The Gouger by Eric Westerlind

Martin Skyrelli draped a red cloth over the standing mirror in his house because he could not stand to stare at himself any longer, and he had been doing so for days. Before that, less. You’ll recognize his name. No stranger to public sin—Skyrelli was a corporate gouger who’d find small monopolies on life-saving products and charge enormous amounts to the desperate.

“He’s a bastard” said the Times.

“My father never made eye contact,” said his daughter, “and I always imagined it was because he couldn’t bear to see what I thought of him.” Deana Skyrelli was employed at USCB, Skyrelli’s bank, and penned a handful of memoir pages—papers that got sold cheap to the public, passed off to a series of “web magazines”— and the like—nothing netting more than ten thousand views, but stuff I’ve gone over in my spare time as my interest in understanding Skyrelli’s bizarre fate.

Here was a man who was by no measure physically beautiful, yet a Narcissus. Sunless skin, a bit of a basement-dweller. Limp musculature. Let me be forthright in that I can’t profess to quite understanding the myth—and doubly sincere in that my belief in this misunderstanding is why I drill Skyrelli’s name below it. I want to understand. I wagered a few weeks ago that physical beauty is not what drew either man towards their self-fascination—that instead, perhaps the infinite possibilities of the self were what drove them, figuratively and otherwise.

Mr. Skyrelli wrote a few offhand emails to his daughter and she was remarkably insouciant in sharing her thoughts at my approach. She conjectured he’d picked up Borges, whose labyrinths and infinities “were pure locomotive for that terrible letter he left me”, a letter he passed her before he “went wild” per Forbes. “He was always disgustingly solipsistic,” she wrote. From a forwarded message:

I come around to meetings and I can’t abide how silly the discussions seem. These are my schemes, my plans being spit back to me by suits I’ve filled, and when I look at them talking I realize they’re just waiting for me to talk, saying the things I’ve said back at me to pass the time! It makes me wonder if they’re even alive.

“He thought he was the sole creator of all his product, and possibly, his world,” she wrote. She’s taken his position in the company since his departure.

His wife was less inclined to find interest in the case at all. Her divorce court transcriptions were fairly easy to come by, much easier than the interview I scrambled to get when I assigned this evaluation. We met in a town in Colorado in the United States: Grand Junction. The old train station had been left to rot and the new one was only half-finished and filled with a grumbling crowd—the train was nearly four hours late and it was dry and hot. The former Mrs. Skyrelli, now Jenine Englewood, was a dark, rich-lipped woman with the easy smile of a teacher. We talked until she had to leave, as I hadn’t been able to afford a ticket. I lament we didn’t have more time—her demeanor calmed me. She frequented the palindromic phrase it is what it is How unlike the scientists.

The questions I asked her revolved around a particular vision I had of Skyrelli, one from the front of the Atlantic article “Confronting the Selfish”, an image of chalky-faced Skyrelli facing his double in a mirror. The designers had done a bit of photoshopping, details someone without a bit of background in the field might miss: his eyes in the mirror, desaturated and deepened to a charcoal and his moustache thickened and curled in a way it couldn’t grow. Who’s to say there wasn’t a bit of prophecy in the gesture.

“That was in our bathroom. He would go in each morning,” Jenine told me, “after his shower when the vapor had faded, and he would practice setting his face. He called it ‘losing control’ because he said ‘they are all masks’,” she paraphrased. “I remember he was always talking about different masks; taking off this mask, putting on this mask.”

No doubt I can relate. Even sitting there in the heat of the station, I was trying to control my excitement; I suddenly recognized how much I was staring at her and she at me and how it was by choice. I could choose to look anywhere.

I wrote a brief paper and stashed it among others, knowing I’d never publish, barring some passing between editor-friends. I became the manager of a ball and game store and largely went about a mild version of American Dreaming.

Years later, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. My eyes had darkened—the light or some long shifts with the kids. I pulled up my old notes; inspired.

One editor had suggested I seek out the man himself, there in the North East. His ex-wife didn’t provide much but she said that the rehab center he’d checked himself into’d been in Killingsly, Connecticut—a stroke of fortune as it, oddly, was also the site of an old friend’s failed rehab.

Lethalm was drunk in a gutter, but he could talk when I ran across him a week later; I told him I was searching out Skyrelli. After a bloated string of Oedipal references and words I won’t publish, he took me to a bar. There was a punching bag arcade, peanuts; fighting on the TVs. A window-installer called Jeremy Buddy was deep in drink by himself.

I’d heard about the mirrors, but never imagined the man who’d installed them: an outback soft-brim and a silver and turquoise ring on either trigger finger. Thick and muscular. He looked like he lived in Cuba but didn’t belong there, and it surprised me how much time he’d spent alongside the former mogul, how much orthodoxy he’d absorbed.

“Without reflection there is nothing, because without reflection there is no Other. Without the Other there is no I, so without the Other there is nada.” J. Buddy held up the two beer bottles he’d finished since I sat down with him. “A doubling is a creation of infinity because each reflection stares both at itself, and at an Other, ad infinitum. So there are only two numbers according to Mr Skyrelli: 0 and all. And 0’s a circle, so he really sees only the one.”

The linear punctuation of his knobby finger was almost an insult to the notion. I couldn’t help looking away. I wondered in hallucination if I wasn’t becoming Skyrelli, and the substance that shook me from the thought was Lethalm’s belch, thank god. That was the last I saw him and I tip a hat to the memory.

J.Buddy wouldn’t show me the cave and said he didn’t want to “break the bodhi”. He sent me along with J. Buddy Jr. the next morning. The boy had been serving beers the night prior. He drove us into the trees until we hit country roads, and then onto an old mining trail.

I am torn between outlining the cave or retelling what happened the day Skyrelli lost grip on his life in pharmaceuticals, but I realize the latter will simply be a reiteration for the informed reader. Any number of journals have grandfathered archives celebrating the villain’s self-exile—and I use the term ‘celebrating’ quite tightly². Regardless the case, the cave when I entered was full of his musk, and nearly completely black—it’d been ten years, I noted, almost to the day. I nearly brought up the anniversary first, when I approached his suspended form in the blackness. July 2nd, 2017. It happened to also be his 59th birthday, the knowledge of which I also withheld from our discourse. What a poor son.

Skyrelli had walled—or more accurately—had paid for the cave’s walling entirely in mirrors. A hint of the light outside came through, so the space’s strange geometry became a bit like looking over the edge of a ship into the nightclad sea, the stars and constellations reversing and distorting. It became hard to stand and I offered an apology for my interruption and queasiness, though I held the man in easy contempt. What sort of sinner strings himself from the ceiling of a dark room in this sort of environment?

I told him I was writing a university paper. I said I’d met the glass-installer at the bar—one truth at least—and that I was intrigued by Skyrelli’s division of the world into aught or the infinite. I broke out some Buddhist parallels, but he laughed and shut me up.

—It’s good to hear your voice again.

He chuckled.

—What do you want this time, he asked.

Frankly, so uneasy in that dark prism, I simply confessed. I’d been staring at myself each morning since that day, searching my eyes for some measure, as in, a transition from one value to another—yet they refused to change. I’d watched them every day, addicted to the glass, for an entire day. I digitized photographs and overlayed them one on top of one on top on top on top and I’d struck myself with a variety of hard objects, swelling the surrounding sockets into blue and purple mash. I’d made my eyes up, dressed as a woman. I bought masks—always the same brown eyes, flecked with copper.

“Still me,” I’d say to the reflection. “Still me.”

I said I’d read his letter, the one his daughter’d photocopied and offered me.

—You said ‘I go to find depth in the self’. I said. What did you find?

—Another version of me, he said. Without change, there is no measure. Distance requires the centimeter. What does the self require to judge its depth?

How dizzying the reflections had become: I turned through a variety of pasts: dancing a black dance with a blonde woman on Halloween; bouncing in a boat in the South on chucking black water, eyes closed; studying my face; studying busts in a city museum, wandering a fun house in Miami until a caped dwarf led me out.

I was lost and Skyrelli dropped from the ceiling like a spider at harvest. I heard him feel the walls and move around me, and I realized rumors were true: he’d blinded himself.

He touched me, felt my face, ran his thumbs across my eyes.

—Depth is an action of doubling, he said. There is a point when a person recognizes the thoughts of another and like a pair of moles diving through the earth, catch each other in rounds; going down, then spinning out in search. Depth demands synthesis.

He shook my head with his hands.

—Two words come to mind regarding depth: dark and profound. They’re self-obvious in their inference, so what can we do with them? He began to move around the room, running his hands along the mirrors. If what is deep is dark, a night can be deep. Much is contained in it, but little is shown. A phrase can be deep if it is read and read again but the words do not change. I think the word profound is nearly worthless in respect to understanding depth because it is anterior to deep—it’s made after, subsequent. You can tell because it’s longer. The shortest words are simply sounds we made in mimicry; the longer words are composites of shorter words. Though…‘found’ suggests a floor or base, like ‘foundation’; and ‘pro’, as in pro-motion or pro-duction, suggests ‘greater than’, ‘addition to’, ‘forward’, beyond even. Beyond the base...Neither has any synonymity with ‘down’, though we tend to see only what is deep as things which start at our feet and head in that direction. Things above might be thick but hardly deep.

He dropped a curtain so that the light coming in disappeared. We were in total dark.

—Rarely do we start at the depths, but instead feel that we need to reach them, through conversation, swimming, sinking, however. He waved his hand in dismissal—Let’s invert that.

I heard him crouch and felt his breath on my face.

—Let’s start at the base of the universe and rise to its surface on call.

¹A long text from Mrs. Jenine Englewood came on her departure:

“Things turned awful quick. This train ride’s been ‘the most festive’ ever seen. Every table full, seats not easy to come by. Even four hours late, easy to see that everyone’s interested in the notion of not letting it go to waste.”

² I do not fully grasp our nation’s media fascination with exalting the criminal, drawing his face a thousand times a thousand times. Perhaps so the children will know it? Fear it, never impersonate it? Perhaps so the Halloween mask-makers can get the full figure under their scalpels and shapers? My real hypothesis certainly vilifies each of us and so will seem easily dispensed—(beware ease)—but perhaps his image in video and film is a thousand thousand reflections of our own face, and we publish it many times so that. like approaching a mirror, we search for some distinction that reflects something other than us.


BIO: Eric Westerlind serves the SHARKPACK & Fathom Books as a contributor and website-builder-type. He plans to fill the archives of the now-dusty Bacon Review with stuff he has edited and published. An ongoing periodic story of his is being published in its parts at Yellow Rabbits, and the big project consuming his attention is Ugo, the audio of whom’s rough draft makes him shake to share for how young he was when all that started.

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