“The Shriveling Man” by Chris Dankland

Old Dudley could feel himself getting smaller every day. It started innocuously at first—a half-inch of height, ten pounds around the waist. His wedding ring kept slipping off his finger. He was eighty-two years old and most of the people he loved were dead.

His wife had passed eleven years ago—his son Earl had died from drugs in 1994. His daughter was alive and doing well but she lived in France with her French Husband and French Kids that he’d only seen three times, and they didn’t really love him. Most of his army buddies had died or were in the slow process of dying.

Johnny Carson was dead.

He lived alone in a small apartment in Alief, surrounded by blacks and Hispanics and Vietnamese people who only spoke Vietnamese. He hardly went outside anymore. The television was garbage, the radio was garbage. He read a lot of detective novels, though he had to admit that most of that was garbage.

The news was garbage, he couldn’t stand it. Some days he would go for a week or longer without talking to anyone, just being alone. When they’d measured him for the Army he was exactly six feet tall, one hundred and sixty-nine pounds. Now he was five foot five, one hundred and thirty-five pounds.

The doctor told Old Dudley not to be alarmed, that the human body naturally starts shrinking after it reaches a certain age.

Decay sets in. It happens to everyone. Don’t worry.

Everything decreases—hearing, memory. Don’t be alarmed. Your brain size shrinks, even your bones shrink. It’s okay. Some seniors can lose nearly three inches in height. So far Old Dudly had lost more than five inches in height. He couldn’t reach the top shelf in the kitchen anymore, he had to drag a chair out. His wedding ring kept falling off so much that eventually he finally took it off for good.

His shoes didn’t fit anymore, which was a main reason why he hardly left the apartment. Whenever he tried to walk somewhere, his increasingly tiny feet would rattle around in his shoes like pebbles. He’d buy a new pair of shoes at the store, and a few weeks later he’d have to go back for a brand new pair. It embarrassed him because he had once been six feet tall.

Everything seemed bigger.

By December, Old Dudley was three feet tall. He had to drag a chair around the apartment all the time, and he climbed on it constantly. The rate at which he was shrinking appeared to be accelerating. By the time February rolled around, he had to lift his hand in the air to grab a door handle. He felt like a child.

It got so bad that Old Dudley didn’t even go the mail box to get his social security checks anymore, much less go the bank to cash them. Two weeks went by and he still hadn’t paid his month’s rent. During the day he ate gigantic pears that were as big as his head, and he feasted on a loaf of bread that was nearly as long as his body. He had to use all his strength just to get the refrigerator door open, using a butter knife that he would wedge inside the door to pry it open. By the end of the month he was roughly nine inches tall.

He couldn’t say what would happen next, if he kept shrinking. He worried that he’d be eaten by an insect—a swarm of ants or a spider—and spiders would be the worst.

He didn’t want to get eaten by a spider.

His clothes were too big for him now. He had to walk around naked. He slept on the ground because he couldn’t climb onto his bed anymore. During the day he would comb the carpet for crumbs and little pieces of food.

One day he heard a heavy fist knocking on his front door with an earsplitting crack, like bombs exploding. What was it? What’s next? He ran underneath the sofa and covered his ears with his tiny wrinkled hands, trembling.

Profile: Chris Dankland

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