Roy Belkin called the activity "the Service." It was the central activity of his life. He performed the Service for around two hours each day. By the time he was done he was disoriented and his eyes felt weak. He felt as though the skin on his face had aged. It did not feel good.
There were other things he had to do. Things werenât good in the apartment exactly. At the moment there was too much junk around. He called the accumulation of clutter "the Slow Evil." This was a normal state of affairs. He just couldnât get himself to clean stuff up, generally. In fact, any task at all was difficult. The Slow Evil was a force that never stopped. It was the general deterioration of order.
He was forty-seven years old. Bald, skinny, and pockmarked, he was a man who was likely to be overlooked in most situations. A janitor or a DMV clerk. He had dark, sunken eyes. They did not give him intensity; they gave him a look of anxiety and sleeplessness.
He set up a coffee cup on the shelf by the window. From his bed it was ten feet away. He made some balls out of wet toilet paper and began throwing them at the cup from a seated position on his bed. This wasnât the first time he had made these wet toilet paper balls and he had a name for them: "Thuds." After he had thrown all ten of the Thuds he had made he collected them from the floor and the cup. He had successfully landed two out of the ten in the coffee cup.
If I can get sixty hits, I will have the power to do the cleaning. Sixty hits. Sixty for power. This was his thinking as he shot the next set of ten. This time he landed three in the cup. After each set he would mark the number of successful shots on a legal pad.
The process took thirty-five minutes. When it was done, the numbers on the legal pad added up to sixty-two. After he disposed of the Thuds he rested on his bed and felt the power surging through him. He quickly set to work on the cleaning so as not to waste any of the stored energy. He was successful at cleaning the studio apartment and also doing the dishes that were piled up in the small kitchen alcove.
His apartment was only one large room with an adjoining kitchen and bathroom. Still, it took effort to maintain it. Every day there was another act of maintenance to be performed. Bills, hardware demands, a spilled liquid, cleaning of the bathroom, computer problems, and so on. Usually if Belkin performed one power-building exercise, such as throwing the Thuds into the coffee cup, he could take care of three to five items on his list of tasks.
On this particular day it was time to go shopping. In the top drawer of his dresser was a garment he had made to wear under his shirt. It consisted of a white cloth square with a string affixed to the top corners so that it could be worn around his neck like a one-sided placard. The cloth square was about six by six inches. This inner vestment, called the Shield, was his line of protection against all the horrors of the sidewalk and streets. On the cloth was written a list. Each item was written meticulously, in all capitals, in permanent ink. The list consisted of all the past threats to his safety or mental equilibrium that he had encountered on his trips out of his apartment.
- APARTMENT FILTH
- SINGING LADY
- SKATEBOARD TEENAGER
- AFRICAN AMERICAN TEENAGER–SHOUTING
- NEEDY CAT
- DISGUSTING BIRD
- DANGEROUS DRIVER–RED TRUCK
- HOMELESS–TOUCHING, WANTING
- TALKING CASHIER
- HEAT SWEAT
- "UNMENTIONABLE" PROBLEM
- LOUD PHONE MAN
- CRYING PHONE WOMAN
- FAT STARING MAN WITH GLASSES
- HOVERING, SCREECHING BIRD
- AGGRESSIVE INSECT OUTSIDE APARTMENT ENTRANCE
- CHILDREN ON NEXT DOOR STOOP–WHISPERING
If he was able to include a threat in the list, he would be protected from it–as long as he was wearing the Shield. He would feel the cloth on his skin and have that much safety. He called the general problem of the horrors of the outside world "the Pounding." By scanning the inner world of his feelings he could tell how bad the Pounding was on a given day. He closed his eyes and went within intuitively. Itâs a level 8 out there, he concluded. Even though he had just put it on, he glanced under his shirt at the hanging piece of cloth to make sure it was there.
The Shield was a fairly recent development. He had created it a couple of months ago out of desperation. At that time he had reached a point where he simply could not leave the apartment and he had run out of food. The revolting nature of the outside world was simply too much for him. Finally he had created the Shield as a talisman that guarded against the matter, noise, and unwanted personal interaction that pressed in on his psyche from the raw streets. Though the Shield was a new device, Belkin thought it was one of the greatest things he had ever created. He never appeared outside of his building without it.
There was a faint smell of smoke in the building as he took the elevator down to the lobby but he was too concerned about the task ahead of him to pay much attention to it. Once outside the building he experienced the usual initial shock. People were everywhere, teeming. A shabby man walked by mumbling to himself. The manâs hair was matted and expressed deep resignation. Belkin considered listing the man on the Shield when he got home but it wasnât a direct encounter. Cars tore around corners, women carried red, bleating infants, men in suits shouted into cellular telephones, the electronic bus rambled down its tracks with terrible quietness and speed, sea gulls visiting from the beach circled overhead carrying out their unclean missions, puddles of water formed in gutters, melting gum sought his shoes, and the walls of the city were covered with posters, each with an illustration or photograph more terrible than the last one, as if advertising general menace.
The shopping trip came off easily. He was right about the Pounding being a level 8; the city was horrible that day, but none of it touched him on the way to the grocery store or while he was getting his things. If he believed in a God, he would have thanked it for the protective power of the Shield. He was still grateful but he knew that the forces of the universe, both the good ones and the bad, were totally impersonal.