A Burning Itch | By Ariel N. Banayan
Before you read the following story, if you wish to call it, I think it’s important to discuss its origin. It’s best to mention that this piece is thankfully not mine. In fact, I am thankful to have found it in a trashcan of all places. But I get ahead of myself.
It was on June 1, 2016 at the In-N-Out Burger near UCLA. After a long day on campus, where a great number of events left all the students feeling tired, I headed to In-N-Out Burger to eat the stress away. Once I picked up my order, I noticed a young blonde man, roughly my age, dressed in a suit from the 1940’s, and sobbing with a book held to his chest like it was his diary. It’s always unusual to see someone cry in public, since everyone around them knows the crier has lost all sense of shame. We’ve all felt that defeating acceptance, I’m sure.
Nevertheless, the book he held in his hand was tossed into the trash can. He did it with such little care, I thought it was a marketing stunt. But since he wasn’t a pretty crier, I knew it was real. At the moment, I just finished my second serving of fries, being too busy to care after that tedious day trapped in a UCLA classroom for too long.
After throwing the book away, he walked away, probably hoping nobody witnessed him commit that crime. Once I cleared my two burgers, another side of fries (no salt), and a vanilla milkshake, I realized nobody bothered to even check on book. So I did what any book lover would do.
From the trashcan of In-N-Out Burger, near the end of probably the most exhausting day of my student life, I held this chimera of a book, riddled with napkins that held a puzzle of their own. I knew people were watching me with the same sense of curiosity and slight disgust for the blonde dude, so I stuffed it in my backpack and walked. The next day at Powell Library, I hid in a secluded corner to examine the find.
The book itself is an oddity. It has a weird smell to its cloth cover, which barely displayed the worn letter ‘A‘. I traced my finger over the font and felt its indentation despite being eroded over time. Only until I opened the book, with napkins tucked away into every page, did this discovery intrigue me. Its opening page had no title page, just the initials, W.S. and three stories.
The first was Borges’ The Aleph in its original Spanish. While I understand my Spanish as el español de los gringos, I felt more confusion when I saw this story as an introduction to the next two stories. It felt like I found a joke, and my reaction was its punch line. The second story was Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, complete with its own introduction. I wish I paid attention in high school and read the book. I still haven’t read it, and I’m dying to know why the stories are included in the same binding. The third story didn’t really bring any clarity either. It was Nabokov’s Lolita.
The book’s presence, with that worn ‘A’ etched into its scarlet cover, and random stories that weren’t even in chronological order, made it all more compelling and out of the ordinary. Even when I confronted a student librarian, she explained, “the book’s not in our system, so it technically doesn’t exist. You can just take it home, sell it, whatever. We don’t care.”
Within the book were 64 napkins, written in perfect handwriting that held a hidden fourth story that existed beyond the confines of that very out of place book. I typed out most of it, despite some redactions.
As far as I can tell, it was written in three ink colors. Since I am red-green colorblind, it’s hard for me to distinguish more than my own limited eyes (look it all up). I am sure three colors existed on those napkins, at least. While I didn’t replicate the original writer’s use of color in the rewrite, I hope that you, as the reader, can assume the dedication and control to organize that story for us, and then have it misperceived by me.
One of the more interesting, and somewhat entertaining, dimensions to this “story” comes from the fact that I have no clue whether this “author” is being mocking or is seriously insane. The style is obviously delusional, but it’s that kind of delusion that could be seen as ironic joke, or an actual destructive drive. Even as I write this introduction in the very Powell Library that the “author” fetishizes, I get that uncanny feeling of a spider walking up and down my spine. Every few minutes, I steer my head away from my laptop, and inspect around the library shelves just to see if anything is out of the ordinary. A part of me expects that blonde dude, dressed like some looming ghost, watching me, waiting for a reaction to the writing he titled, A Burning Itch. As far as titles go, I kind of get it, but I don’t really know if it’s meant as some frantic reference to a work of literature I haven’t read or to some venereal disease. I hope it’s the former.
If the blonde dude is reading this, he can gladly have the ketchup soaked napkins and book back any time.
Whether you laugh at its corny prose and fancy attempt at pretentious writing, or shiver at its cruelty (or maybe both), the most I can wish for you is a simple bon appétit. -AnB
I stood there, witnessing him walk across that large lawn before the notorious Powell Library. His head gazed down at his phone. That’s when I knew he was the chosen one, my chosen one. The poor, little fool was meandering towards his class like the rest of the students flocking together as one, or like a group of birds that fly south for the winter. With his little head snapped down as he walked clumsily through the crowd, it looked like this little birdie of mine had a broken wing.
My distant vantage point gave me the perfect view, all while his shirt maintained a simple black color that could not go unnoticed within the usual tide of colored shirts. Imagine, dear reader, how a light pierces through darkness, so too did his unusually black shirt shine through the lightness of colorful attire everyone else wore. Poor young bird, just as the raven destined to dirty its feathers into a pitch black, he soon would drift to a doom further than his own out of place shirt.
I will tell you this, reader, my plan relied on me forcing an interaction, which is never as lovely as it sounds. I’m sure you all know. Off I went, nearby my favorite tree, and commenced an improvisation. Such a shame it was to witness a gross monstrosity of litter around that tree. I picked up one of the pamphlets scattered here and there as a prop. It would do its job well to ignite a spark of conversation. I waited until the walking crowd placed him near the mighty steps of the intact Powell Library. Once there, he did not even budge from his distant location. He merely glanced down and did not even bother to express any type of gratitude before UCLA’s great piece of architecture. How I long for the days where people would walk without waiting for some mindless interaction with others or themselves, where they should be witnessing the world of beauty before them. That is a poem Wordsworth would write. Such a shame that those lost souls will never encounter the smooth, delicate architecture that breathes every hour with glorious bells bellowing louder than a nightingale’s CHUKAWIG in the wind. I am glad to be beyond all those mindless musings.
I prepared my cue once I saw him approach the exact imaginary mark I imagined right before the library’s perfect steps. His approach allowed me to see the fine details of his face form like an instant photograph. He had a thin mustache peppered onto his upper lip, as if a meager caterpillar inched its way over as to prepare for a metamorphosis. His black shirt had a white animated font that was beginning to fade away like some worn piece of silk. It’s a shame to wear a shirt so worn.
“Excuse me!” I interjected. “Would you like a pamphlet? We worked very hard to get physical copies and I would appreciate if you gave it a gander.”
He paused his pathetic walk and signaled me to wait for a moment.
He must be a joy at parties.
Before the little bird could even lift his delicate head, a beautiful and monumental laugh erupted within the pit of my stomach. It was a laugh that escaped from a deep chasm within the body, like how some magician reveals a horrific object behind the illusion of a curtain. The poor bird seemed to be shocked by its authenticity. I took that as a cue to tune myself.
You must forgive me, reader, but the next inclusion of my fit of hysterical laughter must be included. I completely understand your need to skip over this gratuitous moment of emotion. It is rather disgusting, in my sincere opinion and if it comes to you as boring, my apologies. If anything, I wish my laughter may bore you into a deep reverie.
It is so very dear for me to express myself in completeness. It’s an artistic necessity to supply these pure moments of joy. Just as a match awaits for a moment of friction, I too need that burst. (REDACTED DUE TO REDUNDANCY AND WORD LIMIT)
“I apologize for that unexpected laugh. I’m so very, very sorry. I was simply marveling at the text on your shirt.” Here, reader, was my pitiful attempt to recreate that laughter. I am dismayed to report that I failed terribly. I promise it will pick up towards the end.
“Heh, no problemo brotendo,” chirped my bird. I sensed his words were filled with benign intention. Innocence is the most beautiful virtue. He snapped his neck up and I had a glimpse into his weary eyes. “What’s that pamphlet about?”
“It’s…” I took a glimpse at his shirt. “It’s the meme club. You wanna join, brotendo?”
That’s when I witnessed his most sincere smile, reader. It was a smile that could guide him through the hottest flames of hell and back, and probably elicit a friendship from someone with kinder intentions. Too bad that smile would never guide him to safety. From that enlightening moment, I forced a riddling smile.
“Yes! Of course! I would love to join your club. I love memes!” He snapped his soft head down to the smartphone and I could see the reflection of his worn eyes beaming out of his besmirched face like a lighthouse beaming its glory through fog. I hope he didn’t witness my blank face once I glimpsed at his smartphone. “Sorry, one sec. I just have to finish this, real quick.” As luck may have it for me, dear reader, he would never look up.
While he wasted more of my precious time, he motioned his hand up towards the pamphlet, attempting to grab the prop. I pulled back, letting the little bird scratch at the empty air as if he was clawing out of a rusted cage. It was a dance a leper could perchance perform as well.
“My apologies. This pamphlet has information from last generation’s meeting.” The little bird kept his gaze down, but nodded his head to signify a rudimentary acknowledgement. “Will you just come inside Powell library? I know where to find some updated ones. It won’t be forever, promise.” I attempted another dramatic pause, just for art’s sake. Based on the look on the bird’s own face, I had improved. “You will only vanish for a moment,” I said. He paid no attention to my sudden change of tone.
“What’s your name by the way?” asked the bird. He brought his glance up for a moment. Was it to taunt me or just check if I walked away? I wished to open his head and find out. Soon, dear reader, soon we shall all see what is locked away and hidden in that beautiful mind.
“My name?” I was glad to find a chipper tone. “My name is Tommy.” Of course, as you can guess, reader, this name is completely fictional. “Tommy Dunn. The one and only.” Forgive me, reader, for I would find amazing pleasure in revealing my actual name, but unfortunately, I must remain two steps ahead of those malicious critics who pursue me for the actions described within my written pages. Sorry for the annoyance and inconvenience.
“Nice to meet you Thomas.” He placed his phone into his ripped jean’s pocket and extended his fragile hand. I grabbed his hand with the delicate touch of an archeologist uncovering the lost skull in Pompeii. “My name is Edgar.” I sensed a pause of hesitation and regret erupt out of his hand in the form of moisture. “Most people call me Ed. Yeah…Ed now, Edgar is my old name, before I transferred.” He paused and brought his hands up and forced a cringe-inducing salute. “Go Bruins!” Why did he suddenly provide this interjection rally? I have no clue. Even reflecting on this response, I still cannot believe people talked like this in real life.
Ignoring his attempt to evoke any sort of enthusiasm, I tried to react appropriately. “Ah! Ed is a better name anyway. It’s the name of my favorite writer. Have you heard of Poe, Edgar Allen?”
“Yeah, actually. I’ve never really read any of his works though, sorry.” He spoke with such a confidence in his timid ignorance that I was appalled how one could go on living for this long with their pathetic lives, not reading the bountiful works of the greatest and most influential writer in the history of all the written and spoken literature. Shame to his eyes for not glancing. If I could have carved any shape into his body to help this troglodyte mourn for his ignorance, it would be a million frown emojis. I hope he would scream after each agonizing and worthless step taken within his life! How dare he choose to burn the name of greatness onto his decaying body of worthlessness. Forgive my excessive curse words here, reader, for I am writing to the page without any pause and I am doing my best to maintain a steady flow of prosaic thought while staying true to realistic, artistic integrity.
“Not a problemo, brotendo,” retorted I with perfect calmness. “Just a writer, nobody special in the long run. And hey, he’s not going anywhere soon.” Will you now give him a hello for me, my dear Edgar? Please?
“I just like the sound of his name.” He brushed his fingers over his awkward facial hair over his upper lip. “And I really dig his ‘stache.”
As we began walking up the steps of the Powell library standing tall and proud before my act of passion, Ed gave a chirp.
“Could you show me some Poe books to check out? I’ve heard a lot about him. He sounds totally goth.”
Can you imagine, dear reader, how boring his would writing would seem? How much his prose would perambulate around the actual plot?
“Of course! I know the exact shelf where I stash away all my favorite authors.” This new detour may have complicated my intended script, but the thrill of improvisation possessed my body. I gladly accepted the challenge in devising an easy cure for Ed’s plaguing illness I diagnose as living.
He followed me into the library. At once I could tell the feeling of wonder had aroused his ability to perceive our world. Ed awed at the step’s firm structure, the delicately placed mosaic artwork decorating the walls of the sublime library with a curved yet subtle beauty. I shall always envy and adore it all like some lunatic raging to the moon. Within every single memory I possess from then till eternity, I shall never forget the beauty of these walls, each delicate lamp, window, even the computer stations emitting a luscious light embellishing my view of this unruly world, enhancing my ideals. Symmetry and beauty will be blossoming, all shall quiver before the prophetic mysteries of that didacticism.
I continued to guide Ed towards the lowest floor of the Powell library. Just as a helpless animal would follow a trail of crumbs to their demise, so too did he follow me through the maze of shelves filled with ancient books that nobody had ever bothered to read. If only little Ed kept his gaze on the decaying labyrinth I had created by my Virgil guidance, he would have escaped the fiery pits of his coming hell.
“You know Ed, I always loved libraries. All the books, new and old, placed above and below our line of sight, looming everywhere like ghosts still lingering after their doom.”
“Too spooky for me, man.” He gave another subtle grin and expected me to understand some reference. Alas, poor Ed, I knew not his reference well.
“Oh but my favorite idea about the library is that it’s a catacomb, like the ones under Paris. Every book is another lost skull or their shade trying to sing their song, luring each passerby into one’s doom with their stories, waiting perhaps for eternity to release their lore out from painful shelves.” The foolish Ed ignored my reverie. It seemed like a just treatment. But could he ignore my jokes as well?
“Maybe they want to escape their graves? I know I would never be able to cope knowing my life’s work is trapped under a layer of dust amongst the others.”
Still, no response.
Yet at last! I directed this humorless little bird to take shelter in a chair hidden behind a massive bookshelf. It seemed as desolate as the rest of library given the lack of sound from the students studying.
“What’s the wifi btw?” he asked. I did not feel like giving a reply and ignored him with a well-executed walk away.
The library became the perfect lair. Ed sat in a chair that seemingly appeared far too large for his little body. Yet I could tell he took comfort in its wooden framework of the seat only until he removed his smartphone from his pocket and directed his gaze downwards once more.
“I’ll be right back, friend Ed.” I could tell my words had reached his ears, given the faint response he returned, but I realized that he fell into another trance. I could easily have wrung his neck like a little bird that fell from mother’s nest, but I knew the noise would be eruptive and not as exciting for you, my grateful audience. Can you empathize with me, reader? Wouldn’t you want to see a sublime display of action, plot, destruction bursting at the seams of existence? I know you all want to be entertained, not annoyed. I knew how Edgar would perish and how the effect would render best in the written words.
I sprinted to find the first copy of the book Ed had requested. The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe felt firm in my hand. Like a freshly scavenged heart from the tomb, I knew of its soon to come power, its bloody thirst for companionship. The cover felt smooth on my youthful face, although I do admit, I somewhat expected every page to bleed blood onto my face. Unfortunately, such miracles cannot be expected of reality. There is more blood to come, trust me reader.
“Here ya go, ranch Eddorito. My favorite story, The Cask of Amontillado, is here for you.” The fool nodded his head slightly, not bothering to look up and witness my smile. I imagined a jingling jester’s cap bouncing along with his ignorance. I placed the book at his feet, like it was some sacrifice to an almighty deity. He seemed mesmerized by the soft sounds and illuminations from the device.
What joy once again bloomed from my soul when my prediction had come true. Ed would never budge or react to any other stimulus unless it possessed any sort of relevance to his own world. I could have once again wrung his neck like a pigeon, but like I said, what joy would that bring to us, reader? What entertainment? The urge to laugh once again possessed my soul. I contained myself to a silence, dear reader, since I truly believed that the entity of the library is an institution of silence that should be respected.
In the next hour, I sprinted throughout the three-dimensional maze of the library, placing each book as a brick. At that moment, I realized that the chime of the hourly clock tower bells would awaken sweet Ed from his dream within a dream. It may even result in a sour turn of events incongruent to my improvised plot. I began to run, like the cliché, as fast as the wind could carry me.
I could only bring the best novels of my knowledge that deserved to be part of Ed’s casket. A few of those perfect books over 800 pages were the first bricks to be laid. After all, I found that it was true they had the support, due to the rigidity of their bound structure and intricate plots of epics like Don Quixote, Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, Gravity’s Rainbow, yadda, yadda, yadda. If everyone held their head up to these fascinating written perspectives before our Ed, the world would revolve twice as fast!
A sudden pang of paranoia tapped me on the head like a lobotomy. I was, once again, aware of the possibility of my bird breaking free from his shell. It could be the hourly bells that awaken him from his trance, or my inability to keep him away from hypnotic boredom with my antic disposition.
Sometimes, I could not resist providing some exposition. My first slip of the tongue arrived when I brought forth William Blake. I knew he never heard of him before, yet he deserves an introduction.
“Here is a poet I adore, Edward. His name is William Blake, known for attending a marriage between heaven and hell. He’s a glorious poet. Even Jim Morrison loved his work. You know Jim Morrison? He went to UCLA, isn’t that wild? ‘Come on babes, just light my little-o fire. Yeah oh little fire just do it.’ Okay, you caught me—I don’t know the lyrics. It’s such a catchy tune, right?” Ed nodded his head and I still felt the sting of ignorance burn my skin, despite the poetic justice of my actions.
“Ah, once again Edwin, here is another classic that I adore. Lolita by the mighty Nabokov. Oh, what I would do to be a child again, hear my dear old Uncle read me this piece of novel writing before me as I went to slept. Who could forget the first opening lines? ‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.’ You have heard this, right Ed? It is legendary.” He vaguely shook his head to signify a disagreement. “Oh my soul burns with the passion of a million stars bursting the sky. How rude of me, I’ll lay this poetry right here for you. Be careful, some of the pages are a bit sticky. I suppose someone had a bit too much fun reading. You can even feel the moist hand print on its spine.”
I brought more works that would reflect the irony of Ed’s soon to come situation, until I discovered every high has an eventual crash. Although every book felt like well-placed bricks cemented into a growing casket, I began to feel less euphoria after each placement. Fahrenheit 451 didn’t feel as sufficient as placing the star-crossed lovers, American Psycho and Infinite Jest, on top of each other. Both The Divine Comedy and The Secret Agent had a diminished effect once I placed The Satanic Verses with the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire before Ed’s pile. It’s true, the classics are losing worth.
I was saddened to feel bored with this act of careful plotting. I paused midway and held my hand under my chin like some detective searching for a clue. At last! As I placed Les Fleurs de Mal between Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, The Diary of a Young Girl onto Labyrinths, The Bell Jar sandwiched between Call of Cthulhu, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde, an epiphany appeared. I had found the perfect cherry to place on top of Ed to send him and his casket straight to the oven. I couldn’t wait to whisper bon appétit.
I sprinted to the next library on the campus, Young Library. I must confess, I am gravely disappointed. With its vague quotations from Borges, I deem it an insult to true libraries like Powell Library. I do apologize to the other students who seem so kind and serene, but I would have rather have this library ignited like a tree in a forest fire. One day, I will satirize it all. For now, I apologize once more for this necessary digression.
I emerged into the lower lever of the library, cupping my hands to shield any real eye contact. In the corridor, directly beneath the stairs, sat a lonely silver shovel. The shovel had apparently participated in the founding of UCLA. It was encased in some glass casket, which seemed more of a tragedy than a reflection on the past. It would be best to put the retired tool to a more productive use rather than letting that relic rust.
I plucked it out of the glass casing, like some fruit upon a tree, and ran back to the casket of the little bird. It took exactly 440 steps to return.
At this point, I must admit there may be some flaws in accurately describing things. I will provide an oath before you, reader. I swear the perceivable events I have and will depict are valid, cogent, and true.
Upon returning to Ed, I was pleased he had not even budged. But I did begin to worry about the health of his neck and posture.
This is where I hoped to end his suffering. I held the shovel, slashed its silver blade at his head. It landed between his eyes. I was proud of my precision. Yet to my dismay, the blood did not seem to spurt like some fountain. Perhaps the many films have given me unrealistic perceptions. Yet I have discovered one maxim this entire journey. Experience shall always provide the truth.
From here, I deserve to mention that it was eleven o’clock and the jingle of bells chimed throughout the holy body of the library. Unfortunately, the walls did not tremble, the floor did not quake once hour summoned the tolling bells. Our Ed still did not budge from his hypnosis. I did feel my body ache, reacting to those bells like a wolf with the moon. As the bells chimed, I had struck a source of golden euphoria within me. At last, I found joy.
He tried looking up at me. Oh, what poetry had I dug up beyond his human skull? Beyond his fleshy interior, with his blood running as like river throughout Eden, lies the mind, the consciousness. The bells continued to chant. The sweetest delirium of the Elysian Fields brought me to conceive an unspeakable glory. I hope my words reflect that emotion.
I withdrew the silver shovel glistening in redness. The blood seeped out like moss on a prison wall. Perhaps with my optometrist treatment, he could see me now.
I know, reader, you are dying for me to answer one final question. When did the hourly bells finish their chime?
I have no clue.
In my defense, I was not entirely aware of my surroundings. The rush of sublime and serene emotions molded together and produced novel sensation. Reader, I hope you can understand the thought of seeing colors never described by poets, philosophers. I felt myself enter a new dimension of reality.
I felt flames appear within the stacked books surround the silenced Ed. After opening my eyes, I saw the flames spread onto Edgar. It was too damn godly to extinguish, for I knew it was a miracle.
The magic possessed me and I fell into an unescapable joy. I realized the truest sense of the present, the truest moment of the present. Can you understand how the past and future can burn away?
Nobody noticed my burning pyre. I wanted to leave a plaque to commemorate the offering, stating “A BLOOD-STAINED SHOVEL KISSING A SKULL — EXCALIBUR LODGED WITHIN ITS ORGANIC STONE.”
Ed’s phone continued to chime after his murder. The students hushed at the sounds. As I danced out of the library, the urges for silence grew louder as the chimes from Ed’s phone evolved into shrieking alarms. I hope to only hear echoes of those bells and alarms in my dreams. Those bells of victory.
I pray those bells drown out Ed’s device as well, for I still hear its chiming echoing in my mind as I write. I would rather not be haunted. I fear that I may be flawed and my mind is corrupted.
I hear it is everywhere now. As I drive on the 405, as I watch my favorite shows, as I jog, even as I watched the library melt into a mound of ash while the sky was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood.
Ariel N. Banayan is a dual degree MA/MFA Student at Chapman University, focusing on short fiction and novel writing. Previously, he as taught children reading skills and literature comprehension in after school enrichment programs, as well as piano musicianship and karate. He is a first generation Iranian American, born and raised in the West Los Angeles area. He received a B.A. in English from UCLA in 2017.
Author Image: Portrait by @yoni_keynan