Empty Set


fiction by Rory Fleming


I liked sleep, I liked snoring. My body only felt rested when it happened. I liked the concept, silent sound, the kind that filled space but meant nothing. I taped my sleeping sessions. When I played the video back: snoring while sleeping, mouth going through the motions but no sound. I tried to say ‘shit.’ My fingers clutched my throat. They pressed against my muscles. I looked at the TV flickering. I hit the mute button and the screen said ‘mute.’ The TV was fine. There was something wrong with me.

I decided to masturbate to forget. I yawned and got angry at myself. I grabbed my phone and took it into the bathroom. I took off my boxers in front of the mirror. I looked dead.

I reached for my tool and missed. It wasn’t there anymore. I cranked my arm to play pretend. I considered jumping out the window. I jumped in the shower instead. The body wash looked appetizing. The shampoo looked appetizing. What would Cleo say? Maybe it was Cleo’s fault.

Cleo called while I was in the shower. Her ringtone was falling pans, needles, a man watching a snake eat his baby. Cleo left a message. I dried off while trying to keep my hands away. The voice mail said I should remember what we talked about last night. What was it? I remembered stars, trees, the stars above the knit canopy. The blanket we laid out on the dirt floor. I didn’t remember words. I sent her a text: ‘okay’.

I threw on a tweed jacket for my debut. I hid under my covers. I got bored after an hour. I left my apartment. My breath was white in winter air. I bought a burger from Wendy’s and sat on a park bench. I grabbed my crotch and frowned. A concerned mother shielded her son’s eyes. Cleo texted me. ‘I’ll meet you at the exhibit.’ I texted her back: ‘okay.’ She didn’t know yet I couldn’t speak.


The debut was in an art space. It was for my new series, hanging from the walls of a concrete warehouse. There were thirty-seven canvases, each canvas only having one color, corresponding to the titles of the pieces.

One critic said “Blue Popsicle? Purple Popsicle? Is he a pervert?”

Another said “He’s right over there, go ask him.” The first critic, a woman, shied her gaze away. I sat in the middle of the uncarpeted floor. Cleo came over and put her hand on my shoulder. “It’s a bunch of portraits of your penis, what did you expect?”

She was right. I painted my erection, held it above the bottom of a canvas on my table, and flopped it back down. Thirty-seven times. I had no idea what I expected. I got my phone out and typed ‘I lost my voice so we’re going to talk like this.’ Cleo had a keen sense for bullshit. She was a prostitute. I didn’t like her much anymore. She was a bad postmodernist. She had two Ph.Ds, one in gender theory and another in continental philosophy. She became a prostitute because she thought it sounded fun.

One of them came up to me. He looked so old and waspy. I thought up a monocle on his face. He asked me what the inspiration was. I walked over to the pieces one by one, tore them from the walls, and scowled at the shitheads from the Village Voice and the Times.

Cleo sent me a text when I left. ‘Penis envy? That’s my dig.’


I texted Master O the next morning. He taught me to take the recognizable, fade it into nothingness. That leveling phenomena clears the path to enlightenment. I thought the penises would be the next step. That they would be blobs of color. Naming them ‘popsicle’ was the first mistake.

‘The penises were a failure,’ I texted. He texted, ‘By Steiner’s grace, I swear there are other worlds. Worlds where you would have succeeded.’

Master O wore monk’s robes in public. That was how I first saw him, years ago. He spent most of his time at the Japanese tea house. He ordered infrequently. Today I ordered for him. He gave advice, I gave drink. Master O’s beard stuck to his lips as he sipped the translucent pond. He held the shores in the palms of his hands. Someone, somewhere played an erhu. Master O needed a bath.

“It’s…Nietzsche’s pocket.”

I sat there waiting.

“Think of it, eternal recursion, but with a line through it. The stitch in Nietzsche’s pocket. The specificity of nothing. Everyone thinks the world just repeats. But it repeats with unimportant details, that is, until they become important. Your penis being gone, I think that’s important. It’s going to be relevant later. Gone but the ghost still exists. The empty set exists. It’s beautiful. A womb that gives birth to itself…”


I decided to kill myself. It was the only way out. I wanted to turn the line of the empty set into a knife to cut the universe.

I skipped work to buy a kit plane. Cleo’s brother liked to fly planes. He would build them then fly in shitty Albany.

I took the subway as far as it would go, then I called a taxi and took it as far as he would go, then he dropped me off outside the city. Cleo’s brother was waiting for me.

I got in his car and he blasted death metal very loudly and yelled over the music. He was happy I was interested in his projects. It made him feel good an artist cared.

Phaëton was a vehicle when he died, I imagined. The sparks from his body as he rode into the sun were artists. The chariot was art.

I wanted to be a vehicle. I wanted to be ridden by the next generation. Why else does anyone do exhibits in Manhattan?

The place where he kept his planes was green.

We stood on a hill and overlooked the town below.

Cleo was calling but I ignored her as we looked at the blueprint.

From the ink on the page, which was pressed ten thousand times before, a plank jutted out. The hole in the paper grew in diameter. Then we saw a propeller. I put my hands on the cold steel and spun it around. A plane sat waiting for our departure. Cleo’s brother hopped in the pilot’s chair. He waved me over, told me to hurry up. Feeling like a child for the first time since I was a child, I hopped up over memory and into the seat—the things I was worrying about before did no longer matter—we took off.

The town below us looked so quaint in the little wooden plane we had built. I considered jumping out, to join the world, as there was no seatbelt. I wanted to open my mouth, whips of wind entering my mouth with the sadness in the world. I would breathe it all out, a gust that obliterates. We would be Noah’s ark, brother and I, and chosen.

The engine hiccupped twice. Cleo’s brother pointed to the ground and said something I could not hear, and soon enough we landed on the green. He shook my hand and said if not for me, he couldn’t have done whatever he just did. I nodded, though not particularly agreeing. It was what it was and it was over.

I was icy. I was almost naked. It was cold.

I needed to go home, to think. I asked him to keep it here, because I would be back. He didn’t know a thing.

No need.
No need.


“Master O, I’m going to fly into the sun,” I texted, “there is nothing left for me on earth. I’ve been stripped.”

“My son, if that is what you must do, you must do it. Remember your True Will. Don’t make any mistakes. Once you’re dead, there’s no room for error.”

I snuck into Cleo’s apartment while she was at work. No cicadas were chirping, it was not the right season. It was, is, too cold. I turned on the fireplace and wrote her a letter, bearing on a Foucault primer for support.

The author puts something out into the world to become its own form. There is no need for me here, now. The pen is a sword, to cut my own neck. I bared it all, and it was silly. Then I had no more thoughts. I woke up the next day, when my head was hanging off my neck.

It’s time to finish the job.

Sorry I couldn’t say any words.


P.S. – If it makes you feel any better, everything comes back to haunt you.

I tucked it into the cover of the book and took out a sharpie and drew a penis on Foucault’s forehead, and the word “POWER” over it. I drew a slash through the O. It was time to leave.



You’re empty, but I can fill you.
You’re blank, but I can hold you.
You’re silent, but I can heal you.

I wish.

I clenched a fist around the ball of your pubic hair that you collected since you started your mission. Standing next to the plane at the foot of the hill. One step, a foot in front of the other, crunching the snow. The climb was the worst part. My nose was running and I felt so alive. I rolled the bristles of hair in my hand, against my skin. I dropped it into the snow and smelled the little odor that remained. It was free now, and I was free to breathe.

Take me into your cockpit, o lighty. We are going to the moon!

The plane stood proud and waiting. It sucked me in and I got to flying. Past the nimbus, and the cumulonimbus, the stratosphere. The engine got rickety and you started falling apart. The propeller caught on fire but still spun compulsively. We left the Earth’s gravity. Somehow we were still floating, running on fumes.

Am I not dead? I wondered. The plane broke apart and I drifted there in the midst of space. Black all around me. Other planets like I had never seen them before. Other possibilities but empty. Like me. The sun that powers energy. I felt it burn me to ash. I felt the pull of its dominion. Controlling me. I sucked up my last breaths. I let it bring me in.

Death was coming now. Softer than I had imagined. I closed my eyes.

Felt fingers on my skin. My face. A slap. Awake.

My lids, they opened. A woman, there, giant, taller than the sun, and floating. Jet black hair freely flowing. Holding a tiny thing in front of my face. It was glowing. Something that belongs in pants. I recognized it, reminisced with it. Her planet-sized mouth opened and rumbled into the depths of my foolish heart.

“I told you not to take life so seriously!”

With that, the force holding me above the world dropped out.

With that, my body scrambled and I began to fall. Last thing I remember, I held my hands out, screamed “HELP,” reaching for a sign, a save. She disappeared with a knowing smirk. But my voice was back. Then nothing. I plummeted and the blackness never returned. Though I didn’t wake up the next morning.