It wouldn’t budge. He had rubbed it with a napkin, then a paper towel, then a dishrag he kept just for this purpose, each of them slightly damp. He had held it under the faucet and let cold water pour through it. He had dipped it in a dilute solution of white vinegar, then after washing that out had tried a solution of baking soda. It didn’t move when he soaked it in bleach and hydrogen peroxide. There was a bottle of lighter fluid in the basement and that hadn’t worked, nor had the gasoline he had siphoned from the truck tank and passed through it. He had caked it with a paste made from ground up vitamin C tablets, squeezed several lemons through it, placed it in the sun, dried it in the shade. He had first used the napkin, towel, and rag, but graduated to a nail file, fine sandpaper, then coarser paper, then rubbed it with salt, then sand, then a blue sponge with a tangle of tough fibers designed for abrading, then broken out the steel wool. His elbows hurt from scrubbing. His feet hurt from standing at sinks and buckets. Hours of pushing and pulling at it with increasingly tough materials didn’t do a thing, so the blowtorch seemed like an appropriate next step. He kept it in various portions of the flame – within the blue wisp, then at the tip of the wisp, then threw the whole thing on the barbecue and let the flames attempt to consume it, but it was not consumed. It was just there, staring back at him, asking him the single question in a perpetuity of questioning. If he could have flung himself into the sun it would have persisted.
And so he settled in. He ignored it but it would tap him on the shoulder or sneeze or sigh or give him a nudge or open his eyes when he closed them. He would go on brisk walks to try and outpace it. He swam and it would blur in his wake. He boarded entertainments at the state fair, at amusement parks; while it was no longer with him, it was a row behind or a row over or above or beneath him. He went skydiving but it ended up cushioned in the tautness of the parachute breaking his fall. He watched TV but it watched him. He traveled by car, train, airplane, but in each case, it became the close, annoying neighbor who would not stop with the inane questions and endless stories with no point.
So there it was, immune to all solutions, forever right there, his companion, without mercy or respite. Without end.