Here’s a story from Jess Row’s imminent story collection Nobody Ever Gets Lost, a book so imminent, so brand new, that it’s due to be released next week. The book launch will be at McNally Jackson bookstore, 52 Prince St, NYC, on Wednesday, February 16th at 7pm. If you get a cab, you can still make it. Jess is a colleague and friend, a member of the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a comrade-in-arms in the twice-yearly residency carnival, a prodigious intellect, and a generous teacher.
Lives of the Saints
By Jess Row
It’s because you’re a woman that you don’t want me to die, Tayari says.
On their way home, the 6 train sidling its slow way through the South Bronx, she has her head in his lap, her long gangly legs splayed out over three seats, fingers hooked into his dreadlocks. She likes to feel them brushing her face: to take the cowrie shells between her teeth and threaten to crack them like sunflower seeds. By habit or dramatic instinct he speaks without looking at her, staring down his smoky reflection in the opposite window as it flickers in and out of view, as if hypnotized by the repetition: so many intermittent identical versions of himself.
Fuck you, she says.
No, I’m serious. There’s a whole theory that explains it. Women and men perfectly complement each other. Numerologically. It’s the ideal balance of energies. The difference between prime numbers and all the other numbers.
She nestles her cheek against his sweatshirt and feels the packages crackling underneath. I’m dating the Scarecrow, she thinks: all rustle, no heart. Or was it the Tin Man with the heart, and the Scarecrow with the brain? She could never keep them separate, those two inanimates.
Listen, she says, you got the kind for heavy flow, right?
Baby. It’s not shopping, it’s stealing.
Last time you were pissed when I got regular M&M’s instead of peanut butter.
He gives her a look, as if to say, don’t tell me what matters.
There’s this expert, he says, Adid, teaches at CUNY? He says that certain men are like prime numbers. They’re these unique, indivisible presences in the universe. They can only do one thing well, they’re geniuses at that one thing, but useless at everything else. But women, on the other hand, are inherently divisible, multiplicable. They, like, surround men with support and energy. Shit’s just common sense if you ask me.
In the cold glare of the train compartment, which turns a clean white t-shirt the color of pit stains, his skin looks downright grey,like an old sidewalk. It amazes her that people don’t stop and stare. One of these days, she’s going to have to ask him how he turned that color. If only for the historical record.
She reaches up and runs her fingers over the line of Sanskrit tattooed at the base of his neck. You’re right, she says. I don’t want you to die. No one should have to die for their art. I want to grow old with you, she might say, just to twit him, to see how he’d respond. She knows he has a soft romantic side, like a cat’s belly; but woe to the one who scratches it, unmindful of the slashing claws! Like the Ché poster he has tacked up on the bathroom door: At the risk of seeming ridiculous, I remind you that all revolutionaries are guided by great feelings of love.
Or else you’re just like them, he snaps, as if reading her mind, and gestures with his chin down the car. A tiny girl stares back at them, bunching the hem of her mother’s skirt in her fist. Her hair a mass of pencil-thin cornrows at crazy, Medusa-snake angles, each one neatly tagged with a pink barrette. With her free hand she holds out a toy cell phone by its antenna, as if to say: you look lost, want to make a call?
Oh, come on, she says. Reproduction is righteous. The cycle of life. Isn’t that what you always say?
He breaks away from his reflection and stares down at her, his eyes ice-blue, like little novelty lightbulbs. Baby, he says, his voice bright with affection and pity, you can think whatever you want. But we’re not into cycles. We’re into straight fucking lines.
His apartment-not-an-apartment takes up the whole southeast side of the abandoned U-Store-It in Hunts Point: a vast, concrete-floored hangar divided in two by a molded plastic wall meant to simulate exposed brick, a fly-by-night speculator’s fantasy of a loft condo, long since gone belly-up. There’s the little room where they sleep, on a bedstead he built of boards and cinderblocks, with the microwave that never works and the hotplate that works OK, and the big room, for his projects, for the videos, festooned with cables and lights and disassembled computers, scramblers, sequencers, mixing consoles. And props: green banners with white Arabic script, photographic backdrops of buses exploding and the Twin Towers falling, an orange New York State Prisons jumpsuit he scored from an ex-con in Mott Haven, a bullet belt from a surplus store, a machete, various plastic and metal prop guns, and real ones, too, tilted against chairs and piled on tables like toys in a nightmarish playroom.
He chose the location, he says, because it’s across the street from Real Azteca, lo mejor comida Oaxaqueña en NYC, and he loves tamales and doesn’t cook.The electricity’s stolen, the water’s stolen, the TV powered by a concatenation of handmade satellites spread across the roof; the rent, seven hundred in twenties in a paper sack, goes to Grigory and Yevgeny, brothers with puffy, collapsed faces like rotting jack-o-lanterns, who show up the first of every month in a Buick Regal with tinted windows and no rear license plate.
But since there’s no Duane Reade or CVS or proper supermarket for twenty blocks in any direction, and because, in the end, she’s a child of the suburbs, they do their shoplifting in Midtown at rush hour. In the long flickering aisles, ignored by the security waif fiddling his walkie-talkie at the entrance, they shovel loot into backpacks, duffel bags, under oversized sweaters, even packing it into Tayari’s Rasta hat. There are the cameras, sure, but who’s watching them, Sarita from Bangalore fifteen-deep in customers up front?
The fruit of righteousness, Tayari calls whatever they steal. Prasadam, holy food.
That’s how they met, back when he thought it was still safe to move around in daylight, in familiar neighborhoods. She was a Halloween temp at Galaxy Props Costumes and Magic on Broadway and 11th, her third semester, and he wandered in and asked about cloth markers, their reflective properties and tendencies to fade under bright light. It was charming, the way he assumed she actually knew things. Underneath the double eyebrow spikes and the plastic clips threaded through the tops of his ears he had a twelve-year-old’s guileless face, a face that collected information for its own sake, a wholly uninformed and wondrous appreciation for the world. She’d been reading Gramsci and thinking about revolution, which in Maplewood was a ridiculous thing to do, a pimply suburban cliché, but here in the world of dull-lit classrooms and earnest young professors with unironic scarves and wet thrift-store boots drying on the radiator it was real, it was serious, shit, it was happening, all the signs were pointing that way, Seattle, the WTO, not to mention the unmentionable, that—which—happened—twenty—blocks—away, and Tayari walked into her store looking exactly like the future: festooned with cartridge belts and covered with bulging pockets, tattooed with symbols of some private mythology, and covered in dust the color of ashes and powdered concrete, a walking headstone, a dead baby in plain sight. She watched him pacing the aisles back and forth, palming brushes and jars of glitter, tubes of superglue and latex cement, and when he walked out he tossed a greasy piece of cardboard with a scrawled email address onto her counter, and said, prasadam, and he had no idea what it meant, and she felt the floor of her stomach giving way.
He makes martyr videos, she told her mother, the last time they saw each other, at Joe’s Coffee on Waverly, before a thick velvet curtain of silence fell between them, as if to say, End of Act One, and she stopped buying minutes for her cell phone. Not that he believes in martyrdom per se. He’s interested in the semiotics of the form, the performance of violence in virtual space. It was all crap she’d lifted straight from her Media Studies T.A., the short bald one with the square black glasses she always tried to impress. It’s very challenging stuff, she said, no doubt, but that’s what the art world’s all about these days. The concept is the execution. The era of the art object is behind us. You have to be there. But you can’t, because of technology, because it’s happening everywhere at once. That’s what he’s trying to do, you know, challenge the viewer. Indict the viewer. Assault the viewer.
That doesn’t sound like art, her mother said, so infuriatingly literal. That sounds like a prison sentence. I don’t like it. I think it’s self-destructive and decadent and asinine.
Well, you would. Of course you would.
Listen, her mother said. And I don’t want you to take this the wrong way. Give me a sense of his background.
Meaning is he black?
If you assume you make an ass out of u and me, she said, triumphantly. He’s non-ethnically identified. He’s against genetic descriptions. I don’t even know what he is, honest. He may have had plastic surgery. We don’t talk about it. I respect his privacy.
She doesn’t tell her mother that his previous project, the one he’s famous for, involved three hundred and sixty five home preganancy tests he’d peed on, one every day for a year, and stapled to a board. False Positive, it was called. There were three pink plus signs, one in June and two in November. It was in a group show at Maurice Espa and all the articles, even the one in the Times, mentioned him. She doesn’t tell her how it feels to go to the opening of the show hand-in-hand with the Boy Of The Moment, the art-school girls shooting her envious dirty looks, running down her vintage 1996 Anna Sui skirt with the weird fringe. She doesn’t tell her how it feels to meet Michael Musto and Julian Schnabel and Diane Von Furstenberg and Salman Rushdie, all in the same room, all at once, and run across Ninth Avenue to score coke at the Gansevoort Hotel, how it feels to drive up the FDR at 6 AM puking out the cab window. She doesn’t say, wishes she could say, it’s like discovering that a day is actually twenty-five hours long, and all but that one extra hour is wasted.
He’s learning Tamil, she wants to tell her. He goes to classes in Jackson Heights. After that, Arabic. Then New Testament Greek. He wants to go to Gaza. He gets three thousand channels of satellite TV and has six months of Al Jazeera saved on his hard drives. He has a real Kalashnikov, the original Czech model, bought on eBay, of course. With a double banana clip. He owns detonators. If the government knew we would both be in prison. They’d think it meant something.
Listen, he said one time, when they were perched in their usual spot, eating tamales rolled in foil, seated on milk crates, with a view of the whole intersection. If you want my philosophy in a nutshell, here it is. We’re consumers of politics as much as, say, movies or soft drinks or shoes. All these causes, you know, prefab, you can shop for them, you know, like at college orientation? With all the tables? Human rights this and women’s that, Darfur, genital mutilation, global fucking warming, PETA? And I’m just, like, take it to the next level.
Because it’s not like the suffering isn’t real.
Yeah, OK, but what exactly do you mean, real? I mean, we need to take that concept seriously. I mean real as in you can touch it, you can taste it. Not this Matrix crap, you know, computer-generated, postmodern, is he or isn’t he, these parlor games. Real means it hurts. Real meaning it collapses all distinctions. Real reduces the world to pain.
He took a fingerful of salsa verde on the tip of his pinky and snorted it in a quick, offhand gesture. Whew! he screamed, and a crowd of seagulls feasting on tortilla scraps erupted in a cloud of beating wings into the sky.
You’re an idiot, she said. Don’t show off. Look, you made them stop their soccer game.
No importa, he shouted, waving across the avenue at the five Guatemalan men who had paused, one holding the ball cocked beneath his heel, staring back at them. No se preocupa. Esto es mi problema solamente.
Crazy fucking white boy, she heard, or thought she heard, one of them saying to the others, over the screaming of the gulls and revving of a passing motorcycle.
Seriously, he said, I made a promise to myself, a long time ago. Before any of this shit happened to me. Before I went to art school.
I didn’t know you went to art school.
Of course I went to art school. That’s the keys to the fucking kingdom, you know that. You have to get stamped and sent out, readymade. With the right logo you can sell anything. But I’m talking about ages before that, when I was still living in Detroit, in the Cobra Negra squat, doing graffiti.
You never told me any of this.
Well, I’m telling you now, he said. I lost an armwrestling contest with this crackhead former wrestler, the Bandit, and the motherfuckers made me move to the basement as punishment. I had a mattress half chewed out by mice and had to use rubber sheets, ‘cause the pipes dripped hot water on me all night long. I spent three months down there. Didn’t have two dollars to my name the whole time. I was dumpster diving, living with just the clothes on my back. Would have done better on out on the street. But, you know, it was still OK, because I had with me the three most beautiful books ever written. The Bible. Das Kapital. And Bakunin’s Catechism of a Revolutionary. And I would get so high, you know, I was starving, I mean I was like sixteen years old and hardly eating, my system was feeding on itself, I went weeks without taking a shit. I would read with my flashlight till three, four in the morning, and then I would go walk up and down Cass Avenue, and not see a single human being for blocks, sometimes. And then one time I had this vision. You know about the penis fish?
T, she said, what the fuck are you talking about?
The penis fish, he said, Candirú, it’s called, Vandellia cirrhosa. It lives only in the Amazon. Burroughs wrote about it in Naked Lunch. If you take a piss in the river it gets sucked up into your urethra and puts out these little barbs and feeds, just sucks the blood right out of you. It’s the most painful sensation you can possibly imagine. Well, look, I’d read about it somewhere, and it just came to me all of a sudden. You enter through the pleasure organ. That’s art, don’t you see, disinterested aesthetic appreciation, jouissance, whatever you want to call it. That’s how you get in, and then you put out your barbs, and you mangle the whole fucking system. You’re like Skywalker shooting his missile into the heart of the Death Star. So that’s what I want to do. He held up his two fingers in a Y and thrust them at her eyes. In through the eyes and bleeding out of every other goddamned orifice in thirty seconds.
What really gets me, her mother wrote to her in a letter, afterward, it isn’t the subject matter of his art, it isn’t his personal hygiene or his politics or his questionable beliefs about real estate, it’s you and the way you’re acting, the whole Lee Krasner to Jackson Pollock attitude. It’s straight out of 1950 and it terrifies me. He can only make you his muse if you let him.
And it’s true that she hasn’t danced, hasn’t thought about dancing, hasn’t read a copy of Dance News or been to a concert since he gave her the lecture at Joe Jr.’s in February, since he said, the only kind of dancing I’m interested in is dancing around the bonfires we’ll build in the middle of Park Avenue one day, when we break up Biedermeier chairs like matchsticks and fire up the society ladies’ wardrobes and throw their daughters in by the hair for good measure.
I wish you wouldn’t talk that way, she said. Don’t lick your lips. Do you know you do that? It’s disgusting.
Promise me, he said, promise me you’ll give it up, until—
Until you find a way to make it matter.
That’s his whole thing, an aesthetic credo cobbled together from Adorno and Brecht and John Cage and Sonny Rollins, if only he would admit it. I waited, he always says, I was ready to give up art altogether, I got rid of all my old crap, would have burned it in a pile except it would have been a toxic plume and that’s eco-racism. I waited until I found something that mattered. Like Sonny says. Don’t come in until you have something to contribute.
In 484 the king of the Vandal tribe, Huneric, issued an edict against the Catholic Church in North Africa. In this persecution, the Catholic doctor Liberatus, his wife, and their two young sons were apprehended. Liberatus’ wife was subsequently told the falsehood that Liberatus had apostatized. When afterward she was led to her trial and saw her husband standing near the spectators, she angrily grabbed him and rebuked him for denying his faith. But her husband quickly told her the truth of the matter: “In the name of Christ, I remain a Catholic.” Both Liberatus and his wife were executed. Their sons were put to death by drowning, as was another seven-year-old Catholic boy, who cried out, “I am a Christian,” as he was dragged away from his distraught mother.
It’s one of the books he keeps on the rusting steel shelf above his desk in the studio: Lives of the Saints, a heavy hardbound maroon thing with gold lettering, the kind of book you give as a present, a display copy, a book for people who don’t actually read. Inside the pages are thick and soft, spongy, inferior quality, and the ink rubs off, like newsprint. She started paging through it one night when he was supposed to be out doing graffiti.
Late in the afternoon of July 27, 1936, soldiers of the Popular Front raided the Dominican friary of Calanda, Spain. Seven Dominicans and a sixty-eight-year-old parish priest, Father Manuel Albert Gines, were taken by truck to an execution site outside the city. Along the way, the eight recited the rosary aloud. One of the Dominicans, Father Felicisimo Diez Gonzalez, gave a fountain pen as a present to their persecutors. Upon disembarking from the truck, each of the eight priests forgave their executioners. The priests exclaimed together, “Long live Christ the King,” as they were gunned down.
She’s never had much of a spiritual life herself. Not in conventional terms. His father was a boring, mainline, coffee-and-Nilla-Wafers Presbyterian; her mother’s parents were Catholics, Polish Catholics, but they both died before she was born—smokers, lovers of American fast food, Arby’s especially, the curly fries, the heaps of fatty sliced beef, who knew why?—and then years later her mother did some genealogical research and discovered, incredibly, that they were Jews, that they had grown up together as adopted orphans from families dead in the Holocaust. It was all there, it was documented. Which meant that she was Jewish, too.
She was fifteen at the time, and what her mother did, after spreading the books and binders and printouts across the kitchen table and explaining the whole story, how this thumbnail-sized grainy photograph connected to this scrawl on an Ellis Island ledger connected to this yellowed page from the Warsaw Ghetto archives, was ask if she wanted to see a therapist. Or a rabbi. Those were her options. I feel this is so much larger than us, her mother said. This is beyond—this is more than—and she looked genuinely lost, the lower half of her face coming in and out of focus. I mean, this is historical, she said, with an expression of awe, as if they’d been FedExed the Mona Lisa. It was disgusting, it was the first five minutes of a Lifetime movie, and she’d done the only thing a self-respecting adolescent could do: get up and walk away, pretend it never happened, that she had never been parented at all. Chthonic: her favorite SAT word. Born of the earth itself, born out of a toxic North Jersey flowerbed: that was as far back as she wanted the story to go.
But on the other hand, apart from her home life and its comfortable stickiness, its soccer cleats and parking-lot parties and PSAT’s, there’s the feeling she gets listening to certain CDs, the ones she’s loved for years, the ones that stick with her. Lauryn Hill, “To Zion”: in a certain mood, after a long shower when the hot water’s on, it gives her the shakes.
Unsure of what the balance held
I touched my belly, overwhelmed
By what I had been chosen to perform
But then an angel came one day
Told me to kneel down and pray
For unto me a manchild would be born
Look at your career, they said
Lauryn, baby, use your head—
It’s genocide, Tayari says, genocide against the black man, against the Mexicans, against the teenagers whose fierceness to reproduce is what, in the end, they’re all most afraid of. He won’t have condoms around, won’t steal them for her, won’t wear one, though he got her some rhythm method pamphlets and found some Swedish method online that lets you enter your cycle and figure out when you’ll ovulate every month for the next fifty years. In his calmest moments he admits they can’t possibly do the pregnancy thing right now, not with his project at its current stage, not with the dumpster diving and stealing and living hand to pocket. The guys from Chiapas and Vayaguera and Michoacán tell him to move down there, he could run a free clinic, set up a radio station, teach Internet to the guerillas. Living is cheap, they say, you wouldn’t believe it, we’ll set you up with a place with your mujer, you can have babies, raise a garden, go back to the land, be campesinos for awhile.
But as with everything he’s a little scattershot, his principles flexible, his promises fungible, everything inextricable from desire and living in the moment, and so they’re not careful and don’t always stick to the dates the computer spits out. He likes to do it from behind, and always swears he’ll pull out in time, but there’s nothing she can do if he gets carried away in the pulling and pushing, the plunging and long weepy exhalations, he’s back there with hands on her hips, in the saddle, in the driver’s seat. He says he feels something driving him into her, some larger force, some heavy-handed and dirty-minded deity swatting him on the back, and there’s nothing he can do.
And her period’s never been regular. In high school she went six months with only a little spotting and never told anyone, kept asking Mom for the monthly box of Playtex so she wouldn’t freak out. Tried to eat more green vegetables, tried to get more sleep, and eventually it came back as if nothing had ever happened. A capricious and sometimes vengeful overlord, her cycle, sometimes appearing out of nowhere, ruiner of a hundred pairs of underwear and a blue peasant skirt she’d loved.
The thing is that one of them needs a job, for now, an untraceable, untaxable job, before False Positive sells. There are three collectors interested and the gallery owner is trying to play them off each other, but it’s complicated, the economy’s tanking, unsurprisingly, the Dow is down in the 8s, and these guys are up to their ears in it, watching every last fifteen thousand. And they all want studio visits, they want to be Tayari’s best friend, suss him out, gauge his potential and his predictability. They think I’m going to flame out, T says, but the key is when. If I jumped in front of a bus tomorrow, no dice: not even enough for a gallery retrospective. But if I can stick it out five more years, I’ll be the Basquiat of the ‘00s. He pronounces it oh-ohs, like a redundant breakfast cereal. It takes her a minute to realize what it means. The zeroes, the thousands, the decade without a name, she thinks, when I was young. The oh-oh generation. She’s not sure she likes the sound of that.
She mentions the cashflow issue to Roger, who works at the Juvenile Justice across the avenue, but somehow gets to take long lunch breaks, squatting outside Real Azteca and eating tamales real slow, taking swigs from a two-liter of champagne cola between bites. He’s got diabetes, he says, that’s why he needs the extra sugar, which makes no sense to her.
Listen, girl, he says, and gives her a sideways look, a mirthful squinting grin. How far you willing to go?
What, you mean, like Staten Island or something?
Naw. I mean are you a risk-taker. Type-C personality. Willing to think outside the box.
Her heart jumps like a salmon breaching its way up a dam. If you’re asking me to take my clothes off, she said, no. Nothing sexual.
Girl, he says, guffawing, ain’t no one in this neighborhood dying to hit your skinny ass. Plus your witch doctor boyfriend wouldn’t take too kindly. Gimme your number. I got the perfect thing. Good money, all in cash. And it’s close by.
What he means, it turns out, what the perfect thing is, is driving the Rikers van that leaves from 134th and Woodside, ferrying the mothers and girlfriends and babies of Mott Haven’s vast prison population for weekly visits. It’s a tricky, stomach-twisting ride, the Deegan Expressway over the Triboro Bridge to the Grand Central Parkway, and then the long causeway out to the island itself. Twelve riders a pop, and she makes $40 a ride, there and back.
At first she wears T’s Carhartt hoodie pulled up over her head and stares straight forward, not even looking in the rearview mirror, not wanting to start any conversations she can’t finish. What’s a white girl doing driving the Rikers van out of the projects? She ought to give one of them the job. All she has to do is sign back up at NYU, or even the New School, even Parsons School of Design, and lo, her bank account replenishes itself, her dormitory bills are paid. I don’t understand, she says to Roger, why would anyone want me, all you need for this job is a driver’s license anyway.
Girl, he says, you know how much driver’s ed cost? Let alone insurance, paying your tickets, taking off work to stand in line even if you get a ride to the DMV? If it was so god-damned easy what they need a Rikers van for anyhow?
So gradually she relents. It’s a public service, she tells herself, someone has to do it, and the little girls, who could resist them, their hair bound up in puffy ponytails or thin silky braids, rainbows of barrettes and beads, the older ones coming right from school in navy jumpers with the matching tights, Dewanya and Taniqwa and Tiffany and Coral and Mo’netta with the apostrophe. The mothers she can take or leave—indistinct presences, thunder-thighs in tight jeans, dark-circled eyes, braying into cell phones and reaching out for the occasional slap—but the girls eye her conspiratorially and every so often lean up into the well between the front seats for a conversation in low voices.
You a teacher?
What’s your name?
Is that your real color hair?
Are you Spanish or just white?
You live around here?
Who’s inside, she wants to ask them, ask them all, is your daddy, your brother, your big sister, what’s the sentence, what’s he in for, what’s your favorite color, what subject is your favorite in school besides recess? But Ray, the boss, is right there beside her riding shotgun, flipping twenties into bundles and tapping numbers into his calculator with two thumbs. His eyes dead as the brackish oil-slicked puddles on Lefferts when it rains. So all she gets are the names. Entries in the cosmic logbook: those owed some unspecified and impossible debt.
Righteous, Tayari says when she tells him, finally, knowing he’ll never ask, never wondering about the fresh infusions of cash in the Hello Kitty plastic zippered envelope they keep above the drop-ceiling panels in the bathroom. I knew you’d find some way to connect, he says, kissing her on the bone behind her right ear, flicking his tongue against the lobe. It’s all a part of the equation, the grounding, the here-and-now. Our work comes from the people for the people.
He’s been reading Amiri Baraka again, the post-Beatnik, post-Blues People, post-LeRoi Jones Baraka, the Baraka of the Black Arts Theater and It’s Nation Time. He’s beginning to see that the videos are just a preliminary stage. The big problem is mediation, he says, everything takes place on a screen these days, it’s like we think that’s the only way we can communicate anymore, in pixels, but we have to get away from that, we have go through the pixelated vision and into the real, we need to get back to Artaud, the theater of cruelty, you know?
When he talks this way she feels she’s floating off into the distance on little curls and eddies of nausea. A queasy river, a sickly sea. I’m sick, she starts thinking one afternoon, lies down in bed, and wakes five hours later in the dark, feeling as if she’s been stapled to the mattress. She needs Tylenol, she needs chamomile tea with honey, none of which they have, none of which he would ever think of on his own. Her mouth tastes of sour milk and radishes, and the room is filled with an overwhelming funk she never noticed before, a smell of semen and sweat and lipstick, though she hasn’t worn lipstick in six months.
Baby, he says, standing silhouetted in the doorway, a sexy profile, inarguably, with the dustmop hair and the slender powerful legs and the soldering iron’s handle protruding from his waistband like an erect and eerily rectangular penis. We’re going to Miami. You’re going to be in a fashion show.
It’s at Miami Basel, of course, the biggest art fair in the known world, and as the gallery guy explains it, it’s one of those synergy things, all the rage these days, art-design-fashion, everyone hustling everyone else. Specifically in this case Vogue and WWD and Conde Nast and Balenciaga and Jack Spade and Mikamoto and a slew of other names that sound important and expensive, versus a crew of up-and-comers, hungry young ones with no reputation and no choice. Give us your version of a “fashion show” in the year 2020, the fax reads.
Love the scare quotes, she says. You really want to do this?
Oh, baby, he says, you have no idea. I don’t want this. The universe wants it. Fuck, the universe demands it.
And when she tells him, finally, he neither explodes in rage nor dissolves in tears, blames neither her nor himself, proposes neither abortion nor adoption nor some extraordinary third option, one she can’t identify, one she was secretly hoping for. In the range of possible human reactions she has no idea where to place his skeptical, hawklike expression, not wanting to call it what it is: calculating. He might even be counting under his breath. As if she’s told him how much she spent doing the laundry.
Righteous, he says, his new favorite word. It’s all falling into place. We’re raising the stakes. We’re fucking raising the stakes!
Later, when she’s forty, fifty, when her children have grown and left her sitting at her own kitchen table somewhere, nursing her third cup of coffee—because she does imagine these things, does think of herself, eventually, retreating to some leafy, wholesome, low-impact kind of place, some small town in Vermont or Oregon or Nova Scotia—then and only then will she look back and be able to measure the sheer depth, the profundity, of the change, the moment she played her small part in, as earth-changing in its way as Ginsberg reading Howl in San Francisco in 1955, as Coltrane playing the Village Vanguard the second time, as Merce Cunningham dancing in For John Cage, as Sonic Youth playing CBGB in 1981. She won’t remember name of the album Tayari chose, the Missing Foundation’s Destroy White Culture. She won’t remember the three hours they spent at the rented house in Palm Beach with the porn producer with the terrible skin and meth-rotted teeth, who produced one naked pregnant woman after another, with dead eyes and smiles shellacked in place, until T found the five he wanted.
But she will remember the nails, and how they had to be sterilized for an hour, how she spent an entire afternoon tonging them in and out of a stockpot, laying them out on fresh white towels like surgical instruments, which, after all, was what they were, what they had to be. While T recorded the final video on his Webcam in the next room. There were long stretches of clanging, battering music, interspersed with shouted passages from the Qu’ran, the Book of Jeremiah, the Bhagavad Gita, Sun-tzu. When she brought him a sandwich for lunch he was naked, with a single blue stripe painted down the center of his body, an Uzi in each hand. She smelled something burning in the room, and bent down to check the surge protectors and the outlets, feeling around the electrical tape for excess heat. That she’ll remember too, the burning smell that seemed to come out of nowhere. He had a series of headbands stenciled in English and Arabic, and she remembers only one of them: You Will Pay.
Because it was her job to be the last on the walkway, because she had to be the one to pound the nails in, while Tayari seethed through his gag and wrenched his head away, she’ll never know exactly how long it lasted until the black-helmeted policemen came racing down the aisles, and whether there was even one moment, in the end, when the whole world was his name, tayari ALPHA, in giant black letters, and five naked bodies, five women’s bodies, their breasts comically inflated, their bellies distended, barely able to squeeze into the dynamite belts she’d lovingly sewn with full-belly panel elastic, their faces masks of glittering makeup. There will be video, but she will never watch it, not in the solitary holding cell in McCandless Prison, where she waits two weeks for her father’s lawyer to negotiate bond, and not in the basement apartment of her parents’ house in Maplewood, where she lives out the rest of the pregnancy sucking ginger lollipops and knitting unwearable scarves. What she remembers is the snap of the rubber gloves against her wrists, and the strange imbalance of the weight of the hammer in her right hand and the disappearing lightness of the nail in her left. Her hands did not shake; her eyes grew dry, forgetting to blink. When T felt the tip of the nail pressed into the thin skin between the tendons in his palm and pulled it instinctively, protectively, toward his chest, she was the one who seized it and bent it cruelly back into position according the lines spraypainted on the plywood. This is what she will remember in the hospital, her legs splayed, the baby’s tiny skull splitting her in half, breathing the pain out through gritted teeth and refusing to scream: how, when she pounded the first nail in and he bellowed like a electrocuted ox, and calmly reached for the next, thinking, every suffering saint was born of a woman’s pain, thinking, how much easier it would be if I could drive them into my own skin.
— Jess Row
“Lives of the Saints” was originally published in Ploughshares.
JESS ROW is the author of two collections of short stories, Nobody Ever Gets Lost and The Train to Lo Wu, which was shortlisted for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Award. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, Ploughshares, American Short Fiction, Witness, Harvard Review, Conjunctions, Boston Review, and twice in The Best American Short Stories. He has received a Whiting Writers Award, an NEA fellowship in fiction, a PEN/O. Henry Award, and two Pushcart Prizes; in 2007 he was named one of Granta’s “Best Young American Novelists.” He has written nonfiction and criticism for Slate, The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Threepenny Review, Kyoto Journal, and Drunken Boat. He received his MFA from the University of Michigan, and is now an associate professor of English and Buddhist chaplain at The College of New Jersey as well as a member of the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing Program.
Great to see Jess on NC!
I really liked this, Jess. How are you? How’s Mina?