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With Charlene having told all that she had to tell and having returned to the hallway, Punchinello leaned toward me and asked with apparent earnestness, "Do you sometimes wonder if you're real?"

The question made me nervous because I didn't understand it, because I worried that he would take us off on some crazy tangent from which we could not comfortably approach the request that had brought us here. "What do you mean?"

"You don't know what I mean because you've never doubted that you're real. Sometimes I'm walking down a street, and it's like no one sees me, and I'm sure I've become invisible. Or I wake up in the night convinced there's nothing out there beyond my window, nothing at all but darkness, a vacuum, and I'm afraid to open the drapes and look,

afraid I'll see a perfect emptiness, and that when I turn from the window, the room will be gone, too, and I'll cry out but won't make a sound, just float there with no sense of touch, no taste or smell, deaf and blind, the world gone as if it never was, me with no body that I can detect, no heartbeat I can feel, and yet unable to stop thinking, thinking, furiously and frantically thinking about what I don't have and what I want, about what I do have but want to be free of, about how I am nothing to anyone or anyone to me, never real and yet all these memories, these churning, insistent, hateful memories."

Despair is the abandonment of hope. Desperation is energized despair, vigorous in action, utterly reckless. He was telling me that everything he had learned from the use of guns and explosives to the German language, from the rules of law to Norwegian grammar, had been learned in desperation, as if in acquiring knowledge he would acquire substance, reality. But still he woke in the night, certain that a devouring void lay beyond his window.

He had opened a door on himself, and what I -saw within him was both pitiful and terrifying.

His words revealed more than he realized. He had shown me that after the deepest self-analysis of which he was capable, he still did not understand the most important thing about himself, still lived a lie. He presented himself to me-and to himself-as one who doubted his own reality and therefore the meaning of his existence. In truth, it was the existence of the world he doubted and only himself that he believed to be real.

They call it solipsism, and even a pastry chef like me has heard of it: the theory that only the self can be proved to exist, extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one's feelings and desires. He would never be capable of seeing himself as one thread in a tapestry. He was the universe, and all the rest of us were his fantasies, to be killed or not, as he saw fit, with no real consequences to us or to him.

This kind of thinking did not begin as madness, though it might end up indistinguishable from insanity. This kind of thinking began as a

choice-it was taught as a philosophy worth consideration in the finest universities-which made him a more formidable figure than he would have been as a poor lost boy driven mad by circumstances.

More than ever, he scared the crap out of me. We had come here hoping-needing-to touch his heart, but we could no more move him than we ourselves could be moved to make a sacrifice by the mumblings of a phantom in a dream.

This was the fourth of my five terrible days, and I knew now why it would be the worst of the five to date. He would refuse us, and by his refusal we would be condemned to endure an unendurable loss.

"Why did you come here?" he asked.

Not for the first time, when words failed me, Lorrie knew the right thing to say. She played to the fundamental lie by which he convinced himself that he was a victim rather than a monster.

"We came," she said, "to tell you that you're real and that there's a way to prove it to yourself once and for all."

"And what way would that be?"

"We want you to save our daughter's life. You're the only one who can, and that's as real as anything can get."

A A]

from her purse, Lorrie withdrew a photograph of Annie and slid it across the table to Punchinello.

"Pretty," he said but did not touch the picture.

"She'll be six years old in less than two months," Lorrie said. "If she lives that long."

"I'll never have children," he reminded us.

I said nothing. I had apologized once for effectively castrating him, although a surgeon eventually completed the job that I had not quite finished.

"She had nephroblastoma," Lorrie said.

"Sounds like a grunge band," Punchinello replied, and smiled at his weak joke.

"It's cancer of the kidneys," I explained. "The tumors grow very rapidly. If you don't catch them early, they spread to the lungs, liver, and brain."

"Thank God she was diagnosed in time," Lorrie said. "They took out

both kidneys and followed up with radiation, chemotherapy. She's free of cancer now."

"Good for her," he said. "Everyone should be free of cancer."

"But there's a further complication."

"This isn't as interesting as all the baby-switching stuff," Punchinello said.

I didn't trust myself to speak. I felt as though my Annie's life hung by a thread, a filament so fine that I could cut it with one word too sharp.

Lorrie proceeded as if he hadn't spoken. "Without kidneys, she's been on hemodialysis, four-hour sessions three times a week."

"Six years old," Punchinello said, "she doesn't have a job to go to or anything. She's got plenty of free time."

I couldn't decide whether he was merely as graceless as he was uncaring or whether he was needling us and enjoying it.

Lorrie said, "At the center of the dialysis machine is a large cannister called a dialyzer."

"Could that Charlene person get in trouble with the law because of what she did?" Punchinello asked.

Determined not to be baited into losing my temper, I said, "Only maybe if my folks wanted to press charges. And they don't."

Soldiering on, Lorrie said, "The dialyzer contains thousands of tiny fibers through which the blood passes."

"I usually don't like black people," he informed us, "but she seemed


nice enough."

"And there's a solution, a cleansing fluid," Lorrie continued, "that carries away the wastes and excess salts."

"She's quite a tub, though," Punchinello said. "The amount of food she must pack away each day, you gotta wonder if she ate that baby instead of burying it."

Lorrie closed her eyes. Took deep breaths. Then: "It's very rare, but sometimes the dialysis patient is allergic to one or more of the chemicals in the cleansing solution."

"I'm not prejudiced against black people. They should have equal rights and everything. I just don't like the way they aren't white."

"The dialysate, the cleansing solution, contains a number of chemicals. Only the most minute quantities of those chemicals ever return to the body with the blood, infinitesimal amounts that are usually harmless."

Punchinello said, "I don't like the way their palms are pale and the tops of their hands dark. The soles of their feet are pale, too. It's like they're wearing badly made black-person disguises that weren't too well thought out."

"If the doctor prescribes a dialysate that isn't working as well as it ought to," Lorrie explained, "or if the patient is sensitive to it, the formula can be adjusted."

"One of the ways I know the world is wrong," he said, "is black people being in it. The design would be more convincing if everyone was white."

Perhaps without realizing it, he had come as close as he might ever get to admitting that he thought the world was merely a stage, an illusion crafted to deceive him, and that he himself was the only piece of good design in it.

Lorrie looked at me, her face placid but her eyes feverish with frustration. I nodded to encourage her.

By the minute I saw less chance of reaching him, but if we gave up, Annie had no hope at all.

"Once in a great while, hardly ever," Lorrie said, "a dialysis patient is so violently allergic to even the most minute quantities of an array of chemicals essential to dialysates that no adjusted formula will work for her. The allergic reactions grow worse each time until she's at risk of anaphylactic shock."

"Well, Jesus, give her one of your kidneys, why don't you?" he asked. "You have to be an acceptable match for her."

"Thanks to your father," she reminded him, "I only have one."

To me, he said, "Then one of yours."

"I'd have been on the operating table already if I could," I told him.

"When they tested me to do a transplant compatibility profile, they discovered I have hem angiomas of both kidneys." "You're going to die, too?"

"Hemangiomas are benign tumors. You can live with them all your life, but they make me unsuitable as a donor."

The last thing Grandpa Josef had said on his deathbed was Kidneys! Why should kidneys be so damned important? It's absurd, it's all absurd'.

My father thought that my grandfather at the end lapsed back into incoherence, that those last words were of no importance.

We know what the poet William Cowper would say about that if he hadn't died back there in 1800.

In addition to waxing on about God's mysterious ways, Old Bill also wrote, Behind a frowning providence, God hides a smiling face.

I had always believed the same. But lately there were times when, I must confess, I wondered if His smile was as screwy as some with which Punchinello had favored us.

Now my murderous brother suggested, "Sign the kid up on a transplant list like everyone else does."

"We could wait a year," Lorrie said, "maybe longer, to get a suitable match. Lucy and Andy are too young to donate."

"A year isn't so long. I didn't get surgery for syndactyly until I was eight. Where were you then?"

"You're not listening to me," Lorrie said tightly. "Annie has to be on dialysis in the meantime-but she can't be. I explained already."

"I might not be a suitable match."

"Almost certainly you will," I disagreed.

"It'll be a head-in-the-bucket thing again," he predicted. "It always is."

Trying to force an emotional connection between him and Annie, Lorrie said, "You're her uncle."

"And you're my brother," he said to me. "But where were you for the past nine years when the justice system crucified me? Just like Pontius Pilate, you washed your hands of me."

The irrationality of his accusation and the delusional grandeur implied by his comparison of himself to Christ allowed no response.

"Another thing that's all wrong with the black-people idea," he said, "is a black man's se**n ought to be black if a white man's is white. But it's white, too. I know, I've seen enough porno."

There are days when it seems to me that in literature the most convincing depiction of the world in which we live is to be found in the phantasmagorical kingdom through which Lewis Carroll took Alice on a tour.

Lorrie attempted to persevere: "Sooner than later, anaphylactic shock will kill Annie. We can't risk it again. We're in a corner now. She's literally got only..."

Her voice broke.

I finished for her, "Annie's literally got only a couple days."

Putting it into words, I felt a garrote of dread cinch my heart and could not for a moment inhale.

"So it always comes down to good old Punchinello," my brother said. "The greatest clown in all history will be Punchinello Beezo. Except I wasn't. But, oh, the greatest aerialist of his age will be Punchinello Beezo! Except I was not allowed to be. No one will ever have avenged his mother's death as Punchinello will! Except I didn't get away with the money and had my testicles cut off. Now again-only Punchinello of all the people in the world, only Punchinello can save little Annie Tock-whose name rightly should be Annie Beezo, by the way-only Punchinello! But in the end she'll die anyway because this is, like all the other times, just a setup for the rug to be pulled out from under me."

His speech had devastated Lorrie. She rose from her chair and turned away from him, stood trembling uncontrollably.

All I could say to him was "Please."

"Go away," he told me. "Go home. When the little bitch dies, bury her in the Baptist cemetery beside the nameless baby whose life you stole."

When we stepped out of the conference room and into the hall, Charlene Coleman knew the awful truth the moment she saw our faces. She opened her arms to Lorrie, and Lorrie fell into them, and held tightly to her, weeping.

I wished that I could turn back time while remembering all that had happened in the past half hour, and go at him again with greater finesse.

Of course I knew another session with him would not achieve anything more than the one just ended, as neither would ten sessions, a hundred. Talking to him was talking to the whirlwind, words wasted as surely as cease-and-desist commands shouted into a monsoon.

I knew that I had not failed Annie, that coming here had been a hopeless gamble from the start. Nonetheless, I felt that I had failed her, and I found myself in a despair so enervating that I didn't think I had the strength to walk back to the parking lot.

"The photo," Lorrie suddenly remembered. "The rotten bastard has Annie's photo."

She didn't need to elaborate. I understood why the skin around her eyes turned livid, why her mouth tightened with revulsion.

I couldn't bear the thought of him alone in his cell with my Annie's photo, drinking her in with his eyes and slaking his thirst for cruelty with the thought of her painful death.

Bursting back into the conference room, I found him with the guard, who was about to unshackle him from the table.

Reaching out to him, I said, "That photo belongs to us."

He hesitated, held it toward me, at arm's length, but would not release it when I tried to take it from him.

"What about the cards?" he asked.

"What cards?"

"On my birthday and at Christmas."

"Yeah, right."

"Real Hallmark. Our deal."

"We don't have any deal, you son of a bitch."

His face flushed. "Don't call my mother names."

He was serious. We had been here before.

The anger receded from him, and he said, "But I forgot... she's your mother, too, isn't she?"

"No. My mother's at home in Snow Village, painting an iguana."