Nov 162014
 

Mark Anthony JarmanMark Anthony Jarman

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 Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, poet (1792-1822)

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Pope Rat watches Euro Cup, the blind man wanders our hotel halls, and I wander Rome’s swarming city. I soak my head and T-shirt in cold water to escape the Roman heat, I inhale cold bottles in a dark bistro, then I creep into another empty church – simple, not a rock-star church, but I must look. The streets burn in wild daylight, but inside is shadow, inside my eyes rise to a blue dome where a young Italian artist painted night stars inside the cupola before spilling from his high scaffold, the falling man ending his art and life in one downward stroke.

Ever so slightly sunburnt and intoxicated, I am in the precisely right state to take in the swooning gift of these stars glowing in a tiny compass of sky, this is exactly what a place of worship should do, lines of light guiding my eyes from the well bottom up to these high stars in a circle.

My cells vibrate happily, my mind and eyes ready to receive this perfect sacrament. Light like blocks of white stone fills the church windows, and in my head Gene Clark’s tremolo voice singing, ain’t it good to be alive. This temporal bliss won’t last, but in the moment its echo is beautiful.

Our world revolves about me for a few hours until like Galileo I know, what heresy, it doesn’t circle me, I remember I am millions of miles from the centre. But I’ll survive, I have options. What of the woman from Iraq with her injured eyes? She was once so happy, on her way to college she steered a blinding gold Mustang through the heart of Baghdad and courted bright ambitions, but after the invasion she has nothing, finds herself so far from the centre.

American soldiers liked the woman from Iraq and Americans ran over her gold Mustang with a tank while she was trapped at the steering wheel and then I meet her in her new life in Rome, in her exile. Birds and countries flying through the air like scalding shrapnel, all these wax nations, all these melting borders and homes. Our hotel rooms have teensy televisions bolted to the ceiling and mine pulls in a German MTV channel, rock unt roll, the VJ’s narration an unsettling mix of Teutonic Girl and Valley Girl. Our alliances and kingdoms fidgety as a blackbird’s eye.

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Loaded down by buckets of dirt and rocks, men trudge out of the earth carrying rocks by hand through the hotel atrium, lugging buckets to a tiny truck the size of a scooter. In a silent prayer I call upon the backhoes of the nation to help them.

I want to chat up the soft-eyed Spanish woman who inhales cigarettes in the atrium. In her white sundress blood speaks in her skin and she reminds me of Natasha, a similar face and hair, as if I know this person, a sister-messenger, though Natasha is too health-conscious to smoke, Natasha is more green tea than Pall Malls.

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Angelo owns the rambling hotel, Angelo delivers to our atrium party a giant vat of purple-black wine that resembles Welch’s grape juice, a giant ham, prosciutto di Parma, and a giant knife; Eve and I glance at the knife warily. Angelo moves slowly to a long table, his grey hair slicked back, a beaked nose like a hawk; he is generous to us, he is regal.

“Tonight we have a super-big party!” exclaims a smiling Angelo.

Eve can’t take the wine’s sweet taste, but Ray-Ray and the others like the hooch well enough. We also carve up a spicy sausage the size of a small pig and an amazing cake filled with light custard. Food is so good in Italy; it’s like being stoned.

Father Silas makes a toast, “Thanks to the hotel owner for a festa with real Italian girls.” And it’s true, Angelo did arrive with smiling Italian girls with big hair like Amy Winehouse or the Shirelles.

“The bigger the hair the closer to God,” says Eve.

“Grazie, grazie,” we all intone. Grazie. Am I saying it right?

Basta, Angelo says modestly. Enough.

Father Silas whispers to me, “If Angelo says Ciao to us, then we can say it to him.” Otherwise Father Silas worries we might be too informal.

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The Spanish woman says Angelo’s men are digging a cellar for a basement cafe and gym. Angelo is ambitious, owns many buildings, and I find myself wondering how much real estate he has. Or how he owes. The crew has no jackhammer or bobcat. Excavators and dump-trucks are too wide for the narrow lane. So the work is done by hand and back and legs, like labour scratched out thousands of years ago. Will the men’s picks and crowbars stab into artifacts, find bones in a well? Will our hotel collapse?

Every time they dig in Rome they find something, the Spanish woman says, reading my mind. It is impossible to do anything. If they try to expand the subway, the new line they can dig, a tunnel is narrow, that is okay, but a new station means excavating a much broader space and then they find a temple to Saturn, to Venus, they find a villa, they find rude frescoes, and work is halted. A stray cat crawls into lost catacombs and they must bring in specialists in archeology and incest. So apologies to the world, but Rome will have no new subway lines.

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Bottles of champagne arrive, like the hand-cut prosciutto, courtesy of generous Angelo, and the champagne thrills Tamika, she scrambles for her camera to snap photos of the large dark bottles. I find this endearing, and wonder if Tamika wants the photos to show her parents or grandparents that she moves in champagne circles. Or perhaps they worry she isn’t having fun in Rome and here is evidence to send them, truthful or not.

I feel guilty lounging around with Eve and Tamika and the Spanish woman while the men work in this heat, passing by us with buckets of rocks and earth. They must think me a rich tourist, that I am lazy, that I am lucky. Am I lucky, I wonder. They dig under the hotel and I hope the undermined foundation will be all right.

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Angelo’s cured ham is scrumptious and the soft-eyed Spanish woman sips spring water inside her cigarette fog, says, “I am here from Madrid to help a friend at the hotel, a woman. I am not staying at this hotel, I am staying by Termini. Do you know my friend? Do you know Madrid?”

“Madrid is a beautiful city; I was there many years ago.” I struggle for memories: such striking architecture and art deco and oil paintings in the Prado and parks and tabernas, but what I recall mostly is summer heat ballooning in an airless upstairs room by the Puerto del Sol, the temperature driving me from the old hotel and driving me from the city to a cooler sea and a smaller harbor town. Perhaps the Spanish woman loves the heat, like Natasha. The Madrid hotel was shelled during the Spanish civil war. And I remember St. Sebastien and the threat of bombs in Basque country. Does Natasha still keep her hair long, light striking her like a saint?

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Eve wears a fichu cape and a cute Oriental coolie hat to fend off the sun. An Italian man in the courtyard stares at my cousin Eve’s white t-shirt, a low scoop top that reveals the top of her breasts. He speaks to her breasts in heavily accented English.

“Oooooh, look at you! That is a very nice shirt. My wife has been in the hospital for eight weeks, that’s her over there.” He points to a weary-looking woman glued to a phone, but his eyes stay riveted on my cousin’s chest.

“She was really sick. Yes, her kidneys I think, I’m not sure, but oh she was in so much pain. It was hard to take, but she’ll be all right.” His eyes never lift from Eve’s t-shirt. “You look so goooood!”

My cousin backs up, trying to get away.

“Oooooh yessss, I very much like your beautiful shirt.”

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I chat with the Spanish woman several times in the atrium, but find I cannot ask her out because I am sure she is waiting for me to ask her out and I hate the moves and the knowledge and the lack of knowledge.

“Are you interested in zombies?” the Spanish woman asks me. Her name is Elena. How do you say dinner and drinks in Spanish (the dream of a common language)? How do you say that you are so very tired of zombies? I wish I had my old phrase book from years ago in Spain. Mucho gusto.

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Whenever I walk onto my room’s terrace I hear two women talking on their terrace.

We went to Australia, one woman says. We went camping, it was fun. They offered me all kinds of seafood and I said no. We didn’t have money to buy. Well, we had some.

Don’t you wish you’d done some of those things?

You look back. There are memories.

Those are positive memories! Mary, you still have memories to come.

You think so?

Absolutely! Life isn’t over. It’s a new chapter. And another chapter. A set of problems is just a new chapter.

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I make noise with a chair on my side of the terrace so they know I am there, but it has no effect, the two women keep talking, so I abandon my comfy terrace to zigzag bridges crossing the Tiber.

I step inside out of habit and curiosity; every church has a relic, fragments of the true cross, bones, thorns, nails. What chance that they are real? There is Christ’s alligator suitcase retrieved from the Holy Land, there is Christ’s hairdryer, and his first report card signed by Mary.

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On the terrace Mary the nervous woman says, In the old days I’d talk to men. Now I hold back.

Her more confident friend says, You’ve forgotten who you are.

I lost that. You understand?

Absolutely! What if he knew you were looking for someone new. I’d be interested in his reaction. I’d be very interested.

Maybe we’ll meet some Italian men!

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Ray-Ray says to me, “I hear you’re running for Pope. Very cool. If there’s an interview, just remember he’s human, he puts his pants on one leg at a time.”

Ray-Ray, so tall and smiling, has a girlfriend and a baby waiting back in Canada, but in Italy he’s on a quest for an Italian woman, even asking the Spanish woman for advice.

“Where can I meet them? What do Italian women like, what should I say?”

“It will not happen,” she says, “they live in another world. My apologies, but you must be Italian to seduce.” Ray-Ray has a few words of Chinese, but little Italian.

“One leg at a time,” she says, “yes, I understand such a motivational concept, but does a Pope even own pants?”

“He probably wears sweat pants at home,” says Ray-Ray, “you know, to chillax, eat chips and watch Euro Cup on the boob tube. But the man’s from Dusseldorf or somewhere. So what team does the Pope pull for? He’s deep in this crazy-ass palace in Italy, but, really, the man’s from Germany, right? And he’s got these Swiss Guard dudes, who do they pull for?”

“Is there a Swiss team in the Euro Cup?”

“The Swiss Cuckoos?”

“The Swiss Army Knives?”

“Ye Gods,” mutters Father Silas shaking his head while enjoying cake and custard.

South Africa is killing Italy in the Euro Cup; Angelo and the girls with beehive hair grimace as one. The goalie moves the wrong way with his ski gloves out-stretched. Italy has a gifted team, but they seem jinxed, they lose every match. For the locals this is heart-breaking and suspicious: are the matches fixed?

Angelo holds one hand up high: “How the team should play,” he says. Then a hand low: “How they are playing instead.”

As a child in Nigeria Ray-Ray went to old style British schools, obeyed a headmaster, wore school uniforms in the Nigerian heat. I try to imagine him in a blazer. Later he may try to kill himself in the Don Valley, but how can our group know that?

Ray-Ray says to the Spanish woman, “Did you know the Etruscan language was never deciphered?”

“That’s really a shame,” she says.

Ray-Ray keeps saying that he was a celebrity in China, the girls on campus loved him, flocked to him, thinking he must be an NBA star because he was so tall. But he is not so well loved in Italy. In the hotel Ray-Ray doggedly pursues the chambermaids room to room, his big wolf teeth in a grin.

“How you doing today, ladies?”

The chambermaids’ boss, a severe Aryan looking woman, shoos the towering Ray-Ray away from her staff. “Go! Go! Let them do their work!” And we smile at the ribald drawing room spectacle.

But what of my gaze, and my crush on Irena, our Croatian chambermaid? Am I so different than Ray-Ray? Every day I speak to Irena on the stairs or when she knocks on the door of my room to ask if I need my room cleaned.

Irena gently scolds me in the hall: “You should not walk about in bare feet! You might step on broken glass! You are a free spirit. It is America.”

“It is not America.”

I delay wearing socks as long as possible, not to upset Irena the chambermaid, but because in bare feet the day remains somehow mine, I feel the chains when I have to don socks and shoes and move out into the world to take care of something dubious or pay money to someone when I’d rather not pay. When I get in the door I can’t wait to peel off shoes and socks, especially in this hot climate. And what chance of stepping on glass when Irena guards our sparkling halls? Being scolded by Irena is enjoyable. She first showed me the long route to my rooftop room. Why do I feel my pursuit of her is not base, but is high minded, a noble romantic quest? “It is Canada.”

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Marco the intern laughs about the hotel’s Croatian chambermaids. Three women were washing a floor and Marco had to get in the room for inventory, so he took off his shoes to tiptoe past. They were incensed; the clean wet floor should be made dirty rather than Marco take off his shoes. A man should just walk through.

“When I had to move out of my room and stay with the chambermaids I made my own bed every morning, but they would unmake it and make it their way. They are still very old world.”

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On my way out of my room one fine morning I see Irena making up the beds next door, in what I think of as the sex room, as this room is used by so many mysterious couples. Irena pauses by the bed, looks over.

“Do you need your room made up?”

“No, thank you. My room is fine.”

She asks me every day and I have the same reply. I have everything I need. Grazie.

You are lucky, she may say. That is the usual extent of our talk. But today she stops her work, today she wants to chat.

“You are wearing shoes today,” she notes with approval. “You are from Canada,” she says, “what is it you do in Canada? What is life like there?”

She knows some Croatians who like Canada. She says, “Canada has more interest in culture. Here in Italy it is all business.”

“It is?” I’m surprised.

“Here it is who you know. Want anything done? You need a friend, a connection. And if you have no friends? Nothing can be done for you.”

“I think of North America as all business. With Italy I think of art and culture.”

“No, no. Clearly it is the other way around.”

Now I’m puzzled. Irena tells me of her home in Croatia, the hills of white stone above the sea, she says in Croatia there are mountains, but not too high, they are just perfect. Her town once a Roman colony and now she is drawn to Rome, her town once a key port in the salt trade, but now its beaches are covered with roasting Germans, the Germans are everywhere, the EU accomplishing what Hitler could not.

Irena says, “I’d like to move to London and go to school there, but it’s hard.”

Irena has been working in Rome two years to save her pennies. London a magnet for her, but London is so expensive and school in England is so dear, thousands and thousands of pounds Sterling. She worries, she worries about the crash of the Euro and the terrible economy and the backlash in Rome and Athens and Madrid and she sees the TV news of arson and riots and jobless males battling police and attacking foreigners (do we have that in common, Irena, we are both foreign?) She is an immigrant, as were my parents, but her hill town is close to Italy, she did not need to step in a sinking boat, she rode to Italy by fast train.

Irena says she worries that what is happening elsewhere is sure to spread here and become far worse. Greece is a disaster, Spain, Tunisia, Libya, Syria in rubble, Iraq in convulsions.

“It’s not over yet,” she says, “on the contrary, it is just the beginning.”

She has worries and hopes, Irena seems impossibly nice. She asks where else I’m going and I mention Napoli and Pompeii.

“Ah, Capri,” she says dreamily. “And you must go to Elba. Though Napoli has the best food. It is the best city.”

I wonder if Irena lives and works in Italy legally, but can’t bring myself to ask. Irena has three languages and I have none. I heard her speaking Croatian and the language sounded like jagged Russian colliding with musical Italian. How long must Irena clean tile floors in Rome, work in a hotel and save a few Euro to put herself through school? She has no iPhone or tablet, no college student pub-crawls, no fast Bimmer or fake and bake tan, no Mom and Dad paying the credit card for a trip to the capitals of Europe.

Irena served and fed Marco, the hotel’s American intern when he was kicked out of his room. The hotel was over-booked, desperate for a room, so for a few days he was farmed out to the apartment shared by several Croatian chambermaids. A male guest in their home was not allowed to lift a finger, they cooked full meals and fed him plums from a mother’s garden in Croatia, plums a storm-cloud purple, taut yet dripping sweetly with juice, and sliced wrinkled apples that tasted like summer wine, as if the apples were ready to ferment. The young chambermaids treated him like a lord.

Irena’s stern blonde boss bursts out of the coffin-sized elevator, an unwelcome genie with dyed hair. The woman stares, suspicious of a shirker, suspicious of what I am after. Irena’s face alters, eyes scared, and she scampers back to cleaning the sex room.

Sometimes I feel like an exact saint of restraint, sometime I worry I possess the virtues of a dog running loose. At times I’ve been called a dog, but my mien leans more to milquetoast, surely I am more custard than canine. Galloping miles of halls and stairs to the Roman street (I don’t use the elevator), I hope that Irena’s Aryan boss won’t make trouble because she spoke to me. But I am happy Irena wanted to chat with me about her future life in the U.K.

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A sickle moon hangs over the curved brick portal arch, moon and brick permanent fixtures both. And statues everywhere in Rome, long lines of anemic statues peopling rooftops, huge armies of silhouettes and future suicides crowding ledges, arms spread as if losing their balance or to leap from the ledge and get air in their beards, fly off and shudder like shaky kites around the white columns and spires and tourist piazzas.

I stare at chalk-white eyeless statues and older Italians in the subway car stare baldly at Tamika’s dark round face and wire-rim glasses and dainty dreads. They are not shy about staring wide-eyed, as if Tamika is some amazing piece of furniture perched beside me on a subway seat.

Tamika is super-shy and doesn’t fit into the group of young drunks and Tamika is very aware of the open stares as we ride buses or the Metro. In Philly she fits in fine; in Rome her dark skin draws unwelcome attention, eyes on her.

Tamika asks me, “Do people stare at you here?”

“Not really.” I am becoming invisible and to be invisible has its uses.

Tamika tells me that she ate something that disagreed with her and warning she became sick on a moving public bus.

“I felt horrible, but I couldn’t get off in time. The driver stopped the bus and he called the police.”

“The driver called the police?”

“They took me off the bus and I sat for ages in the police station. No one seemed to be paying any attention, so after three or four hours I slowly stood up and walked out the door with some other people and came back and hid at the hotel. I get nervous when I see any police or a uniform.”

Shy Tamika the outlaw. Italy has an uneasy relationship with colour, with Africa, Africa once part of its old Roman Empire and still so close, a slow boat-ride away from Sicily or the Italian island of Lampedusa far to the south where refugees swim to shore at this exact moment or they fail to swim to shore.

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Some citizens in northern Italy prefer the north, would like to be part of Switzerland or Austria or Friuli, Venice wants to be an independent serene republic. Italian cousins in the south are seen as uncouth, un-north, they are Terroni, of the earth, swarthy peasants, lazy, corrupt, brutish, violent, invaded and tainted by Arabs and Moors and Algerians, by heated kingdoms of darker blood, by invasion after invasion.

Men ask Tamika, Are you Africano or Americano? They want to be sure.

Father Silas surprises us, saying, “Some Italian men have a fetish for black prostitutes.”

“A fetish? North Africa? West Africa?”

“I really can’t say, it’s not my fetish.”

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“It’s not that I’ve been cold to him.”

The two woman talk on the next terrace and I imagine my wife saying similar words to her best friend over a glass of shiraz, adjusting decades of memories. To hear this is depressing.

“You ask yourself what happened to all those years.”

The years of connections and cities and good times don’t alter or disappear. But now those years are different to my wife, now tainted, though not to me. The women talking on the next terrace are a vocal reminder of what I’ve done wrong and how I will be misunderstood and maligned over a glass of shiraz, perhaps at this very moment.

“This new therapist, he lets me come to my senses, he doesn’t tell me.”

“I like the advice this doctor gives you.”

“Is it out of fear I’m doing this or out of love?”

“You do what you have to do.”

“I don’t want my kids to be vulnerable. Damaged people gravitate to someone like, to damaged people. I can empower my two children by standing on my own two feet. Or they’ll step into the exact same scenario. It’s a valuable lesson.”

“You know in your heart you did everything you could.”

Don’t the women know that I’m on my side of the trellis and vines, that I hear every word and sigh? I make noises on my terrace to alert them, but they are like oblivious shoppers who block the whole aisle with their carts, no one else exists.

“What if he came back? He’s not open, he’s not going to be expressive or lively or please me. He can’t find it in himself to be happy.”

“Can’t go down that road. Tell the kids when they’re older.”

“If I’m giving 150 per cent and he’s giving 80, it ain’t gonna work. Is that flame too high?”

“I don’t think so.”

“That fire worries me. Should we get some water?”

“It’s citronella. It smells nice. Ah, this is the life. Shopping in Rome.”

“Can we put it out?”

“Okay, okay. Feel better?”

“I do.”

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Jesus, I think, let the stupid fire burn.  I’ve lost my euphoric mood under the perfect cupola of chapel stars.

So once more into Rome I wander footsore, that one church on the edge, marble underfoot, tombs underfoot, reading graffiti, stepping over graves, over a lost city.  Eve and I gaze at The Conversion of Saint Paul, but the canvas is so dark for an epiphany, it seems more the reverse of an epiphany, I see no light or illumination.

Saints line every rooftop and I pass the spot where the dead rat has been resting every day on cobblestones and when I wander back the two women still talk on the next terrace.  Like me, like the woman from Iraq, these two women on a terrace so dedicated to their dead country.

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“I told him wish you were here, she says.  Why did I say that?”

“Because that’s how you feel.  Mary, you’re allowed your emotions.”

“If he was here he’d know every temple where Caesar was stabbed.  I think women a generation or two back were stronger.”

“Hey, we’re two powerful women — we put out the fire.”

“Safety first, ha!”

“This is fun.  More vino?!”

“We are having fun.”

“Be grateful for small things.  The here and now is important.”

“You’re wise.”

“Life isn’t over.  It’s a new chapter.  Life is a book.  And each chapter….”

“See in a marriage…well…he betrayed me.  But I’m more angry about the car than that woman.”

“Tell him you’re looking for someone.  Did you do that before?”

“Fool around?  No.”

“To grow.”

“No.”

“I did, I went to someone else.  I felt those feelings.  It scares me that I don’t care.  Is it because I’ve dealt with it?  It’s wonderful to feel that close to someone.  If I stumbled across her in a social setting, what does she look like, I don’t care.  It’s almost creepy.  It is creepy, a creepy creepy feeling.  Every day I wake up and expect it to change.”

“The Mole called me back.”

“Who?  Not him.”

“Turned me down, but he called me back.”

“You’re better off without him.”

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The woman’s last words make me wonder: in the long run, am I better off without Natasha?  I resist, but I need to believe this, need to take it in like an arthroscope to the knee.

Something in me can’t accept the finality, some part of me still wishes for contact, to hear of Natasha’s mother and father, the farm, her sisters.  “My dad’s youngest brother died, only 62; my poor dad, such a shock for him.  My crazy sister is okay, but her boyfriend bonked her on the head with his laptop and she’s depressed a bit.”

And I want to tell Natasha all my Italian news, I feel a wave at times, a physical command: lift the phone, click Reply on her last email.  But I have decided: no more.

It’s difficult, as we were so comfortable with each other; how to find that lost empire again in the stone mountains?  It seems impossible.  The anatomy of desire and the anatomy of loss – I have them mixed up in my sun-burnt head.   Brushing my right ear is the fever song of mosquitoes, then a mosquito frittering inside my ear, wanting my brain.  I smack my own head hard, then cry out, OW!  And Eve laughs at me: is such slapstick exactly what this mosquito aims for as evening entertainment?  Like me, the mosquito has a soft spot for the Three Stooges.  Rome’s hills and marble temples built above a marsh and winter mosquitoes felled an emperor.  In Trogir I leapt off a water-taxi to see a Norman fortress in palm trees and walked Malarjia Park.  In Rome we will devour delicious blood oranges and pray to Madonna della Febbre, the protectress of victims of malaria.

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At night in the hotel stairwell I bump into a thin blind man.  The blind man is shirtless and wields a long white cane, a slim stick, a pilgrim of sorts.  His pale wonky eyes aim into deep space.

“I’m above you on the steps,” I say.

“Are you with that group?”  His voice is assertive, angry about noise in our hotel.  Would I be so confident if I might fall down an open stairway?

He says, “I have a wife and a two year old trying to sleep.  Can you tell them to stop chit-chatting?”

He may mean a noisy group up on the roof.  I don’t know them, but I lie to the blind man, saying I will pass on his message.  Is it more of a sin to lie to a blind person?  Or is the sin pretty much the same?

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Eve and I are crossing manic streets like expat experts, we’re leveraging complex transactions in fruit market bedlam.  When was it I met the exiled woman from Iraq in a supermercato?  She told me later that I did something and she knew she could trust me, she told me that she can read people, was trained in it.

Was it posture, I wondered, how I clasped my hands?

She wouldn’t tell me what it was, but it was enough for her to believe in me.

I had no idea what I would learn about her family, her fiancé.  At the time she was simply someone interesting I met by chance, one of Iraq’s numerous exiles, Iraq coming to pieces and so many forced to become gypsies, wandering like brimstone butterflies, the first to appear after winter.

She worked in a hospital in Jordan after fleeing Iraq, liked her job and the people and the dialect was similar, but Jordan was overwhelmed by refugees from Iraq.  Every month she had to make her way to a police station and pay a monthly fee to stay legally in Jordan. The fee rose every month until it was too high for her to pay and she had to leave her job and had to leave Jordan and look for work in Italy.

She does not drink, is devout, well-schooled in the Koran, but she does not wear traditional garb, does not wear robes or a veil.  She can look very western in stylish jeans, makeup, nail polish, even a Mickey Mouse T-shirt if she is in a happy mood.

The woman from Iraq told me her father had kidney problems, she worried about him.  She said to me with a serious face, “Drink only water when you wake up and cleanse your kidneys.”  No one else speaks to me quite like this.  I enjoyed such times.  She was always very clean, concerned with health and hygiene.  At one café she wouldn’t sit on the seat cushions because they seemed dirty and she was used to better.

I bought her tea from Ceylon, Akbar big leaf, and one afternoon over tea I guessed her age.

“How did you know?”

I said I liked the henna tint in her hair and she asked, “How you know that word?”

“I know some things.”

Much of what I said seemed to surprise her.  I told her about Natasha and she did not approve.  “So she left after causing trouble with your marriage?”

“It’s not that simple.”

“No?”

She showed me the ring her brother gave her years ago.  “He loves me.  He is very handsome.  And in Iraq it is real gold, 21 karat, not like here, 10 or 11.  In the Middle East men don’t wear gold.  Only women.  Men don’t have earrings like here.  If men wear jewelry, or a lot of gold, we think, eh, no.”

She looks at my hand.  “There are no rings on your fingers?  All those years, did your wife not give you a ring in all those years?”

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The women’s voices continue on the next terrace.

“I fall for people.  You understand?  I fell into that trap.”

“Are you mad at me?  What I said about the Mole?”

“He was nice.  He’s ok.  He had the Asian wife.  He did seem interested in me.”

“He’s a microbe, a creepy little creep.  He had an affair with the cleaner, can you imagine, creepy, on the desk.”

“No.”

“Yes.  He’s a pervert.  She got pregnant.”

“Maybe that’s why he was so hot and heavy to get a vasectomy.”

“He’s a perv.  He has to send her cheques and his other wife has to get up at 5 a.m. to catch a bus and work at a factory.”

“She probably has no background.”

“Treat your spouse like that.  It’s unbelievable.  A perv.”

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I listen to the women and think, Now I have joined the club of those sending cheques, joined the club of those termed a perv.

The woman from Iraq says, “Everyone I meet here, divorced, separated, divorced, separated.  I think our system is better.”  She may have a point.  My drunken question to popular opinion: Why does the phrase “night falls on Rome” sound cool, but “morning falls on Rome” sounds clunky and wrong?

She doesn’t drink, but young males stagger our hotel halls shouting, MAKE SOME NOISE!  Rome has no history, Rome is a drinking binge with no parents to harass them.  They lug huge jugs of rotgut wine, yelling Yo Yo Yo Yo!

Young and loose and full of juice, drunk with what seems possible.  Their shop has not yet been bombed to rubble, to molecules.

In the Roman night someone is insisting over and over that she is not a hollaback girl.  My high room is well removed from the inebriated and industrious fray, but poor Tamika’s hallway is the epicenter of several open-door party rooms.

Eve walks by bent to her tiny clamshell phone, her face serious, saying, “She told me three of the drugs she was on.”

Tamika says, “I can’t get any sleep with their drunken racket.”

Father Silas says, “I’ll see what I can do,” and walks over to a noisy open door.

“You ain’t my daddy,” yells a drunken female voice inside, “and you sure ain’t ….”  And then the voice trails off, seemingly stumped, and we all wonder: what else is he ain’t?

Tamika does not like the drunkards, Tamika a lone wolf roaming Rome while the others seem blind to the ancient city, see Europe as a hotel, an outlet shop, a humongous nightclub.  They are the same age as Tamika, but she dismisses them with a world-weary wave.

“It’s so awesome here in Rome, but all they do is complain about everything, they bitch about the food, bitch about their room, bitch about walking through amazing cathedrals.  They complain if they have to walk uphill!  They bitch about having to look at Bernini’s marble and paintings by Caravaggio.”

Tamika mimics their voices: “It’s not fair!  You can’t tell me what to do.  This is boring.  I’m hungry.”  Tamika pauses for breath.  “Rome is not boring, they’re boring.”

From my backpack I dig out a tiny sealed bag from my days in a loud band: the baggie is not drugs, but a packet of disposable foam earplugs for Tamika.  Eve asks for some as well, worth a try to help her sleep and she is wary of depending on sleeping pills.

Tamika takes the earplugs a skeptical look on her face, and eases the door closed on the drunken mayhem.  She longs for sleep.

 .

My cousin Eve has an uneasy relationship with sleep, uneasy with Morpheus and Hypnos, the father and son team running our sleep and dreams.  I never know if she is awake or asleep, she has a night language, uses her hands to make a point or ask a question, wakes up laughing.  It’s odd to watch.  Eve dreamt the two of us were trying to find our way out of a city-sized department store and I fell down an open elevator shaft.

“People were running down stairwells to find you.  Is that a 9/11 dream?”

Is the blind man’s sleep a steep grey cinema?  Has he ever seen stars at night?  Can you imagine colours and faces and fields in your dreams if you are born blind and have yet to see colour or a face?  Can you dream light if you don’t know light?  When the blind man is in a better mood I must ask him.

To shutter my own eyes at night seems not always to deliver quietude; my sleep chaotic, unnerving, festive.  I close my eyes to a strange movie-house in my head, fragments and half-lit clips, an unseen projector constantly grinding.  A huge cast and the footage never stops.  I have no idea where these night films come from, but I like them.

.

“Someone called him, did you hear of the bomb downtown.  I begged him not to go.”

The woman from Iraq told me about her fiancé, though she did not tell me this part right away, it took her some time to get to the chapter of her fiancé.

“His business was in the bombed building, he wanted to see if his shop was hit.  Can’t you wait?  I had a bad feeling, I pleaded with him.”

Sorry, sweet one, he said, I must go see the damage; perhaps his shop would be spared, God willing.  His shop was his livelihood, his hope, their future, her fiancé was worried and he drove into town to see the damage.

The second bomb exploded later, timed to kill those who came to walk the rubble of the first bomb.  The second bomb exploded and her fiancé vanished and she was a widow without yet marrying.  As Trotsky said, You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

“He was good to me,” she stated calmly, “he was modern, he told my parents when asking for my hand that he didn’t mind if I wanted to go to school or have a career.”  The bomb was only months before, but she stared off speaking flatly.  It happened to someone else a long time ago in a world that no longer exists.

.

Thursday at dawn our art group rises grumpily to inspect the Sistine Chapel.  Father Silas has a connection, he knows an ancient Irish monsignor who arranges a select viewing, but we must arrive very early, before the mad throngs block the front of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Eve and Tamika crave more sleep and the party animals cradle monstrous hangovers from their dubious cooking wine.  For a few cents more decent plonk can be had, but they scoop up huge jugs of cheap cooking wine, amazed by bargain prices, but this is stuff the Romans don’t drink.  At dawn they feel the hurt big time, at dawn they can barely move, can barely text or kill aliens.

In my arms I once carried my dead dog from the street where it had been hit by a driver who did not stop: my dog’s beautiful brown eyes lost their light to a machine, the brown eyes had no depth, no engagement, no awareness.  Some in the group have that dead canine look as we shuffle down the block to Michelangelo and the vaulted ceilings of Sistine Chapel.

My head!  Man, why does this asshole make us go out so fucking early?  Who wants to see some stupid Listerine chapel?  Dude’s seriously harshing my mellow.  And we’re missing the coolest Shark Week like ever.  Got any Advil?  Man, I can’t deal with fizzy water, going to hurl.

Father Silas hates alcohol and some suspect he has made us rise early to punish those with piercing hangovers.  He reacts strangely when I happily tell Tamika that Eve and I found an “Italian American-style Irish pub” called Fairy Tales of New York, a great little underground bar.

“American and Irish and Italian?” asks Tamika, interested.  “What was that like?”

Before I can answer Tamika, Father Silas gets right in my grill.

“A place for American college students to get DRONK!” he shouts, his big reddening face in my face.

I want to say the pleasant arched cellar is not for drunken college students, but he won’t give me a chance.  Everyone I meet in the cellar is Italian, lives in the neighbourhood, and the young musicians are local.  But Father Silas hates any mention of pubs and pub-crawls and Rome is crawling with pub crawls, posters and ads everywhere; Father Silas is furious when he spots Ray-Ray in a souvenir T shirt from a pub-crawl that reads APPRENTICE ALCOHOLIC.

Ray-Ray complains to Eve.  “Man, why does he get so mad like that?”  Ray-Ray says, “I’m not a child.  I can travel and check into a hotel, he’d be surprised.  I can do all sorts of things.”  The younger people in the art group hate it when he lectures them on how to behave in Italy.

.

Father Silas may not win a popularity contest, but he finagles us past the giant lineups in front of St Peter’s, skipping mobs and security checks; his Irish connection in the palace of Popes pays off.  As early-birds we have time to check out the Sistine Chapel before the crowds arrive.  How many times have I joked about some half-ass project, Don’t worry, it’s not the Sistine chapel.  Now it’s the real article, now it is the Sistine Chapel!

Father Silas expertly guides our eyes through each brushstroke and painted image on the ceiling, nude bodies and fresco skies of pale pink, robin egg blue, pale canary yellow, Noah drunk and disgraced and martyrs and mild saints flung about hallucinatory heavens floating in this chamber.  I love it.  Grotesque figures and prophets lean out from high dizzy corners and sinners pulled to hell in this ecstatic artifice.

Noah a drunk!  News to me.

Don’t let Father Silas know, says Eve.

The guards yell at us, No fo-to!

A young German backpacking couple elbows me, pushing past me to cram closer to Father Silas and hang on every word; they are not in our group, but they are eager for Father Silas’s narrative of the Sack of Rome in 1527; our group couldn’t care if the Sack of Rome is in five minutes.

Eve nudges me, signals with her eyes at a bench where some of our disgruntled comrades perch: one art lover cradles his pained head in open hands, one holds his giant Dr. Dre headphones tight, one poor soul manages to tap out a text.  In the Sistine Chapel they are all looking down!  I will say this once and then let it go: the fucking Sistine Chapel and they can’t see, can’t lift their eyes to Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, blind to the arches and lunettes and miracles hovering above their dehydrated heads, blind to treasures floating over their trauma brains.

Above us God divides light from darkness and we linger in the centre of the chapel, Father Silas ecstatic, the longest visit he’s ever had here.  But as the room fills with travelers, guards spring up to move the crowd along the marble, to herd us to the exit.

“Keep moving.  No fo-to.”  Does the blind man know the chapel?  “Keep moving!  No fo-to.  Keep moving!  No fo-to.”

A woman from Delaware asks me, “Where is Noah?”  And I have the answer!  I show her the ark and his drunkenness and we chat easily, she charms me, looking me in the eye – how to describe that permission to engage her eye, the face, that magnetic connection?  But her tour group is gone from the tidal room and she worries she has lost them.

Bye! she says hurriedly, eyes still on my eyes.  Very nice talking to you, she says.

I want to say more: woman from Delaware, you seem important.  But what to say quickly that doesn’t seem lame?  I fail to utter key words and she vanishes from sight.  Sometimes I feel my own mind staring at me and judging like a separate person.  Delaware: I’m picturing a river, a green valley.

.

In the Vatican cafe Ray-Ray buys three sandwiches and three drinks and thirty Euro vanish in seconds; Ray-Ray puts it on plastic, does this over and over, Ray-Ray is always hungry.

A button on his tote bag says, I was Raised by a Pack of Wild Corn Dogs.  “Does the Vatican sell corn dogs?  I’d kill for a corn dog.”

I don’t know if the Vatican has corn dogs.  I will return from my travels to be murdered in the bath.  It is the 40th anniversary of the White Album; the Osservatore Romano says that the Vatican forgives John Lennon his “boast” that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus.

“Weird to drink beer in the Vatican.”

My parents loved the church and hated the Beatles.  I am going to get me religion, maybe I’ll start a church, the church of cold toast.  Natasha likes cold toast and cold butter, as I do.  No one else likes cold toast.  It’s a sign, she sank her nails into me, haunts me still.  Like Pompeii after the volcano, the shore altered.

.

Through marble halls and chambers we find our way and stumble outside to battle sunlight in our slit eyes, we are in the vast pillared piazza in front of St Peter’s Basilica, the floating dome, the silver spaceship, the mothership and its rows of myriad Doric pillars moving out like great arms enclosing a flat open space larger than a football field.

.

This is not the way we entered; this morning we slipped in the north side, and now we move under the church of churches, the rock of Peter.  Byron admired this view, this architectural marvel, Melville stood here, Goethe, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Jethro Tull.

“Are there any zombies in Rome?  Yeah, zombies in the Vatican!  That’d be a very cool movie.”

Ray-Ray yells “HEY” and runs across the space to question an Italian man who is missing one leg and has an amazing comb-over, his hairdo a monument to tenacity.

“Hey man, is it true about phantom limbs, that you get an itch in the limb that’s not there anymore?”

Non capisco.  He doesn’t understand English.

In the endless white light, in the corner of vision, a bear cub gallops through the forest of pillars.  The bear must be panicked, but it looks very cute: dark fur, a pale brown muzzle, outsize ears and that rolling stiff-legged lope past our hungover group, past Saint Peter’s, and barreling toward the sidewalk men selling leather purses and sunglasses.

“How did a bear get here in the city?” asks Eve.

Is there a gypsy circus camped in Trastevere or the Piazelle del Gianicolo?  The poor animal swiftly crosses a road, speeds down a narrow medieval passage and I can’t see it anymore.  People scatter before the bear cub, but some follow behind attempting shaky photos and videos.  A tiny blue police car joins the chase and when the men selling sunglasses see the police car, they gather up their squares of cloth and footstools and vanish, a form of magic.

“Oh shit, where’s my iPhone?” calls out one of our group, half of a star-crossed tragic couple who have fallen for each other on the trip, but are betrothed to others back home.  They spend much time in Rome pacing and staring at each other and exaggeratedly sighing like silent film stars.  “Did someone steal it?  I put it down for like five seconds max.  My mother’s going to freak!”

In Italy eyes are on us, waiting for the moment when we put down our laptop or briefly ignore our camera on the table.  The thieves love us.

Eve says she was mugged for her phone in Chile: she laughs telling us, says the man asked for her phone, looked at it, an old clamshell with a duct tape hinge, and handed it back to her, her phone not worth stealing.

“What’s it like to not have a phone?”  They ask me this with genuine curiosity.

Discarded phone cards litter the ground.  They are so afraid to not be connected; everyone staring at a tiny screen, that slow zombie walk, zombies in Rome.

Our hungover group walks away from the mothership’s giant field of pillars.  Taking our place, a new batch of amiable tourists line up to display their girth and sunglasses; we are all part of a giant art installation, the pure products of America abroad, trodding leather and considering miracles in marble and wondering about beer and lunch and dinner menus with no inkling that a cute bear cub rambled past us moments ago.

Ray-Ray stops me: “What kind of pants is this?”

He’s studying a woman swishing past in gold harem-pants; her walk has a pronounced twitch, her pants moving about her like shimmering drapes.

“Looks like MC Hammer.”

“Who?”

“You can’t touch this.”

“Touch what?”  He looks suspicious; what am I talking about?

With the harem-pants woman we try our limited Italian.  Dove un internet café?

There follow many speedy sentences and in seconds I’m lost.

Wait, non capisco.  Holdo, signora, parla lentamente per favore, lentamente, please speak slowly, I am a foreign simpleton in your speedy empires of talk.  Our group did not invent stupidity, but we are the latest visible practitioners.

.

My cousin Eve leans conspiratorially toward Tamika and says, “Those Italian men on the street!  Their eyes, they look right into your soul.”

Tamika mutters, “It’s not your soul they are after.”

Amore, amore.  Look at the eyes here, eyes like slow sunsets and foxfire and Friar’s lantern, eyes like the feral cats in the temple ruins, diamond-eyed cats after rats.

My eyes roam the world too, looking for stars held in a cupola, looking for the right person, a person who likely does not exist, like my childhood guardian angel, an ideal that may lead only to disappointment.  I’m not unlike the two women on the next terrace in that respect.

.

The promise of Rome and the promise of the Spanish blonde in the leafy hotel atrium, her adherence to smoke and water bottles; I work up my nerve for the question.  And I never do this.

“Would you, um, care to go out for dinner?”

“No,” she says too quickly.  “I’m having dinner with my friend when she gets off work.”  So Elena was expecting the question and ready to say no.  What is it like to believe in an anthem, I mean really belt it out?

I need a wee drink.  The others keep working away on vats of sweet wine.  In the laneway a few feet away a sweaty man with no shirt hits a motorcycle with a piece of wood, setting off a loud alarm.  The man tosses the piece of wood and casually lights a smoke to wait for the resulting beneficial social interaction.

His hope: someone will approach and fight.

Our hope: he will go away.

All our tiny wretched hopes like cartoon thought balloons over each block of Rome, multiply these across the city street-map, across the wide world, all these hopeless little balloons of our hopes, like markers on a board game, like hotels on Expedia.

We are not always pleasant, but we all have our tiny hopes.

.

The blind man wanders the stairways in search of culprits and the women’s voices continue on the next terrace.

“I asked that nun for the time.  In Italian.”

“We fit in.”

“We’re doing so well, we went right to the edge of our map!”

“No one would know we are tourists.”

.

Sun beats on our skin, leathers our lives of quiet desiccation, sun on lovely hours of fountain spray as Hotwire and Orbitz fight over my soul and then the strange lost look of my street before dawn.

Get some sleep behind scrolled blinds and rise late and the sun always there until it must enter the horizon like a burning airship and a million emails jetting out to everyone in the world say A Special Offer Just for YOU! and at dusk swallows circle and blur in a mosquito frenzy and in her famous T-shirt my cousin walks out in the garden of green parrots just before rains sweep in from some distant sea.

The Italian man has eyes.  As do I.  I resent him as cousins might.

“It’s so cozy here,” says Eve.  “I love the sound of the rain.”

Night and the light on Eve’s face may change your mind about the world.  I have to gaze, to compensate for the blind man who can’t see her.  Behind the city a wall of rain like green glass, like some remnant of hurricane season.  She climbed above me in the fig tree and I was allowed a vision of her muscled legs and beyond, I see Paris, I see France, I dream of her at the beach, half nude at the shore, her freckled skin so lovely, to live inside it, to kiss her in the eelgrass, light under the harbor swell like light inside a fountain, to see her at the sea where she is almost naked with strangers, but I never go with the group to the beach, it is too scorching or I am not inspired.

Perhaps I’m a winter person, a touch of winter in me always.  I should drop everything and be a ski bum in the blue glaciers before they melt and vanish, I could work on the hill, work as a liftie putting skiers on the Angel chairlift.

Eve knows the mountains and resorts, says, “No, don’t quit your day job.  Being a lift-operator is a killer on the back and people are always falling over and poking you with their ski poles.  Definitely join a band.  Chicks dig that.”

The lifties use shovels to level the snow where skiers load on the chairlift, like shoveling coal, and Eve says at shift’s end they’d set their ass down in the scoop shovels and race each other in shovels to the bar at the bottom of the mountain.

.

God is irritable, God recently gave up cigarettes.  At our subway stop I let Eve and Tamika step out first, but the doors close hard on my arms as I step out just after them.  Why do the subway doors attack me when I was so chivalrous?  Perhaps the gears and sensors know something of my true nature, gods alive in our machines and devices.  I must have offended the elders of the internet, a major disappointment to You Tube.  I need to learn to love technology, must dab datum on me like cologne from a dollar store.

.

In the neighbourhood café Francesco knows our faces and gives us free morning coffee.  Angelo, the aged hotel owner, joins us for a late breakfast.  Eve picks up an espresso and an Italian newspaper.

“Tell me, Marco,” Angelo says to the American intern.  “Is it true that Americans eat donuts for breakfast?  That is wrong.”  But for his breakfast Angelo fills a sweet croissant with whipped cream and chocolate Nutella.

Angelo says he used to know the Vatican crowd, but no more.  I assume those men he knew are dead now (and there rose a pharaoh that did not know Angelo).  He doesn’t look that old, but Marco says that Angelo is over eighty; he never stops working on his hotel, moving walls, refurbishing rooms, digging a cellar.

Eve and Tamika run off to a pro-choice rally gathering in front of Pope Rat’s place at St. Peter’s; Angelo finishes his whipped cream and Nutella and leaves; Marco lowers his voice to tell me of an old friend of Angelo’s at the hotel.

“The man paid me cash for three different rooms.  Seventy years old if he’s a day.  He books the rooms for four hours and I swear five different women showed up.”

.

I wonder if the noisome couple in the next room paid by the hour, the minute, or down to the second.  Or hotel staff who know it to be free?  Or was it Angelo’s old friend with his harem?  Does his harem wear shimmering harem pants?

.

Every hotel, every guest house, every B&B, has offered me “an arrangement” to pay cash.  No receipt, but the room costs much less.  I find it hard to say no as it saves me so much, hundreds easily, perhaps thousands given enough weeks or months.  Factor in millions of tourists wheeling luggage down Europe’s cobblestones and dropping cash only and one sees why lawmakers and accountants have such trouble chasing their cut of the haul.  As a spoiled North American I am so used to plastic, but cash is king here and my best deals are off the books.

.

Marco’s work at the hotel has to do with the books; Marco’s task is to nudge the hotel into the computer age.  The French woman still consults a huge old-fashioned ledger book with our names and reservations written by hand.  Marco is setting up a computer.  Businesses in Italy often need two sets of books; after Marco is done, will the hotel need two sets of computers?

God enriches, but cash is king, so we all must stash envelopes of cash, cash on my person or hidden in my room, more cash than I am comfortable carrying or hiding.

.

Eve’s purse was stolen from her hotel room a year before; she found a small footprint in a flowerpot on her balcony and her bag tossed to the next balcony.  Luckily, the young thief missed Euros she had hidden in the WC.  The art historian’s phone lifted as he walks a crowded street, a religion teacher’s wallet eased from his front pocket on the bus, a beatnik backpacker swarmed by children, turning and turning, a dizzy whirligig to keep their nimble fingers from his pack pockets, and a pink rental car stolen as a woman from Banff opened the car door for the first time, she possessed the car for seconds and it was gone.

.

Marco and Eve traveled to the police station to interpret for the hotel’s American family who lost a ring handed down from a great-grandmother, lost blown glass from Venice.  A sweltering night, an open window or balcony door.  The police type up a report, but what can they do, a waste of ink.

Who expects someone from the roof?  In all corners of Europe such a complex economy dotes on our purloined phones and cameras and we oblige, we carry cash, wallets and laptops, and we deliver them to the thieves.  How they long for us like lost lovers in their damp winter and each year we come back like the blossoms of spring.

.

Angelo had to sack an employee who lit rubbish on fire in a stairwell; the employee hated the guests, the noisy party animals, and he wanted to get off work early.  So a fire against the exit door is the answer.  Could he be the hotel thief?  Or is it the blind man, bounding like a cat across the roof?

.

Father Silas tells our group a farmer’s daughter joke.  And Natasha sent me email from her parents’ farm in northern B.C.  Why did I not think of this all these years: Natasha is a farmer’s daughter.  I broke off contact with the farmer’s daughter, for my own well-being, but every day I have a physical urge tell her what I see in Italy.

In Canada Natasha said we must stay in contact, an unbearable empty place if we stop talking, a huge hole in both our lives.  She said those words, admirable thoughts.  But in her life, in her distant city, she has someone there to turn to, to say she had a bad day, to say, He’s really upset, I just don’t know what to tell him.  She can say to say to someone, Let’s go out for a drink, can say later, Hey, love you so much.

..

Irena the chambermaid greets me, Come ve?  She does not ask, Come stai.  Is she being formal with me as a hotel guest?  Irena is always so friendly with me.  Is she just as friendly with the others?  I want her to like me.  She wears cargo pants with numerous pockets to hold cleaning gear, waistband low on her belly from weighted pockets and pulled tight on her round rear.  Irena’s shirt rides up as she cleans the room and I notice a puckered scar on her belly like a hieroglyph, a story scripted in a scar.  In her supple hands a large sheet rises and settles as if on a breeze: her levitating art.

Come stai? I ask.

Sto male.  She is sick.  But she is working anyway.  Maybe she caught whatever Ray-Ray had when he arrived from China.  Some afternoons I see the chambermaids walk away from work in their street clothes, altered in their clothes, happy to be free on the sunny avenue, happy to be free of us.

 “I hope you feel better,” I say.  She nods.

Irena leaves the sex room, Eve leaves Italy like a merry sleepwalker, “Excuse me,” says Our Lady of Madrid, “I must go.”  Soon all leave the city, the mountain frontiers, leave Europe’s stone quarters and catacombs, say goodbye to the orchards and marble excavations.

..

It seems so long ago that Natasha phoned after silence to say there was someone else.  I knew something was wrong, but did not know what.  I was married to the sound of her voice, talking to each other when she was almost asleep, part of something beautiful and spooky and rare and rich, but part of nothing now, and another woman in a doorway or an airport says, I’d hate to lose touch with you, you know I love you in so many ways, who says, It’s been wonderful.  My half-buried past, my layered Pompeii, my quiet buried city.

That day my faith was tested.  Phil Ochs in exile from Ohio, kicked out of Dylan’s car, no more songs and the rope on the pipe beckoning.  The snake handler’s look of disbelief as he died in his own church, as he recalibrated his idea of being exempt from the fang.

I KNOW I AM NOT SPECIAL: I must repeat this until it sinks into my head like a spike into a rotten log.  Exiled from dopamine, from the snowshoes of yesteryear, I tape a piece of white paper to a mirror: For sleep, riches and health to be truly enjoyed, they must be interrupted.

.

On a map I showed her Canada, showed the woman from Iraq where I grew up.  She is well educated, but has rarely seen a map with Canada.  And America there right below Canada.

“They have has so much space; why did they want to invade our country when they have so much land?”  She peers at the map with utter puzzlement.

The billion dollar question: why did Bush and cohorts invade the wrong country?  Oil an easy answer or they got their Auto Association maps mixed up.  Or rumours say the invasion was revenge for an earlier plot by Hussein to kill Dubya’s father, George Bush, Senior.

“Bush is in town; you could ask him.”

“Bush is here?  Where?  I’ll go see him.  Did you see him smiling on the aircraft carrier, he was so happy while we suffer.  Bush is always talking of terror.  My brother is not a terrorist.  I am not a terrorist, I want to hurt no one.  He has killed more than anyone else in the world.  Will someone hunt down Bush and hang him on a rope?”

The woman from Iraq is very charitable, she is not anti-American, has relatives in Chicago and wonders about moving to live there.

“I hate no one,” she says, “but I hate that man.  When they threw a shoe at Bush, I was glad.”

I do wonder about Bush, what he really thinks.  “Did you ever see your Mustang again?”

“Oh no, nothing was left.”

Blow upon blow, her pleasant world dismantled by this man Bush, her fast American car transformed into a tin can, her brother kidnapped and dumped in the desert in plastic cuffs, her mother going mad with worry, her fiancé dead in the rubble, her happy life stolen by a thief.  And the banner on the aircraft carrier:  Mission Accomplished.  After meeting her, I swear I’ll never complain again.

Her mother misses her bright laughter in the house, now the house is quiet, but for the noisy generator running outside the house; the power off and on since the invasion, so they must run a generator in the yard.

“I was always laughing then,” she says.  “Now I only laugh with you.”  And somehow we do laugh a lot.  Our odd connection.

She says her mother needs to go to the hospital, but the power grid is so damaged that doctors are afraid to start any complicated surgery for fear the lights will go dark while a patient is cut open.  She grew up in a prosperous, stable country, her father a professor, but now it is too dangerous for him to leave his home and risk the roadblocks where someone in a mask may execute you if you say the wrong word or drive the wrong part of the city.

She misses driving her car in Baghdad.

“Was your Mustang fast?”

“Oh yes.  I’m not a crazy driver, but on the highway one must go fast.”

Marco convinces Angelo to lend me a two-door Fiat so I can take her for a spin and let her drive a car once more.  I am nervous in Rome’s traffic.  Sniffing Rome’s oily exhaust, she claims the petrol in Iraq is so pure that her car’s exhaust was sweet as perfume.  Before the war every road was brightly lit and the roads smooth and broad, not so narrow as here.

“Summer must be hot in the desert.  You must need air conditioning.”

“Desert?  Iraq is not desert.  There is a river, how can that be desert?  There are plants, a hundred varieties of dates and olives, such flavours.”  She is offended.  “Iraq was a great civilization.  Why do you say desert?”

Sorry, but on TV with the rolling tanks and dust it looks like desert.  When her car was too hot in the Baghdad sun she kept a special aerosol spray in her purse to cool the hot metal so she could touch the car door without burning her hand.

Sipping leafy tea, we chat and laugh and by accident I discover my power over her: if I reach out in conversation, touch her shoulder or neck, the woman from Iraq swoons, falls into some half-awake state, not used to touch from a male who is not a cousin or betrothed.

I ask, Has this happened with anyone else?

No one else has touched me, but you and my fiancé.  How you do that?

I don’t know; it’s never happened before.

Please don’t right now, I want to go out, I don’t want to be sleepy.

I touch her and her knees buckle, but she acts as if it is normal to have such power.  She casually asks me to be careful.  Yes, I will be careful.  I have the strangest life.

She asks me, “In Chicago, are there many blacks?  I’ve heard there is work in Chicago, but it has many blacks.”  She worries about blacks.  “They scare me,” she confides.

“Winters can be cold in the Windy City,” I say, “and you’re used to the heat.”

“Yes,” she says, “I don’t know how you go outside in that cold.  You whites are tough!”

I get an inordinate kick out of being called a white.  I put my arm by her arm and her skin is lighter than the skin on my tanned arm.

The woman from Iraq jumps at any noise, even the sound of feet running on stairs in her building.  I strum a quiet Townes Van Zandt song on guitar and she says, “That’s nice, soft music.”  She can’t listen to loud rock or rap, she can’t take bright light, must wear her big sunglasses.

At night she wakes from nightmares, has a frightening nightmare immediately after telling me the story of her fiancé and his bombed shop, her eyes closed in sleep she relieves the scene and I feel guilty for bringing on the nightmare.  Any noise in a room above, a shoe dropping or a door slamming and she jumps in panic.  I’m no physician, but these seem classic symptoms of trauma.  The young American soldier in the graveyard may suffer from the same set of ailments, the war that always follows the war.

Odd that I meet both in Italy, two brains creased slightly by trauma, two brains moving through train stations of beautiful flowering vines and thuggish teens.

I heard this mother and daughter weep on the phone when a connection worked.  Often her phone rang briefly and then went dead.  I bought her time at a grubby internet café.  She told her mother all was well in Rome, she didn’t want her mother to worry.

We’ll talk soon, she said to her mother, God willing.  She often ends sentences with this careful phrase: God willing.

“If there is a God,” I commented once.

“No if!” she said.  “No if.  Believe me, there is a God.”

But is it the same God George Bush believes in?

She has such faith in God, that God will look after her, but she must sell the gold ring from her handsome brother who loves her, she must enquire into jewelry or coin shops.  She can’t understand why this has happened, her father trapped in his eerie house, the old land of Persia laid low, his daughter exiled in a strange land, an orphan who is not an orphan, a widow who is not a widow, Babylon destroyed and giant tanks lumbering through the garden, tanks in the garden where we began as Adam and Eve.  Then Adam and Eve forced to pack their bags, exiled to a less fashionable suburb.

.

The woman from Iraq’s last email to me: Happy Birthday, I wish you the best wishes, I hope I’m the first one who remember your birthday, have a nice day and might be when I have time will do it again coz I will be busy tomorrow, have fun and wish you the best.

Her name translates as some kind of desert blossom.  And like her fiancé, she vanishes as if never there, like an ancient civilization, like dew leaving a blossom as the sun rises.  No answer on her phone, no reply to email, no answer to a knock at her door.  Weeks went on and I finally received email from her, but it was spam, her email account hacked.  I see her name, but it is not really her, she has been taken over, a regime change.

At a hockey arena in Canada I once heard a man say, “My truck’s got the same tranny as a tank in Eye-rack.”  I never thought I’d meet someone who’d been crushed by an Abrams tank in Iraq.  I hope the woman from Iraq finds a home, perhaps with her relatives in Chicago, a quiet home in the world.

.

Bush stands on an aircraft carrier in his flight jacket and Father Silas sits in his curtained hotel room where I drop by to return a book on art in Naples.  Out of the blue Father Silas tells me that his favourite sister is a serious addict.

“She wakes up each morning and it’s a fight to not have a drink, not use something.  I’ve seen it firsthand.”

So Father Silas detests levity about staggering drunks or stoners and he loathes people profiting from giant pub crawls.  My eyes open: so this is why he is always angry at the group’s moronic drinking, so angry at Ray Ray’s APPRENTICE ALCOHOLIC pub crawl t-shirt, this is why he got in my face about the Italian American Irish pub.

“I worry some in the group will be on that same road because of Rome and I don’t want to encourage it.  That boy from Madison, blotto every night, but he makes it for every class or trip, up wearing dark shades in the morning.  He’s coping, which is a bad sign.  I don’t want something like that to start on my watch.”

What about me, am I also coping on his watch?

If he told the group about his sister they might understand his anger, not dismiss him as a Puritan out to kill the party, to ruin Italy for them.  Can one hold up a sign?  My sweet baby sister is a heavy duty addict; please cut me a little slack.

.

“More vino?”

“Yes please.”

“I like to do a good thing now.  Like today at the elevator, so they think about it and pass it on and it keeps going.  It makes my day, it really makes my day.”

“A good feeling.  I think I’m getting to that.”

“Mary, You’re almost there.”

“95%?”

“No.”

“91?”

“No, 80.”

“Only 80, only 80.”

“Sorry I’m so mean, I’m terrible, but Mary, I couldn’t lie to you.”

.

Go ahead and lie, I think on my terrace, please lie to Mary.  For fuck’s sake, tell her she is 90%.

.

A lightning storm hangs over the mountains, an x-ray shudder, a heart attack of bleached light, then the world brought back to dark purple, back to now, a form of time travel, two worlds at once.  Near our high terrace an invisible dog speaks in an urban cave and the barking echoes into every neighbourhood wall.  Which window or room is the dog?  The woman from Iraq was not used to dogs; in Iraq they are stray curs or guard dogs, associated with fangs or power, not a favoured pet in your bedroom.

Eve loves animals, bends to address every dog and cat she spies.  This invisible dog speaks to something in the night and the two women on the next terrace speak their lines to the night as if in a play and I hear every word, yet my eyes never know their keen faces.  Now I stop, now I close my terrace door on their secret mix of bonhomie and sadness.

.

We all believe we have a corner on sadness.  In our Jetson future perhaps sorrow will be valued as a renewable resource.  The immense power of sorrow will light our giant glass houses and pay the tab for our therapy and plastic surgery.  In our jeremiad Jetson future they will mine our misery the way we frack the earth for shale gas pinned there like a cage wrestler.  Our sorrow will fuel beautiful sports cars and sleek machines to Mars, our sorrow will employ our children’s nannies and reverse invasions and rescue the Euro and make shuddering markets rise in joy, our reliable sources of sorrow will make brokers rejoice and smile champagne smiles behind their complex buzzers and floodlit gates and blank limos.

.

An animal speaks, a piano echoes tidy counterpoint, and my small room sways above you in lightning, orbiting in a beautiful Roman sky, and the blind man walks our clean halls with his clicking white stick: Will you please ask them to be quiet!

He can’t stop the raucous partiers, those who drink themselves blind.  I close my eyes and see Eve at the black sand beach in the bay under the volcano, her pale form stretched to the black sand – like looking at a negative.  The blind man wanders eternally, I expect him to carry a lantern at noon, Diogenes searching the halls for an honest man, Diogenes searching the deck of an aircraft carrier lurking in the gloom offshore.

I walk down the stairwell with my eyes shut, I feel I owe the blind man that much, but on the stairs I fail, I have to look.  Train your eye, he seems to suggest, see better, live better.

I will try.  We try on mysterious shoes, have mysterious offspring.  One child wants to be a priest, one wants to be a pirate.  Like the snake-handler, and like me, Adam and Eve felt exempt from the fang.  Something changed.  We sin and are forgiven, we fly to and fro, we are on earth, then we are in the heavens, then we are not, we are on earth, then we are back in the silent cup of stars, then we are not.

In this world tiny things make me irritable and tiny things make me greatly happy.  Like a stone in my shoe, like stars inside a chapel ceiling, or my high window in the night sky, its glass moon shape, and moonlight over arched doorways and ivory rooftops, moonlight making shapes seem profound and unearthly, but only for those who have a moment, this staggering light so secretive and brief and only for you and me.

—Mark Anthony Jarman

/

Mark Anthony Jarman is a short story writer without peer, heir to a skein of pyrotechnic rhetoric that comes from Joyce and Faulkner and fuels the writing, today, of people like Cormac McCarthy and the late Barry Hannah. He edits fiction for a venerable Canadian magazine called The Fiddlehead which, in the 1970s, published some of my first short stories (and another story is coming out in the summer, 2011, issue). Jarman has written a book of poetry, Killing the Swan, a hockey novel, Salvage King Ya!, four story collections, Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, New Orleans is Sinking, 19 Knives, and My White Planetand nonfiction book about Ireland called Ireland’s Eye. “Exempt from Fang” will appear in Jarman’s forthcoming short story collection Knife Party at the Hotel Europa (Goose Lane Editions, 2015).

 

Nov 092014
 

Bruce StoneBruce Stone

 

This is gonna hurt a little. The shooter mouths these words in a hush, the syllables squashed and slurred, just coded exhalations of cotton mouth and brimstone, aimless as smoke rings, not quite turned to purpose vis-à-vis the face of the woman behind the plate glass. With one hand beyond the shooter’s line of sight, she’s got a death grip, he knows, on the handle of the guard door, all of the blue veins bulging wildly, desperate to halt his ingress.

His mother.

The fact that she’s raving registers in the foremost aperture of the shooter’s consciousness, but the knowledge remains wadded in the gauze of déjà vu, as if all of this had happened long ago, as if he’s peering through the telescope of the rifle barrel into memory. At this range her face appears to dilate, a slab of putty warped and seething, patches of psoriasis like chemical burns. The jowls saw violently, their imperative thrust and grind arresting, almost hypnotic, muted behind the glass, flab corkscrewed in a snarl, of a sudden erupting in batshit contortions that send the button-mole rollicking on the lip. She pauses, maybe to let the upshot of the words sink in, tongue lazing in the dry salvage behind the parted teeth, as if she’s mouth-breathing, panting, then the whole arrangement snaps again into motion, head weaving on its stalk, lashes thrumming distress signals through the bite and wheeze of her harangue.

A little girl, still clutching in her hand the tardy slip she has recently been issued but will never need again, stares balefully in the background of this silent movie.

From her post behind the counter, the woman must have spotted the shooter as he approached, all kitted out and badass as hell, striding down the hall like the second fucking coming about to descend upon the cringing hostiles of Gilbert S. Lance Elementary. This is no exaggeration. The shooter doesn’t need to pad the record of his legend—that was strictly for amateurs, conduct unbecoming. Because even agitated, even with every nerve blazing, a shooter manages to retain his self-prepossession, his lethal cool. Take the boots, for example. The shooter had no quarrel with the boots, the boots were optimal, heavy clawed and steel-toed, black as carbonized lead, adding a bit of thump and tremor, a bit of menace and mayhem to his customary mincing steps. Sure, they hobbled the shooter just enough to make him self-conscious of each footfall, the secret-guarding clench of his scrawny buttcheeks, but the new consciousness, this had its special pleasures, its novel advantages.

The plugs too contributed a fresh note of terror, a spike of the demonic, to the horrorshow of his birth-defective ears—the top ridges bowed-out and down-curled awnings of flesh, pale, waxy and crimped like the ears of bats—which he often contemplated self-doctoring with a penknife (the first incision had hurt like a motherfucker, the wound had healed badly). And he couldn’t hear a goddamn thing! Almost. At times, the shooter could discern bubbles of muted sound stirring in his head. But if the shooter is being honest, if the shooter is to make a scrupulous real-time account of his glory blaze, the Kevlar didn’t really fit all that great. When the shooter had checked his assembled image in the mirror at home, the Kevlar looked—no two ways about it—like nothing so much as the too-big life jacket, clunky and unwieldy, his mom had strapped on him long ago, snapshot at the beach, that save-me! fluorescent orange and mom’s plausible smile and the skittish waves dissolving in retreat under his pitiless child’s gaze. Initially, the shooter had been of two minds vis-à-vis the donning of the armor, but eventually, the shooter had conceded to necessity and suited up. A shooter needs to make allowances if he’s gonna leave a mark.

So maybe the shooter had looked a little ridiculous, shambling with his tight-assed stride in his too-clompy boots and his too-big vest, shoulder-strap fanny-pack for an ammo pouch, this gangly monster lurching toward his mom, burning with a savage pride, as if to show her the awful thing that she’d wrought. On the outside, maybe a bulky, ill-fitting carapace. But on the inside, the shooter was all valor, a warlord dipped by the toe, headfirst, in gods’ brew. The shooter felt gold-plated, bulletproof.

When the shooter squeezes the trigger of the AK, the weapon rumbles spasmodically in his grip, and the cheek-to-stock weld gives. Muffled soundtrack. General sense of catastrophe. Three maybe four bullets leak out at a rate of 2300 feet per second, so impact is more or less immediate. The plate glass explodes in winking weightless shards, in the same instant the woman’s face is wiped clean of all humanity, shredded and dripping gore even before the body has time to discompose and fall. Just behind the corpse, the little girl, blonde hair, daisy hair band, cowers by the counter, one arm raised above her head, the hand gripping the ledge as if for support, shelter, her mouth torn open, eyes tight shut— posture of a scream which wilts and oozes through the rubber bulbs of the plugs, finding a home.

Bye, Ma, the shooter thinks, surprised to discover that he feels almost nothing, no regrets, no remorse, hardly a soupçon of joy. The shooter takes stock, peruses the collateral damage to the far wall, plaster pocked with holes in a simple pattern like a check mark. The wall clock, unfazed, carves notches in the wheel of time. Lightly, just a click, hardly more than a toggle bump, the shooter fingers the trigger again.

*

The shooter had expected bedlam to ensue. The sound of the weapon must have echoed all up and down these halls, but the architecture remains eerily becalmed, guarding secrets. No gym teachers come bounding down the passageways like apocalypse zombies with whistles and buzzcuts to meet the hero’s welcome of his AK muzzle. No teary kids make wild dashes for the exits, heads down, denim soiled, eyes agog. No creeping janitor crepitates behind the moving target of his wheeled garbage can. The place is solemn, charged with disapproval, silent and still as the ghost town that it’s becoming. The only downside to the plugs is that you can’t really hear anything except the slosh and gurgle of your own life’s essence. Probably barricading doors, the shooter thinks. Probably trying windows. Probably planning getaways.

In days after, the shooter knows, people will try to rationalize what has transpired. They will speculate, the shooter knows, they will probably besmirch his good name, say the shooter’s got some mental defect, like a retard, like that half-wit Purdy who couldn’t shoot his way out of a wet paper bag, who couldn’t shoot to save his life on his birthday, the imbecile. No, the shooter, by dint of raw shooting prowess, would set the record straight. He had all his marbles in the bag. He was way smarter than they gave him credit for. It’s like that, the shooter thinks, draping the AK athwart his body, letting the muzzle for the moment fall.

The shooter is on the move now, a methodical sweep of the corridor, past the aluminum drinking fountain and the bathroom doors—boys, girls—behind which extend the banks of mirrors in which all of the heartache concentrates, all suffering comes to a head. Backpacks on coat hooks line the walls in paralleling recession; at the far end of the hall, the terminus, the distant citadel, the glass bands of the exit doors. In the first room along the inward wall—a notational 2 engraved on its name-plate—darkness obtains. The shooter awards no bonus points for quick thinking, but resolves instead to grant a modest life extension for the hostiles in Room 1 while he storms in to teach the switch-happy occupants of Room 2 a proper lesson. He turns the handle—unlocked!—and boots the door in with a bang. Inside, rafts of anemic daylight stream through the blinded windows, so the shooter moves in the half-light, gliding past the Tetris blocks of desks —wee, they were, toy, sad composite things of sandboard and tin—like a proper Brobdingnagian, a giant loosed upon the puny villagers, fucking Godzilla in Kevlar. The shooter doesn’t so much see the occupants as feel them, crouching there by the back wall, beside the reptile tank where a benumbed box turtle lies prostrate under a heat lamp. The kids aren’t yet hyperventilating, their faces not yet streaming with the terror of recognition, the abomination of knowledge. Probably think he’s just fooling. The teacher knows. She knows the shooter. She’s seen him with his mom about town, at the PDQ, the Target, in the school parking lot, haggling over car keys, gazing impassively into the torture-chamber of memory. She’s not talking yet, not yet negotiating for the lives of her charges. Because maybe she thinks that the shooter will lose his nerve. Maybe, she thinks, the shooter won’t have the juice to pull the trigger. Maybe she thinks the shooter lacks follow-through.

She’s crouched at the head of her phalanx of charges, arms spread in a V behind her, protectively, a human shield in creased slacks and white top with a bowing lunar rim. From her neck a spirographic cross dangles meekly on a chain. Above the cleavage. That’s what it’s called. The boy most immediately abutting her armpit fidgets and shifts, his body quaking in a soccer jersey, probably from the Target, and the shooter peers directly into the puffing muzzle of his doughy face which catches the window light and shines. Bangs shorn unevenly, as if he did it himself, tiny unfocussed eyes, melon-headed… Mongoloid, the shooter allows, the boy’s mouth drawn in a permanent grin, a cheerful smear of lips about which nothing could be done, as if even mortal terror were a goddamn treasure, a special treat that he alone could divine. Well, shiit, the shooter thinks, rapidly parsing the faces massed behind the apparently untouched-in-the-head teacher. Black girl in looping pigtails, triple-thick lenses in her glasses, goofiest set of buckteeth the shooter has ever beheld. The cagey, guarded boy—is he ooomphing?—sort of squirting with pent-up noises that make advances on the tombal silence welling behind the plugs—eyes all pupil, pitchdark eyes, betokening some kind of defect, a grade of autism. And then the scrawny little rat with the food—cupcakes?—gumming up his face, and the shooter thinks, Well, shiiit, because he’s ambushed maybe the shiniest crop of mooncalves in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Not exactly propitious.

The shooter cottons, through the plugs, more a matter of motion than sound, that the teacher is negotiating now. If the shooter has to say so himself, he’s a pretty decent lip-reader, and he thinks he discerns the words special needs, this with an imploring arch to the eyebrows. He definitely catches the upshot of Please They don’t understand. The teacher’s eyes spit tears down her beefy face, but she doesn’t betray any of the other signs, facial gestures and whatnot, indicative of terror. Almost reluctantly, as if disdainfully, with his bionic gamer’s trigger finger he flips the lever on the stock from full to semiauto. Reconsiders. Full. And then he empties the clip in the vicinity of the reptile tank, AK erupting with seismic gutturations, sizzling fury, spraying fire like deliverance, and high above the carnage, as if from a vast distance, the shooter tallies up the damage, the bodies felled instantly, pitted and broken, poses of agony, blood seep steady and silent, the vanished turtle maybe amazed, in the moment before death, at the sensation of being airborne, vacuumed all at once out of captivity, liberated. In the new-forged calm, the stench rises as a single unit, a solitary integer of sewage-smell, and from that toxic bubble of putrefaction the shooter reckons that one or more of the victims have been gutshot, maybe the black girl there, the shooter considers, lowering his weapon, placing the free hand over his nose and mouth, drawing now the brimstone scent of his own slick palm. Total annihilation, the shooter reckons, craning for some sense of satisfaction, but finding just this pique of attention, this novel awareness. He hadn’t anticipated that the splintering of bone would be quite so VISIBLE, that the split of flesh might expose to the air the clean white edge of the MANDIBLE, and should the wounds be fucking SMOKING like that? And the shooter watches them, wisps of smoke rising like party streamers from the gory sinkholes of the impact wounds, and the shooter considers that maybe he overdid things with the Silverbullet Gun Oil beforehand, embarrassed snort of pride fizzing in his palm, but above everything, the shooter in a figurative sense drops to a knee and sort of bows in honor of the awful responsibility, the dread beauty of the directive, Leave no living thing alive.

*

The shooter proceeds methodically, unhurried, sweeping room to room with a dreamlike slowness, and as in a dream the rooms are uniformly darkened and uninhabited. You’ve got to be shitting me, the shooter thinks. He stops booting in doors (which don’t give much anyway, what with the hydraulic safety catches), just cracks them open and peeks inside, standard reconnaissance. On one polished floor, a wide circle like a clock face with twenty-five hours of geometric shapes: triangle, square, repeating red circle. Strung from the drop ceiling, threaded for display on a length of catgut, a population in effigy, watercolor parade of childhood self-imaging: elephantoid faces in pinks or browns, heavy puddles of hair like a crude graphic language, target-range eyes (pupils drowning in irises), and no renderings of any ears, but always the same menacing smile of irregular white teeth. In the ineluctable sweep of his ken, the shooter detects just one locus of actionable movement: a lightweight cage of cloth and mesh aquiver with tortoiseshell butterflies, husks of cocoons still dangling like detonated ordnance from the roof. The shooter considers the tactical pros and cons, but opts to save the ammo, and he positions the contraption on the floor amid the scraps and the drool and the curled catgut, and he raises his heavy combat boot and stomps the fluttery creatures to dust. His progress takes him all the way to the far end of the corridor, where he pauses by the exit doors. In the schoolyard, the playground equipment—monkey bars, funhouse slide, six swings on a steel pole—should be posing, by now, under keening skies, for the still-life documentation that will accompany tomorrow’s hashtags. But the yard seems merely vacant, vacated, unregarded, disused. The ball field grass needs mowing, and farther on, in the street opposite, where abandoned houses belly down against the earth, a lone sedan backs out of a driveway on an errand of an ordinary Tuesday. The shooter taps his rifle muzzle on the door handle.

The shooter heeds the rage welling within him, the shooter teeters, if he’s being honest, on the verge of freaking out, but he practices self-soothing techniques, massaging his testicles with the rifle stock, rocking his hips fore and aft, imaging carnage behind closed eyes. The shooter steadies his nerves, homes in on the pressure lodged in his pooper. The shooter projects an outward calm. This was probably the hard part, the shooter observes, this just keeping your wits about you in the absence of targets. The shooter concentrates on the massive burr in his body cavity, clenches tight, commends his own foresight in his delicate arming for the war. Strange, though, how the rifle’s weight has begun to wear. When the shooter had arrived, parting the school doors with that newfound air of authority and purpose, a monster on a mission, everything had seemed weightless—the rifle, the Kevlar, the boots scarcely touching the ground but falling into lockstep with the strides of his admirable but incompetent predecessors—the pussy in Connecticut, the cartoon-crazy Korean at the college who shot way more footage than liberal-arts majors, of course the Joker and Purdy and the wacko Laughner and the Columbine kids. The only one with a proper sense of style, the only one who understood the true gravity of the shooter’s burden, was that Norwegian ubermensch with his Uzi and his hollowpoints and his fucking nice Scandinavian hairdo and his steely Viking-love-letter aplomb. Course, even he failed to plan tactically for the endgame, to formulate some viable EXIT STRATEGY, and besides, his legacy was irreparably compromised, his shooter’s cred regrettably squandered, subsumed by a petty geopolitical ambition. Because, the shooter thinks, can you really imagine a political solution to all this? (Here, the shooter gestures broadly with his mind, taking in everything from the furred clouds to the tract housing to the mildewed wavelets of the great lake.) But all this notwithstanding, as the shooter, this shooter, had traversed the steps of Gilbert S. Lance Elementary in his remote Wisconsin principality, he had felt buoyed up by the wings of their supermaniac precedent, hoisted aloft by the welcoming embrace of a club in which he sought conscription. And now? Now? Lugging the AK, what with the ammo and the Kevlar and the combat boots and the perspiration slicking his face and the pitons plugging most available orifices, this was starting to feel rather like work—the rifle so much heavier than his Xbox stick with its variable controls and triggers, its wireless capability, its porcelain surety. Compared to that, the AK felt almost neolithic—just the one trigger, a slide tab for the discharge setting and the idiotproof snap-click of clip loading. One day, maybe, advances in technology would be fully commensurate with the shooter’s desires. Until then, one could only admire the purist’s economy in the design.

From this vantage, the shooter can see that his general setup might leave something to be desired, but it wasn’t all that bad. The shooter’s mom, with her permissive nature and indulgent streak and her hereditary love of ordnance, she kept him in pretty good straits, really. Gave him the whole half of the duplex to do with as he pleased. Thoughtful enough never to gift him with a dog to torture, merely encouraged the shooter to bus the leavings of the crows, the squirrels, the odd possum, fugitive skunk, that he eliminated in the fenced-in backyard. Sure, there were occasional unpleasantnesses, like Mom barging in while you had ramrod in hand, speed-reading in Braille (the shooter was bloody well-read), or the time he slid open the pantry door and surprised a clutch of rats on the shelf, fat brown bastards with those sentient needly whiskers and notched hairless tails. One had an eye entirely occluded by a pinkish mass, a floral tumor, and it stabbed its nose high in the air, listening, observational, just as all of them were stilled in their gnawing of the shooter’s saltines, constellation of peppercorn rat eyes measuring him as if HE were the intruder, as if they were peering into a region of nothing in particular, just an outline-in-chalk of the owner/proprietor shooter. And then there was the general aroma of overwarmed humanity wafting from the cushions of the secondhand furniture, the photoelectric seizure hazard in the searing pixels of his aging technotronic arsenal, their much-abused countenances, their aggregate hard miles. Still, the shooter was given the run of the place, with its aromatic, but still decent secondhand furniture, its old-school HP and big-screen Magnovox, rogue pack of cigs he likes to keep on hand, and the sandbags in the basement, a stand of target-practice dummies with humanoid figures scratched in Sharpie on the burlap, now a little overworked maybe in singe marks and skid marks and claw marks and teeth marks, but still humanoid, recognizably humanoid.

When the survivors begin to speculate, this is probably what they’ll do, the shooter thinks. Imagine some terminal falling out with dear-old-mum, some issued ultimatum that required the shooter to desist in one or more of his many entertainments. Or maybe say she threatened to withhold pin money or revoke his gaming privileges (fat chance), or refused to order that fancy new carbine that the shooter had scoped on YouTube (his internet connectivity was optimal, fucking optimal). This explains why he picked today, today, to repay her many services and kindnesses with violence (with violence, they euphemize a volley of point-blank bullets to the victim’s throat and face). Oh, the shooter could laugh to think of the stories these dipshits would assemble on his behalf. But the truth? The truth was almost obscene in its banality, almost beyond imagining. It was MOM who googled the AK and brokered the sale and inked the permits and paid with her charge card and arranged to take possession at the in-town Walmart. It was MOM who shouted for him through the common wall of the duplex to come over and behold the wonder of a civilization in which it was possible to manufacture and google and purchase on credit said WOMD. She was bracing her fat haunches against the sofa, the box with its jaw cracked open, spilling hazard tags and black-sponge packing foam on the floor between her legs. She just hefted the thing in both hands like an offering for the gods, like a newborn child, didn’t raise the barrel yet to peer through the sight, didn’t massage the trigger with her bony hag’s finger. No, she was coolly murmuring her praise with a matter-of-fact pride of ownership, with her matronly pragmatism: “This is the weapon of a patriot, hon’.” This much pierced the shooter’s awareness, but it was hard to concentrate in the face of so much carefully honed steel, such incalculable killing power, the rifling of the barrel a dreamy and mesmeric recession to the silence at the origins of being. The shooter’s mom vocalized her joy with a measured and seemly decorum, with an undertone of civic responsibility, but the shooter had been moved to a region beyond words, a primary zone of pure sensation, nerves firing all along his private inseams, a manic sizzling combustion like July 4 sparklers. The shooter was simply beside himself with unmitigated rapture.

That isn’t to say that there hadn’t been precipitating events, that there hadn’t been tipping points. This morning, for example, when he’d switched on the Xbox, the power button failed to glow with its molten kryptonite green, but burned again the searing red of error and terror, a malfunction known to gamers as the Red Ring of Death. The shooter felt the rage, naturally, recognized with mounting fury sensations in the neighborhood of impotence, but he didn’t attribute some mystical importance to the console’s crapping out. This had happened before; the box might recover, give it time to cool off, though the shooter had really had about enough of such inconveniences. The prospect of the day fanned out as an expanse of emptiness, a plane of time wasted, idle perusing of the web’s nastier backalleys and red-light districts, maybe kill an hour cat-and-mousing on Craigslist. Anyway, the shooter had tossed his head in disgust, cast an eye over the room and its limited delights, and thought simply, No. No more. And then the shooter assembled his arsenal, the shooter mutely sheathed his skull, the shooter bedecked himself in the trappings of death.

But the impetus, the liberating event, if the shooter is being honest, should really be pinpointed earlier. How long? A week? A month? Who’s counting? He had been marathoning Gears of War—showboating with the chainsaw—and of course the batts in his stick died on him just when things were getting hot, so he popped them in the charger, then kicked in Mom’s back door to see if she had any in stock. He was rooting through the junk drawer—Duracells, jackpot!—when he saw it, wedged in underneath all that debris, the rubber bands and glue sticks, the cough drops and playing cards, the address books with their pristine rule-lined pages, midden pile of hole punch, stapler, circle compass, all the hillocks and depressions of the jumbled matter modeling in negative space the burial mound of a long-lost claw hammer: it was just a black bandana, tattooed in white with a floral Arabian design (a bit fruity maybe but the pattern was sufficiently abstract to look badass and dudely). Mom must have got it from the fabric store, once upon a time. Must have wedged the useless thing in here. What in the hell? he had thought. He pulled the thing clear of the junk, slammed the drawer to. He was heeding an instinct now, channeling a wordless directive.

You see, hats were no good. They never fit right on his lopsided head. Berets, Kangols, too natty, ball caps too far out of character, and besides, the whole kit called way too much attention to the ears, left to swing in the breeze, exposed and tender like dewlaps. Couldn’t get away with tucking those disasters in, sort of pinning them up with the infrastructure of the hat. A little too conspicuous, even by his standards. For a while, he made a go of it anyway, tried sporting one with an abrasive insignia, just the lippy catchphrase You talkin’ to me? in a juicily hostile font, but it made him feel ridiculous, even at the GameStop, because you couldn’t wear a hat like that while drawing on a slushee and trying to haggle for a used copy of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, what with both meat flanges fanned out and sagging, dilapidated structures of chewed bubble gum. So he had more or less given up on the whole head-coverage initiative.

Because even with the ears, and the scrawny befreckled frame, the droopy eyes and rutted spine, the off-kilter hips, to say nothing of the genitals, what the shooter really couldn’t live with was the hair. The hair was a no-win situation. It was Mom’s hair, of course, except on her, she could gather it into a presentable rat’s nest, a heap on top and swept back unremarkably at the sides. All of this well within standard parameters of decency. On the shooter, no such luck. It flopped there on his head like a pile of frazzled weeds, each strand thorny and bedraggled and bedeviled and weighted with a molecular sadness. The shooter had tried, logged hours in front of the bathroom mirror, staring himself cross-eyed, gasping with tears (if the shooter is being honest), wielding comb and hair paste like butcher’s tongs, testing every conceivable arrangement. No go. A few years back, the shooter had gone ahead and shaved the whole skull, shaved it clean, wagering that a skinhead look might suit him, but no. He had contemplated his bald skull with a lunatic joy, a joy ripe with inconsolable grief: he looked like a plucked chicken, a scrawny hairless runt unfit for human consumption. And that was enough of that. So the thing was to keep busy, maniacally busy, game until your eyes bled, try not to think about the great OUT THERE, the whole world of other people and their god-given happiness, all their laughter and procreation and prim unremarkable ears and totally acceptable hair styles. There was a certain beauty in the Xbox’s contours, the fetish of the stick in his grip. The milky green of the power buttons now backlit the world of his more pleasureable dreams, which always had the feel of a panoptic FPS. Stable supply of Velveeta in the fridge, monster mash of porn on the web (his connectivity was optimal, fucking optimal). A guy could make his stand here, maybe survive thirty or forty years until the tumor grows too large to be extracted, and after that, who could say?

So yes, if the shooter is being honest, the hair deeply troubled him. He might have borne up under everything else, but the hair fucking grieved him. He wore it now in his customary fashion, splayed out from the forehead like a moldering cabbage leaf, parted in the middle like rotted thatch. It had grown long now, untended, and still he could never get that piece over there to lie flat, and this section over here to cooperate with that bit over there, and his skull lay exposed unevenly, a leprous and barnacled waste of pale skin. So be it.

And then he had found the bandana. He wasn’t consciously recalling what he had seen on the web in the course of googling, as was his habit, the more unusual suicides (YouTube was basically god, the shooter had concluded), but he must have taken note when he saw the photo of that poncy writer who had the world by the ass, who had his lippy wisdom foisted on the unsuspecting registrants of game-scripting classes but still elected to string himself from the rafters in his garage. What is the world coming to anyway? the shooter sometimes wondered. The shooter had perused the YouTube footage of the poncy writer at the lectern, working his jaws on some dunce’s errand, then toggled to the garish mugshot on his Wikipedia page, the head sheathed cleanly in a carnival tent of a do-rag. Tie-dyed, it was. Like a clown’s handkerchief. The shooter must have taken note.

So when he discovered Mom’s fabric-store bandana, he must have known that there were options. It took him a while to decrypt the problem of folding and knotting the thing properly, but even in his first abortive attempts, he knew he’d struck gold. He felt newly forged. And it was really then, in front of the mirror, both ears pinned tight to the skull, all the traitorous forward follicles shrinkwrapped in funereal black, it was then that he saw that he was the shooter. It was a moment of recognition, a negative epiphany.

*

 The window in the cafeteria affords a view of the rear parking lot and the auxiliary playground, used only by special dispensation, where the shooter had been effectively coldcocked by a dodgeball, once upon a time. The lot brims with the usual cars in the stalls, the ass-end of Mom’s battered Civic, but in the cafeteria itself, the shooter had surprised only the lone cook arrived early for her shift, with her jowly face and crinkled hairnet, apron pin-striped prison grey. There had been a brief farce of an over-the-counter interrogation, what with the shooter being half-deaf for all intents and purposes, but despite the novel surety of his words (courtesy of the AK muzzle), the woman was unresponsive. Where the fuck is everybody? the shooter wanted to know, training the muzzle on her cook’s forehead, sighting that void in the face between the eyes, and the woman just locked up, listed from the force of the tremor, the biomechanical undulations, the jerk and the slide of her fear. This wasn’t going anywhere, the shooter had thought, so he tried another tack: Do you still make those little pizzas—those rectangle slabs with the crumbled sausage that come in those little aluminum boats? The shooter spoke the words, but he wasn’t really asking this. The shooter was just communing with himself, surfing his own consciousness, because whomever he was addressing was only the most proximal manifestation of the nullity, just a two-dimensional pane of light colored like a fogged-up mirror, a silhouette in quicksilver, chalk outline done in frosted glass swimming with the oil-slick colors of the shooter’s own image, the spin-cycle of his reflection deconstructed and atilt like the aurora borealis.

Let’s just say the shooter had a lot on his mind as he was putting down the lunch lady. The shooter was doing a lot of processing, and this work occupied him all those moments as he lowered himself gingerly, caught his breath on a bench seat by the panel windows, gazed flat-faced into the residential spaces beyond the back lot, searching out the path through the cornfield of his memory. And this state of preoccupation lingered as he got to his feet and shambled into the corridor and breached the bathroom where the bullies routinely booted in the door, already chanting Swir-lee, Swir-lee, and summarily upended the adolescent shooter, and—never mind his thrashing, his wailing—dipped his shooter’s head into the nearest available toilet, scouring the bowl with his radiation-sickness hair until they tired of the torture and someone smartly pressed the lever and sent the water streaming down, cascading, dragging with it the seaweed coil of the shooter’s mortified follicles. And when the whole crew swept out with their bullying laughter and the bathroom had been vacuumed clean of their existence, the shooter had stood and confronted his drowned rat visage in the mirror, the sopping ears, the hair that could never be righted, and he just thought pleasenonononononono, one sustained sob like a language beyond words, a language beyond language and more in the ballpark of a death rattle. The same mirror in which the shooter now beheld his assembled image, his grim reaper righteousness, and he set the AK on the sink, checked the stays on the bandana, pulled it snug, smoothed the assassin’s brows. Is that a zit? The shooter inspects the lesion in the archway of his nostril. Tests. Sniffs. Touches a greasy finger to the surface of the mirror. Resumes the work of processing the resemblance.

Because naturally he could see it, the resemblance, the bullet-absorbent jowls, double-barreled nosecone of the chest, rat’s-nest hair molded in the cabling of the cook’s hairnet, the stupid sideward drawl of the mouth in the death grimace. In the aftermath, people were probably going to make too much of the resemblance, the shooter reckoned, say that Mom was the skeleton key, the anchor foot of the compass tracing the event radius, the weeping singularity. The shooter grants a certain warrant for this misconception. Only yesterday, after all, Mom had barged in on the butt-naked shooter as he was speed-reading in Braille, kamikaze-style, whooping and hopping in his usual antic ecstasy among the much-abused sofa cushions, porn blazing from the dilated muzzle of his quaking Magnovox. The shooter had felt the flashboil, the murderous hair-trigger rage rioting in that first instant of self-coitus interruptus. But the truth was that this had happened so many times now that Mom hardly made a big deal out of it—no mouth agape in horror, no shrieks of dismay, no revulsion of the abject—now, when she toddled through the door, trying to share with the shooter some recent grocery haul or to inform the shooter of some tasty munitions sale, and surprised the shooter in the frenzy of his self-pleasuring, she just rolled her mother’s eyes and muttered oh jesuschrist sheldon and toddled back out again in quiet egress. No, there wasn’t some pustulating psychosexual fury at work here. The shooter really had nothing against Mom in particular.

The truth, much simpler, really, was just that the shooter wasn’t entirely conscious of other people until he felt pregnant with the rage. From the shooter’s vantage, other people went about the business of living encrusted in this body armor of light, a pane of bulletproof glass fitted over their silhouettes, a virtual scrim antecedent to the actual body, as if they weren’t quite real, insubstantial as ghosts. It was the mirror image, the inverse reflection of the REFUSAL TO COUNTENANCE that typified the public’s collective response to him the shooter. If the shooter strode through life cloaked in the hurt locker of his sexual invisibility, well, there was bound to be some blowback, and the shooter for as long as he could remember perceived other people not as they were commonly portrayed (discrete loci of alien anatomies and consciousness, with the potential for mutually beneficial alliances and contacts), but through the scrim of the nullity, a sociopathic cataract, this morphologically humanoid blind spot. So if the shooter failed to anticipate Mom’s comings and goings, it wasn’t that he WANTED to be caught with his pants down or anything, he didn’t CRAVE some acknowledgement of his so-called erotic identity, it was just that he tended to disremember the existence of other people until he was cornered, provoked.

Bottom line is, the shooter didn’t have any special vendetta against Mom. The shooting was nothing personal. That Mom was victim zero, that the massacre centered on the outpost of her job, that two of the other victims closely approximated Mom’s roly-poly physique and sizeable cleavage: call this just the hazard of living in proximity to the shooter, chalk up the rest to serendipity. The shooter strenuously objects to, and in fact finds offensive, the hypothesis that jealousy had lit the powderkeg, that he resented the affection that Mom broadcast freely to the schoolkids as she toddled through the parking lot and paused to confer, folded arms and flapping wattles, with the special-needs teacher in the shade of the school’s pillared awning. The shooter knew that she viewed them with different eyes than the ones that viewed him the shooter. Case in point: at the range last week—just their usual spot in the woods off the highway, a non-sanctioned dry salvage of abandoned appliances and dumped tires and derelict trees bedecked with bullseyes—as he broke in the AK, the shooter had caught Mom scoping him with an expression of evident DISTASTE, observing him as if she DISAPPROVED of the shooter’s joy, his crazed glee, as he wielded the rifle, torched targets. Then again, the shooter had scoped Mom’s crookeye not long after he had, just messing around, leveled the rifle muzzle in question at Mom’s fat head and sang out in his shooter’s reedy alto, Say cheeese…. Mom hadn’t seen the humor. In any event, if the shooter is being honest, if Mom had factored at all into the shooter’s plans, it was simply because she was the only one who could be relied upon to TAKE IT. The shooter had sailed into the elementary school and shot Mom point-blank in the face for the simple reason that she was the only human being alive, anywhere, ever, who would assent to all this, assent to the shooting, assent in an existential sense to him the shooter.

*

To reach the art rooms at Lance, you had to follow the long corridor with the wide-screen windows around the auditorium—it might have been a risky crossing if anyone were paying attention, but the circle drive, the street beyond, are still empty, the neighborhood trees stirring drably in the breeze beneath those clouds, knotted in welts, curdled and heaving… are they tufted, even teated, bulging with these polyps like egg-crate packing foam? Must be massed low mammatus, ripe with storm. The shooter elects to forego a belly-crawl and instead improvises a duck-walk in his Kevlar, so his thighs burn radioactive as he traverses the exposed passage. When he rounds the corner for the art rooms, their vast warehouse spaces, lofty studios, toddler ateliers, he discovers that all the doors are locked, bald-faced and pallid from disuse, holding under heavy guard those flimsy memories in which the shooter had submitted to have his face covered with Vaseline and then soggy plaster of paris, an exercise in mask-making adapted from some African tribal ritual. When the masks had set and the kids were directed to paint them howsoever they pleased, the shooter had dutifully heeded the instructions, and he plied the paints with his geometrical intelligence, assembling piecemeal the countenance, dread and fierce, furrowed and fanged, bright potent stars streaming from the eyes. Of course, the kids teased him mercilessly because one of the Rohrshack blobs looked, they said, like a fat cock angling straight at his mouth hole, and the shooter had sat there with his crazy hair still pushed up from the recent physical persecution and blubbered with rage. But when the shooter had calmed down, when he could think clearly, he saw that the bullies were wrong, flat wrong. They couldn’t grasp the truth of what he’d made, and the shooter contemplated his handiwork and felt a preternatural chill descend, a blissed-out cool, as he fondled the rasping contours of the death mask.

Does it bother the shooter to be traipsing in this fashion through the bad dream of his memories, surprising himself, as it were, with every footstep? No, it doesn’t bother the shooter at all. This protracted self-communion, this was inevitable. This is what happens when you at last discover your true identity, find the place where you belong.

The shooter recalls hearing something about the abrupt foreclosure of the arts instruction at the school, maybe Mom or maybe the tv, but he knows there is no hurry now, that he has discovered some citadel at the end of time, a postapocalyptic world without zombies or vampires or feral bad guys, but just the cinderblocks and tile of an elementary school, once his own. He ascends the wide central stairwell, makes a sweep of all the rooms on the upper floor, likewise abandoned, Roanoke Island of the mind, clouded test tubes and dud bunsens in the lab rooms, scroll maps of the world drawn like mortuary shades over blank brown chalkboards, faded Tetris grid of a periodic table at which the shooter lobs a boulder of phlegm, library locked tight and windows boarded against the rapture, everything immune to weapons fire. When he reaches the office again, he sees that the kid’s body appears to have moved a fraction, slipped a scoash in the coordinates of spacetime. This particular face-down, floor-eating posture, so final, so FORLORN, doesn’t jibe with the shooter’s recollection, and the blood pool looks altered, its planar integrity disturbed, as if a comet had traversed the nebula, streaming. Seems to have stalled out now. Maybe the shooter should just call it a day, maybe head home like nothing had happened, rig up some Velveeta on toast and see if he could contain the auxiliary arson event and get the Xbox back online. Well, maybe he should…. The shooter cradles the weapon, reaches to his head, checks the stays on the bandana, roots in the abject of his ears, pops one plug, then the other. The seashell whooshing in his head goes silent, in rush the sounds of the world in which nothing stirred, this grisly standstill of elementary education. In his palm, the plugs, bright orange, industrial, some space-age rubber soft and pliable, look like bullets with fan tails, miniature bombs. The shooter sniffs them, salty, tart, tang of ear canal.

Then he hears the hollow staccato waffling, some voice yammering at a distance, slight reverb. It reminds him of the sound of the radio from the other room as he whirled about the kitchen rigging up some Velveeta on toast, fuel for the gaming marathon, and Rush Limbaugh worked the airwaves of his enclave, bitching about somebody or something, giving someone the BUSINESS. The shooter rarely heeded the particulars of Rush’s tirades—the shooter really didn’t care one way or the other, you know—but he liked Rush’s spirit, found in Rush something apposite, a companionable hostility, a slinger of rich horseshit. So sometimes he would tune in to Rush’s program and let him yammer in the background as the shooter wasted Krauts, then zombies, then aliens, then lycanthropes, and scarfed Velveeta on toast, because how many times can you listen to the same cybervillain gaming soundtrack without losing your mind? But the shooter wasn’t religious or anything on this point. Sometimes he would just mute the Magnovox, fire up some Lemmy Kilmister or Megadeath or Iron Maiden or that theater-nerd Rob Zombie. By such means the shooter attended to his sense of duty, like he had to cultivate over time the righteous badass mojo, even though he was WAY happier after the hours of training, with Mom out of earshot, when he could just crank up some Foreigner or some Styx and rock out through the bloody maze of pixels. The shooter wasn’t bent or anything, not some wimp erotically deranged, though when your sole sexual experience consisted of a school janitor hosing you down on a rooftop and the classiest thing in your browser cache was a German scheise video, you probably had some explaining to do. In any case, the sound is like that, that distant unintelligible echoing, Morse code of syllables striking the air.

Gym.

The Lance gym has four functional points of egress, hulking pairs of sound-shielding panel doors with a push-bar and an opposable stop on each interior face. On the outer façade, just a curved steel grip like a silver parenthesis magnetically affixed to the bulwark, battleship-gray. The shooter might have improvised, with a simple piece of fabric, say, some kind of catch, binding the two handles together, to prevent the opening-outward that would allow a good percentage of his victims to escape. But time is a factor, the shooter knows, as the voice continues booming for a few beats longer, then pauses, as if to ride out the crossfire, and quickly the shooter cottons the drift of the convocation. Distinctly, he hears the voice, female, insist that some bad things were just accidents, that the loss of those precious members of our SCHOOL COMMUNITY had been just such an accident, a tragic accident. The shooter ponders, Did one of the little fuckers off himself? Some recent plane crash maybe?, a burst of the glee washing over the algorithms of his shooter’s calculations, but it doesn’t add up, something definitely twitchy, and anyway it doesn’t alter one jot the purpose building then to a lethal hollowpoint terminus, because the shooter responded to words just as he responded to bodies, consigning all of them to the zone of the nullity. The shooter, game on, just tamps down the glee, dips the plugs one after the other in his pursed lips, grimly reinstalls them, thinking only Aim, don’t spray. Aim, don’t spray.

*

Through the prison-panel window, a narrow slat of glass reinforced with a mesh of chicken wire, a rectangular spyhole, the shooter has a limited view of the grief assembly, the fluorescents high in the ceiling irradiating the polished floorboards of the basketball court, soaking everything in a honeyed orangeade light, but the bleachers, he can see, are brimming at max occupancy, kids folded like SS lightning bolts of knees and torsos and cheap big-box sneakers, gazing solemnly in the direction of center court, attending to local distractions. How many? Three hundred? Five? The shooter feels butterflies tickle his stomach, rattle in his ammo pouch bulging with clips and their fifteen hundred rounds, give or take. There was something definitely twitchy about all of this. A decade of gaming—expert gaming—had conditioned the shooter to expect an escalating series of attacks, an increasing number and capacity of hostiles—this, as carefully scripted as a Hollywood movie, as scrupulously followed as a stone-tablet law. But after the initial jolt of adrenalin, the peerless execution of Room 2, there had been only the shooter and his loneliness and his gnawing self-loathing returning to surprise him even now in his Kevlar and commando boots, his ammo pouch bulging like a vinyl IED, his head coolly sheathed in his assassin’s black bandana. The shooter hadn’t anticipated the possibility of this asequential JACKPOT-WITHOUT-PRECEDENT, but gaming expertise enables him to improvise. When the shooter pulls open the door, he dips the AK to navigate the aperture, forestalling the clumsy bang that might stir too soon too much unrest. The kids in this corner of the bleachers, as if hanging in the air above him, note his entrance, and they must figure that the patently armed and armored shooter belongs to some special security force at the school, an avenger who would appear only when the kids were confronted with death, because, to a body, they don’t panic. They just watch him as he advances, minor bustle of dark hair and coppery skin tones, paying homage to the ordnance: one girl confronts him with an ancient Mayan face imperturbable as the moon. Has the shooter strolled into a nest of minorities? Maybe Rush had a point about that immigration business. This used to be a good school, the shooter thinks.

At this range, the shooter can’t miss, but the shooter is, if anything, overbold, and he knows that he has to gain a vantage point from which he can maximize the body count, let there be no premature annihilation, so the shooter still isn’t firing even as he rounds the front of the bleachers and everyone in the room can see him, now, stalking across the hardwood like a cat stalking a yard bird across the surface of Mars. Through the murk of the orangeade light, the stilled air of bated breath, the shooter tacks directly for the officiants, five adult anatomies in business casual get-ups, beflanking a retro cabinet podium and the steel bulb of its microphone. At either end of the gym, the backboards are raised, retracted against the ceiling, and their suspension has all the permanence of a burial.

Maybe it’s the jaundiced light, or maybe recognition drains the blood from the faces of the officiants, ambassadors of the living, must be the principal, the vice principal, the counselor, the grief expert and the victim’s mom for whom it is no longer too soon to talk about her loss. The dumpy woman in the dress pants is mouthing words at the shooter, approaching him, APPROACHING HIM, with both hands raised, palms outward. The shooter can see the shaded creases in the skin, like a monkey’s palms, but mottled, curdled, and his head is fizzing with PopRocks of euphoria. He feels touched, smitten, almost brought to his knees by a kind of awed gratitude, a kind of pageant-beauty’s triumphant disbelief, her dazed incredulity, clapping both hands to her face, for me? all this for ME? The shooter, still stepping forward, closing the distance between him and his victim, locates in the crude language of words something adequate to his breathless amazement, Are you fucking shitting me? I mean…all of these fucking people and they’re all fucking UNARMED?! The shooter comes to a halt, waits a beat, recovers his cool, steels over, thinks just Hakunamatata. And then the shooter opens fire.

The first sweep of the AK takes out all five targets and most of the lectern though the microphone still juts from its mount. The shooter wheels and turns the gun on the bleachers, the top rows of which are streaming with the anatomies of the larger kids, the upper grades with their superior hitpoints and body mass. Through the plugs, now that the AK has ceased for the moment roiling, the shooter can discern the outlines of amusement-park screams, the sound of communal shrieking as the roller coaster barrels over a towering cliff. The sound approximates that mad joy as the bodies spill out over the far sides of the bleachers, jumping ship, running for lives. Better start there, the shooter thinks, training the AK muzzle on the top tiers, and almost instantly the shooter does enough damage to more or less cease the outflow of bodies over the edge. The shooter sees the scene as a tableau, the kids and all of their well-formed ears and well-groomed hairstyles stilled in this conga line of terror, yammering, faces streaming in a language like words, bodies scrambling for occasion to flee, save for the dead spot just off-center where some lummox in a Halo t-shirt, gotta be the biggest kid in school—watermelon head, weirdly pinched face scabbed with acne, pompadour shelf of acceptable red hair—just holds his ground, swatting at the rain of ammo with great bear paws until the hands, then the lummox disappear in a lurid splash of pixels. The shooter puts most of them down—snap, click, snap, click, bionic gamer’s trigger finger working the bolt, AK butt jackrabbit-humping his shoulder, flap of the ammo pouch costing him precious seconds, a real fucking nuisance, actually, but so be it— though in both margins of his peripheral vision he notes the panel doors parting in regular spasms of egress. On the bleachers the bodies fall each according to his own, some instantly ceding animation and dropping in a heap, others, merely winged, executing graceful rubber-limbed pirouettes, still others succumbing upright to full-body conniptions as if they’re being electrocuted on the way down, and all this leaving those nimble few who duck and cover, cower in bunkers behind the bench seats until eventually they panic and make a dash for the hereafter. It reminds the shooter of nothing so much as the view of his crown, in the bathroom mirror, when he angled the clippers at the offending follicles and raked across, and over, and sideways, and again, and the hairs fell en masse, wilting and feathering, cascading in clumps and isolate strands, ringing the drain until it was basically occluded like a grave.

The adults in the mix, the teachers and staff and pervert custodians, the in-loco-parentis bodies, make a mess of things, just dive in front of the shooter’s sight lines, absorbing the bullets immediately preceding the bullets that strike the kids. He sees one woman in a corduroy skirt, way younger than Mom, somersault over the bleachers’ edge, where she remains, crouched and hyperventilating, the shooter knows, like a rat in the pantry. In the lower tiers, courtside, where the youngest kids congregate, the terror has bottle-necked and the kids STAY WHERE THEY ARE, frozen in the floodlight of the shooter’s chthonic glory, quivering, waffling with a grief indistinguishable from horror. No one said it was gonna be easy, the shooter thinks, this doling out of death even on the wholesale, and empties a few more clips as if composing himself to deliver the most important address of their lives. Please listen carefully, the shooter thinks. Do I have your attention now? Can you see me now? Snap, click. The shooter feels buzzed, light-headed, flickering at incalculable frames per second. And though he unleashes reams of bullets into the faces of the children shimmering in the candied light, the shooter can’t help but feel a little discombobulated because he spies, always in the periphery, the lone body of the brown-haired kid, with the perfect ears and unblinking eyes, staring him down, immobile, stalwart, uncowed. Or again, the same stone-faced stare, but a little higher in the bleachers and to the left, now a grim and knowing little girl, in a star-bedazzled hoodie, hair bundled like USB cable against her shoulders, solemn and round-eyed as an owl. Or again, the broad-faced fat Mexican kid in the SuperMario t-shirt, gazing at the shooter as if he were gazing into a vast nullity. And whenever the shooter pivots to mow down the offending visage, no living thing stirs in his sight; the sweep of his omnicidal ken discovers only the tumbled array of bodies, blood-drenched and smoking, sprawling anyhow piles, like a snapshot of a mass grave on the internet. It was a little disconcerting. The shooter was clearly having problems with his apprehension. But becoming the shooter probably had its costs—this fracture in the consciousness, call it the price of doing business.

*

In the days to follow, while the shooter is holed up in his mountain redoubt, relishing his new gaming console and phat recliner, gold bricks of Velveeta lining the fridge—that is, after the shooter shoots his way through the piddly SWAT team that this city could muster, a foe unbecoming, really, almost a waste—the populace will speculate about the state of the shooter’s emotions at this moment, as he contemplates the mass grave of the bleachers, alone, the gym evidently quiet now, the last whimpers and sobs, the gurgles and death groans, evaporating like smoke, converting to memory. They will attribute to the shooter the satiation of a maniacal bloodlust, which is not entirely inaccurate, the shooter allows. They will invest the shooter’s psyche with the devil’s own glee. Touché. But they will underestimate the shooter’s meticulous planning, his architectural genius, because the shooter knows a thing or two about bitchin’ game design. Back in the days when the shooter still made plans for a future (a future other than the future of his post-shooting mountain redoubt), the shooter’s mom had sprung for the tuition at the local college with the iffy admissions standards where the shooter purposed to master the cheatcodes and hashbangs of programming language, that he might blaze a trail up the career ladder of XXX Software Company, Gaming Division, and expose that guy who developed Donkey Kong as the poncy dipshit that he was. The shooter had contemplated the menu of courses, and the shooter had figured that, in addition to the foreign-language class in computing sciences, he might as well take the creative writing course, though if the shooter is being honest, he was really more in the market for a course along the lines of, say, DESTRUCTIVE GAMING. But, antonyms being what they are, in the absence of options, the shooter had figured that he might log some target practice at the keyboard, try out some new premises for games, hatch the baddest of all badass badguys.

The shooter had been progressing adequately, though he hadn’t quite expected that the programming would be so BORING, so, you know, LABOR-INTENSIVE, that there were so many baby steps and first principles to cotton prior to the actual orchestration of a murderous virtual reality. The shooter had made it maybe a few chapters, or maybe a few pages anyway, into the computing sciences textbook before he just cashed in, called it a day, and assumed the role of the silent smartass in the back of the cheaply appointed classroom because maybe he could absorb the basics without really too much wasted energy. This glitch in the plan was unexpected, but the shooter had thought to compensate by making a more or less serious go of it in the NOT-DESTRUCTIVE-GAMING class. Naturally he ignored the assigned works of the poncy writers, among whom figured THE poncy writer on the verge of his surprisingly unimaginative suicide, from whose example the class was to attain a vantage from which to assimilate the VERY DRY art of narration, but when the shooter was directed to script his own work of NOT-DESTRUCTIVE-GAMING, he had endeavored to make a proper go of it, and there were times, whole stretches of minutes if not hours, in which he DID NOT GAME but instead punched words with his idiot fingers on the keyboard of his old-school HP.

It was a strange process because the shooter had begun with the best intentions, planning something of no more than four thousand words in which, say, Call of Duty met Zombie Apocalypse met Chicks Dig Guns—the futuristic neon-Nazis were ZOMBIES! and their bitches were BABES!—but quickly he found himself diverted. The problem was the words. They threw, like, a wrench in the engine works of the nascent virtual world, perpetrated this liquid-crystal spoon-bending malfeasance on the shooter’s laser-scope FPS wetdreams. They were basically seething with electromagnetic forces of their own, mercurial algorithms warping light around the center of the dark mass, and they interfered with and disrupted the unfolding war saga amid which the shooter recognized, through a thin veneer of gamescript clichés, the people, his familiars; the places, his haunts—his cast of characters more or less straight-up decoctions of his mom and her no-account brother and the girl at the Target and the superior type at the Game Stop, and the guy who stalked him once in traffic, and the freakshow anatomies of the dungeon-diaper mamas on the Internet, and the stray hazy figure, leached of physiognomy, of his father who had strolled out of the shooter’s life and into the early grave of a salvage yard in Butte. And the script kept lurching and convulsing into hilariously unsavory predicaments involving a lot of allusions to and one protracted sequence of what might be called nonconsensual anal intercourse, a tactical assault with blowtorch and baton on the supervillain’s sphincter, said supervillain being just a flimsy straw-man of a stepfather figure, all bulbous forehead and the devil’s own puppy-dog eyes with no clear correspondent in the shooter’s biography. The shooter discovered that he used a great number of exclamation points in his most decent sentences. Well, the shooter had typed the thing up, each word glinting and turned to purpose like a newly forged round, and printed it out, each page unspooling like an assembly-line WOMD, like thin-slicing Semtex, and the shooter’s psyche hummed at an exceptionally high flicker rate, burned with a chthonic exhilaration vastly superior to the chthonic exhilaration consequent upon the wasting of seminude flesheaters, and the shooter had passed the thing in with the firm conviction that even the old hag of a teacher would have to recognize the shooter’s non-shooting prowess. But when she had returned the script—which, the shooter allowed, read more like a sitcom sketch, a birth-defective play with maybe an excess of shouting, than an epic game saga—the pages, unlike his classmates’, were immaculately empty, as if the whole thing were consigned to a plane of nonexistence, a kind of REFUSAL TO COUNTENANCE, the sinister shimmering zone of the nullity, leaving the shooter with just the louring gaze of the old hag of a teacher who seemed to have pierced through to the sweat-smelling inseams of his maniac soul and tipped all that she beheld straight into the trashbin of oblivion. That was more or less what had happened, though if the shooter is being technical, there had been four actual words on the final page of the shooter’s manuscript, just an interrogative in the broad, looping hand of calligraphic logomancy, Can I help you?, which amounted to essentially the same thing as the REFUSAL TO COUNTENANCE. After that point, the shooter’s attendance didn’t so much taper off as collapse entirely, until now he remembered the campus as just another site in need of a good hosing down with, say, three to seven thousand rounds of high-caliber ordnance.

And that would have been that, just another abortive episode in the shooter’s pre-spree incarnation, another enervating memory with which to pass the days in his predestined role of CONSUMER/USER-GAMER until the tumor really took root and ballooned, but then all that time later—how long? months? years? the calendar is pretty flexible if you spend most of your days in the suspended animation of a virtual reality—the shooter had recognized the name of the poncy writer attached to the clown-cool bandana-d visage, and he had diverted the pure intent of his sadomasochistic googling in order to view the poncy writer’s Wikipedia page wherein the shooter cottoned the essence of his aesthetic. That’s what it’s called. To wit: amid all the blah, and he blahed, and then blahblahbadiblahblah, the poncy writer’s shining insight, his fucking insuperable metaphysic posited a theory of universal SYNECDOCHE, something to the effect that the least part of our experience is the all of what we are. That every possession, every stray thought and drive-by experience, every appurtenance and concomitant, each one of these was itself synonymous with the whole of one’s identity, a precise mathematical expression of the perceiving human consciousness. A world super-saturated with life’s essence, hyperspatial and ramifying, in which artifacts and entities, animate and inanimate, people and places and things and airy notions, all of this sort of adheres to us, and there’s this mutual infusion of energy such that the one gifts us with the other, object-subject, and vice versa. All in the end is really one.

This discovery had put a significant twist in the shooter’s noodle. The shooter wasn’t dumb. He could catch the upshot here. Instead of a radically compartmentalized world of alien and THEREFORE innocent things, everything was connected, or infected with everything else. And simply to be alive, you had to assent to all of that which was not, but would inevitably become, you—every light ray and sine wave that boogied through your consciousness, to all of this you had to assent. Either that, or clock out, call it a day, start rigging up the noose. Because if you reject one jot, refuse one iota of your experience, you might as well be practicing the intricate and sorely underrated art of self-annihilation. Well of all goddamn things, the shooter had thought, summoning in a single totality every instant of snubbing, of scorn, if not of outright bullying and abuse that he had experienced over the course of his life, and he felt the colossal NAY in all of it, the fundamental withholding of assent. Assent for him. For him, the shooter. And the shooter had taken in all of this with the pitiless gaze of his consciousness, and he felt the full measure of the INJUSTICE of it, the violation of basic MORTAL DECENCIES. And he muttered it low, muttered it and repeated it, slanting the syllables with a slur that softened the semiautomatic fire of his vocal chords: Nonononononono.

You might say that the shooter had learned the hard way the elementary principles of game-scripting, because every artificial prod had come to nothing. In the end there was only experience, and so the apoplectic plotline in the grade school, while in some ways a bit of a hatchet job, a catch-as-catch-can rampage, it still tried to conform to that standard premise of escalating mayhem. Because all of these little incapable-of-resisting bodies, all of those precious rounds spent in the mass grave of the grief assembly, this was for the news reports, this, all this, was for the sake of an indelible communal scarring, a barbed dildo wedged straight up the ass of the collective memory. But for the shooter the massacre in the gym was merely foreplay, preamble to the second phase of this meticulously orchestrated rampage. The real test, and with it, the greater measure of the joy, was coming, the shooter thinks, rounding the corner of the bleachers and turning his pitiless FPS gaze on the crouching body of the teacher, a squat composition of Oxford and corduroy, strappy shoes that bare the splayed bones of the instructional feet. She’s still got her cellphone to the ear, she’s intoning syllables into the device, eyes harrowed, squinting, leaking tears. She appears to be uninjured, save for the mussed hair and hurt feelings. 911, the shooter knows, and that was in the plan too, leave at least one with a set of working fingers to get the po-po out here on the job. Check and check, the shooter thinks. He turns his pitiless gaze to the vast spaces of the gym, the cellblock locker rooms where the kids were made to shower TOGETHER. I mean, are you shitting me? the shooter sniffs. What the fuck were they thinking, herding all those naked kids TOGETHER into tiled cellblocks, training the water on them and ruining their hairdos, all in the name of an illusory cleanliness—because who thought to use soap?—all this under the watchful eye of the pervy gym teacher who must have been in cahoots with the janitor, who must have publicized the particulars of the shooter’s, well, irregular juvenile cock, probably conspicuous to connoisseurs even when concealed behind his cupped shooter’s hands.

Wait. That’s not quite accurate, the shooter does the math, self-corrects. This must have been when the building still housed his, the shooter’s, middle school, before the burgeoning juvenile mortality rates and subsequent redistricting led the elementary schools to merge and decamp from their former locations and take up unified residence here, now the Gilbert S. Lance Elementary School. These dead kids here, they probably weren’t made to shower together in those locker rooms there. Oh, the machinations of a small town could be surprisingly complicated. It was much harder, the shooter allows, to work all of this out while nursing a pretty serious problem with one’s apprehension. Because the shooter peers now into the skeletal gridwork of the underside of the bleachers, and he sees them there like imperturbable rats ambushed in the pantry, the somber bodies of children, flat-faced and immobile, amid the blood puddles and drizzle waterproof and inviolable, contemplating the shooter as if measuring a vast nullity. The rage spikes, and the shooter sprays bullets into the shaded cavity where sparks fly like fireworks from the spokes of the bleachers, but the kids just evaporate into nothing.

At his boottips, the Oxford and corduroy have gone into convulsions, and the shooter, still pensive, abstracted, bends his gaze to consult the streaming visage of the victim. Removes one, then the other plug. Cups them in the hand that levels the rifle barrel.

What do you think, sister? Do you assent to all of this? The shooter hears himself channeling the droog squad from A Clockwork Orange, detects in his shooter’s English the British inflection absorbed from the Cockney precincts of his impressive media empire, though the shooter regretfully acknowledges that, below the theater, his shooter’s voice still sounds like his everyday voice, mealy-mouthed, nasally, taint of a lisp. The truth is that the shooter tenders the question uncertain of his own intent: is he negotiating in good faith a life-or-death contract, or is he just offering her access to a website of dubious provenance and questionable taste? Take a GOOD LOOK. Take it ALL IN. And do you ASSENT? The shooter gestures with the AK, leans in harder on the words, but still isn’t really sure if he’s offering her a deal, if he’s offering to spare her, leave one alive to tell the tale and all that. He’s just channeling the directive, and she’s blubbering, sputtering and mooing in sheer terror, and the shooter feels the rage ebbing aimless until he realizes that she’s breaking up in laughter, struggling, failing to suppress the wave of it. She’s spitting laughter all over the shooter’s boss commando boots that had arrived in the mail just last week, that were nearly fucking brand-new, she’s doubled over and guffawing now into the gleaming butterscotch woodwork of the gym floor, and of course, then the shooter steadies the AK over her brainstem and opens fire. The sound explodes, cracking open fresh nodes of space in his sinus cavities, reverb booming in his ears. Dayum, the shooter thinks. Execution style, hair and skull just chewed to rags. Gore now on his pants and boots. The shooter slurps the plugs, reinstalls them. This is just getting started.

*

The shooter looses a dispirited sigh, the controlled exhale of a guy very much on the clock, then breaches the gym doors and marches along the corridor, expecting a dull round of finishing work, some standard mopping up of the would-be hostages, but the shooter finds the hall, the cafeteria, the distant exit doors, simulacrum of a playground beyond, all of it immaculately empty, with no memory or record of even the shooter’s own passage, the whole place silent and still as a ghost town, so when the shooter again makes a pass by the front office, he isn’t too disconcerted to find that the little girl’s body has vanished, the bulk of his mom lying there alone, in death as she was in life, just occupying real estate on the surface of the earth, birthing defective children. The shooter doesn’t have occasion to locate and euthanize the absent body because he can see it now, the first cruiser speeding into view. ‘Bout fuckin’ time, the shooter thinks, expecting the next act to follow the script, the cruisers to arrive one after the other and position themselves in a defensive row, tightly circled wagons, from which vantage the beefy and undereducated dimwits will shield themselves behind the bullet-retardant wings of cruiser doors, one fat guy on his belly steadying a never-before-fired rifle on a tripod, the whole scene gripped with inertia, the sheer boredom of a lazy, lackadaisical standoff. But the cruiser swings to in a lunatic motion, a vector that bespeaks squealing tires, strained suspension, engine chuffing in fury. The cruiser bumps over the curb and patch of lawn fronting the school, bounds up onto the WALKWAY in front of the building and then the trooper is out with his pistol drawn—a thick black Beretta with, what, maybe NINE rounds?–and striding toward the doors like the very hand of God, the righteous soldier about his work, about to kick some serious ass. It’s like the guy has accessed some ultimate cheatcode that makes him invulnerable and deathless and he motors on thick polyester legs, heeding the lash of his own dread directive.

Not awaiting backup, the shooter recognizes, a little dazed by such a breach of protocol, this departure from the script, and hamstrung besides by the plugs so that he realizes a beat too late that the trooper—muttonchop face, brown mustache, large flared nose, hair well-oiled and swept over from the side—has already opened fire. The first bullet clips the shooter on the exposed collarbone, and the shooter feels the lightning bolts of splintering, hears the round fucking RICOCHET—phee-eew!—amplified under the lid of the plugs, but the impact is glancing so the shooter can still blink and get his bearings as he teeters, think to raise the AK and spray the air with thirty windmilling rounds that make a disaster of the drop ceiling and swiss cheese of the trooper’s undefended chest, shower of blood spritzed across the shedding insulation. The trooper’s body lies in a supine heap, but the arm still moves, fumbles, trains the weapon without the aid of eyes in the vicinity of the shooter who is still digging in his ammo pouch, and the bullet strikes with a wallop of blunt-force trauma against the Kevlar, knocking the shooter decisively onto his tightly clenched keister.

The bullet had struck at the ribcage under the arm, the pain is deafening in its magnitude and insistence. The shooter can’t draw a breath, he’s gasping and acking and bleeding from the collarbone wound, and it takes a few more moments before he can scream his imprecatory rage, heaping ignominy on the head of the now-for-sure dead fucking trooper, and then the shooter recognizes the calming scent of brimstone, the whiff of powderburn and death, and he knows that he’s breathing again, still here, still alright. He curls up against the cinderblock in the corridor, huddles unto himself, licking wounds, still gasping and wincing. The shooter knew there would be risks, after all. He takes a minute, hunkered in a ball against the cinderblock, body spasming as it accommodates the novelty of pain. Fingers with the far hand the impact crater in the Kevlar. The shooter thinks now that maybe it wasn’t so smart after all, not such a boss idea to sneak that lone AK bullet and slide it greased up the pooper, because you never know when you might get separated from your ammo pouch (still fucking here, asshole). No, maybe that was a little excessive, because the shooter is straining now to retain control and then all at once he concedes, assents, unclenches his scrawny asscheeks and there it goes, with an explosive belch the shooter empties his spastic bowels, a sharp buckshot spatter of colorectal expectoration, probably induced by the GSW, in his immaculate shooter’s underwear. The shame, the humiliation, evolves almost immediately into a grim relief, a cheery aw-shucks WILLINGNESS TO COUNTENANCE. That really was a lot better. It feels liberating to sit here like this, on the deck of this mausoleum, this fucking institutional crypt, leaking blood from the collarbone, blinking away stars, the warm texture of human feces—not a full load, but not negligible either—in a shooter’s underwear, the secret hardware of the AK bullet still gleaming, abiding, palpable like a nut in the peanut butter. There was something almost endearing about it, familiar. Like home. And then the smell cuts through the brimstone, and the scent of his own rich humanity offends the shooter’s nostrils and he resolves to raise himself so as to sight, over the ledge of the window, the cruisers sweeping in, the breadtruck with its SWAT team, already in armor and helmets, already packing, and the troopers rooting in trunk compartments for shotguns, one guy kitted out in some kind of spacesuit studded with grenades, maybe Bomb Squad, and all of them moving, fucking trotting from the street, up the drive, toward the door.

OK, then.

By sheer force of will, the shooter bites down on the pain and gets a move on. He’s shambling through the corridors, hears the muted tinkling of the windows exploding into fireworks behind him. I’d say these guys seem motivated, the shooter thinks, no time to long nostalgically for the lazy and inconclusive standoff that might have occupied his afternoon. The shooter hustles past the cafeteria which appears as orderly and unvisited as a photograph of a cafeteria on the internet, and follows the forward passage around the gymnasium at which the shooter hesitates to take a peek, because what if the crypt was immaculately empty, unshot-up and idling away an ordinary non-shooting-event Sunday? But no, he sneaks a look through the spyhole as he passes, and there it is, the wreckage at center court, the jumbled holocaust carnage of the bleachers. The shooter quickens his pace, pain dulling into regions of the nearly tolerable, almost handleable, and on the far side of the gym, just before the glass of another escape hatch beyond which he sights more troopers deploying, he parts the door to the boiler room where the janitor had led him lo those many years ago, and the shooter regards the furnace apparatus, machine-age hulk of nickel and brass, like an industrial oven, the plate-welded kiln of a child-eating ogre, but smaller now, more decrepit than menacing, hardly scary at all. The shooter scents the sooty air, familiar and pacifying, all around him the cotton batting of memory, and he follows again the path to the wrought-iron stairwell pinned to the wall, leading to the ceiling and the door carved into it, and he hugs his pain tightly to himself and kicks the door open and strides out into the leprous daylight, the low-ceiling lobed clouds still spongy and cinerary and efflorescing with moisture to piss in the shooter’s Cheerios and spill on his spree.

The rooftop has weathered over the years, everything a little drabber, blurred, faded, but is otherwise much the same, its crunch of gravel and tar, ratty upturned edges of the tarpaper, HVAC doodads populating the vicinity. For the record, the shooter thinks, dropping an eye to measure the bloodflow in the margins of the Kevlar (maybe slowing, negligible), it was over there, behind that aluminum box vent with its ceaseless whirring, where the janitor had treed him. No big deal, the shooter reflects. It’s not like the moment defined him or anything. It wasn’t like there was actual penetration or anything, and in that sense, the whole episode was only an experiment in the legitimacy of the virtual, a toxic dose of elementary education. Gray hair oiled back, face a mask of oversized glasses and pathetic whimpering desire, the janitor had just drawn him in with those sympathetic assurances, those soft-lipped promises that there was an end to the abuse and savage loneliness of the schoolrooms, and then the janitor had hauled out his, the shooter’s, irregular cock, which was just as it had always been, from birth, sort of studded with cartilage all along the barrel, burred and bethorned at the pallid muzzle. Kind of like a miniature gourd, a bewarted kumquat. Kind of like a stumpy sea urchin, like the business-end of a medieval mace. There were specialty dildos in the porn industry, these thick sheaths of heavy-duty latex, shaped in exactly this fashion. The shooter had done enough googling subsequently to determine that his cock was barbed like the cocks of the great cats. In the long run, the shooter had thought this a definite boon, this possession of a tiger’s cock, this wielding of a carnivore’s studded wang. He never much credited Mom’s disclosure, of the time that she had left him, hardly more than a toddler, alone for a few minutes to change the laundry and returned to discover that he, the shooter, had wrenched open the junk drawer and extracted the claw hammer and shed his drawers and gone to work flattening the slender length of his curled toddler’s wang. The calcium deposits, or the mutant cartilage burrs, call them painful souvenirs, Mom had said, and though the shooter failed to credit the report that would clear Mom’s conscience for birthing this defective piece of merchandise, he sometimes had misgivings, little flashbacks of aborted memories in which Mom’s curling iron atop the toilet tank and the scent of scalded flesh figured largely. Anyway, the shooter thought it exalting in a way, this tiger’s nubbled wang, an anatomical conferral on him, the shooter, of the status of a demigod or scourge or something, and the janitor had just given his pecker a good going-over, and then he’d told the partly denuded shooter, very politely, to turn around, and he introduced the shooter to what could be called not exactly consensual anal outercourse. That is, the janitor had attempted to mount the shooter and access the shooter’s rearward orifice, but the rearward orifice had marshaled its meager resources and effectively repelled the forces of invasion. The experience was not unlike attempting to plug a USB cable into a dataport upside down. There might or might not have been diarrheic weeping. Anyway, the shooter scarcely gave it a second thought these days, and when he did give it a moment’s thought, he just conceded that it was part of the mosaic of his reality, the past was the past, warts and all. The shooter doesn’t feel supercharged with rage or anything, now that he’s wandering the terrain of his troubled memories, reinhabiting the landscape of his shitty past. He just feels, if he’s being honest, a little overworked, feels as if he’s laboring, and he pauses a moment, tries to double over to get his breath, quell the pain from his wounds, and then he makes his way to the iron ladder bolted to the brickwork, leading to the uppermost roof, a proper bird’s nest.

The shooter grits his teeth and gains altitude, but he keeps low as he shuffles across the gravel and takes up a forward position by the ledge. The shooter readies the AK, but all he can see are the stalled cruisers in the street, freshly waxed and gleaming in the dingy light, the bread truck of the SWAT team crisply painted, properly emblazoned, but the whole scene abandoned, no houses across the way empty to supply spectators or supererogous victims on the sidewalks. No passing cars slow to permit a few sniper clicks at the windows. The street holds its breath and lours with an air of gravity, and the shooter feels the officers streaming through the facility, without a thought for the lives of the nonexistent hostages, making an inventory of the shooter’s handiwork, seeking out the shooter’s hideout with the grim and implacable urgency of an avatar on a cheatcode bender. The shooter considers, crawls toward a bulky HVAC port, takes up a siege position under cover, bellies down, grinds Kevlar into gravel, levels the muzzle of the AK at the access ladder that communicates with his position.

The shooter allows that some troubleshooting might be in order, because he hadn’t exactly prepared for this scenario. The shooter had anticipated a, you know, leisurely standoff in which he could amaze his adversaries with his shooter’s prowess, pick off at a sporting rate the best among them, leave them to contemplate a future bereft of such exemplars, a future that must accommodate the girth and heft of the shooter’s will. The shooter had expected merely to hole up for a while on the rooftop and dole out death on a retail basis until he got bored and decided to target the weak link in the wagon chain, probably in the back parking lot, where the female troopers would be stationed, and blast his way through the defenses, and from there, it was just a brisk jog to the waiting bicycle and the short ride home to reclaim the gear he’d left in the yard (and thus spared from the auxiliary arson event), and then the vast frontiers of the future, his eventual forest redoubt, or mountain redoubt, from which he might devise fresh slaughters for those days when his Xbox was on the fritz. But this blatant disregard for FPS engagement protocol, this murderous HASTE, this would need some rethinking.

The shooter rummages in his ammo pouch, does the math by hand, chews his lip, trembling. Should be plenty, the shooter thinks, still more than three hundred rounds, plus the one in his drawers, if it comes to that. Had he really spent so much ammo in the gym? Wasteful, probably, the shooter thinks. Wasteful. Supposes he could have prevented those 911 calls, just decided to pack it in after the massacre, gone back to the office to root around for Mom’s car keys so he didn’t have to pedal that damn bike through the ghost-town neighborhoods with the AK draped idiotically across his saddle, maybe just save himself for another day when he might have more energy and those cops might respond with conduct more becoming. I mean, the shooter thinks, these fucking people have families, don’t they? The shooter checks the fit of his assassin’s bandana which had ridden up rather high on the shooter’s forehead, exposing who knows what catastrophe of acne and sprawling follicles, but the ear flaps are still pinned to his scalp, the rearward knot still secure. The shooter thinks it would be nice if there were a serviceable mirror on hand, but the HVAC stump here is nonreflective, slatted like shark gills or stadium bleachers, and when the shooter stares into the sheen of the AK, he discerns only the greasy smear of his silhouette, the slide lever on the stock deadending at the locus of the amputated third discharge setting, factory disabled. Safety, Semiauto, Safety, Semiauto, …. Wait. That would mean…. His bionic gamer’s trigger finger does feel a tad raw. Might have overdone things with the gun oil, after all, the shooter thinks, but never mind. He levels his gaze on the regions of the access ladder, at this point ready for grappling hooks to claw for a hold up here on the topdeck of the world, this rotten principality in the wilds of Wisconsin, and only then does the shooter adjust the dial of his apprehension, attune it to the sound.

Checks the AK, as if it’s malfunctioning or just buzzing with the memories of recent hard use. Nothing but the secret silent language of ordnance, mute and immutable as death.

Scans the perimeter. Gull’s-eye view of gravel rooftop expanse, treetops and housetops, blue porcelain water tower bestriding the powerlines, a principality that has laid down weapons in surrender.

The sound, those steady rapid-fire gutturations of hell’s own fury, intensifies, noise still without origin as if emanating from another virtual dimension, until the shooter thinks to cock an eye skyward, half-expecting to see a valkyrie with an Uzi rappelling from the clouds, and sure enough, there it is, the whirling thunder of propellers, not a proper marine’s Black Hawk, lean and lethal and studded with ordnance, but a cherry-red airbus of a Flight4Life helicopter, probably called in from Racine to scoop up the sharpshooters on the roof of the hospital and then tearass over here to draw a bead on the shooter’s position. I mean, Christ! the shooter thinks, the hospital was just across town, bike-able in maybe twenty minutes. But AIR SUPPORT? A little egregious, if you ask the shooter.

Amateurs.

The shooter hasn’t anticipated this, but he surmises that the chopper might have limited value as a tactical asset, maybe just there to obtain some aerial reconnaissance, keep a lookout for the shooter’s eventual run-for-it. Call it a precautionary measure, even if it is embarrassingly homemade, improvised, not quite consistent with an adversary of the shooter’s mettle. The shooter tracks the fat behemoth’s inching progress through the horizon frame, considers an air-evac scenario, maybe an errand of mercy for one of the victims, until he sees the thing shift its ungainly bulk on the air, pivot on its landing skis with conscious intent. The floating circus banks laterally and picks up steam, and in a nightmare eyeblink—as if acres of sky have warped and folded and catapulted the rig on a hyperspatial seawave, as if the same fucking cheatcode has been accessed and the tilt of the earth itself bends to purpose to accommodate this maneuver contrary to all physical laws of particles and pixels—the chopper doesn’t so much cover intervening space as phase-shift between categories, from remote-controllable life-at-a-distance to UP-CLOSE-AND-PERSONAL DEATH. And in this awkward attack posture, a little askew, off-kilter, at odds with the plane of reality, the booming lummox bears down on the shooter’s position. As if on cue, the sharpshooters appear from the bomb bay doors in the rig’s belly, and they hug the sides, lean out, level and sight weapons—automatics, the shooter deduces as they lay down strafing fire: ribbons of bullets chew up the gravel, ravage the tarpaper, gotta be hollowpoints streaming toward, overshooting the shooter’s position, and it’s then that the searing pain in his legs detonates, a cellophane veneer is peeled back from the shooter’s consciousness, and the grey sky glows three shades brighter as the shooter allows that he’s been hit.

Imprecations occupy the next few moments of the shooter’s lifescript, and then the pain steadies and gathers, nerve endings ablaze, sizzling spikes of blinding combustion like the phosphorus and magnesium of July 4 sparklers, and the shooter flops over on his soiled rear, the prod of the bullet almost below the threshold of awareness now, and from this hardwon vantage point, the shooter tallies the damage. Not one, but both legs shorn clean just under the knee—rather more under the knee on one than the other—the shooter’s black assassin’s jeans, bullet-chewed, fraying perforations already drenched in and draining the shooter’s life’s essence, terminate in a flaccid expanse where the shins and feet have been dislodged. Well, shiiiit, the shooter thinks. The severed limbs lie inert on the gravel, steel-toes pointed wrong way ‘round, clearly at odds with the shooter’s presently seated anatomy. The shooter’s head is swimming now, flares and crossfire singing in his brain, but he draws breath and concentrates, and clutches the AK tighter, and takes a last look, already preparing the eulogy for his one-time legs—the stump edges hewn ragged and spuming blood, their speckle-shreds of black jeans and righteous grave-walking boots—but in the sweep of his faltering ken, he descries instead the lamb’s-leather rise of an SS jackboot and hashbangs of European khaki, on the gravel a trickle-pool of cold fjord-water. The other leg, copper-tinted and hairless, calf tattoo of a dragon-demon and shod in a skate-rat’s sneaker. And the shooter, even under such duress, even while experiencing such severe problems with his apprehension, can recognize the provenance of said appendages. And though the shooter doesn’t exactly have a spare moment to do the math, time balloons outward and sprawls, dilates to accommodate the conclusion, almost wordless, just part of the directive, that the shooter at the instant of his dissolution is discomposing, shedding fragments of himself, the cumulative shrapnel of the biohazardous identity to which he had once assented and laid claim. The shooter feels some ambivalence about this eventuality, this too-late discovery that he could only ever be a composite shooter, a rigged-up concoction culled from the ghastly odds and ends and junk-drawer atrocities of a diseased civilization. I mean, none of it was even fucking ORIGINAL, the shooter concedes. Was this a loss of identity, an annihilation of self, the shooter wonders in this atemporal rooftop zone of gore and pain and whirring chopper blades raining thunder through the useless burrs of the plugs, or was this the proper fucking triumph, the pinnacle of everything, the final level at which point the faithful gamer at last achieves nirvana?

The shooter doesn’t really have occasion to settle the matter because the airbus is bearing down now, ass-end pitched up, dorsal blade churning giddily with the promise, the whisking surety of death. And the shooter can discern almost point-blank the brick face of the pilot, hands at the controls, stern, grim, impassive, as if wheeling suicidal into a vast nullity, and the shooter channels the directive and turns the AK to purpose once more and sprays the entire clip, pain rioting through his body with each rifle spasm, bullets fizzing in the region of the chopper’s windshield which splinters so fast and so totally it’s like a soap bubble bursting as if it had never been, and as a unit, a solitary integer of mortification, the bullets pummel the body of the pilot, which absorbs them with a cool unfussed rocking of the shoulders, with something like aplomb in the steadying embrace of his pilot’s harness. Likely didn’t have time to pull out of the dive anyway, the shooter reflects, words whirling at the speed of chopper blades, the only kamikaze in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and he’s at the wheel of this fucking RESCUE CHOPPER with a conical snub nose like a bomb? There was something almost majestic, a kind of scalding beauty in the extent of the shooter’s rotten luck, and the body of the pilot slumps forward, mouth smeared with a death grin, as if he discovered therein something delightful, some secret abiding joy, some cheatcode euthanizing grief, and through the wind and fury of the whirring blades—cycling so fast that they seem to stand still, pinning the shooter in down-tilted crosshairs, a towering palladium X—the shooter perceives the rippled, unbeseechable silhouettes of the riflemen still leaning from the bomb bay doors like identical twins in identical headgear, but no longer firing. They make no attempt whatsoever to jump clear of the down-barreling whirlybird and pull ripcords or whatnot and, you know, SURVIVE to enjoy the hero’s welcome of this desolate Wisconsin principality, but instead, they still cling fiercely to the sides of the doomed fuselage as if they have hefted in unison the dying rig on their brawny shoulders, as if to hurl the whole apparatus through the last few yards of spacetime and slam it down with EXTREME PREJUDICE directly on top of, and thus squashing flat, the blanched and palsied figure of the shooter. The shooter only has occasion to think that this was probably gonna hurt a little, because with the first slice of the Cuisinart blades the shooter and both of his shooter’s ears and all of his shooter’s pores and longsuffering follicles would be chopped into a puff of assassin confetti, and in the next few microseconds of game time, his remains would grade from a thin human slurry to a fine pink mist like a vapor trail retaining maybe sentience for one last gush of awareness, one final gasp of amazement before it devolved to just a blur of imperceptible motes, each no bigger than a pixel, until the whole stain blew away into nothing, wiped clean from the frame—just like the concomitant explosion would surely void most of the school, with all of his shooter’s handiwork and low-def biography, from the plane of the earth, strike it from the archeological record of memory, leaving only the ass-end of the helicopter to protrude from the wreckage, plumes of black smoke streaming skyward to etch upon the clouds the shooter’s last will and testament—furred cataract of an impact crater, fingerprint fissure on the firmament, skid mark on the underwear of being, alchemical symbol of the nullity—and let that be the final lesion, the thorny crown, his shallow grave.

—Bruce Stone

 

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in MirandaNabokov StudiesReview of Contemporary Fiction and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing at Straylight Magazine. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.

 

Nov 072014
 

Death Mask paper copy PushkinPushkin’s Death Mask

 

Pechal moya svetla

My sadness is luminous, is bright.

Pushkin

 

A true Russian pastime. How best to conduct oneself in the hours and then minutes leading up to one’s destiny? The sleepless nights, and pallid skin were necessary; one could carouse and fornicate showing no signs of fear; at the barrier itself one might eat ripe cherries from one’s hat and spit the stones at one’s adversary, or lying in the snow at Chornaya Rechka, already struck in the bowels with the lead which would kill you, you could prop yourself up on your elbow and return fire at your fellow duellist, shouting “hurrah” when your bullet seemed to find its mark. A cuckold, a fool, a poet, a man, a failure. But there is beauty in the arrangement of words, these words I shore against my ruin, a beauty which struggles against the tragedy of existence. Let me tell you how it began . . . . The Nigger of Peter the Great . . . . I inherited the full lips and hot blood of my ancestors. I must tell you frankly: “proper women and lofty sentiments are what I fear most in the world. Long live tarts! . . . I may be elegant and proper in what I write, but my heart is completely base and vulgar and my inclinations all third-estate.”

To my life then. . . . I had married Natalia Alexandrovna, and her beauty was my downfall. In my lifetime I had met many beautiful women, some who gave off a certain maddening perfume, who quivered in a certain way at the final moment, and others who thrashed and moaned until I was glad to finish and take my leave, those who feigned shame and forced tears to their shadowed eyes and covered themselves with silken underthings, and still others who were grateful as if some ethereal gift had been given; of them all, in bed at least, I preferred the women of certain professional houses, those who knew the secrets of the body, took matters in hand, and explored the terrain with professional interest. But never had I encountered a woman such as Natalie: elusive, cold, like a distant star surrounded by its own magnetic field. Beauty beyond explanation or criticism. At the court balls she loved so much, charming women would turn pale with envy, and guardsmen lapse into painful silence. I made love to her as a mountaineer climbs the coldest, most remote precipice. The fevered kisses of my thick lips caused only sighs and accusations, a withholding and turning away, a body which in its whiteness seemed more a statue than a living vessel, the stillness of which nearly drove me mad with desire, her lips which reminded me of those whom I had caressed this way before, of those who had moaned and lost themselves to my whispered entreaties, the probing insistence of my hands. I hold “your long, elastic form” dear Natalie, in memory now, “but all you give me, my sweet friend, / Is a mistrustful smile” . . . You must know that for me no more “the madness of the flesh, the wild embrace, / the sobs and screams of a young bacchante / Who, writhing like a serpent in my arms/ . . . Hastens the moment of decisive spasm.” Natalie, my wife, I eternally seek your rejection beyond all raptures, your unwilling moan, drawn from your throat at the moment I seek purchase, and fall, upon your remote, immobile slopes.

****

At the Winter Palace during the frigid nights a woman, no longer my wife, dances effortlessly with the guards, the blood racing to her flawless shoulders, her happiness with other men a palpable fact and a right. In the shadows, alone, a man who comes to other’s shoulders, whose legs are bent, whose heart is broken, whose face is dark and lips are thick. A monkey, a tiger. A poet standing alone by the columns. And this was me—Gentleman of the Chamber, in a plumed tri-corn hat and patent leather boots, occupation for a fumbling adolescent, not a poet . . . But poetry is not life no matter how much one might wish it so; it simply goes grinding on, the sheets always soiled by those who come before . . . by those who must come after.

And then, from across the room, comes the one whom I have been waiting for; the one whom I know I shall have one day to kill; he arrives with the curling mustaches of an adolescent, blondly gleaming in the hall of mirrors, the one who dances so well; the one who will not leave my wife alone. I stand alone in the shadows of the colonnades, watching them make love to one another, and in my impotence, my legs grow weak, poetry becomes a lie, and I am a slave standing on twisted legs. My wife dances in a world I can never enter. The story is boring except for those caught within its snares. In the forest there is a melancholy song, tolling out the hours of our days: Cuckoo, cuckoo.[1] There are “two types of cuckolds in this world: some are so in fact, and they have no uncertainties about their position; others are made so by public opinion, and their position is far more difficult; I am one of those”. . . .

And so D’Anthes and I must duel—for that is the given name of a bastard. Everyone now will have heard of it; the details remain dull, overly romantic, as so many ends are. So then, if we must, I am yours, at Black River, on the road to Pargolovo, near Odoevsky’s Estate . . . . with the light failing.

The final day: First things first, clean linen and bathed—preparations against the worst. Then to business: response to a lady writer. “I am very sorry that I shall not be able to accept your invitation for today.”[2] Silly, but even poets are not given to choose their final words.

In search of a second on the streets of the capital: a dangerous business, finally I pluck Danzas from just over the Tsepnoy Bridge near Millionaire’s Row and, old friend that he is, he may not deny me; the pistols, embraced in oiled wood and soft velvet,      lovely; at Wolff’s pastry shop on the Nevsky, the sound of tinkling glasses, lemonade, bitter in my throat, laughter, cold breath, coffee and sugared pastries; back in the carriage on the Nevsky with the winter light already raking low on the horizon; we might have seen Natalie and the children pass if we had looked, or if she had thought to wear her spectacles, the vanity of beauty. Nothing else for it, with carriages already coming back from the islands we cross the river at Trinity Gate, glide past the Fortress onto Kamenovstrovsky Prospect, then along the Rechka toward the “slides” and “the commander’s house.”

Impending death will concentrate the mind wonderfully, cause the spittle to cake in one’s throat. In a lonely field I sat while they stamped down the thigh deep snow. D’Anthes, already with pistol in hand on the far side of the barrier. And I turned away.

“Is the site well chosen?” someone asks.

“I don’t give a damn, just hurry up and finish.” My voice, it seems, far away.

“Ca m’est fait egal, seulement tachez faire toute cela plus vite.”

“Eh-bien! Est-ce fini?”

In the moments before our meeting, I stand facing the trees and notice small things: an animal track in the crusted snow, my cracked and shaking hands, already cold, a Hebrew signet ring given me by Countess Vorontsova slipping off my shrunken fingers, hands that in a moment will hold the pistol and decide our fates; Eliza, the one who had made love to me in the southern surf like a slippery seal, a great lady who went down in the sand, and her husband a knowing cuckold, much as I was at this moment, and thus this ridiculous duel between overgrown boys, whose honor isn’t worth one line of real poetry, of life. Just as I stood I wondered about the meaning of my wretched existence, the women who were like poetry to me and as dangerous, the undying love which was already dead as it was uttered, the debts, the cynical crowds around the throne, my attempts to be a writer, a poet, and what else? . . . yes, Natalie, her opaque mind and her irresistible beauty which led me to this place. She was not to blame, others never are. It is always our choice, our heart. A poet, a failure, a . . . . I had tried “all genres . . . and at the very end even the genre of life seemed not enough.” With guns at the barrier then we would put an end to words, compel silence to speak. Thank god for that.

And so, I stand to face my foe—odd word, foe, as if blood in the snow, a ball pushing through one’s intestines, shattering one’s hip, were in any way romantic.

Everything happens very quickly then. We move toward the barrier, but before reaching it D’Anthes raises his arms and fires first. Why didn’t I take my chance? I don’t know. Perhaps I thought he would miss. He didn’t. Who knows why. The sky is cobalt above my head as I fall in the snow. At first nothing, and then pain as big as the world. Danzas comes to me with an odd look on his face; the snow melting on my face, and I shivering. Somehow, I am able to raise myself on my elbow and raise the pistol.

“Attendez! Je me sens assez de force pour tirer mon coup.”

“I may take my shot.” I fire, and the blonde one staggers and falls.

I hear someone yell: “Yes, I have him.” “Hurrah!” My voice muffled in the endless whiteness. “The bullet? Where?”

“Have I killed him?”

“No, but he is wounded in the arm and chest. “

“It’s strange, I had thought it would give me pleasure to kill him but now I feel it would not. And yet it’s all the same; if we recover it will all start again.”

A cuckold will always be a cuckold, will never triumph in that ageless duel. D’Anthes stands again, a pillar of ignorance and desire untouched by any poet’s phrase. The ball has only penetrated the soft part of his arm, and raked across his ribs. I see him then with Natalie, locked in that mindless embrace that makes fools of us all, and the pain washes over me in waves, in ways I cannot explain, and I do not know how they get me to the road, or home . . . . Back past the Fortress in the darkness, the lights of the city, blood weeping from my body in cold tears, my life, through the muffled winter streets of our capital, and I know that “on such a night as this to toss and turn in one’s bed is better far than to stand unmoving, immortal upon a pedestal.”[3] It seems, though, we have little choice where we will come to rest, and the story will have already begun; the living , not long for this world themselves, will already have begun to package up my death like a poorly written novel. Our frolic in the snow with the light failing. In two years it, and I, will be completely forgotten. . . . Mistaken, as it seems.

They bring me home to the Moika already dying. Through the servant’s door and up to the mezannine, the crowds already gathering, whispers, tears. A woman’s voice: “No, he shall not die”. . . . And my own: “No, I do not want to die, my friends! I want to live, in order to think and to suffer”. (Elegy)

Oh, Natalie, I loved your ivory beauty too well: a continent I would never conquer, a gift I could not receive, and did not deserve. Poems written for that which I could not touch: “I loved you once, nor can this heart be quiet . . . What jealous pangs, what shy despairs I knew! A love as deep as this, as true as tender, God grant another may yet offer you.” These words at least were beyond reproach.

The bullet had passed merrily through my abdomen, searing the intestines, finding rest in my fractured hip bone. Two days in dying, until only the opium kept me sane. And all I wanted were blackberries in syrup given by Natalie’s hand—no my dear you are not to blame, not to blame. You mustn’t cry. Only listen . . . “Try to be forgotten. Go live in the country. Stay in mourning for two years, then remarry, but choose somebody decent.” Everything has turned out for the best.[4]

Last words of a poet:

“Why this torture?   Answer me: is it fatal?”

“Do not hold out any false hopes for my wife. She is no actress.”

“It seems life is coming to an end. . . . Please close the shutters.” A classical observation, perhaps, though rather obvious.

“It’s nothing, everything has turned out for the best.”

“If I must die then, Il faut que j’arrange ma maison. I must put my house in order.”

To Dahl: Come let’s fly together, up the bookshelves, but I am dizzy and cannot fly, and must fall. I cannot breathe, something is crushing me.   Finis.

 To a lady writer once more: “. . . I am very sorry that I will not be able to accept your invitation for today . . . or ever if it comes to that.”

The autopsy: “Small intestine affected by gangrene. That is probably where the ball entered. In the abdominal cavity there was not less than one pound of black, coagulated blood. . . . The ball traversed the abdominal integument two inches above the right spina iliaca anterior superior, passed along the surface moving downward, and, upon encountering the resistance of the sacrum, fractured it and lodged nearby.” The faithful Dahl again.

All very neatly said, a poetry of a kind itself. And now the time approaches. Stray strands of poetry rise up to greet me. My friends, let us walk together a while. . . . “Along a noisy street I wander; and beneath the eternal vaulting someone’s hour is drawing near, for growing youth must have its own good place, the one to fade the other to bloom” . . . Welcome darkness now, “I only ask that at the entrance to my grave, young life may be at play, and that nature unconcerned with mortals may shed its beauty’s timeless ray”. Even dying becomes a little easier with this consolation.

And the Tsar said: Your family is mine. Do not worry about your wife and children. They will be my children and I will take them in my care . . .

I knew a sadness then which was luminous . . . and my being grew calm and still because this heart beats, is alive, and cannot but love. . . . At earliest morning, I dreamt my love had turned to me, her breath sweet with sleep . . . and I knew a happiness given only to the blessed. . . Then sweetly, softly, ever so softly, dawn crept out of the night in Pieter . . . and I walked into the light.

29 January 1837 2:45 in the afternoon

By anonymous sledge my body was borne to the north. They lay me in the cold ground of Svyatigorsk—the monastery of the holy mountain—next to my people, the descendents of Hannibal, the negro of Peter the Great.

* * * *

A Dream     Early Evening 15 July 1841. Outside Pyatigorsk

By hot noon, in a vale of Daghestan,
Lifeless, a bullet in my breast, I lay;
Smoke rose in a deep wound, and my blood ran
Out of me, drop by drop, and ebbed away.
She dreamed she saw a vale of Daghestan . . . .
on the slope a well-known body lay;
Smoke rose from a black wound, and the blood ran
In cold streams out of it, and ebbed away.

(Mikhail Lermontov)

Does a fatal bullet wound really smoke in one’s breast? It was raining, as if the heavens were yielding, as I lay dying beneath Mashuk’s slopes. Muffled thunder and sodden earth. My body, my corpse, carried back to the town of five mountains, Pyatigorsk. God, what a country! Cherry trees and mountains—five peaked Beshtau, Mount Mashuk, the snowy summits of Mount Kazbek, the distant shadow of Elbruz. At earliest dawn the window open and the perfume of flowers draws me from the happiest of dreams; the branches of cherry trees in bloom reach in at my window, a lover’s caress, and the wind occasionally strews my desk with their white petals. A joyful feeling fills my veins to overbrimming. Is there any need here of passions, desires, regrets? (81-82).

Twenty-six years by the grace of God, in a dale of Daghestan. My life oddly reminiscent of a novel I had written not long earlier. Geroi Nashovo Vremeni—A Hero of Our Time which was, I said: “a portrait of all the vices of our generation in the fullness of their development. . . . However, do not think after this that the author ever had the proud dream of becoming a reformer of mankind’s vices. . . . He merely found it amusing to draw modern man such as he understood him, such as he met him— . . . Suffice it that the disease has been pointed out; goodness knows how to cure it.”

I believed only in poetry . . . that and the blood of the poet. Smert’ Poeta; “The Poet’s Death” they called it, and mentioned my name in the same breath as that of Russia’s fallen poet. Immensely flattering, and somehow completely irrelevant, a romantic lie that might help poets rest quiet in the ground if they were in the business of purveying meat pies at Kuznetsky Most, which they were not. I wrote:

And you, proud sons of famous fathers – you,
Known to the world for vileness unsurpassed,
………………………….. . .
You greedy crew that round the scepter crawl,
Butchers of freedom, genius, and renown! . . .
Law, truth, and honour—in your steps cast down!
………………………….. . .
In vain your viper’s tongues with poison dart,
And all your black blood will not wash away
The godly lifeblood of the poet’s heart!

These lines composed as Alexander Sergeevitch lay dying on the Moika; I had never met him, had only seen him pitched like black thunder from across glittering rooms, watched as they destroyed him, as they despised his poet’s blood. Somehow the words seemed far away from my life as soon as they were written, much better than my life, somehow already foreign to my deformed existence. And yet history it seems had a place for me. For my pains they exiled me to the Caucasus, my beloved, lonely Caucasus. I should have read my destiny in the stars, fatally embedded in the window glass of eternity, just as it was for my brother poet, words would be silenced by the gun, and the world would just go grinding on in its drunken, lascivious waltz.

God, what a country!! To never see it again.

To ride out on the virgin steppe, saber at my side, to climb up to the Mountain of the Cross and gather the stars in one’s hand at Dariel Pass. I sought this freedom, this life, and found only a prison. I felt my skin begin to constrict about my soul, and with “Mongo” Stolypin I sought escape.   There was riding out on the line with cutlass and sash, exposed to the hidden rifles of Kabardins, Circassians, hill tribes who did not yet know the saving grace of Christ. Cordite, blood and excrement. Something like roulette, a Russian fatalist, with one fatal chamber loaded. Apparently it was not my time. No bullet reached me. Nor were cynicism and cruelty beneath me; women’s innocent tears moved me to yawning boredom; and I did not need their bodies; as for the silly fools who drank the sulphur waters, who limped and ambled and played at being plaster soldiers, well, the romantic melancholy was really not in their line. My hand twitched and reached for my pistols. Words would no longer serve.

I really could not take the Monkey seriously, the montagnard au grande poignard[5] I called him, and this allusion to his manhood caused the ladies to cover their faces with their fans. And then I had made love to his sister years ago; no, I really couldn’t take him seriously, though he was the very devil with the ladies in his Circassian costume. Certainly there would be no duel, and if there were, well, there would always be the fatalist’s coin toss, interesting at least until it fell to the ground. I thought of women I had known, who while embracing another, might begin to laugh at my memory so as not to make their new lovers jealous of a dead man; and I didn’t give a damn about any of them. Perhaps I should die on the morrow. “The loss to the world would not be large and, anyway, I myself was sufficiently bored.”

Martynov, the fool, insisted on satisfaction. (“How many times have I asked you to abandon your jokes, at least when the ladies are present?” he said.)

Yes, really a very large dagger, I thought to myself; this is nothing, tomorrow we’ll be drinking the waters together as friends again.

But, as always, my tongue was my worst enemy. I said: “Really, Monkey, are you going to get seriously angry and challenge me to a duel for this?”

The Circassian warrior of the drawing room drew himself to his full height: “Yes, I am calling you out.”

There was more to him than I had thought. So be it. The barrier was set at 30 paces, and we were to approach 10 paces closer. What silliness. I had no intention of firing on anyone on such a fine day—and I remembered Alexander Sergeevitch’s story in which the duelist refused to use his weapon but instead spat cherry pits across the barrier. But there were no purple cherries to be had on this fine day. I raised my pistol to the sky and for some reason could not stop myself from one final bitterness in this world: ya v etovo duraka strelyat ne budu, I shall not fire on that fool. A worm twisted in my body, searching through the left side of my strawberry shirt—strawberries for luck—passing though the willing flesh of heart and lungs, and out into empty space again. Then, darkness. And no more pain.

I lay in the rain, in my strawberry shirt, red-on-red in a dale of Daghestan; I dreamt of mountain precipices, of crimson peaks, of a solitary sail seeking distant lands—and my blood grew cold and ran away. A fool of time.

And the Tsar said: A dog’s death for a dog.

Two years later, my grandmother took me to the family tomb at Tarkhany, where you may visit me as you please.

—Myler Wilkinson

 

Selected Reading

Pushkin, Alexander. Pushkin Threefold: Narrative, Lyric, Polemic, and Ribald Verse. Trans. Walter Arnt. NY: Dutton, 1972.

______. The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories (contains “The Shot”). Trans. Natalie Dudington & T. Keane. NY: Random House (Vintage Books), 1957

Binyon, T. J. Pushkin: A Biography. London: HarperCollins Publishers. London: 2002

Edmonds, Robin. Pushkin: The Man and His Age. London: MacMillan, 1994.

Troyat, Henri. Pushkin. Translated from the French by Nancy Amphoux. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970.

Lermontov, Mikhail. A Hero of Our Time. Trans. Vladimir Nabokov in collaboration with Dmitri Nabokov. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1958.

______. Major Poetical Works. U of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Kelley, Laurence. Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus. New York: George Braziller, 1978.

Vickery, Walter N. Mikhail Yurievitch Lermontov. His Life and Work. Munchen: Verlag Otto Sagner, 2001.

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Myler Wilkinson

Myler Wilkinson—author of numerous articles and essays on Russian culture and literary history, and has spent extensive periods of time over the last 25 years in Russia. He has published three books—Hemingway and Turgenev: The Nature of Literary Influence, The Dark Mirror: American Literary Response to Russia, and Russian Journal: A Personal Journey—all of which explore imaginative and cultural crossings between Russia and North America. He is the anthologist and co-editor, with David Stouck, of two volumes of British Columbia writing—West by Northwest: BC Short Stories and Genius of Place: Writing about British Columbia. In addition to his non-fiction work, Wilkinson has also published award-winning short stories in journals such as Prism International (25th  Anniversary Anthology) and Pierian Spring. Currently he is working on a story cycle which explores the lives of Russian writers. “The Duel” is one of those stories: it follows Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov on their ways to the duels that end their lives; this work is linked to the story “The Blood of Slaves,” which was winner of the Fiddlehead Fiction Prize for 2014, based on the life and death of Anton Chekhov.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. The society of cuckoos, to which many belong but none aspire. The letter that set everything else in train, and finally sealed my doom arrived by anonymous hand in early November:  “The Most Serene Order of Cuckolds, meeting in plenary session”, it began and I already smelled cordite in the air, “have unanimously elected Mr. Alexander Pushkin Coadjutant to the Grand Master of the Order of Cuckolds and historiographer of the Order . . .” 
  2. My last letter to Alexandra Osipovna Ishimov—children’s author and translator (27 January 1837).
  3. A poet I could never have known—Joseph Brodsky—who was also driven from his homeland, wrote these lines of elegy 150 years after my death. I thank him.
  4. Natalie, dear, you did stay in the country for a year, and when you came back to our fair capital you stayed away from the court altogether, until one day you met the Tsar—almost by chance?—in the English shop at Christmas. He kissed your hand, bowed to your still unfaded charms, and began to think how he might do something for you. And so the game began again. Introductions were made to Lanskoy, thirteen years your senior (you always liked older men), mediocre talent at best with no particular prospects; suddenly he found himself appointed Major-General to the Horse Guards, fortunate man, and marriage was not only possible but convenient.  You scarcely cared about the flesh anyway, and he said he loved you.  There were children, and thank god no poetry.  And you died in the autumn of 1863 choking with consumption—how is it possible?—and your husband followed you a full 15 years later, and you are both buried under the same stone in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. I am alone now, Natalie. I miss you.

    As for the blonde one: he married Natalie’s sister—Ekaterina—and repaired in disgrace to Berlin, then Soultz in Alsace, Haut-Rhin; did he make love to Natalie’s marble body while he held her sister in his arms? They produced children together and poor Ekaterina died just five years after this marriage of the heart (hers) and convenience (his). D’Anthes lived a long life, a political life—so unlike a Russian poet—with residences and business in Haut-Rhine and in Paris, and died in his bed in 1895, the father of many children, a councilor, a chevalier, a senator, and is remembered chiefly as the one who killed Pushkin at Black River.

  5. The mountaineer with the big dagger, if you must know. And the Monkey: otherwise known as   Martynov, decommissioned officer, poseur, spa town ladies man.
Nov 042014
 

Belinda1_05

With the publication of her intensely moving debut novel, Solace, Belinda McKeon quickly established herself as an important new voice in Irish literature. While we eagerly await the arrival of her second novel, Tender (to be released in March 2015), Uimhir A Cúig is delighted to feature her remarkable new story, “Route.”

Annie and Brendan have emigrated to the US from Ireland; however, as Annie recognises, “what they are is immigrants rather than emigrants.” A couple not so much leaving as arriving, but leaving what and arriving where? A couple who married in a church not necessarily because they wanted to but because they felt obliged to for their elderly relatives’ sakes – “just do the damn thing.” And what role does duplicity play in all of this – long ago lies, imaginary friends? Just what is left to believe in? The past, might be one answer, even if it is, perhaps, an imaginary past. McKeon takes us on this journey too. Where we came from and where we end up is just as uncertain as we, like McKeon’s characters, struggle to grapple with “the plentiful and illogical absurdities of the world.”

—Gerard Beirne

 

In a quiet moment, of which there are precious few, Brendan takes care to speak out of the side of his mouth. “Our table is very loud,” he says, flickering his gaze onto Annie’s, and Annie is proud of how good they have become at this surreptitious communication; is it marriage, she wonders, or is it just the whole emigrant business? Though, actually – and, if she’s honest, much less pleasingly – what they are is immigrants rather than emigrants, as their friends here are never slow to remind them, albeit always in the velvet case of laughter, always with the understanding that, since they are such good friends, they can poke fun at one another over anything at all. So: nothing like one immigrant population bitching on another. That was Rob – grad-school Rob, now barman Rob – to Annie, a few weeks ago, after she had said something about the Polish women in Greenpoint, about the way they glared. The way that sometimes, you caught them staring at you, sweeping their eyes over what you were wearing, as if to say, this has gone beyond a joke. As if to say, you people: how can you go out like this? And Annie sees something else in their eyes, too, something which, maybe, it takes one cor-faced Catholic woman to read in another, which is, You’re a bit long in the tooth for this messing, aren’t you? When are you going to cop yourself on?

“Don’t worry about it,” Annie mutters back to Brendan now, as they both pretend to be listening to whatever turn conversation is taking at the other end of the table. “People don’t notice it here in the same way.”

From his throat, a low, sceptical chord. He sips his Bloody Mary. “I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve seen a few people wince.”

Annie shrugs. “Let them wince. Nobody knows us here. So who cares?”

Brendan glances at her, and when he speaks, his tone is colder. “What’s that got to do with it?” he says. Brendan has views on this; Brendan does not think Annie should care about this thing about which Annie cannot cease to care.

“Nothing,” Annie says, shaking her head, but he knows, and she knows he knows, and so on, ad infinitum, and down where Martha and Jack are sitting, the decibel level is once more steadily climbing, as Martha teases Jack about something to do with football, something to do with the Jets, and it’s evidently a killer blow, a comical blow, because up goes the cry – EH-OH! – like something from a television show, and meeting it – AIYKK! – is a second roar of approval, of commendation, of glee. Jack holds his hands in the air as though defeated, and Martha bumps fists with Jessica, then with Tasleen. Opposite Annie sit Meghan, the birthday girl, and beside her, Liz, the only person at the table who has experienced parenthood, and who talks about it enough for all of them. That’s not fair, Annie says to herself, as soon as this thought arises. You had to ask her to see the photos. Hold your horses. Drink your drink.

*

Escarole salad, chilaquiles, pork and grits, baked eggs with leeks and truffles; this is brunch so elaborate that it might have come from some computer programme. And yet, so utterly par for the course; this is Smith Street, on a Sunday afternoon in October. The ten-dollar gin thing in front of Annie is called a Sleepy Hello, and she could tell from the first sip that she would need three if she was to get anywhere close to drunk. Which means that she is probably safe, as far as confessions go – though since confession is the word which has most readily come to mind, possibly not.

What would he say, Brendan, if she told him that less than an hour ago, as she headed for the subway after the gym, she walked up the steps of a church and she went right in? An instant previously, she had been admiring a stained-glass window, thrown open to the street, and the way it looked against the golden yellow brick of a building; but it had been an abstract, hazy sort of admiration – the smugness had still been uppermost, her real attention had been on the subway entrance across 7th Avenue, and on whether the lights would stay green long enough for her to get over there. And then, somehow, she had been on the steps. And then, somehow, she had been in the hall. She had been at mass. Near to it, or within reach of it, or lurking in the background of it, but however she put it, she had been there. Mass.

Or, service, actually, which makes it easier to take. It was a Methodist church, something Annie discovered herself to have already known as she walked into the hall, something she must have picked up from a sign or a noticeboard in between the yellow brick and the stained panes of glass. Methodist Church of Whatever. Methodist Church of The Village, she thinks it might have been, now. Or Village Methodist Church. One of those. Village, she imagines herself saying to Brendan.

So, it’s fine, she hears herself continue. It was Methodist. Or, better still, it was only Methodist; how about that for a nice spot of distancing and evasion? It was only Methodist, and I only stood in the hallway even though a woman – smiling, dreads, floral dress – invited me to go all the way in. I only stayed for ten minutes, and the preacher, who was female, and in her twenties, and wearing a Madonna headpiece, namechecked the Gay Men’s Chorus in her sermon, and I only stayed even that length of time because I could see that there were singers and a pianist on the altar, and I was curious to hear what they might sing, and when it turned out to be You Raise Me Up, I got out of there, and really, I only went in because I had a few minutes to kill.

The worry, of course, would be that he might not mind. Or, worse still, that he might somehow, actually, approve.

Annie stood in front of an altar with this man two years ago; beside this man she knelt there, on what turned out to be the excruciating-to-kneel-on beads of her dress; beside this man she prayed the prayers and rolled out the vows. They did this. They went there.

But everybody understands what this kind of thing is about. Everybody understands why this kind of thing is, sometimes, unavoidable. There are parents, some of them elderly, and elderly is code for just do the damn thing; everybody knows that. There are arguments, and because of just do the damn thing, you are too cowardly to get into those arguments, and besides, there is an aisle, and some part of you is hard-wired into thinking that only an aisle will do for walking up and for walking down. None of this is admirable. None of this is brave. But. There is no need to get carried away.

“How are the grits?” Brendan says, just seconds from finding out for himself, given that he is sliding a fork into the creamy mush on the side of Annie’s plate.

“Amazing.”

“Want to try?” he says, gesturing towards his own.

She shakes her head. “Stuffed,” she says. “Already. Here.” She pushes the small bowl of potato cakes towards him. He glances at her as though he does not dare hope.

“Sure?”

“Potatoes,” Annie says, giving the word the thick-tongued intonation she and Brendan give it when they say it here, as a joke. A joke that only they get, given that to everyone else, their accents probably sound exactly the same as always. “I’m sure.”

“Yay,” her 36-year-old husband says – her smart, sarky, word-whirring husband, he actually says “yay” – and he polishes them off.

*

Meghan and Liz are talking about children. Meghan earns money for taking care of them during the day, and Liz pays money to other versions of Meghan to do the same thing. They have been talking, they tell Annie, about how extremely good their kids – Meghan’s charges and Liz’s daughters – are at lying. They are pros, apparently; unblinking, unwobbling pros, and already Liz’s youngest, at sixteen months, is showing signs of being the slyest of them all.

“I’m doomed!” she says, smiling as though this is the most delicious prospect in the world. “I’m completely doomed!”

“But every child lies, don’t they?” Annie says.

Meghan looks at her blankly.

“Come on,” Annie says. “Didn’t you?”

Meghan opens her mouth as though to respond, then just twists her lips and gives Annie a slight shake of the head.

“I don’t believe you,” Annie says. “I think you’re lying now.”

“Uh-uh,” Meghan shrugs, twirling her straw and casting her gaze out to the street. “I’m not. I just never needed.”

She is blonde, and petite, and pretty the way a girl on a poster for dental floss is pretty. When she is not minding children, she writes essays on urban space and eco consciousness and on the city of the future, which is a place, from the way she’s described it, in which Annie is not sure anybody is going to want to live. Who, Liz’s little liar, grown up to be ultra-cognisant of others? A likely story.

“I lied like a sailor,” she says, aware that the simile is wonky, and she takes a big swig of her elderflowered gin. “It came to me so naturally that a couple of times I actually shocked myself.”

“Like when?” Brendan says, beside her, and she almost jumps; she had, somehow, almost forgotten that he was there. Not that it would have made any difference, not that she would have told a different story, but still. Her declaration was for Meghan’s sake, and for Liz, who has still not shown her own hand where duplicitousness is concerned, but who scarcely needs to; wee Victoria has not licked it off the ground.

“Like, too many times to remember,” Annie says, giving Brendan a playful nudge. “But a long time ago. Not lately.”

Brendan arches an eyebrow at her. Then he laughs, and they all sip their drinks and make what headway remains to be made of their food, and as Brendan puts some chorizo on Annie’s plate – she has to try it, he says, to her protests, she has to take just a bite – he asks whether either of the girls ever had any imaginary friends.

Liz shakes her head, exhaling a light laugh, but Meghan’s expression suggests that she regards this as a trick question. “Imaginary?” she says, and she tilts her head to one side. “Like, people you pretend are there?”

“People you pretend are there,” Brendan confirms, nodding, and suddenly, Annie realises where this is going. “Or,” he says, “people that other people think you’re pretending about. Until they discover otherwise.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Liz says, deadpan.

“No, no,” Annie says, shaking her head at Brendan. “We’re not…”

“Come on,” Brendan says. His grin is boyish, enthused.

“What’s going on?” Meghan says, holding her fork in mid-air. “Is something going on with you two?”

“Annie has a story about an imaginary friend,” Brendan says, still grinning.

“Jesus,” Annie says to him. “I haven’t thought about that story in, I don’t know, fifteen years.”

“Tell us!” Liz says, looking to Meghan for back-up, but Meghan just continues to switch her gaze from Brendan to Annie.

“It’s stupid,” Annie says. “I don’t even think I believe it anymore.”

“You said you knew the girl, didn’t you?”

“She was a friend of a friend,” Annie shrugs. “But I heard something since…I don’t know,” she says, shaking her head. “I can’t even remember it properly.”

“You can remember it perfectly bloody well,” Brendan says, and he turns to Meghan and Liz. “So,” he says. “A friend of Annie’s. A friend of a friend.”

“In Ireland?” Liz says.

“In Dublin,” Brendan nods.

“Ok,” Liz says, as though this somehow adds an extra layer of credence. “Ok.”

“She was babysitting,” Brendan says, and he nods towards Meghan, whose face twitches as though she has been outrageously accused in the wrong, “looking after this little boy. And…” he nods towards Annie. “And…”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” says Annie, and she takes a mouthful of Sleepy Hello, and she gropes for the story as she was told it by her flatmate Gemma in Phibsboro twelve or thirteen years ago, one night when they’d had whiskey and when every story about everyone they’d ever known seemed to be pushing to the surface and heaving itself out onto the floor between them. Gemma; where is Gemma now? Married too, and with a couple of kids, and with the negative equity that is as tightly woven into their generation’s existence as email, or Ikea, or kale. “I didn’t really know this girl,” Annie says, and Brendan makes a noise that says, get on with it, don’t be trying to wriggle out of it, and Liz looks at Meghan and Meghan looks down the table towards the other conversation, the conversation that is still, impossibly, about football, and she looks back.

“So, she was minding this kid. And his parents told her, you know, little…”

“Jasper,” says Brendan, nodding very gravely.

“Jasper?” says Annie. “Jasper was not the child’s name. But anyway. The parents told her everything she needed to know about looking after him. Where his food was. Whatever.”

“Where his food was?” Liz says, laughing. “Are you sure she wasn’t looking after a cat?”

“She saw the imaginary friend,” Meghan says abruptly. She shrugs at Annie. “Right?”

“She saw him?” Liz says, holding up a hand for silence. “Sorry, explain this to me. She saw what?”

Meghan is frowning. “Isn’t this a movie?” she says. “Doesn’t this…”

The Sixth Sense?” Liz says impatiently. “But nobody saw him!”

“This is pointless,” Annie says to Brendan, and she lifts her glass. It is almost empty. She sucks loudly through the straw.

“You might as well finish it,” Brendan says. “The story, I mean.”

“I’m not going to finish it,” Annie says. “They know what happened.”

“I don’t know what happened!” Liz protests, a hand on Meghan’s arm. “I want to hear the rest of the story!”

Annie sighs. She remembers the shock of this, from when Gemma told it to her in that basement flat where the heating always took forever to come on; she remembers the genuine chill which dropped down her spine when Gemma came to the big reveal. A gunk, that was what her mother would call it; she got a gunk, and for weeks afterwards – it was so silly, so embarrassing, she was afraid to look at a window after dark, for fear of what she might see reflected there. A broom handle, a cheap old table, a fridge door covered with novelty magnets and unpaid utility bills; that was what she would see. But she didn’t look. Not for ages.

“The parents told this girl that the child had an imaginary friend, just so she’d know, if she saw the child talking to himself, not to worry, that this was the reason, and it was perfectly normal, and cute, and blah,” she says. “And sure enough, she did notice the kid making occasional comments to the space beside him, and she tried to be nice, to interact a little bit with the…friend – to ask him questions, or to ask the kid questions on the imaginary friend’s behalf. That kind of thing.”

“Bad move,” Meghan says. “Never patronise the imaginary friend.”

“Yeah, well,” Annie says, suddenly determined to maintain control. “That’s as it may be. So. She gets through the evening, and the kid is well-behaved, and he puts his pyjamas on, and he gives her no hassle, no hassle at all, and he’s quite content just to go up to bed. And as she’s reading to him – “

“Oh no, no, no, no,” Liz cries, covering her ears.

“Hang on,” Annie says, pointing to her. “Not yet. As she’s reading to him, the kid is making occasional references to the friend. Asking him questions, explaining stuff to him, that kind of thing. And it’s fine, and she goes along with this, a bit, and when she’s saying goodnight, she makes sure to say goodnight to the imaginary friend as well. And.”

“Oh god,” Liz says, hands to her ears again.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Meghan says.

“And later that night,” Annie says, and now she realises that she does not want this story to end, that she wants to keep stringing them along like this, even Meghan, who is trying so hard to look as though she does not care for a word of it. There is more of her father in her than she thought, Annie realises, her father who loved nothing more than to keep them all up at night, scaring the life out of them, telling ghost story after ghost story, her father who was never as happy as when he had an audience, attention, an atmosphere that felt like approval, even if it was only actually a hunger for distraction. Lately, it has felt as though she is having discoveries like this every day. Lately, too, she has been opening her mouth, and saying something – something to Brendan, usually, because it is with him that her intonation is at its less contrived – and hearing, quite clearly, that it is not her own voice, but her mother’s voice which has come into the room. It is not a mystical thing, this phenomenon; it is to do with aging, and timbre, and genetics – nothing more mysterious than that, nothing more poetic. And yet.

“Later that night,” she says, “the babysitter goes upstairs to check, say at 9 or 9.30 or something, whatever time a four year old boy is meant to be long asleep by, and she hears him chatting in his room. And she says to herself, right. Enough is enough. And she opens the door. To say, time to go to sleep now…Jasper. Time to say goodnight to friendy there and close your eyes.”

She pauses. Even if the story is ruined, there is nothing wrong with a pause.

“And he’s there.”

“Oh my fucking God,” Liz says, hands to her mouth. “Who’s there?”

“The friend is there,” Annie says, and she laughs with true delight at Liz’s reaction. “Sitting at the bottom of the bed, looking around to see who’s disturbing their conversation. Looking her right in the eye.”

The people at the next table register only mild irritation at the jump in noise levels; Liz’s shriek is at least over with quickly. Beside her, Meghan is adamantly shaking her head, talking about how this is a movie, how it is definitely a movie. Brendan drapes his arm around Annie’s chair, and she leans into him; they are laughing, they are enjoying themselves, this is effortless, this is fun. Which is how Annie comes to sit up straight, suddenly, and look at Brendan, and say, while the soundtrack of Meghan’s cynicism and Liz’s horror is still unfolding, that they should tell them the other story, the one about the guy on the road, and she knows as soon as she has said it that Brendan has gone into a different place now, that Brendan is not interested in playing this game anymore, that Brendan does not want to be at a brunch table with the Annie who would tell this story – but no, it is not even that, she sees, pushing her hair back from her face and looking, unsmiling, at him as he looks, unsmiling at her; it is that he does not want her to be an Annie who would believe this story, who would drag it up again and thereby prove to him that she has not listened to him when he has told her to let go of it, to see sense on it, to understand that it is not, and cannot be, the story she for some very worrying reason so fervently maintains it to be.

She gets it; he looks at the Annie for whom this story is a real one and he wonders if he knows her at all. If he is right about who she is. If he did what was wise, after all, standing with her in front of that altar, listening to those prayers for their future blessedness and fecundity, tolerating the doggedly old-school priest who told them to keep the Blessed Mother and her saints in their home always, to make a place for her, presumably, in between the imitation Eames and the Crate and Barrel lamp and the black and white films they send flickering up onto the wall from their fancy, ugly, clunky projector, that horrible piece of office equipment which allows them to bring Bogart and Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart into their living-room, large as the night, whenever they please.

Annie, Annie hears her mother’s voice say. Watch what you’re saying. But Annie is angry with her clear-sighted husband, by now, and Annie will tell the story of the old man on the side of the road if she damn well pleases. So she tells them, and this time, Meghan does not disguise her interest, and this time, the noises that Liz makes are of a different kind, and this time, the others at the table listen too, and if Annie is not mistaken, the couple at the table beside them are angling their ears in her direction as well.

It lays its track down easily; their last week in Ireland before moving here, the pressure to visit everyone, to say to cousins, and aunts and uncles these formal goodbyes, as though they would see them any less often than they had while living in the same country as them. This was before the recession, so the term had not yet come back into currency, the term that everyone who emigrates is using now – the American wake, or the Australian one – fair enough, Australia is a long bloody way away – or the London wake, which is just silly, which is clearly just an excuse for a piss-up and a chance at a few good luck cards stuffed with twenty-euro notes. Annie and Brendan had used the term too, but with what they thought of as hilarious irony; nobody really saw it that way, they knew, and all of that was so long ago now, all of that suffering and misery, that it was absolutely fine to joke about it, and their going-away party was a laugh and a bit of a bragging opportunity all at once. But the visits; the visits were a chore. Driving to Galway and Cavan and Roscommon; cups of tea and ham-and-tomato sandwiches, and beer that Brendan could not drink because he had to drive back again, and the same questions, and the same answers, and the same old lines. They had done it because their parents had expected them to do it. It had not occurred to them to say no, no thank you. The inkling of such a possibility was only beginning to occur to them now. Now that it only half-mattered anymore; now that their parents were one-half gone.

It was August, so it was still light out at half-nine or so, which was when they were heading to Annie’s cousin’s house, and this cousin lived up the Arigna mountain, so the roads were tight, and steep, and winding, but Brendan knew this country well – Brendan had grown up close to here, had come these roads with his father and the cattle lorries – and Brendan was driving as Brendan usually did. They were talking, letting off steam about whatever visits they had been required to undertake already that day, and they were listening to the radio, to the arts thing on Radio One. And it was on a straight stretch of road that they met him, and he was just as she remembered him, insofar as she could remember him at all.

He was then, perhaps, twenty-five years dead.

She knew it was in and around that, because of the way the memory of his funeral was held in her mind; it was all angles and shadows, with no sense of human expression, no trace of how an emotion had looked, taking over an adult face, which was something she could remember from later funerals, the strangeness of a man’s weeping, or of her mother’s weeping, for that matter. This one, though; too early for that. Those pictures in her mind were made up of pew backs and of knees and of the slant, high up, of the ceiling; that had been her perspective on the world then, which meant that she had been three, maybe four years old. Jodie had been their neighbour; her neighbour, the old man who lived in the tin-roofed house up the lane, who chatted to Annie, who treated her like a neighbour no matter how tiny she was, how frightened she was of his greyhounds. Annie’s mother brought her up to visit him almost daily, and the three of them talked – it was like that, it was not Annie’s mother and Jodie talking over her, or down to her, it was the three of them talking, and then Annie and her mother talking some more as they walked down the lane again afterwards, or sometimes, Jodie walking her down. And when she saw him on the mountain road that evening, she had recognised him instantly, before ever it entered her mind that such a thing was an impossibility.

“I said to Brendan, long before we went around that corner, I said to him, hey, that’s Jodie. I hadn’t even registered that it couldn’t be him: I just saw him, and that was that.”

“You never know with these things,” Brendan says now, and his voice is wary. He tries to touch Annie’s hand.

“I saw him,” Annie says, almost savagely, and she pulls her hand away.

Someone says it: “Eh-oh!”.

“He lifted his hand, as though he was telling us something, and I said to Brendan, I said, Jodie, and he said, Jodie who? And I said, slow down. And he said, why, do you want me to stop? And I said no, just slow down, just slow down. And he did. And when we came around the next corner…if we had been going any faster…”

“There was a guy in a tractor, cutting a fucking hedge,” Brendan says with a grimacing shake of his head. “With a hedge-cutter; he was taking up our whole side of the road…but…there was room – I would have been able to brake…”

“You would not have been able to brake,” Annie says, and she looks to Meghan and Liz, to the others at the far end of the table, for support. They stare back at her, eyes wide, faces deadly serious.

“He saved you?” Liz says, right on cue.

“He saved us,” Annie nods, and to the noise of Brendan’s heavy sigh, she does not even turn her head.

“Irish roads,” says Meghan, reaching over Liz for the water jug. “Rather you than me, by the sounds of things.”

*

Presumably, Annie thinks as she sits on the bus later – alone – these recorded messages are played over the tannoy at random; presumably, the driver has nothing to do with it. The driver is just making his way from Greenpoint to Prospect Park, doing battle with all those shining, chubby SUVs, watching as his passengers haul themselves up his steps, as they dip their Metrocards into his machine; listening for the right kind of beep. He’s doing his thing, and then somewhere along the line – he doesn’t know where – the recording jolts itself on, and the bus is filled with the voice of a guy who could be at the Academy Awards, asking the audience to please welcome some hugely famous, greatly beloved actors, such is this guy’s drama and intensity, such is his sense of this as a moment when all ears ought to be his, all attention locked with full focus and reverence on what he has to announce: that assaulting a New York City bus driver is a crime. Annie looks around, but nobody else on the bus seems to be paying the voice the slightest heed; they are still absorbed in themselves, or in one another. Gazing out the window at Crown Heights, as it slugs past, all bodegas and clothes stores and worship halls and hair salons. Listening to each other; debriefing one another after another day. Listening to their music, whatever it was; nodding so deeply, so slowly that no degree of dead-eyed stare could convince the observer that here was anything less than vivid life, engaged and excited life. Annie looks at them, her fellow passengers, and she realises that what she is trying to do is to catch someone’s eye. To find someone, in that instant after the syrup-voiced warning has played over the speakers, with whom to connect laughingly, wryly, with whom to make wisecracks about the announcement and how comical it is, coming the way it does, coming with that camp flourish, that elegant timing, as the bus slams and rattles its way along Utica or Nostrand.

“Sure, we’re not going to do anything to him,” Annie imagines herself saying, pulling her face into a comical expression, while her interlocutor nods, and laughs, and sends her eyebrows high towards her hairline. Her interlocutor will be a woman, a woman in her 50s, Annie decides: a teacher, or someone who works in a hospital, something like that. She will be black, because everyone on this bus is, except Annie, and she will take absolutely no shit; she will be in full agreement with Annie about the plentiful and illogical absurdities of the world. Sure, we’re not a bit interested in you, love, Annie hears herself continuing, and the woman will nod and laugh and move her head in accord. That’s right, maybe she will say – That’s right, Annie feels reasonably sure, is a good approximation of what a woman like this would say – and she will smile a purse-lipped smile – not unlike Annie’s mother’s smile – and her eyes, her eyes will be beautifully bright. Mmm-hmmm, she might then say – another sound that Annie can hear in her head, a sound she feels sure to be the right sort of one, at least – her agreement emphatic, her enjoyment of the joke intense; Sure, we have better things to be doing than assaulting that lad, Annie might go on to say. “That lad”: so Irish, so much of Annie’s part of the country, but these kinds of descriptions are the same the world over, and she is certain the woman will see her meaning without any snag. Then the woman will laugh in a final confirmation of pleasure and approval, and Annie will shake her head and say, Oh, well, and the two of them will go back to their business. And, have a nice day, or you have a nice day, now!, whichever of them – probably Annie – will be first to stand up and press the cord for the stop to come.

—Belinda McKeon

Belinda-McKeon

Belinda McKeon is the author of Solace, which won the 2012 Faber Prize and was named Irish Book of the Year as well as being shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize. She has contributed to publications including the New York Times, the Paris Review and the Guardian, and is also a playwright. Her second novel, Tender, will be published by Picador in April. She teaches at Rutgers University. Her website is www.belindamckeon.com

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Oct 152014
 

Woodard Bigger

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Daisy sits in a fast food restaurant booth, waiting for a man named Red Carnation to arrive and purchase her soft pebble of a baby, who is propped atop the Formica table, fast asleep inside a bassinet. She listed the child online as “like new” and included photographs of him clowning with a stuffed rabbit to up the cuteness factor.

Daisy’s unsure why, but over the past month, she has traded, sold, or discarded every item that ties her to this town. Gone are her souvenirs and trinkets, her albums and yearbooks. The purge feels cleansing, and the tyke is her final fragment to shed.

Questions had inundated her inbox: Is the father strong? What is the average height of the men in your family? How well can the baby see in the dark? In the end, Red Carnation seemed the most straightforward of potential patrons: He had few queries and plenty of cash dollars. There was also the fact that he too was named after a flower. Daisy saw that as a sign.

When she described herself to him in their last telephone exchange—medium height, medium weight, medium length blonde hair—Red Carnation didn’t reciprocate.

“Those who frown upon the selling of children are always listening,” he told her in a wise, gravely voice.

Her body begins to itch with anticipation.

Has the baby reacted unusually to a full moon?

The door opens and a small man enters wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt, jeans, and a red carnation tucked behind his right ear. He approaches Daisy with a smile; her pulse quickens. “Hello, Red?” Daisy says. Sitting across from her and the tot, he shakes her hand and replies, “You look conspicuous without any food.”

She eyes the blank table space in front of her. “Oh, I didn’t know. I’m sorry. I’ve never sold a baby before.”

“Baby or no baby, it’s about appearing normal.”

“I’m not very normal.”

“That’s all right,” Red Carnation says. He slides a five across the table. “It’s on me.”

She looks around for others. “And you’ll steal my baby while I’m away?”

“This isn’t my first rodeo, and I’m no monster, miss.” There’s a cowboy twang in his grit that appeals to Daisy. It’s the twang of trust.

Daisy slowly inches off her seat, keeping a close eye on Red Carnation as she walks to the register and buys a cheeseburger. A bead of sweat skates down her cheek. The boy serving her resembles a reflection in a funhouse mirror, and he concentrates on a Chemistry textbook resting on the counter. “You wouldn’t happen to know the difference between an ionic and a covalent bond, would you?” he asks as he makes change.

“One steals and the other shares,” Daisy says.

“Sounds like my friends.”

Daisy groans. “I’m talking electrons.” She takes the bills and coins from the boy. “Look, I’m no tutor, OK?”

Is the baby afraid of loud noises, particularly loud motors?

The child shifts as she unwraps the cheeseburger in the booth, but still does not wake. She holds the wax paper close to his face and scrunches it hard. Again, no reaction. Daisy nods at the impressive feat, at the perfect baby in front of her, with impeccable manners.

Red Carnation says, “Did you medicate him?”

“Who drugs a baby?” Daisy replies, then remembers why she’s here and feels a tad sheepish. She stifles a laugh and reaches out to give Red Carnation his change, but he tells her to keep it.

“Like a bonus?” Daisy says.

Red Carnation gently runs his fingers over the baby’s wisps of hair. He is about to ask her why she’s giving up the child. The inquiry hovers in the air, like a radio wave. Daisy inhales a mouthful of cheeseburger. “We don’t have much of a connection, I guess,” she says as she swallows. “He’s not good at reading my mind. And there isn’t a daddy.”

“He’ll be very happy with us,” Red Carnation says. He withdraws a phone from his pocket—not the phone he used to contact her, a burner most likely snapped in two and dwelling in a dumpster out back—this is his everyday phone, and he shows Daisy photos of his farm. On the small screen, the landscape looks pleasant, welcoming. He does not reveal the farm’s location, but extra radio waves tell Daisy it is upstate New York, or Vermont, or New Hampshire, or Maine, or maybe Arkansas, or Oregon.

The final photo he pulls up is of the rest of his family. They’re all dressed in white shirts, including the little ones, sitting and standing in a cornfield. There are so many faces and bodies they don’t fit in the frame.

Daisy imagines her son with this group. There would be bunk beds and campfires, sing-alongs and fishing. As a boy, he might climb trees, ride horses, pass through a screen door into a kitchen thick with the smell of broth. He could drift on vapors into a room full of couches, where a sister, the same age as him, practices a violin. The tune Daisy conjures is that of a lullaby, and the boy curls tight on a cushion and shuts his eyes. His mouth bends into a smile, a truly genuine smile. He is so very happy.

“You don’t have room for one more, do you?” Daisy jokes.

Red Carnation plucks the flower from behind his ear and hands it to her.

What is the precise sound of the baby’s cry? Have you played the lottery since the baby’s birth (and, if so, did you win)?

From here, the transaction lasts less than three minutes. A crumpled contract is signed: Daisy’s hand shakes and her name is illegible, but Red Carnation says it’s fine as he photographs her with the contract in hand. A small bag replaces the bassinet.

“Any last words?” Red Carnation says.

“You sound like an executioner,” Daisy replies, to which Red Carnation laughs. She places the bag next to her on the bench.

She doesn’t remember watching Red Carnation and the baby leave, but the flower remains on the Formica, a token, like in the movies when someone wakes, saying, “It was all a dream,” before finding an important object under the bedcovers.

Daisy thinks about that broth, the horse rides. She thinks about the sigh of the violin as she loiters in the restaurant. While she’d like to leave, she finds that she cannot separate her legs from the booth’s bench. It is as if all of her energy has evaporated during the transaction. The act of walking, of standing, feels too great, too grim.

Even as she swallows her fourth bite of cheeseburger and spies a long, brown hair, shocked golden with mustard, drooping from the sandwich bun, Daisy does not rise. Gummed to her seat, she looks back at the boy learning Chemistry, so very lost in science, in terms, then turns her attention to the restaurant’s large bank of windows. It is dark outside, and the restaurant’s neon sign, boasting of billions served, paints the night a wash of red and yellow, the colors of action and cowardice.

— Benjamin Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, and Spartan. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews have been featured in Necessary FictionPublishers WeeklyRain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.

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Oct 142014
 

cover

Warning: I burst out giggling every time I stick my nose in the following excerpt from Chapter 2 of Han Dong’s A Tabby-cat’s Tale. It’s a perfect example of how the author uses irony to inspire laughter. As you read this excerpt, it’ll be hard to focus on anything besides the hero, an anti-social, flea-ridden, incontinent cat called Tabby, but try and pay a little attention to this Chinese family’s reaction to the cat’s quirkiness. Tabby’s eccentricities don’t diminish their love, but intensify it. It’s truly hilarious. —Melissa Armstrong

Han Dong
A Tabby-cat’s Tale
By Han Dong
Translated by Nicky Harman
Frisch and Co.
Ebook, 43 pages;  $2.99

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We never found out what had happened in those two hours, but what was certain was that the cat’s temperament had changed radically, and that it had gone in a highly unusual direction. Tabby no longer wove around our legs under the table. In fact, the family rarely knew his whereabouts, or if they did, they couldn’t get at him. Everyone knew we kept a cat, but the only signs of his existence were a particular smell—though it was impossible to trace the smell to its source. The neighbours’ children were endlessly curious and searched every corner of the house. Sometimes my sister-in-law, as Tabby’s owner, put on a show of joining in, but she wasn’t in the least anxious—she knew that Tabby was unlikely to make an appearance. So as the kids ransacked the flat, even turning cupboards and drawers upside down, she smiled secretly, knowing full well that Tabby had found a safe hiding place. Even my sister-in-law was unwilling to hazard a guess as to where he was. If she knew, she might betray her fear, so it was better not to know, better to have unconditional trust in Tabby. (This gave my mother an idea: Why not hide their savings book with Tabby? No burglar would ever find them.)

Tabby, strictly speaking, belonged to my sister-in-law. It was her idea to get a cat, and she was his chief caregiver. The rest of us just did the odd bit to help out but we had no particular role. With his change of personality, Tabby became doubly incontinent, pissing and shitting all over the flat and carefully concealing the evidence. It was my sister-in-law’s duty to clean up after him; this was unpleasant enough in itself, but having to find the mess first made it even worse. As I said, Tabby was an expert at hide-and-seek and could easily tuck himself out of sight; hiding a much smaller pile of crap wasn’t a problem at all. As for a tiny puddle of pee, that was almost indiscernible. My sister-in-law had only the stink to go on. Every day she had to get my brother or me to move cupboards and bookshelves and lift the bed boards and frames. She swept out the turds, applied charcoal to get rid of the smell of cat pee, washed the soiled upholstery and bedding and hung them out to dry in the sun. The flat was never really tidy, in fact it got to be quite a mess. The furniture was piled higgledy-piggledy in the middle of the room, as if we had just moved in or were about to move out and the removal truck was waiting downstairs. It began to get us humans down, but Tabby was in his element. Our house had become a jungle, the air pungent with the odour of cats. Gradually, we too became acclimatized; the smell became attenuated and our noses less sensitive. This had the effect of making it more difficult to locate the puddles of cat pee, and we failed more often. My sister-in-law, conscious that her olfactory sense had dulled, worried constantly that she had overlooked something. She went around sniffing all day long, until she sounded as if she had chronic rhinitis.

Still, there were good times. Picture the touching scene: My sister-in-law sits at the table, Tabby in her arms, all four paws in the air, revealing his pale tummy. She’s engrossed in picking off his fleas, cracking each one between her fingernails and dunking it in a bowl of fresh water at her elbow until, after half-an-hour or so, the surface of the water is black with Tabby’s fleas.

Our cat was infested with the creatures, so his mistress had to repeat this service constantly. By this time, my sister-in-law was the only person who was allowed to touch him, and even she had raw, red scratches all over her hands from his sharp claws. She didn’t care and never went to get a rabies inoculation. My brother was horrified. Rabies can stay dormant for as much as twenty years, he told her, and might flare up at any time. ‘But Tabby’s a clean-living cat,’ retorted my sister-in-law. ‘He never goes out, so he can’t possibly have picked up rabies. If he bites us and behaves oddly, it’s because he has psychological problems.’ Tabby lay in the crook of her arm like a beautiful baby, staring at us wide-eyed, content to allow his mistress to part his belly fur this way and that. His eyes closed in blissful content and grunting issued from his throat. But appearances were deceptive: at any moment, this un-swaddled infant might leap into the air and extend his fearsome claws. Once, my sister-in-law was bent just a little too close over her task, and Tabby nearly had her eye out. As it was, her nose was badly scratched, and she was scarred for life. Her cat duties were not just never-ending, they were extremely hazardous. No wonder they demanded her unwavering attention.

My sister-in-law went to work every day, came home and spent the rest of the evening caring for Tabby. As time went by, the cooking gradually devolved on my mother, who was over sixty and in frail health. Until then, the most she had done in the kitchen was lend my sister-in-law a hand, but now she wielded the ladle over the wok and my sister-in-law didn’t lift a finger. My elderly mother shopped and cooked, served us and even did the washing-up afterwards. It was hard for her—she’d been a pampered only-child, and this was the first time in her life that she’d had to take charge of the house. At the start, my mother accepted her new responsibilities with alacrity. Her daughter-in-law constantly praised her efforts—because she had a guilty conscience—and so my brother and I had to follow suit. If my sister-in-law put her nose through the kitchen door, it was only to prepare food for Tabby. She stewed fish guts for him until the kitchen stank to high heaven and we had to hold our noses. But sometimes, the kitchen smells were delicious—that was when, on high days and holidays, she went out especially to buy fresh fish for Tabby, which she left swimming in the wash basin. These she cleaned and cooked herself, entirely for the cat. We never got so much as a taste, nor did she. She and my mother jostled for space in the kitchen, so that Tabby should get his meals on time. Sometimes the smell of Tabby’s food made our mouths water. Once, my brother and I accidentally tasted a spoonful of Tabby’s food and told my mother how good her cooking was; another time, I had a spoonful of the sweet and sour fish my mother was making and it was so horrible that I thought it was for the cat. Eventually, my mother’s confidence in her cooking plummeted, and she no longer wielded the wok ladle with the energy of a master chef.

It was not that my sister-in-law wanted to leave my mother in charge. In fact, her constant care for the cat was largely done for my mother’s benefit. If she didn’t prepare the cat’s food, then he would have had to eat a portion of our food, wouldn’t he? Most importantly, my mother was super-sensitive to bugs. In summer, a single mosquito in the flat would keep her awake. If she got bitten, she would be scratching all night. And the mosquitos found her irresistible: in fact, she was the best mosquito-repellent for everyone else. Any mosquito would make a beeline for her and leave the rest of us alone. With fleas, it was even worse. Even since Tabby’s arrival, my mother had been covered in streaks of blood from flea bites, which were indirectly caused by the cat. My sister-in-law felt so sorry that she redoubled her efforts to rid Tabby of his fleas. But she wouldn’t get rid of Tabby. Even my mother could see that her daughter-in-law treated him like her own son, and she accepted this. Both mother-in-law and daughter-in-law were highly principled women, and somehow, Tabby kept their relationship in harmonious balance.

Tabby was the pivotal point of family life, and the pivot of the pivot was the never-ending supply of fleas. One day, my sister-in-law bought him a Happy Kitty flea collar. The fleas deserted him in droves, which made him happy, but rather than disappear, they scattered to the four corners of the flat before coming together in one place—my mother’s bedding. My mother wasn’t wearing a Happy Kitty flea collar, so you can imagine the outcome. The old lady had a much harder time of it than Tabby: no flea collar and no one to spend all day picking the fleas off of her. When my sister-in-law saw the appalling devastation that my mother’s continual scratching was wreaking on her body, she had to take Tabby’s collar off. Once they had heard the news, most of the fleas returned to live on the cat, although a few remained behind, and even one bite was enough to give my mother a sleepless night. However, she was at least liberated from the torment of hundreds of fleas inflicting thousands of bites on her. The truth is that my mother learned to tolerate the flea bites somewhat, and the sight of my sister-in-law bent assiduously over Tabby’s belly made it difficult for her to complain.

After that, my brother swore to exterminate the pests. He got a can of insect repellent and directed a fierce jet at Tabby. The cat yowled and fled, not under the bed or behind the cupboard, but onto the windowsill, perhaps seeing safety in the outside world. Our flat was on the seventh floor, and luckily the windows were screened with a plastic mesh. Otherwise, Tabby would have fallen through. He dangled from the mesh, and his claws scrabbled and tore at it. Spread-eagled and silhouetted blackly against the rectangle of light, he mewed piteously. But my brother was determined to solve this problem once and for all. He emptied half the can, filling the flat with DDVP; the spray formed droplets on Tabby that dripped from his fur. His mewing grew fainter until finally he dropped, still spread-eagled, to the floor.

My brother had to adopt emergency measures to revive him. He rinsed him with bowl after bowl of clean water, finally holding him under the kitchen tap. Tabby went limp and let himself be handled. Normally, he refused to be bathed, and it took the two of them to manage it, my sister-in-law washing him while my brother gripped his back legs. This time was different: he even allowed my brother to give him two soapings and several rinses. My brother then towelled him dry and blew warm air at him with the hair dryer; he even trimmed Tabby’s front claws. My sister-in-law came home from work to see a well-groomed Tabby and my tenderly solicitous brother. This gave her a gnawing, jealous feeling, but she never got the bottom of what had happened, and my brother never told her about the insecticide. From then on, however, Tabby never trusted anyone but my sister-in-law. She was the only person he allowed close to him, yet he attacked her with renewed savagery. My sister-in-law’s arms were covered in a network of scratches, both fresh and old, and she became expert at dodging his attacks. My sister-in-law must have been suspicious about the cold Tabby caught as a result of the incident with the spray can, and his subsequent bath, perhaps connecting it with something my brother had done, but her woman’s intuition warned her not to probe too deeply, in case it led to divorce. She didn’t want that—neither did my brother—so Tabby’s bath became a taboo subject, which they both learned to avoid. My brother simply assumed an air of guilt, as if he were a man with a mistress on the side.

—Han Dong, translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harmon

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Oct 112014
 

me_5

 

It had begun to snow. Nieves lifted his head to the slow, slanted cascade of flakes and stuck out his tongue. He savored the cool on his tongue as he watched the dog charge across the parking lot and disappear down the trail head.

There was more to savor than snow. Nieves recalled the night before. He had attended a wedding reception held at an Italian social club Nieves frequented. He was seated next to the sister of one of the club’s executive. She was visiting from Rome. “How’d you learn to speak Italian so well?” she asked him. Years before, he said, he had played semi-pro soccer in Sicily. He told her a story from those days. His crew were locking horns with a cross-town rival, a gang of savages culled from the worst of the league by a dodgy, penny-pinching industrialist. One of the goons pulled Nieves down in the box and he was awarded a penalty. Nieves sauntered to the ball and hit it clean but the ball sailed on him and rattled off the cross bar. The goalie bolted from the net towards the stands where the rabble were already celebrating with gutter fervor. Nieves stood his ground in a pose of dejection. From behind his guise, he watched the ball as it began to roll towards the goal, propelled by a furious backspin and the uneven ground of the pitch. The ball crept across the line, the referee signaled a goal and the stadium died a death.

The woman threw her head back in laughter, a genuine guffaw and her hand had come down on his. She didn’t seem like a lady who expected much. At one time, she told Nieves, she had been a stewardess for an Italian airline. “I went everywhere. And nowhere.” She was thin and tall with black ringlets piled high above a lined but open face as tawny as his own. Just under fifty, he thought, a bit younger than himself but the same breed. They danced and when it was time to leave, tipsy as they were, he slipped his hand around waist and drew her in for a peck. In a week, she would be back in Italy. The thought gnawed at him.

As Nieves reached the trailhead, the dog scampered out of the woods to meet him. Nieves teased it for a moment, playfully batting at its face. The dog pulled back and kicked up clouds of snow. Nieves began to walk and the dog settled into a crisp saunter. In the summer, some dead trees had been cleared out and wood chips spread on all the main trails, leaving them well marked. But the dog was a tireless drifter and when they came to a fork, Nieves knew where they were headed. “You devil,” he said, reaching down give the dog a rub. The dog romped away down the small path that would take them deep into the woods.

The snow’s cascade seemed like the slow arpeggio of a harp, thought Nieves, sounding the notes in his head. It was early, too early. He woke up before dawn and the woman had already left his condo. He couldn’t fall back to sleep and waited restlessly in bed for the faint light of dawn. Nieves continued with the music as counterpoint to the whispering hush of wind and footfalls. As they moved to the back of the park, Nieves could make out the imposing hulk of the defunct racetrack through the scrim of barren trees. Its future loomed over the preserve. Developers were licking their chops as they dreamed of the wrecking ball swinging wild and hard.

The dog glanced at Nieves and picked up his pace, disappearing around a bend. He spent most of his time carousing at the farm where Nieves grew up in the county. Nieves traveled a lot for work and had only taken the puppy as a gift from one of his sisters. A dog like that had no business in the city, thought Nieves. His people on his mother’s side were tomato farmers off the boat from the Azores. His father had returned to Portugal shortly after the younger sister was born, leaving Nieves and the two girls alone with their mother. Money was always tight. The struggle marked them all, especially his sisters. They were beautiful but self-serving. Both married well. Divorced well too, with no kids to bog down future adventures in avarice.

They must be slipping some of their loot to his mother, Nieves was sure of it but she still worked a fruit stand in the summer, selling everything she could to locals and cottagers. Marie Nieves, tippling home-made wine, cajoling in broken English. Shit-faced but never showed it.

The dog returned, grumbling with short, sharp barks. Up ahead, the path was blocked. The obstacle soon revealed itself. Nieves noticed the savaged flank of the deer. The animal must have clipped itself on the fence as it moved from the grasslands on the other side of the preserve and the blood attracted the coyotes.

The dear’s gaze into oblivion caught Nieves short, as if he had bit his tongue. He felt a nature rapture overtake him. The woods suddenly seemed alive with animal spirits, inscrutable and imposing. When he was a teenager, his father had re-appeared, just like that. He behaved as if he had always been there and nobody questioned his return. One day, Nieves was driving back from the city with him. They had gone to the market to sell produce and on the way home, his father stopped at a bar. Nieves plugged the jukebox while his old man threw back rum, that was his drink. By the time they left, it was dark. His father should have seen the deer charging out of the woods but he didn’t and the deer took out the right fender before rolling into the ditch. Nieves remembered his old man pulling onto the shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s have a look.” He never spoke English, never liked it.

His father shone a flashlight. The deer was thrashing about, trying to right itself. But its front legs were destroyed and blood covered its breast. His father gave Nieves the flashlight and took out a sledge hammer from the back of the truck. He stepped smartly to the deer and swung. The deer wrenched its head from the blow and thrashed again. His father took another swing. The deer made a sound and moved and went still. A car whizzed by and then another.  “Hold that light steady,” his old man said. Nieves watched his father pause at the top of his next swing, staring at the deer, choosing his place for delivery. The hammer dropped. The deer’s head exploded.

Nieves stepped around the doe, the dog holding fast to his leg. Nieves glanced through the fence at the abandoned racetrack. Tomorrow, he would take the dog there, before he was due at his mother’s for Sunday dinner. He thought again of the woman, her hair spilling over him, but the deer crowded her out.

Back in the parking lot, with the dog settled in the backseat, Nieves reached into the glovebox and pulled out a flask of rum. He took a swig and watched the snow through the windscreen. Exhaustion and longing flooded through him and it was all he could do to turn on the engine. He put the car in gear and eased out of the lot.

—Timothy Dugdale

 

Timothy Dugdale is a senior copywriter, brand strategist and freelance journalist who writes for a variety of luxury lifestyle magazines in North America and the Caribbean. He also composes existential novellas and poetry.

 

Oct 012014
 

AFSullivan-Insideco

 

The first time they floated through the ceiling, Abbie Kirkland was naked. Life was full of constraints, obligations and restrictions—sleep was one chance to abandon all of that. Even in the winter months, she hated sleeping in her clothes. Quilts were piled up on the bed, but she and Derek floated right up through them, their skin lit up blue under in a wide circle of light. Derek wore only a ratty t-shirt, the armpits gaping holes. The clock read 3:00 AM, but Abbie could not speak or cry out. Her body was almost frozen, slowed down so every moment was an ache, an endless task. Her eyes could move, but all they saw was blue light and Derek beside her, his own face stuck half-way through a yawn. There was fear trickling out around the corners of his eyes, but he could not say a word. His teeth looked electric, sharpened in the light. Abbie wanted to scream, but then she passed through the ceiling, through the attic, through the roof of the farmhouse, and nothing could touch her.

It was there in the tractorbeam above their farmhouse twenty miles outside Lethbridge that Abbie finally saw everything, even the pieces she never wanted to find. She did not see the horizon or the world around her; she saw everything inside Derek, inside the tractorbeam hoisting them up into the air, soundlessly, the saucer above them just an aluminum pan stuck in rotation. Memories of frogs exploded with firecrackers, of a mother’s fist whacking Derek’s mouth, of dead mice in the attic fed to the cat by hand. The blue light pierced them both in a way that she and Derek became one, unleashing every fear, every hate and those deep kindnesses most humans can’t remember. They washed over her mind, seeped into the corners of her skull. Abbie saw her husband pull a boy out a house fire while he was wasted, saw him leave a friend outside in the winter cold when there was not enough room in the truck. She watched him hold his first niece, felt the size of his heart almost cripple his skinny chest. She learned of the horrors his father had described, but never enacted on his offspring. She and Derek rose up through the darkness, swaddled in blue and not even the moisture in the air could touch them.

Abbie watched Derek’s eyes move toward her, felt him there, showered with her oldest thoughts, the time she cut her hand and didn’t cry but just watched the blood run through the lifeline of her hand, watched it trickle down her arm and slide off the point of her elbow. It was only then that she told her mother, only then that she had wept because that was what you were supposed to do when you were five and someone saw you hurting. This was your signal, your cue. Derek had access to all of this, but he wasn’t probing, he was being showered with these memories, these horrors and fears and revelations. She always wanted him to refuse a shower before they made love, to smell the day on him, the sweat, the shit, whatever and now he saw this, knew this and they kept rising into the air. The saucer above drew closer, but it could not be a saucer. These were not true stories, these were fantasies. She wanted to call it a dream, but the blue light tasted like a socket and she could not pinch herself. No dreams, no nightmares. Just a now.

As a small hum of the machine above them drew closer, Abbie pushed words out toward her husband, letting them swim through the blue light toward his head. What is this? Why is this?

Derek only could send back colours, bright yellows that hit her brain, reds that made her tremble somewhere within, where the blue light could not reach. Finally, small words began to trickle in to her brain, into her consciousness, if that’s what she could call it here, hovering above their house and the snow below.

Something. It is. Do not. Do not. Let go. Let go. Hold. Hold. Hold.

It was when they bumped against the aluminium that the darkness finally closed around them and the last word she could taste, could smell, could hear was rye and ginger and Us like a whisper pushed through chipped, clenched teeth. And then she knew everything.

The next morning Abbie and Derek woke up in the backyard. She was still naked in the snow and his shirt was still ragged. They crawled toward each other against the cold and did not need to speak. Each one had somehow been inside the other up there in the sky; there were no more intimate places to hide, no more shame, no more secrets. They groped each other, looking for wounds, for missing parts, for seams or zippers where there had been none before. They found nothing, only what they knew, what they had always wanted. Abbie ran a hand down her husband’s spine, pushed her lips into his. They would tell no one of what happened. No one would believe them anyway—no one would understand outside these two beings. They remembered nothing after the aluminum, but everything from before. They had halls to walk, museums to explore that never seemed to end. The world could become a person if you were given enough access—the world could become a person if that was all you cared to know.

After a few minutes kneeling in the snow, they finally realized they were cold.

-

It was five years before they rose again in the middle of the night, bodies pulled slowly from the bed, perfectly flat toward the ceiling. Derek wore the same t-shirt which now had spots of puke decorating its front. Abbie still remained naked, but it was summer and her sweat had filled the sheets. The blue light was the same. Owen was two years old and sleeping in the other room. He was just learning to make it through the night. Abbie’s heart began to ripple quickly inside her as she rose; there were never any guarantees that they would come back, there were no promises with the light. It came when it wanted to it seemed, it raised them in the dark with no warning.

We knew this was comingWe will come back. We will always come back.

Derek’s voice was inside her, his words sliding up against her glowing teeth. Her eyes found his and she saw the fear in her rain down toward him, a lonely child, a bitter boy with no parents in this world, sent to live with ancient relatives who could not spell kindness, much less show it. Rotten fruit, rotten kids at school, a boy stunted by a lack of diet, a lack of love. This would be Owen and Derek’s dreams filtered back toward her, the night the cattle got out and he had kissed Owen goodnight three times, how he had come back between each run and looked down on his son, placed a gnarled hand against the smooth surface of the boy’s head. Abbie’s fear plunged away somewhere hidden, and she found the old pieces she wanted to recognize, the first time Owen had bit her while breastfeeding, the first time he had fallen down and got up by himself. Children would eventually grow, eventually change. Derek’s mind showed her how he stayed up some nights just to watch over her, how he ate the overcooked chicken breast without complaint, how he threw out a vase he smashed one night after a bachelor party and she never noticed.

She found little bits of Owen inside him as they rose through the light. Private moments a son had shared with his father, things the boy would way day forget, but that would linger on for the man beside her, naked in the air, floating in the heat of summer, teeth lit up like exposed wires under a foreign sun. She knew Derek found the first steps Owen had taken with her while he had been out haying in the summer before, the way the boy had clapped to cheer for himself and then fallen over directly into the coffee table. Only three stitches, but those stiches were woven into Abbie’s heart now, into her being, she could feel them there even in the blue light.

There were secret loves here, things that had changed, grown deeper, creeks that had become rivers, ditches into canyons, but they were not divided, they were still drawn toward one another. The blue light tightened this bond that had once just been a child, held it close against them. The sky was clear and they could have stared for miles around them, taken in the beauty of a world about to change, a season fading into the next, the idea of distance, of space, of whatever it was dragging them up into the sky, but here, in the tractorbeam, Abbie could only find her husband, could know him more than any other place, any time. It sucked them both up into the sky, drew them towards a deep unknown and all she could find was how he liked to swallow his toothpaste water, how he liked to wrap his hand inside her hair, how he could slaughter a pig and think of Morrissey and laugh. And Abbie wanted all these things, she had all these things, they were hers and his and there was no separation, no line, no demarcation. They eroded into one another, in the blue, in the light, until they were swallowed once again, not as a two, but as a single organism.

They agreed never to tell the boy, again deposited outside their home in the early hours of the day. There was now a new knowledge between them, a third, displaced understanding of their son within their lives. Abbie could hear the cows bucking up against the fences near the house—they understood something, but could not articulate it beyond their fear. From inside the house, she could hear a voice and for a second, the sensation was too old, too ancient to count as a memory. Her knowledge came from inside, came from a knowing that Derek could share alone, a long understanding that needed no form the outside world could understand. This was a human sound and Derek moved before she could, a crying coming from within the house. Owen was awake. She gathered herself up in the grass, not even bothering to look for a wound or a puncture, no soreness on her body. Whatever they had taken from her, they had given something more. Abbie knew this. This was an understanding she would have, a knowledge she could keep. This was not magic or science, or fantasy. This was simply the future, she told herself. This is something we deserve. As she came through the screen door, she watched Derek in his dirty shirt swing Owen up into his arms and then remembered she was naked and did not care.

-

They slept in separate beds during the third occurrence. Separate rooms even. It wasn’t until Abbie rose through the dissipated ceiling, her body now covered in a nightgown in the fall air, that she saw Derek rising with her, his hairy body turned away from her, as if their gaze was what connected them in these strange and foreign moments. His body seemed to fight the light, she could see striations of him straining, little bundles of muscle fibre slowed and stunned by the blue encompassing them. There would be no escape. They both knew this and so Abbie did not resist. She welcomed this, dreamed of being taken away to another planet, to another place, away from their house. It had to be cursed now; maybe the blue light had cursed them, given them too much. She wanted to see the grief inside Derek, the places where he was no longer whole, to let herself know that he too was shattered, splintered, a series of fragments stitched together by will alone, will and some bizarre desire to keep living in the wake of Owen’s absence.

All that she found was rage though, a seething mass of red bombarding her skull, the contents of Derek shelling her with images of other women, of flesh on flesh, of an email he had read where she confessed her desires to a man in San Francisco, the hand of Owen slipping from hers near the river two summers before, Derek wasn’t there but he had imagined it well enough, almost had Abbie shoving their son into the deep, dark cold. She dove in after him, but Derek had painted it with hesitation, had nixed out the Skidoos and the screaming people, had rendered it into some strange tableau and so her own black bile filtered through the blue light to him, their semi-naked bodies hurling insults and rage at one another in the sky. It was raining and the water could not touch them, it fell in a cone around the blue light while the saucer spun above them, nameless, eyeless, watching nonetheless, its blue maw pulling them higher and higher.

Agony had new terms here, was an eternal reliving of that loss, of the ways they had tried to cope, the new flesh Derek had pursued in town, the cats he had shot in the middle of the night, drunk in the barn, aiming for raccoons or anything to stomp the life out of to quiet himself. Abbie found the ways she retreated already well-worn routes into the arms of old high school boyfriends grown wide and sedentary, but still welcoming. She mainly slept on their couches, drank their beers, asked how their ex-wives were going.

Murder spun between them, acts of imagined violence, divorce always gloaming up into the dark but never quite taking shape until now, until the memories seemed to be boxed up and divided, the museums closed to one another, but still memorized, so all the wounds still burned hot even in the blue. Words still filtered through to express failures, to express desires best left unsaid.

Loathing is too weak.

Abbie could feel this on her neck, coupled with the yoke of Owen’s body never moving from her shoulders but here in the blue with her crackling teeth, she cast it off to build up her own defenses—you never could be a man to recognize. You would not identify the body.

He had disappeared down the river and it had been weeks before they pulled out what was assumed to be the Kirkland boy. Abbie found images of Derek weeping in his truck outside the coroner’s office, battering the steering wheel, prying his teeth into the leather, the sobs wracking his chest like a death rattle. She threw these through the air toward him, split his weaknesses into tinder and lit it. The blue light did not allow Derek to run and so he burned and burned and she can feel him flush the blood and bile toward her, unspooling older hatreds she already knew but had let mold and drift away. Her mother slapping her in the face outside the church, outside the corner store, outside the school. Her father sitting in the car and just watching, just watching.

Just watch a boy drown, just watch, just watch.

They rose slowly together even through this maelstrom, even through this hate as the rain fell and now Derek was the one closer to naked, closer to the start, he was sleeping in the guest room these days and doing his own laundry at Sheryl Ann’s place and she liked to take him in her mouth before he left at night and Abbie couldn’t help but know these things, they must both know all these things, this was what the blue light has always promised and so when they hit the edge of the aluminum, when the dark descended again and cancelled everything, there was no love, no loss, no want between them—just flame and salt and whatever was left of hearts untended.

They were never dropped into their beds. They were in the yard again and they awoke with no outer wounds, no zippers, no portals through their stomachs. They awoke clothed and damp and it was still raining and the cows were in the barn and they did not look at each other. Abbie rose with her cheeks bright red and her eyes filled with crystals of some sort, they were tears, they were stuck to her eyes it seems, but she did not make any noise. She rose and walked toward the house, saw Derek stumbling toward his axe at the woodpile and then shuffling toward the barn.

Abbie stepped into the kitchen, turning one of the burners on, placing a skillet over the rising flame. She stared out the wet window, watched her husband bring a pig out into the yard, watched him raise the axe above its head. No artistry out there in the wet, just rage, just red, just splashes of fury out onto the dirt and the grass and his half-naked body. This was how it would show itself, the wounds the blue light had provided, the ones lingering within them for that year, for that loss, for what a river could take away and never apologize for because it was never the same thing twice. The river was never static enough—there would be no blue light there.

Abbie pressed her bare palm down onto the skillet and did not scream. She let it sizzle and burn until the pig outside stopped wailing and Derek had fallen to his knees in the mud.

Only then did she pull the melted flesh away like a human glove, knowing there and then the inside was still worse off. The rain did not wipe anything away; it only blurred the edges until everything outside looked like a wound. Abbie ran the tap and let it all slough down the drain.

-

Fifteen years passed and they stayed in that same farmhouse, working the same land, living the same life as before in the same separate beds in the same rooms and they rose in that blue light again, but older, fatter, more tired. Everything gets tired, everyone gets tired, even the blue light seemed weaker for once, or maybe they were just used to it by this point, this fourth ride into the sky so delayed from their earlier voyages. Abbie did not turn away from Derek, she could almost move her face toward him. He was wearing a coverall from the barn. He had not even bothered to change before lying down in the bed, placing his balding head back against the sweat drenched pillow. She could feel the fear begin wafting off him, all the knowledge she could find inside him leaking out for the world to see.

Abbie had tried to forget things, tried to heal her burnt hand, but it was never quite the same. At one point she almost told the doctor about the beacon in the sky above her bed, the sensation of floating through your own attic with your husband beside you, the deep knowing of your guilt in every synapse in your brain due to this terrible blue light, this terrible illuminating technology, a gift, a curse, all these things at once, but she kept her mouth shut because there were mornings where she could not believe, where she would go to Owen’s grave and weep and blame the river and the sky all at once. It resided in each molecule of her, it hid all its stories and memories in her flesh, bound Derek to her in each and every day. They had never harmed her, but Abbie knew she would never be the same. And no doctor would help with that.

Why? Derek’s word slipped into her like a long forgotten transmission, a recoding he’d kept in storage for this moment, wanting her pardon. Why rise again, why bring this pain again?

Abbie could see his yellowed teeth crackling in the blue light like before, she could see the pieces of Owen within him and the old pieces of the love they’d built, the love he’d tried to find with other women, with Sheryl Ann and Debra and Ms. Gibbons from the elementary school. None of it lasted though and he had stayed on in that house with her, stayed away from the river, from the scenes of devastations and house fires and missing children. Abbie was not shocked to find new things in him, new things she wanted to absorb, to find and remember. There were newer hurts, newer fears, the same old longings he could never outrun. There was a baseball game on tomorrow that he wanted to watch, a dream he wanted to forget about frogs and death and the ghost of his father’s right hook.

Abbie knew why. She wanted to know Derek as she always had, as he would want to be known. And they could still build Owen in there somewhere, maybe, maybe out of disparate parts and all the new terrible and awesome things they had come to know—awesome in the old understanding of unknown skies and seasons. The world could be just two people, could just be a single person if you were given enough time, enough delay in the sky.

Abbie Kirkland knew why.

Fascination.

Abbie’s voice wasn’t a sound, it was a colour and a fury, it was a sky before the storm, it made the blue light pale against Derek’s exposed face. It spread through him as a pink glow inside his sluggish blood and there was no aluminum above them, no maw to swallow. They were both here and they could know everything. All they had was a now. Her voice knew it.

 —Andrew F. Sullivan

/

Andrew F. Sullivan is the author of WASTE (forthcoming Dzanc Books, 2015) and All We Want is Everything (ARP Books, 2013), one of The Globe & Mail’s Best Books of 2013. Sullivan no longer works in a warehouse.

 

Sep 142014
 

ssample01Author Photo by Sally Anne Sample Ward

/

Call me Magdalene. Not Maggie. Not Meg. And certainly not Dolly, for God’s sake. Call me Magdalene. Let the syllables roll off your tongue. Slowly…slowly…

Let the connotation seep into your stomach, your very skeleton, your middle there. Take a breath. Narrow your eyes. What do you want?

Think: do you really love your life? Your job…your grown children…your spouse? Is what you have now really enough for you? Take another breath.

Touch my cheek… my silver-sheathed breast…me. Keep breathing now.

Hear the raging air blowing all around us. Feel the wind’s unpredictability. Sense the precipice beneath our toes. Smell the gift. See how our bodies sway just before they’re beyond choice? How our chests cease to heave?

We fly for an instant, holding each other for an infinite moment of understanding. See the puffs of dust rise in frilly clouds that our bones make as they crack on the sun-scorched earth./

—Cynthia Sample

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Cynthia Sample holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in fiction as well as advanced degrees from University of Texas at Dallas and at Austin in mathematics and business. Her writing credits include stories published in Numéro Cinq, SLAB, Summerset Literary Review, Between the Lines, Wichita Falls Literary & Arts Journal, and others. She lives in Dallas.

 

 

 

Sep 132014
 

DSCF0087 Leon Rooke, 2014 bwLeon Rooke. Photo by Tom King.

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This brings us back again to the question of repetition, if such may be seen as a question. Take Jack. The question as pertains to Jack was Jack’s fear of repetition. In our view Jack was counted a failure as a musician because Jack refused to repeat himself. He would not play or sing a number twice — never in public, that is, and rarely in private except to a restricted few — because that meant he was without any new ideas and had become the wretched musician who went on performing the same old material over and over. Such is how we saw it, and furthermore saw the same when it came to his compositions. Here, too, he failed, because if he played out a bar or two he could never bear to repeat that bar or bars a second time, the result being that all his compositions were inadequate. We had no doubts as to why this was so.

We said to Jack, Jack, you are in love with Zulu, are you not? Yes, Jack said, I am head over heels in love with that woman. We said, Well, Jack, you have told her of this love, have you not? Jack said, Yes, I have declared my adoration in no uncertain terms. We said, Well, Jack, that was our exact expectation, that you had spoken of this love, which is to say, you have said it out loud to Zulu, but there is this also, which we expect you know, a woman certainly is not going to be content with an expression of love delivered once and never again, a person, Zulu among them, requires an updating on the love question once in a while, needs reassurance, we are saying. I know what you are saying, said Jack. We said, Jack, how long have you and Zulu been together? A few days over a year, said Jack, which has been my great  good fortune. Yes, we said, but when was it you last expressed you love for dear Zulu, whom we love also? We would wager you said ‘Zulu, I love you,’ or something similar, long, long ago, most likely in the early days of your relationship, would this not be so? Jack said, I believe I can say I expressed my adoration of this woman in the very earliest days of our relationship, probably, in fact, sometime during the first hour I found myself in her presence. We said, we would expect no less of you, Jack, the fact of the matter is that Zulu has told us she was leaning against a wall and you were leaning against her and whispering this love business in one ear and another within five minutes of your very first meeting. That rings a bell, said Jack, I recall the very building we were standing against and what time of day it was, and that it was winter and snowing and we both had on these thick coats and what hell it was, how frantic we were, I mean, to get our hands beneath those coats all the while we were kissing and not aware of any other person on this planet. Yes, we said, that corresponds exactly with our sense of the event, inasmuch as we were in a Hudson’s Bay entryway watching, asking each other who that woman was Jack was kissing, how long has that been going on, when did she come into the picture? Asking such questions as that because until that moment we had all been feeling a little sorry for you because there was no one in your life you loved and never had been, so far as we knew, when we were all of us pretty well covered on that front and recognizing how lucky we were. Yet there you were suddenly in passionate embrace of this woman we had never seen before. Behaving, that is to say, in a manner we thought shocking at the time, because this was so unlike the Jack we knew that we could not believe our eyes. Jack said, Yes, I was more than a little shocked myself, and hardly believed it myself, all those honking horns and stunned pedestrians, because almost within seconds of catching sight of each other there we were pressed against the wall and fumbling to get inside those coats. Yes, we said, that is just as we saw it, the falling snow, moreover it was freezing cold out there, one could get frostbite in a minute. Well, Jack said, I don’t remember being cold, I believe it would be fair to say that Zulu and I were totally unaware of weather, although I do recall we had these little sniffles in the days following. We said, we can’t speak of that, Jack, because it seems you and Zulu disappeared for about a month, although of course at that time we didn’t know her name was Zulu. Yes, said Jack, a month, that’s accurate. We hid away in bed that full month, hardly ever eating and seeing no one. We said, Well, that brings us to our point, Jack. Jack said, What point is that, I hope this is not going to be embarrassing. We said, It well might embarrass you, Jack, our question is, well, it really isn’t a question so much as an observation. Jack said, What is this observation? We said, It is this, Jack, we were thinking surely during that month, given all that passion, you must have expressed your love for Zulu a second, third, or fourth time, however much this does not square with your obsession with this question of repetition, if that indeed is a question. Jack said, I am going to say this only once, the truth is simply that you do not understand. We said, So explain it to us, Jack. Jack said, I am sure these expressions of love passed back and forth between us during that month, and since. Where you are making your mistake is in assuming there is only one way to say I love you whereas there are about ten thousand ways of expressing these endearments, few of which I regard as repetitious, the same applying, I would argue, to what you deride as my compositions. We said, Be that as it may, Jack, or as may may be, still you must admit that now a year and some have passed and if you are telling us that in the whole of this time, these endearments firing back and forth, you have not repeated yourself, then we simply are not going to believe it, and as for that we very much doubt Zulu would confirm this ludicrous, not to say far-fetched notion you are preaching. Jack said, Be my guest then, why don’t you go and ask her. We said, Jack, old friend, it is not our intention to intrude into your affairs in the manner you are suggesting, it is enlightening, however, to learn that in matters of love you claim infinite variation, yet in your professional life you contrarily refuse to play or sing a composition more than once, which fear of repetition explains why all your creations are imperfect, worthless, a waste of time, and that’s why, to make no bones about it, as an artist you are an abject failure. Jack said, Oh, abject, am I, a failure am I, is that so. We said, How else would you put it, to which Jack said For your information I do not need to sound out those bars on any instrument since I hear those notes perfectly well in my head, thus these passages you apparently believe mandatory are rendered unnecessary for any and all judicious ears, but you deem me an abject failure even so, am I understanding you correctly? We said, Yes, unfortunately, but yes, yes. Jack said, Well, that is nice to know, it is nice to know that my supposed best friends, esteemed colleagues in the musical world, view me so unfavourably. We said, It is our contention, Jack, sad though it be, that you have not lived up to your potential. Fine, Jack said, I suppose you are entitled to your opinion. We said, It is not only our opinion, we bet if you asked Zulu she would say the same. Jack said, You are mistaken, you do not know Zulu. We said, All right, we will go and ask her. Jack said, You do that, you are in for a big surprise, you will return with tears in your eyes, begging my forgiveness, I doubt I will be able to, at least not for a week or two, for a week or two your lives are going to be utter hell.

We said, We will see about that.

Jack said, Kindly take these beautiful strawberries to my darling, such is what I was sent out for, you scorpions will be first to know Zulu is having our baby.

—Leon Rooke

Leon Rooke has published more than 30 books, including novels, short story collections, plays, anthologies, and “oddities,” and more than three hundred short stories. He exhibits paintings at the Fran Hill Gallery in Toronto. Rooke’s many awards include the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (for Shakespeare’s Dog, 1985), the Periodical Association of Canada Award for the English-Language Paperback Novel of the Year (for Fat Woman, 1982), a Pushcart Prize (1988), the North Carolina Award for Literature (1990), and the Canada/Australia Literary Prize in 1981, for his body of work. Also the W. O. Mitchell Literary Award, for his writing and his mentoring, and the ReLit Short Fiction Award. Rooke has taught at more than a dozen Canadian and U.S. universities. He lives in Toronto.

Check out Rooke’s earlier appearances on NC below:

Sirens & The Red Hair District: Paintings

Thou Beside Me Singing: The April Poems

Heidegger, Floss, Elfride, and the Cat: Fiction

Son of Light: Fiction

Four Paintings

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/

Sep 032014
 

Bydlowska What Women WantPhoto Credit: Jowita Bydlowska

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I get up to close the curtains. Lit-up against this darkness we must look like a dinner-party diorama.

“I was cutting the umbilical cord and I just thought to myself, that’s it buddy, it’s all over now.” Rick laughs so hard the table shakes.

“What’s over?” Helen, his wife, says. She doesn’t look at Rick.

“Oh, you know. Life as you know it,” says my husband. “I’m kidding, Babe.” He smiles at me.

“Although there are many good things about it. Milk breasts,” says Rick.

Helen gets up and goes into the kitchen where she stands by the stove. I follow her.

“Do you have any cigarettes?” she says when I come in.

“I quit.”

I open small drawers punched into the kitchen furniture. Candles, string, tape, sunglasses, a Valentine’s Day card. You are my love and my life.

“The one fucking night we get to spend time with each other,” Helen says and shakes her head.

“There are old Marlboros in a drawer somewhere,” I say and find them. “He’s just drunk. They’re both drunk.”

“We should get drunk,” she says.

“Look what I found.” I show her the Valentine’s Day card. “He thought I was joking.”

“Were you?”

“I don’t know. Yes.”

She lights her Marlboro.

I turn on the kitchen fan.

“My grandmother told me every woman wants her husband dead eventually,” Helen says.

“The black fantasy.”

“What?”

“The white is when you dream of your wedding.”

“That’s right.”

“’You’re supposed to just wait it out. It’ll turn. Secret to marriage.’ My mother.” I say the first part in my mother’s voice.

“Amazing.”

We don’t say anything for a while. We can hear Rick and my husband laugh in the other room. They are probably still talking about breasts. Milk breast. Breastfeeding breasts. Leaking breasts. Breasts.

“Are you trying to be writers again?” Helen says.

“He’s reluctant. He thinks it’s a waste of time now.”

“Oh. What an idiot.”

“I don’t know. He says, either you really do it or you’re just dabbling. Anyway, we plan to try again this summer. But it’s hard with Emily,” I say and think how there still isn’t anything I’d like to write about anyway. Maybe a children’s book, something about penguins.

Helen looks away, her face distracted. “I can’t do this anymore,” she says.

She turns on the tap and holds the cigarette underneath it.

“What?”

“This,” she points with her chin towards the dining room.

I put my arm around her shoulders and she leans her head against me. She smells of Marlboro. “Christ,” she sighs.

We go back to the dining room.

Back in the dining room, Rick says, “Genes. Helen’s second cousin gave birth to a retard. They call a child like that something else now, but let’s be honest, that’s what we all think when we look at a child like that. What?”

Helen’s eyes are closed.

I watch the candle wax slug slowly toward the tablecloth. I stick my finger underneath it like a child. The burn is pleasant, quick then it’s gone.

My husband shows his bottom teeth in a yikes-smile, “Bro.”

I’ve never heard him say that, bro.

“No, but really, bro. The wife’s brother, right? And the husband’s aunt? And yet, they still chose to go natural. What a legacy. All I’m saying is that genes are not always the best thing to preserve. There was an unusual aggregation of you know in their family.”

Rick sits back and stares at Helen.

I try to imagine him on top of me. I used to be able to but now I no longer can.

“Nina says you might try to write this year again,” Helen says. “What about the book that you were working on?”

“I’m looking at some cottages,” my husband says. “I’ve lost that manuscript.”

“No, you haven’t,” I say, unsure if he has.

“I have.”

“Well, write something new then. You should write about us,” says Helen.

“Write what?” I say.

“About him,” Helen says.

Rick says, “I don’t want to be written about.”

“You know how the saying goes, ‘If you don’t want to be written about, don’t have a dinner with a writer?’” Helen laughs.

“Not true. We would never write about our friends,” says my husband. “Anyway. Nobody’s writing anything. Maybe Nina is.” He tops our glasses.

Helen takes a big sip of her wine. “I would,” she says and stares at Rick. “I would write about my friends saying shitty things.”

“I wouldn’t,” I say.

I would.

“Why do you want to be written about anyway?” my husband says.

“I don’t really. I’m just saying we should be careful. Everyone should be careful around writers,” Helen says and laughs again.

“In that case, you have nothing to worry about,” says my husband.

“Good,” says Rick. “We’re so boring and predictable anyway.”

“You are,” Helen says.

/

Later that evening, my husband has sex with me.

I worry about our daughter coming into our bedroom, seeing us.

I wait for the break in thrusts, when he rests his body on top of mine, and I ask him to close the door.

He gets up and closes the door.

I turn off the light.

He lies back down beside me and runs his hand from my collarbone down to my thighs.

“Let’s just go to sleep,” I say.

“Sure. Whatever you like.” He kisses my neck. He pushes against me.

“I’m sleeping,” I say and help to put his penis back inside me.

He thrusts.

I fantasize about repainting our bedroom, the whole house. When he’s gone.

“Nina,” he whispers into my neck.

His body feels like heavy rubber on top of me. A rubber man. It’s not anything he’s doing or not doing.

He stops. “What is it?”

“I’m not feeling it.”

“Oh, baby,” he says as if I needed consoling.

“Sorry,” I say.

He kisses me on the lips; his tongue is aggressive. He grabs the back of my head in the way I used to like and he pushes himself further inside me staring hard into my eyes.

“How does this feel?”

I smile.

Lately, there have been a lot of articles about my husband raping me. Not about my husband specifically but about husbands who rape. The grey area of consent, the drunkenness, the middle-of-the-night inserting, this – what is happening right now.

I don’t feel raped. Many women are speaking up about it. The articles are asking women to speak up. But there’s nothing to talk about. It’s only biology. Traditional marriage: women belonging to men. We sleep next to men with our vaginas right there. What do you expect?

I’ve never stopped him before and I never would. I am not traumatized. I don’t interpret the sex in a negative way because magazines suggest I should. The articles are horseshit.

He is done now.

He wipes his cum off of my thighs, lovingly.

It is moments like this, of tenderness, that are important. I collect moments like this now because every little bit counts, every good thing between us is precious because there are so few of them.

*

Before I had my daughter, I went to Mexico with my father for an All-inclusive vacation.

It was there that my father told me about his father who moved his mistress into the house while the rest of the family was on vacation. Because of that my father as a young boy was homeless for two months and lived in a motel.

That’s why, he said, as if his past was enough of an excuse to explain what he had done to my mother, why he’d left. But it was okay; I didn’t care. We were all grownups now. I had my own life to fuck up.

On our vacation, we swam and sun-tanned on the beach during the day.

In the evenings at the resort, I watched my father take photographs of the local girls dancing in sequined costumes on the stage.

You could see their nipples through the cheap fabric. The girls were beautiful – young and with black hair, dark skin.

There were free drinks everywhere. Everything smelled and tasted of coconut.

On Christmas Eve, a band entertained the tourists in the cafeteria. Jingle Bells and Holy Night.

A young woman dressed as the Virgin Mary sat on a roll of hay and held the beach ball under her robe beatifically.

There were live chickens and rabbits and a donkey. At one point, one of the chickens escaped the enclosure and ran around the cafeteria.

My father got up and chased the chicken with the other tourist men.

A young guy from the band caught the chicken.

It’s Pedro he always does this. He laughed.

The guy’s English was perfect, I thought, just a little bit of an accent.

The reason why I was on an All-inclusive vacation with my father was because I needed to decide if I was going to leave my husband.

I decided yes.

/

He was picking us up at the airport and when I saw him, I felt nothing. He was just a guy picking us up at the airport.

He drove my father to the train station. My father was going back to Montreal where he said he lived with a woman, not anybody I would know.

My father told the story about the chicken, how he caught the chicken.

Before he got on the train he hugged me and whispered in my ear, I never stopped loving your mother.

It sounded like a bad line from a movie. It upset me but I said nothing, just hugged him back.

On the way to our house, my husband talked about how much he missed me and how a houseplant died and how he replaced it so I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference but he had felt guilty about it, which is why he was telling me.

I thought about how I didn’t want him to talk. Or how we shouldn’t talk about houseplants because we needed to be in a serious mood. How the shyness of seeing each other at the airport was a good prelude to seriousness and how he was ruining it now with his chatter.

But I said nothing.

After the plant story, he talked about something else, some product launch he attended or a gallery opening. Jokes, who he saw, who got drunk and sloppy.

At home, I unpacked all the sand from my suitcase, and he came up behind me and put his hands around me.

I moved his hands and wrapped them around my neck.

I pressed my back against him.

He said, Whoa.

Whoa, I said.

He said, You smell of coconut.

Tighter, I said.

He did it tighter.

Tighter.

I wanted to feel actual pain, bring myself back to him. But he would never squeeze as tight as to hurt me.

I wanted him to. I wanted him to be someone else – a guy who could hurt me.

—Jowita Bydlowska

/

AuthorJowita2014

Jowita Bydlowska is a writer living in Toronto, Canada. Her first book, Drunk Mom, was a national bestseller. Her novel, Guy, is coming out in 2016.

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/

Sep 012014
 

Rheims Cathedral on fire.

The novel is called The Martial Artist, and it’s based on the life of Gabriele D’Annunzio, the poet, playboy, war hero, proto-fascist statesman and sometime prince of pirates on the Dalmatian coast. This story is being narrated by D’ Annunzio himself in 1923 to his ex-lover, Eleonora Duse, once the most famous actress in the world, who has come to visit him at Il Vittoriale, the museum-palace on Lake Garda where Mussolini keeps him a virtual prisoner—and figurehead of fascism. In this reminiscence he is telling Eleonora about his first visit to the Western Front in 1914. D’Annunzio was instrumental as a propagandist in bringing Italy, which was supposed to be neutral, into the war on the Allied side, and later fought with great distinction in all three services (he became the most decorated Italian of the war, although he enlisted at the age of 52.)

—Garry Craig Powell

/

First Battle of the Marne, September 1914

The Peugeot waiting at the kerb outside my hotel in the Marais is as shiny and black as the carapace of a beetle. It coughs politely as Bertillon, the owner, cranks the starting handle with his gauntleted hand. Rocco, my valet, loads the trunk with leather suitcases and lays hampers on the back seat. I have had him pack petit-fours, tongue, caviar, paté de foie gras, fruit in abundance, as well as baguettes, pain au chocolat, eau minerale, and a bottle of burgundy for Ugo Ojetti. The engine growls, but before Bertillon can reach the driver’s seat he finds that I have beaten him to it. What is more, Ojetti, in a plain grey suit and trilby, is already in the passenger’s seat beside me. With his upturned moustaches and malevolent monocle, he winks at me.

—Mais monsieur, —Bertillon begins. —I understood when your friend engaged to hire the car that I would be driving.

I fix him with a lordly look. My eyes pierce the Frenchman’s with the certainty that I will be obeyed. I am wearing English riding breeches with puttees, a russet overcoat trimmed with yellow fox fur that curls like a collar of gold around my neck and ears, and a tweed motoring cap.

—I always drive myself, —I say. —You need not fear. I am a superb driver.

Although Bertillon declares he has never before entrusted his machine to anyone, he relinquishes control as if he has no will of his own. He is a plump little creature, as white and doughy as a bread. He climbs in the back, and the bête noir is soon lumbering along the lanes of Picardie. The roads curve like banderols, those ribbon-like pennants one sees in paintings of medieval saints. Pigeons burst from the hedges as though the wing of an angel has suddenly opened, and fall around us in grey squalls.

With my high celluloid collar—oh, so uncomfortable!—I sit erect at the wheel, my shoulders squared like a horseman with a handsome seat. We drive through villages of smashed shops and houses. In one of them we stop and stretch our legs. It is a ruin, deserted: it would touch some archaeologist of the future. On a stucco house-front, blue shutters flap in the wind, banging lazily against the wall. In another dwelling, roofless but intact on one side, a pile of rubble on the other, there is a toothless cottage piano, a vase of artificial flowers such as the gypsies make from pipe-cleaners and silk, and grimy dolls lying on a dusty carpet like the victims of a massacre. Back in the car, leaning forward nervously, M. Bertillon talks incessantly about the brutality of the Germans. I am not listening. I look at the farmhouses, the still-smoking stubble and black sheaves of wheat, the skinny Frisian cows with swollen udders. We see a couple of human corpses, a fat old woman reclining on the grass verge as if taking a nap, and a bony old man on his knees beside her, his face in the grass as if he were grazing, his arms at impossible angles. Then a boy, face down on the road, legs flung out, stiff as a cardboard puppet. Ojetti sighs, moans, perhaps weeps. Bertillon keeps saying Mon dieu, mon dieu, les sauvages. I feel nothing. Too many live, as Nietzsche says. We need this blood-letting to purge us. My heart thumps, excited at the car’s power and speed, or because I will soon be at the Front where I will finally see Death and discover my mettle. Or is it because I am still remembering yesterday afternoon with Mme. Fournier-Kasinsky? It was a routine seduction, nothing out of the ordinary, except that for a bourgeoise she was quick to take to the pleasures of oral love, and surprised me by flinging open the drapes on the windows, although she was naked, apart from her black silk stockings, which were embroidered with cherries.

—You don’t mind the neighbours seeing us? I said. ˗˗˗The lights are on.

Tant mieux, —she said, pouting her lips like a spoilt schoolgirl. —I want them to see us. J’en trouve très passionant. Et vous?

I felt as if I were onstage in a cabaret in the Pigalle. But yes, it was exciting. The smell and taste of her sweaty armpits, the stretch-marks on her breasts and belly—for some reason I cannot get them out of my mind. She raised her upper lip in a sneer as I fucked her, repeating mon Dieu, mon Dieu, as if she were unable to believe what was happening, yet never once looking me in the eyes, which I found disconcerting. So what? Could it be that as Death draws near, the urge to procreate becomes imperative? I must find a prostitute in Soissons or Rheims, I decide as I drive. No, the primitive urge is not merely more imperative, but more significant, more numinous. As the car clatters along the narrow lanes of Picardie between the high hedges, a procession of women flee past, most of them nameless, even faceless, though I recognize many: Splendore, Giselda, the two Marias, wife and Gravina, Olga Ossani, Barbara, you, naturally, Alessandra, Giuseppina, Nathalie, Isadora Duncan, Ida Rubinstein, Romaine Brooks, Luisa Casati… Perhaps it is the faces of these women, it occurs to me, that I shall see on my deathbed, and not the spines of my books. Maybe my loves have invested my life with meaning.

But the rumblings and detonations that I assumed was distant thunder are growing louder, and judging by the Frenchman’s agitation—the man yaps like a lapdog—I have been mistaken. A bombardment is underway. We pass muddy army trucks, marching infantry, pack-horses, and tents in the fields, including one with a red cross. The landscape becomes lunar, drained of colour, blighted. Blasted trees stand like scribble against a grey sky. Craters pock the desert surface. Dead horses and mules lie on their backs like beetles, their bellies inflated, their legs in the air.

—So now we are at the Front, Monsieur, we have seen everything and we can turn around, —Bertillon says in a high, strained voice. —N’ est-ce pas?

I speak to Ojetti in the middle of the Frenchman’s utterance, pretending not to have heard him. Ugo keeps up a gay and lyrical banter as we reach the outskirts of Soissons, driving along roads lined with rows of little brick workers’ houses, and factories and warehouses, and elm-trees, dogs running in a frenzy, and a line of blind soldiers, each touching the shoulder of the man in front of him. We pass a parabola of big black nests: in each slumbers a plane. At a barrier a corporal halts us and inspects my pass from General Galieni.

˗˗˗The Germans are shelling the town, ˗˗˗he says. ˗˗˗Do you not hear?

˗˗˗Are you saying we cannot continue?˗˗˗Ojetti asks.

˗˗˗You may proceed, ˗˗˗the soldier says, ˗˗˗although you will probably be killed.

I thank him and put the car in gear, ignoring Bertillon’s womanish wailing. We climb a low hill, winding past carts filled with the wounded, and from its crest gaze upon the city: the twin spires of the cathedral reaching for the grey sky like imploring hands, and between them, it seems to me, an angel balancing on the roof. Without pausing, I take my hands off the wheel and stretch them towards it. All is beautiful. Suddenly there is a flash, like sheet lightning, and the air breaks, buffets us. One of the spires has gone. Now only one arm is raised to heaven, one arm and a mutilated stump. I cry out to the wounded in the carts, who, it seems to me, are bleeding on behalf of that bloodless stone.

Presently we are in the main square. A pond of blood pools in the middle of it: a scarlet man and a scarlet horse lie glistening in it. I halt the car. Beside the red lake is a smashed mess of broken wood, wheels, leather harness, bones and hunks and strips of meat, the remains of a team of horses. Bertillon begs me to turn around and leave at once. One of the towers of the cathedral has been neatly sliced off at the level of the roof of the building; the other still points to the sky like the arm of a prophet. Out of one of the houses a French officer comes running. Even with his crested helmet on, he looks like a teacher or a professor, with his horn-rimmed glasses, but he shouts furiously as he reaches the car:

—Who the hell do you think you are? What the hell are you doing?

—We are here to watch the bombardment, —I tell the lieutenant with a slow smile. —We have a safe-conduct pass from General Galieni.

From the pocket of my coat I extract the pass and wave it at the officer. He snatches it.

Frowning, the Frenchman reads. His eyebrows rise and he shoots a look at me, at last taking in the pointed beard, the waxed upturned points of his moustache, the penetrating eyes.

—You are M. Gabriele D’Annunzio, the writer?

—At your service.

—Monsieur, allow me to express my surprise. I am the greatest of your admirers. I have read all your novels, seen all your plays; it is only your poetry that I don’t know well, because little of it has been translated into French. But what am I saying? I am desolated by my rudeness. Please forgive me.

—Of course.

—I only wish I had a volume of yours here, so that I could beg you to sign it.

Le Triomphe de la Mort would be appropriate, no? Can you tell us where the battle is?

The lieutenant’s eyes widen. —But this is the battle, M. D’Annunzio. You are in the middle of it. The Germans are less than a hundred metres away, over there.

—Excellent. Might I be permitted to give some cigarettes to the men?

—Naturally, monsieur. You may do anything you wish, though I must warn you that it is very dangerous to remain here.

Bertillon chimes in: —You hear, monsieur? It would be prudent to leave at once. It is very dangerous!

—Don’t tell me you are afraid, Bertillon, ˗˗˗says Ojetti.

Bertillon clutches the secretary’s shoulder with a hand like a talon. —I am mortally afraid, monsieur. Are you not?

Ojetti smiles, impervious to fear, casting an ironic glance at me. I climb out of the car, pocketing the keys in case Bertillon decides to leave without us, and take a big blue box of Gauloises I have brought with me from the back seat. The lieutenant points to the house he has come from, and trots in that direction. Bertillon scampers after him, his arms flailing as if he were falling off a cliff. Ojetti and I follow like men out for a Sunday stroll. When a shell whizzes past or bursts in the air, we gaze around with dreamy expressions. On reaching the shelter of the house, we find two platoons of poilus, who eye us with amazement and disdain, then with amusement and camaraderie, when they discover that I am the playboy they have read about in Le Petit Parisien, Le Matin, and other illustrated papers. As I open the box and throw cartons of cigarettes at the men, they cheer and shout ribald remarks:

—So what’s La Duse like in bed, eh? Big tits? (That is exactly what they said.)

—How does it feel to have Rubinstein’s legs wrapped round your neck, I want to know!

Il est tant petit, ce gentilhomme.

Il doit être grand là bas, où la taille a plus d’ importance. Tu sais ce qu’ on dit des italiens.

He’s got balls, I’ll give him that.

—How about changing places with me, Italian? I want to ride Isadora Duncan. Just once!

—You lucky little bastard!

—And this is how he does it: by writing fucking poetry. Right? You talk about tenderness, and sighing, and the deep pools of their eyes, when all you’re after is getting inside their knickers. Have I got it right?

I grin. —You have discovered my secret.

—But what the fuck are you doing here? a poilu asks. —Are Italians all mad?

—We are mad with love for our Latin brothers and sisters, —I say, with a manly nod at Ojetti, who nods back, —and mad with hatred of the barbarians from the north. I have come here because I want to see the war for myself. And this is my pledge to you: I will not rest until Italy is fighting beside you. I will use my voice to convince my countrymen that they must do so. And if I succeed, I swear I will fight alongside you myself.

While I am speaking, the men grow quiet and stare at me with an intensity I know: at my first speech in Venice—remember?—I learned I had the power to move people deeply with my oratory. When I am finished, there is a moment’s stunned silence. Then the lieutenant cheers, everyone joins in, and soon everyone is crowding around me and Ojetti, slapping our backs and shaking our hands. These are the first steps to the alliance.

 /

That night, while I visit a backstreet brothel—I have a ferocious Fleming, a tall redhead with a heavy chin who allows me to tie her to the bed but has the temerity to bite me back when I sink my incisors into the freckled white flesh of her shoulder—that very same night, Rheims Cathedral fulfils itself in flames. I am a celebrant at that great, sacred rite.

No, not the night before, my love, but that same one. You are obstinate! And your memory has never been accurate. Yes, I am sure.

And what’s more, strange to recount, I am there too. You can read the accounts in the newspapers. “Monsieur D’Annunzio sat calmly taking notes in his automobile while the conflagration lit up the night sky.” I read it myself in Le Matin or Le Petit Parisien, or perhaps Le Journal: so it must be true, eh? Surely you are not accusing me of making this up?

I remember the dizzying, dazzling flash, but no crash—only an eerie, preternatural silence, an eager, expectant silence, as when the mob gathers in the square beneath the guillotine with bated breath to hear the head of the innocent roll into the basket. Finally there is a crash so loud that I feel it more than hear it, like a box on the ears, a blow from a heavyweight. The earth shakes; the air ripples. From the roof of the cathedral an aurora borealis of flame pours and waves, a cauldron of colour, crimson, orange, butter and black. Sparks fly among the stars.

Someone, Bertillon or Ojetti, tries to stop me, but I cannot help myself. Like a man mesmerized I stumble towards the conflagration at a stately pace. Bertillon is screaming, Quel désastre, quel désastre, quelle tragédie! He squeals at me to stop, but I reply, or perhaps only think, Can you not see how beautiful, how perfect, this is? I hear Ugo guffawing. Perhaps I sleepwalk? As I step into the church, the great rose window, lit by the fire outside, starts to rotate, and the colours of the stained glass—the richest reds and blues, the deepest purples, yellows and greens—are liquescent, sublime. Some madman is still inside, playing a Bach cantata on the pipe organ while the window slowly spins like a kaleidoscope and the fire crackles and spits. Beside myself with ecstasy, I pick up a shard of stained glass, a stone flower, and a strip of twisted lead. I stuff the last two in my pockets but hold on to the thick gold glass as if it were a talisman, choking and spluttering as the smoke billows around me. Rafters rain from the ceiling, forcing me to retire from the glorious spectacle, but not before seeing that a miracle has occurred: the building is freed by the fire from the burden of its weight, and the entire edifice, this vast stone ship, is sailing unmoored into the oceanic sky. Church and firmament are one.

Outside once more, as the fire consumes the roof and I hear the groans and bellows of crashing timbers and masonry, Ojetti appears, Disque Bleu Caporal alight in his lips, to drag me away, shaking his head. I tell him my rapture is not merely aesthetic, for this holocaust is a rebirth, a resurrection, the soul of France is undergoing a Messianic awakening. I have never needed a God to prop me up or comfort me, but there is a spiritual exaltation in all this. It reminds me of the night I hired the organist in St. Stephen’s cathedral at Mulhouse in Alsace, where I had gone at night with Tom Antongini and two bovine Alsatian girls, and sat in the chilly dark for hours listening to Buxtehude and Bach, never once thinking of fucking—or very well, rarely thinking of fucking. Later, when I found myself in a half-timbered inn room with that blonde dairymaid, practical and matter of fact as she was as she took off her clothes, she turned into an ethereal creature, a fleshy seraph like one of Raphael’s, a nebula of stars spinning from her grey eyes like the silken threads of a spider’s web, and I found that I was floating on a vast, sunlit cloud, beyond Time, rippling aloft with that cool-fleshed creature, far above the world, impossibly slowly, impossibly gently; I knew sex as sacrament, just as the fire was a sacrament.

What really happened the night Rheims Cathedral burned? Did I hallucinate my recollection of being there? I would consume cocaine when I became a fighter pilot, to stay awake, but that was later. Could I have been in two places at once? The artist can; the super-man can. I only know what burns on the altar of my memory. No man knows more.

 /

Certo, Eleonora, they accuse me of lying, of making things up, as if that were a crime. The literalist swine say that the next day I did not see with my own eyes the dead poilus bound upright, to stakes, in bands of ten, in mud and blood-spattered uniforms, their puttees lacerated by barbed wire, their boots broken, cheeks sprouting stubble, open eyes staring like those of soulless madmen. I did not smell the stench of soiled drawers, of stale sweat; nor did I hear the buzzing of the flies around the open wounds. When I said that this sight reminded me the fasci, the rods bundled around an axe on ancient Roman coins, they did not believe me. I only pretended to see and think these things, the pettifoggers insisted. I invented this image of the fascio because it was such a potent symbol, the axe the bringer of life and death, the soldiers standing together like staves around it, strong and stiff even in rigor mortis. This is what they do not understand: that an act of imagination can transform reality. I dream, therefore I am.

—Garry Craig Powell

/

Garry Craig Powell

Garry Craig Powell was born and educated in England, but now teaches creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. His linked collection of stories, Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012), which is set in the contemporary Persian Gulf, was longlisted for the Frank O’ Connor Short Story Award and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. He is completing the novel The Martial Artist, whose protagonist, Gabriele D’ Annunzio, was in real life the most famous writer and playboy in Italy, as well as the most decorated war hero, a pirate leader, the founder of a short-lived utopian state on the Dalmatian coast, a proto-fascist statesman, and eventually a prince.

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Aug 092014
 

Lee Thompson

 

George and Chiara spotted the sea monster not far from where they had set down their picnic blanket and basket.  It was George who had recommended this spit of rocky tongue that overlooked the sea, but not because he thought a monster might be floundering a stone’s throw from Chiara’s smooth, tanned knee, but because he wanted to be alone with her, away from the hotel, and on Chiara’s map she had written ‘hidden lover cove’.  But it was while gazing at her knee – which had small, pale scars – and while letting his gaze slip higher that something beyond her hip caught his eye.  That hip now, the hip he had held and pulled to him last summer, that hid beneath a thin summer dress, there was no reason for his eye to leave that hip, especially as his cock began to stir against his thigh.  It is not so easy this time, Chiara had said as they set the blanket down.  There are… complications.

It is hungry, was what Chiara said, after they had wandered to the shore.

It was green-black, serpentine, had a dog’s head and fur here and there where its stubby limbs joined the body. The fur was more a bronze colour, and thick.  It didn’t look real.  It had nostrils that flared and closed, like a seal, and Chiara said it is just a weird sea lion, George, and George remembered her way of saying weird, and other strange inflections.  Its mouth, when it opened its mouth, was wide, sucker-like.  OK, it is not one of those, said Chiara.

I do not like it.

But we should feed it.

.           

If there was divine form in the universe, it was that sweep of hip, that fall and cradle for a cheek or a palm. In bed last summer, in Chiara’s childhood bedroom, her mother having stepped out to get a few things at the market, George had thought this and tried to tell Chiara.  You think too much, George, she said.  Once, I thought too much.  But no more.  Do you understand?  And she had moved over him so slowly, like a curse, and took him in her mouth.  She did not stop when her mother returned, calling out from down the stairs, nothing George understood for he was distracted and not good at Italian.

How did he feel when she went below and then kissed her mother on the forehead?

And how did he feel when her mother kissed her, on the lips, and then met George half way up the stairs and kissed him, too?  I love… this man, she said, proud of her daughter’s choice, and her own passable English.  Keep him.  And they ate.

.

Why does it not like fish, George?  It is a thing of the sea, it has the smell of the sea, but look, you throw it fish, dead fish, alive fish, and it is like you give it shit.

George told her not to stand so close.

Why, it won’t eat me!  Chiara stuck her foot toward the monster, told it to take a bite, and before George could move – for they were on slick rock – the thing had lunged and perhaps only her falling back had saved her, that and her swearing.  She had bloodied her elbows but was never one to feel pain, unless it was the pain of the past.

It needs a pig, she said.

So they left it in its shallow pool on the edge of the spit and gathered their picnic blanket and basket and hopped in her old French car and drove inland, to the mountains, where she said they would catch a pig, a wild boar, with their hands, no, but with the blanket and put it in the basket, yes, that was a better idea.  George recalled last summer when she would not make love in the forest for fear of boars, and now she wanted to scoop one into a basket?  She laughed.  Just a baby one, but you will have to keep the mama away.

They did not catch a wild boar.

But she told him about the complications.

.

There once was a man and a woman, George.  And the man and the woman lived very far from each other.  They lived so far from each other that there was water between them.  So much water.  And the water was full of salt, like tears, like crying tears, not tears like rips.  Am I saying it right?  Tears. Teers.  Stupid language.  Why is your language like this?  Why do you not fix it?  How do you English talk to each other without every body saying what, eh, huh, excuse me?  Squid!  Stop the car, turn around, George!

It’s context.

What? Turn around.

At the roadside market she bought too much squid, but she liked it, too.  And squid was also a weird word, she said.  She squeezed her hands together, delighted.  Squid squid squid, she said, pretending to squirt something then looking him in the eye and saying oh Georgie, I want to squid you.  I am very serious. So they drove back to the serpent while the sun sank through the sea and set the blanket down once more and made love.  The serpent thrashed in its shallow pool.  Its odour, and the odour of the squid in the bag, and the scent of Chiara’s hair and the musk of her body lotion and the breeze from the shore had George drunk and not worrying about anything beyond Chiara’s movements.  Her mouth covered his and she held him between her thighs, would not let him pull out.

I am pregnant, she said afterwards.  So do not worry.

Naked, they threw squid into the tidal pool.

But it did not eat.

.

It wasn’t his, and that was the complication.  She would not say whose it was, saying only there is so much water, George. He had his hand on her brown belly, his pinky finger in her pubic hair and his thumb over her navel.  A baby?  She shrugged.  Are you sure?  She nodded.  I stopped bleeding, did the stupid test, now it grows in me.

Could he make love again?

She took hold, tried to tease it back to life.

Why won’t you eat, she said to it, then laughed.  She spread her thighs.

They left the motel and stopped the car alongside the highway, for there was a stench.  A bag of hot squid in the trunk.  George said it was a waste but Chiara said the sea birds and homeless cats would not let it go to waste.  But yes, it is sad to throw it out.

The tide had ebbed, flowed, left behind wrack and dreck, had easily washed over the sea monster’s pool, but had left the creature behind.  It is dead, said Chiara.  And I am hungry.  Throw a stone at it.  George lobbed a stone underhand and the sea monster sloshed its tail.  Chiara swore, said she would not spend her vacation doing this, said let’s grab it and George said we should just tell someone.  Who?  Isn’t there a marine centre, or?  They have seals and dolphins, George, not these.  She took off her sandals and before George could stop her – he had returned to the car for his camera – she  entered the pool.  Are you fucking crazy, George shouted. Chiara, turning, made a small sound deep in her throat and collapsed.

.

He would rescue his beloved with her car.  He would put it in neutral and push it over the edge where it would tumble down the rocks and land atop the beast. He stood at the edge of the pool and saw the car topple, pin the sea monster. Just kill it, kill it.  But how do you put a standard transmission in neutral?  Where are the keys? Hit it with a rock!  Who had she fucked?  Why did she do that?  There was a metre of water between them.  If he leaped in?  Distracted it? Call, call for help.  If it ate her it would also eat her baby.  He couldn’t watch it eat her.  He was doing nothing.  How could she just stroll in like that?  Really, how messed up is that?  It’s like you’re that kid who strolls into the tiger exhibit holding out his sandwich.  But that’s it, isn’t it?  That explains why she had fucked around.  And come on, there was Paul, remember?  George, Paul will not be happy with me, I should not see you.  What about Ringo?  She paused, then laughed, was sputtering, was crawling for the edge of the pool reaching for George, who pulled her out.

If anything, the sea monster had moved farther from her.

It won’t even eat me now, George.

It was electric, she said, lying in his arms.  Zap.  Zap zap.

____

Days later, when Chiara could walk again, for she had indeed taken quite a shock, they returned to the tidal pool. It was dusk and high thin clouds swirled.  On the salmon-hued horizon a sailboat’s mast swayed and they could hear the sea crashing.  This is the Ostro, Chiara said, or the unhappy wind, so we mustn’t stay long.

He told her he wished she wouldn’t.

My hair?  It is mine to do with.

But I love your hair.

You are leaving, George, what do you care?

On the drive along the rocky spit she had said she could feel it in her hair, the creature, that it had discharged in the pool, peed or squirted something, but you wouldn’t understand.  This is because no one understands.  She placed her hands on her stomach.

She hadn’t lost the baby.

At the hospital George changed the story Chiara had burbled while under pain killers.  Not a monster, he said, non e monstro, non e animale, era… uh, lightning… rumble sounds and sky gestures.  The doctor’s brow furrowed, una tempesta? ieri sera?  Si, George said, ieri sera, tempesta, ma… piccola tempesta.

You should not even try, Chiara had said.

Little storms pop up all the time, George had said.

You are foolish, Chiara had said.

And the mood was no better an hour later.  Why should he be bothered if she wanted to cut her hair?  It was long and black and cutting it would make her much less attractive and, but what did that matter, too?  She was expecting another man’s child.  How did that happen?  With him she was always  insistent on condoms, saying a baby would be a disaster, there would be rumours in her hometown, her father would know she’s not a virgin (she laughed), she’d have to quit her job teaching kids to dance, which would leave those kids with nothing to do all summer and maybe they’d start smoking, drinking, get pregnant…

The sea monster was still there.

.

We will get gasoline and set the pool on fire.  But we should do this at night, when no one will see the smoke.  I know what you are thinking, but smoke will hide the flames.  No, I do not have experience with this, George. But it is common sense.  This is cruel, though, so we won’t do this.  We should get a shark and put it in there.  Well, a small shark, please George I am not stupid.  But we have to do  it. It is our responsibility.  What if children come here to play?  It will kill them all.  We will be guilty.  Maybe you can throw a stone at its head?  You throw stones well.  But that could take a long time.  A gun?  No that is crazy, you cannot get a gun on the island.  Why are you looking like that?  You don’t think we should kill it?  It tried to eat me, George.  Let’s wear boots and drain the pool, OK?  Yes, this is the best way – it will leave the pool when there is no water, or it will die.  Both of these things are the best things.  So we need the little buckets and rubber boots.  But you cannot buy rubber boots here, we must steal them from fishermen, who buy them off the island.  They only sell sandals here, and flip flops.  No, no we don’t need to stand in the water, we’ll just scoop the water out.  We will do this tonight.  I will make us sandwiches. 

.

To Chiara, a sandwich was a brick of dry bread with a chunk of brie stuck in the middle and George wondered what kind of wife she would be.  She had a fear of corners, and she talked about this as if it were a common thing.  My fear of corners is worse than most.  She didn’t allow him to touch her clitoris directly, but would tear the hair from her loins with a brutal, buzzing device.  He watched her while she did this, one leg set on the bathtub ledge.  You like to watch me torture myself, George?  But everything was a kind of torture. 

In bed she was erotic, but a prude.

She often called him a sorcerer.

You have a big belly (he didn’t!), so how do you do this to me?

They lay in bed, the sheets soiled from two weeks of heat and secretions, his cock aching and his underarms rank.  She was two months along, she’d said.  She liked not having her period, not bloating like a seal.  It hadn’t set in, really, that she’d be a mother.  She asked if he was angry?  She said no you are not, you do not anger, and George shrugged.  Or is it only fucking, George?  He said it wasn’t, but it was, though it wasn’t, so he didn’t say anything for he saw her as volatile, not dangerous, not a storm, just…  Well, admittedly, if he’d arrived and she’d said I’m pregnant and we cannot have sex, it would have been different.  He’d be unhappy, yes.  She started to stroke him, no longer surprised that he was hard again.  She wondered if it, the monster, had a cock.  Maybe he only wants a girlfriend?  Maybe he is the last of his kind.  Poor guy.  She stroked him slowly.

.

As midnight approached and the rising moon slipped in and out of mackerel clouds, the creature began to keen.  Above the falling surf it keened, a sound that was not like a baby’s mewling, though that’s what George thought of.  It keened as they scooped seawater from the dark pool and Chiara said it knows what we are doing, George, but George said perhaps it keens every night.  Chiara started to cry.  George held Chiara.

They were racing against the tide.

There is too much water, said Chiara through her tears.

.

They slept in the car, the back seats set back and Chiara sprawled over George, who woke to the sound of rain.  The remnants of a dream slid across the rear windshield and the car shook.  His heart raced.  It had been in here, or it had tried.  Through the rust it had moved, the vents.  The car shook and it was the wind, he knew, lashing from the sea. The Ostro whistled through the rocks below and he moved out from under Chiara, an arm numb, moved out and slipped into the front seat, started the car and turned on the headlights, saw sheets of rain and white crests of waves, tried to put it into gear, stalled, remembered that she had parked too close to the edge, the drop was there, the passenger side.  He turned the headlights off, then the car, slept in the front seat until the sun woke him.

When it did, his lover was not there. The car’s rear hatch was open.

And he did not find her down at the shore, sitting at the edge of the tidal pool, watching over the  serpent, which was gone.  He walked, then ran along shore, stumbling over rock, seaweed, stung by plump purple jellyfish when taking to the water, thought he saw her offshore, on a jagged excuse of an island the locals called Scoglietta, the Little Stone, so he stripped nude and swam part way, but nothing was there and the current took him far from the spit.  He drifted, tread water, trusted the tide would return him to shore.  After an hour he stopped calling her name.  After two a local on a surfboard helped him to a beach, which was filling with sunbathers.  His nudity did not shock them, but the violet blisters from the stings did.

____

George, wake George.  Wake up please.  Why can’t you wake up, George?   We don’t have all day.  Can I slap him?  Why did he swim?  What kind of fool swims with jellyfish before breakfast?

George.

He felt a soft touch on his face, then his cheek being pinched.

Were you looking for me, George?  You were?  Yes?  No?  He heard her ask if people swim in their sleep, heard a grunt in reply, heard her say he talks in his sleep all the time, talks nonsense.  He could see her gestures, but the rest was a blur.

You are a mess, George. You are like… bubble wrap.

Crap, he said.

I don’t think we can have much fun on your last week.

Damn, he said.

She whispered, Well maybe you can watch.

She said that, he knew, to wake him, rouse him under the sheet.  Was there stirring?  He was very tired, he said, but tried to smile.  You swim for, like, ever, George.  They found you in the lido next over!  I drove to the hotel for my phone, and then there are sirens so I thought yes, those are for George….

You know me well, he said.

And then I thought no it’s just a crazy man showing his penis to every body.

Oh…

She sat on the bed next to him.  But I kind of recognized…

.

Chiara drove George back toward the hotel the following morning, happy that he’d only truly been suffering from dehydration and exhaustion.  The stings would heal, but leave purple scars.  She liked scars, she said, scars told the truth.  Her mother, she told him, was arriving later that evening, so they had to meet her at the port.

My mother likes you, George.

The sea monster, she said, laughing, it was some kind of plant.  Like a vine.  She’d gone down to the pool while he’d slept snoring like a toad, and everything was a mess, seaweed and sand and garbage and there it was, George. I gasped. It was trying to get out. It was crawling toward the car and I had no time to wake you so I grabbed a piece of drifting wood and I thought it’s going to eat me and my baby but I smashed it.  I am a tiny woman, you know, but when I get angry, bam bam bam.  She laughed, then shuddered.

It had strings in it, and green blood!

Strings?

You know, like rope, like… sedano.

Fibres?

It was a stupid stupid plant. That is all.

Well, but… no, Chiara, that’s not

Yes, and it lives in the ground, George.  I bashed it and it started to move, just a little bit.  And I said George, George come and see and then like, like a noodle it was sucked back in.  Into the hole, George!  And then all the water, too.  I must be hallucinating, I must be dreaming this.  And then I go back to the car and you are gone, so I run down the road looking for you.

Crazy, crazy morning.

.

Chiara did not stop at the hotel, but drove on through the royal palms and roadside agave saying she hated the hotel and wasn’t it too much like a hospital room?  You smell like a hospital, my lover.  On the west side of the island there will be no one, she chirped, the beaches are too rocky, but the wind is happier.  It is the Mistral. We will lay you out on the shore, George, take off your bandages, cover you with a soothing balm and we will kiss you where you have not been stung.  Will you show us where you have not been stung?

George’s cock stirred against his thigh.

And then we will go get mother.

—Lee D. Thompson

 

Lee D. Thompson was born and raised in Moncton, New Brunswick. His fiction has been published in four anthologies, including Random House’s Victory Meat, New Fiction from Atlantic Canada and Vagrant Press’s The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction, and in more than a dozen literary journals across Canada and the US. Lee’s first novel, S. a novel in [xxx] dreams, was published in 2008 by Broken Jaw Press. An e-book, Diary of a Fluky Kid, appeared with Fierce Ink Press in February 2014. In addition to writing fiction, Lee is a guitarist and songwriter who records under the name Pipher.

 

Aug 062014
 

imageDavid Hayden

In his novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust famously introduced the concept of involuntary memory where the taste of a madeline dipped in tea brought back to his narrator, Marcel, a memory of the past, the memory being triggered unconsciously, effortlessly, by a sensory experience. Memory researcher and cognitive psychologist, Marigold Linton, rather poetically, described these involuntary memories as “precious fragments,” and I was reminded of these precious fragments when first reading David Hayden’s story Memory House.

Generally by placing events in sequential order and suggesting a connection between them, the writer gives meaning to plot, the narrative allowing causality to be inferred, but here the construct of the narrative replicates the fragmented process. If we accept that selfhood exists in the continuity of memory, then the narrator’s search for identity lies in the retrieval of encoded past experiences. In this regard, Hayden’s vivid language is rich with the sensory detail necessary to provide the triggers. Ultimately, however, we learn of the narrator’s personal history not through the memories themselves (which are not described) but through their metaphorical impact.

Metaphor, as we know, is not simply a figure of speech but a form of thought, and the associative nature of Hayden’s writing coupled with the sheer power of his imagistic words reveal marvellously the internal unseen world.

—Gerard Beirne

/

Memory House

/

The memory house is in my mind; today and everyday. Each thing is itself and is a way out to another object or to a time that happened or almost happened or didn’t happen.

I am the broken plate lying on the kitchen floor. Eight main pieces are grouped together on the yellowed linoleum that is cool beneath my bare feet. Scores of fragments are scattered in the greasy shadows, or wedged under the heels of the table.

The warped, lemon-shaded light is my mother’s eye. It gives off a gentle heat and can see nothing. Each chair is a misplaced friend. If I sit down I will remember who, and why they became lost and, perhaps, where they are today.

The table is a stony beach on a Cretan shore. Facing north, a salt-thickened breeze pushes back my hair. There are lights out to sea but none behind me. My baby boy rests warmly on my hip, his eyes narrowing as he looks out into the future.

From upstairs I hear the blunt crack of steps on a broken board. I should be alone here. I’ve always been alone here. But lately I’ve found evidence of a visitor. In the bathroom I found a damp, half-smoked cigarette in the sink. The sink is my broken tooth with taps for tears; hot and cold. I didn’t see the assailant’s face and I still wonder if he cut his hand.

The air is coloured with the smell of bay rum and sandalwood. I look into the empty bath. It is the smile of a girl I liked at school forty years ago. I open the window and the staleness is sucked out into the dark leaving the room cold and alert.

I’m on the stairs sounding like a horse and then comes the kitchen.

From the shadowed pantry three white eyes stare out. They are flour, rice and sugar. Clouds of flour become thoughts cased in bone, grains of rice pulse out from my wooden heart through cracked ceramic veins, sugar crystals swell in my bladder.

I must go.

Down two steps, across the rushing carpet its pattern forming, distending and breaking; the floor underneath could be one great muscle. I am at the bottom of the stairs and at the top of the stairs with no motion in between. I follow the urinous smell to a battered door.

I pull the pure cord in the dark and something white and sticky pours from the ceiling; it is light. The cord is clean from the fat circular fitting at the top but halfway down turns brown as a stick, ending in a grey, plastic bell fragment.

I relax my muscles and micturate a stream of sugar into the bowl which piles up on the slope before slumping into the water. I shake and grains patter on the floor.

The hair moves on the back of my neck, tall, dry grass, my head a rounded dune travelling slowly to the shore, a mud-choked littoral, the smell of ozone, sewage and tobacco smoke. I turn around to see a fat, white cigarette left on the top stair post, it is burning rapidly and by the time I am within reach it is all ash.

There is a clatter in the kitchen but from where I am I cannot move. Someone shouts and the sound billows out behind me then funnels away before sweeping back over my head and down the stairs. I follow, passing the mirror at the bend in the staircase. I look into the glass and a seagull gazes back, stone blue pupils, yolk yellow iris, beak wide open dripping black tar. I hiss back.

Downstairs the sea crashes against the windows, a pane shatters, the grey water plunges in then the wave rescinds taking the glass with it.

All stills.

In the kitchen a broken umbrella and belted raincoat lie on the table. I don’t recognise them and return to the living room where I squat in front of the fireplace placing coal in the grate a piece at a time from a galvanised bucket using a pair of brass tongs. The matches are damp but one flares and I start the kindling. Moonish smoke rises from the pyre and begins to fold on top of itself, layer after layer. I lie on the mossy sofa, a spring pressing into my back. The fire begins to roar orange and my fingers unclench in the easy warmth.

Rolling forwards, one hand forks over my face and I sneeze, a green smile twitches on the floor like a tapeworm. The smile ripples towards, then over, the tiled surround, puckers slightly then kisses the hot coals. I hiss again, bitumen breath and a white gas cloud the size of a sugar cube puffs from my mouth. I put my hand behind my back, dig under a cushion, pull out a bag of broken biscuits and begin nipping off the hard pastel frosting. I throw the biscuit discs towards the fire but I miss each time.

The radio comes on loud in the yellow bedroom. I feel like my teeth are going to fall out. I get up and the sofa’s skin stretches and snaps back to itself. I stumble for the stairs. Light is washing and blinking around the trembling frame of the bedroom door. The handle rattles. I know I will be shocked if I touch it. There’s a rushing sound behind me and I run into the bathroom waving steam away. The shower is on, yellow, green, red, sprays from the head into the tub and onto the floor. I close my eyes and grab the tap turning and turning, and when the flow stops I stand up and hear silence where the radio’s clamour was. I undress and get into the bath which frees me of the need to sleep that I have had for as long as I can remember.

The dark, unfilled rags that are my empty clothes wrap around each other on the floor. I step back into them and walk into the yellow bedroom. A young, well-fleshed dog fox is sitting on a stool in front of the dressing table its brush trailing on the floor. In the mirror I see the fox’s jaw exposed, fizzing with yellow maggots, its eyes staring steadily, wisely into themselves. On the bedside table there is a glass full of water in which is a pair of dentures made with far more teeth than can be contained in a human mouth. A small metal box, a radio, shines next to the glass. I switch it on and there is a loud belch followed by a round of applause. I switch the radio off.

On the stool in front of the dressing table is a coat. From behind me there is a gagging then a throaty gurgle, a wet, chunky evacuation, perhaps through the nose as well as the mouth. On the bathroom floor in front of the toilet bowl lie strands of tomato and lumps of shrimp. I clean the floor and open the window, which slams shut immediately that I release it as if the outside air were resisting the gastric stench within. On the third attempt I manage to wedge the window open with a toothbrush.

I look up through the glass into the massing sky, bruised silver-grey and violet, and raise my arms, my hands, thinking through the sudden pain in my head, and see a frozen lark fall at great speed before exploding on the concrete path, scattering its music all around the garden in numberless, glittering fragments.

I open the back door and for the first time walk outside and when I look back I see nothing but trees. I sit on a rock and watch the nearest one to me. Silver bark crumbles from the trunk and snows onto the ground. The tree trembles.

I stand up in brilliant sunshine and turn to look over a rotten stile at a meadow that slopes away; long grass, scrubby, clumping weeds with tight pink buds, yellow butterflies twitch in the air, white mushrooms nose up through the damp soil, swallows dip and roll. In place of the sun a giant, golden, severed hand radiates in the sky. The hand closes into a fist making the world dark. Turning around, I run for the trees, eyes twitching up to the trunks and boughs that are scarred with hoops that glow orange ember. I trip over the step and fall into the kitchen smoke rising from my jacket.

The smell, like toasted marshmallows, makes me feel sick and hungry at the same time. I roll to my feet and approach the bread bin, carefully lifting the lid and, as I put my hand in the loaf scuttles into the corner pressing up against the side, palpitating under the bag tie.

This is my hunger.

I put the hand under the tap and watch it turn red.

Walking quickly from the sink I step out of my shoes, they float away and I feel lighter and truer. There is a breakage far in the distance but still inside. The stranger is coughing and laughing in the parlor.

I reach the door which gasps softly as I push against it and sighs as I pull it back. I refuse to do this again.

I step onto an irregular orange rug, the burning sand cradles my feet, one move, two moves and I am struck by a jag of glass that pierces my foot to the pith and I stand bleeding freely. The desert turns red and I become blue while my foot pulses. I move off into a corner and reach for the floor which spins around to meet me. Within reach there is a narrow bed and, propped next to it on its side, an empty television. I can’t remember all the programs I must have watched there when it had a screen but I know the time must have passed because here I am inside, looking at myself, watching nothing. I cough and, for a moment, I think I must be the stranger – I am a man after all – but I hear laughter outside the window, and then I think that he must be a piece of me that has broken off and is living a happier life than the one that I lead but, somehow, still cannot completely escape the original self who now lies maimed on the parlor floor.

But then I remember.

I don’t smoke.

I can’t be the stranger.

The pillow ascends and approaches as if interested in my breath. It becomes as big as the moon; or maybe it is merely close and white and glowing cold like a pillow does before one falls into its plump, lightly wrinkled face with one’s own red, heavily wrinkled, bewhiskered one. The moon or the pillow is behind me and my face is in front of me and the lack of a breath is not troubling me and I grow calmer and darker, waiting for the world to fall away not knowing whether it will fall up or down. I land heavily on my knees. (There will be a bruise.) The room shakes awake and I long for a blanket. I hear a long crisping sound, a suck and a pout, nearly silent, and a louder, but still quiet, exhalation, sour smoke drifts over my head and I struggle to stand, to turn, to see the secret smoker, to seize him – because it must be a him – to push him over, to crush his pack and kick away the yellow lighter, with its grind wheel and shimmering liquid gas, into the shadows of the shadows under my bed where I will reach for it in the morning – should the morning come.

I scramble sideways, pull myself up and balance on toe-tips, fingertips, before shuffling forward and rising in one long stretch. On the stairs I hear the rolling grind and fat thump and thump of a heavy ball descending.

I press my fingers into the palm of my left hand to dig out a chemical itch. I hold the sparkling hook in the air above my head before dropping it into my mouth and swallowing. There’s a fishy wiggle and a tickle and then it’s gone into the acid darkness.

There is a tapping under my feet, not on the plaster ceiling some distance below, but a hard, sore-knuckled rapping on the boards directly beneath the coarse leather of my shoes. There is a muffled shout from the same place; it must be hard to breathe there. I stamp my foot twice, three times and the sound stops. I fold over and put my ear to the warm wood.

The dark is hovering in the dark and behind these are the walls.

“Are you there?” I say but when I realise that I’m talking to myself I stand up.

Vines twist around the iron loops and knots of the bed head. There is a force of sweetness passing through these living cables, swelling the grapes that group together and nod towards the pillow. Dragonflies rise and fall in the turbid air, rapid wings making a deep hum and I imagine that this is what makes my glasses tremble and slip down my nose. I go to lie down and I’m relieved to be that little distance further from the earth, pleased to be upheld, and I recognize the vastness of the effort required to keep flesh, bones, skin, frothing blood and the soft, thinking matter of the brain from parting, each from the other, and sliding into the soil.

I sense the possibility of no more happening.

There is a sudden fall, a cough, of soot in the chimney and a small cloud passes over the tiles and settles on the carpet.

The stranger’s sounds make sense for the first time.

He is saying: “Get out of my house.”

I turn around and a man is standing close to me swelling large on the in breath, shrinking and warping on the out breath.

I talk and my words run backwards but I pull the sounds in and blow them out in the right direction.

“This is my home… my house. I have the deeds in my pocket. I always carry the deeds.”

I hand them over for his inspection.

“You see,” he says, waving the papers in the air. “I have the deeds. This is my house.”

“But all of this is mine. It’s what I’ve lived. Look – look… The rug there – it’s the skin I tore from my back when I fell off my boy’s scooter after steeping down a gravel path in the park.”

“Everyone has skin.”

“My books. All my books. I’ve read them.”

“No one has the words. The mind is on a slope and the words pour off like water and who knows where they go?”

“Not the words. The books. They’re mine… Downstairs… in the drawer. The knives. They cut my food.”

He has folded his arms and begun a slow, wet smile that I fear may never end.

“There’s no food in this house.”

I point upwards to the ceiling, his gaze follows and he cries out at the rough, fibrous shag of an over roasted slice of beef; wet strings of fat hang down, bloody drops pendulate, hesitating to fall.

The stranger reaches over and returns the deeds.

“It’s your house. It is.”

He stands wavering; thinning out.

“What am I doing here?”

“You’ve been scaring me.”

“I was happy scaring you. I never thought that it was my house. I was lying.”

“I know.”

“I couldn’t live in a house like this.”

“Neither do I.”

The stranger looks down at his shoes and so do I. They are just shoes.

“The truth is… I can’t remember anything.”

—David Hayden

/

/

/

An Apple in the Library

/

The librarian sits at her desk; unblinking, because unable to blink, unmoving, because unable to move. Air rushes between the stacks making a hoarse throat-music. The lamps are on and the ceiling is covered in scars.

The books know but are still.

The reader pushes at the door, considers his choices when it resists him, then pulls on the door, which opens. There is no knowing what the librarian is thinking. It is possible to know what the librarian is thinking.

The reader approaches her.

“Do you have an apple?”

If it were possible she would be nodding, not talking, nodding; indicating the shelf behind the reader where the apple is. He turns around and turns back.

“I’m sorry. I need the apple. And you can’t help me?”

The librarian stares at the reader. She knows that she cannot help. He smiles, considering his own simple appetence, it is a lovely thing, perhaps better than the apple sought; but still he must have the apple.

“Who brings you here? Are my questions cruel? I don’t feel cruel although I know what it is. I can look at you and in seeing you not see you, only a dark part of myself which I do not recognise as myself but as you; the surface of you, made a thing; a thing I see and want, or don’t want, to look at, to act on.”

Every day. Every single day,” thinks the librarian.

This is a loud thought but the reader can not hear it. She thinks it again.

Every single day.”

“I’m sure the apple is near,” says the reader.

“I have the idea of it in my hand. I possess the weight of the idea; not much, it is sufficient and, while lighter than many ideas, it is, at the moment, larger and more present than all those other thoughts.”

You are loud, unsheathed and boring, but you have a good smell; cleanliness with a superadded element, a bright unguent applied on the face with the fingers of each hand in a soft, swirling motion that awakes the skin, makes it live and feel like my skin, my flesh, once felt; a good smell; the odour of self-love, of care, of caring to be seen, of inhabiting one’s aliveness and feeling it both never ending and short-lived.”

The lights blink off and the library stages a presentiment of endless darkness. The reader can smell the apple now; it is behind him or, perhaps, over his head, floating. He reaches up into the dark pursuing his sense and the lights blink on and he is staring at his hand reaching out to nothing.

The librarian has a thought but it is not in words. The reader wants to be guided to the apple by words, by the alphabet even, but the fruit is before, or outside of all that; it is possible that the apple leads to the words but not the other way round.

“I will look at the books. It’s all right that I look at the books?”

The reader looks again into the librarian’s face.

“Everything I need to know today is in there. What do you do with it all, I wonder?”

Love. It’s enough.

“The apple is near and you are here and if I take the trouble to search I will find it.”

You are so vehement. It’s right behind you; you might not find it; perhaps you will.

“I like being here with you; so little moving.”

Your lips are moving.

“Everything that I need here and unable to leave.”

Nobody talks like you; it’s not credible; it’s not a good thing.

“There’s no resurrection except in small moments.”

The reader turns and finds the apple; the apple finds his hand. The apple is more than one simple green, perfectly imperfect as a minor sphere with spongy facets that can take the light and appear white in patches, but never completely. Wood, a stalk, and a tiny, heart-shaped, serrated leaf which, when lightly tugged, pulls back, belonging to the apple. He pushes the fruit into his mouth; his tongue’s memory of other apples creates an unthought motion to test, to paint the smooth, cool surface. Between the head and the hand: the apple; and out of the head, the mouth, the teeth. The reader is biting and chewing and it’s all happening very quickly.

The librarian thinks:

Is he eating the apple? Is the apple eating him?

The apple is finished.

The reader stands with one arm and hand free, the other bent slightly at the elbow; the core pinched lightly between his thumb and fore and index fingers.

“What I have had must come back to me; a thing, an event; done to, done by, me or who or her or him. The core turns brown, my fingers wet and sticky and fragrant.”

My eyes pour out meanings, longings – not him – meanings that stop at my eyes, which are dry; terribly dry.

The reader raises the core to his mouth and his tongue works, the teeth click and snap, and white flesh pulses out and around the fibrous, seedy pith and the apple grows fuller and more itself, and a waxy, green ribbon peels out from the reader’s mouth and spins around the fruit until it is complete.

The reader places the apple back on the shelf.

“Thank you.”

The librarian blinks.

The reader leaves.

—David Hayden

 

David Hayden’s short stories have appeared in The Yellow Nib, The Moth, The Stinging Fly, Spolia and The Warwick Review, and poetry in PN Review. He was shortlisted for the 25th RTÉ Francis MacManus Short Story prize. Memory House is from his unpublished collection of short stories titled It’s Darker With the Lights On.

Aug 042014
 

saer2

La Grande was Juan José Saer’s final novel, published not long after the Argentinian author’s death in 2005.  Recently translated by Steve Dolph and published by Open Letter Books, La Grande follows Nula Anoch, Willi Gutiérrez and a host of other characters over the course of a single week. Set against the backdrop of Argentina’s long and tortured history, the characters contend with memory, loss, love, betrayal and hope in the days leading up to a party at the Gutiérrez compound. Part mystery, part  philosophy, part answer to the question, What is the novel? Saer’s masterwork is a wonderful example of why the novel remains relevant and very much alive. Saer reminds you of John Fowles, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, all rolled together into a South American exile with a Paris address.

In this excerpt. Nula (five years before the major events of the novel) has been swept up in a strange, sordid relationship with a married couple, Lucía and Riera. For months, LucÍa fondles Nula on the couch with her husband’s permission, but she refuses to bring him to orgasm or have intercourse with him. Still, Nula is mesmerized, and progressively becomes a puppet to this couple, until, in a heart-cringing scene, Lucía and Riera have sex on the bed while Nula watches television on the floor.

Saer’s ability to precisely render a scene, coupled with his unflinching gaze into the heart of human desire, offers a tense, gripping and unforgettable view into the mystery of existence.  We may not understand it all, but we will never forget it.

—Richard Farrell

lagrande

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After that October night, for several months, until the following fall, they were almost always together. Lucía didn’t work, which meant she had lots of free time, but Riera went to the office early, and later, during his lunch hour, and in the evenings, he made house calls; Nula worked at the law school kiosk several times a week, and when he stayed home he pretended to prepare for his philosophy exams in November and December, but the thought of returning to Rosario, of leaving the city and Lucía, and Riera too, even for a single day, seemed intolerable: it would have been like stepping out of a magical world, a novel and seductive place, not exempt from sordidness and cruelty, to return to the uncertain, grayish days, with their perpetual seesaw between doubt and serenity, where he’d been treading water, resigned, since his childhood. He wanted to be Lucía’s lover, but he was barely her friend, her confidant, and sometimes he even reached the status of lap dog. Even though it would’ve been enough for him to know her, to sit calmly and silently at her side, she allowed him certain gratifications: every so often she let him touch her, kiss her, put his hand down her brassiere, and even suck on her breasts, and two or three times she’d accepted, submissively, when he guided her hand to his open fly, squeezing his penis in that strange way, squeezing and releasing, but once when he’d put his own hand over hers, forcing her to rub until he finished, she’d jumped up, rearranging her clothes, indignant and flustered, protesting, Oh no, not that, definitely not that! And she’d practically run to the bathroom and the bedroom to clean up and change. But despite that, when she returned she seemed content, with an abstracted, placid smile. After being with them a few times, Nula realized that Lucía and Riera were joined by a feeling, or whatever it was, that wasn’t exactly love, in the altruistic sense of the word at least, but actually something more turbulent that combined with a sort of voluptuous interdependence in which their differences generated a sarcasm more mocking than violent and their affinities a blind, impulsive, almost animal fusion. It was strange to see how the most insulting nonsense from one, verbal or otherwise, first produced indignation and then complicit laughter in the other. Nula felt momentarily excluded in those situations, but they, together or alone, always rushed to recover him. There was always the perpetual enigma: were they manipulating him, were they laughing at him, were they using him for some incomprehensible ends? Or did they really appreciate him and acted like that with everyone? Even now, lying face down on the mat, his chin resting on the back of his superimposed hands, feeling the sweat run down his face and back, even at this very moment, when they’ve reappeared, unexpectedly, into his life, he still doesn’t know. The fact that he’d been with Lucía two days before, finally possessing what five years before he’d sought in vain, and then the coincidence that Riera had called to announce his arrival from Bahía Blanca, restarts the mechanism of the past, and though he knows that he’ll never be trapped by them again, a distant, even vaguely ironic curiosity suggests that he should be alert in the days ahead. With his eyes closed, his face sweaty, pressed against the back of his hand, Nula laughs, shivering expectantly, and he realizes that his affection for them persists, but that its charge has been reversed, that it doesn’t have the same painful dependency of the first period, which had lasted a while after he voluntarily decided to stop seeing them, and has now taken on a paternalistic forbearance, a sympathy without a trace of possessiveness, governed by a completely atheoretical and in fact sporting inclination, to anticipate their curious reactions, for pure entertainment, without inverting any sentiment in the issue. This attitude provokes in him an excessive impatience to see them again.

Lucía was rich, but Riera, on the other hand, had come from a family of petty merchants in Bahía Blanca, and he always said that because petty merchants and the rich had more or less the same things weighing on their conscience, that it was only a difference of proportion, he and Lucía had been made for each other from the start. Lucía always complained that, because she was expected to marry rich, she hadn’t been allowed to pursue secondary studies. She’d had a rancher boyfriend, but she’d left him for Riera. Her mother disapproved of the relationship (Lucía’s father had died long before), but her own sentimental complications didn’t allow her the occasion to worry about Lucía’s future; Leonor, for her part, had been born rich, and because she’d married a rich man from whom she’d inherited a second fortune, she knew instinctively, and from personal experience, that money made intelligence superfluous. But Lucía’s ignorance tormented her: when Nula and Riera discussed science and philosophy (each loathed the other’s specialty), Lucía’s mood would sour, and Riera, mercifully, would change the subject. The sexual disarray of Riera’s life contrasted with his professional diligence. When he finished at the office he went on house calls, and he also worked with a group of doctors who treated people from the shantytowns and the countryside free of charge; they distributed medicine, and, in the worse cases, sent them to the hospital. He also saw the novitiates of a semi-clandestine brothel and though the owner paid him he gave the girls condoms and free samples that pharmaceutical salesmen had left with him. One Saturday afternoon, Nula was in Riera’s car with him when suddenly he stopped, opened the door, and ran out onto the sidewalk, leaving the car running; they were downtown, and because it was Saturday, it was crowded on the street. The row of cars and buses behind Riera started to honk, but Riera didn’t seem to hear a thing. Nula got out and saw that a boy who was about ten, a shoe shine who always worked on that corner, was lying on the ground, convulsing and drooling. Riera bent over him, and with two or three quick operations, did something to his jaw and laid him on his side, trying to contain his seizures. It was an epileptic fit. The boy calmed down gradually—the scene lasted two or three minutes—and Riera told Nula to open the rear door of the car and then to pick up the shine box, while he himself picked up the boy, laid him down on his side on the back seat, set the shine box on the floor of the car, closed the door, and sat down behind the steering wheel. He told Nula to kneel on the front seat and watch the boy in case the seizures started again. The boy was pale but calm, and seemed lost and drowsy. Riera took him to the hospital, to the neurological office, and didn’t move until he was sure he had a bed and a specialist to examine him. Nula had gone to his office to meet him for an afternoon swim at the beach in Rincón (Lucía had gone to Paraná to see her mother), but at two thirty they were still at the hospital, so when they left, shortly after three, they ate a slice of pizza standing up at a pizzeria across from the hospital, and Riera, although he didn’t usually work on Saturday, decided not to go to the beach after all, and leaving him at the entrance to La India’s, went back home.

In late November, Nula had a fight with La India because he’d decided not to take his philosophy exams in December and push them back to March, under the pretext that he still wasn’t prepared. You’re one of those people who thinks that the mayonnaise gets made whether you beat the eggs or not! La India had exploded; she’d noticed that something strange had been going on with him since September, though she didn’t mind that he was staying in the city, working at the kiosk and living at home. Ever since their father had left, and especially after he was killed, her sons’ emotional life worried her, and she preferred to always have them on hand, but it was difficult (with Chade, who was more reserved, almost impossible) to talk about things in a clear and direct way. The offhand and somewhat aggressive talks she had with Nula contributed more to hiding the real problems than to revealing them clearly. Nula listened with a serious expression to La India’s remonstrations, but every free moment he had he spent with his new friends. Sometimes he was alone with Lucía at their house, or they went out walking, and other times he met up with Riera for a beer and they’d talk a while, but what he preferred was for the three of them to be together, because he got the feeling that Lucía and Riera really appreciated him and did everything they could to make him feel welcome. But with them there was always something false that came through despite the fact that everything they did seemed so natural, so much so that Nula ended up thinking that they must have been unaware of it. Riera would sometimes take him to Cristina’s—he remembers a week in December when her son was in Córdoba, at his grandparents’ house—and the thing that seemed unconscious with Lucía became obvious, even brutal, when they were with her. Riera’s political theories were as expedient as they come: the problem with society wasn’t the poor but rather the rich families that controlled the banks, the military, the seats of political power, the media, the factories, the press, and so on. Because they were very few, the simplest solution was to kill them all, but because this was impossible, they had to start by corrupting their women, and he’d taken on the task of corrupting the wives of the bourgeoisie in order to precipitate social change. And he always followed that brief discourse with that terse, somewhat degenerate laugh that no one, male or female—and he knew it—was capable of resisting. Cristina wasn’t particularly rich: if her family did have money, it was certainly less than Calcagno’s fortune, of which Riera never touched a dime, referring to it often with contempt and even disgust. Riera subjugated her, and she, Cristina, accepted everything he gave her. Sometimes, in Nula’s presence, he even ordered her around, and one night even suggested she should sleep with him, something she accepted immediately, but Nula, although he was very excited, didn’t dare do it and went home. He heard them laughing as he went out to the street, and then, after taking a few steps along the sidewalk, he stopped and stood for a couple of minutes, thinking about going back, but he changed his mind and went home, past Lucía’s house, which was dark and silent, and since it was almost midnight he didn’t want to ring the bell, so he just went to sleep.

The summer passed in this way; March, and the exams, were approaching. Nula studied, and because the law school shut down from early December to early March, the kiosk closed too. The bookstore, meanwhile, closed in January, for the judicial holiday, and reopened in February, half days only. Nula worked there twice a week, Thursdays and Fridays, which allowed La India to spend long weekends in the country or at the shore. Riera and Lucía didn’t leave the city all summer, and all that time Nula was trapped in the aura that they secreted, trying to prove to himself that he was capable of controlling his desire, his suffering, and even his lust. Their company became a kind of addiction: wherever they were was the center of the world, solid and brilliant; everything else was soft, shapeless, and gray. He knew he wasn’t getting any farther with Lucía, but while they continued to make him feel like he existed as something other than the theater of their wretched war—a feeling he often had—he’d be able to tolerate their machinations. One night in early March, having already decided to go to Rosario for his exams, he decided never to see them again. The heat was dreadful, so they ate in the courtyard, but suddenly, in the middle of their conversation, a storm drove them inside. After the lightning and thunder of a dense and turbulent storm had passed, a rain settled in that would surely last till the morning. Lucía proposed that they watch a movie she’d rented, a detective story that had made a big splash the previous winter, but which she hadn’t been able to see in the theater. They moved to the bedroom, with fruit and cold water, and sat down together at the foot of the bed to watch the movie. After a while, Lucía said she preferred to lie in bed to be more comfortable, and five minutes later, without saying a word, Riera followed her. Nula felt his heart beating harder and harder in his chest. His throat dried, and he opened his mouth to breathe, trying to be silent, because it felt like he was drowning. At first he thought these were the symptoms of desire, but immediately he realized they were of pain, and that, in fact, he wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart. The unnamable, the inconceivable, was happening. Because they’d turned on a bedside lamp so as to not watch the movie in the dark, the room had a warm glow, which from time to time brightened even more when the film passed from a dark image to a clear one, and which meant that everything happening was perfectly visible. But Nula didn’t want to turn around. Suddenly he heard Lucía’s voice behind him saying, Poor thing, we left him alone, and then, directly to him, Are you alright there, on the floor? with a distant, absent voice, as if she were falling asleep. But Nula was sure that she wasn’t falling asleep—just the opposite; their barely audible voices, their movements, their sounds, signaled not only that they weren’t sleeping, but that in fact they were wide awake, though in a somewhat different state of consciousness, which may have even pushed them radically farther from consciousness than a dream, believing they liberated in a whirlwind of sensation that defined them most intimately, when in fact they had been possessed and were now controlled by what was most external to them. Up till that moment, Nula had thought that the strange laughter that connected them precluded intercourse, that they left that extenuating labor for others—an illusion that, later, when he thought it over, seemed at once hilarious and pathetic. For several minutes, he was frozen, rigid, leaning against the edge of the bed, trying to ignore their whispers, their laughter, their moaning, the squeaking and creaking of the bed, the rustle of the sheets, but when Lucía finally started to emit a guttural noise, increasing in intensity, he crawled out on all fours, like a cat, trying not to make a sound, all the way to the hallway, where he stood up and walked out, practically running, through the darkened house that, over the last few months, he’d come to know by heart. Except for the morning when he’d seen them from a taxi, in Rosario, he never saw either of them again, until about a month back, in March, five years after that night, when he saw Lucía come out of the swimming pool in a green swimsuit, and when Gutiérrez, looking at him, had said, It’s not what you think. She’s my daughter. After the March exams, Nula stayed in Rosario under the pretext that classes were starting soon and he didn’t want to get behind that year, and when he came to visit La India on the weekends he almost never left the apartment, and if he did he never took the walk around the block; he always walked straight to the city center. Later, from Cristina, who he bumped into that winter, with her husband, he learned that Lucía and Riera had moved to Bahía Blanca. That October he met Diana, and he forgot about them completely; with Diana everything seemed easy and transparent, which was why, when she got pregnant and she told him she was willing to get an abortion he responded that it would be better if they got married. With his Greek philosophy professor he’d studied Problem XXX.1, attributed to Aristotle, or to Theophrastus, where the affinity between wine, sex, poetry, and philosophy—common ground of the melancholics—was discussed, and because he had to find work and just then an introductory seminar in enology was being offered at the Hotel Iguazú, and which created the possibility of finding a job if he did well, he enrolled with a loan from La India, and, soon after, with another brief course in Mendoza, he was offered a job with Amigos del Vino, which meant that the next year, when Yussef was born, he had enough to provide for him, and by the time Inés was born he was already one of the top salesmen for Amigos del Vino, at least the only one who Américo allowed to bend the rules. And now he’s lying on the mat, face down, tanning in the sun, feeling the sweat drip down the corners of his face pressed against the back of his hands superimposed on the edge of the mat.

 —Juan José Saer, translated by Steve Dolph

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Juan José Saer (1937–2005), born in Santa Fé, Argentina, was the leading Argentinian writer of the post-Borges generation. In 1968, he moved to Paris and taught literature at the University of Rennes. The author of numerous novels and short-story collections (including The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, Scars, The One Before, and The Clouds, all published by or forthcoming from Open Letter Books), Saer was awarded Spain’s prestigious Nadal Prize in 1987 for The Event.

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Aug 012014
 

BattleofIssus333BC-mosaic-detail1Detail of the Alexander Mosaic, representing Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus, during the battle of Issus. via Ancient History Encyclopedia

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 History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
—Karl Marx

…Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.
—W. B. Yeats

Anderson, slender and bespectacled, and Haggerty, who retained the musculature of the high-school wrestler he once was, had been roommates in graduate school. They had been rivals then and ever since. Before they knew one another, each had decided to major in Classics, and they had both applied to the same top-tier graduate programs in that field: Princeton, Brown, Berkeley, Chicago, Michigan, Stanford, Penn, UNC-Chapel Hill, Yale, Columbia, and Harvard. Both had been brilliant undergraduate students, excelling particularly in history and languages, including, of course, Greek and Latin. Since they had also been fulsomely recommended by their dazzled college professors, it was no surprise that, even in the fiercely competitive struggle to gain admission to these formidable programs, both had been accepted by all the universities to which they had applied. As Fate, and the rankings, would have it, both chose Princeton.

Fate once again took a hand in throwing them together as roommates, and, for whatever reason, both found themselves, after the first year, gravitating toward the study of Greece in the fourth century BCE, focusing particularly on matters Alexandrine. Here their paths diverged, and sharply, for they quickly and adamantly adopted antithetical positions regarding the Great one.

Following, with some sophisticated nuances of course, in the line of the venerable W. W. Tarn, Anderson, in a beautifully-written article in the Classical Quarterly and a well-received contribution to A Companion to the Hellenistic World, honed the image of Alexander as not only a forger of Greek-Persian-Oriental unity, but an idealistic believer in the ultimate unity of all man-(and woman-) kind. Though he was deeply troubled by his hero’s brutality in suppressing the early rebellion at Thebes, Anderson adhered in general to the line of thought so movingly laid out by Tarn back in the 1930s and recapitulated and amplified after World War II in his celebrated two-volume Alexander the Great (1948). The result was Anderson’s own magisterial and eloquent Alexander the Far-Seer (Harvard UP, 1995), in which he directly engaged the problematic “situation” at Thebes, gingerly depicting that slaughter of men and enslavement of women and children as ultimately humane: Alexander’s admittedly severe but effective way to punish betrayal and to preempt subsequent mutinies among the other Greek city-states.

Tarn’s image of Alexander, as embellished by Anderson, was that of a chivalrous (Exhibit 1: his exquisitely courteous treatment of the captured mother, wife, and daughters of the defeated Persian king, Darius) and visionary conqueror, a man more than two millennia ahead of his time. The appeal of this Alexander no doubt explained why, once he had become a professor himself, at Columbia, Anderson had been sought out by both Martin Scorsese and then by Oliver Stone in connection with Alexander film projects. Anderson, who had been remunerated handsomely as a consultant in both cases (enabling him to purchase and furnish a spacious apartment on Riverside Drive), regretted that Stone’s film had actually been made, starring an unfortunately blonde-wigged Colin Farrell, while Scorsese’s, which was to star Leonardo DiCaprio, had fallen by the wayside.

As for Haggerty’s Alexander: that was an altogether different kettle of fish. Haggerty had been powerfully and permanently influenced by the scholarship of the formidable Ernst Badian, who had been kind enough, even in retirement, to read and comment on a paper Haggerty had sent him unsolicited. For Badian, Tarn’s image of Alexander was a starry-eyed idealization created by a brilliant but UN-influenced scholar who had imposed his own well-intentioned but dreamy twentieth-century global utopianism on an ancient blood-letter, a brutal conqueror whose legacy, far from any unified world, was a Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic morass of division, endless war, and misery. Haggerty’s long-gestating major study, Alexander: The Myth vs. the Man, published by Peter Lang in the very month (May, 2011) Ernst Badian had died, exhibited, despite its relentless thesis, some modicum of scholarly balance. But it was too little, too late. More than occasionally, prior to that belated publication, Haggerty, fatally injuring in the process his status in the scholarly community, had succumbed to sensationalism, most notoriously in his scathing review of the second edition of his former roommate’s Alexander the Far-Seer.

In this jealousy-fueled assault on Anderson’s magnum opus, the legitimate son of Philip was summarily dismissed as a “murderous bastard and drunken thug,” not to mention being “homoerotic and undersexed.” Haggerty’s most vitriolic scorn was poured on Anderson’s “mendacity” and “patent hypocrisy” in rationalizing the “bloodbath at Thebes.” In Haggerty’s telling of the tale of Alexander, only Bucephalus—chosen, but not himself at liberty to choose his master—fared well. In fact, in his concluding sentence, Haggerty tossed a single contemptuous sop to his rival by unqualifiedly praising Anderson’s “justified admiration of the psychotic’s innocent warhorse,” a “four-legged hero who had played no part whatever in the bestial and bloody atrocities inflicted by his master on the unfortunate citizens of Thebes.”

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Before the rivalry between Haggerty and Anderson had intensified and then petered out into a typical academic power-struggle evoking the spectacle of two impotent serpents hissing at each other, they had interacted, in their Princeton days, in a civilized and gradually friendly manner. Just as Fate had made them Classicists, sent them to Princeton, made them roommates, and drew them to the study of Alexander, so that uncanny and intertwining Power arranged for them to date, interchangeably, two very different women, having only beauty in common. At first, Diana had been with Haggerty, Alicia with Anderson. But at some point (the quartet could never pinpoint the precise moment of transposal), there had been a sudden switch. However incongruously, sensuous, pouty-lipped and opulently breasted Diana ended up with the delicate, even slightly effeminate Anderson; delicate, slim-hipped, ash-blonde Alicia with burly Haggerty.

Separately but simultaneously, the couples married the year after the men graduated from Princeton. As ambitious as her husband, Diana was not in the least reticent when it came to charming whoever might be in a position to advance her husband’s career. And that career did advance, rapidly, thanks to the combination of a burgeoning list of publications, entrée to the New York Review of Books, very occasional but still first–name relationships with “Marty” and “Oliver,” and that ample and strategically-located Riverside Drive apartment—all voluptuously enhanced by the social and related skills of a stunningly attractive hostess-wife.

Though it took well over a decade, it seemed, at least to an envious and increasingly embittered Haggerty, no time at all before his old roommate was a chaired professor in the Classics Department at Columbia, his considerable salary buttressed by an inherited but shrewdly augmented stock-portfolio. Meanwhile, Haggerty, professionally scarred by the “intemperance” of his savaging of Anderson’s much-applauded Alexander the Far-Seer, labored in the obscure vineyard of a second- tier small liberal arts college in upstate New York. On occasion, Haggerty would come down to New York City to work for the day in one or another of the libraries; then scurry back to the sticks on Amtrak. However, on their brief biannual visits to Manhattan to take in a show, he and Alicia were, at least at first, invariably invited to stay with the Andersons, who “wouldn’t hear” of their friends  “putting up at an expensive hotel.” The other unheard-of matter, ever-present but never addressed during these visits, was the attack on Anderson’s book: what even Alicia, the most candid of the four, simply accepted as the Great Taboo.

gemitoAlexander the Great mounting his horse Boukephalon. Vincenzo Gemito (1852-1929) via Wiki Media Commons.

As the years went on, these visits always seemed to coincide with parties, during which Alicia, though still attractive, was inevitably outshone by Diana, who had become ever more glamorous, a Bergdorf blonde whose champagne, salon-tended coiffure made Alicia’s unpretentiously-styled, naturally ash-blonde hair seem dishwater-dull. For his part, Haggerty, though he stood over six feet and had retained more than the remnants of an athletic physique, almost literally felt the testosterone drain from him during these affairs. He would drink too much, and still find himself self-conscious and cringing, surrounded by Manhattan theater people, and, even worse, by higher-paid and better-known academics. When the subject as to where he “taught” came up (as it always did), the cosmopolitan professors would predictably and condescendingly observe that they had heard “good things” about his little college “up there.” Eventually, both he and Alicia wearied of these petty humiliations, and either skipped coming down to the city at all, or slipped furtively in and out of town without informing the Andersons.

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Then came the fateful autumn day. Haggerty, in Manhattan to do research in the Berg Collection of the 42nd Street Library, stopped at the Wine Bar in Bryant Park before heading to Penn Station. Suddenly feeling as leaden as the sinking light of dusk settling over the park, he realized, with a shock of recognition, that his current project, whatever its initial excitement, had palled. Even if he supported with solid evidence the point, or quibble, that had been preoccupying him for several months—so what? He needed at least one drink, maybe more, before setting out on the long, dark trip back along the Hudson and Mohawk. And there, a sudden burst of light in the darkness, was Diana! She had just tucked her cell phone in her bag, and was sipping a white wine. She glanced up, saw him, and smiled, then smiled again, this time differently. She was never more radiantly gorgeous, and Haggerty hadn’t seen that particular smile since their nights together back in Princeton. After three or four drinks, Diana pressed her warm lips to his ear and whispered, “I think it’s time we moved this act to a more intimate setting.”

Haggerty concurred, wondering only briefly if he could get away with using his Amtrak ticket a day late; tonight, at Diana’s insistence, they would be “putting up at an expensive hotel.” She called and made a reservation at the nearby Grand Hyatt. After they’d each discreetly attended to their other necessary phone calls (two, he noticed in Diana’s case), they headed out at full tilt to the hotel. Stopped by a red light at 42nd and Madison, Haggerty, unable to wait, pulled her to him and kissed her with a passion fired by genuine lust and a fury of jealousy and anger that had been simmering for years.

At the desk, he had to hold his briefcase in front of him to conceal his erection, and when they finally got into the room, he once again couldn’t wait. As it happened, neither could she. Their first fuck, up against the wall and half-clothed, was violent, almost savage. It was fantastic while it lasted, but he was too hot to control himself for long. He came earlier than he intended, and explosively. She groaned, but was far from finished. They stripped, had a drink from the mini-bar while he recovered, and then hit the bed. He went at her breasts like a starving baby, and then he was deep inside her. She felt familiar and yet different, better and certainly blonder. It was during their third encore that she murmured, “You’re making me crazy,” and she meant it.

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That autumn, winter, and spring, Haggerty found it imperative that he work in the Berg Collection at least twice a month. Simultaneously, Diana discovered that her own delicate psyche demanded “quiet time,” when she needed to be “by herself” for a day or two. This need for contemplative solitude arose twice monthly, coinciding with her bi-monthly hair treatments and re-colorings at Bergdorf Goodman’s. As fate would have it, these restorative hiatuses also coincided precisely with Haggerty’s research expeditions to the city, during which he never had occasion to renew his “Special Visitors” card, the catalogued riches of the Berg Collection going unexplored while Haggerty devoted his energies to exploring the more palpable riches of the opulent Diana.

Anderson was not unaware of his wife’s flexible interpretation of their marriage bond. Aware as well that her exuberant sex drive dwarfed his own, he tended to be tolerant. But these twice-monthly absences eventually proved too much even for him. Suffering from unaccustomed jealousy and a festering sense of betrayal, he found himself becoming distracted from his current research—on Callisthenes, nephew to Aristotle and official historian on Alexander’s expedition into Persia. His research into Callisthenes’ possible (probable?) involvement in the Royal Pages’ conspiracy to murder their warrior-king fueled Anderson’s growing sense that he too was the victim of a conspiracy.

Awaking from a troubled dream one night, his scholarship and his likely cuckolding suddenly converged in a single name: “Haggerty!” A week later, on a bright Tuesday morning when Diana had set off for her regular bi-monthly salon visit to Bergdorf’s followed by her bi-monthly “rest,” Anderson phoned the hinterlands. Alicia answered. When, after the routine pleasantries, Anderson asked to speak to his old pal, she informed him that Haggerty was, “in fact, in Manhattan, doing some research, though he would be back Wednesday night.”

“Really,” said Anderson, concealing his emotion. “He should have arranged to stay with us.” The pretense of civility, hypocritically maintained over years now, had never ceased to amaze Alicia. Though Haggerty’s ferocious attack on Anderson’s book had in fact shattered their friendship, the offending review was never spoken of, or even alluded to, by either man. Always there, but never mentioned, it had long been the perennial elephant, or the warhorse, in the room.

“Well, there have been several trips of late, and he didn’t want to bother you and Diana.”

“Hmmm,” said Anderson. “Just what is it he’s working on?”

Alicia chuckled, but it was mirthless; her awareness of the men’s professional rivalry, like her husband’s suspiciously frequent trips to the city to do “research,” was far more a source of pain than of amusement. “I wouldn’t be at liberty to tell you if I knew. But, to be honest, I don’t. It must be going well, though; he always seems to come back…rejuvenated.”

“I just bet he does,” said Anderson, in a tone Alicia found more than usually difficult to decipher. Her own resigned tone touched Anderson, who found himself wondering, as he often had over the years, how it was that, betraying his heart and even against his will, he had turned from Alicia to Diana. Not that the turn was ever quite complete. Anderson had flirted with Alicia on a few occasions; and there was that night a few years back when, having had one scotch too many, he had kissed her when they were alone for a moment in the Andersons’ dining room. His attempt at seduction, if that’s what it was, ended before it began, with Alicia unresponsive and murmuring something about her “husband,” a loyalty that embarrassed and, even more, angered Anderson. But so be it: for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, it would be Anderson and Diana, Alicia and Haggerty. Perhaps old Pindar had it right: “that which is fated cannot be fled.”

Anderson let it all marinate. The longer it did, the more furious he became. Diana’s sensuality, at an earlier stage an ancillary means to career-advancement, had begun to degenerate into potentially embarrassing sexual indiscretions. But this treachery—with Haggerty of all people!—went beyond the endurable. Conscious of the melodramatic touch, he nevertheless vowed vengeance on both miscreants. Perhaps, afterward, he and Alicia, no longer bound by loyalty….

2801624-bucephalusAlexander Taming Bucephalus” by Francois Schommer, German, late 19th century. Via Wiki Media Commons.

As for Haggerty, Anderson’s resentment now soured into much more than professional hatred, though his emotions also leached into his scholarship. In a New Republic piece, he introduced a detectable caveat to his central Alexandrine thesis: the conqueror’s ultimate vision of universal unity and concord as the end to which all the bloodshed was merely a tactical means. “The end of art is peace,” said the late, great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, in accepting his Nobel Prize. He acknowledged borrowing the phrase from his predecessor, the late, great Irish Nobel laureate, W. B. Yeats; who’d borrowed it from the not so-great, non-prize-winning, non-Irish 19th-century poet, Coventry Patmore; who doubtless lifted it himself. Anderson couldn’t speak for “art,” but he had long been sure that the end, as well as the beginning, of academic scholarship was not peace but war. Now he was beginning to wonder if the end—the purpose—of war was, not peace, but just…more war. He would soon, at his publisher’s request, be undertaking a 4th edition of Alexander the Far-Seer. Anderson decided to defer further historical speculation to that new—and very possibly substantially revised—edition of his masterwork.

§

In the meantime, he prepared to bait a trap. His plans were delayed when he wrenched his knee while jogging in Riverside Park, missing his step because of his preoccupation with his stratagem. But with some rehab, and a brace and cane, he experienced only minor pain, and productively utilized his un-Diana-like “rest period” by polishing the details of his version of Hamlet’s mouse-trap.

One particularly fine spring morning, when birds were singing and whatnot, he informed Diana over breakfast, just before she headed out for her bi-monthly highlighting and hiatus, that he had come to a decision regarding his estrangement from Haggerty. He had, he said, long since forgiven his erstwhile and underpaid friend for his intemperate review of Alexander the Far-Seer; indeed, to be candid, he had been “slightly” rethinking his own thesis. He even had enough equanimity to chuckle at Haggerty’s having limited his agreement with the book to the sentence in which Anderson had praised the brave and blameless Bucephalus, who, along with performing magnificently in battle, “had played no part whatever in the anomalous episode at Thebes.”

In any case, it was “high time” to “let bygones be bygones,” to “bury the hatchet, as it were.” What—he wanted to know—did she “think about a get-together? Perhaps dinner next week in Manhattan with the four of us, my treat, including their trip down from upstate.”

Though caught off guard, Diana, her feet as quicksilver as Mercury’s, instantly adjusted, responding that she thought the idea “fine,” even “delightful,” though she wondered if it might not be too much too soon on his knee.

“Not in the slightest. Wednesday, then, this week or next. I understand from Alicia that he’s been doing some mid-week research at the Berg twice a month.”

Diana was lighting a cigarette when he came out with that, but only the eye of a detective (or Anderson’s) would have caught the slight trembling of her hand as she flicked the lighter. What occasion had he to be speaking to Alicia? Was it just to do with his sudden idea for the men to make up over dinner, reuniting the two jolly couples of Princeton days? And what exactly had Alicia said, other than to blurt out the news about Haggerty’s “research” trips to the city? Best, Diana thought, to pass over all that terra incognita, and focus on the dinner plan.

“Wonderful. Where?” she asked, dilating her pupils to what she calibrated was the appropriate degree to convey surprised delight.

“Smith & Wolensky, I think. Not far from the library, and Haggerty loves a good steak.”

“Great. But I must dash.” Forgetting that she had just lit it, Diana stubbed out her cigarette, pecked him on the cheek leaving a faint imprint of lipstick, and was gone.

§

When, following their afternoon coupling and some rather more amorous imprintings of her lipstick, Diana informed her lover of this peace offering, Haggerty was instantly suspicious.

“Do you think the devious little prick knows about us?”

She thought not, and mentioned the unmentionable: Anderson’s specific reference to Haggerty’s review of Alexander the Far-Seer. He had even laughed, she reported, at what Haggerty had singled out as their one point of agreement: the praise of splendid Bucephalus.

“For whatever reason, he’s forgiven you. He recently injured his knee. Maybe he’s mellowing with age. In any case, his new attitude seems to be ‘live and let live’.”

“Arrogant son of a bitch; he doesn’t leave us much choice, does he?”

When Anderson phoned the following evening and extended his invitation, Haggerty, armed by Diana’s advance warning, worked up as much feigned surprise and enthusiasm as he could manage without puking. Actually, he was now looking forward to the meeting. He had decided to show up with his own peace-offering, a “Greek gift.” Triggered by Diana’s reference to Anderson’s injured knee, the idea had solidified into a specific shape. He had some shopping to do.

§

The following week the four met as arranged. After the somewhat strained handshakes and obligatory kisses, Haggerty checked a long package in the cloakroom adjoining the entrance. “A gift,” he winked at Anderson. The two couples had several drinks at the always inviting copper bar, and then adjourned to their reserved table. The evening, lubricated by several bottles of a fine red, was unexpectedly convivial. Warmed by the wine, and experiencing a vestige of the old friendship, Anderson began to waver. At one point he came close to jettisoning his plan to expose the clandestine lovers. But as fate would have it, that was the very instant that Haggerty and Diana exchanged furtive glances, fleeting and yet so unmistakably intimate that it re-fueled Anderson’s rage. Only the most Herculean effort at self-restraint enabled him to maintain his false veneer of bonhomie.

Though controlled, his hostility, squirming beneath the lacquered surface, took the form of several supposedly innocent questions intended to goad his rival: queries as to how Haggerty’s research in the Berg Collection was going? Whether he had received any grants and/or secured a publisher—other than “Peter Lange”—for his current and “long-gestating” book? What the “cost” was these days for a round-trip Amtrak ticket to the city? He even expressed a sincere wish that Haggerty hadn’t “spent too much” on the “gift” he’d checked in the cloakroom.  Diana grew a bit suspicious and restive, but, to Anderson’s annoyance, Haggerty refused to join in the petty professional game-playing by rising to the bait. Whether he was oblivious to Anderson’s barely camouflaged taunts, or simply basking in the confidence that comes from secretly fucking the wife of one’s interlocutor, host and rival, Haggerty remained maddeningly complacent and convivial.

Just as they were finishing their steaks, and Anderson was ordering yet another bottle of Pibarnon, Haggerty, who had been so animated and voluble during dinner that Alicia had suggested at one point that he try being “still” for at least a moment, excused himself. He returned with his package, presenting it to Anderson with a jovial yet enigmatic grin. Once unwrapped, it proved to be an exceptionally handsome mahogany cane, its oversized knob adorned with a silver horse’s head inscribed… BUCEPHALUS.

photo_verybig_129490Warrior (possibly Alexander) on a Horse, Macedonia, 2011. Photo by EPA/BGNES.

Only Alicia seemed puzzled, until Haggerty re-explained the inside joke. Diana, who required no explanation, wondered where it was all headed. Nervous, but anxious to alleviate the palpable tension at the table, Diana laughed. In fact, they all laughed—with the notable exception of Anderson, whose face reddened with repressed fury. He understood the joke beneath the joke. Haggerty was still rubbing it in, repeating, with that silver Bucephalus-head, his original assault on Anderson’s magnum opus. Anderson had brought them here, at considerable expense, to expose the sordid liaison between Haggerty and Diana. Softened by the wine, the fine meal, and the dinner conversation, he had considered abandoning his plan; and now, Haggerty, turning the tables, was not only cuckolding him, but making him the butt, rubbing salt in the old wound by bringing up that goddamned review. True, in the end, the attack had backfired, damaging Haggerty’s reputation far more than his own. But that sarcasm and ridicule still smarted, indeed stung even more, because, in his heart of hearts, Anderson had slowly come to realize that Haggerty’s critique, however snide and hyperbolic, was largely accurate.

He also realized (though no one at the table noticed at first) that his body was shaking.  Suddenly, in a spasm of uncontrollable rage, Anderson took up his steak knife, and—unaware of making any conscious decision, apparently guided by the inexorable Fate that had bound them together in so many other ways—leaned across the table and plunged it into Haggerty’s chest.

As the women screamed, the surprised stabbee clutched, as well he might, in the general vicinity of his heart. But the old wrestler in him rallied and he staggered to his feet, knocking his chair backward, grunting in pain and rage, and stretching out his trembling but still powerful hands toward his assailant. Shrinking back at first, but then rising to the occasion, Anderson hefted the heavy, Bucephalus-headed cane, and brought it down, battering his rival’s skull repeatedly, until Haggerty, strong as he was, finally collapsed on the table, the blood spurting from his chest and head-wounds forming two stains—distinct, then unified, then again separating—which, between them, soaked most if not all of the fine S&W linen table-cloth, turning the white one red.

Continuing to shriek, Diana and Alicia looked on, open-mouthed but catatonic. The stunned patrons round about them, having finally snapped out of their momentary paralysis, rushed belatedly to disarm the caner and assist the victim. The bludgeoned Haggerty twitched twice, then lay, finally, and in both senses of the word, still—in accord, ironically enough, with Alicia’s earlier suggestion. Struck dumb herself, Alicia gazed at her husband’s body, then at Anderson—who turned to Diana, then to Haggerty, then back again. The gesture implied causality: a causality into which Alicia—who now joined Anderson in staring at a for-once unnerved Diana—had a sudden, all-illuminating insight.

In the moment before he succumbed, providing he retained some minimal ability to appreciate irony, Haggerty may also have experienced a graphic insight:  in his case, into the all-too-human and universal nature of the wine-dark, mysterious impulses driving the bloody violence he had always dwelt on, perhaps to a fault and certainly glibly, in writing about Alexander. And, had he been able to articulate the thought, he might conceivably have expressed regret regarding his ill-chosen (or fated) gift of that formidable, Bucephalus-headed walking stick.

For his own part, Anderson experienced, albeit more consciously than his rival, a similar double-illumination. He felt that now, at last, he fully appreciated the sterling virtues of Bucephalus, and further, that, for perhaps the first time in his career as an Alexander scholar, he had grasped the immediate point and lasting impact of his hero’s Theban policy.

—Patrick J. Keane 

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Patrick J Keane smaller

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

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Jul 142014
 

photo(7)Michael Bryson & friend

 

There was the matter of the orgasm. Years later he suddenly remembered. She hadn’t been the first, but she was the first on a regular basis. She wanted him, and he wanted her, and they did it almost every day. He was thirty-one and his sexual self-esteem had crashed harder than the Leafs in the playoffs. Woody Allen had called masturbation “sex with someone you love,” and Barry had long lost any shame associated with being alone. Then he met Sherry, and she would unzip him almost before he’d closed the door to her apartment. She would fondle his penis when they went to the movies. One time he was watching the news and she told him to relax. Unzip. Ping. She went down on him as Peter Mansbridge went out of focus. But she almost never came.

That was a long time ago now. Thirteen years ago. He was with Sherry two years, and their second Christmas together he knew she was angling for a proposition. Knew it very late. He thinks now the thought crystallized on Christmas Eve at her sister’s house. Sherry had made mashed potatoes and fretted over them. She had told him how the dinner would go. Everyone was making a different dish. A certain standard had to be upheld. The potatoes had to be creamy without being milky, spiced with a hint of garlic but not rot full. The food would be served, places taken, minor words of religiously neutral thankfulness spoken. Dig in. Dished out. That’s nice, oh, that’s nice, oh, that’s nice. And that’s exactly how it happened.

You learn something in every relationship, and what he learned from Sherry is that two years isn’t long enough to get to know anybody, but then again maybe they were just at that age when they were still changing. They were in their thirties and unmarried, childless, living out an extended youth. He knew she wanted four children. He’d said he was okay with that. He’d thought about marrying her, but he wasn’t going to propose over Christmas, and he wasn’t going to do it at New Year’s either. Then he suddenly caught the hint that she was expecting it. Who had given her that idea? Certainly not him. Her mother, probably, or her sister, or some girlfriend. Some girly conspiracy had indicted him in a test case. They were watching. He would fail.

Getting through Christmas, having fun, sharing laughs about the silly family stuff, these were his tests. In the first week of January, would they still be friends? Could he imagine himself with these people, her people, twenty years hence? Would they show any interest in him? Any empathy? Any common cause? Sherry had already warned him repeatedly about her father. Mid-way through dinner he would go off. “Just duck,” she said. “Let him blow it off.” And he did, J. Edgar Hoover style. Barry was good at nodding. Listening, noncommittal. Something similar had happened at Thanksgiving. This was 2001. The American’s hadn’t yet attacked Afghanistan. The towers were still smoking. “It’s terrible how they treat women,” Sherry’s mother had said. She was prepared to go to war for that.

He remembered walking home through the park after that October dinner, Sherry raging at her parents’ stupidity. She had a Master’s degree in Public Administration. They weren’t interested in her opinion on any subject. She worked for a major polling firm as a senior manager. Her title was Vice President. In her spare time, she painted. She wanted to paint more. She was tired of statistics and politics, but she knew she was good at statistics and politics, and it paid the bills. Barry was the antithesis of her parents. He encouraged her art. He affirmed her social analysis. He got hard for her every night, but he couldn’t make her come. Sometimes she came close. She would squeeze tight and the friction on the head of his penis would make him explode.

He didn’t propose, and she got mad at him, and on New Year’s Eve she didn’t want to touch him. “I want to be alone,” she said, so he went back to his place. Two days later she called him. “I want to see you.” They were all over each other in the hallway. Her roommate was away. They went into the roommate’s bedroom, and she came, the best ever. “Why can’t we do that every time?” He didn’t know. He hadn’t done anything different. When he thinks of her now, he remembers her easy smile and her soft tongue, the struggle of her personality to find peace in the world. She was tall and beautiful. Sweet and large-breasted. Smart and confused. Talented and lost.

Weeks turned into months, the new year progressed, her unhappiness worsened. “So quit your job if you want to,” he said. “Let’s move in together.” It wasn’t marriage, but it was something. He still needed to know they could be happy together, not just compatible. She quit her job and became more unhappy. Barry became more concerned and suggested that she see her doctor. “I think you’re depressed,” he said. He went to work and came home and she said she hadn’t done anything all day except watch TV. “Don’t tell my parents, okay?” She hadn’t told them she’d quit her job or that they were moving in together. They practically lived together anyway, just he still had his place, which he was giving up. He’d given notice.

Then one morning she woke up with a dead zone look in her eyes. “I don’t feel well,” she said, “and we didn’t even have sex last night.” Barry said, “Yes, we did.” He straightened up and touched her face. Whatever this was, it wasn’t depression. This was a separation from reality. He told her to lay down and went to fetch a glass of water. What else? What to do? Buy time. She sipped the water and laughed. “I feel strange,” she said. “Strange how?” he asked. She said, “Just strange.” He considered calling his mother. No, this was his to deal with. He couldn’t leave her like this. Something had to be done. “Do you want me to take you to the hospital?” he asked. “Do you want me to call your sister?” Sherry indicated she wasn’t sure, then she was. “Sister. Call my sister.”

Her sister came, and by then Sherry’s confusion had multiplied. She asked the same questions every ten minutes, not remembering she’d asked them before. The sister decided to take her to her shrink, the one Sherry had ridiculed for the weak marriage counseling the sister and brother-in-law had sleep walked through. “She told them they don’t have any issues! They just need to talk more!” Well, that day she spent an hour with Sherry and then told everyone that they needed to back off. Everyone was putting too much pressure on Sherry, and she needed to be able to make her own decisions in her own time. Then she sent Sherry home with Barry, but this time they went to his place.

He tried to feed her, but she wasn’t interested in eating, and a day later they hopped in a cab back to the shrink because Sherry felt crazy sick again. Then they went back to her place, and she called her parents. “I need to go home with them,” she said. “I need them to look after me.” Okay, he’d said, but he should have taken her to the hospital. Fuck your parents, he should have said. You’re coming with me. But he wasn’t that kind of a person, not then. He wasn’t that kind of a hero. A month later, though, he knew what he should have done, but then maybe she wouldn’t have let him. When her parents finally did take her to the hospital, it didn’t take the doctors long. Her brain was ringed with lesions. Her sister told him Sherry had a brain of a 70-year-old. Multiple Sclerosis, significantly progressed.

When he visited her in the hospital, she was happy. What she had had a name! She wasn’t going crazy! Holy shit! When he visited her in the hospital, her father was sitting in her room and he wouldn’t leave. They made small talk until he got the hint. She had an IV on a poll, and she took him on a stroll around the ward. The woman across the hall was a couple of years older. She had a six-year-old and a husband, and she came to the hospital about once a year for treatment. Steroids. To calm the inflammation. It was a quick, brutal and effective intervention, best administered as soon as possible. Barry thought about that month-long wait and knew he would never forgive himself.

They went into a room full of exercise equipment and closed the door behind them. He leaned in for a kiss and put his hand under her shirt. “I missed you,” he said. “I missed you, too,” she said. They wandered back into the corridor and around a corner where they came to a dead end and encountered a man with half a face. “Oh,” she said, “I thought this went somewhere.” She looked at the half-face man and asked, “How are you?” He smiled at her and went back into his room. Barry loved her then, more than at any moment before or since, her uncomplicated compassion on magnificent display.

He was concealing on that visit the encounter he’d had with her father shortly after her parents had spirited her away a month earlier. “If I find out you’ve given her drugs,” her father had confronted him, “I’ll fucking kill you.” “I haven’t given her anything.” “We’ll see.” It was unbelievable! Him! A drug pusher! Of all people, no, no, never! And what a crime noir fantasy anyway. A ludicrous cliché. But Sherry had warned him, hadn’t she? Those were her parents, ludicrous clichés. Her father a hardened GM executive, her mother a neurotic housewife turned late-life real estate agent. They had separate bedrooms and would never divorce, Sherry had told him. Her father couldn’t get it up.

“How do you know this?”

“My mother told me.”

He went to visit his own doctor, who advised him to break off the relationship and prescribed him anti-anxiety pills to help him sleep. Oh, what crazy stress. He started smoking. He stopped eating. He had to move out of his apartment because he’d given notice. There was no way he was going to move into her apartment, so he had to scramble to find a new place. One weekend he came home from work on Friday and went to bed at 6:00 pm. He got up the next day at noon, then went back to bed at 6:00 pm. Then did that again on Sunday. No, he thought now. I was never going to marry into that family.

He didn’t follow his doctors orders immediately. He tried to stay friends with Sherry, who moved back in with her parents after leaving the hospital. He spoke to her on the phone and she was getting bored. She wanted to get away. He suggested he book a hotel and take her away for a night. Dinner and dancing. He picked her up, and she was in a foul mood. “I don’t want to talk about it.” They drove in silence. He tried to make small talk. Finally she said, “My father said something that made me mad at him. I don’t want to tell you what.” Barry said, “Okay.” By this point, he didn’t want to talk about it either. He just wanted to forget about it, forget about her father, forget about everything that had happened and try to pretend that they were together like they had been before. They had had good times. They had been happy. Was that all they were going to get? Was there more?

The dinner was okay, the hotel room standard. They were tentative with each other as they undressed, washed, brushed, slipped between the sheets. He reached for her, but she was unresponsive. She rolled towards him and kissed him, but she was cold.

He said, “I know what he said.”

“Who?”

“Your father.”

“What did he say.”

“He said, ‘Barry only wants sex.'”

She nodded. “How did you know?”

“I can’t believe it,” Barry said. “I can’t believe he actually said that. Like we were teenagers. Like you weren’t thirty-one. Like we need his permission.”

“I didn’t want to tell you,” she said. But you did, he didn’t say.

And then they had sex, but it was dry and uncomfortable, and very, very bad.

A month later, she visited his apartment for the last time, and they fucked every which way, but she didn’t come, and then she said, “We probably shouldn’t see each other any more,” and he said, “You’re probably right.” A week later, she called him, she wanted to see him, and he said he would see her, but he had to say this first. “I’m not going to sleep with you. That’s over.” So they got together and talked, and she said she guessed she would never have children, but he said she shouldn’t think like that. “You would be a great mom,” he said, and she cried, and he kept smoking nine months after that. Four years later, he met Jessie and her two kids and proposed inside six months. Three years after the wedding, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Twenty-one months later, she was dead.

—Michael Bryson

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Michael Bryson tweets @buzithecat. He is interested in how things fall apart and what’s left after that. In 1999, he founded the online literary journal, The Danforth Review, http://www.danforthreview.com/, which has just published its 51st issue of new short fiction. He blogs at http://www.michaelbryson.com/ and posts the odd book review at The Underground Book Club, http://thenewcanlit.blogspot.com/.

 

Jul 052014
 

Dawn Promislow

 

My husband and I were driving down a country road, a two-lane highway in Amish land of western New York, rolling green farmland and countryside, in the late afternoon. The road unfurled as we drove, and we spoke, then were silent, and the light was the old light of September, golden. But a black horse, glossy and young, and unharnessed, appeared ahead of us in the middle of the road: cantering, stopping, then cantering again. We slowed, my husband slowed the car. The horse cantered past us, a few metres from the car, down the road. I’d seen his dark eyes, clear, his smooth coat. We drove on.

And then we saw an Amish man standing on the side of the road, a horse harness in his hand, and a group of women alongside, dressed in long dresses and bonnets, in the still heat. The man was in black, his hat was dark against the surrounding green. We realized it was their horse running loose and free. We continued driving. Then my husband said, perhaps we should help them? We realized, it dawned on us slowly, slowly, like the afternoon, or like a morning, that they needed to chase the horse, but they could only chase the horse on foot, as they had no car. Feeling guilty that we hadn’t offered them a ride before, we turned around, my husband made a turn in the middle of the road, carefully, and we drove back. The man was walking along the road in the direction of the cantering horse, I seem to feel he was limping, although perhaps he wasn’t – but the horse was out of sight now.

We offered him a ride, he accepted without a word, and got in the back of the car. With his black pants he wore a white shirt, it was a worn white, almost not white, and loose, as he was lean, and he was bearded so his voice was soft it seemed to me, or there was a strange accent in which he spoke, and together with the horse harness he was carrying a pail with oats in it.

We drove back along the road, the three of us looking out and around, across the fields and farmland and clumps of trees, the fields were beautiful and golden in that afternoon light. The car slowed, there was just its low hum, no other sound, and we saw slanting light and pale blue, and green green green. But we did not see the horse. I kept imagining we would see him, I wished to see him, to catch sight of him, of his live, living black, moving against the green golden, or under some trees, shaded. But we didn’t see him. The man said, never mind, he was sure the horse would be found. I couldn’t think how he would be found. The man said let’s go back, he wanted to go back, I felt his strong wish to go back. So we drove him back to his farm on the side of the road (I saw its red barn, I see it still in my mind’s eye), and we dropped him off, saying we hoped they’d find the horse.

My husband and I drove on, we followed on that two-lane highway through the countryside of western New York, green-clad. We wondered about it as we drove, we wondered what would happen to the horse, and to the farmer who had lost him. The afternoon wound down in its beauty as we drove, and we neared home, our home. It became less beautiful because it was the city then, but I have imprinted the green-gold, and the black-trousered man, and the coal-black horse (and the red barn), and the few words, but soft ones.

My husband thinks they must have found the horse after we were gone, when the afternoon became so late that it ended, but we don’t know, and we won’t know, and we’re in the city now, and far away, and it’s not that afternoon any more, it’s even winter now and white here, and night as I write this.

—Dawn Promislow

 

Dawn Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has lived in Toronto since 1987. Her debut short story collection, Jewels and Other Stories (TSAR Publications, 2010), was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2011, and was named as one of the 8 best fiction debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail (Canada).

 

Jun 172014
 

Dave smiling (1)

“The Connoisseur of Longing” is a wry, dry, witty story about a man, a writer, who fails to live up to his own press. Mandalstram, late in his career, wins a prize for a little book based on a love affair deep in his youthful past. The jury calls him a  “connoisseur of longing,” a phrase that captures his imagination and propels him into a search for meaningful people from his past (wives, daughter, friends). The results are comically catastrophic. Everything Mandalstram remembers is not true. The story is told from Mandalstram’s point of view, deadpan and serious, except, you know, that he is wrong. Right down to the fact that his Holocaust-survivor parents weren’t Jews. This story is excerpted from Dave Margoshes brand new story collection appropriately entitled God Telling A Joke and Other Stories (Oolichan Books, 2014). Dave Margoshes is an old friend from my Saskatchewan days (Fort San, the Qu’Appelle Valley, the Saskatchewan School of the Arts — the memories!). He is one of Canada’s finest short story writers. And in years gone by, when I edited the annual Best Canadian Stories, I included him four times out of the ten collections I put together.

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MARGOSHES-God Telling A Joke-Cover-DD02

 

Many of Mandalstram’s books were overlooked by his peers; a few were shortlisted for minor awards, an achievement and honor in itself, but didn’t win. Finally, fairly late in his life, he won a major award for a slim novella, Disconsolate, a delicate love story that was, in fact, a revised version of a story he had written when he was in his twenties. The passion in the prize-winning book, so admired by the jurors, was all from that period of his life, when he had pursued an unrequited love affair with a certain woman from Madrid and had burned with ardour, the sort of ardour only a man in his twenties can experience. But the craft, those tricks of the writing trade which make a story so compelling, was all from that later period of his life, the period of revision, a practice he had mastered. Passion and craft were a happy marriage, and they worked well for Mandalstram. Disconsolate, the jurors wrote, ached with the agony of a spurned lover, exquisitely rendered, and Mandalstram himself, they wrote, was a “poet of the heartbroken, a connoisseur of longing.”

He smiled at that latter phrase—“connoisseur of longing,” which seemed, he thought, to fit him like a well-tailored jacket—and, as he slept restlessly that night in an unfamiliar hotel bed, in Toronto, a city he didn’t particularly like, the words chimed through his dreams like the cream-rich tones of a clavichord. He awoke amused by the possibilities. A publisher might create a Library of Longing, with paperback reprints of all his out-of-print books. The CBC might prepare a reality show, Canada Longs, with chipper Wendy Mesley as host and Mandelstram himself as featured guest. A restaurant might prepare a Menu of Longing, with dishes inspired by plots and character from Mandalstram’s stories. He arose, turned on the electric coffee pot and showered. Then, feeling pampered in the hotel’s fluffy white robe, with a cup of weak coffee by his elbow—oh, how he longed for something stronger!—he sat in sunlight at a small polished marble table—whether true marble or faux he couldn’t tell—and, on creamy hotel stationary, began to make a list. This small pleasure was interrupted by another—the first of several telephone calls from the mass media.

Back in Halifax, where he had lived for the decade since his third marriage failed, he found himself still propelled by the momentum of his unexpected victory. The money that accompanied the prize—more than he would ordinarily earn in two years!—was a godsend, no doubt there, but more important was the boost to his career. It would have been better, far better, to have had this twenty years earlier, fifteen, even ten, but he still had another ten productive years in him, another three, four, maybe five books if he approached them with more discipline than he ordinarily could harness.

He expected the invitations to start rolling in: lectures, interviews, workshops, residencies, festivals, readings of all sorts before all sorts of audiences. He’d had his share of that sort of thing, of course, but never enough to provide more than the most meager of livings. Always, he’d had to teach a class, take on an editing job for someone of lesser talent, even, on occasion, lower himself to the indignities of writing a review or article for the popular press. He looked forward to refusing those routine kinds of offers, to enjoying more of life’s little comforts while, at the same time, being able to devote more time to his own work, which meant he’d have to asses the new opportunities carefully. Perhaps there’d be an unsolicited grant, maybe even a call from one of the agents who hitherto had spurned him. He looked forward to the possible pleasure of telling one particularly nasty agent to fuck herself.

In the meantime, while he awaited these opportunities, he should allow euphoria to propel him into a regimen of inspiration and momentum. The backbreaking, spirit-snagging novel he’d been working on for several years, which had all but defeated him, now seemed manageable, its completion and publication inevitable. He would throw himself into work with a renewed vigour, informed by the sort of passion that had so impressed those jurors. Yes, passion was what had been missing from his latest work; passion, propped up by artful craft, could be his salvation.

But not just yet. His telephone was still ringing, interview requests from reporters and congratulations from friends and—this most delicious—acquaintances who now wished to be friends. Serious work was out of the question with such interruptions. And at any rate, a day or two of diversion, to savour the moment and let its meaning sink in, would do him good. A perverse, compulsive pleasure, but pleasure nonetheless, like tonguing a sore tooth.

Mandalstram consulted the internet and, fortified by a cup of espresso, telephoned his first wife, who lived now in Milan, where she had a thriving practice as a designer of high fashion, knowing full well what sort of response he was likely to induce. They hadn’t spoken in over twenty years, and that only as the result of accident, but he had kept up with her comings and doings, another perverse pleasure.

“Louella,” he announced, “it’s Franklin.”

“Calling to gloat?” Her voice sounded older, leathery, but with all of its old bite. To his disappointment, she didn’t seem at all surprised to be hearing from him.

“Gloat?”

“I read about your triumph.”

“Hardly that, my dear.”

“Considering what came before it….”

“Well, yes. And thank you for the implied congratulations. But gloat, no, that isn’t what I’ve called about.”

“And that is?”

He hesitated, betraying himself. “To apologize. I am sorry. For…”

“Oh, fuck you, Franklin.” She hung up.

Mandalstram was stunned by the sharpness of her response, though it did not extend far beyond the realm of what he had considered possible—he certainly had known she wouldn’t be pleased to hear from him, regardless of the circumstances. They had both been young and inexperienced in their brief time together—she had come into his life during that bleak period when he was nursing the wounds inflicted on his heart by the Spanish woman—and it had ended badly, on so sour a note that a stain on the abilities of both of them to form healthy relationships had remained for some time, only gradually fading. As to be expected, Mandalstram had blamed Louella, she had blamed him. Over time, he had come to realize that probably neither was to blame, that they had both merely been caught up in forces beyond their control. Louella, apparently, had not yet attained that stage of perspective and clarity.

Having worked his way through that brief analysis, Mandalstram broke into a smile and brewed himself another cup of strong coffee—this was a morning for indulgence. Although the call had not gone as he’d hoped, he still drew grim satisfaction from it. He made a mental check on the list he carried in his head, a duplicate of the one he’d drawn up in Toronto.

*

Mandalstram’s parents had been Holocaust survivors who were loathe to talk about their past. He was a bright, inquisitive child, with a fertile imagination, an only child often left to his own devices, and though his parents provided few clues, he grew up surmising that they were Jewish. Indeed, they attended a Reform synagogue and his father was a reliable contributor to the minion. It was only in his teenaged years that he learned they weren’t Jews. Berliners, intellectuals, journalists the both of them, they were Communists persecuted for their politics, not for race or faith. Mandalstram’s father was an atheist, whose own parents had been Catholic farmers; but his mother had been raised a Lutheran and came from a well respected middle-class family of lawyers and teachers, good Aryan stock. True, the name Mandalstram did smack of Jewry, though it was in fact solidly Germanic, but had not his father and mother both written inflammatory articles attacking National Socialism in a suspect periodical, they would likely have gone through that terrible period of history unscathed. At the very least, they would have been able to escape with body and conscience intact.

Instead, they rejected several opportunities, first to emigrate in orderly fashion, later to flee in haste, and were rounded up and sent in cattle cars along with hundreds of fellow travelers to Bergen-Belsen, where, somehow, they managed to survive.

Prying even these minimal details out of his parents had been something of an achievement for the high-school-and-college-aged Mandalstram, so he never did learn anything of their lives in captivity, the bargains they may have been forced to enter into.

At any rate, after the war, the shattered couple was able, finally, to emigrate to the United States, where they attempted to rebuild their lives, taking up residence in a largely Jewish neighbourhood in the Bronx and devoting themselves—or so it seemed later to their son—to a quiet pursuit of redemption, not that they were in need of any. It was perhaps inevitable that these survivors of Hitler’s death camps should seek the comforting company of other survivors, the teenaged Mandalstram conjectured; if not inevitable, it had at least worked out well. The elder Mandalstrams lived a quiet, humdrum existence, working as minor government functionaries—his mother as a clerk at the borough hall’s property tax department, his father with the post office. As a child, teenager and young man, Mandalstram, of course, had chafed against the restraints of his parents’ orderly lives, had rebelled against it, but in time he’d come to understand it. As a refugee from the U.S. to Canada during the inflammatory years of the Vietnamese war, he found himself replicating their steps to a certain extent.

Mandalstram’s parent were now dead. He had no living relatives on this side of the Atlantic, at least none he was aware of, and no knowledge of any relatives on the other side. That was one area of his past that was immune, then, from his present preoccupation. Nor could he think of any offence he might have caused any of the millions of people involved in that sordid chapter of history. No, if there was an apology owed, it certainly wasn’t from him.

*

Mandalstram had no idea where his second wife, Margarita, was now. He mined his address book and, again, the internet for clues, without success, and made a few calls, but the mutual friends he consulted either did not know her whereabouts or were disinclined to reveal them to him. His call to Arthur Behrens, a friend from those days, an art school classmate of Margarita’s, who had climbed through the ranks of the federal cultural bureaucracy and was now an assistant deputy minister, was typical.

“I don’t think she would want to hear from you, Franklin—even if I knew where she was.”

“Which you really don’t, I presume?”

“Of course.”

“Well, you said she wouldn’t want to hear from me. I thought perhaps…”

“No, I’m not lying. If I did know, I’d say so, but wouldn’t tell you where. I’d be willing to pass along a message, that’s all. But as I said, I don’t…”

“So what you’re willing or not willing to do is irrelevant,” Mandalstram interrupted.

“Yes, but your ill-temper does little to engender sympathy, quite frankly. Congratulations again on your prize. Now goodbye.”

Mandalstram attempted to apologize for his impatience, but Behrens had already hung up. A few more calls that were no more productive only served to abrade his nerves and cause him to reappraise his day’s activities. What exactly was he after?

He put on his walking shoes and a warm jacket and set out from his small rented house (should he try to buy it? he wondered) to the waterfront, less than half a mile distant. It was along its serene shores, watching bobbing fishing boats and seagulls, that he often did his most creative thinking. There was a blustery wind but the temperature was unusually mild for November.

It was Mandalstram’s affair with Margarita that had triggered the breakup with Louella, and his second marriage had ended just as badly as the first. Even worse, perhaps, because there was, to use a phrase he found delicious in its ironies, collateral damage. Again, they had been young, and ill prepared not only for the poverty-dogged relationship but the parenthood that had accompanied it. Margarita was a painter with a promising future and the detour that motherhood caused in her career embittered her, not toward the child, thankfully, but toward Mandalstram, as if everything that followed from that first passionate coming together had been the fault of his sperm, her egg having been merely an innocent bystander.

Of course, it helped not a whit that Mandalstram was a terrible father, incompetent and disinterested. After the breakup, he made half-hearted attempts to keep in touch with the child—a delightful little girl named Sunshine, whose blond ringlets and cherubic cheeks seemed almost contrived—but they had eventually become estranged. The last time he’d seen her, when she was nearing puberty, most of the shine had already rubbed off the girl, and she was cocooned in an impenetrable swirl of hurt and sulk. Mandalstram hadn’t thought much about either his daughter or her mother in the years since—though Sunshine’s birthday would always bring him pangs of guilt and regret—but now he found himself inexplicably filled with an intense longing to see the girl—she would, in fact, be a woman of close to 30. According to one acquaintance he’d phoned, she lived in Southern California and was well-established as a publicist for Hollywood films, often traveling abroad to be on location—her name could be seen at the end of the occasional movie in the fast-moving welter of credits; although she had disavowed her father, she inexplicably continued to use his name, apparently.

Mandalstram bought a chicken salad sandwich on a French baguette at an open-air stand near the dock and, while leaning against a railing overlooking rocks and water, washed it down with an ice-cold locally produced root beer from a bottle. This lunch was so simple and brought such pleasure, but previously had been beyond his means other than as a very occasional treat. He had hopes now of enjoying such a midday meal once or even twice a week.

He fed crusts of bread to gulls and ducks as he contemplated his next steps. Apology, he now realized, was the driving force behind this project, which was still taking shape in his head. At first, he’d thought of it strictly as an exercise in clearing the decks, touching base with people who had been important to him at this, a significant moment in his life. It wasn’t their congratulations or good wishes he was after—he’d thought he merely wanted to assure himself that things were unfolding as positively in their orbits as they were in his, so unusual was his good fortune. His clumsy attempt to apologize to his first wife for old crimes, real and imagined, had surprised him as much as it must have her. Now it was becoming clear to him that what he was after was, if not redemption or even forgiveness exactly, something along those lines. “Poet of the heartbroken,” the jury had written, “a connoisseur of longing.” He had focused on the latter, the longing part of that curious equation; now, the former was resonating more. Was not giving voice to the heartbroken the special brief of the novelist?

At the same time, he realized, he still wasn’t exactly sure what those labels meant—so laudatory, on first reading, but were they really? Had the jury intended some form of sly irony?

*

When Mandalstram had begun to write, over thirty years earlier—first poetry, then moody, introspective stories, then complex, layered novels—his art was very much informed by the experience of his parents, though he knew so little of it. A large supporting cast of Jews, Communists, Germans and refugees from one disaster or another crept into his stories, usually as minor characters, though occasionally one would shoulder his way to the forefront. Many pieces involved children of Holocaust survivors; a story and several poems were actually set in concentration camps. One academic critic, writing about Mandalstram’s third novel, identified exodus—flight, persecution, the refugee experience—as a major theme in his work. Still, when an article in Border Crossings, a magazine primarily of the visual arts, mentioned his name in connection with a growing number of Canadian artists of various disciplines influenced by the Holocaust, he was surprised.

He began to be invited occasionally to do readings at temples or participate in Jewish book fairs, and to be mentioned, along with better known writers, like Richler and the Cohens, Leonard and Matt, as representing a new Canadian Jewish literary renaissance, a misapprehension he did nothing to correct, and from that point on—the Border Crossings piece—the Holocaust specifically and genocide in general became central preoccupations in his work. The recent novel that had won the award was the first in almost two decades in which those themes had been entirely absent, and it had been produced during a pause he had taken in a big novel, his most ambitious undertaking yet, overwhelming, really, that revolved around a large cast of Holocaust survivors, perpetrators and collaborators, and their children.

It was to this novel he now intended to return, with renewed vigour. But first he needed to play out the admittedly perverse string he’d begun that morning.

*

Here was the score, as he recorded it on the back of that sheet of hotel stationary on which this plot had first been hatched, only a few days earlier. Wife one, a strike out; wife two and daughter, both missing in action. That left wife three, but Mandalstram wasn’t yet ready to tackle that particular challenge, which might, he knew, prove to be the thorniest.

There had been a number of other women in his life, of course; he wasn’t sure which of them he might want to now pursue. Nor had he given up on the search for his daughter, and, should he find her, she might direct him to Margarita. He was thinking all this as he sat tossing pebbles into the placid water under his favourite tree, an expansive oak that leaned seaward from a spit of land jutting in the same direction. All the signs seemed to be directing him eastward, toward Europe, the familial homeland. With each pebble, he counted the concentric rings produced on the face of the water. There were other dusty corners of his life worth investigating, he thought. On the list he’d drawn up, after “wives,” “lovers” and “family,” he’d written “friends.”

He had been an indifferent and undistinguished student. Of his grade school and high school years in the Bronx, he had few pleasant recollections, and there certainly were no teachers who stood out in his memory. Unlike some of his friends who spoke warmly of the influence one particular teacher or another had had on their lives, Mandalstram had encountered no such mentor, not even in college, in the States—where he’d attended City College in Manhattan for two years before the furor over the war had overtaken his studies—or university in Canada, where he had finally obtained a degree, in comparative literature, from Concordia. A few professors had been friendly, certainly, but none to the extent that a friendship off campus had evolved. None had even been particularly encouraging, as far as he could recall.

As far as friends went, though, there was one old childhood chum, whom he’d become reacquainted with out of the blue a few years earlier, and quite a few from later years, including a handful of close friends from student politics days, on both sides of the border. As he walked back toward his house, he sorted through various names and faces, drawing up a tentative list of people to call. At the top was Hal Wolfowitz.

*

There was an email, several actually, he was looking for. They weren’t in his computer’s in-basket, or in the folder marked Friends, nor were they in Trash, where thousands of old email messages of all sorts gathered dust and, for all Mandalstram knew, plotted conspiracies. Finally, though, in the Sent directory, he found an email he’d written in reply to one from Wolfowitz that contained a record of previous exchanges.

The thread began with a note from someone—the name had rung no immediate bell—asking if he was the Franklin Mandalstram who had once lived on West 183rd Street near the Grand Concourse in the Bronx? If he was, then perhaps he would recall the author of the email, Hal Wolfowitz, who had been a classmate and friend all through grade school. He was now a professor of history at—of all places—the University of New Mexico, having traveled even further from the Bronx than Mandalstram had, at least in terms of miles.

Once having adjusted the context, he remembered Hal very well—in his memory, they were not just friends but best friends, the boy he’d spent countless hours with swapping comic books and records, talking baseball statistics and girls—and they’d exchanged several nostalgic emails since, mostly pondering how it was that they had drifted apart and lost touch—though none in the last year or two. A reading of the email trail seemed to suggest the fault was chiefly Mandalstram’s. Now, having secured a phone number on the internet, Mandalstram was listening to a phone ring in a university office somewhere in Albuquerque. The voice that answered, though, was female.

“Professor Wolfowitz, please,” Mandalstram said.

There was a pause. “May I ask who’s calling?”

“Franklin Mandalstram. I’m calling from Halifax, in Canada. For Hal Wolfowitz? We’re old friends.”

Another pause. “I’m sorry to have to tell you then that Professor Wolfowitz is dead.”

“God,” Mandalstram said.

“It just happened last week, a heart attack, at his desk. The funeral was Monday.”

Mandalstram poured himself a stiff shot of Bushmill’s Black Bush Irish whiskey, his drink of choice when he could afford it, and bolted it back, then poured another to sip from. This wasn’t going well, and he was beginning to wonder what exactly he was hoping to achieve. It was only mid-afternoon, though, and having come this far, he determined to persevere.

Mandalstram and Martin Semple had come to Canada together as draft resisters in the early ‘70s and had even lived together briefly in their first months in Montreal. Martin had gone back to the States after the amnesty of 1977, but they had kept sporadically in touch, though Mandalstram couldn’t remember the last time. Semple had finished university, gone on for a doctorate in French literature and now was a professor at NYU—presuming he too hadn’t prematurely died. The first number in his address book, a New York City number, was not in service; but a second number, with an unfamiliar area code, produced a ring that was eventually answered by someone with a very young voice, sex undeterminable. After the usual semi-comic interplay—“is Mr. Semple there?” “Mr. Who?” “Well, let me speak to your father…?” and so on—Martin came on the line.

“Franklin?” he said after he finally understood who was calling. “What the hell do you want, you son of a bitch?” A sentence like that, pronounced in a jocular tone, could be the start of a pleasant, jokey conversation, but Martin’s tone was not particularly jocular, making Mandalstram wary.

“I’m just calling to say hello, Marty.”

“For Christ’s sake, what is it?”

Mandalstram was confused. Unlike his first wife, whose enmity he fully understood, he had no recollection of any bad blood between him and Martin.

“Just that, Marty. No ulterior motives, honest. Not wanting to borrow money, asking no favours, nothing like that. Not even calling to spread gossip.” Mandalstram chuckled, then paused to allow Martin to respond, but there was no response, so he went on. “Actually, there was something I’ve been wondering about, something I wanted to talk to you about.”

“If it’s about the money you already owe me, forget it,” Semple said. “I wrote that bad debt off long ago.”

“Money? I didn’t realize I owed you money, Marty. That I owe you, yes, of course, but money? I don’t recall.”

“Listen, like I said, forget it. Water over the bridge.”

“It happens that I’ve recently come into some unexpected money. How much was it?”

“Didn’t you hear what I said? Forget about it. I have.”

“Well, then, I’d like to ask you about…well, you remember that year we lived together.”

“How could I forget?

“And you remember Ingrid? That waitress you went around with for a while?”

There was no response.

“This will seem crazy, but do you remember, once we had a very brief argument over her?”

Again, silence from the other end of the line.

“I don’t remember what I said exactly, but something about her that you took exception to. You probably don’t even remember this, it was so trivial. I don’t think we ever discussed it again.”

More silence.

“Marty, you still there?”

Silence, then, finally, a frigid “I’m here.”

“So, do you remember….”

“I remember you fucked my girlfriend, you asshole, I do remember that. I remember you didn’t say anything about that.”

“Martin, I….”

“I remember you fucked the woman who became my wife, shithead. And there was something you wanted to ask me? Forgiveness?”

“Well….”

“Listen, Franklin, don’t call here again.” With that, the line went dead.

Mandalstram was stunned. He only barely remembered having had sex with Ingrid, and had no idea she and Marty had gotten married. That must have happened after he went back to New York—she had followed? Mandalstram’s memory of that period was murky at best. He hadn’t even known they were serious, although that must have been why whatever he had said back then caused the argument. A brief trivial argument, at least that’s what he had thought at the time.

Mandalstram went to the window in his bedroom, which had a better view of the street than the living room’s. He stood for a long time watching foot and vehicle traffic. A Buick from the ‘80s pulled up across the street and expelled a man in an ill-fitting dark suit who consulted a piece of paper from his pocket, then re-entered the car, which sped away. A truck rumbled past, driven by a man with thick dark hair on his arm, which swung like a symphony conductor’s from his open window. Two boys on bicycles rode by, their laughter trailing after them in the balmy air. An attractive young woman in a polka dot dress walked down the street swinging her handbag, followed by an old woman, the woman who lived two houses down, in black. A dog, a nondescript mutt, zigzagged across the street, then back, sniffing the air.

A dark stream of sadness coursed through Mandalstram as he watched the tableau of life, limited as it was on this particular street in this particular city, unfold before his eyes. In his mind, he drew a line through the name of his third wife, having determined to let that particular sleeping dog lie. He still had a longing to connect with his daughter—and he would, he determined—she was out there somewhere, and he would find her. How many Mandalstrams could there be in Hollywood? And might not she actually be pleased to hear from her father, estranged though they were? But in other respects, he would leave the past alone. He had enough trouble coping with the heartbreak of the present, with his longing for a future.

—Dave Margoshes

.

Dave Margoshes is a Saskatchewan writer whose work has appeared widely in Canadian literary magazines and anthologies, including six times in the Best Canadian Stories volumes. He was a finalist for the Journey Prize, Canada’s premier short story award, in 2009. He’s published over a dozen books, including Bix’s Trumpet and Other Stories, which was named Saskatchewan Book of the Year in 2007, and A Book of Great Worth, a collection of linked short stories that was among Amazon.Ca’s Top Hundred Books of 2012. “The Connoisseur of Longing” is part of a new collection, God Telling a Joke and Other Stories, published in spring 2014. A new novel, Wiseman’s Wager, is due out in the fall. He lives on a farm outside Saskatoon.

 

Jun 122014
 

 EPSON MFP image

This is a wry, witty, ingenious story, a tour de force of whimsy, not really a single story, but ten completely different micro-stories hung on the same peg. Tim Conley is a bit like Scheherazade; you get the feeling he could spin out a different story every night ad infinitum. He sets you up with an introduction in the voice of a folklorist or linguist who’s found a peculiar idiom in rural Quebec — le voisin n’a qu’une maison. It means something like “the neighbour has only one house,” which, well, makes no sense. But the folklorist opines that there might have been a story behind the idiom, a tale lost to the ages. With that, Conley is off to the races, inventing those tales, from slapstick to faltering romance, completely different sets of characters and life-situations, wonderfully told.

dg

 

In a small agrarian town in northern Quebec, they have a saying: le voisin n’a qu’une maison, “the neighbour has only one house” or “the neighbour only has a house,” depending on where one prefers to hear the emphasis. Exactly what this phrase means has proved a puzzle for linguists and sociologists. Though not altogether inhospitable, the steely-eyed townsfolk do not much care for the questions of outsiders. Suggestions of an unknown story behind the expression –of its being a mnemonic tag (of no known specific use), of its being part of an allegory or homily (perhaps distorted by abbreviation, the way “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” has disintegrated to the incoherent “the proof is in the pudding”), or of its having some historical basis (an account of a specific someone’s neighbour, maybe, or a particular house)– all remain unverified. Unfortunately, it has not even been determined whether the following scenarios are accounts of real incidents or inventions produced for the very purpose of illustration, but they are faithfully recorded here as they were found, received, or told, with as much detail and context as were available.

After a long rainstorm, a man out walking is struck by a large, sodden branch that breaks off from a very old tree and pins him to the ground. Two sawyers working nearby rush to his aid and he informs them that he is barely able to breathe; they must hurry. But the branch is too heavy for them to lift. The first sawyer offers to run and fetch a saw, not sixty paces away, but the second sawyer becomes concerned that the pinned man might die in the interim, and while the first sawyer would be subsequently commended for his fast thinking and valiant efforts, the second sawyer would look like a dolt waiting and helplessly watching the man die, and so the second sawyer tersely accuses the first sawyer of not lifting his part of the branch with all of his apparently little strength. So the sawyers again try to lift the branch, and ultimately collapse with even more huffing and panting than before. The pinned man signals that he is without air. The second sawyer announces that he will fetch the saw, and the first sawyer, seeing what his unscrupulous partner is playing at, promptly socks him in the jaw. The second sawyer gets up from the ground and rushes headlong into the first, the two of them crashing together into the tree. This impact causes another branch to break off, and it bounces off of one end of the first fallen branch, neatly knocking it off the gasping man, who crawls toward the other people who have now gathered at the scene. The two sawyers have hit each other half a dozen more times before they realize what has happened. A witty bystander might aptly remark: le voisin n’a qu’une maison.

Children play in such tall grass that they cannot see one another. They soon become separated but, each thinking that the others must be together, none wants to be the first to cry out for help, and thus the first branded a coward and surely taunted ever after. One finally has the ingenuity to call out accusing another of being lost. Years later, the friends recount this story at a reunion and own up to their common fears, but they cannot agree which of them came up with the solution. Angrily the inspired one leaves the party, muttering, c’est vrai que le voisin n’a qu’une maison.

Making summer afternoon love by a stream, a young couple is interrupted by cries for help, but they cannot see who is calling and cannot bring themselves to break their exquisite rhythm. The voice shouts that it is drowning, drowning, drowning, but neither lover can see anyone in the unconcernedly flowing water, and their ardor won’t let them part. By the time they are sated, the cries have stopped. They explore the area, and walk downstream a good mile or more before they give up. When they say goodbye to one another, each seems embarrassed and uncertain. Each attends closely to the local news and town talk for days afterward, but neither finds any report of any drowning, and the absence of any such report stymies their communications with one another. They can speak of nothing else, but of this subject they have nothing to say. She changes her hair, and he silently judges the style wrong. He is offered a new job in the next town, a town the two of them had habitually remarked upon as an undesirable place to live, and she tries to be encouraging. After he has moved and eventually finds that the job and the town both suit him, he writes a letter to his friend and tells him about the incident that summer afternoon, and reflects on how fickle the heart is. His friend’s reply: “You idiot, le voisin n’a qu’une maison.”

A father accuses his son of stealing his boots, and the offended son leaves home. In a distant town he finds work as an assistant to a rheumatic sawbones, a kindly man who recognizes the young man’s talent for swift and acute diagnosis, begins to teach him about more than the ordinary ailments and tried remedies. The young man devotes himself to medicine and becomes so trusted by the local people that he very gradually takes over the old doctor’s practice. Within a few years he finds himself brought in to deliver the mayor’s child, a difficult operation because the woman’s cervix is, like her husband, anything but flexible, and the labour lasts three days. On the morning of the third, a message is brought to the physician: it is from his father, who reports that he has found his boots, and all is forgiven. The mayor’s wife pauses in her shrieking when she sees her doctor’s face momentarily lose its imperturbable aspect, and asks him what is wrong. He answers, le voisin n’a qu’une maison, and resumes his work.

Complaining of his breakfast at an inn, a guest unconsciously runs his fingers through his beard as he is dressing down the manager, a woman who takes this gesture as a lewd suggestion. She takes greater offence than she might because, sordid truth be told, she was feverishly fantasizing about this very guest’s beard the night before, which is not at all the sort of thing she would normally do. She more than matches his barrage of insults. Not accustomed to hoteliers abusing him, and surprised and upset to hear that his beard-stroking was in any way vulgar, the guest begins stammering an apology, whereupon the manager, realizing that she has overdone it, herself begins to apologize. She says that his dinner will be on the house, and he replies that he will only accept if she will dine with him. Just then the manager’s miserable, lazy, and cleanshaven husband, who has just been stealthily coming down the staircase behind them, snarls, le voisin n’a qu’une maison, but chokes on the last word, and rolls down the remaining stairs to the floor, never to be revived. On his headstone his widow has written: le voisin n’a qu’une maison.

An unmarried schoolteacher arouses the distrust of a student’s mother, who thinks that such situations are ghastly beyond words. This mother circulates the story that the schoolteacher is known to walk the streets at night, perhaps asleep but perhaps not, and the story’s vagueness ensures that it spreads like wildfire in a high wind. The schoolteacher finds herself unwelcome in certain places and unacknowledged by certain people. One day she overhears two of her students recounting a version of the story, and she decides to take up walking the streets at night, but dressed in her mother’s bridal gown. The story evolves and diversifies in quick response to witness accounts of her wordless, almost ethereal perambulations: she is a widow, longing for her dead husband, in love with a ghost; she has been seduced by some man in the community, who will not do right by her, perhaps because he is already married, and these nightly marches are her mute but moving protest; she is a lunatic, imagines herself wed to the moon; she has been hypnotized by the wicked schoolchildren, and unknowingly seeks a groom every night; she is holy; she is cursed; she is the picture of sorrow; she is a sign of hope. The mother’s original story and spite are eclipsed. Without exception her students all become more attentive to their studies. One cloudless night a man walks out to intercept her in the middle of the street, falls to his knees and asks for her hand in marriage. She says with a voice not her own, le voisin n’a qu’une maison.

A man loses his boot walking through an extremely muddy field one rainy evening. He arrives home and his father-in-law, with whom the man, his wife, and their children live, asks him what inspired him to go out in such weather in one boot. Trying to assume the patience necessary for dealing with this suspicious, narrow-minded old goat, the man explains that on the eve of the feast of St. Bunions it is considered good luck to walk in the evening with only one boot. His father-in-law scoffs but is still thinking about it when he retires to his room. He wonders whether there is some truth to the story, or whether it is simply some excuse meant to conceal something, and his inability to decide between these possibilities sends him out later that night, when the others are asleep in bed, in one boot, determined to find out which is the case. In the now quite fierce wind and the rain he hobbles and anxiously looks about, without having any set idea as to what he is looking for, and before long he is completely lost, though he does not admit as much to himself, and keeps hunting for his answer. He is found, shivering in a small wood, early the next morning. A doctor asks him some questions as he examines the old man sleepless in his bed, but obtains only nonsensical answers about hidden treasure, his many enemies, a saint nobody has heard of. The doctor is asked by one of the children whether grandfather will be all right, and he answers, “It is difficult to say, but le voisin n’a qu’une maison.”

A daring fox has been attacking a number of adjacent poultry farms, inspiring wagers in a popular tavern as to who is to be the next victim. One evening, when the betting is high and the laughter loud, the odds-on favourite, a grizzled and gruff man to whom life has seldom been kind, loses his composure and openly sobs into his drink. Early the next morning, the fox is killed by hunters and its carcass is brought to the sad farmer. He holds it up by the tail and says, le voisin n’a qu’une maison. The next day he puts the farm up for sale and leaves the country.

Recounted by a nonagenarian in a Sherbrooke nursing home: “If you threw a stone in a pond, and there was this large pond near the old cottage, one of my cousins nearly drowned there, and we teased him for years afterwards, called him the fish, there goes the fish, he hated that. What they don’t know, I’ll tell you, is how long a grievance can last. And I doubt their medical credentials, I’ll tell you that. But it was the pond wasn’t it, to return to our subject, if you threw a stone in a pond, you would naturally expect what are they called ripples, yes, but if you threw a stone in the pond and there were absolutely no ripples, and though this has never happened to a stone I threw, and look at me, I’m not going to be throwing any stones now, but do you know, never count anybody out, I’ll tell you that, never count anybody out. But that pond. Any pond, really. The trick is to throw a stone into it without causing a single ripple, and once I saw this done by a small girl nobody thought capable of anything, she was always following our gang around, and after all of us gave up on the game, she picked up a stone and threw it right in, not a single ripple. That girl went on to marry a big shot, I heard, I don’t remember who told me, but what I said when I heard about it was le voisin n’a qu’une maison, as my grandmother used to say when she cut up the lemons. And that really summed it up, you know.”

A talented singer finds herself unable to master a particular score that she has agreed to perform. The piece is not especially demanding, she admits to her mother, but invariably her breathing becomes irregular somewhere in the middle and her enunciation falters. She must impress this patron and cannot turn down the commission without injury to her reputation and career. Her mother assures her that everything will be all right, that she will surely master the piece soon, that it is probably just nerves. The daughter seethes in silence: how she wishes her mother could be more severe with her, slap her across the face and shout at her to work harder, or else be less encouraging, say to her that the commission doesn’t matter, that this only shows that music was never really her future; but instead it will always be all right, according to her mother. She decides that she will disgrace herself on stage to shatter her mother’s unwavering faith in her, and ceases practising for the concert. The night before the concert, however, her mother accidentally reveals that she is having an affair with her daughter’s patron, and it is only as a favour to his lover that he has invited her daughter to perform. The daughter appears to applause the next evening wearing the gown her mother has bought her for this occasion and, instead of singing the advertised work, trills the words votre voisin, n’a-t-il qu’une maison? to the tune of a ditty she learned in childhood.

—Tim Conley

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Tim Conley’s short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in various journals in seven countries. He is the author of two collections of short fiction, Whatever Happens (2006) and Nothing Could Be Further (2011), and a book of poetry, One False Move (2012).