Feb 032016
 

Gregory Howard

 

 

He met Fuchs in Belem. It was during the Cirio de Nazare, the great procession of the Virgin and as they met the thousands sat in the trees, pulled at the rope, dragged the Virgin to her Cathedral home, waving giant totems above their heads, hands, legs, larger heads, mouths: parts of themselves to be healed. Fuchs was taller than my father expected. He had imagined, for some reason, a small man. A small man with large, owlish eyes. But Fuchs was slender and his face was “the face of a man who talked with people professionally.” They met in a café. My father talked of us and the brilliance of Niemeyer, while Fuchs mostly nodded and said things like “yes, of course” and “very interesting.” My father was tired. He felt at times that he was talking with Fuchs the way you talked to cat on a rug. Fuchs looked at the street while he talked, occasionally bringing his eyes back to meet my father’s and then looking at something else again. His cup, a spoon, the trash on the street. This was the correspondence of men. On the way back to his hotel he stopped to watch the procession. A young girl stumbled and was submerged into the mass, pressed and trampled for what seemed like hours — was he the only one that noticed? — around him people waved their totems and finally the girl emerged, pulled up bloody and crying, tears and blood running into each other all over her face. And she cried and cried and the crowd kept lurching forward towards the river and the cathedral, towards their ecstatic communion. That night my father couldn’t sleep. Fireworks intermittently lit the sky and the crowds of Belem rang bells and sang hymns. My father read passages from a book. He masturbated without interest. The face of the girl came back to him. Bloody and distorted bearing a rictus of pain. In his mind her face was the face of the Virgin as she was pulled inexorably toward the river. The little girl had turned and looked pack in panic. Looking around for her mother and father. She had sought anchor and was still carried away. Yes, of course. Very interesting. Into the night the faithful sang hymns to their immaculate Virgin. All of seeing. All of hearing. Every fragrance we perceive, they sang.

The next day Fuchs took my father upriver into the jungle. On the boat he was quiet and polite just as he had been in the café but did not elaborate on their itinerary. What my father knew was this: the trip would last the day and into the night; once the boat was docked there was a long hike into the jungle to the construction site; there my father’s skills, such as they were, would be employed. What he also knew was this: every trip upriver into the jungle is the same trip. On the boat with Fuchs and my father were two other men. Young men. A native Paran and another German. They sunned themselves on the deck and argued about music. The German was saying that the function of music was inductive and that its primary goal was the creation of new psychological states. In the future, the German said, this would be accomplished through the construction of strange new instruments, the implementation of computers and the proper utilization of giant pipe organs. The Paran shook his head at everything the German said and repeated: “No, no, no.”

The hike to the site was treacherous and miserable though not very long. They used flashlights to find their way. The jittery beams strafing the jungle’s dark curtain reminded my father of a scene in an American science fiction movie he had seen years ago in which a group of mostly young and attractive archeologists hike into the jungle to prove the existence of an ancient civilization. After a series of misfortunes in which the leader of the group, an older man with wild eyes and a beard, dies by falling prey to a giant carnivorous plant, the group, lost and consumed with bickering and mourning, somehow happen upon the temple where they make a terrible discovery. The film was dubbed badly and at times the actors’ mouths moved silently while others voices spoke for spells after the mouths had shut and eyes gazed at each other with suspicion and longing or into the distance thoughtfully. In the theater with my father, down in the first row, was a couple, a skinny teenager and a woman with curled hair who kissed loudly and ignored the film. There was also an old man two seats down from him who watched the couple instead of the screen and massaged his thighs. The previous week, sitting in that same seat, my father had seen a movie in which a poor family—a mother and father and their sons—wander through the drought-choked northeast trying to find sustenance but find only misery, set-backs and rebuke. Their farm is taken; the father jailed; they must eat their beloved parrot; they almost eat their beloved dog. The film seemed to have no beginning and no end. What do you do, it seemed to ask, when everything has conspired to keep you in motion? How do you arrange a world? There was almost no dialogue and the lighting was washed out, over exposed, making the actors faces seem hollow, etched, like death masks, as if they were already dead, which they probably were, which everyone probably is, he thought suddenly, and the whole theater began to feel hot and dry like the drought-choked Northeast and being there felt to my father like a punishment for some sin he could not remember committing, the sin of ignoring sin (in one scene the father is painted in black face forced to wear a dunce cap and ride a donkey in a parade; in another, he cries alone in the desert), which was not why he came there in the first place, it was not, to the movies, to this small movie house, where on weekends different men came and let their mouths hang open and stared intently at the screen; he did not want to feel like this man, this imbecile father who goes where he is told because he is docile, because he does not understand his own worth, in other words, because he is a father; this man who, at times, he already felt like, vacant, drifting through a blunt landscape, his wife at home, pregnant, waiting for him, thinking he was working late, singing songs to her belly, the belly he used to run his hand along, the belly no longer his belly (he swallowed with difficulty) and the children on the screen seemed suddenly terrifying and also alluring, their thin, naked bodies inviting violence, something slow and pleasurable so that it was hard to look at them, he wouldn’t look at them and yet . . . The woman suddenly moaned; the boy was no longer visible; the old man startled awake, a gurgling sound crawling from his throat. (This was not a new world, this was not escape.) The four young and attractive archeologists were now inside the temple, and the hero, who is in love with leading lady, a third rate blond , who is in turn of course married to the temperamental, undeserving best friend, looks up, the camera framing his square and manicured head for a moment and says “I don’t think this is a temple at all.” And at the end of the film it is only three of them. They have discovered the temple was in fact a machine built by an alien race, a kind of terrible radio, that once triggered will emit a signal transforming those who hear it into aliens themselves, or at least facsimiles, intent on destroying humanity and the world. They have already seen it in action. One of their party began to twitch upon the signal’s activation. He swooned. Upon awaking he attacked and killed the radio operator and in turn had to be killed by the hero, who then looked with despair on the corpse of his former friend. The camera frames his handsome face. He has a cleft chin and haunted eyes. Now the temple is crumbling. The remaining three barely make it out. Their flashlights strafe the jungle’s dark backdrop. Soon one of them will transform. They pick their way through the underbrush, stumbling towards a changed world. A victim, a monster, a hero. Which one, he wondered, was he?

By the time they reached the site, everyone was covered in terrible, stinging bites. Unseen things kept biting them. The Paran, muddy and whimpering because had fallen and twisted his ankle, was being helped by the German who was lamenting the whole thing by, as far as my father could understand, muttering dialogue from a movie or tv show or play. Fuchs found the generator and turned it on. The four of them stood and in the rain and looked at the house, a glowing thing in the jungle’s wet mind. They looked at it without expression. In his field notes he wrote, “The house is a catalyst. It is also a dying whale.”

That night they stayed there, rolling their sleeping bags out on the wood floor. The rain tapped against the glass, the walls and windows, echoing an erratic, anxious pulse through the empty house. Without speaking they all separated. Fuchs took the master bedroom. The Paran and the German took the smaller bedroom. My father stayed in the great living area, which was mostly glass. Though he was tired, exhausted, he could not really sleep, which is to say he fell immediately into a deep sleep but woke soon after. He woke violently, in a panic, thinking, for a moment, he was in dark, violent water, giant swells rising all around him, his heavy legs treading, and he couldn’t see, water in his mouth, land anywhere and where was the, roar everywhere, where was the, no. He started awake. The house slowly came back into shape. The dark and empty house. It unnerved him. He felt as if he himself was the one that was empty, hollow. Him, not the house. Hollowed out and waiting. He got up and walked to the door. His arms and legs burned with swollen irritation and it was difficult to swallow. Outside, inside, there was a deep darkness. He could still feel the ocean all over him. The salt and panic. It was hot and humid. His arms and legs and face and neck itched and burned. The generators, he wondered. Were they out?

He stared into the darkness and felt for a moment that something was staring back. He could hear its movements, muted through the glass. There are unexpected dimensions to an animal’s face, he would later say, surrounded by scarred and limping dogs, that, if understood properly, can open for you, if only for a moment, certain windows. On the way in, as the dusk fell, hundreds of tiny lights began to dot the trees, flickering. Fireflies. In the jungle’s of southwest Asia—Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam—where now men cut off the feet of other men and hid in holes in order to kill quickly and unexpectedly and dumped poisonous chemicals on each other in large quantities, Fuchs stopped the party to say, groups of fireflies like these now had been witnessed slowly synchronizing their flashes. Their lights, once a kind of blinking babble, became like a pulse. No one knows yet what this communication is for. On. Off. On. Off. On.

Then suddenly Fuchs was next to him. He could feel the proximity. Something landed on his arm, sending a ripple of panic through his body. Something inside. Then it was gone.

He shuddered.

Fuchs held a bottle of scotch, almost empty, gently by the neck, in his left hand. He took a drink and handed the bottle to my father, who took a drink and shuddered again.

In the small bedroom the German was kissing the Paran, who was chilled and sweating, gently on the head.

He waited for Fuchs to say something. For Fuchs to explain and how it was that a glass box sunk in the muck of the jungle demonstrated the glory of his country and its embrace of the future. He scratched his arm. He wanted to scratch his leg, which stung and burned in too many places.

He heard Fuchs swallow. The sound of something emerging.

I was once asked to build a house in the Apennines for an Italian industrialist, Fuchs said finally, suddenly. A scion. A blue-bood. Presented as eccentric in the usual way.

His voice was soft and hoarse. He made a gesture in the dark my father could not apprehend to indicate what was usual.

The industrialist, he had about a twenty sons, said Fuchs. Indiscriminate sons. Sons from different mothers. Ex-wives and girlfriends. One night stands. This was a necessity, he told me. His family line was long and distinguished. A great house. A great house with a long history. But a great house now brought to the brink. Once there had been allegiances with powerful families. Once there had been noble actions in desperate conflicts. He mouthed a word I couldn’t understand and narrowed his eyes into a look of significance, as if there were people in the walls and cupboards who could hear him. Who could hear him and report to someone or something. His great grand uncle Fabrizio, for example, he said, who created a specific time-saving farming process without thought of patent protection and just gave it away to the farmers. Because of his love for his people. You have do what is necessary for the love of the people, the industrialist said.

We were sitting in his large but dingy Turin apartment, Fuchs said. The industrialist’s face was pock-marked and thin. Around him and throughout the apartment many small and shaky dogs slept and yapped and pissed on the floor. The apartment was dark and smelled of sweat and urine. Two of the dogs were resting on his lap. Greasy looking Pekinese with runny eyes. Intermittently, the industrialist put his face down towards the dogs and let them lick him on the face and mouth. First one, then the other.

Everything he did, the industrialist told me, was to preserve the bloodline. His degrees, his career, his life compacted into this travesty, he said waving a hand at the room and the rooms beyond it. They were in all in service to this one determining fact. This one precious thing. The bloodline, he told me, is all. What was now necessary, he said, for the family to secure once again its place again amongst the noble families of the province and, indeed the county, was an estate befitting their admittedly but still great station. A structure so radical and important it could not help but mark the reemergence of this once great provincial power. Look, he said to me. He did not much care for modern design. In point of fact he hated it. In certain art forms there were heights, apexes after which everything degraded, after which it was all merely pantomime and arrangement. Architecture was one such form. No offense, he said. But could anything top the majesty of the great hunting lodge of Stupigni? It’s cavernous vaults and twisting arabesques? Didn’t Petronius say: without decoration there is no life? He took several small oily fish from a bowl on the coffee table between us. It is often a mistake to think in terms of progression, he said and put the fish in his mouth and then licked his lips. But he understood full well that they must look to the future for their legacy, if they were to have a legacy, degraded as it was, the future. The past was a swamp of terrible decisions and poorly applied love, he said. The family’s past. It is unwise to build on a swamp. This much I know.

A swamp, a cemetery, a jungle, my father thought. Yes.

He was clearly insane, Fuchs continued. But I was young and eager to make my name and felt, perhaps intuitively, that this crazy, probably syphilitic, and certainly dying industrialist could be manipulated into letting me corrupt his ridiculous dreams into my own. Dreams, Fuchs said, handing the bottle back to my father, which are so often easily disfigured, transformed.

Outside it began to rain again in heavy sporadic drops.

So we began to work together, Fuchs said. I stayed in a hotel, paid for by the industrialist, near the train station. At the time I didn’t think about the location and its implications. From my window I could watch people arrive and depart. There was a park near the station. A small park with trees where people sometimes ate lunch and sometimes . . . made arrangements. In my hotel I could hear their sounds. Voices loud then soft. Muffled, distorted. During the day I sketched in two sessions. I met the industrialist for lunch and then again for dinner, which was taken late and lasted for hours with multiple courses. Head-cheese ravioli, fish stuffed with almonds, capon tart and candied pears. We met at the same restaurant every day, a large, dim and dirty place where the only other diners were an older couple who, during their incessant meal, would not talk to each other. Instead they communicated through the waiter, a tall thin, bored man with a stoop, who relayed their messages back and forth, leaning in to hear one and then walking to the other, crouching down to explain. During the dinner the industrialist would talk about his lonely, ridiculous childhood, about how, when, he was young he was not allowed to leave the estate walls but that his parents would bring in children from nearby villages for him to play with, to chase around the estate and bully with a wooden sword. If you think of that as playing. But without these children, he said, I would not have learned how to think about other people. One’s parents, such as they are, don’t become people until later, if ever. And besides they were too much in love with each other to care adequately about me. And so the children taught me. How other people are like energetic dogs that we must exercise. It was hard to understand him at times. We sat at table for four and he would use all the silverware, picking forks at random from different places. Behind him there were dusty carnival masks, dull, feathered things. My sketches would be spread out in front of him in between his many plates and bowls and tureens and he would glance down at them while he talked. At the end of the dinner he would tell me that these were no good. What he wanted, he would say, was something, with more force, more . . . discipline.

Force, discipline, excellence, Fuchs said. These were the words he used. He was rarely specific and when he was he quickly changed his mind. I had a photo of the place where he intended to build. One he’d given me. In the photograph I could see a rocky precipice and below a narrow valley with a stream. The photographs were overexposed and so everything looked both faded and scorched. There was also in them a man and a teenager, a boy or a girl. Their figures were dark and small, both there and not there, ghostly figures, against the hot dry sky.

For months we continued in this way, Fuchs said. Maybe three, maybe four. We continued our uneasy embrace. I brought him sketches; he told me stories. Sometimes I felt like I had never been anywhere else. Like I woke up on boat in the middle of the ocean with a crew that I didn’t recognize that kept calling me captain. My hands were cramped and my stomach sick. I was tired of eating rich, undigestible food, which settled into my stomach and stayed there alongside my doubt. I was tired of walking in the Turin heat and standing in the Turin rain. Bored of the girl I was sleeping with and sick of myself for sleeping with her. Our lovemaking became baroque, absurd—entangled and ridiculous. Pleasure always a horizon. Our mouths like the industrialist’s mouth, something to be licked over. Sleeping, lovemaking, the temerity of words, what crutches, when we find ourselves waist-deep in the life of our making, we use. And me? I had become part of the sounds of the hotel. Somewhere in one of the other rooms, someone was sitting and thinking as I had sat and thought, in the room with its rectangular bed and rectangular bedsides tables, its bed tightly made, its carpet dull, the smell that is the absence of smell, the place that could be anywhere. Somewhere in the hotel was me. So this one day, I didn’t go to lunch and I didn’t go to dinner. I stayed in my bed. I slept and didn’t sleep. I went to the movies, where a terrible horror movie was playing. The plot was familiar. Two men who were probably criminals escape some unseen terror only end up at a secluded chateau with a sinister dandy. From the first, you understood that this would not end well. The way the chateau was filmed it seemed endless, expansive. There were constant long scene of the camera wandering into room after room, each one looking basically the same. The creeping terror of similitude. One criminal and then the other wake up to find themselves in new wings of the chateau’s labyrinth. The dandy appears and talks to them as if they have been there for days or weeks. Women and men appear, lithe and young, and talk to the criminals as if they have been friends for a long time. The same conversation happens several times. There are constant shots of a large computer in some kind of chamber. Then people start dying. Hands begin grabbing people in the dark and slitting throats, cutting bodies and pulling them into the chamber. It’s always hands, a close-up on the hands, almost unattached to anything, hands and wrists. In the end the criminals escape, or seem to. But it’s not really clear what they’ve escaped from or to. It was crap but when I returned to the hotel I felt like the lithe young extras and Turin felt like those hands—cutting at me, grabbing me, again and again, mere bodies, a mere body, and I packed my suitcase with the few things I desired to keep and walked to the train and took the first one north.

A few months later I received a large brown envelope from an Italian law firm. Inside the envelope was a smaller envelope and a letter on heavy cream-colored paper with a water seal. The letter explained that it had the great misfortune to inform me that my “dear friend” and “employer” had passed away and that in keeping with the execution of his last will and testament, which had been amended to include the following only a month before his tragic and untimely death, the sealed envelope currently in my possession was to be delivered, without delay, into my hands. For a while I did not open the second envelope. I had taken work with an architectural firm in Cologne and was busy working on building museums and governmental offices. These were, at the time, all the rage. Everyone building a quarantine for memory, a conduit for appropriate action. (Fuchs made the sound with his throat again). The founder of the firm defied convention by working with brick and cement instead of glass and steel. He advocated a return to the right angle. The founded column. The classic forms. Moving backwards is the way to forward, he said. He had a slight lisp and a runny left eye. It was difficult to look at him without thinking of his disease. So I worked and thought of his disease and quarantined memory and each night I returned home to the envelope, which lay on my desk, a reminder, an invitation, a taunt, a rectangle like the rectangles I worked with every day. And it was a small room, where I lived. In some ways it was just another hotel. I knew this about rooms, how they mutate thoughts, limit action and finally, one night I drank enough brandy to open the letter. I held it in my hands. Outside my window, drunk students were singing songs. Everything was now a possibility again, at least for some people, and I imagined the industrialist, his dogs finding him on the couch, licking, hesitantly, his stiffened lips, his mouth and thought about how this is what it meant to be alive and young in this moment, a dog licking crumbs from the mouth of a corpse, and so I opened the envelope. I opened it with but not with expectation. Of course, I thought in that moment, of a large sum of money, I thought of our dinners and thought of money, of my hotel room and money, of the Turin streets and Marissa’s legs and arms bent into angles and the number rose and fell but what remained was the possibility congealing into certainty that in my hand was a large sum of money that would take from this room and my diseased employer with his runny eye to another place, some place I hadn’t even thought of, where I could begin to execute my vision, or what I thought of at that time as my vision. Fuchs emitted a sound that was like a chuckle. The rain had stopped. My father looked at Fuchs who looked through the window into the darkness outside. What to make of this intimacy? He wanted to put his arm around Fuchs. My hands trembled a little, Fuchs said, as I slid the knife into the envelope’s sticky seam. But inside there was nothing. Which is to say, inside was not a check but another envelope, this one smaller but in every other way a replica of the first. Understanding the perversity of the industrialist, his games, I thought how he would want to make of this a performance, to make me dance or beg for scraps at his table one more time and though I was angry I slide the knife in again and opened this second smaller envelope in which I found yet another even smaller envelope. Even smaller and equally smaller. I cut this second envelope with a knife. I cut again. Another envelope. And I cut and cut and each envelope revealed another envelope, the envelope’s paper thick and tactile like goose-bumped flesh and on each envelope there was a word typed over the so that to open the envelope properly you had to tear the word apart. The letter from his attorneys indicated that the last will and testament had been changed a month before I left, as if he knew I would leave, knew I would return, and I remembered the terrible film I had seen with the criminals and the endless chateau and I remembered too his story about the children his parents brought into their compound and it seemed like now I was both a criminal and a child in this scenario and I suddenly understood what the whole thing had been, that whole experience in Turin, the long lunches, the descriptions of his life, the calls at night, the dogs that licked and shit in equal measure, that all of this was in fact the house the industrialist had wanted to build all along, that there was never going to be an actual house, a structure, no glass, no steel, no cement, no marble, not even brick, that I had hoped to deform his dreams but had been swallowed entirely by them. The words, I remembered, the words on the envelopes comprised a line from a book the industrialist had shown me. What can you do with such things? Fuchs said. Things that happen and settle into your mind and stay there like mice. Quiet, patient, unhealthy. The mice in your mind. What do you do with them?

—Gregory Howard

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Gregory Howard is the author of Hospice (FC2). His fiction and essays have appeared in Web ConjunctionsHarp & Altar, and Tarpaulin Sky, among other journals. He teaches creative writing, contemporary literature, and film studies at the University of Maine.

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  One Response to “All of Seeing, All of Hearing: Fiction — Gregory Howard”

  1. Quite a lovely story, with sharply observed sensory details. Congratulations!

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