruction. And as many countries have ironically reserved vast areas for preservation and against the total waste of precious lands, we are going to preserve this world because of its uniqueness — either with, or without humans.

“They have become the top liability, and either we will convince them to reverse that, or we will not.”

“And if we don’t?” I asked.

“Our goal remains the same. We adapt our approach to the problem.”



Imagine that within a matter of weeks you had discovered:

  1. Your parents were not your real parents;
  2. You had been implanted into the womb of your mother (is this similar to the Virgin Birth, I wonder?);
  3. You were, in fact, alien;
  4. That you and others like you had the responsibility of saving the Earth;
  5. And, finally,  that saving the Earth might not include saving humanity.

I grew up immersed in the science fiction of my day, which demonize every flying saucer, alien, or unknowable thing that happened to be discovered by the guys with horn-rimmed glasses and who wore starched white short-sleeved shirts. Enmity, never understanding. Or hardly ever. The beast of Forbidden Planet. The three-eyed monster of The Day the World Ended. The emissary, Klaatu, from outer space who arrived in Washington with his stainless steel sidekick, Gort, to tell humans to quit nuclear proliferation. Only Klaatu had some semblance of sanity — the rest were train wrecks.

Alien equaled “bad,” regardless how the term was used. Alien, foreign, nonhuman, maliciously dangerous, deceitful, untrustworthy. Shoot when you see the slits of their eyes. And, shoot first, ask questions later, which was the military mentality in each film. 

And there I was — smack dab in the middle of a small herd of Aliens, and I was one!

“After a brief period of training, each one of you will be returned whence you came,” said Blues Brother. I think he was trying to impress us with his use of the word “whence.”

“We don’t have much time, family. Some of you will skirt the time rings and go back to small but pivotal events that steered the course of history to where we now are. Others, will skirt ahead, and provide the necessary evaluation of any changes to the good. Personally, I would prefer to go back in time, as I think those evaluating change are going to be disappointed. Were it me (again, the odd use of the verb), I would dispense with the entire efforts at redeeming humanity. Like when the God of the Bible said, “Oops! That didn’t work! Guess I’ll flood the Earth.”

I raised my hand to interrupt and challenge the assertion, but Blues Man had already guessed my intent and ignored me.

“Your training will not be very difficult. The pods being lowered are your training encasements (as he spoke, shiny black pods — almost like those of The Body Snatchers — descended from the darkness above to hover at waist level in front of each of us), and you will spend some time in hibernation.

“During that time you will be more fully informed about the mission as well as your personal backgrounds. Each of you has various — how shall I put it? — unearthly abilities. You will be acquainted with and thoroughly trained in the proper use of these abilities. 

“If there are no questions, I ask you to touch your pod to open it.”

I raised my hand. All the other pods opened. Blues Brother eyed me sternly, and I put my hand down and touched the pod in front of me. It opened along the horizontal middle.

“Please get into your pod. It doesn’t matter which end you position your head at. Your pod will make the necessary adjustments.”

We all clambered into the pods.

“Lie down on your backs — face up.”

And as we did, the interior of the pod began to expand and gently form-fit to our bodies. My experience was one of total relaxation and comfort, and I wondered it this was what it was like to lie in a coffin. 

“Touch the inside top of your pod to close, and I’ll see each of you shortly.”

I touched mine, and the lid slowly closed. A light wisp of cool air circulated about me, and though the lid was shut, it wasn’t dark. An ambient blueish-green glow radiated slowly about me, and as it did, I could hear music similar to the chorus we had participated in when we first met. It was so soothing! When they speak of utter peace? This was it.

And I fell into a deep sleep.


Early morning sun rays beamed through the window blind slits onto my face. Outside I could hear the morning-tide welcome as birds joined in a wonderful chorus of praise. I felt myself beginning to join in the song fest when my birth mother knocked on my bedroom door.

“Eggs and sausage on the table!”

Eggs and sausage. Birds and pigs. The thought was now nauseating. How could I ever have thought those were edible?

I pulled myself out of my bed and shuffled into the bathroom, flicking the light on and staring at my reflection in the walled mirror above the counter sink.

“Still me,” I thought. Wait! Was that a dream?

“You will invariable have moments of doubt that any of this has taken place,” I remember Blues Brother warning us.

“Merely remember our group choruses, tilt your head back, and sing — preferably in the shower so no one thinks it odd.”

I turned the shower on and slipped out of my pajamas, then entered into the glassed closet. The warm water felt good — like soft needles pricking my face and shoulders and chest. I leaned my head back and allowed the sound to flow. And in an instant, knew it was all true.

I toweled and dressed, making my bed for the first time in millennia because it made me feel happy to do so.

In the kitchen I kissed my birth mom, which, again, was something I never did. It surprised her and she turned red in the face. I could read her mind: what’s gotten into him?

“Nothing has gotten into me,” I replied to her shock. I looked at the plate of sausage and bowl of scrambled eggs and squelched a gag reflex. Then I got up from the table.

“Not going to eat?”

“I’m not hungry, Mom.”

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” she chided him.

“I know. I’ll grab something later.”

I headed for the front door and turned back to look at her, busy in the kitchen putting away the sausage and scrambled eggs. I wanted to say something, but what? She was so much a part of me before, and now seemed so very far away.

“You have a good day, Mom!”

“Go save the world, Son!”

“I’ll try.”

And I walked out into a new day.


The End

On Death and Dying … a Conversation

18 May





On Death and Dying … a Conversation

By L. Stewart Marsden

“Are you afraid?”

“Of dying, or death?”

“Of either.”

“Of dying — well I’m a little wary of that part. I have a low threshold for pain, you know.”

“What about death?”

“That’s the easy part. Everybody before me, and everybody after me has and will do it. I think we have it wrong, though.”

“How’s that?”

“Most are convinced it’s a final destination. Like the beach.”

“The beach?”

“Sure. You think about your trip for months on end. You imagine the warm sun and the calming surf and the lack of hurry or care. All of that anticipation.”


“You pack your car with everything you’ll need, and map out your route, then jump in and start the engine.”


“Along the way you might hit traffic, or a detour — maybe even a wreck or two along the way.”


“At some point you begin to smell it in the air. The salt. That first indication you are very near. And you get impatient to get there. Or to be the first person in your car to see the ocean.”


“You arrive, and you get together with your family, who’ve all arrived from different places, traveling different routes, and you mill about and greet one another. Then the inevitable question: how long did it take you to get here?”

“I see.”

“Yeah. So in a way dying is like your trip to the beach, and death is arriving at the beach.”

“Does everyone make it to the beach? You mentioned wrecks along the way.”

“You mean the heaven or hell thing?”

“If you like.”

“Kind of where the metaphor breaks down. So the way I see it, the beach isn’t the destination.”


“The better metaphor –– at least the way I see it –– is labor and birth.”


“Labor is what we conceive as our life. In labor, we ease down the birth canal, and there are trying times along the way. We are distorted and pushed on every side. It’s cramped, dark, and –– frankly, uncomfortable most of the journey.

“Then, towards the end, we begin to see a little daylight ahead, and that daylight gets brighter and brighter. So does the pain and the difficulty. Again, maybe we get stuck. But you see we aren’t with anyone else. It’s just us. Just me. Just you. Our individual gauntlet to face and bear. Finally, we emerge –– to the applause of those waiting our arrival. We are swept up and held close and cradled in the arms of Someone who has been patiently anticipating us.”

“And who is that Someone?”

“You want me to say God, right?”

“I want to know what you think. You can say whatever you like.”

“I don’t know the answer to that, only that I’m excited to find out.”

“So you aren’t afraid you’re going to end up in one place or other?”

“Let me ask you something.”


“You believe in God?”

“I do.”

“And is God male or female?”

“I don’t know.”

“Loving or strict?”

“I’d say both.”

“So there’s room in God’s lexicon for the two to exist juxtaposed?”

“Juxtaposed isn’t a word I would use, but, yes.”

“So a loving and strict God can appoint my afterlife to either a heavenly or hellish eternity?”

“Are you afraid of hell?”

“Do you mean, am I sure of my eternal destination?”

“I suppose.”

“For a complicated and unknowable God, that question seems too simplistic.”

“Well, how do you see it, then?”

“More complicated, of course. I’m not so sure our heavens and hells are after we die, but before it. And I’m not so sure we have only one life and death.”

“You believe in reincarnation?”

“Not in the sense I come here as human, live and die, and come back as a caterpillar.”

“Then how?”

“Have you lived a perfect life?”

“Of course not.”

“But a good life?”

“I try.”


“Why try? I suppose it’s in my nature to do the best I can.”

“Is it enough?”

“Enough for what?”

“To get into heaven.”

“To get into heaven you must be born …”

“Again! Exactly!”

“It’s a spiritual rebirth. Not a physical one.”

“Are you sure?”

“I –– we’re talking about you, not me.”

“I’m absolutely fine with the rebirth thing. It makes sense to me. I was, I am, and I will be. Even the Bible says ‘you are gods.’”

“That’s not what it means.”

“No? Are you sure? When Christ said, ‘It is finished,’ what did he mean by that?”

“He meant that the battle between good and evil was finished. That his death –– his blood and his body –– were the atonement for the sins of Man.”

“And you believe that?”

“I do.”

“So it was a done deal?”

“A done deal.”

“Then why hell?”

“Beg your pardon?”

“That’s why I’m not afraid of death. God has something far more wonderful for me than I can ever imagine. IF what you say is true.”

“So you do believe in God?”

“What I believe … will it change anything?”

“In what way?”

“In terms of me living or dying. This body of mine is going to wear out. Built-in obsolescence.”

“It won’t change whether you will die or not. It might change how you live, however.”

“But, everything I’ve done up to this point in my life –– none of that will be undone? I can’t take the bad things back, right?”


“What if I could? What if this life of mine is like a slinky toy, and it spirals slowly, each circumnavigation a lifetime?”

“A slinky is analogous to reincarnation?”

“Crude, I know –– but it serves my purpose. Let’s add another element. Do you believe in the laws of physics?”

“What I understand of them.”

“Well, gravity is the easiest, I suppose. The apple from the tree thing. Are you familiar with the Law of Conservation of Energy?”

“That energy always exists in some form or fashion, never diminishing?”

“Close enough.”

“It’s a theory, I believe.”

“Ah, like heaven and hell? But you understand heaven and hell to be spiritual absolutes, and Conservation of Energy is an absolute scientific law.”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is that I –– me –– the energy of who I am –– will not dissipate nor diminish. Not ever. Not one iota. It may transfer to a different form, but it won’t be lost.”

“So you think you are eternal?”

“Have been for a very long time now.”

“And by that you are equal to the god who created you?”

“Didn’t say that. I am the product of whatever caused me to be created. I am energy. Like everything around us. By virtue of that, I –– or my energy –– will be forever.”


“Don’t be sarcastic. If you think about it, it’s hard to argue against.”

“So it’s black and white with you, then?”

“Explain, please.”

“Science and what you call incontrovertible fact or theory, versus the existence of an all-knowing, supreme being.”

“I didn’t say that. I’m certainly open to an omniscient being. But I’m also open to the thought we could be in the bedroom of a four-year-old who is controlling all of this! Which is less absurd?”

“You compare God to a four-year-old?”

“It’s the Old Testament/New Testament contrast. To me, after all of the stuff in the Old Testament, God grew up a bit. Like that bit with Abraham and Isaac. He didn’t know Abraham was going to be obedient and would actually kill his own son? How’s that possible? Was that for Abraham’s sake? Or did he figure The paparazzi was going to start showing up at these events? So he learned from his own creation, and looked over and chose his son to come down and make things right.”

“Hush your mouth!”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to offend. I mean, how could God ever learn something from his own creation? Is that outside the scope of possibility? I thought all things are possible with God.

“Seems to me there’s enough evidence –– especially over the millennia –– that humankind has been going through this very slow slinky toy evolution process. We are learning that our impulses for power and dominance over each other and the world we live in are not the ones to guide us –– especially if one rejects the concept of survival of the fittest –– which has usually meant the most physically powerful and aggressive.

“What if survival of the fittest meant mentally and emotionally and spiritually fit? What then?More and more of us are rejecting how things have been, learning from the results of those base and instinctive primitive impulses. Fear and hate of those different from us. Clear-cutting and ravaging the land and its resources.

“So you asked am I afraid of death? Just the dying part. Mostly because I’m a wimp. But to me, being dead is either going to be mental oblivion, or rebirth, and a chance to continue that progressive evolution trend towards something bigger and better and kinder and more satisfying. I can die with that.

The Fourth Wall

15 Sep

The Fourth Wall*


By L. Stewart Marsden


Charlie Dipple walks into the modest living room from his bedroom and stands in the middle of the space, just behind the large couch that forms the anchor for a seating area. Two comfy chairs are on either side of the couch and are perpendicular to it, framing three sides of the area. End tables with Tiffany lamps help define the seating area. An oval oriental rug with an ornately carved round coffee table forms the focus of the furniture.

Doors leading to his bedroom, a bathroom, the kitchen and a second bedroom are located on three of the four walls. The apartment door is on the far right wall, and has a peep-hole as well as several locks fastened to it. The fourth wall is comprised of two glass panels separated by a two-panel sliding glass door. The sitting area is oriented so that it faces that wall.

Dipple looks out the glassed wall at the skyline of Manhattan. He walks around the couch and one of the chairs and sits in that chair. He plucks a newspaper from the coffee table, switches on the lamp next to him, pulls out his black-frame half-lensed reading glasses and opens the newspaper with both hands, spreading it before him above his lap.

Then he hears it.

A cough.

Putting the newspaper down on his lap, his head cocked to one side, he says, “Miriam? Are you home from work?”

No answer. He shrugs and resumes reading the newspaper.

Again, a cough.

“Miriam? Sounds like you’re coming down with something, Dear,” he says, assuming Miriam has not heard him call to her, and that she is busy in the kitchen.

“Shall we have the leftover veal, or do you want to try the new French restaurant on West 64th, or would you rather go to Buvette? I don’t really have a preference. The veal would be fine, but I am in a bit of a French mood.”

No answer.

“Can you not hear me talking, Miriam?”

No answer. He puts the paper back on the table and gets up to walk into the kitchen, disappearing behind the mahogany swing door.

“Miriam?” His voice is muffled behind the door.

Dipple re enters the living room, a look of consternation on his face.

“That’s odd! I could have sworn Miriam coughed from one of the rooms!”


“The bathroom!” He hurries to the bathroom door and knocks gently. “Miriam, are you in there? Is everything okay?”

No answer.

“Maybe the guest room,” he says, and crosses up to the guest bedroom door and exits, closing the door behind him.

He re enters and stands perplexed, scratching his head.

“You are losing it, Charlie Dipple!” He crosses to a wet bar buffet against the wall and pours himself a drink from a crystal decanter. “Bottoms up!” he toasts himself, and swigs the drink.

“Ahhh! Nothing like a smooth bourbon to calm my nerves. Really, everyone hears things that aren’t. And everyone talks to themselves, which is also normal and you don’t have to worry,” he said, crossing back to his chair. “Unless – unless you begin to talk to yourself in the process – which is EXACTLY WHAT I”M DOING!”

A wave of laughter.

He stands abruptly, and walks to the glass wall, looking out.

“Okay! THAT was NOT my imagination! THAT was someone laughing! Not just someone, but a whole shitload of someones laughing!”

More laughter. And a cough.

Dipple puts his nose against the glass wall, staring intently, his hands cupped on either side of his face in attempt to ward off the fading sunlight. His liquored breath steams the glass in a roundish pattern. Then he stands back, and moves upstage to his chair. He grabs the newspaper angrily, shaking it open, and begins to read.

Another cough. And a laugh.

He continues to read, gripping the newspaper tightly.


A titter.

“I’m ignoring you,” he says through clenched teeth, still obscured behind the newspaper. Then, very slowly, he drops the newspaper on the fourth wall side, peering around the paper.

A low wave of laughter.

He jumps to his feet and storms back downstage to the window, crumpled newspaper in one hand.


More laughter.

“Are you SPYING on me? Are you the government, for God’s sake – ‘cause I pay my goddam taxes. Reluctantly, I will admit.”

More laughter.

“Who and where ARE you? You can’t be out in the air! We’re thirty-eight stories up!”


He begins to feel the glass surface with his hands, rubbing as though cleaning it.

“No microphones. I don’t see any drones outside. What the effing-hell is going on here?”


“I’m warning you! Shut the eff up or I’m gonna do something really drastic – I mean it!”

More laughter.

He exits upstage to his bedroom and comes back in a moment with a handgun, which he frantically loads with a bullets.

“I am NOT kidding! I don’t know what the eff is going on, but it is NOT funny!”

More laughter.

He takes the gun with both hands, walks down to the glass wall, and draws the gun up level to his eyes, pointed at the window.



Hysterical laughter.

He shoots six times until the revolver is spent, and only the click of the hammer is heard.


Dipple drops his arms to his side, gun in one hand, and begins to sob.

Slow, crescendoing clapping.

Dipple looks up, and realizes the clapping is for him. He stands straight and tall, arms to the side, and bows deeply from the waist, tears streaming down his cheeks.

Bravo! Bravo! BRAVO!

He exits into the bedroom and shuts the door.

All the lights in the apartment dim to black.

A few moments later a loud bang is heard from the bedroom.


A key rattles in the lock of the door to the apartment, and the door cracks open. A woman’s hand slips in through the crack and flicks the light switch on the wall next to the door.

The lights come up.

A dapper woman, attractive, enters, laden with several shopping bags.

She crosses toward the kitchen door.

“Charlie, I’m home! I’ve got some things to go with the leftover veal, but if you’d rather, we can go out. I’m kinda in the mood for Italian.” And exits into the kitchen, the swinging door flapping to a close behind her.




*All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players

– William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene vii