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The Fiction Issue 2012

On the Illness

William was a puker. His expulsions—the color, consistency, and volume of a baby's—occurred after every sentence he spoke.
Κείμενο Amelia Gray

Illustration by Stein Brianhoff    

William was a puker. His expulsions—the color consistency, and volume of a baby after every sentence he spoke. This unfortunate fact of  life began, innocently enough, during his infant coos and babbles, but by the time he was barfing onto his coloring books, the doctors were stumped. He had to carry a paper cup throughout middle school. By high school he didn’t have to worry about direct ridicule, because he had no friends. And then everyone in his peer group graduated and left town, and he was blessedly, blissfully alone.


After William was done with school he took a job at the local post office, where customers tended to be enfeebled or insane and everyone had larger problems. He would spit up into an empty soda bottle. His coworkers assumed he chewed tobacco and gave him tins of it on his birthday.

Each day at work, he stood at the counter and observed a large map of North America, which hung over the desk where folks filled out their change-of-address forms. Time passed, and William began taking a daily visual interest in the Northwest Territories of Canada, at the highest point on the map. He imagined it as a pleasantly desolate place. On smoke breaks, he washed his soda bottle out in the

backroom sink.

One day, a woman approached his desk. She had a wind-chapped face, and her right arm was wrapped in a sterile bandage. She clutched a cat carrier to her chest and ticked at its plastic shell with her fingernails. “What’s the lark,” she said.

“Beg pardon?” William said, raising the can to his lips.

She horked up a little something of her own. Her cheeks seemed to be covered in a thin paste. “What’s the lark, what is the lark,” she said.

“The lark?”

“The lark, the lark,” she said, inserting a fingernail under the wrapped bandage and scratching.

“First-class stamps cost 41 cents apiece,” William said. He was halfway through the sentence before he was overcome, and had to grip the countertop to complete it as the bile rose. “We have some with birds on them, but I’m not sure the skylark is featured.”


The woman hefted the cat carrier onto the counter. Inside, an orange tabby let out a low warning growl. William couldn’t quite see inside, but it appeared as if the animal was missing all four of its legs.

“The loork, the lark lark the lark lake lurk lark,” said the woman. She spoke with a reasonable cadence, as if she were asking about shipping rates to the Northwest Territories. William wondered briefly if perhaps she was indeed asking about shipping rates to the Northwest Territories—that his brain had deciphered the true meaning of her words and relayed it to him as only a distant possibility, but that, in truth, he had finally lost his mind at last and would only hear garbled sentences until the merciful end.

The cat rolled onto its back in its carrier, moaning.

“Shipping rates really depend on what you’re sending,” he said. He spit into the can and pulled a white kerchief from his pocket to wipe away a pearly line of drool. “If you’re considering dispatching your cat there, you should know that only queen honeybees can be shipped by air transportation via the USPS, and that’s quite an expense indeed, particularly internationally.”

He had never spoken so many words in an uninterrupted spurt. A coworker looked up from behind a stack of packages. For one wild moment, William was unaffected, but before he could sigh with relief, he felt it welling. He gripped the counter for support, reaching blindly for the trash bin. His hand found an open box, and he brought it to his face before the torrent unleashed. Customers stopped their conversation to watch. Another coworker covered her mouth with both hands. The material soaked the box and splashed back on his shirtfront. In it, he detected the odor of his own mother’s warm breast milk, her colostrum. The lark woman balanced her cat carrier on the metered scale and howled with laughter.


William experienced the same absence of thought he always felt during the act. But because this episode lasted so long, he found he could go further within the blankness than ever. He realized the blankness had its own topography, a mountain range under an ocean, which revealed itself in moments of alternating anxiety and calm, which themselves were muted by the blankness and a part of it. This time there was none of the clenched jaw and turning away that typically accompanied the end of his episodes. At that moment, William realized his true freedom. He witnessed it.

He looked down and saw that his unwitting target had been a box of bulk postage. At that moment he was holding hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars’ worth of ruined stamps. They were stuck to the cardboard, where they would most likely stay forever. The box grew heavy and warm along with his guilt at the destruction of federal property.

The lark woman’s laugh calmed to a few odd snorts. She swayed from one foot to the other, smiling. Others in the room remained shocked beyond movement. William and the lark woman leaned toward one another like an old couple over a kitchen table.

“Have you ever been to Canada?” he asked.

She nodded her head vigorously. When she saw he was about to be sick again, she reached out for him. He had a vision of her hair matted by a corona of dark ice as he opened his mouth to fill her cupped hand.