Apr 092015
 

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Late-Night Caller

LAST NIGHT, EXACTLY WHEN nothing was happening, I got a call from someone who couldn’t speak. He mumbled into the phone. His mumbling was fast, superabundant, and I think at one point he tried to tell me that he ‘never sleeps a wink.’ I said ‘Yes’ as many times as I could. And then there was a shift in his tone, a shift toward anger, toward annoyance, toward outrage, and it was all directed toward me. I told him to stay calm, to stay where he was, and that I would meet him in the next few minutes. I told him he was in distress. He ‘unhummed’ confirmation. When we hung up, I was relieved and grateful that in his distress he didn’t try to mutter an address to me. He was certainly a man without a tongue.

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Val

In high school, I had a friend named Val and I believe she intentionally exposed her crotch to me one afternoon by propping her legs up and holding them just so her soccer shorts billowed, allowing sunlight to penetrate the fabric. She flashed a shaded panty-less groin in my direction while twitching her legs back and forth. Leaning back to take in the sun while our friends sat nearby unobservantly, she gave no knowing smile or wink. Cunning or clueless? How could I not look? This is what I remember of Val from high school: nonconformity concerned her the utmost. She read how-to books on the subject, she chose her boyfriends by their eccentricities, her face was trussed up with piercing and chains. But her crotch was normal, as perfect as anyone could find. She had great teeth, too.

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Generosity

Pauline from next door said, ‘I’ll tell you the truth.’ I said, ‘Please don’t. Please don’t.’ We turned to face the T.V. to see a pugnacious cartoon selling soap hoot a good-humored halleluiah at the shine his soap wrought. We were watching a doc about priapism. Her choice. I’d wanted to watch something on nest building. I thought fondly about a tiny down of hair that ran from the top of Pauline’s cheek to the curve of her jaw. Pauline said it was all mental. ‘What is?’ ‘The truth, silly.’ ‘I said enough.’ Pauline arched an eyebrow in a disagreeable way and didn’t say another word until the end of the show, and then I said goodbye. And she hiccoughed a nearly honest goodbye, too. Her personal perfume stayed behind until morning, smelling it vigorously before starting my day.

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Take Cover

For years I’d lived where lights polluted the sky, occluding the stars from view. As far as I was concerned stars could have blinked out existence, and I would have been one of the last to know. Then one summer I went to Canada to stay for a week, for rest, for recovery, fortification. I met a woman there who was from Boston, and like people who live in cities we stayed outdoors more than normal, and we walked faster than other people on the streets. She had dazzling shanks. One night near the end of my stay, a night I thought I might try to kiss her, we found ourselves at a public picnic table, where we slowed, and got all reflective and confessional. We shared a bottle of rum, our fingers touched—a crisp-lit moon (an authority on romance, if coldly) hung before our eyes and felt just for us. We were feeling young, selfish; we were feeling that nothing in our lives had been our fault. We felt a prefiguring. Who looked up first, I don’t remember, but we thought we saw a shooting star. It crept across the sky, and we said we’d never seen something so amazing as a falling star in ‘slo-mo,’ as if it knew we both wanted this night to last as long as it could. A homeless woman walked by and looked up and said, ‘Fucking satellite. Spying. Reading our brain waves. Stealing our thoughts! You kids better take cover.’

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Mother’s Cats

My mother asks things like: ‘What are you going to do with your time?’ And I say something like: ‘Live?’ She corrects me: ‘Work.’ When I go to her house, I wake up puffy around the eyes, nearly blind, and tongue-tied. I think it’s her cats. She has four. She says: ‘You overact.’ Of course, I have no retort. Nothing much happens at her house except the occasional cat fights. She likes to brag about how well-balanced her life is now that she has just her cats and no husband (my father).

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Speechless

This time I was trying to be serious when the man with no tongue called back. I told him not to ring me again. He grumbled. I asked him what made him think he had the right number. He hummed and grunted. I couldn’t agree or disagree with him, and felt nothing short of stupidity.

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Tough, Tragic

I saw Val some time ago with her daughter—a skillful and cold child, who furrowed her brow like an adult when I asked her name. Val appeared tough, tragic, and terrifically dressed in slacks and a low-cut shirt—no longer so concerned with nonconformity. As she dithered to keep her other guests busy, I tried to make polite conversation, but I got lost frequently in words as I wondered if Val’s vagina had changed after childbirth. Would I even recognize the once-prime image from my adolescence? I took a beer she offered me and nearly asked, ‘Can I see inside your pants? Again?’ I’d plan also to say, ‘I imagine its image is vastly more important to me than it is to you.’ Which could be possible, I thought, knowing how seldom I looked at my own crotch. But I held my tongue, as it were. Everyone else at the party was being polite. And so what if Val’s genitals were changed? So what? I saw it. Glimpse it. I’m sure I understood its power even then.

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Au Pied De Cochon

I took my Canadian love interest to a fancy restaurant, where we saw three men each wearing the same label on their shirts—a lightening bolt with a name written across it. They sat hunched, haunches to haunch. They were so close their smell had to be one. They scarf up meats, exotic meats. They ate tail, head, foot, tongue, eyeball. These men were hungry and their server was proud to bring them more. ‘I just love your enthusiasm,’ their server said, grinning at the slobbering bunch. They looked up, grunted, and put their faces down once again. ‘What on earth?’ my Canadian-love-via-Boston-brown-eyed darling said, eating a slice of pie with stonecutter patience. This spoiled our evening, somewhat. I told her my plans for law school. But nothing could take her attention from those men. So, I didn’t go to law school.

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Fingers Around My Neck

‘The meanest dogs live in the smallest cages,’ Pauline said. ‘Still it felt like fingers around my neck,’ I reminded. The tongue-less man had shown up at my front door, frothing mad and ferociously mute. How had he come, car or carriage? He wielded a worn farm-knife, the kind you might clean a chicken with and then dice potatoes. To Pauline I said: ‘And then I held out my arms and said Welcome home. And then he throttled me, tossing the blade aside. He throttled me.’ ‘Obviously a man of action,’ Pauline said, admiringly, and then asked: ‘What then?’ I said: ‘I threw him off. He hit his head. I grabbed the knife and held it to his throat. He looked like some homegrown hillbilly hayseed, like he was from some small town.’ And then that was when Pauline said, wisely: ‘The meanest dogs live in the smallest cages.’ ‘Where is he now?’ she asked. ‘God knows.’ ‘Truth?’ ‘Not right now, Pauline. Not right now.’ I don’t think she felt insulted. She profited a can of cheese whiz toward my mouth, which I took smilingly. I think Pauline’s great. She stays so up-to-the-minute with our friendship.

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Jamestown

Recently I spent a weekend with my mother touring historical sites. We strolled down one of the streets of God’s original world and came to a shop where they sold old-fashioned puppets. ‘You need to find yourself a girlfriend, Jake. You need someone.’ Grim was my mood over this. We each held up a puppet to our face, their little wooden limbs clacking together. ‘I’m not a virgin, mom.  There was Mavis and Molly and Maggie and Magda,’ I said to my puppet. ‘Of course you’re not. Of course you’re not,’ she said to hers, ‘besides, son, one of these days you’ll be married and you’ll be so bored by sex your eyes will fall out.’ ‘Did my father’s eyes fall out?’ ‘Yes, yes they did. When he died he was as blind as a mole.’ We left that shop, walked down the cobblestone path, dodging the great piles of horseshit. Perhaps I do overreact every time I get around my mother? Perhaps I project my overreactions onto her? Perhaps she just acts the way she thinks I want her to act? She tugged on my arm and pointed to a very large man in a mechanized wheelchair. ‘Don’t ever get fat,’ she whispered. ‘Don’t kill yourself, son.’ I don’t know if she meant those two things went together. A child in my mother’s presence still, I thought kindly about being on my best behavior, which must be both insufferable and pride-inducing for her. Not that I haven’t said unkind or unclean things to her. But I wonder if all this dancing around the subject wasn’t hurting me somehow. Mother and I always want to be our best for the other, which brings out, you know, irony.

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Our Last Night

‘It’s not going to happen, is it?’ the woman from Boston said to me on our last night. ‘Why would you want it to happen?’ I asked, knowing that I had nothing to offer her except a small adventure. ‘Why wouldn’t you want it to happen?’ she retorted; she was desperate for something to happen. ‘What made you think we could make it happen?’ I said; I felt hopeless and depressed, the way I get when anything important could possibly occur. ‘Why not make it happen? It is our last night,’ her final words on the subject—the opening, the invitation, the entry. In the end, nothing happened. Something happening had become too heavy. When we parted at the hotel it felt like something important was missing. Pecks were exchanged. I’ve not spoken to her for years; I have to wonder if she seethes with as much disappointment as I do.

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Questionnaire

1. Do you feel your life is without purpose?
2. If so, explain fully. Use complete sentences.
3. Would you prefer your spouse or love ones to die before or after you?
4. Have you ever been willfully blind? Explain.
5. What is your most personal demon? Give it a name.
6. What makes you think you’ve answered the proceeding questions correctly?
7. Mind your thoughts, in geological time?
8. Which memory means the most to you?
9. Name the bones you’ve broken.
10. Now the organs.

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Showdown

The man without a tongue came to my door again, while I was filling out a questionnaire. For personal reasons, that is. This time he carried a broom and as soon as I opened the door he jabbed the broom’s bristles in my face. It felt like a thousand dull needles. He hummed and grunted the most terrible things to me. At one point I thought he called me a ‘whiskery pervert,’ but I couldn’t be sure. Nevertheless, I was soon on the floor, my face submerged in broom bristles. The tongue-less man, standing over me, howled. Why had I become the center of this man’s attention? I wished Pauline had been there to see this lunatic, perhaps she could have observed him and come up with a reason since the tongue-less man couldn’t explain for himself. He grunted and cried and garble-cursed and moaned and blubbered while jamming the broom into my face. I knew for certain that if I didn’t move quickly I would eventually loose an eye or both. I scrambled to my feet and rushed to other side of my den where I had a paint-by-number canvas on a homemade easel. I used the canvas as a shield. What was there to talk about? taking charge of my situation. Who needed a questionnaire? It was action and impediments to our will that makes us come alive (Pauline might have said this in her better moods; she was the smartest person I knew). I swung my paint-by-number canvas at the tongue-less man and he swatted at it with his broom. Things and thoughts were happening, quickly. And it is while we are fighting that I recognize that I’ve been assembling my whole life, mending back together something. My mother ever-so-often tells me how after she had me she was never ‘right again.’ Imagine the wrong. The tongue-less man clobbered me. I let him. I threw my paint-by-number canvas aside. As I allowed him to scar my face with the broom, I saw through his intermittent brush strokes the faint outline of an unfinished satellite, as if its image was flickering.

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Tap

Veiled hunger, awkward leer, constant insipid smile: this is how I see myself as a young man, around the same time I saw Val’s cunt. (I cannot decide if I like that word or not, but what else to call it? The situation deserves a better word than its bloodless clinical substitute.) The man without a tongue rests on my couch. I suppose he’s homeless. He makes a tapping noise when he wants my attention. Sometimes, I swear, I think he’s asking me to go to church. My face wasn’t cut by the broom; slightly abraded, yes. My mother called asking how things were going. I lied and said nothing was happening, that I was painting and that I had plans to go out the following evening with a new friend. ‘Jake, whose there with you?’ ‘No one.’ I tell her I’m planning to make a phone call, though. ‘To whom?’ ‘To a woman in Boston.’ ‘Don’t be off-color, Jake.’

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Ba-ba-ba-bam-boo

I called the young woman whom I had a near-fling with in Canada. I heard her child in the background, cooing and saying ba-ba-ba-bam-boo. As we talked, I cleaned out my medicine cabinet. I took out pills I’d not taken in years, swallowed them. I bandaged myself where I had no cut or abrasions: preparing myself, I guess, for whatever pain I might feel after the conversation. ‘You ever fill out questionnaires?’ I asked her. She said she did before she had her daughter, but not now. ‘Why? Is it because you think you’ve got it all figured out? Your child gives you some insight?’ ‘Maybe. Or… I guess I just don’t feel the need to question myself. I don’t want to disturb my thinking, perhaps. Children need consistency. I can’t crack open my skull and start searching for new answers this late in the game. I’ve got to go with what I know.’ ‘Do you wished something had happened?’ ‘God, Jake, don’t start it.’ Silence. ‘After childbirth was your vagina scarred or deformed?’ Silence. ‘Is that any of your business? Is that why you called?’ ‘No. I’m just curious.’ ‘Well, it’s fine. It’s fine.’ She sounded distant and hurt. We talked some more. She told me about her husband. I told her about the tongue-less man who lives in my apartment. She told me that it sounds weird. I told her his speech is weird. ‘I’m going to send you a painting I’m working on, of a satellite.’ ‘Oh, that would be nice,’ she said; she said it like I just told her I want to read her a poem. ‘Do you remember the satellite in Canada?’ She said she does, and then we dropped the subject and talked some more. She said vague and unimportant things, and I did similarly. We were both feeling out the conversation, searching for a stopping point. And then she said, ‘Ta.’ I went back to my painting. Now, I don’t think I’ll send it to her after all. Like Val’s vagina, the painting means more to me than it does to her, symbolically, of course. I take out some tapes and I pop one in the stereo. I hear the tongue-less man down the hall humming and growling to the lyrics. I had no idea he was a music lover. ‘Ta,’ she had said. And I think, ‘Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta.’

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Theatre

This morning I woke up thinking about the future. Ol’ Tongueless was scrambling eggs. He had written me a note: ‘Not killing you. Leaving today. Please don’t be afraid to speak to me. Invited Pauline over for breakfast.’ He had beautiful, jaunty handwriting. Why he had he waited until now to pass me a note? Maybe I’d ask Tongueless to stay. We three sit, eating omelets, talking about my conversation with the woman from Boston. I was still bandaged from head to toe and had awful hangover from the all the pills I’d taken. ‘What to do you think?’ I asked Pauline. ‘Do you think I would have been better off not calling at all?’ ‘Honestly?’ I sigh, ‘Yes.’ ‘You done good, Jake. You done good.’ Tongueless yarbbled and waggled his jaw in agreement. Bodily, we laughed, the picture of happiness. Pauline patted my leg under the table, and left her hand there. She was my best friend, the smartest person I knew. Idly I wondered what she looked like naked. Why not, she already knew me through and through; and she’d become fast friends with my one-time potential murderer.  Looking at Pauline across the table, she smiled, an open smile, not knowing what I was thinking. Things could really start happening now.

—Jason DeYoung

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Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.

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Apr 042015
 

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DIRTY THIRTIES

PEEL THESE COUPLE of potatoes and make the pig happy, her sister says. It’s been eating dirt.

Molly gets taken by the arm into the kitchen, Molly looking right past her―she is the shorter sister―right past her ear. You see another duster out there? That spread of cloud isn’t a thing to worry over, says her sister.

She gives Molly the peeler to grip. Molly takes up a potato in such a way as to break your heart, like it was left alone in the bin. Which it almost is.

Her sister goes about her business, ripping feed sacks into strips. She has been up to this since early, since she saw her head shape in dust around her pillow. She has seen that before, when she was sure no weather like this could go on and on and she didn’t fuss with caulking the windows with feed sack. She’s going to fuss now. She was never so careful a cleaner as Molly, Molly used to sweep at the dust in the middle of the night.

She steps out to the barn to get another sack and returns quick.

The kitchen’s empty. She throws down her burden, she wipes her hands on her bum. Molly!

Where she finds her, this time in the bedroom, Molly’s face is wet, teared-up. The pump’s about dry out there and you’ve got it spurting, says her sister. She drags her back into the kitchen.

She finishes the potatoes herself with Molly looking on, Molly looking on and on. You got to keep busy, she says. She gives her the scrub brush.

Molly sinks to her knees. There is hardly room for both women in the kitchen and Molly works wide, will scrub out a whole corner in a single swath. Her sister splashes down some dishwater and Molly scrubs and scrubs, then sits back on her haunches and looks toward the bedroom and coughs.

You catch that dust cough now? Her sister pours milk into a cup and gives it to her. Tastes like tumbleweed, she says. Cow doesn’t eat anything else.

Molly stares into the cup. Molly drinks it.

Her sister starts ripping the strips of feed sack again, humming what song she heard on the neighbor’s radio. Car coming, she says after a bit.

Molly’s already half legged it back to the bedroom. Her sister doesn’t aim to stop her, she hasn’t the heart for it, she knows who’s coming too.

The old young man drags in, his britches gone to thread and his head low. Molly any better?

She’s in the room, she says.

He takes a seat in a turned-around spindle-back chair. Well? Get her out.

You do it.

He does not so much as move a muscle.

She goes in to coax. Molly, come on, she says. He’s here. He’s tired of coming.

She has to pull her out this time, pry her fingers free of the door frame, then she forces her to sit beside him at the table that he’s pulled the chair to.

Molly coughs.

Honey. He takes her hand.

I kept her in the house all day today, her sister says. It’s not so far to the road that if she’d run, with her luck, there’d be a car coming. There are more cars today, going away.

Molly turns his hand over and touches where it is lined with dirt. The baby, she says, quiet like it will wake.

He flips his hand and holds hers down so she can’t get away. He heaves a sad sigh and sticks his head even with Molly’s so as to look her in the eye.

Molly breathes heavy as if her stomach’s about to turn.

After a while of watching the two of them, her sister says, You got to try to work the plow again. We can’t eat a plow.

He drops Molly’s hand, runs his own through his hair, says, Another duster coming.

You’re as bad as her.

She takes things out of the cupboards they’re kept in, flour goes in a cup, she ladles water into it.

He watches her as if he’s out of practice looking, then he looks into Molly’s face again, where it is crossed with dirty tears, then he stops. Sawyer said he found his way back to his house today only because his fence was glowing like a light bulb.

You don’t say, her sister says. She has a paste of flour and water going.

Some kind of electricity that comes with the dust. Lit it right up, made the fence come alive.

Molly starts―what does she hear? She wrenches free of him and gets up out of her chair and takes a step for the door of the bedroom.

Dead is dead. She knows it, says the man.

Molly has her back to them, she’s almost to the threshold.

Her sister says, Cold for July, and shifts the cup toward the window where a single cloud sits over by where they once wanted to put in a big new street, or so she says and then goes on: old man Dickens walked all the way over here to give me these feed sacks.

Nice of him, he says.

Molly has slipped out of the room.

Her sister slathers a strip of sack with the flour paste, her hand running it the whole length.

He watches her. I tore up the cover, he said, yesterday. Before the storm. Just before.

The cover? The bed cover? She turns to him in shock at the talk of such violence.

I mean–he puts his hands to his eyes and rubs–I mean land cover. I did plow, and the land pulled back all as nice as a piece of cake. It would’ve grown corn, it was that kind of dirt. I plowed it and it come up and then the wind blew it away like it was waiting for me to get a mouthful of it.

He scratches at his stiff hair. I want the flour sifter if you can spare it.

No, she says.

After Sawyer told me about the electrified fence, he showed me an arrowhead the size of a knife blade. Yea size, he says, his hands wide. He said he took a flour sifter down to his blowout and found it.

Not with a sifter did he find something as big as that. You find it yourself with your eyes.

I ain’t got the knack, he says, looking hard at her.

She wipes the paste off her finger and goes in and brings Molly back into the kitchen, gets her set up with her scrub brush again. Molly scrubs out a new corner, moving the dust and water in dark swirls. Maybe if she were expecting again, her sister says. Maybe that would perk her up.

The man slaps his thigh, and dust from his pants rises into the air. I don’t know how that will happen. She won’t won’t let me set foot in that room.

Molly scrubs.

Her sister applies the wet feed sack strip to the window crack, the one side where the dust blows in worst.

A corner of land, he says. I just wanted to stomp the land back down. Weeds grow anyway. Why not what I try to plant?

Molly starts sobbing.

He looks at her sister, they both step away from Molly’s shaking shoulders as if the kitchen is huge, they step back.

Four months almost to the day, he says, and shivers. She was watching him just fine in that room. I don’t see why she thinks she wasn’t.

Stray dust smacks the window.

Even wrapped him with rags of turpentine, says her sister. He hardly coughed.

Molly coughs, gets up off her knees and, stumbling, runs back into the bedroom again.

Her sister starts pressing the strip into the window wood but the top of the strip is so heavy with paste it bows and peels down. You could help, she says.

He stands at the threshold of the bedroom, then he doesn’t, he is over by the stove, he is beside her. He holds the strip into place while she rubs more paste onto another, more flour they don’t have much of, less water.

His arm sweats not so far from hers, his filthy hand is right next to her face.

The sister bites his thumb.

He doesn’t pull it away. She bites him again, holding the new strip against the dust that is coming, that is coming through no matter what she does.

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RUGBY

HERE COMES HIS BROTHER. I can tell by the tread, bear-heavy but light-footed, even more solid than his brother’s, who tiptoes into some game position I don’t know the name of, being ever-so-slightly rugby-educated, but certain he blocks. I’m mostly asleep from the exhaustion of teaching three-year-olds to pinch pots for their mothers all day, preventing them from throwing the pots at each other. The brothers like art like honey-on-pancakes, good if that’s all you’ve got. The younger isn’t home yet, the one whose room I rented while he roamed various continents rugby-free, who, still jetlagged, claimed his room and me the night he deplaned. You can stay, he said, the fey kerchief of vacation still wrapped around his forehead.

His brother is light-footing his way into what is still referred to as my room. It is dark but he can probably make out the blow-up of his brother and I unclothed, a lot of negative space going positive, hung over the bed. I like this brother, the one now hovering, beery-breathed and gentle with his punches when the two of them fight after games, mud-caked and happy having either won or lost, the game played all over in the living room. Furry in the face, arms, legs, and back, a nimbus of soft, the two of them doubled, exhale male.

He touches my face. I play-sleep.

My lover and I take three ferries, hike to a promontory and sleep in bags. A sort of sleep: sausaged with his big body and member, there’s not much turning room other than inside each other. Then there’s dawn and food: we knife open oysters from their beds. He’s lithe across the rocks in his nudeness despite his size and fur, he’s ridiculous running after me, mock caveman. I’m restless when caught, asking for another story about his trip abroad. I was so stoned, he says. All of it was art. I set the timer for the picture of the two of us anyway.

I’ve never seen a rugby match, just the aftermath, the blood and crossed eyes, the storm of beer. They tell me not to. No—they never say. They practice and practice, ramming the house beams, then one day they don’t, they play for days in a tournament, blood and beer morning and night. They can’t hide their lust for the sport, I don’t get it, so they tell me okay, go, and I witness a hugging mass of milling men, grunting, for an hour. Not much with regard to a ball. Both of them are shy afterwards, sleek from the shower, all warrior and new gut. They never disagree about who did what and they never tell me the rules.

Toward their parents they are deferential: Please pass the butter. Their mother, though cordial, could wallop them as well as the father, at least with her love-torn eyes at the least. The brothers arm-wrestle the father, a ritual demanded and met with some regret from the brothers: they now win. But their father is happy, all congratulations, a kind of Eden is breached, they’re men on their own.

I’m inspected and fed. They’ve seen the photo, the art over his bed.

It’s not you is what I try to say to him, then I say it. It’s everything else, my pot-muddy job over and there’s another job so far off I have to live elsewhere. You can visit.

He’s shy about feeling, what does he feel? He strokes his fair beard for an answer. Out of the house means out of his long reach, means it’s a decision he’s tentative over, me being still art-alien, unknowable, me with my will and my wont that he wins with his out-of-character respect. We stand on the porch with my bag, ready for transport.

Fuck respect, he’ll keep the photo.

There’s a roommate too. He drinks late at night and says his door isn’t closed, and he plays rugby too, on the better team, and it’s the season of switching love-fests and rock and roll heavies. I try him for luck but his chest is too hard, I can’t even lay my head on its ridges and sigh. My foolishness makes him drink late and later, but neither of say anything to either brother. You want coffee? he states now, holding his cup out to me. I can’t shake my head. He’s gathered at the door too, as if I’m baggage to be handled. I kiss them all but my lover’s brother is the saddest, he’s the one who cries out Goodbye.

Driving to the game drunk a week later, his brother screams at the traffic, he goads us to scream with him, the road twists and carooms while he hardly holds the wheel. We miss many cars so close we could be two-wheeling. And there’s still the ride home. How to get home where I live in my room so far away without anyone else for a roommate? They won’t visit. I’m here now to show them I’m the same from my place not so convenient, but what game am I playing? You have only one life, my lover says, as if that’s why I should risk it, kissing me so hard in the back seat that I have to close my eyes, that I should.

—Terese Svoboda

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Terese Svoboda‘s most recent novel, Bohemian Girl, was named one of the ten best Westerns by Booklist. She has stories coming out in The Common and Exterminating Angel, and she won a Guggenheim last year. www.teresesvoboda.com.

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Apr 022015
 

Toni Marques

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“WHERE’S IT?”

The question sounds as if he’s chewing a living centipede, and she thinks about Daisy and that thought almost makes her cry because Daisy wasn’t a bad centipede at all, she was just doing the stuff centipedes are supposed to do, for instance when she bit that little boy the other day while he was sleeping or something. God rest Daisy’s soul. By the way, sometimes Mrs. Kidder can be very annoying. She said she had no idea whether Daisy indeed got a soul. How come, Mrs. Kidder? Mrs. Kidder and all the gang are supposed to know everything about anything, right? However, Mrs. Kidder sometimes can be very dumb. The Daisy thing is a good example. If that favela has so many centipedes, how could you be sure Daisy is really the Daisy? Mrs. Kidder once had asked. Simple answer: Daisy used to be the largest centipede around. And how did she know Daisy was a female centipede? Mrs. Kidder had insisted. Because Daisy used to live with the girl’s family and never bit anyone inside the house, and there was that day, Mrs. Kidder said she didn’t remember it, when the girl found the little eggs. More than that, many times the girl saw how Daisy curled its body to protect its brood, right? She showed it to Mrs. Kidder, right? But, yes, no baby centipede was ever spotted in the house, just the eggs, Mrs. Kidder was right on that. Mrs. Kidder can be very dumb but also can be very cruel, because then Mrs. Kidder said that probably Daisy had eaten all the eggs. Or the babies. Mrs. Kidder is also very funny. The girl knows Daisy was no stranger to Mrs. Kidder. The truth is Mrs. Kidder enjoys playing games. But the girl enjoys playing games too. Mrs. Kidder is the best friend a girl can have.

“What did you do to my bong, you little fucker?” the man says, his voice now sounding as if his mouth is a little dark bucket full of dried saliva, a toothless bucket, of course, because neither buckets nor his mouth have teeth.

“You should ask her,” the girl says. “She is impossible.”

The girl had already finished her homework and there is nothing else to be done at night. They have no TV set, computer, anything. They just have each other, but she also has Mrs. Kidder. It’s not her problem if he refuses to be friends with Mrs. Kidder, a very distinguished lady who came all way down to Rio de Janeiro just to spread kindness and love.

“Mrs. Kidder hid your bong somewhere. Why don’t you try to find it? You can walk, can’t you?”

“You don’t play games with me, you little sucker, or I’ll sell you to The Madame. I mean it.”

The girl is now playing with her dolls. The dolls yell at each other, and the fight saddens the girl, but what can she do? They are pretty old dolls, tired pretty old dolls who are not tired of fighting, though. They argue about anything. Mrs. Kidder doesn’t like to play with the dolls, not because Mrs. Kidder is not a child anymore, but because, the girl thinks, Mrs. Kidder gets jealous when the dolls are around.

“Gee, The Madame is in jail now, you should know it,” the girl says. “The new drug lord is someone else, I don’t know his name. I don’t think Mrs. Kidder knows his name either, otherwise she would have told me, you know. Mrs. Kidder tells me everything.”

“How many stones do you think The Madame will offer me if I sell you to her?”

“I don’t know. But you can visit her in jail and ask her.”

Now the dolls are friends again. They are very complicated dolls.

“What’s the new guy’s name?” the man says.

“I told you a million times I don’t know. You should know his name. You are his client.”

“I’m gonna ask him if he wants you. Unless you give me back my bong. Where’s the goddam bong?”

The man’s voice now sounds like his tongue is made of melted rubber. Words are so beautiful, even ugly words are beautiful, you can’t talk like that. Words are very precious, that’s the reason she doesn’t like to talk when she’s at the school.

Tourist Nº1 takes his headphones off and says:

“Poor guy. He looks like an anorexic elephant, if that’s possible”.

“Very authentic stuff,” says José, the Tour Guide.

José the Tour Guide never knows the tourists’ names. Instead, he assigns mental numbers to each one. His job doesn’t make him happy.

“The stench is even more authentic, I should say,” Tourist Nº 2 says. “This plexiglas can’t hold it. We should have had those creams medical examiners spread under the nose.”

“Not all coroners use it,” says Tourist Nº 3. “They are used to it, you know.”

“Well, I’m not a doctor. I hope the next sight-seeing activity is a nose-friendly one,” Tourist Nº 2 says. “Wait a minute. There’s a woman over there.”

“Yes, there is,” the Tour Guide says. “It’s her mother’s corpse. I mean, not a real corpse. A prop one, you know what I’m saying?”

“The stench could be hers, don’t you think?” Tourist Nº 1 says. “She looks real, very real.”

“No, no. It’s a prop corpse. They’d really spent some days living with the corpse here, until city hall people were warned by neighbors and came over and removed it. Crack-cocaine overdoses or something like that, I don’t know, had just killed her. It took a while until they’d noticed it, I mean, the family.”

“There’s a lot of things you don’t know,” Tourist Nº 3 says. “The programme says this kind of tour started in…”

“2014,” the Tour Guide says.

“Ok. Still, 20 years later, a tour guide does not know what’s being shown? I want my money back.”

“Wait a minute,” Tourist Nº 1 says. “If you guys have a doll representing whoever here…”

“The girl’s mother,” the Tour Guide says.

“The girl’s mother, ok. If you have that, what else here is, like, fake? This ain’t a reality tour.”

“I want my money back,” Tourist Nº3 says again.

“Shhh,” the Tour Guide says. “You are missing their exchange. Put the headphones back on.”

“You should be more polite, you know?” the girl says. “Mrs. Kidder appreciates good manners. She’s British, you know. No, you don’t know. Forget it.”

Now the dolls have become boring, and she decides to kill them. Before killing them, though, she explains very carefully that there’s nothing to worry about, sooner or later they will be alive again.

There’s something she doesn’t like about the dolls: they used to be afraid when Daisy was around. The dolls feared being bitten by Daisy. No one in this world can imagine a centipede biting a plastic doll or any kind of doll. Poor dolls. Dolls can have soft hearts, that’s correct, but their bodies can handle almost any dangerous situation, with the exception of the heat. Rio de Janeiro is very, very warm. So the girl would like to have a job so she could buy a refrigerator so the dolls could be feel safe from the heat and from the favela’s centipedes.

“They have another woman running business here? Fuck,” the man says.

She finds it funny, the time lapse between what she says and the man’s response. Sometimes he needs a couple of days until he can find an answer to one of her questions. She laughs when she remembers that day when she asked how old he was. He couldn’t remember. When she’d already forgotten the question, he’d remembered to answer it. A wrong answer, but that doesn’t matter. He never delays the answers to Mrs. Kidder questions, though. Now he is pretending he doesn’t know who Mrs. Kidder is. He does that very often. Of course he knows Mrs. Kidder. The other day he tried to punch Mrs. Kidder on the face when she swore at him. It was a pretty funny moment, the furious but tiny, frail, toddling man speaking in tongues and throwing his fists at random because he couldn’t control them nor could he stare at her, his usually frozen eyes floating on his face like a pair of dead seagulls on the surf. The girl knew that Mrs. Kidder was a big woman and, despite not being young anymore, Mrs. Kidder was able to defend herself against him or anybody else, for that matter. That day Mrs. Kidder threw out one more stone and, more than that, she kicked everybody out the house, all his stupid crack-head buddies, a bunch of living skeletons who got so scared that they never came back. Good job, Mrs. Kidder.

Now the man is crying. He’s able to cry without shedding tears, something the girl finds remarkable because the dolls do that too.

“Give me a drink”, he says, like an old baby.

He stands up from the ground where he spends most of his time at home and looks for things they don’t have at home: drinking glasses, a refrigerator, things that he himself had exchanged for money, and the money, for crack-cocaine stones. So she knows he will go out, and out he goes.

“I understand the addicted population…,” Tourist Nº 2 says.

“City Hall supplies a regular amount of stones on a weekly basis,” the Tour Guide says. “Haven’t you read the e-brochure?”

“I have. There’s no word on alcohol, though.”

“They don’t get alcohol.”

“What about food?”

“Her school provides all her meals, on-site. He receives food stamps, which he probably exchanges for stones.”

“Then the old lady must be starving,” Tourist Nº 1 says. “That’s interesting.”

“There’s no solution to the crack-cocaine epidemics,” Tourist Nº 3 says. “That’s Rio’s solution.”

“In the beginning, part of the money the city gets from you tourists was funneled to the public health care system that handled the crack-head population. After a while the city gave up. Those people can’t be treated.”

Now she can play host to all her friends. They don’t like to come when the man is at home. That’s why she likes Mrs. Kidder more than anyone. But she understands the reason they avoid visiting her when he’s around. Whenever she can, she visits them as well. They live nearby and they’re a very nice gang.

“Mrs. Kidder!” she says when Mrs. Kidder comes in.

“Who is this Mrs. Kidder she’s always talking about?” Tourist Nº 4 asks.

“An imaginary friend, I guess,” the Tour Guide says. “The family briefing I have here says nothing about eventual family’s relatives or acquaintances. The State Tour Company selects stuff you guys can understand immediately. With a little help from the interpreting software, that is.”

“This girl does not speak English, does she?” Tourist Nº 1 says. “Or is Kidder a common Brazilian surname? She says ‘Kidder’, right?”

“I think so,” says Tourist Nº 2. “Excuse me. I have a question.”

“Yes?” the Tour Guide says.

“Why can’t we talk to the subjects? This is a stupid rule, I should say,” Tourist Nº 2 says. “Let’s talk to her.”

“Why are you laughing?” Tourist Nº 3 asks the Tour Guide.

“Forgive me. Brazil and more specifically Rio de Janeiro needed centuries and centuries to get a sense of establishing and following rules, and now an American asks to bypass the rules. It’s just plain funny. I’m sorry.”

“The girl is obviously suffering,” Tourist Nº 1 says. “This is not just a matter of curiosity, you know?”

“She is suffering indeed. She and hundreds of thousands in the same situation all over the city, all over Brazil,” Tourist Nº 2 says. “That’s precisely why we are here. Next time you try a reality tour in Finland or something.”

“Anyway, it seems to me that probably the interpreters must know whether the girl does speak English or not,” Tourist Nº 1 says.

“I’ve told you this is machine-translated,” the Tour Guide says.

“Does she speak English?” Tourist Nº 4 says. “She’s the cutest girl ever.”

“And one of the dirtiest,” Tourist Nº 1 says.

“’Neglected’ would be the proper word,” Tourist Nº 3 says. “Is she available for international adoption?”

“I don’t think so,” the Tour Guide says. “She’s available to reality tours, therefore neglected she must remain.”

“I see.”

“I don’t think she does speak English,” the Tour Guide says. “They don’t teach English in public schools anymore. And she has no access to the Internet. She’s too young, you know.”

“But you have an Internet café over here, I saw it,” Tourist Nº 2 says. “Maybe she’s been learning it online.”

“I can see some books,” Tourist Nº 1 said. “Books and textbooks, I guess”.

“That’s right,” the Tour Guide said. “None of them in English.”

“What if that Mrs. …”

“Mrs. Kidder,” the Tour Guide says.

“Thank you. What if she is a representative, a field officer with a foreign NGO and is teaching English around?” Tourist Nº says.

“No foreign NGOs are allowed in the reality tour zones,” the Tour Guide says. “Otherwise there wouldn’t be poverty shows for your enjoyment, right? So let’s enjoy it while it lasts.”

“Are there expats living here? I mean, we’ve seen Americans and Chinese people, lots of them, side by side, on that big favela, how’s it called again?” Tourist Nº1 asks.

“Rocinha,” the Tour Guide says. “Don’t forget the Brits. They’re here in throngs. The gentrification thing has happened in the South Zone favelas, where they have the best view. Here, downtown, we have no foreigners. Rio has like what? Over two thousand favelas? The gringos moved into the fanciest ones. Actually there’s no reason to call those places favelas anymore. Here in Morro da Providência we have some South Americans, you know, Bolivians and Venezuelans and Argentinians… Our amigos can’t afford the South Zone favelas.”

Valeriy the poet showed up as soon as the man left the house. A very sensible and funny man.

Valeriy asked the woman if she needed something.

“Wait a minute!” Tourist Nº 3 says. “The lady, she’s not a doll. She’s alive.”

“I don’t think so,” the Tour Guide says.

“Is she a talking doll?”

“Nope.”

“Then she’s definitely not a doll, because she’s talking or trying to talk. See her mouth? It’s moving.”

“You’re right,” Tourist Nº 4 says. “And our guide here has no clue on what he’s supposed to show us!”

“It’s not my fault, ok?” the Tour Guide says. “This is my first time with that family and my briefing says we have a doll.”

“I thought you’d referred to Brazil as an organized country,” Tourist Nº 2 says.

“You wouldn’t believe if told you how messy we used to be. Anyway, let’s see it from the bright side, my fellow tourists. That’s what crack-cocaine does, alright? It destroys a person to the point that you don’t know if a person is really a person or if a person is a corpse or if a person is a doll. I assume you all know that, but wait until we visit Downtown Crack-o-land. You’d wish they were dolls, the fucking zombies.”

The woman tells Valeriy she just needs some of his poetry. Valeriy’s poetry is a gay man’s poetry, and she likes it, despite not knowing the Russian language. She enjoys the effect of his words hammering her head. The poetry reciting sessions make Valeriy happy. He feels like a doctor managing a drug substitution therapy: crack-cocaine out, Russian poetry in.

Valeriy starts to recite his poems, but the girl can’t pay attention to him. She’s busy playing with Francis the Sailor. Francis the Sailor enjoys playing hide and seek. It’s very difficult to play hide and seek with him or anyone else because of the furniture: there are two mattresses, the man’s and the one she shares with the woman, there are the makeshift shelves where the TV set used to be and where her few books and textbooks are. But she can hide beneath the stacked clothes or in the bathroom or even outside the house, at the neighbor’s place.

“Where is the little mermaid?” Francis the Sailor asks, while Valeriy recites a poem. The woman shakes her head as if it were punched by several pairs of colorful sponge fists, and the girl is somewhere trying to keep her mouth shut, something very difficult to achieve due to the thrilling joy that overwhelms her.

“I’m here!” the girl says. “Francis the Sailor will never find where the little mermaid is!”

“Francis the Sailor?” Tourist Nº 4 asks.

“Don’t look at me like that,” the Tour Guide says. “I have no answers, alright? Let’s watch and have fun.”

“But your company should have briefed you about what you’re dealing with,” Tourist Nº 1 says.

“We’re Brazilians, ok? We should do this, we should do that, but we don’t do anything because we are Brazilians, period. Nowhere else in the world can you get something like this tour. Yes, this is something totally new. Yes, we need to improve lots of stuff. But, hey, you’re in Rio’s oldest favela watching a typical day of a crack-cocaine torn family. It’s a crack-o-rama if you will. Anything can happen to a crack-cocaine favela family, what else can I say? You see the girl running around like crazy? Perhaps right now she’s high, you know.”

“Crack-heads don’t run like that,” Tourist Nº 1 says.

“Whatever,” the Tour Guide says.

Now Petty Officer Bradley has joined the play. He tells Francis the Sailor to look for the girl outside. Francis the Sailor is not a smart man. He’s still looking for the girl in the empty house.

“Ordinary Seaman Bell!” Petty Officer Bradley says.

“Yes sir!” Francis the Sailor says.

“How many times have you two played hide and seek here?”

“We’ve played it many times, sir!”

“And how many times have you found her hiding outdoors?”

“About every time, sir!”

She loves Petty Officer Bradley’s imposing manners. Petty Officer Bradley never hesitates. Petty Officer Bradley just hesitates when Mrs. Kidder is around. Mrs. Kidder’s imposing manners can be very intimidating, even if you’re a Royal Navy Petty Officer.

“So you better find that girl outdoors right now,” Petty Officer Bradley says. “Unless you think the gallows are your destiny, Ordinary Seaman Bell!”

“No, they are not, sir!” Francis the Sailor says, before leaving the room.

The Tour Guide is feeling weirder by the minute. Nothing is happening, the girl is out of sight, and the tourists are clearly feeling weird too. They don’t want to stay here anymore.

Now they’re arguing. The Tour Guide shuts his ears down. He doesn’t want to know what’s going on. He wishes he wasn’t here. In his mind, he belongs to a happy place, full of the stuff Rio dreams are made of: laidback clients, beachfront cocktails, bikini-clad women, men in thongs, booze-fueled tips, raining yuans. No tourists searching for “culture”. No guilt-driven European and American sensitive scavengers looking for “authentic” stuff.

“I think I’ve had enough,” Tourist Nº2 says. “I want to get back to the hotel.”

“Me too,” Tourist Nº 3 says.

“I’ll go with you,” Tourist Nº 4 says.

“You?” the Tour Guide asks Tourist Nº 1.

“Yes, let’s go,” Tourist Nº 1 says.

“Praise the Lord,” the Tour Guide says in Portuguese.

“Tomorrow we have the favela extra-judicial killing sight-seeing, is that correct?” Tourist Nº 2 says.

“What?” the Tour Guide says.

“Just kidding,” Tourist Nº 2 says.

Valeriy gets worried when the woman stops shaking her head. He checks her out. Then he calls the girl.

“Dearest, where are you?”

“I can’t find her,” Francis the Sailor says.

“We need her right here, right now,” Valeriy says.

“I can sense something,” Petty Officer Bradley says.

“You can sense what?” Valeriy says.

“I am feeling weak,” Petty Officer Bradley says.

“So what?” Valeriy says.

“I don’t know,” Petty Officer Bradley says. “Never mind. Let’s find her.”

Valeriy and Petty Officer Bradley join Francis the Sailor to look for the girl.

“Where’s Mrs. Kidder? She can be useful,” Valeriy says when they leave the house.

“The old witch… Who needs her?” Francis the Sailor says.

This is the girl’s happiest moment. For the first time it takes more than an hour for her to be found. She knows it because she carefully listens to the TV soap opera someone is watching nearby. When she had found the perfect hideout, the soap opera hadn’t started. Now the neighbor’s TV is on the news show.

Tourist Nº 1 couldn’t help coming back to Morro da Providência as soon as the Tour Guide left the hotel.

Morro da Providência is a safe place, tourist-wise, so he had no problem reaching it. He gets disturbed when he arrives at the family’s place. The observation deck is closed, and it takes quite a while until he finds a safe spot where he can see what’s going on inside the house without being disturbed. He’s not sure what to do, actually. He wants to talk to the girl, yet he fears the possible outcomes of interacting with her.

The man is not in the house. The girl is sitting right beside the woman’s body. He can’t understand what the girl says. The real-time translation service is off. The few Portuguese words he knows are not enough. They should have developed a smartphone app for this, but they haven’t.

“Mrs. Kidder, have you seen him?” the girl says. “We need to tell him.”

“No, but I am afraid he will ever come back,” Mrs. Kidder says.

Mrs. Kidder feels very sad.

“You will need to be even stronger from now on,” Mrs. Kidder says.

The girl looks at Mrs. Kidder wondering how Mrs. Kidder knows the man won’t come back. But then she asks something else.

“Mrs. Kidder! What’s wrong with you?”

“The end is near,” Mrs. Kidder says.

“What do you mean?”

“Look, there’s something I want to give to you before leaving.”

“You can’t leave, Mrs. Kidder! You are my only real friend!”

The girl’s little arms reach Mrs. Kidder legs, and she dumps her face on Mrs. Kidder long, dark skirt and starts to cry. But suddenly Mrs. Kidder’s legs become softer than ice cream, and Mrs. Kidder slides away from the girl.

“This book belonged to me. Now I want you to have it, please. See, this is my name here.”

The girl holds the book, opens the first page and reads the name out loud: “Cynthia Harriet Russell Kidder. It’s the most beautiful name in the whole world.”

Tourist Nº 1 grabs his smartphone, opens one of its mobile browsers and types the name. The first web link triggers a shock wave that makes him babble and after babbling he feels suffocated and after suffocating he babbles again and after babbling again he cries. His trembling hands refuse to click further on the smartphone, and then his tongue sticks out and it’s the tongue itself that does the job his hands can’t do, and now his eyes shut, his tongue can’t do the job, he needs another part of his body to become his eyes’ burglar, and he fears his hand, if let loose, will break into his eyes and throw them away, what now?

   His head still seems to function like any head is supposed to function, so he bangs it against a tree several times until he gets his eyes open, and if the head is functioning his brain can order his mouth to bite his hands until they obey him, and that’s what he does, and now his eyes can finally read again the web address brought by the name search, findagrave.com, and his hands can tell his fingers to click on it:

Birth:

Nov., 1817
Salisbury
Litchfield County
Connecticut, USA

Death:

Apr. 16, 1840
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Cynthia Harriet (Russell) Kidder was the daughter of William P. and Eleanor (Dutcher) Russell. She was the 1st wife of Rev. Dr. Daniel Parish Kidder. They were married Wednesday evening, November 9, 1837, at Salisbury, Conn. by Rev. O. V. Ammerman. Rev Kidder was a minister in the Genesee Conference, New Jersey Conference, Newark Conference and Rock River Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Methodist Episcopal Church
Missionary Society
The Gospel In All Lands, Vol. 21, c1900, Page 87

Rev. Daniel Parish Kidder and Cynthia arrived in Brazil, South America, January 8, 1838. Mrs. Kidder died in Rio de Janeiro April 16, 1840. Mr. Kidder left for New York in April, where he arrived in June 1840. He died in Evanston, Illinois July 29, 1891.

Family links:

Parents:

William P Russell (1788 – 1865)
Eleanor RusselL (1789 – 1856)

Spouse:

Rev Dr Daniel Parish Kidder (1815 – 1891)

Inscription:

“Sacred to the Memory
of Mrs. Cynthia Harriet
wife of Rev. Daniel P. Kidder
American Missionary
Died April 16, 1840
Aged 22 years and 6 months”

Burial:

Gamboa British Cemetery
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

He needs to pay attention to what’s going on with the girl, but now his hands look for other names on the web site, and there they are: Valeriy Frantzevich, dead on October 7th 1992, Francis Norman Bell, dead on November 22nd 1917, B Bradley, dead on June 23rd 1917. Where are they? Where is this Gamboa British Cemetery? He needs to click more and he needs to click fast. Right there, he finds out, now his whole body working in a terrified harmony, right behind Morro da Providência, Rio’s oldest cemetery.

The terrified harmony of his body makes him storm the house. He doesn’t know what else he can do.

Now the girl is crying, and there’s a book on the floor. The girl doesn’t notice him. He talks to her, but she doesn’t answer. She doesn’t even look at him.

He then carefully picks up the book. It’s a very old book, and there’s the full name of Mrs. Kidder on the title page, beautifully handwritten, and the title page says more: it’s a Bible by the American Bible Society, 1837 edition.

Tourist Nº 1 sees himself being buried in the Gamboa British Cemetery of Rio de Janeiro. And collapses to the floor.

—Toni Marques

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Toni Marques was born in 1964 in Rio de Janeiro. A journalist, he is a former NYC correspondent of O Globo newspaper and currently is a story editor with Globo TV’s “Fantástico,” a leading weekly news show. He has published three books and is the co-editor of The Book of Rio (Comma Press, UK, 2014). His short stories have been translated to Spanish, French and Arabic. This year HBO Brasil will air the series “Magnífica 70,” based on his original screenplay. He was the curator of the first two editions of FLUPP, the first and only international literary festival hosted by shanty towns in Brazil.

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Apr 012015
 
john connell author

Photo by John Minihan

Born in County Longford, where his debut novel is set, John Connell like many Irish before him emigrated to Australia. The success of his short story The Little Black brought him to the attention of Picador Australia publisher of The Ghost Estate. Set during the Celtic Tiger, the novel explores the psychological and emotional “boom and bust” of those reckless times:

“Gerard McQuaid has been waiting for his start in life: his house, his girl, his land. And with rural Ireland being swept up by the Celtic Tiger and villages becoming towns, the electrician’s moment has finally arrived. With the chance to run a big job, McQuaid finds himself on Birchview Manor, a decrepit estate where the dreams of modern Ireland crash up against the weight of history. As McQuaid gets further into the restoration, he falls deeper into the story of the estate’s previous owner, Lord Henry Lefoyle, whose fate begins to loom ghost-like over McQuaid’s own.”

 

 

Gerard Beirne (GB): John, your debut novel, Ghost Estate, somewhat unusually for an Irish writer is being published in Australia (Picador). How did that come about? Are their plans for it to be published in Ireland or England?

John Connell (JC): Yes it is quite unusual. I was an Irish emigrant living and studying in Australia and wrote a short story which was included in two short story anthologies in the country and happily for me it received quite a bit of attention and a few different publishers approached me with book offers. I decided to go with Picador as they said I could write about whatever I wanted so that was a really great gift. I have just engaged an agent at the moment who is looking to see about publishing the book in UK/Irl and other regions. So hopefully 2015 will see the Ghost Estate get an Irish release.

GB: Tens of thousands of Irish have move to Australia in the last decade with many staying on to become permanent residents or citizens? Why did you move there and do you intend on staying?

JC: I went to Australia as an exchange student studying journalism, I was then offered to finish my degree there and did my final degree project on the aboriginal communities in remote Australia and produced an investigative radio documentary, That piece won a journalism award and secured me work with ABC the national broadcaster. I had only ever intended on being in Australia for 6 months which later turned into four and a half years before moving to Canada.

GB: Many of those who have emigrated have done so because of Australia’s “booming” economy – having written a novel about the boom and bust in Ireland, do you see any similarities there, any concerns, warning signs?

JC: Ah yes of course, Australia is in a boom and the refugees of the Tiger are driving that boom in so many sectors. In my few years in Australia I saw the price of living increase, the price of houses, the proliferation of money and its wasting, all the hallmarks of a country running away with itself. Australia unlike Ireland has mineral wealth that won’t run out any time soon, but it is dependent on its trade relationship with China, its number one trade partner. In my opinion, Australia won’t crash like Ireland, but it will slow down (and it has started to slow down- I have Irish friends who work on rigs and mines that have been let go with that same slow down). The greed is fairly pronounced there at the moment sadly.

GB: Where was the book written? If Australia, did this make a difference to the writing of the book? If Ireland, was it necessary to go back to Ireland to write it? If both, was this a necessary part of the process and why? 

JC: The book was wrote in Ireland in a portacabin in a field in Longford. It was necessary to write the book in Ireland (I even did the rewrites here). I needed to be in the atmosphere of the place and listening to the local people talk, and I also gained so many stories from local people that ultimately found their way in some form into the book. It would not be the same book if it had been written in Australia. I just actually can’t imagine what it would have been. Ireland was the canvas and the book was the paint if you’ll pardon that bad analogy.

GB: How does the literary world in Australia compare to that in Ireland? — The literary community, the publishing scene, the literature itself? Is there an Irish literary community there?

JC: The literary scene in Australia is quite small compared to Ireland. There are lots of publications and publishing houses but not the sheer volume of writers as we have in Ireland. However, there are wonderful Australian writers with a unique Australian voice. It was only in living in Australia and Canada that I realized the tremendous output of Ireland in world literature. Thomas Keneally author of Schindlers’ List is Irish-Australian and would be the one stop shop for Irish literary scene to my opinion though other writers such as David Malouf have wrote books on Ireland or Irish-Australian subject manner.  Ireland and Irishness is part of the history and story of Australia and many Australians have Irish heritage so I suppose we are part of the Australian story in many respects. I mean Ned Kelly was Irish after all. Peter Carey would not have got his Booker without us convicts!

GB: The novel is set in Longford where you grew up – how did the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath affect your home and community? Depression plays a central role in the novel. We know that suicide rates increased due to the recession particularly amongst those in the property business. What has been the psychological impact of the “bust”?

JC: The Celtic Tiger and its death had a huge impact on Longford and other rural communities. Longford was a very quiet place as a child, but it gradually became very busy during the boom years, and in the death of the tiger a ghost county as opposed to a Ghost Estate. Suicide was sadly all too common and still is. We have 10 suicides a week in Ireland. 8 of those are men. Many young men who had known nothing but success in the boom years suddenly found themselves in debt, unemployed and caught; and sadly far too many remained silent, suffered quietly and took their lives. It is a sad, sad truth but one that has yet to be fully talked about. For many, it was either emigrate to Australia and now Canada or face the quiet lonely Longford nights and the dole queue.

GB: You grew up on a farm — how has that played a role in your life? How has farming been impacted by the Celtic Tiger years and how have the changes affected rural communities?

JC: I enjoy the countryside and I’m proud of my rural roots but that’s about it. The Celtic Tiger changed everything in Ireland even farming; farmers were builders and developers too.  Thankfully that has calmed down now and people are returning to the land in a more healing and respectful manner.

GB: On a final note, you mentioned that you know Yanis Varoufakis the current Greek Finance Minister. What is your connection to him and does it have any relevance to the book?

JC: Yanis and I talked a number of times after I heard a lecture he gave on the GFC. I was on the rewrite of my book at the time and Yanis’s ideas combined with those of Tony Judt whom I met before he passed away, really cemented some of my economic thinking on why things got as bad as they did. Yanis had offered for me to study with him in Texas, but I had a wedding to plan and he a country to run. Maybe in time we might get to reconnect on that one!

—John Connell & Gerard Beirne

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Listen to John Connell read an excerpt.

 

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Excerpt: Kane – a short chapter about the developer

John Kane balanced the car keys and mug of tea in his hands as he opened the sleek black door of his new Landrover. It was a bright if somewhat cold morning. He let the engine warm before he turned the ignition. One, two, three. He sipped from his mug quietly, as the window slowly defrosted.

He was used to this morning routine now. The Landrover moved smoothly along the country roads. He could hear the scrape of briars and overgrown branches against the vehicle as the lanes narrowed towards the cottage.

How many times had he come up this lane? It was beyond measure now. The house was still the same, had been since Noel had lived there. Old Noel, his distant cousin, the bachelor, the man who had left him everything in his will.

But wasn’t that what he had wanted, he reminded himself, all those visits, the shopping trips to Longford, the dinner in the Landmark. Had it all been for the hunger, the want of land, those twenty acres and the plot of turf in Kelleher bog? Yes, he admitted, and no. He and Noel had shared a friendship, and while it was not a surprise that one day the man asked to be brought to the solicitors in town, some part of him felt that he was entitled to it. It was in a way a gift. Though Noel’s niece had never seen it in that light. Not at the funeral when he had taken the front pew reserved for immediate family, nor at the reading of the will when she had received nothing, despite nursing him in those last few months.

Friendship had a price and that was not his fault.

He rolled to the door and beeped the horn. The vehicle hummed quietly as he waited on the cracked concrete. The house was old. Sheds dotted here and there around the yard were filled with turf and old creamery cans. The turf was never burned any more. The house ran on oil.

The Poles emerged with their shaved heads and plastic bags full of sandwiches. Odd they never seemed to have a lunchbox, not one between them, Kane thought to himself.

They had lived here for over two years. He’d done little with the house: put in some bunk beds, a lick of paint and that cheap oil burner instead of the range. The walls were still damp on cold winter mornings. They had probably brought on Noel’s bad chest and would, in time, would make the Poles sick too. But they were young and hardy.

‘Good morning lads,’ Kane said as Jans and the others began slowly to climb into the vehicle.

‘Morning boss,’ said Jans quietly.

‘We’re all well I hope?’ asked Kane, looking in the rear-view mirror towards the others.

‘We well, yes,’ they agreed sullenly.

Each morning was the same. A talk, a half-hearted chat that petered out. There existed in the car two different worlds with many incomprehensions.

‘I drop you at the manor today, okay?’ he said.

The group nodded.

‘Jans, can you come with me to the office? I need you to give me a hand.’

The Polish had arrived with the boom, come like a wind indeed. The country had woken up to find new names and faces that spoke of towns and villages no one had ever heard of. They were good workers and in so many ways were what the Irish had once been, Kane thought. Strong-backed, fond of a drink and, yes, ignorant. They were in search of a better life in another land and yet dreamed only of returning home.

Jans, who spoke the best English, had been a teacher of sorts, but there was more money to be made lifting blocks than teaching children. He, like all the others, had made that Ryanair migration across Europe and somehow, somehow, ended up in Longford.

It still puzzled Kane, Longford being multicultural, and was there not enough trouble between the two native groups that lived here already, not to mention the travellers? How were they ever to come to terms with foreigners when they had yet to come to terms with themselves?

But there was work to be done, and these men, these Poles, were ready to do it.

They never complained, they never questioned, they simply shrugged and worked. They had become serfs in a way; a man’s success could be measured by how many Poles he had working for him.

Kane drove toward the estate. Big Jack would be waiting for them. It was the same routine each morning. And they would be set to work on some menial task around the sites, something a contractor would refuse to do. They were the workhorses of this boom and when it ended, whenever that might be, they would be sent away like all old nags.

On Fridays after work he would bring them to town to wire their wages back to Poland, back to their families. It was perhaps paternalistic but he knew the minds of young men well. If they had the money, they would spend it, and an arsehole pub in the middle of Ireland was no place to waste a week’s work. He would give them their pay slips and drive them to the Western Union branch and the rest was their own choice.

It was not really a life, Kane often thought, to work and save and never be able to fully communicate your thoughts and fears for the lack of words. It was little wonder the men took to the cheap bottles of vodka at the weekend.

They were not so different, not so very different at all, Kane thought. A picture of Poland instead of Ireland on the cheap bedroom walls and a set of rosary beads under each man’s pillow. Poverty had a way of repeating its motifs.

‘Come on, Jans,’ he said as Lech and the others packed out of the Landrover. ‘The gutters in the office need a good clean. They’re full of fucking weeds.’

‘Yes, boss,’ Jans said simply, and returned to silence.

Was it better than teaching, Kane thought. It must be. It must be.

—John Connell

 

John Connell was born in 1986. He grew up in County Longford, Ireland. An award-winning investigative journalist, playwright and producer, The Ghost Estate (Picador Australia) is his first novel.

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Mar 122015
 

Cordelia Strube

Ten novels in twenty years. Cordelia Strube is no slouch, and bear in mind that she is also a long-time dedicated creative writing teacher at Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education. I’ve always been deeply impressed by the mix of heart and smart contained in her novels, and when you add a steely sharp writing style and dialogue that feels overheard rather than written – well, don’t take my word for it. In the section below you have a chance to read a chapter from a novel not yet published. On The Shores of Darkness, There is Light will be published in the spring of 2016 by ECW Press.

 Along the way in her career, Cordelia has been nominated for most of the Canadian national literary awards such as: The Governor General’s award for literature; The Giller Prize (long listed); the Re-Lit Award; Books in Canada/W.H. Smith Award for best first novel – and she has won the CBC Literary Competition.

—Ann Ireland

 

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THERE’S A BABY STUCK in a car.” Harriet waves anxiously at the crowd of parents watching T-Ball. They don’t notice. She runs back to the SUV, across grass turned to straw. It hasn’t rained in six weeks. Smog chokes the city.

The baby, mottled pink, purplish around the eyes and mouth, is strapped to the car seat. Wailing, she jerks her chubby arms and legs, her cries muted by the latest technology in road noise reduction. She looks like the baby Harriet pictured when her mother told her she was pregnant; a cute baby with a normal head and curly blonde locks. Harriet presses her nose against the window, causing the cute baby to stare at her as though she is the one who has trapped her. “Don’t blame me,” Harriet mutters. “When in doubt, blame Harriet.”

Just this morning her mother blamed her for losing the plastic pitcher for bagged milk. “Why can’t you put things back in their place?” When it turned out Harriet’s little brother used the pitcher to shower his plastic animals, her mother didn’t apologize to Harriet. Or scold Irwin. There’s no doubt in Harriet’s mind she’d be better off without her little brother. She should have snuffed him when she had the chance, after they took him out of the incubator and handed him to her, all red and wrinkled, with his stretched head, and veins pulsing weakly under his see-through skin.

“Say hi to your brother,” her mother said. She no longer looked like her mother because she’d stopped eating and sleeping when Irwin was cut out of her. The furry-lipped nurse, who’d helped Harriet put on the sterile gloves, said, “Your brother is a miracle baby.” Harriet didn’t see why. The other preemies in incubators looked like fat turkeys compared to Irwin.

The cute baby trapped in the car seat has stopped wiggling and isn’t pink and purple anymore, just pale. Harriet tries the doors again before scrambling back to the crowd of parents. She pushes her way to the front of the pack where her mother and her boyfriend coach Irwin as he swings wildly at the ball balanced on the T.

“Keep your eye on the ball, champ,” her mother’s boyfriend says, bending over, revealing his butt crack above his track pants. Gennedy claims he was a jock in high school and consequently unable to kick the track pants habit. He has a shred of Kleenex stuck to his chin from a shaving cut. Harriet considered telling him about it this morning but decided to see how long it would take to drop off.

Harriet’s mother, in short shorts because, according to Gennedy, she’s still got the gams, fans her face with her hand and says, “Try again, peanut, you can do it.” The other parents pretend they don’t mind Irwin getting extra turns because he’s developmentally challenged. They order their unchallenged kids to be nice to him, and Irwin thinks people are nice because everybody acts nice around him, they just don’t invite him for play-dates, so he is in Harriet’s face 24/7. Harry, check on your brother. Harry, help your bother with his buttons. Harry, be a sweetheart and wipe your brother’s nose.

She squeezed toothpaste into his slippers this morning but he went barefoot.

“Good swing, champ,” Gennedy calls.

What Harriet knows about adults is that they say one thing while thinking something completely different. For this reason she doesn’t believe a word any of them say. She won’t have to deal with them anymore when she gets to Algonquin Park. She has two-hundred and forty-eight dollars in her bank account, but because she’s only eleven, her daily withdrawal limit is twenty dollars. Emptying her account requires thirteen withdrawals, and she’s worried the ladies at the bank might rat on her because Harriet’s mother worked there before Irwin was born. She’d often pick Harriet up from daycare and take her to the bank to finish up paperwork. As the doors were closed to the public at six, Harriet was allowed to sit at a big desk and draw with an assortment of pens. After Irwin was born, Lynne quit working at the bank and lived at the hospital. She came home on weekends to do laundry. Trent, Harriet’s father, sat in the dark absently plucking his eyebrows, until he started going to farmers’ markets and met Uma.
Harriet tugs on her mother’s arm.

“Bunny, please don’t do that, you’re not a two year-old.”

“There’s a baby stuck in a car.”

When Harriet’s parents divorced, her mother went back to work at the bank until her breakdown. Harriet loved the bank and plans to work in one when she grows up. She craves the quiet, and the soft sound of bills being counted, the clicking and sliding of metal drawers, the tapping of keyboards, the dependability of safety deposit boxes, the finality of stamp pads. Everybody’s polite at the bank and nobody shouts or swears. She tugs on her mother’s arm again. “Somebody’s forgotten their baby.”

“I’m sure that’s not true. The baby’s probably just napping.”

“It’s not.”

Irwin bats the ball and it bounces feebly to the side. “Way to go, champ!” Gennedy shouts. “That was awesome!” Other parents jerk into phoney smiles while Irwin chortles, bobbling his big head.

Harriet sewed some rags together to make a voodoo doll of Gennedy that she sticks pins into daily. Last Christmas she asked her mother why he moved into The Shangrila with them. “You wouldn’t understand,” her mother said but Harriet insisted she would. She pestered her mother until Lynne slumped on a kitchen chair, fiddled with a busted angel decoration and said, “Because when he says he won’t leave me, he means it.” Harriet understood then that she was doomed to co-habit with Gennedy, the shouter and swearer, who says she’s negative, and can’t even cook a decent tuna casserole. When her mother’s at the hospital, Harriet lives on Lucky Charms.

“The baby isn’t sleeping,” Harriet repeats, more loudly this time even though her mother hates it when she’s loud.

“Harry, it’s none of your business. I’m sure the parents are here somewhere and keeping an eye on the car.”

“They’re not.”

“What’s the problem here?” Gennedy asks, wiping sweat off his nose. The Kleenex is still stuck to his chin.

“No problem,” Lynne says, swigging on a water bottle.

“There is a problem,” Harriet says. “There’s a baby stuck in a car.”

Irwin stumbles towards them. Gennedy grabs him and swings him up in the air. “How ‘bout some burgers, big guy?”

“Wowee, wowee, burgers with cheeeezze!” Irwin squeals, causing other parents to stare and jerk into phoney smiles again.

“There’s a baby stuck in a car!” Harriet shouts.

“Harriet.” Her mother grips her arm but Harriet jerks it away and shouts even louder, “There’s a baby stuck in a car! Right over there.” She pushes through the crowd and points at the SUV.

“Oh my god,” a rumpled man in a Blue Jays cap cries before charging to the SUV. He gropes frantically in his pockets for his remote, repeating, “Jesus fucking Christ” and “Fucking hell.” His T-ball player son chases after him, hooting and flapping his arms. Finally the man unlocks the car. “Tessy,” he croons in a baby voice as he ducks in and frees the listless infant.

*

“Whassup?” Darcy asks, lying on her tummy on the couch painting her fingernails black.

“Did you shoplift that polish?” Harriet asks.

“Damn fucking straight. No way I’m paying eight bucks for this shit.” She flashes her fingers at Harriet, “Like it? Black is the dope, dude,” and sucks the straw on a can of diet Sprite. “I’m going on a date later. I am single and ready to mingle.” Darcy moved into The Shangrila a month ago. She’s twelve and knows how to give blowjobs, suck on bongs and inhale fatties. Harriet has no interest in blowjobs, bongs or fatties, but she feels flattered that an older girl wants to be her friend—although, in her experience, friendships don’t last. Eventually the new friend finds out Harriet has no other friends, can’t text because she doesn’t have a cell, or an iPod, or an allowance, plus a freak for a brother. Darcy’s mother rips ladies’ hair off with wax. She doesn’t shout or swear and lets Darcy eat junk food, go on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr and watch whatever she wants on YouTube. Gennedy only allows Harriet an hour of computer time per day, and he’s constantly looking over her shoulder to make sure she isn’t frittering away her time absorbing useless pop culture. He shouted at her when he caught her watching the Brazilian cab driver singing Thriller just like Michael Jackson. Harriet didn’t know anything about Michael Jackson, except that he died a long time ago and looked creepy. But Darcy showed her the Thriller video and Harriet was impressed by his moonwalk. Gennedy caught her practicing it while watching the cab driver from Brazil singing Thriller. “How is this improving your mind?” he shouted. According to Harriet’s mother, Gennedy is the only criminal lawyer in history that’s broke. If he works at all it’s legal aid, defending drug addicts, thieves and vandals. Lynne could have done better than Gennedy, Harriet thinks, because she’s hot. Men have always ogled her mother. Construction workers and loiterers all whistle and snicker Nice ass, Come to papa, or Whatever you need, I’ll give it to you, baby. When Harriet was little she’d turn on these pervballs and shout, “Stop looking at my mother! Leave my mother alone!” She doesn’t defend her mother from pervballs anymore because she can see her mother likes the attention, especially now that she’s older and has had two kids.

Darcy flaps her hands to dry the polish. “The Shangrila is a downer, dude. How can you stand living here? It’s, like, seven floors of seniors, a freakin’ old people farm. My mom says the carpets haven’t been replaced since man wiped his dirty feet on the moon. She says they’re moon carpets and she’s going to split her head open tripping over a crater.” She sniffs the polish in the bottle before screwing the lid back on. “Want to go to Shoppers World?”

Harriet sits in the armchair Darcy’s mother keeps covered in plastic to protect it from cat hairs. “You just said you had a date.”

“Before that.”

“Not really.”

“Don’t be such a douche bag.”

“Do you even know what a douche bag is?”

“It’s a bag, duh, to put douches in.”

“Do you know what a douche is?”

Darcy pulls on the cat’s tail, causing it to dart across the moon carpet. She hates the cat because she has to feed it and clean its litter box.

“You don’t even know what a douche is,” Harriet says, “so why are you always calling people douche bags?”

“LOL, so what is it then, Miss Super Brain?”

“It’s a nozzle women shove up their snatches to clean them out. The douche bag has water in it, and other stuff.When you squeeze the bag, the stuff quirts up.”

“Cool story.”

“It’s true. My dad’s girlfriend squirts herbs up her hoo-ha to make her mucous friendlier to my dad’s sperm.”

“FML, would you shut up, that is so gross. That is like … nobody does that. That’s sick.”

“I just think you should know what a douche bag is before you call people douche bags.”

“Okay, fine, thank you, Einstein. OMG I was just joking around.”

Darcy moved into The Shangrila because her parents got divorced. Her mother, Nina, is being fucked over by her ex, Buck. “Buck’s fucking me over,” she often says, or, “Fucking Buck is fucking me over.” Harriet has adopted this phrase and consoles herself, when alone, by muttering that … fill in the blank … fucked her over. Lynne doesn’t say Trent is fucking her over although, since he cut back on child support to pay for Uma’s expensive infertility treatments, Lynne has been referring to him as the asshole.

“I wish my dad was here,” Darcy grumbles. “He’d take us to the DQ.” Harriet likes Buck because he calls her The Lone Ranger and drove them to Canada’s Wonderland in his MAC truck, bought them candy floss and ride tickets. But, according to Nina, Buck’s a pothead and thinks with his dick. This is why she divorced him. Lynne doesn’t say Trent’s a pothead and thinks with his dick. Harriet’s not sure why her parents divorced other than her dad freaking over Irwin, and meeting Uma and deciding she had a brilliant mind. He wouldn’t have met Uma if Irwin hadn’t had a seizure at the farmers’ market.

“You reek,” Darcy says. “Have you been dumpster diving again?”

“I found some wood, not warped or anything.” Harriet paints on primed plywood or stiff cardboard because she can’t afford canvas. It consoles her that Tom Thomson sketched on wood. Uma, when she first started dating Trent, took Harriet to a Group of Seven show. The painters’ worn wooden paint boxes and palettes fascinated Harriet. Tom Thomson’s box was small, just a rectangular box. Frederick Varley’s was fancier, with compartments. Even though Tom Thomson died too young to be officially part of the Group of Seven, Harriet thinks of him as her favourite Group of Seven painter. She was mesmerized by his small, simple box, imagining him hiking through Algonquin with the box stuffed in his rucksack, entranced by a piece of sky or water or a tree and sitting down to paint them. She imagined him taking out the box, balancing it on his lap, rubbing his hands together to warm them, and resting his wooden sketch board against the box’s lid. She yearned to watch him pick and mix his colours, and make his first stroke, touching his brush to the board. She felt if she could sit quietly behind him, he wouldn’t mind. He was so handsome, even though he smoked, and she loved it that he never went to art school. “Harriet,” Uma huffed, “we’re here to look at the paintings, not the paint boxes.” Harriet memorized the colours on Tom’s palette, determining to recreate them at home. It seemed as though the lights dimmed when she moved away from his paint box, and the studio paintings held none of the vibrancy of the sketches he made in the wilderness. She couldn’t feel him in the studio paintings the way she felt him in the paint box, palette and the sketches. She wanted to understand why he died at Canoe Lake, why he let that happen when he could paint like that. She couldn’t imagine letting herself drown if she could paint like that. In her room, she tried mixing the colours but they were lifeless on the board and it occurred to her that maybe Tom Thomson let himself drown because he could no longer paint like that.

“One of these days,” Darcy warns, “you’ll get the flesh-eating disease from a dumpster and die.”

Harriet searches the capybara on YouTube again.

“OMG, quit looking at that giant hamster,” Darcy says.

“It’s the world’s largest rodent.”

“Who gives a fuck?”

“They don’t bark. My mother won’t let me have a dog because it barks and might scare my brother.”

“You hate dogs anyway.”

“Just Mrs. Schidt’s.” Mrs. Schidt is eighty-one, lives down the hall in 709 and pays Harriet fourteen dollars a week to walk her skinny white dog with yellow eyes. She’s been paying Harriet fourteen dollars a week for three years and always has to scrabble around in bowls and drawers for toonies and loonies to make the fourteen.

“I bet giant hamsters shit bus loads,” Darcy says. “You’d spend all day stooping and scooping giant hamster turds.”

“You can house train them, and you don’t have to walk them.” Harriet avoids dog people because all they talk about is dogs, and they act snarky when you don’t let their dogs jump on you, lick your hand and sniff your crotch.

The capybara’s lady owner holds a green Popsicle and the capybara nibbles it. The lady lifts the Popsicle just out of the capybara’s reach. The world’s largest rodent taps the lady’s shoulder gently with its paw to signal it wants some more. Repeatedly the capybara and the lady exchange pats for nibbles on the green Popsicle. This looks like so much fun to Harriet.

“What kind of name is Harriet anyway?” Darcy asks. “I mean, it’s like, an old lady name.”

“It’s my father’s mother’s name. And my grandfather’s name is Irwin. My parents named us after them thinking it would make them forgive them for eloping. They’re rich and my parents keep hoping they’ll give them money, or drop dead and leave them money. But they’ll never die.”

“Everybody dies.”

“Not mean and cheap people, they live till a hundred. Look at Mrs. Butts.” Mrs. Butts lives next door in 702 and sends Harriet on errands for a quarter. She’s fat, eighty-two, humpbacked and addicted to pain-killers and sleeping pills. When she wants Harriet to do something she smiles and puts on a nice little old lady voice, but if Harriet brings back Minute Maid orange juice with, instead of without, pulp, or beef, instead of chicken flavoured Temptations for her cats, Mrs. Butts turns into a mean junky.

The word among the seniors at The Shangrila is that Harriet will go down to Hung Best Convenience for a quarter. Mr. Shotlander in 406 has her picking up the paper on Fridays for the TV listings, and Harriet suspects she’s under-priced herself, but at least the errands get her away from Gennedy.

What she can’t understand about her mother shacking up with Gennedy is why Lynne has to be with somebody in the first place. Harriet prefers to be by herself than with anybody. Around people she feels bound in one of Gran’s pressure stockings. She also doesn’t understand why Gran is nice to her but mean to her mother, even though Lynne cleared the junk out of her house when Gran was evicted for health violations after Grandpa died. Lynne furnished Gran’s new place with nice things from IKEA, but still Gran complains about her, Where’d that know-it-all mother of yours put my muffin tins? Where’d that high-and-mighty mother of yours put my electric frying pan?

It seems to Harriet people are better off by themselves and not caged together in apartments and houses. When she escapes to the ranger cabin she won’t have to talk to anybody. Lost Coin Lake is isolated from road and canoe routes, and the marshy shoreline is unsuitable for swimming. Nobody goes there. This makes it perfect.

—Cordelia Strube

©   All Rights Reserved  Cordelia Strube  2014

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Interview

Ann Ireland (AI): The new novel features a brainy, observant, original sort of girl as narrator. This isn’t the first time you’ve used such a main character to tell the story, I’m thinking of your novel, LEMON. Obviously there is something about entering this kind of character that feels natural to you, that attracts you. Care to comment?

Cordelia Strube (CS): There are 2 narrators in On the Shores of Darkness There is Light (you wouldn’t know this from the first chapter)–the story is told in two movements. The Before segment is told from Harriet’s 11-year-old POV. The second segment, After, is told from the POV of her younger brother, Irwin, 7 years later, when he is 14. Writing a 338 page novel through the eyes of children was risky. My biggest fear was sounding twee, or being forced to use a limited vocabulary, but both Harriet and Irwin are so uniquely sighted, I stopped worrying. Harriet’s voice came at me forcefully, but Irwin’s required more patience. She is a comet, he is the Milky Way. Spending time inside the head of a developmentally-challenged, hormonal boy isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time. It took me many walks and thinks to figure out how to approach his side of the narrative. After is a completely different rhythm than Before.

Lemon, the narrator in Lemon, is 16 and already jaded and pissed off. I used her as a reference point because she is an avid reader and I could counterpoint her 21st century sensibility with that of 19th century fiction where the psychological novel took off thanks to Ms. Austen, the Georges, the Brontes, Sam Richardson etc. My objective in Lemon was to say to the reader, “Look at what we’ve done, are you okay with this?”

There’s a massive divide between the mind set of a 16 year-old and an 11 year-old. Harriet is free of conditioned responses to things. She has no filter. This informs on the art she produces, and her interactions with the self-absorbed adults around her. Societal expectations, peer pressure and pop culture overload can beat the originality out of us. Harriet, at 11, has nothing to lose because she has lost so much already and is consequently fearless; unsettling for the reader who fears for her. Peril keeps us reading.

AI: Darcy and Harriet scene: lots of current slang. How did you manage that? Eavesdropping? And what about slang dating; do you worry about that, that by the time the novel is published no one will be saying OMG?

CS: I eavesdrop whenever possible; hard to do with all the ambient noise. I never worry about “dating” my fiction. I use the current world as the backdrop for my novels. We live in interesting times. Part of my job is to document them. Before takes place post recession, after Kate and Will’s wedding. I use the wedding (and what was current in People Magazine: hashtag, Jennifer Anniston, and Obama) to date it because After takes place 7 years later. The 2008 recession had a devastating impact on Harriet; her father was laid off, her parents divorced and lost their house, her brother was hospitalized, her mother took up with a deadbeat who tried to control Harriet. We are the result of what happens to us.

AI: Your sentences always have pop and energy. You have been teaching creative writing for many years now; do you think it is possible to teach how to write ‘live sentences’?

CS: Listening, I believe, is what creates good dialogue. We can’t write down word for word a conversation we hear because that would be boring, but we can use fragments and build from there; reveal the essence of a character through their phrasing and word choices.

AI: You are prolific and I know you rewrite a good deal. What is the nature of your work discipline or routine?

CS: I am prolific because I don’t stop. Without a novel to swim around in, I sink, but I don’t write for hours a day, don’t push myself to produce a particular number of pages. Some days I write nothing new, just revise. Rarely does a first run at a sentence work for me. I rewrite constantly, especially at the start of a novel when I’m trying to figure out the voice.

AI: It’s been noted that your characters live in a dangerous world where bad things happen, sometimes really bad things. We all know that the world is a perilous place and that no one lives without suffering. What do you make of the current ‘Happiness’ fad? So many books written about how to achieve happiness.

CS: The title of this novel is a line from a Keats poem:

Aye on the shores of darkness there is light,
And precipices show untrodden green,
There is budding morrow in midnight,
There is triple sight in blindness keen.

This poem is full of light and hope while acknowledging the dark. We can’t see the light unless we’ve been in the dark. Shadows, as Harriet points out, are produced by light. Imagining that your life should be free of suffering is debilitating. Suffering adds perspective and makes joy vibrant. It’s when we become immobilized by pain–physical, emotional or psychological–that we need help. That’s when I reach for a book written by a mad man, or woman, like Mr. Blake or Ms. Dickinson. It makes me feel less alone, stranded in our “think positive” culture. Happiness isn’t a constant state for me. It’s a piece of sky, a brief human interaction, a glance at a painting, a scrap of prose or poetry, a child’s expression, the feel of a loved one’s hand, a good cup of coffee.

AI: Do you see yourself as having an ongoing Project in your writing? Is there something you seek to do in all your books? Something you continue to explore?

CS: My ongoing project is not to go completely mad like Mr. Blake. A critic once described my novels as “exceedingly well-written pleas for awareness.” I don’t have answers, just many questions. Above all I aim to entertain my readers, keep them turning the page while laughing and crying. I hope also to provoke thought about how we’re managing things (or not) during our time on this miraculous planet. Fiction allows us to fly straight into truths, both ugly and beautiful. We don’t need to be careful when we’re making it all up.

strube 1

All photos by Carson Linnéa Healey.

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Ann Ireland

Ann Ireland‘s most recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture  called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, recently reprinted by Dundurn Press, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.

Mar 092015
 

bag air strike

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February 23, 1991

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You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

What on earth is Eliot talking about? I should know: I’m an English teacher. But that doesn’t mean anything. I should know that, too.

It is Saturday morning, early, or early for me. I’m sitting by the gar­den, our garden on a hill that overlooks South Bay, reading his Four Quartets. On the bench beside me, coffee, a radio. Every now and then I turn the radio on to catch the news.

I’m reading the Quartets the way I have always read them, in fits, bits and pieces here and there, skipping around. I’ve read the whole work over the years, but have never read it all the way through in one effort, and I only know it as so many frag­ments. Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, Little Gidding—I can at least put the poems in order, but if there’s any order to that order, it has escaped me. All the shifts in voice, the abstractions, the faint sym­bols, the ghosts of allusions—the thing tries your patience. It’s not a poem I would try to teach, if poetry were what I still taught. I don’t even remember our spending much time on it back in grad school. Still, I come back to it. There’s a meditative lilt to the sounds, to the rhythms that has stayed with me. It’s the closest I get to religion.

Today, however, Eliot irritates me. His words sound like chants of an old man trying to settle the uneasiness from a worried life, of the ache of brittle bones. I woke at six with a rush of purpose, full of resolve, only to real­ize there wasn’t any­thing I particularly had or wanted to do. Too much wine last night. I ended up here by default. It’s not the kind of thing I do, sit by a gar­den. It is not like me to sit still, and after an hour of sitting here, dipping into the Eliot, lis­tening to the news, look­ing at the garden, I feel I have come to the end of something. No ecstasy—do I get points for that?

The news is not news. We have been bombing the shit out of the Iraqis for over a month. The deadline approaches for invasion, 9:00 here, noon in Wash­ington, some other time in the Gulf, soon to pass. Rumors of last min­ute nego­tia­tions. Nothing will come of either. Bush won’t give this war up—he needs it. But he won’t commit troops as long as he can keep up the aerial attacks. And it has been a clean, pretty war for us, the U.S., from what we see on the tube. Vast stretches of desert sands, the floral splendor of night raids over Baghdad—the bombing will continue. We will keep bombing until there isn’t anything left. That way we maintain world order.

Our garden is not pretty; it is a disaster. We were hit by a hard freeze a few months ago, around Christmas, the worst in more years than I have been here. Everything is dead or looks dead. Dead plants on dirt—dead leaves, dead stalks, dead vines, dead buds of what­ever it was that bloomed in winter—a brown mesh of deadness blending into darker shades of brown. Even the few plants Margaret had been holding out hope for it can now be safely said are safely dead. The only green has been the weeds, which she pulls as soon as she sees them.

After a light rain last night, the rich, bitter smell of decay.

Yet it is a beautiful day, shirtsleeves in February, another freak of Cali­for­nia weather. Cloudless, smogless skies, the skies an unqualified blue. Not the transpar­ent blue that threatens ethereal dissipation, but a blue soft and full, with unforced presence. The morning chill has already burned off and the warm air caresses with­out crowding, as if you belonged here, as if the world were a place where you could live without protection.

The bombing, dead plants in a garden—there is seeming correspon­dence. I will not be sucked into pathetic fallacy, however. Nature has its rules, we have our own, such as they are. One has nothing to do with the other. Only the sentimental would make something of the accident that has brought them together. And even if I tried, I can’t imagine what kind of causal link might be established or what could be made of the balm of this morning sun.

But back to the Eliot. I also feel vaguely guilty, or vaguely sense the need to feel guilty. Perhaps the poems will give my life this grace. And the poet has gone through a couple of wars himself. In fact he wrote these some time around the Big One. Maybe he can give me some pointers on how to do this war, or at least on how to sit it out.

In order to arrive there—

He is talking about a kind of humility, a kind of vigilance. His point, I think, is that if we’re ever to get closer to anything larger, anything beyond our­selves, we need to deny the self in some way, get outside the self in order to see the self and whatever might lie past it, presumably a whatever that is worth the trip. He is trying to get us closer to Something Else. The figure of travel is a metaphor for that desire. This is too myste­ri­ous, or too mysterious for a Satur­day morning, too mysterious for a hangover.

Time present and time past—someday I should go through the whole poem, beginning to end, alpha to omega, soup to nuts, because I think there is a progres­sion, an argument that unfolds, at the end, a conclusion to be reached, maybe an understanding, maybe, God forbid, a revelation. I sus­pect if I did, though, I would only be disappointed. One more literary nut shelled and digested. Better to keep the possibilities of ignorance alive. In the cracks of doubt, of the unknown, maybe a chance—

Margaret—

The English teacher’s wife—

Comes out with her coffee, sees me, and winces softly. Winces because though she’s an early riser, she wakes slowly, also because she did not expect to find me here, by the garden. Softly because that is how she would wince. Then packing her surprise, she lingers a second, composing the Margaret face, a face that respects the decorum of a working marriage, that recognizes that I exist, will continue to exist and have a right to con­tinue to exist, that shows that, even though I have existed with her in civil matri­mony for almost twenty-five years, she has not yet lost fondness for this existence nor will she take it for granted—but today a face that also says she does not want to come to me just yet. Fair enough. Instead, she walks over to the garden and stands there surveying the dam­age, arms folded, coffee cup poised above their cross, her cheeks furled before the winds of a dilemma, as if she is trying to decide what to do about it.

Margaret, not Madge, Marge, Margie, Maggie, Mag, or Meg—she made that clear at the outset, her only condition for marriage. A native Californian, there is such a thing, and some of them have some sense. Second wife. My first marriage was to English, while in grad school, which blew up before either of us had fin­ished our dissertations. We both reached a critical mass of literature and frayed egos, of our exhilaration and desperation over criticism no one cares about, or should. Next a period of celibacy that I thought I chose but really just happened. Then Account­ing. Not that Margaret is another convert to the faith of the busi­ness of business; that is just what she teaches. Every day, before meeting the hordes who have chosen her discipline as the light and the way, she dresses in a sober suit, before the mirror flounces her scarf to a calculated carelessness, then puts on the face, a face of businesslike compassion, that hybrid of concern and practicality that seized me when I first saw her standing before her class at State where we both still teach, the face she now wears before the garden, before the thought of me, a face that doesn’t fend off despair and disorder as evil or unnec­essary but takes them as giv­ens, matters not to be questioned but measured and arranged. Accounting is not a subject but a manner, a way of dealing with what­ever life dishes out and finding it a place. Margaret is all manner and manners. I don’t think I could live without her.

Now she steps through the garden in a winding pattern, following some invisi­ble map, still pondering. It is not fair to her that I pick this day to be out by the garden. Except for minor demolition on my part, it is all her work, and her work lies in ruin, ruin brought into relief by this bright, smiling sun. And given my ignorance about plants, she knows I don’t appreci­ate what has been lost.

I don’t understand much about what makes things grow and am perversely proud I do not. I do know, however, that a garden at best is a complicated problem. I know because she gives me quarterly reports, and now it has become an im­probability. After three years of scant winter rain, last sum­mer she shifted to drought resistant plants, but then these cannot stand the cold. And while it sel­dom freezes here, after last December and the deadness now, she now has to factor in that chance. But plants that can take a freeze need lots of water and are averse to too much light, yet it does not rain here in summer and we have little shade, so anything she puts in next has to be able to withstand a full season of sun—and until the drought lets up, another season of ration­ing. I take these contradictions as evidence that we really aren’t supposed to be here in Califor­nia, any of us, though we have all gold-rushed here and over­run the place, straining the water supply, our dreams of a better life. Margaret does not think that way, however, about our intents or fool­ish­ness, or about the vagaries of the weather. She takes things as they come.

But I know she is not thinking about her plants. She has said she will wait until late spring to deal with them, when the rain stops, the weather settles, her classes are over and she has the time, and she always sticks to the Plan. What she is really doing is debating whether or not she wants to deal with me today. She has read my look and sized me up: she has seen that I have the desire to talk. Yet if she is bothered by me, by the garden, she does not show it.

I’m her second go around, too. I don’t know anything about her first. She never talks about him, I never ask. Not that she’s hiding anything. It’s just part of the decorum, I suspect. She won’t say anything about me, either, if we ever split up. I admire that in her.

Just the two of us. The girls have flown the coop.

She slides her foot through the dry waste, making static noise, then nudges a bush with her toe It does not spring back.

I try to get a rise out of her. I pick a passage at random and read aloud:

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

“What do you think of that?” the English teacher asks.

“Sounds like good advice.” She doesn’t turn, but bends over and tugs at the withered stalk of some unrecognizable plant. She still looks good in jeans.

No rest for the weary is what I think the poet means. I don’t think Mar­garet heard me. I try again.

“The war will start soon.”

No response. She does, however, succeed in pulling up the plant, and, holding it close to her face, examines the shriveled leaves.

“It will be a bloody mess. Body bags on the way.”

She taps the roots gently, shaking off the dirt.

“I’m thinking of enlisting.”

She throws the plant over the fence. My heart goes with it.

“I’m thinking of retiring.”

“Fine,” she says. With that, she mumbles something about breakfast and goes in. She knows I’m in one of those moods, that I want to start some endless conver­sation that will only result in my getting both of us upset. Mar­garet will not indulge me today.

She’s a good woman.

.

.

No word of war. High noon in Washington, the deadline has come and gone. The English teacher has suc­ceeded only in rising to get a stack of papers to grade, which now rest on a bench by his chair, unmarked, unread. Students fear his judg­ment—they don’t know what a sweetheart he is—but he has decided to spare them another day. He is not up to see­ing what they have done to words and still has a headache from his hang­over to boot. So he’s just sitting by himself by a garden on a hill, a hill that overlooks the valley by the bay, the valley that is called Silicon Valley, the bay that is called the Bay. On his lap, a poem by T. S. Eliot; on top of the papers, more coffee, a radio.

Saddam lobbed another Scud missile at Israel a few minutes ago—that much is clear. And the reports that he has been setting oil wells on fire, hun­dreds of them, have been confirmed: smoke can be seen on the hori­zon. But the other reports are confusing. Negotiations have failed, they still continue. Our troops are rehearsing for assault, the invasion has been put on hold. Either Kuwaiti civilians have been rounded up, tortured, and executed—or they have not.

He has a tough job, the newscaster, casting the news, juggling what his report­ers can scrounge up and what little the government lets him know with what he wants to tell me. And he has to find the pitch that prepares me for sud­den drama yet won’t frustrate me with false anticipation if I have to wait—or if nothing happens. He does that very well. A poet, my newscaster. And he needs me, he wants me, he loves me, and does not want to let me down. For this I will never forgive him—

But I leave him on, just in case.

I don’t know how I got hooked on this war except that I watched it on the tube a few times from boredom, and then once I started, could not let it go. First the six o’ clock news, then the late night special reports to see if any­thing had changed. Then the car radio frozen on the news station, then this portable I carry to school, around the house. Much has been said, day to day, and there has been much to see, but all that I have heard and seen over the past months could be summed up in a few sentences. Still, I feel that if I ever stop following, if I step just once out of the flow of current events, I won’t be able to get back in it again. A continuity will be lost, and we’re running out of those. Besides, how are you going to know when the parade passes you by unless you watch it?

This quarter has not gone well. Listless students, flaccid prose, insin­cerity, incoher­ence. More dropouts. Ted, a colleague, thinks it’s the war, that it has depressed them. I doubt that. Their spirits have never been very high and they drop out all the time. It’s the dismal business at home that gets them down. If anything, the war is a good distraction. It gives them the illusion that some­thing is being done somewhere about something. And perhaps it will stir up some jobs in Silicon Valley, now languishing at my feet. What really depresses them, I told him, is our mak­ing them write papers. Nonetheless, the school is sensitive to our stu­dents’ psy­chological states, and the Dean has recom­mended that we talk about the war in class to ease whatever tensions it may have caused. So I have been holding discussions:

Anybody bummed out about this war?

—Not really. Maybe. Are they supposed to be?

Why is Saddam Hussein there?

What are his interests?

Why are we there?

What are ours?

—Oil. The rest is fuzzy. Uneasiness in the class, though. They sense the teacher is trying to wrack their political souls, to exact from them a confes­sion. I assure them I am not. It’s the young guys in the department, the guys with ideo­logical hairs up their butts that have made them suspi­cious. They talk about empower­ment, difference, and liberation. Really, it’s their way of tell­ing students they’re unreformed boobs. I tell students I respect their freedom. I tell them lots of things.

Who is on our side?

Who is not?

Who is Saddam?

Who are we?

Where is Kuwait?

No one seems to know much of anything. More questions from the teacher: they have grown tired of them. I am tired of them myself. There is con­sensus among them, though, that Saddam Hussein is evil and should be taken out. At least here we have moral clarity. Bush has done his job.

Do they realize that if there is a ground war, it might be a long one, that they could be drafted and have to fight?

The guys are not concerned. Yet why should they be? Why would the gov­ern­ment trust them with its complicated, expensive machines when it doesn’t trust them with anything else? Computers in the tanks, computers in the jets, comput­ers in the foxholes—they’d only screw them up.

Why should anyone wrack their brains over this one? Someone will tell us what it all means later.

But then this is how to do it, stage a war. Dazzle us with technology, mini­mize our risk. Bomb, bomb, bomb. This way Bush maintains the symbol without spill­ing the sub­stance of American blood. Because my students know what we all know, that he does not want to lose our hearts, much less our lives, because he wants us, he needs us, he loves us, too. He wants us to have a good night’s sleep. He wants to give our lives Meaning, to give us a word that does not mean Viet­nam. And to show that he loves us, he has to put on a good show. Our generals pride themselves on their precision bombing, but if those bombs are so precise, why do they need so many? And the TV cameras they use with smart bombs aren’t for guid­ance but are part of the production. In the cross hairs, on the screen: city, block, building, roof, air shaft—boom! Boffo! We are amazed, we are ful­filled, we are head over heels in love.

No war today—too much is at stake.

The world is as thick as our skin.

But what to do?

Where’s my wife?

Margaret has not yet returned. She was busy at her desk when I went in to get the papers, or was busy looking busy and did not speak. She will come when she wants to come. There is still the aging poet to keep me company—but I have lost my place. I’ll start again, somewhere else. Which is the one with the garden? Today I’m in a mood to read about gardens.

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

Burnt Norton, first quartet, first page. I have some notes:

1936
Norton: manor house, Gloucestershire. Burned down, 17th. cent., rebuilt. TSE went to 1935 w. Emily Hale (wishes had married instead?)

You can’t read Eliot without notes. He visits a garden at some old house, or remembers visiting it, and takes off from there. Each of the Quartets is linked to a place that has some personal significance, which is what I think he is trying to do, locate himself in space and time. Not a bad idea—I’d like to know how that is done. Not a bad idea for Eliot in ’36, given the noise in Germany. Nothing else on Hale—I don’t know who she is—but at the bot­tom of the page, another note with an arrow pointing to rose, circled:

Rose: symbol sexual love/Divine Reality (Dante)

How can a rose be a symbol of both? I’ll have to get Margaret’s opin­ion on this. She has—had a dozen bushes in our little plot, though I doubt she saw blooms past the aphids and mildew. And before they had a chance to wilt, she lopped them off and threw them in the trash. I’ve never gotten around to Dante. I was an Americanist before I moved down into comp. Maybe tomor­row, maybe the next war.

Down the passage we did not take—who is with the narrator? Is he still hung up on Hale? Or is he trying to take us all along? The door we never opened—so do we open it now, or just imagine? Are we contem­plating opportunities missed? Should we have married someone else? We all know better than that. Maybe we’re just trying to recoup from the mess we’ve made of our lives.

Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush?

What is this damn bird? No notes on the echoes, either, but we follow, or pre­tend following—what else is there for us to do? The door we never opened, the first world—is he talking Paradise here? Has he fallen? Have we fallen? Do we care? Or the first world might be something private, something personal—a chance he had but blew? A garden could be any­thing and suggests too much to pin down. Another Eliot ghost. But we follow and open the gate, or maybe we don’t, but somehow

There they were

He shifts to past tense—is that a memory? Yet since we never opened the gate, is it something we imagine might have happened? Anyway, somehow there they were, but we don’t know who they are, there they were in the gar­den, dignified yet invisi­ble, saintly people they must have been—maybe it’s their echoes we heard, they must know something we do not, they must know Something Else—and the pace relents, and still we followed, now slowly, there they were, whoever they are, our guests he calls them, accepted and accepting, there they were, and they moved with us, in a formal pattern, but not as if in memory or imagination, but as if in a trance, in a dream—

Jesus, this stuff makes you dizzy. The old poet is so careful to be so con­fusing. Each time I read these lines, I feel I have never seen them before. They only recall from past readings echoes of vain attempts to fig­ure them out. But this is not the wry Waste Land Eliot; I sense we are supposed to be lightly moved. And there is, I suppose, something lightly moving, moved lightly with the rhythms, with the sounds, with the scar­less words. And there was, I sup­pose, a time when I could be thus lightly moved—

But we aren’t so stupid now. Yet we followed then and we follow now because we’re hungover and can’t think of anything else to do, we follow the movement in the figures of motion, of flowers, of sight, of patterns and light, whose delicate associations rise and connect in airy matrix, building scaf­folds around what they reach for, try to construct, to contain, and still we fol­lowed, we follow, follow them along the empty alley, into the box circle, follow to the drained pool, where we stop, where we think we have a glimpse—

And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light

Zen stuff here—the poet also listened to voices from the East—but a cloud passes, the pool is empty, and the moment, the light is gone.

Glimpse of what?

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

Blue skies soft overhead, a poem on one’s lap, a freeze-dried garden, a news­caster’s pleasant voice, the news of war, a pounding in one’s head; a long, black ghoul, the shadow projected from a teacher sitting in a lounge chair on his deck: these things are real, and they’re as far as one can go. They’re also more than one can bear.

Glimpse of what?

The scaffolds collapse.

There’s no there there.

There’s nothing there but words.

More Eliot hocus-pocus.

I realize I know little about the poet’s life, save for some gossip, but then I make a point of not learning about authors’ lives. Let’s save our questions, our revenge for the living and unlettered. And it is the measured words, not a writer’s beliefs and other casual slips that deserve our attention. Today, however, I am curi­ous. The poet has gotten under my skin. What else do I have? I flip to the front. Next to the title page, the epigraphs:

Heraclitus. I don’t know Greek, and only have scribbled a translation for the second:

The way up is the way down.

I have forgotten what that is about. Underneath the title, more notes:

T. S. E. 1888-1965
royalist in politics!
classicist in literature!!
Anglo-Catholic in religion?
anti-Semite????

At the end, Little Gidding, he makes some kind of one-for-all-and-all-for-one pitch for England, if I remember right. I must have written those notes in grad school, back when such things could surprise me, back when Modernists were still modern. I doubt Eliot is a hot item at Stanford now—but we all screw up sooner or later. Yet this is one fear I have about the Quartets, that for all their delicacy, their complexity, their diffuse sug­gestion, what they mask is very small.

My other fear is that Eliot wants to convert me.

A screech—

The patio door—

Margaret at last, love of my life, the yin to my yang. But she stands there in the opening and waits for me to speak—a bad sign. I hit her with this, con brio:

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long forgotten wars.

She stares at me. No games today.

“You’re not serious, are you.” She does not raise her voice at the end to make a question. She seldom does.

“No, never.”

“I mean about what you said.”

“What, about enlisting?”

“I mean about retiring.”

“Sure. Why not?”

“I don’t think you could stand it.”

“What is there to stand?”

“I don’t think you could stand yourself.”

Suddenness, maybe anger from Margaret—another bad sign.

She remains a moment, either giving me a chance to reply or trying to think of some way to mollify the abruptness of her remark. But neither of us finds anything to say. I make a mental note to fix the door. She takes a slow breath, releases a gen­tle heave. Then the door scrapes shut.

I read aloud to the door, its cry still scratching in my ears:

The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars

Nothing happens.

Couldn’t stand myself—not irony, not from Margaret. What has got­ten into her? She must be in some kind of a funk. I suppose I should be careful with my sar­casm. Then again, she could tell me when she is going to take me liter­ally. Something has started here. More later. Film at eleven.

But why should she be upset? She must know I wouldn’t do it. I’ve never really thought about it, yet now, for the first time, it occurs to me: I could. I’m not that old and don’t feel old. I can still go three sets at the courts with­out tripping off a riot in my chest. Old age, disease, death—those worries I displace each month with the slice the school takes from my check. But I could retire. I’ve put my time in for the state, the house is almost paid for, and I have enough socked away. The girls won’t need help. Eliza­beth’s mar­ried to a lawyer handling Apple’s suit against Microsoft, so she’ll be set up well into the next millennium. And Mary wouldn’t ask if she did. As for Marga­ret, she wouldn’t know how to quit. It would be against the Plan. She’ll clock in until she’s 65, so she won’t need anything, either. And if I can do it, why not?

Why should anyone be upset here? Because it also occurs to me I have been lucky. I had the right age for the wars, too young for Europe and Korea, too old for the rest. I got into the state system when California was still flush, when the pay showed some respect for the profession. And we moved to Sara­toga when a teacher could buy a house, when you didn’t have to be a million­aire to buy a house in the hills. Because isn’t that sup­posed to be part of what we work for and look forward to, a place of quiet, the means to inhabit it—a house with a garden out back, a garden, our peek at paradise, our reward for not getting divorced too often, for not covet­ing our neighbor’s wife, for rais­ing two kids who did not turn into junkies or wel­fare mothers, for kneeling twenty-five plus years in the temple of American higher education?

I look at our garden—

Only lucky.

There is a plan to a garden, practical and esthetic. She studies the habits of insects and fungi—Margaret has an aversion to spraying with chemicals—and our odd lot has to be factored in. The terrain is uneven; ground water comes up in unexpected places. Dig down one spot, and the hole fills; a few feet away there is nothing but hard clay. And plants have to be arranged in a pat­tern by their size, their foliage, and the color of their blooms, and the times of their blooms scheduled, annuals interspersed with perennials—

None of which matters now. Yet if the loss of the garden has disturbed her, she hasn’t shown it. And if these plants have meant anything to her over the years or moved her in any way, I have not seen it, or know what it is. There is no plan to her Plan. It is just something she does.

War news, then. But my newscaster has beat a retreat to make way for other news. The other news: a bloodless military coup in Thailand, a military crackdown in Albania, bloody; divi­sion in Yugoslavia, some hope for some reform. In the USSR some guy named Yeltsin wanting Gor­bachev to step down. Software piracy by a firm in Chicago, a hefty fine slapped on Du Pont for toxic waste, the Administration’s proposal to deregulate banks. Governor Pete’s railing against the state teacher’s union, the snow pack down in the Sierra, more drought predicted. The usual murders and rapes.

I spin the dial.

On the other stations: self-help on investments, cars, computers, home improve­ment, and divorce. No sports yet, but plenty of music, some cham­pagne classical, the rest pop stuff I no longer recognize, run­ning a spectrum from raw to schmultzy sentimental.

Not retire. One might as well work until he is feeble-minded enough to believe his life has been worthwhile.

I thumb through the poems, looking at my notes—when did I write all these? My scratches crowd the margins, different hands in varying slants with varying cramped postures, ciphers on the yellowed pages of my vari­ous selves, fading voices from the past. The temptation is to trace a progression, like fail­ing eyesight, of a falling from legibility, but I don’t know when I wrote which or if they follow that order.

I look at my notes on Little Gidding. 1942 minus 1888—actually, Eliot wasn’t that old when he finished the Quartets. He went on another twenty years, but I don’t think he wrote much else.

Somewhere in the pines, the raucous call of a Steller’s jay.

He was a year younger than I.

She’s right. I couldn’t stand it, retirement. But I have stood the self I have been stuck with long enough, and could stand him a few years more.

Bitch.

.

.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.

It’s a prescription for a hangover. It’s not working. The poem is not becoming any clearer and the English teacher’s headache is getting worse.

Still stuck in Burnt Norton. He picks up themes and reconsiders them in other contexts, other images, other rhythms, different voices. I guess he’s talking back and forth to himself, like instruments in chamber music, hence Quartets. Hence the teacher’s head. But here he must be getting down to brass tacks so I’ll give it my best shot. Not this, not that—he’s trying to talk about Something Else again. There must be a Point to the still point, and he’s trying to figure out how we can get it. Dancing is a fig­ure of partici­pation, our move­ment in the world. But since Something Else is beyond the transience of life, the metaphors of place and motion are not enough. We can only make our best guess at what it might be, what our relation­ship might be to it. But if we’re caught up in the move­ment of the dance, we lose sight of what we’re doing, so we have to step back and let go.

First:

The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving

Then:

both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood

But we have to dance first to find that out. Yet since beyond us, we’ll never get it right, our eyes deceive us, our best guess will fail, so we detach our­selves from our selves, purge our desires, our wish, don’t look, don’t hope,

Descend lower, descend only
Into the world of perpetual solitude,
World not world, but that which is not world,
Internal darkness, deprivation

No ecstasy—maybe then the light will come. We attach ourselves to the world and do the best we can, or negate our attachment to it and put on hair shirts.

The way up is the way down.

It’s the way the poem works back and forth, up and down, move­ment and countermovement, assertion and denial, hope and despair. One is the way of sub­tle adjustment, the other of prostration.

I’ll never make the first and am not ready for the other yet.

The way up is the way down.

Both somehow get you there.

Both will drive you crazy—

What’s with Margaret? The English teacher is lonely. Today, how­ever, he may have to fend for himself.

Back to the war, then. Still more talk of negotiations from the box. Aziz, the Iraqi Foreign Min­ister, has left Moscow; Gorbachev’s been on the horn with Bush. Meanwhile, the Security Council is meeting behind closed doors. Every­one is just talking. My newscaster hides his shame.

Saddam upset us all last week with his bid for a truce. He can’t be seri­ous, though, yet has to pretend that he is so he can buy more time to save his skin and/or wear us down. Then the Soviets got into the act, and they’ve been shuf­fling plans back and forth with Iraq all week. They can’t be serious, either, but have to try to look more so than we if they’re going to get anything in the Mid­dle East when the show is finally over. And Bush has to pretend to be interested so he won’t offend our Arab allies or embarrass the struggling Gorbachev too much, but he won’t give in—he can’t and keep his face. Yet if he isn’t careful, he will lose his gorgeous war and have to fight, or worse, settle for some kind of peace.

But no one’s serious. More bombs today. We’ll bomb again tomor­row. And there is always this to lift our spirits: we’ll never run out of bombs.

Or words.

Back to the poem.

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence.

Words, words, words. Eliot talks about them, too, words. He talks about the difficulties of making sense of one’s life, of getting it down in words. About whether or not what one writes is worth the effort, whether there is anything that can be said that hasn’t be said before, or if anything can be said at all. Speech/reach, a nasty rhyme—he has his doubts. As if what a poet says makes a difference.

Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness

The pattern, the stillness, and music again—these are only words about words.

When in doubt, transcend.

It’s what I did in grad school. I wrote some junk about the influence of nine­teenth century Transcendentalism on the American novel in the twenti­eth. There isn’t any, of course, which was kind of my point: those scabrous novels were determined by what wasn’t there. We all need something to pee on. When I got the job at State, I cleaned up the disser­tation, sent it out, and some­one published a few copies, which was enough to get me tenure. For all I know it’s still buried in the basements of a couple of university libraries along with the rest.

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish

I took over freshman comp because no one else would do it. No regrets on leaving lit, however. I was tired of having my students make me feel I was pull­ing one over on them. Also I was beginning to wonder if I wasn’t. Traipse through this century and see what you get. You learn the writers are made of the same stuff as the rest of us. We’re crude oil, they’re high octane—the only difference is that they have been refined.

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

Actually, I did have a plan, a reason for doing comp. My idea was to let students figure out the world for themselves. If I could get them to under­stand the order of words, just look at what they were saying, they might come up with something better, or at least something different.

Who am I kidding. I was unsure of myself in school and lacked ambition. Also the ex wanted to stay in the area.

Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them.

All these damn papers—I know what I will find. The topics, the play­ers have changed over the years, but I always get the same responses. From some, righteous approval, anger against unseen enemies; in a few, holy indignation, the whimpers of martyrdom. Either way, the furious desire for self-justifica­tion. But for the most part, resentment against any assault on their place in the middle of the curve, and grunts, groans, and stammering, a frenetic dash to get to the last of a thousand words. Yet why should they bother? They know school is just a way to weed them out for the corporations. If they ever get a job, busi­ness will tell them what to think later and pay them for it.

I got the awards that come if you stick around long enough.

A few students have come back to say hello.

I could have gone higher in this racket. I also could have gone lower. But I couldn’t have done anything better or worse—

I haven’t done a damn thing.

You spend a lifetime trying to gain the quiet that comes from comple­tion, the coming together of parts—

All you get is the quiet.

Maybe it is time to get out.

The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

Margaret really looked pissed off.

Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

Burnt Norton, last lines.

The English teacher is getting depressed.

.

.

An hour past the deadline, still in the garden, the garden is still dead. You get used to it, though, and sit here long enough it takes on its own esthetic. All the subtle shades of umber, the intricate pattern of vines and leaves—it looks like a cubist painting, or wild embellishments, rococo. And there’s something about the smell of dirt and deadness that stuffs the sinuses but clears your head. But this will pass too. You can’t even count on the perma­nence of decay.

The sky is still blue, but less soft, and the sun is almost overhead, but hot­ter, less kind. The English teacher who sits by a garden that sits on a hill still has not found resolve or reason to get up. He is still hung­over, but the focused pain of his headache has become a sloppy blur. Worse, the coffee pot is empty.

Margaret’s in the kitchen, cleaning up, banging pans. Whatever is bugging her, there are repairs to be made. But they can wait. For now, I wish she’d keep it down.

And I wish they’d get this damn war over. It’s getting on my nerves. One moment my newscaster tells me preparations are being made for the inva­sion, that Saddam’s time is running out; the next he says the White House is reviewing Gor­bachev’s plan. Israel, he claims, is in a state of panic after the Scud missile and fears another attack. Our troops, massed on the bor­der, are restless, and our generals worry that the moment will be lost. I suspect, how­ever, my newscaster is making all that up. He is the one who is panicky and restless. He has lost his art, is fumbling badly, and has run out of things to say.

Every­one’s on edge and sloppy today. More bombs will calm us down.

Or more Eliot:

In my beginning is my end.

East Coker—I have straggled into the next Quartet. There is a time, he tells me, for houses to rise, houses to fall, for houses to live and die, a time for building and generation, a time for the wind

to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

My notes:

1939-40
East Coker: West Country village. TSE’s ancestors departed from, 17th. cent.

Departed for the New World. I don’t know if they made it to Califor­nia, though. He returns to his ancestral home, then harks back to the past. I sup­pose you have to start somewhere, and home as good as any. It’s where you end up that is the problem.

In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman

He imagines some ancient rite. Too close, too close—the repetition is haunt­ing, but the rest is rather quaint. Dancing again—we are supposed to be reminded of the still point, of the pattern. Of whatever. Now he adds mar­riage to the stew.

In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie—
A dignified and commodiois sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde.

Eliot’s first, as I recall, was less than stable. But we won’t hold that against him. I think he was weird about sex, too. So hard to be normal—we won’t hold that against him, either. My note in the margin:

E Coker: home of Sir Thomas Elyot—related? Wrote The Boke named the Governour, 1531: moral treatise on education of rulers; dancing/soul

He has slipped in a direct quotation from Elyot’s book, he does stuff like that. It’s what endeared him to us in grad school. What’s his point? Good dancing makes good marriages, good marriages make good kings? We should all dance to the music of the spheres? Eliot the royalist rearing his purple head. But someone as subtle as T.S. couldn’t be so obvious.

Then again, maybe that is where subtlety leads.

Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time

He is getting sentimental—is Glen Miller next? Lots of corn has been nour­ished since Elyot’s time, more is on the way for Eliot, because as he writes this Germany has run through Poland and France, and England is waiting its turn. I suppose he is trying to find an anchor in a time of crisis and turns to the past. And his point here is not final, he has more to say—

But why look back at all? What can we learn from the past except how to perfect the mistakes we have repeated?

Tedious crap!

Rite, ritual, and romance—they are ways to make us blind. Good tyrants make good kings. Try to get them to dance to another tune. And marriage gives us the illusion we are together, then sets us up to be led by the nose. Marry us off, get the flocks together, beat the tribal drum. Put clogs on our feet, dress us up like rubes, and have a hoedown. Dance, dance, dance. Dance our blues away. Then stick a gun in our hands. Hitler and Mussolini knew that very well. As does Saddam. And Bush. And every­one else.

And good craftsmen make good fascists. I’ve listened to recordings of the poet reading his work, heard his careful pronunciation of all those dif­ficult for­eign words in his tremulous, singsongy voice—it is the music of a fastidi­ous, failing fop who licks the first boot that comes along.

Dance, dance, dance.

Bomb, bomb, bomb.

Here there may be correspondence.

Because how did this thing happen? OK, Saddam’s not a very nice guy, but Jesus, what a dancer! Because didn’t Saudi Arabia and Kuwait foot the bill for Saddam’s holy war against Iran a decade ago because of their uneasiness with their Persian brothers in the faith? And while the Soviet Union pro­vided arms, didn’t Europe’s weapons merchants cash in as well? And, in spite of the Soviets, didn’t we kick in a few bucks and support him, too, because of our holy hatred of Khomeini who deposed that angel of democracy, the Shah our coup stuck in? And then, in our soft-shoe shuffle of linkage, didn’t we also sell arms to Iran so we could maintain balance against all those wayward Muslims, so we could fund our own sacred war against the Sandinistas next door? Eight years of stepping to the music of mass slaughter—the world trained Saddam how to boogie very well.

And now Gorbachev has his generals on his back, mad about his los­ing Soviet presence in the Gulf, so he does his two-faced two-step, he tries to strike a deal. And now Saddam wants to get Israel in the dance. A few well placed bombs, if he can get them there, would do the trick. But the Israelis have too much to lose if they hit the floor because that would break the coalition and could turn the Arabs against them, against us. We have to show Israel we won’t skip a beat—our Holocaust guilt, the Jewish lobby, our love for non-Arabs who will bear the brunt of Mid-East flack—yet still tap-dance to the tune of peace because our bombing of Iraqi civilians has upset the Arab world. Europe has been upset with us, too, and only grudgingly follows our lead, yet they can afford to waffle—they aren’t so much involved. And what did they expect when they armed Saddam, or when they passed the baton to us? England, how­ever, Eliot’s precious England, has been behind us all the way, Eng­land who, after the Nazi waltz, left the political mess in the Gulf when they pulled their Empire out. We could trace this tune back to the Crusades.

But the blood from the bombing is nothing compared to what will be shed if we attack. And if more Arab blood is spilled, the poor Arabs will see their oil rich Sheiks shake and shimmy in their dependence on us, their part­ners in this dance. And spilling U.S. blood would not play well with us, or the mixing of our blood with Arab. So we dance and we bomb and we bomb and we dance. This is the way the world works, this is the new world order. This is the tune of linkage, the music of the spheres, this is the dance along our arteries, the circu­lation of oil through our lymph.

And we probably would have let Saddam take a little of Kuwait, maybe a lot, because that would not have broken up the dance. Saddam’s only crime is that he got too greedy. Or not even that. He was just unlucky: he was left standing without a chair when the music stopped—

But the thing will happen.

It will happen, and it will have to happen soon.

Because how much longer can we let all that oil burn? And not just because of the oil, or not even because of the oil, because we never kidded ourselves about that, but because of the lyrics, because of the words, because if Bush waits any longer, Gorbachev will come up with a plan whose terms match his own, because then we will all see what we don’t see now, what lies behind the words or, rather, what does not, because when words fail because they always fail, the only thing left to do is act—

I read aloud, to the garden, everyone, all together now:

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.

It is only the Eliot who doubts I can believe.

Margaret—

At the kitchen window—

What is she looking at?

She is looking at me.

Now she’s gone.

How much longer is she going to keep this up?

You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there

No help from my ancestors. My people were Scotch-Irish, the Low­landers King James sent to Ireland to tame the unruly Catholics. When they got to Penn­sylvania they became Americans: they cleaned the slate. Only a few words from a great-grandfather who fell at Chancellorsville, letters from Libby Prison of desperate, starved faith.

Give us the time and the resources, and we will find a way to clean the slate for good.

Not retire—

.

.

“What will you do.”

Saint Margaret—

“What will I do about what?” I didn’t hear the door. She has come straight to me and stands in a rigid pose that struggles with ease. Her long narrow face, serenely, solemnly attractive when unworried, is taut not with anger, but with her attempt to compose her indignation and turn it into something pleasant. From her breasts, a weary sigh. She is preparing to get down to busi­ness.

“What about school.”

“What about it?”

“When you retire.”

“When am I retiring?”

“When you do retire.”

“They will replace me. They’ll hire two part-timers and save a few bucks.”

“What about your students.”

“They won’t know the difference.”

“What about you.”

“What about me?”

“What will you do.”

“What am I doing now?”

The muscles in her cheeks ratchet one notch tighter. Her tone, how­ever, does not waver. In her eyes, the avoidance that comes with a direct look.

“What will you do with yourself.”

I will not give in to this. “I will write a novel.”

And tighter.

“What will you do.”

“I will eat a novel.”

And tighter.

“What will you do.”

“I will burn a novel.”

Still tighter—it is not a pretty sight. If she would just lose her temper so we can both see what this is, then we could take it where it should go, or at least have a decent fight.

“What will you do.”

“I will dig a hole and bury myself in the garden. Maybe something will sprout this summer. Why don’t you sit down?”

“Why don’t you turn that damn radio off? This war has made you morbid.”

“Someone has to listen.”

“Someone could find a better way to spend his time.”

“Better an honest bum than a busy fool.”

“Better to do something worthwhile.”

“It is because people are trying to be worthwhile that the world is so screwed up.”

“I’m not as clever as you—”

“I’m not clever at all; I’m an idiot. And you could do a better job of hid­ing your contempt.”

“It is difficult to appreciate what is put to ill use. You will only get worse at this.”

“I will get better.”

“I don’t pretend to have all the answers—”

“Then what do you have?”

She stops and retreats without lowering her eyes, gathering herself inward to that wordless, weedless place where she wants to put me. Prone on the deck, side by side, two shadows, dwarfs of a married couple; one slouched, one erect, both sadly comic, not touching.

“I have a life,” she says at last.

There is no reply to that. I stare at her, her cheeks go slack, then she loads up to start again.

“I think I could take your becoming an alcoholic.”

“It takes practice.”

“Or maybe you could have an affair with one of your students.”

“I will give the matter full consideration.”

“I don’t care that you don’t care about me. I don’t care what you care about. I think I could take your scorn, I’ve taken it so long. But if you think I’m going to spend the rest of my years watching you abuse yourself, you are wrong. You’d bet­ter find someone else to do it.”

“Then I shall become an accountant. I will learn to keep the books on men’s souls.”

With that she turns and goes back into the house.

That shriek, the door—

She isn’t serious. We’ve been at it too long to start over. This one’s good for two or three days, a week, tops. We will avoid each other the rest of the day, then have din­ner without speaking. One of us will stay up late until the other falls asleep. Sunday will be a little tricky. But gradually we will get back into the rhythm. Her pointed silence will yield to embar­rassment over losing her cool, then she’ll start acting as if nothing happened, and we will pick up where we left off. It’s part of a dance rou­tine we’ve worked out. It’s called not stepping on each other’s toes. We will find little things to talk about, then our jobs will take over. Neither of us will apologize, a frivolous step we dropped years ago. And I will man­age to behave. It is a good diversion and I can be good at it—

I will not give in to her. I will not be turned into something pleasant.

But her first time. I’m always the one who talks about splitting up.

She isn’t serious—

Her car—

.

.

You think you know someone, but all you know are the habits, the posi­tions you work out to keep each other at arm’s length, at that unbreachable distance that comes when you are close, and then some­thing disrupts the rhythm, a pause in the music, a break between numbers, the noise of a war, and you wonder who she is before you, her stiff hand already sliding from your shoul­der, you wonder what it was that kept you together, and then you find yourself in the middle of the dance floor, by your­self, and you wonder where you are, you hope the music starts back soon—

We dance and we dance and we follow—

And the bombs keep coming down.

In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night
At the recurrent end of the unending
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing
While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin

Little Gidding. 1941-2. My note on dove: Nazi bomber—the irony is too large to be ironic. Germany has finally made it to Eliot’s front door. He sees himself as a fire warden surveying the damage after an air raid in London, a nice pose for a poet. Then a schizophrenic passage where he pretends meeting someone on the streets who reminds him of himself yet also other poets, the greats, long dead and gone. He imagines them talking to him, and they give him this advice:

‘From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.’

Still the worry, still the doubt, but I sense elation breaking through. Terza rima without the rima—he’s hitting his stride, he must feel he’s got his hands around something at last. He is only a man, only a poet, one of us, but has decided what is true for him could be true for us all, that, in case we missed it in the first three poems, to dance we need to pray.

Little Gidding, my note: the site of an Anglican religious community cleared out and burned down by Crom­well and his faithful Puritan crew. It is where Eliot wants us to return to contemplate Nazis, where he wants us to get dive-bombed again.

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Because now the dove has become the Holy Spirit, a flaming angel pound­ing us into absolution, redeeming us from the fire of destruction with the purifying fire of faith.

What’s the difference?

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame

Because since we can’t love ourselves or each other but only what flees from us, what is beyond us, we turn love over to Someone, Something Else. But Something Else is only the burning residue of our selves extin­guished by the flame, selves collected and displaced, selves hidden from us by the act of conse­cration, selves blinded by the purity of our beseeching. And in the after­glow of self-immolation, our pain becomes a joy, we think we have found something. We call it meaning. And we think we can go on.

So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

And all shall be well.

Let us pray.

Either:

We take despair, our failures and throw them up into the air, then let them fall on our heads until we are beaten senseless. They fall, we fall, we hug the ground and chastise ourselves with our selves and make them bleed and sing.

Or:

There is no other course but the one we have chosen, except the course of humiliation and darkness.

Or someone does the burning for us.

Saddam Hussein. He said that a few days ago. My newscaster has just quoted him, trying to set the stage for today’s events. Now he puzzles over Saddam’s words, trying to figure out what they might mean. A ruse, he’s bluff­ing, he’s putting up a front to scare us—

Or Saddam could be pure and humble, too. Also Bush and all the other Roundheads. Because who’s to say they’re not believers? They’ve just found the way to turn faith inside out, to turn it not on themselves but on everyone else.

Because what’s the difference between their fire and our Anglican’s? We get turned into ashes either way.

And one kind of faith may feed the other.

Now he measures his words carefully, with reverence and with awe. Over a half million troops on either side, the newscaster tells me, and it is difficult to know how many of theirs we’ve taken out. Between us and them, just as many land mines. And miles of berm and razor wire. And kill zones all mapped out. And trenches they’ll fill with burning oil. They have been months getting ready for the attack, have buried themselves deep in sand and cement. No airplanes, but they still have big guns. And chemicals—we’d bet­ter count on all stops being pulled.

Now his voice lifts cautiously as he talks about our preparations last night. Mas­sive carpet bombing to soften them up, and cluster bombs, steel rain. And phosphorous shells. And fuel-air explosives—the mist that turns air, lungs, and spirits into living fire. And napalm—there’s a memory, our dove in Vietnam. The argument about how many soldiers we’ve hit is largely a debate over degrees of hugeness. As for the living, only the Republican Guard is well trained, which Saddam may try to protect. The rest are poorly trained civilians pushed to serve—poor slobs like the rest of us, like us all.

Still talk of negotiations, but they’re only a formality, he says with a joy he can scarcely contain. He is happy now, my newscaster, he sounds ecstatic. He sounds not only as if the thing has begun, but as if it is already over.

But his ecstasy is premature. Those slobs can’t go back to Baghdad in defeat, nor can they expect anything from us. Either they lie down and get slaughtered or they come out and fight. They will have to become believ­ers, too. The faith of the world has given them no other choice.

History is now and Kuwait.

Let us still pray.

It will be a long and bloody war.

It will be a long and bloody war, but we will be able to claim a word, and that word will be Victory.

It will be a long and bloody war, but we will restore our faith in our­selves and in our faith.

It will be a long and bloody war, but it won’t be long before we find the need to forget it.

Not retire. Maybe it is time to enlist.

I can’t remember the last time I saw her cry.

.

.

Eliot, objective correlative:

a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the for­mula of that particular emotion; such that when the exter­nal facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emo­tion is imme­diately invoked.

I went into the house to find this. It’s a theory of poetic expression.

Against the back fence cling the corpses of desiccated vines. The fine, fern­like leaves on the jacaranda have lost their color and curled even finer. The delicate patterns they once made against the sky now look like so many fish skeletons, hanging limp from the tree. The pods that carry its seeds, hard and black, have started falling, too soon, too dead. Whole limbs have dropped from the other trees. The leaves on a cape honey­suckle by the house, which she pruned to look like a tree, rained down last week, almost at once, still green, now brown. At the base of its thick stem, black cracks have appeared where water gathered, froze, and swelled. A jade tree and some other succu­lents, whose names I do not know, have turned into dark rubbery monsters, crip­ples with gnarled, drooping limbs.

And there are many more plants whose names I never learned, each differ­ent in its individual decomposition, in the writhing twists and breaks of its stems, the failing filigree and serration of its leaves, the particular clench of shriveled petals if it was a plant that flowered in winter—all of them now beyond identification. On the ground the litter of debris piling upon debris, a complexity of runners and roots and vines and fallen leaves and branches, resolving into the simplicity of dirt.

The roses—a dozen bushes—only show their thorns.

What do I feel.

.

.

On a clear day like today, if I got up and looked over our fence, I would see all the way from the foothills to the bay, the hills green with indifferent, indige­nous weeds, the bay a sliver of silvery reflection. And I would see all that is between them, the valley, the roads, San Jose and the other towns where we have transplanted ourselves, miles and miles of the spread of our sprawling lives, of the grid of our motion, of the cross­ings of our lives together, of the improbable constructions that house our aspira­tions, of the breath of our uncertain, weedlike growth—

But I do not get up.

If I looked up, I would see a sky that thinks it’s blue, a hot sun short of midday that strips me of that illusion, of the illusion a sky can fill empty space—

But I do not look.

Instead I stare at a poem.

He tells me he does not know much about gods, but he thinks the river is a strong brown god.

I have skipped The Dry Salvages. How did that happen?

I skim through this one without reading it. Not much underlined, no notes. Either I understood it well enough some time past, or did not under­stand it at all. Or perhaps I understood it too well. Salvages—Eliot provides his own note—some rocks off the coast of New England. Rhymes, he tells me, with assuages. He can’t wash the New World off his hands.

There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,
No end to the withering of withered flowers,
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,
The bone’s prayer to Death its God.

He should have stopped there.

Better not to have said anything at all.

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The sun is directly overhead, white hot; the blue has gone away.

A portable radio has been thrown over the fence—

A rose is a rose is a rose.

A rose was a rose was a rose.

Light is light is light.

The world is the world is the world.

A word is a word is a word.

The world is a word is a war.

The way up is the way down.

The way down is the way up.

The way down is the way down. . . .

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The sun. . . .

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The door—

Margaret—

She’s back—

I didn’t hear her car—

She stands again at the opening, wearing leather gloves and black rub­ber boots that trumpet at her calves. Dry-eyed, without expression, she pauses there a moment, gazing over the fence. In her hands, across her chest, a new pruning saw with a bright chrome handle and the straight smile from a blade of large, angry teeth.

This is how the day has gone. This is what one should expect—

But she acts as if I am not here. Instead, she goes over to one of the rose­bushes and hacks away with vigorous yet steady strokes. The thorns grasp and tear her clothes. She doesn’t seem to notice. She stops, she drops the saw, then stands back and contemplates her butchering, par­tially complete. A hushed world gives silent approval. On her face, the look of satisfaction.

Pathetic. This gesture was meant for me—

Back to work. She stoops and yanks a small shrub by the rosebush. It breaks off at the roots. That does not satisfy her and she hurls it against the fence.

Because what she is doing to the garden is what she thinks I have done to her—

She shakes her disappointment, turns, and, crushing crisp deadness under her boots, trudges to the cape honeysuckle. Grabbing high on its trunk, she pulls back with all her weight. A few hard tugs and it snaps; she falls on her rear. But she is up before I can think about giving her a hand, and holding half a tree, she stares at it without anger or regret. It is heavy, she lets it fall. On the shoulder of her white blouse, already dark with sweat, a few spots of blood.

But what she is doing to the garden, what she thinks she’s doing to me, she’s also doing to herself. Still, I don’t get up, but sit and watch. There is nothing to think about here, nothing that can be done. I know I cannot stop her.

She steps back, and, arms folded, considers what to do next. She has decided. She walks to the house, unloops the hose from the hook, opens the faucet, and goes back to the middle of the garden. Then she adjusts the nozzle to a narrow, violent spray and turns it on the plants. Vines jump, branches shudder, the spray deflects and scatters. Dry leaves crack, snap, and fly, which she beats back down with the hose.

Not to me, not to her—

Yet still she keeps on spraying, eyes focused where the stream hits, strafing long strips, then shooting individual plants until they are drowned in mud and water. A few minutes is all it takes to turn the garden into thick soup.

I don’t know what this is—

Now just the loud but even sound of the torrent from the hose and a splashing in fresh puddles. And still she keeps on spraying, her face still serene and full of pur­pose. And still I don’t get up, but sit and stay. It’s the least I can do for her. But I can’t watch this anymore, so I pick up a book and read.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is un—

The stench hits me, a fecal smell of dirt and rotten life, heavy, wet, and sick—I can’t sit still any longer. I don’t know what she’s doing, but I might as well get up and join her.

When I come back from the garage, she is stooping, lifting plants, and throwing them against the back fence. It splatters with mud when they hit. Already at its base, a small pile growing larger.

I plug in the extension cord and run it to the jacaranda. Then I con­nect the cir­cular saw. Whatever this is, I will make quick work of it.

The purplish mist of the tree’s tiny blooms always embarrassed me some­how when the thing was alive. What is now left disgusts me. The pods, the fronds, the way they cling—lock­ing the switch on the saw, I reach high and rip through slender, sapless branches. With a few flour­ishes I have the tree down to a stump.

I try to pull the stump up. The bastard will not budge. I kick it hard, and still it doesn’t move. I go to the garage and bring back an ax. Swinging at the base, I aim for its roots, not knowing where they are. When I’ve cir­cled the stump, I try to lift again, but it has scarcely weakened. So I swing wildly, deep into the ground, not thinking about my feet or damage to the blade. Then I try once more to pull it out, and now it comes out easily.

I stare at the upturned stump—a black, gnarled hand with severed fin­gers—feeling queasy and contrite. Then I look at myself—I’m a mess, and I forgot to change my clothes. Then I look at the carnage in the dirt, then down into the pit I have just made. Lightness in my head, a vacant joy. Mur­der must feel something like this. Or suicide. Or both.

No passion on Margaret’s face, but squatting now, she has found momen­tum. She thrusts, she grabs, she tosses; plants sail and slap against the fence. The pile is huge—she’s almost half done, the fence is almost half cov­ered, almost half the gar­den is down to dirt. A kind of passion, though, in the rhythm of her motion, a kind of passion in the sensuous mud that clings to her and makes her pulsing torso shine. It is the kind of passion that has moved the world today.

What next? I’m at a loss for procedure here. I decide I might as well pull the remaining roots, which don’t come up without a fight. Then I go to the cape honeysuckle and finish it off with the saw, then give its stump a hard yank. But it comes out with all the roots intact—her spraying must have loos­ened the ground. Then I saw the roots and branches of both trees fireplace length and stack them on the deck. When I see the neat pile sit­ting there, I feel the passion myself.

The roses, then. I take the ax to the nearest bush, the one she first attacked.

“Keep an inch or two off the ground,” she says, not turning, before I have a chance to swing. I am not going to argue with her again today.

I don’t trust my aim with the ax, however, so I try the circular saw. But the branches are too low and the thorns too thick to get the blade on its base, so I start at the top and attempt to work my way down. Yet as I shove the saw into the upper branches, they close around my hands and scratch, and I can’t push the blade hard enough against them to raise the metal guard. So I hold the saw with one hand and pull back the guard with the other, baring a full half circle of its whining rage.

I lunge, I feint, and still get scratched. My hands sting, my back hurts from bending; the passion turns to fury. But only after many fierce attacks and quick retreats do I finally succeed in taking the bush down to a stub. Then I lift the branches gin­gerly and carry them to the deck, and still get scratched. And still eleven more to go.

I charge into the next bush. When I finish, my hands are screaming. Then I realize I should have worn gloves, but no point in going back to get them now. When I finish the third, I look at Margaret, and see she’s three-fourths done. I rush through another and throw its branches on the deck instead of carrying them, trying to catch up with her, but doubting I can.

Mister Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth, Eclipse, Camelot, Cathedral, Honor, and Pink Peace—I tear through rulers, virtues, cosmic events, and mythi­cal and religious places, and slash memories of their buds’ subtle colors and soft flesh, turning them all to caustic dust. But I tire and begin to lose the passion. Then my method decays to sloppiness, then to desperation. And anger dissi­pates into numbness, the pain from scratches into to a dull burn. Then I don’t feel that. Then I’m on my knees at one bush, and don’t rise to go to the next. This must be the way that a massacre goes. I don’t know, how­ever, why it took me over fifty years to realize such behavior is normal.

I look up, and she is nearly done, the ground is almost clean.

I look up again, and she is gathering the debris and putting it in plastic bags.

I look up again, and the bags are on the deck.

I look up again, and she is smoothing the ground with a rake.

When I finish the last bush, weary and still kneeling, I look at my red hands. The pain, I think, will come back after they heal. What I feel now is what one feels when he has passed the point of feeling. Then I stand. My knees cry, my back cracks, blood rushes from my head, the sky, the earth turn black—

When my eyes regain focus, I see she has finished raking the last bush, then see the result of our separate labors. Dirt one somber color, dark but no longer slick with water, the ground clean and level, with faint, even fur­rows from the rake that cross the terrain in so many parallel lines and circle the stumps of a dozen roses—the yard looks grimly marvelous, like a Zen garden or something else. Then I see Margaret, leaning on the rake. Filthy, ever expressionless, she doesn’t look like anything, yet looks mar­velously grim in her exhaustion. She looks sublime.

Only now do I see her plan today: she just wanted to clear out the dead accounts.

Also that there’s a chance I have made a few other mistakes.

So much can be predicted at this point. A hot shower, some place of seclu­sion. One of us will probably go out to dinner. Maybe I’ll drink again, but I doubt it. I really don’t enjoy it that much. Besides, Sunday I’ll need to be sober to prepare for Monday’s classes. Maybe instead I’ll give Eliot another shot—there may be a point or two I missed. And then I’ll watch the news tonight to see if anything has happened in the Gulf. But this is the miraculous part: after the news, I don’t know what will happen next.

“The roses will come back” she says, but not to me.

She tells someone they are sturdy.

— Gary Garvin

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Gary Garvin

Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. His short stories and essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review.  He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel.

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Mar 042015
 

perec

Meaningless, nothingness, lack of understanding, and events sans repercussions. As translator David Bellos makes clear, this novel captures more than a taste for graphic death. It reflects a substantial debate, summed up in a work on authenticity and inauthenticity by Jean-Paul Sartre titled (in English) Anti-Semite and Jew. –Jeff Bursey

il condottiere

Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere
Georges Perec
Trans. David Bellos
University of Chicago Press
Cloth, 144 pp., $20.00
ISBN: 9780226054254

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1. OVER THE LAST number of years small presses have been addressing gaps in the knowledge of English-language readers when it comes to the shorter works of the acclaimed French writer Georges Perec (1936-1982), best known for his novel Life A User’s Manual (1978; translated into English in 1987), by issuing An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (2010), The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise (2011), La Boutique Obscure: 124 Dreams (2013), and I Remember (2014). Now we have his first novel, Portrait of a Man. In 1960 it was rewritten for the publishing house Gallimard, who had issued a contract and paid royalties ahead of receiving the completed work. According to David Bellos, when Perec finished revising it he affixed these words to the typescript: “YOU’LL HAVE TO PAY ME LOADS IF YOU WANT ME TO START IT OVER AGAIN.” Even after that effort the manuscript failed to succeed, and it gradually fell out of sight until rediscovered by Bellos while he wrote Georges Perec: A Life in Words (1993; rev. 1995). In 1960 Perec predicted that his first novel would experience one of two fates: either he would revisit it in later years and turn it into a “‘masterpiece’” or he would “‘wait in my grave until one of my faithful exegetes comes across it in an old trunk… and brings it out.’” There’s no word on if the former approach was tried, but as Bellos says, “it’s not like anything else that he wrote,” and perhaps there was no way for the Perec we are more familiar with to venture back to that earlier version of his writer self. (What goes unexplained is why it took until 2012 for the novel to appear in French.)

The plot of the book is simple. Gaspard Winckler, a forger of painters, works for a group run by the shadowy Anatole Madera. After 12 years in this occupation, preceded by four as an apprentice to Jérôme, an older forger who also works for Madera, Winckler chooses, as his next task, to create a painting supposedly by Antonella da Messina, based on the latter’s Portrait of a Man known as Il Condottiere (1475). This new work would have to come from Winckler’s soul and not be a technical exercise, yet having inhabited for years the habits and work of other painters, it is not going to be easy for him to find out who he really is. In addition to burying himself in studies of the esoteric natures of painting, wood, and visual perspectives over the ages, Winckler has been cut off from people and world events since he started his career as a posturer in 1947. What he runs into is a blunt fact: masterpieces can’t be willed into existence, and originality doesn’t emerge based on wishes. The failure of his attempt leads him—or rather, it may be one of the reasons—to rebel against his employer, and to do that he must commit an act that irrevocably cuts him off from his former life. He kills Madera, and then flees the isolated house that contained his laboratory.

Portrait of a Man is divided into two parts: the first describes Gaspard’s attempt to escape from his past; the second is comprised of a set of chapters where he tries to describe, to an inquisitive friend named Streten who is sheltering him, what he had done and why, how he entered into a lucrative career, and what propelled him out of it. Part I is filled with action and pell-mell sentences, and for a while it seems like this novel will fall into a pattern found in the “detective novels” Winckler reads now and then for mental release from the pressures of work. (This puts in mind We Always Treat Women Too Well [1947] by Raymond Queneau, written under a pseudonym, Sally Mara. Apart from being set in Dublin in the mid-1910s and using names found in James Joyce’s Ulysses, this novel ramped up, in protest and with deliberate irony, the violence and sex present in gangster novels then popular in France. Perec and Queneau were friends and members of Oulipo.) The opening lines of Portrait of a Man are startling for their pulpiness:

Madera was heavy. I grabbed him by the armpits and went backwards down the stairs to the laboratory. His feet bounced from tread to tread in a staccato rhythm that matched my own unsteady descent, thumping and banging around the narrow stairwell. Our shadows danced on the walls. Blood was still flowing, all sticky, seeping from the soaking wet towel, rapidly forming drips on the silk lapels, then disappearing into the folds of the jacket, like trails of slightly glinting snot side-racked by the slightest roughness in the fabric, sometimes accumulating into drops that fell to the floor and exploded into star-shaped stains. I let him slump at the bottom of the stairs, right next to the laboratory door, and then went back up to fetch the razor and to mop up the bloodstains before Otto returned.

On the novel’s cover a cascade of crimson obscures the top half of the Antonella painting that gives the novel its title; and that passage, with its shadows, the descent, and that dance, brings to mind the fondness the French have for murder mysteries and Edgar Allan Poe.

2.

As Bellos makes clear, this novel captures more than a taste for graphic death. It reflects a substantial debate, summed up in a work on authenticity and inauthenticity by Jean-Paul Sartre titled (in English) Anti-Semite and Jew. The figure of the forger bundles that thorny topic together with Perec’s “extensive learning” in art history, the controversy in 1945 surrounding the arrested Dutch art dealer and forger Han van Meegeren (readers of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions [1955] will recall that name and his importance in the creation of that novel), and, to my mind, looks directly at uncomfortable historical events: in the 16 years covered by Winckler’s training and output to his abrupt retirement—so, beginning in 1943—France endured, among other things, the Occupation, collaboration with Nazi Germany, the role of its citizens in sending Jews to death camps, the Resistance, and the violence of the Algerian War (1954-1962). In these atrocities, state scandals, and actions some Frenchmen led false lives. Also, during the Second World War Perec’s father was killed in battle and his mother died either in Auschwitz or on the way to it. It’s impossible to read this book, which in the second half turns into a confession-cum-self-exculpation, without wondering, in a cautious and limited way, how Winckler’s half-life symbolizes an absence within Perec (what he might have been like if his parents had lived) and within the soul of his country.

Unlike the bloody events and fevered prose of Part I, the second part is hesitant and revolves around a set of intellectual and emotional questions. Asked by Streten why he killed Madera, Winckler replies: “‘But I had to wake up one day … It didn’t matter when or where … It happened, it had to. It happened because of Mila [a girl he had some interest in], but it could have happened because of something else. It doesn’t matter.’” Further along Winckler will say: “‘My own story written down once and for all, in a closed circle, with no way out other than dying ten or twenty or thirty years on. Needing to go on to the end without meaning, without necessity …’” Streten, in his search for precise answers—he comes off as a character who has been placed in the wrong novel—pursues what he sees as a vital question:

“Why did you kill Madera?”

“I don’t know … If I knew, I wouldn’t be here … If I’d known, I suppose I wouldn’t have done it … You think it’s easy … You commit an act … You don’t know … you can’t know … you don’t want to know … But after a while it’s behind you … You know you did it … and then …”

“Then what?”

“Then nothing.”

“Why do you say ‘you’?”

“No reason … It doesn’t matter … I killed Madera … And then? It doesn’t make things any simpler … A last act, the least act of all …”
“Just to see …”

“As you say … Just to see what would happen …”

“And what did happen?”

“You can see for yourself … Nothing yet … Perhaps one day something will happen … Something worthwhile …”

Meaningless, nothingness, lack of understanding, and events sans repercussions (Bellos points out that Winckler reappears in Life A User’s Manual)—these are themes returned to, with variations, particularly in Part II. Streten insists this or that “‘doesn’t make sense,’” acutely observes that Winckler “‘pretend[s] to be a victim,’” and repeatedly demands that there be explanations for why his friend behaved as he did, which Winckler argues against: “‘You’d like there to be a solid point of departure, a sudden insight […] There wasn’t any turning point in my existence … There wasn’t a story … There wasn’t even an existence … Of course, if things had been logical […]’”

(As an aside, Perec uses ellipsis to slow the momentum of the second part of Portrait of a Man, and it’s worth noting how the same device, in the hands of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, achieves the complete opposite: in his books those three dots act like stones that trip you down an endless set of stairs at breakneck pace, leaving you breathless, dizzy, and bruised at the fall of the last line.)

Inside the “false world… a world without sense…” occupied by Winckler, where there are no narrative arcs, where he is cocooned from national and world events, where other countries exist as study locations (galleries, libraries, museums) or vacation resorts, where nothing is connected, where the insignificant and the significant weigh the same, and where fate is first invoked and then denied, the forger fitfully dreams of the possibility of a cohesive existence: “To be at long last, in your own right, the captain of your soul and the world in an irrefutable ascent, a single movement towards unity.” Winckler believes he can achieve those aims by painting a new Antonello, with its subject a man who is kin to the Condottiere—a figure who “…has nothing to lose: no friends, no enemies. He is brute force.”—yet who is sufficiently distinct so that experts will accept the forgery. How the painting turns out is not predictable (like so much else in a novel that relies on the words logical, perhaps, nothing, and so on), and the result shows Winckler what he needs to know about himself:

I looked at myself in the mirror in the middle of the night. That was me. That was my face, and my year of struggle and sleepless nights, that oak board and that steel easel, that was my face too, and so were those pots and those hundreds of brushes and the rags and the spots. My story. My fate. A fine caricature of a fate. That was me: anxious and greedy, cruel and mean, with the eyes of a rat. Looking like I thought I was a warlord.

It might be this revelation that is the impetus for the murder and the escape, but as Winckler states numerous times, it could be any reason, or simply something that just happens; even the notion of fate, shaky though it is, could be why his life went along as it did. No final justification or motive will be found, and that debate is a sizeable portion of the content. What is easier to conclude is that in this novel Perec, via Winckler, tends to explain everything (while answering little), leaving less of the pleasurable ambiguity readers might prefer. As Bellos observes: “This is a novel, not an essay. Almost.” The action of the first part is replaced by rambling talk in the second, yet nevertheless, Portrait of a Man is at times an engrossing read, with early hallmarks of the later author—a fascination with exactitude, on painting techniques and on numbers, an intellectual apparatus that undermines the structure of the novel—as well as unusual features that Georges Perec fans will want to encounter for themselves.

—Jeff Bursey

 

Excerpt from Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere
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Bellos makes clear that Perec started educating himself in visual art in the mid-1950s, and proceeded from there. He “visited exhibitions and galleries in Paris and made a trip to Berne to see a large collection of works by Paul Klee,” studied general and scholarly works and catalogues, and engaged in discussion with “Yugoslav art historians he had befriended in Paris…” Using these sources and his imaginative powers, he invested Gaspard Winckler with the language and thought processes that get across the practical, physical, and mental aspects that lie underneath the act of painting, as this extract shows.

—Jeff Bursey

The hardest part obviously was that celebrated tautness in the jaw. It was impossible to pastiche without creating a double, and there was no sense in that. In the end I settled for using Memling’s portrait as my model: a very thick and powerful neck, with the first minute signs of a double chin, very deep eyes, a line on each side of the nose and a fairly thick mouth. I would put the strength into the neck, into the articulation of the head, in the very high and straight way it was held, and in the lips. It was all fine on the drafts. On the trial paintings in gouache it even turned out rather splendidly: a complex melange of Memling and Antonello sufficiently corrected, with a very pure look in the eyes, immediate contours that yielded easily at first and then thickened, became impermeable, turning hard and merciless. No cruelty, no weakness. What I wanted. Pretty much exactly what I was after . . . It was another month before I started really painting. I had to get my pots, brushes and rags ready. I took three days’ rest. I began to paint sitting in the armchair, with my palette within easy reach, and the panel set on the easel with its four corners wrapped in cotton wool and rags so that the metal angles that held it in place would leave no mark. I had an elbow support and a crutch to keep my hand steady, a huge visor to keep the glare of the spots off my eyes, and wore magnifying goggles. An extraordinary set of safety devices. I would paint for twenty minutes and then stop for two hours. I sweated so much I had to change three or four times a day. From then on fear never left me. I don’t know why but I had no confidence at all, I never managed to have a clear vision of what I was trying to do, I couldn’t say what my panel would be like when I’d finished painting it; I wasn’t able to guarantee that it would look like any of the dozens of more or less completed drafts lying around the room. I didn’t understand some of my own details, I was unable to get a grip on the overall project, to recognise it in the smallest touch, to feel it taking shape. I was stumbling onwards, despite the innumerable safeguards I’d set up. Previously, I’d been able to paint any Renaissance picture in a couple of months, but now, after four months’ work, in mid- September, I still had the whole face to do . . .

Reprinted with permission from Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere by Georges Perec. Published by the University of Chicago ©. © 2012 by Éditions du Seuil Introduction and English translation © 2015 by David Bellos. All rights reserved. Published 2015.

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NC
jeff again (3)

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic and author of the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010). He is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

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Mar 032015
 

Julie2 (1) - Version 2

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HER MOTHER WOULD give her lovely teeth. Pale slabs designed for wide smiles in long afternoons, for precise first kisses with elder boys. She’d never see crookedness or the tang of blood swirling in a porcelain basin. She’d never need to mute her grin or remember it in photos as lukewarm, a twitchy ordeal. Hers would be tough things, tougher than sticks and stones and the growing pains that would grip her peers.

Her mother had planned for this. She’d grown up poor in the West of Ireland where there were no orthodontists. Like the rest of the kids in her village she’d walked miles barefoot to school in summer. During the wet months, she was taken out of lessons to help her family plough fields. In the evenings she’d stare up at framed photos of her American cousins, fixated on their plumpness and neat teeth.

At sixteen, she got the boat over and moved in with relatives with hearty laughs. She took a job cleaning a church in Chicago, sweeping dust from its steps and nave. She was lonely but didn’t mind. She’d make up great romances, their melodies pinballing the sides of her skull.

Her Aunt Nancy and cousins never stopped talking when she got in when all she wanted was peace and a sit down or to write a letter to mammy about the things she’d seen. It was true — everything was bigger over here. They were a more evolved people compared to the Irish who’d crawled from a peat bog, squinting at each day’s new sun.

Aunt Nancy was not a strict sort and encouraged Brenda to go out to dances, to enjoy herself after a hard week’s slog. Brenda and her cousins would get ready together, cinching and spritzing themselves for excitement in the dark. She could not stop staring at their tanned fullness, their scarless feet. These were girls who had never gone hungry, who’d never stooped in fields, whimpering from the weight of toil and equipment cutting into their young hands. There was no sadness lurking heavy in their flirting. She was jealous of their exuberant smiles. Her own teeth were fighting bread queues too aware of their humiliation.

More than brains and beauty and a reliable father figure, she wanted perfect teeth for her daughter. Hard confidence you couldn’t argue with or underplay. It’s what people saw first, what said the most about you without speech. A dream that wouldn’t fade long after the sag of age that curdled faces and the parts underneath. People noticed careful maintenance — American girls wouldn’t get far with a lippy grin. Never mind that the girl was shy or struggled with fractions and ran across roads to escape oncoming dogs. She’d be known for her smile.

Brenda moved up the job ladder into a country club in the suburbs, backed by gentle sweeps of land and manicured lawns out front. She worked as a kitchen porter, wiping surfaces and loading plates into a dishwasher, her face a blur in vast steel. They were heavy days, but every hour stood closer to straight slabs for the girl. When waitresses called in sick, Brenda would volunteer to help deliver meals and drinks. She’d pour generous measures while chatting to golfers about what it was like back home, the differences between Ireland and America, the relatives and funerals she missed, what Irish kids had to go without. Despite mixing up their orders, they enjoyed her stories, her lilting accent, her soft pear body leaning toward the more expensive bottles. They listened with slow nods, imagining her Jaysuses as they stabbed her flesh in rapid spurts.

Sometimes, they’d offer to drive her back to her home in the city. “You can’t wait out in the cold for the bus, Brend” they’d say, their eyes milky with drink. “Oh, don’t worry about this tough old girl”, she’d reply while polishing the last glasses, the light dusting of fur on her top lip lit by a chandelier at its brightest.

He walked her to the car with cowboy legs — all loose, gossipy. She waited at the passenger side, counting, not sure for what and how long it would take. For how quickly to get into the warmth? For when was too late to say no, she preferred to get the bus back? He unlocked the car on his second attempt. She sat down on the leather seat which squeaked. “What’s that?” she asked, looking straight ahead. “Sorry, that’s Finley’s toy.” In the rear-view mirror sat a dog showing off its fat bacon tongue. The sky dropped as they pulled out of the drive. The man seemed to have his eyes closed a lot. There were no other cars. She toyed with the radio dial, hoping to find a song she liked, remembered, an intimate voice in the dark. “Sorry, it doesn’t work doll”, he drawled. Trees both sides of the road were scant, tight-fisted. “I couldn’t live out here”, she said. The road disappeared under them and kept making itself anew.

The man rubbed her thigh like a tide keen to break free from the moon. His nails were too short. She wasn’t sure she’d finished her period. They sky was turning dusty pink but held onto its cotton. The dog’s tongue went nowhere in the mirror.

The man parked the car cleanly, overlooking the town. “Come on Finley”, he said as he led the dog out by its collar. Street lights winked at them below.

The dog spindled among grass gone blonde at its stubby lengths, immersed in scent. In the car, Brenda’s face fused with glass as she watched the oblivious animal. Cats have barbed cunts don’t they. She breathed a pale O. The dog disappeared.

The man groaned behind her, willing his thumbs round her waist to kiss. Each pulse into her made her face move further up the window. This must be how you get to heaven. Her smudged eyes clocked the dog again, a rabbit twitching in its mouth.

“Oh god, oh god, ohhhhh I’m sorry I can’t help it.” He groaned again then inspected the condom, offering its contents to the last of the light. “Sorry that was a bit fast. The old chap had one too many whiskies.” “It’s fine,” she said, pulling her knickers out of her stockings, looking for the dog outside. “Did you?” “Yep.” “I can never tell with you, Brend.”

The dog jumped up and scratched at her window with the rabbit still in its mouth. The rabbit’s bloody head was connected by a strip of fur to the rest of its body.

“Leave it! Finley! Finley! That fucking dog.” The man got out of the car, tossing the condom into dark.

“Here’s just fine.” He pulled the car over into a bus-stop. A pruned woman in a rain hood glared at the car. The man leaned his head against Brenda’s. “You’re so special.” His breath stank of dead animal. “The babysitter will be waiting”, she said, rubbing mascara from under her eyes.

“She’s asleep”, said the woman removing the chain from the door. “I’m really sorry. I had to cover at work again”. “You need to give me a bit more warning. Shoes off, if you don’t mind.”

The child’s mouth was ajar and spelling slow breath, the kind reserved for last words and hexes. The metal across her face was a cold spider. Brenda sat down on the bed, bathed by the night light. “Maaaauuuuuuuuugh! I thor you wurrr a monnnshta.” “Shhhhhhh, sleepyhead. Let’s take this thing off.”

—Julie Reverb

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Julie Reverb is a London, UK-based writer whose fiction has appeared in publications including The Quietus, 3:AM magazine and Gorse journal. Her début novel – NO MOON – explores language, grief and a family-run porn cinema. It will be published by Calamari Archive in Summer 2015. Find her at www.juliereverb.com and @juliereverb on Twitter.

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Feb 052015
 

Ian Colford

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As a young man, Francisco Cordoba had but a single living relative: an uncle who made a modest living selling feed and other supplies to local farmers working in the hills above San Gregório. Upon the death of his uncle, Francisco—who had not settled on a profession—left his home in Envigado and moved to San Gregório to take control of the business. When he married, it was here that he took his young bride to live. And it was in the village of San Gregório nine and a half months after the wedding that Claudia gave birth to the first of their ten children, a girl, María Concepción, known to her family as Conchita.

Claudia, who was ten years younger than her husband, had been pampered as a child and was nervous about leaving home. She missed her family and sometimes regretted the choice she had made. But with Conchita to occupy her she quickly forgot her homesickness. Francisco’s business prospered, and like the naïve little fool she was, Claudia allowed visions of comfort and affluence to fill her head. She gave birth to Antonio José less than a year after the first, and now had two babies to keep her busy. Her mother arrived unannounced from Huelva to maintain order within the house, and Claudia was grateful to have help with the cooking and cleaning. But she also wanted to succeed on her own, and once she was back on her feet she sent her mother home.

Life was good. Francisco had men working for him, men he trusted to watch the shop while he was gone. He took Claudia in the bus to Huelva to see her family and show off the children whenever time permitted such an extravagance. After she gave birth to Eléna Serafína they built a bigger house, with room for César Javier when he came along. They were so happy they did not see that trouble was brewing, that within shabby apartments and tiny houses crowding one another on narrow side streets Francisco’s men were struggling to feed their families. They did not know that even in a village the size of San Gregório there were people without homes of any kind who stayed alive by working at menial day jobs and, when these were scarce, begging for food in the open air.

The strike caught them by surprise. It was not a strike against them, or even a local strike, but a general strike that paralyzed the economy and dealt a lethal blow the fragile national currency. Workers everywhere agreed the only way to get a raise in wages was to bring the country to its knees. But their leaders were a dissolute lot who had not bothered to think beyond the day after tomorrow. Francisco offered his men more money and expected them to return to work, but other employers were not inclined to be so humane. There was a standoff.

It was at this moment, with store shelves quickly emptying and people queuing up around the block to withdraw their savings from the bank and the country in a state of turmoil approaching anarchy, that General Allesandro Aguaria-Duarte seized power.

Aguaria declared an end to the strike. Those who defied his orders were arrested and never seen again. The historians depict him as a monster, but his intentions were honourable, at least in the beginning. He tried to restore order and get the economy moving, for he had recited an oath of office and even though the oath was recited behind closed doors with a gun held to the judge’s head, Aguaria took his oath and his office seriously. However, he suffered feelings of inferiority that resulted from his diminutive stature. He was a short man and because of this happiness had always eluded him. He never married. He rode a big horse and wore thick-soled boots, and there was a fat cushion on the chair where he sat behind his desk in the presidential palace. Officially, his personal aide was the only one besides himself who knew of the cushion. But in truth everyone knew. The whole country knew. And he knew the whole country knew.

Aguaria’s mother had been wild and promiscuous and to compensate for her frequent absences his father lavished praise on his only son for any accomplishment, no matter how trivial or meaningless. It was said that for simply getting out of bed in the morning he was rewarded with a dozen gold escudos. Aguaria entered manhood with an ego swelled out of all proportion. His ego was as large as he was small. He took himself very seriously and could not tolerate being the butt of any joke. But because he was small he was sure that everyone everywhere was laughing.

As time went on his dislike of laughter grew into a dangerous and obsessive paranoia. His dreams were filled with the smiling faces and laughter of other people. Amongst the clamour of traffic and the raised voices of street vendors that poured through the windows of the presidential palace, he could always identify with uncanny clarity the ring of a young girl’s laugh. He imagined laughter surging through telephone wires up and down the entire length of the country. He heard the echo of receding laughter whenever he entered the Council Chamber for a meeting and was sure it started up again the moment he left. The burble of water circling the toilet bowl and flowing through pipes sounded to his ears like laughter. His horse, his dog, his parrot: they were all laughing behind his back. When the wife of the man whose office he had seized went on the radio and called Aguaria a “nasty little troll,” he went crazy for real. He made himself president for life and sent his troops into every corner of the country to root out the opposition, which had rallied behind the old president.

In San Gregório Francisco’s men had returned to work and the business was flourishing again, but when the troops arrived everything came to a standstill. The soldiers, operating on orders that were at best vague and at worst contradictory, didn’t know who to arrest first, so they arrested everybody, all at the same time. People fled in every direction. Some managed to get across the mountains and over the border; others were killed or died in the effort. With Francisco in jail and no one to buy the products he sold, the business failed. Claudia, not yet twenty-five and living in a large house with eight children and pregnant with a ninth, had no husband, no source of income, and no food. She began baking. Soon she had taught herself so well that she was able to build up a small regular clientele and support her family on the proceeds. Francisco had been released from jail by the time Aguaria was removed from power, but the business was gone and the only job he could get was in the mines. Before leaving for the mountainous interior, where the men who worked the nickel and zinc mines lived in camps, he sold the house and moved Claudia and their nine children to an old farm, where there was space for the children to run about and an opportunity to grow crops. He also impregnated his young wife for the tenth, and last, time.

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The Death of Federico Adolfo

Federico Adolfo was born weak, but did not seem more seriously endangered than other infants born at that time and in that place. In a short while he developed a robust cry and a tenacious grip. María Concepción, who was ten, fed and bathed him while Claudia saw to the others. Francisco, taking a break from the mines to help with his new son, was home working in the fields. To be sure it was a tragedy, but at least it happened quickly and, so one would hope, painlessly. Young Federico was crawling about, playing with Sara Violeta and Carlos Vincenzo, who were not much older than him, when he must have come across a stray button from Claudia’s mending. He popped it into his mouth. In a few seconds his eyes were bulging, and this made the other children laugh. When his face turned blue and he began making ugly sputtering noises, one of the children ran for their mother. Foam was coming from his mouth when Claudia took him into her arms, and soon he was not breathing. Terrified and confused by what was happening before her eyes, she called for her husband, but the boy was dead before Francisco reached the house. The doctor who examined the body found the button in the boy’s windpipe, but he said it was nobody’s fault, these things happen. The entire family and many from the community attended the service at the Iglesia de San Gregório and watched the tiny coffin interred in the little sepulchre. Claudia cried for a week, and for months afterward tears hovered at the corners of her eyes. The bitterness of those tears was still on her tongue when Sara Violeta developed the first symptoms of the disease that would claim her life.

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The Death of Sara Violeta

It started innocently, with the child sleeping a few minutes longer each morning. But nobody thought anything of it, and in fact Claudia was thankful because it meant the precious morning hours were less hectic without the youngest clamouring for attention. Sara had been a demanding baby, colicky and greedy for the nipple. Claudia had only just weaned her when Federico Adolfo was born. But Sara had fussed and fumed all through Federico’s brief life, and now Claudia was thankful her youngest daughter was finally quieting down. With reluctance Francisco had returned to the mining camp at the beginning of November, with the hottest days of summer just around the corner. But even with his income they were still just making ends meet and could not afford to hire anyone to help out. Maybe Claudia was relying too heavily upon María Concepción, who had a delicate constitution and was, if truth be told, not the brightest girl in the world. And that summer proved very hot and dangerously dry. Fires consumed the forests all around them and the sky was so thick with smoke the birds took to bedding down in the middle of the afternoon. With all this going on Claudia was unaware that Sara Violeta was not eating as she should, that she was sleeping more and more each day, and that during her waking hours she exhibited a degree of lethargy that most professional observers would agree was alarming in a child that age. When María Concepción came to her mother one morning and said she could not wake Sara, even then Claudia did not believe there was anything seriously wrong. The girl was tired, maybe had a stomach bug or an ear infection. Claudia entered the room and found Sara in her crib as always, but when she took her into her arms it was like she had lifted a bundle of dry twigs. The girl had lost flesh and weighed almost nothing. With shame she wondered, When was the last time I held her? And what was she to do, with no husband to take charge, no telephone, no vehicle? She sent Antonio José running across the field to Cristián Pérez, their nearest neighbour, who grew alfalfa and maize and who had a truck and would know what steps to take. But the boy was gone for more than two hours, and it turned out that Cristián had just moments before left the house to visit friends. It took his wife that long to find out where he was and get him to come back, pick up Antonio José, and drive the boy home. Cristián, a young man with religious leanings but not much tact, was the first to raise the possibility that Claudia and Francisco had somehow offended God and were being punished. But his comment, though well intentioned, provoked only tears and anger, and he drove Claudia and Sara Violeta into San Gregório to the free clinic without further comment.

It was too late. Claudia stayed by her side but the girl never woke up. She died that same day. The doctor made reference to a wasting disease, showed Claudia some charts, and read a passage from a thick book that was full of big words. It was not her fault, he said. The disease had no known cause, no known cure. Some children—he linked his hands together on his desk and, though he was normally a happy man, assumed his most solemn professional manner—some children choose to die, and once they do this there is no going back.

Claudia returned to the farm alone. She wrote to Francisco and told him there was no reason for him to come home. She would make the arrangements and see Sara Violeta to her final resting place. She wrote to Cristián Pérez and his wife, thanking them for their help. Many came out to pay their respects, but not as many as the first time. For a fortnight after the funeral the house was silent, but Claudia did not cry. She could not. She sat in a chair and with a fear of death in her bones observed her eight remaining children occupied with their innocent amusements and wondered which would be taken from her next.

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The Death of Carlos Vincenzo

Carlos Vincenzo, now the youngest, had just started school. The bus that picked up all the Cordoba children, along with others from the area, passed along the road in front of the farm every morning. Claudia worried as any mother would, but the driver of the bus was well known to everyone. He did not drink, he had never had an accident, and his own daughter rode on the bus with the other children. Carlos was a patient, gentle child who could sit for hours staring out of the window, watching the birds flitting from tree to tree and the grass waving in the wind. He loved nature and spent his time in a never-ending quest for answers to the questions that were always on his lips. He chased butterflies and collected grasshoppers. He dug worms from the soil and studied them before returning them to their homes. He loved standing in the field on clear nights and watching the stars trace a path across the heavens. After his death there was general agreement that insatiable curiosity had been his downfall. He left with the others in the morning but when the bus brought the children home in the afternoon he was not among them. Claudia held her breath. She would not panic. After all, Carlos Vincenzo was easily distracted and could wander off in search of ladybugs or follow a trail into the woods simply because it was there. He would come home when he got hungry. She questioned the others, and they all insisted he had been on the bus, until Eléna Serafína expressed doubts about this. She had not seen him on the bus, she said. She had only assumed he had been there because everyone said that he was. And when the very last question was answered Claudia understood that Carlos had stood with the group waiting for the bus after school, but had not boarded it. With this, she left María Concepción to cook the supper and hitched the cart to the horse. She followed the road into San Gregório all the way to the schoolhouse, searching for traces of her son. She stood where she believed the bus would have picked them up, looking all around.

It was a time when the country’s farms were producing more food than people could eat. Prosperity was just around the corner, and so, either for sport or out of jealousy, the Gods were sending coyotes and pumas down from the mountains at night to steal sheep and goats from farmers who were not looking for trouble and did not deserve it. Whenever a farmer shot a coyote trying to steal from his herd, he mounted the carcass on a stake and left it as a warning to others. Some farmers had more than a dozen rotting coyote carcasses stinking up their fields. But the pumas were quicker and craftier than the coyotes, and the thefts continued. Both sides suffered losses, but people were afraid that because the farmers seemed to be winning this contest, the Gods would become angry. What would happen, they asked, when the Gods decided enough was enough? All of the thefts had occurred at night and no one dreamed the animals would be so bold as to enter the village during the day. So when Claudia made her discovery, she feared she had found out something that could not be true. For at the edge of the school grounds she found fresh tracks that had been left by the feet of a big cat.

By this time it was late afternoon and the light was fading, but she told the schoolmaster her suspicions and he raised the alarm. The next day all the children in the village stayed home. The farmers joined the local police in the search, and when they found poor Carlos Vincenzo there was nothing left but bones. Claudia recognized his schoolbag, though it was torn and bloodied, and this was the only vestige of her son that was returned to her. The cat was never caught, but Carlos Vincenzo’s death was taken as a warning, and the farmers decided that to appease the Gods they would have to sacrifice one lamb every night to the coyotes and the pumas sent to keep them humble. Each evening, in a rotating schedule, one farmer tethered a newborn to a stake in a field and in the morning buried the remains. Claudia wrote to Francisco and told him to stay where he was, but when he read the letter he was on the next train to Envigado. The sparsely attended funeral had taken place, but he went to the cementerio and stood by the grave of his lost son and wept, for he had harboured a special affection for his little Carlos Vincenzo, his little cientista. When he came home he announced they were selling the farm and moving. He did not let on that he was convinced the place was cursed and that even if it didn’t sell they would have to leave anyway.

It is a common belief that misfortune begets misfortune, and Francisco thought that if they made a clean break with the past they would break the cycle of calamity. Agriculture was booming and the farm was purchased by a business concern that relegated sentiment to the trash heap and entertained no fear of curses or the evil eye. Francisco moved his family into an apartment in a busy section of Envigado. Here, surrounded by the bustle of a modern town that housed thousands of souls conducting their daily affairs, they would be shielded from the spirits that for some reason had singled them out, and safe from the misfortune that had stolen so much life from them. He would get a job and come home every night like other fathers. Claudia could see the children off to school and spend her days free of the worries that wore her down and were making her old before her time. The building was clean and situated close to the school, close to the Iglesia Corazón de María, where they would all go to worship on Sunday morning. What harm could befall them in such surroundings?

Claudia did not like the town of Envigado, which she thought was noisy and dirty and full of unsavoury characters—nothing like her childhood home, the pristine seaside village of Huelva. But she was willing to accept the possibility that Francisco had hit upon a truth that she, in her agitated state of mourning, which had not subsided for three years, had overlooked.

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The Death of Eva Cristina

Eva Cristina was a placid child who liked nothing better than to play with her two little cloth dolls, one with short hair, one with long hair, which she had named Bella and Lorenzo after the characters in the famous adventure books. She played quietly and by herself in the corner of the room that she shared with her surviving sisters, Ana Luisa, Eléna Serafína, and María Concepción. They were all older than her and watched over her, always asking how she felt, always telling her to be careful going down the stairs and crossing the street, escorting her to and from school as if she were a baby. With a grave expression her mother felt her forehead every morning and at least once a week asked her if she felt any pain when she peed. Even sitting by the window reading a book, “Be careful!” was all she could hear. When she scraped her knee on the sidewalk, her mother fled downstairs in a panic to use the telephone and called a doctor, who smiled oddly at both mother and child as he placed a small bandage on Eva Cristina’s bruised knee, which didn’t even hurt and had stopped bleeding. On one occasion—Oh, the embarrassment!—when her friend Rosalinda Iglesias was passing around figs from her father’s garden, María Concepción snatched it from Eva Cristina’s hand before she could take a bite and threw it into the gutter. Eva Cristina was not supposed to eat anything that did not come from home, her eldest sister scolded her in a loud voice. All the other children were eating figs, but Eva Cristina was not allowed. Days afterward snickers and laughter were still heard all around the schoolyard. She longed to escape from the overbearing kindness of her sisters and did not know why they treated her, and no one else in the family, like a patient in a hospital. Because Eva Cristina had only a dim recollection of her sibling’s deaths and did not understand that in the Cordoba household the obvious was not up for discussion, that behind her back every measure was being taken to avoid another tragedy but that to her face, all was well. There would be no talk of untimely demise, no mention of the mortal peril into which Eva Cristina placed herself every morning when she got out of bed. No. Even Francisco, whose feet were planted firmly on the ground, could not bring himself to tell his youngest that they only wanted her to live a long and happy life.

And so it transpired that over and over again Eva Cristina allowed her thoughts to stray into dangerous territory, and when they returned from these expeditions they brought with them childish notions of infection and disease. She went to the public library and, looking in the medical encyclopaedia, found such horrors as she never knew existed. For she had decided she was sick and that her ailment was of such severity that her death was not only inevitable but imminent. Why would they treat her like she was sick if she were not? It made perfect sense. But because the subject was shrouded in secrecy and veiled in silence, she asked no questions and said nothing to her parents or her sisters about the discovery she had made. She simply went to bed and waited for death to come. Shadows appeared beneath her sky-blue eyes, her hair began falling out, her teeth came loose in her head, her skin, which had glowed with vitality, became sallow and dry. Her joints ached, she lost her appetite. Dreaming that Federico Adolfo, Sara Violeta, and Carlos Vincenzo were waiting for her on the other side, she was comforted and lapsed into a coma. The doctor left the sick room shaking his head, unable to put a name to Eva Cristina’s illness. Claudia responded to this latest crisis with serene acceptance as she applied a cool damp cloth to the child’s forehead. Francisco cursed and wept. She died on a warm Saturday night, during festival. Through the window came the singing and laughter of revellers on the street. The entire family was in the room when the priest applied the holy oil to her lips and palms. Moments later she breathed her last, and once it was over all eyes turned to Pedro Diego.

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The Death of Pedro Diego

Pedro was neither daunted nor fearful because he had ideas about his future, ideas that included football, marriage to a girl who, like his oldest sister, was named María, and maybe even playing drums or flugelhorn in a mambo band. He had no plans to die young and expressed this intention loudly, boastfully, to anyone who would listen. He had too much to do, the world was large and there was so much in it he had to see. Rather than become morbid, as he might have given that he was next in line to die, Pedro told jokes and seemed determined to drag his family out of the pit of despair into which they had descended. His mother’s long face sent him into fits of exasperation. His father’s drinking made him angry but never sad. He would not submit to the forced care of his older siblings and did what he wanted when he wanted. He played forward on the school football team, joined the school band, and when he had some money took his friend María to the soda shop for malted milks, just like they did in America.

Gradually, influenced by Pedro Diego’s irrepressible good humour, the Cordoba household shrugged off its mourning weeds and one by one its members ventured outside to join the living, to draw the pure mountain air into their lungs, to feel the heat of the sun on their skin. Claudia was able to laugh once more. Francisco limited his drinking to weekends and settled down to his job at the train station, where he managed a maintenance crew. María Concepción ceased her scolding and the other children felt gay and carefree, as children should, for the first time in years. The apartment was filled with light and laughter.

Pedro saw this happen and was proud to have contributed to his family’s recovery. With each success—a smile on his mother’s face, the delighted squeals of his sisters when he teased them about their boyfriends, his father’s booming laugh in response to a joke—he grew bolder and more confident. As different from his unfortunate sister Eva Cristina—who never escaped the echo of death’s heavy tread—as night is to day, Pedro ignored the very existence—the very possibility—of death. He lived as a boy might who had never seen another life end. Some would say he was heedless. The chances he took made it seem so. He was certainly willing to call attention to himself, performing dangerous stunts as if wagging a defiant finger in that dreadful hollow-eyed, hooded face. On a dare he climbed the flagpole behind the school. Once, he laid down on the tracks and refused to move until the roaring of the train was deafening and his friends thought he was dead for sure. Another time, in defiance of both reason and those who said he couldn’t do it, he ate a lit cigarette. Drunk on notions of invincibility and showing off for María, who always attended his games, his play on the football field became swaggering and aggressive. Ignoring the etiquette of the field, not to mention ideals of sportsmanship, he openly taunted the other team’s players when he scored a goal, thrusting his fist into the air and pelting them with insults. For Pedro Diego, nothing was trivial. He lived his days with such intensity that he almost seemed to emit a glow, as if a fire smouldered within his slim body. During the championships he castigated his own team mates for the sloppy play that led to their elimination, mouthing off to anyone who would listen. When Claudia said Pedro, please, it is over; you should think of other things, he did just the opposite. He thought and spoke of nothing else.

And so it came about that word spread through the school that he would teach the two prime offenders a lesson, Luis Gomez and Alonzo Díaz, who had each committed numerous fouls and turnovers. He would take them by the throat, wring their necks, kick the stupid teeth out of their stupid heads. He made these threats to show off to María, not meaning any of it, but speaking so convincingly that Luis and Alonzo became afraid. For protection Luis brought a knife to school, and one day, on the way home, there was an altercation behind an abandoned warehouse. Two against one is never fair, especially when one of the two has a knife, but Luis and Alonzo were not interested in fairness, and when the blade penetrated the tender flesh between Pedro’s ribs and punctured his lung, and his blood had left its stain on the grass of the empty lot, both boys felt that justice had been served. As for Pedro, whose only regret was that he would never have the chance to tell a soul what it was like to die at the peak of his youthful form beneath a blazing afternoon sun, the moment was everything he had longed for.

It was with an air of resignation that the remaining members of the Cordoba family conveyed the body of Pedro Diego back to his final resting place in San Gregório, and saw him interred beside his siblings. Claudia was numbed by the loss and said hardly a word, shed hardly a tear. Soon after the funeral, which was attended only by family members and Pedro’s girlfriend María, Francisco lost his job with the train company and was forced to return to the mines. He was not drinking, but some claimed he had the smell of death on him. As this did nothing to bolster the morale of his companions on the maintenance crew, he was asked to resign. Francisco understood that he was a victim of fear, ignorance, and superstition, but for him it was a relief for the moment to be able to place many miles between himself and Envigado, for the population of the mining camp changed from one season to the next, and he could travel there confident that tales of his family’s agony would not follow him.

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The Death of Ana Luisa

Claudia kept her eye on Ana Luisa, who was a shy girl, and very bright. She was thin, but also strong and athletic. She was never ill, and this gave her mother hope that she would grow and thrive. In addition, Ana was sober and reflective, possessing an even temperament, given to excess in neither tears nor laughter. Claudia was worried that she would suffer from Pedro’s death more than any of them, for the two had shared a close bond. But when a few months passed and the girl showed no signs of depression, Claudia breathed a sigh of relief and got on with her chores.

Ana hid her passions well. She was going to be an actress or a dancer, and pursued both of these interests at the school, on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, after her regular classes. Her teacher was Mrs. Durany, who had come over from England with her elderly husband, who had since died and left her not as well off as she had hoped. As a result, she was forced to make a living in the only way she knew how, by providing basic instruction in the twin arts of dance and acting to youngsters who might very well grow up to practice one of these professions, but in all likelihood would not. Because she suspected that most of her students were dilettantes, she resented the time she had to spend with them, even though she was paid for her efforts. Her sourness was manifest in the nagging tone of voice and the expressive gestures that accompanied her commands, her favourite of which was an indifferent flick of the wrist as she gave up trying to impart some difficult notion in a language that confounded her. Ana Luisa was perceptive enough to see that her teacher did not relish her duties, but she also wished to make the most of these lessons, which, as she well knew, could come to an end at any time if her mother ran out of money to pay for them. Her desire bordered on desperation, for she also laboured under the impression, false or not, that time was short. This was not something that had ever been expressed in so many words, but the surviving Cordoba children could surely be forgiven for believing their days on this earth were numbered.

More so than her brothers and sisters, Ana Luisa was haunted by the link she saw between passing time and dwindling opportunity. She had spent all her years in the warmth of Pedro Diego’s passion for life. It was she who came closest to understanding his reasons for flirting unabashedly with death. When his flame was snuffed out she vowed to make something of herself or die in the effort. A part of her went beyond simply cherishing the memory of her younger brother to transforming him into a romantic icon, a martyr who had perished for an ideal, and though she was only a girl whose understanding of such matters could never be other than hazy and incomplete, she knew that she loved him and that whatever she managed to accomplish in her lifetime would be to keep his flame alive. It was she, and not the girlfriend María, who, every day for two weeks, until the rain washed the stain away, had placed a bouquet of fresh daisies on the spot where Pedro Diego’s lifeblood had flowed into the ground. It was she who kept one of Pedro Diego’s shirts, grotty with his sweat, folded beneath her pillow. It was to Pedro Diego, and not the Lord Jesus, that Ana Luisa directed her prayers at night and in the morning. But she was also wise enough to know that even if she tried to explain it, nobody would understand how a normal girl could harbour an obsessive longing bordering on lust for a younger brother who was dead, and so kept her passion a secret. Ana Luisa, outwardly as calm, patient, and reasonable a girl as you could ever hope to meet, was on the inside seething with thwarted desire and conflicting emotions. When Mrs. Durany threw up her hands for the last time and, finally packing in the lessons, boarded the first steamer bound for her native England, and her mother told Ana Luisa that it was just as well because there was no money to continue the lessons anyway, she realized that her great hopes had been dashed. Assuming the cool demeanour with which she had deceived her entire family in the months following her brother’s death, she took Pedro Diego’s shirt into the front room and cut it into strips with a pair of scissors. When Claudia asked what she was up to she smiled and said she was going to make a quilt. Then she took the strips into the bathroom, tied them together into a noose, and hung herself from the hook on the back of the door.

The news of his daughter’s death reached Francisco long after the fact, because Claudia had delayed telling him and then bad weather had brought down the camp’s supply plane. Two months after Ana Luisa had been laid to rest in the cementerio at San Gregório (because Claudia had convincingly argued that it was not suicide but “despondency” that had killed her daughter), a salvage team found the plane, buried the pilot, and brought the cargo, including the mail, back to the camp. Though the mines have long since closed, the story still circulates among those who heard it from those who were there, about the man who received bad news from his family. Hours after he had collapsed on the floor of his hut, a crumpled piece of paper in his hand, his inconsolable wails were still being heard for miles in all directions—echoing through mountain passes, reaching into valleys and across the high plains, frightening the animals, and sending the innocent goatherd to his knees with a prayer on his lips.

Francisco did not return to Envigado but instead asked for longer shifts. During this difficult time he performed his labours, ate his food, smoked his cigarettes, in the mechanical and submissive manner of a doomed man waiting for the next blow to fall.

 .

The Death of César Javier

Of all her children, César Javier was the most aloof, the most enigmatic and difficult for Claudia to understand. When he spoke, everyone listened because it happened so rarely, but the words issued laboriously from his mouth and his observations, mostly of a mundane nature, touching upon the weather or events at school or the exploits of friends, did not reveal anything of his soul. Unlike Pedro Diego, he was not interested in sports or girls. His eyes were heavy lidded and there was no gleam in them. She did not like to think of him as dull, but he was indifferent to the flesh accumulating around his middle, his grades were poor, and the way he chewed his food reminded her of a cow. He collected comic books, and whenever Claudia went tidying in the room shared by her two remaining sons, she pulled the box containing the comic collection out from under the bed in the hope that his reading habits would convey to her something of his essence. But she was disappointed. Action heroes with names like The Flash, Superman, and Hulk did not speak to her of anything meaningful. Their eyes were empty, which she took to mean their souls were empty as well.

At thirteen César Javier seemed to have no ambition and few interests, and when his teacher told her that her son was not suited for school and study, and that he should be apprenticed out to a trade, she did not argue. The boy did not oppose this decision either, and as if he were capable of a response such as relief or gratitude, Claudia interpreted the grunt he emitted when she shared with him the news that he would not be returning to school as an indication that her efforts on his behalf were appreciated.

One of her neighbours in the apartment building was Támar Rodriguez. He worked for the tram company, and when Claudia explained the situation, Támar was only too willing to help. He would personally oversee the boy’s apprenticeship and ensure that when the time came, a position of some sort would be made available. Támar Rodriguez did not make this offer out of the goodness of his heart. He had been an admirer of the attractive young mother Claudia Cordoba for many months, casting a furtive eye over her slim black-clad body whenever he happened upon her. Because he was no longer a young buck and not yet a lascivious middle-aged boor, he had only admired from afar and not made any overtures, which instinct told him would be unwelcome. His contact with her had been therefore limited to infrequent but cordial greetings in the stairwell or in the hallway. He was naturally shy, and normally he would keep his distance until he had made inquiries to determine her situation. But as she had approached him, and he saw no evidence of a husband, the opportunity to ingratiate himself with a young woman by performing a service that would cost him nothing by way of money or inconvenience seemed too good to pass up. He would make his move only when he judged by the light in her eyes that the time was right.

Claudia had no intention of being unfaithful to Francisco, and if someone had caused her glance to linger upon Támar Rodriguez with the suggestion that this man wanted to seduce her with kindness she would have laughed out loud had she not been in mourning. As it was, she had no suspicion of his designs upon her and did not feel compelled to explain where her husband was. She simply believed that César Javier’s need for a trade had to fill a corresponding need somewhere in the town, that by the merest chance someone close by worked for the tram service, and that she should make it her business to consult him about the possibility of her son receiving training and, eventually, employment. Támar was very tall and pale like a cadaver, and he manoeuvred his attenuated limbs in the stiffly awkward manner of a man wearing stilts. His small eyes were recessed so deeply in his head that the skin encircling them seemed bruised, and he had a little moustache that he stroked unconsciously, but in a most repellent manner, whenever he spoke to a woman he found attractive. Claudia recoiled at the sight of him, and it was only out of politeness that she met his gaze and responded to his greeting whenever they encountered one another in the hallway. She did not want to, but because her only goal was to secure a future for her slow-witted son, she would consort with Támar Rodriguez in order to accomplish this, and she would not complain about it.

César Javier remained an innocent bystander as agreements were made on his behalf and arrangements put into place for his benefit. It did not occur to him to question anyone or anything, and when the Monday morning arrived on which, instead of going to school with María Concepción, Antonio José, and Eléna Serafína, his mother gave him his lunch in a paper bag and turned him over to their neighbour Señor Rodriguez, he accepted it as both natural and inevitable.

Támar Rodriguez did not himself work on the trams. He performed duties related to scheduling and payroll in a small office building, and it was here that he intended the boy would serve his apprenticeship. He had been so delighted to find himself the object of Claudia’s attention that he agreed to act on her request without giving much thought to the tasks that would have to be carried out. As the day approached when Claudia Cordoba’s son would accompany him to work, he began to entertain a fantasy about the boy. He envisioned a young man with a flare for numbers who was both funny and interesting, who would become not only his assistant on the job, but also his eyes and ears within the Cordoba home. Ensconced together at the office, they would have leisure to discuss all manner of things. Through the son, Támar would come to know the mother with great intimacy, and when César Javier returned home each evening he would sing the praises of his mentor so lavishly that soon, like a love song, the mere mention of his name would be enough to melt Claudia Cordoba’s heart. And so on that first, and, as it turned out, last morning, many doubts and grave misgivings flooded into his brain while he briefly endured César Javier’s limp handshake and met two expressionless eyes staring at him from out of a doughy face. Instantly he regretted not having taken the trouble to previously make the boy’s acquaintance and neglecting to even ask about his interests and capabilities. By the time they reached the office building, Támar Rodriguez had decided that if César Javier was the price, then he was prepared to completely forgo Claudia’s affections, for he did not think he could tolerate this boy’s slack-jawed company for a single morning let alone for the months it would take to successfully complete an apprenticeship in payroll.

Once they were in the building, Támar went to the reception desk and made a phone call. He had heard of an opening in the mailroom, and he told the mailroom supervisor, Julian Nuñez, that he had brought someone to help out. Julian, a thin ingenuous young man in blue overalls, emerged from his basement refuge, and the instant his hand touched César Javier’s in greeting, Támar Rodriguez considered his commitment to both Claudia and the boy at an end. Whistling a carefree tune, he took the two flights of stairs up to his office at a brisk sprint.

Willing to attribute his unfavourable first impression of the boy to nervousness, Julian asked César Javier to follow him down to the basement. But after a couple of questions, to which César Javier responded either with perplexed silence or his signature grunt, Julian realized what he had been saddled with. From the mailroom he phoned payroll services to tell Rodriguez that his joke was not funny, but was informed that Támar had called in sick and might not be in for the rest of the week. He hung up and allowed his disappointed gaze to drift across the room to César Javier, who sat where he had been told to sit, staring gape-mouthed at the single light bulb suspended from the ceiling, holding on his lap the paper bag containing his lunch. Plainly, since there was a good chance he could not read, he was an unlikely candidate for sorting mail. And since he was abnormally heavy for his age and had almost tripped going down the stairs, he was probably unsuited to pushing a trolley from office to office delivering mail. Could he find anything for this boy to do in the mailroom? Julian thought not. He phoned custodial services and told them that their new employee had wandered into the mailroom by mistake. In response to the question, What new employee? Julian made a sound that was unintelligible and yet had the unmistakable ring of infuriated authority to it. Presently, a buxom woman with grey hair tied in a bun and wearing a green uniform appeared and, much to Julian’s relief, escorted César Javier away.

Through all of this, and through all that followed, César Javier behaved in the compliant manner that had enabled him to reach the age of thirteen with a full belly and relatively few scars. He smiled and did what he was told and accepted everything that appeared before his eyes as the inexorable result of what had come before. He had never liked school and so was happy to be taken somewhere else, but this new environment—in which many people who were strangers to him were asking the same questions and leading him back and forth from one place to another—made little sense. By mid-morning he found himself seated in a dark basement room cloudy with cigarette smoke surrounded by a group of people, young and old, all wearing identical green uniforms. This was the staff room for the custodial crew. The epithets they were directing toward him—imbecile, moron, fat boy, pigface—were all familiar and therefore no cause for alarm. There was, however, something vaguely sinister in the laughter, which was general and uproarious, and in the manner in which some of them thrust grinning, gap-toothed, contemptuous faces before him while emitting hoots and donkey brays and sounds that perhaps a monkey might make. Of course, César Javier had no way of knowing that hiring standards in custodial services were very low, and that many of those taunting him had been victims of bullying and prejudice all their lives and, having been forced to put up with it, were all too willing to dish it out. He might have found a home for himself here were it not for his trusting disposition and utter lack of malice, which set him apart and made him a natural victim. The limits of his endurance had never been tested as they were tested on this day, but he sat and smiled for an hour, perhaps two, clutching the bag containing his lunch, waiting for the onslaught to end. He remained calm and did not experience any fear—that is, until one of the men took the belt from around his waist and another kicked the chair out from beneath him.

In his second-floor office, Támar Rodriguez was suffering twinges of guilt and feeling that perhaps he had been too hasty in his dismissal of Claudia Cordoba’s son. How onerous would it be, after all, to put up with the silent maniquí occupying the corner of the office, even for a month or two? Trying to teach the boy the subtleties of double-entry bookkeeping would be a wasted exercise, but surely he was not totally impervious to learning. During slack times he could tutor him in the ABCs, perhaps teach him a dirty poem or two. And if the prize awaiting him was Claudia Cordoba’s trust and, eventually, affection, then maybe it would be worth troubling himself to that extent.

He had picked up the phone, intending to call young Nuñez in the mailroom and ask him to have César Javier sent up to his office when his attention was drawn by a commotion on the street, which his office overlooked. To his shock, surprise, and dismay, there was César Javier himself, his face bruised and bloodied, his trousers down around his ankles, cradling the paper bag with his lunch in it as if it were an object of tender reverence. The boy had obviously suffered a bad fright and somehow injured himself. He was looking up and down the street, taking one step this way, stopping, taking a step that way. People passing by gazed at him in wonder and then sidestepped him, as if they suspected he was mad or dangerous. Seeing the expression of terror on the boy’s face, Támar understood how selfish and ill-advised his decision had been, to abandon him to a pack of unsympathetic strangers, and, wishing to redress what he now saw as an act of disloyalty, flung open the window and called down to the street, “César Javier wait! I will come down! Wait for me!”

It was too late. Hearing a voice calling his name from somewhere up in the sky, César Javier’s terror was multiplied. No one will ever know what lunatic notion sent him on a wild dash into the busy street, where he was knocked down and crushed by a truck delivering furniture. Támar Rodriguez turned quickly away and covered his eyes. However, the sounds—the impact of metal against flesh and bone, the squeal of tires, the screams of people running to and from the accident scene—were not so easy to escape. Somehow he got word to Claudia, who arrived just as the debris was being cleared away and her son’s lifeless body was being loaded into the back of an ambulance. Támar spoke to her just long enough to explain that he had let the boy out of his sight for only a minute and had no idea how this could have happened. He wanted to wrap her in his arms and draw her to him, but the cool formality with which she received his excuses kept him at a polite distance. He could see that attempts to console her would be pointless and that he could forget about ever winning her affections. He fled back to his office, where he shut the door and instructed his secretary to hold his calls for the rest of the day.

But Támar had been wrong. Claudia was not angry. She spoke to no one else and after a few moments of brooding contemplation drifted away from where her son’s blood stained the cobbled street, clutching to her chest all that remained of her inscrutable but beloved César Javier: one of his shoes and the bag containing his lunch—two cheese and tomato calzones, still in perfect condition.

The death of César Javier marked the end of a dismal chapter in the history of the Cordoba family. Francisco returned home from the mines, and with the money he had saved from working hundreds of extra shifts was able to purchase a small farming property in the hills outside of Envigado, on the San Gregório road nearby the little hill village of Lasanía. As quickly as could be arranged, he moved his wife and three precious children out of the town that he had thought would be a haven for them and tried to put this latest misfortune behind him.

 .

The Death of Eléna Serafína

Eléna Serafína, as her name suggests, had an angelic disposition, but she was also beautiful. She had a small upturned nose, inky black hair that fell straight to her slim waist, small delicate feet, and, at only fifteen, breasts that had grown to the size and firmness of ripe grapefruit. Claudia had difficulty both purchasing and making clothes to fit her comfortably and that also retained a degree of modesty. Fearful that Eléna’s extraordinary beauty would ignite the passion of every boy in the province—for you had only to take one look at the girl to fall in love with her—Claudia tried dressing her in a loose-fitting bodice covered with an old-fashion blouse, in a plain baggy skirt, in overalls, in a dumpy cotton dress that reached to her ankles and covered every inch of her. But the shining beacon of Eléna Serafína’s beauty was not to be dimmed, even when buried under multiple layers of unflattering attire. She cut the girl’s hair into a disorderly mop, but it grew back straighter and more exquisite than ever. She told her daughter that it was sinful to enhance her beauty with lipsticks and blushers, which were finding their way on to the grounds of even the most rigidly protective Catholic schools, but Eléna Serafína did not need help from artificial cosmetics in order to be declared the most beautiful girl for miles around.

Because it had been necessary for Francisco to return to the mines, Claudia wore herself out trying to protect her daughter, staying up late into the night, listening and watching for suitors who might try to creep through the window into the girl’s bedroom, chasing off the packs of young men who gathered like hungry wolves on the road leading to the farm, weeding the love letters out of the day’s mail and throwing them unread on the fire. At school Eléna Serafína was shielded from unwelcome advances by her older sister and, at Claudia’s request, by her teachers. But with Eléna Serafína growing more womanly by the day, Claudia, in despair, realized that nothing short of consigning her to a cell in the monasterio católico hidden deep in the hills would keep her daughter safe from harm. Though she would argue until the last breath had left her body that it was not true, she had, unconsciously perhaps, already resigned herself to a loss that was foreordained.

A boy named Ramón Casimiro finally bypassed all the precautions and safeguards and insinuated his way into Eléna Serafína’s heart, and, shortly thereafter, her britches. The incident happened in an empty field near the school, just beyond the Lasanía precincts. Like many others smitten by her unrivalled beauty, Ramón had been observing Eléna Serafína ever since she arrived at the school, hoping to catch her eye and, in not too subtle a fashion, communicate his intentions. Eléna, indifferent to her looks, which she regarded as nothing special, was not a flirtatious girl, and if left to her own devices would have been perfectly capable of spurning the advances of boys and young men who did not interest her. However, camouflaged beneath the dowdy outfits provided by her mother and shielded from reality by her sister and the teachers at the school, who were anxious to avoid scandal, she had retained far too much childish innocence for a girl of fifteen and had not even the vaguest inkling of the impious thoughts that her body inspired in the male of the species. She did not care that her hair, her skin, and her breasts were perfect. She did not care that boys ogled and whistled at her. However, Ramón Casimiro caught her attention because he was a few inches taller than the others, his shoulders were broader, and his biceps were just that much more developed. He was also smart, in a nefarious, conniving sort of way, and after observing how her sister María Concepción and the teachers fussed over her to no end, had determined that a direct approach with this girl would get him nowhere. He would have to plan a sidelong attack, and with this in mind elicited the services of one of Eléna’s closest friends, a squat and graceless girl named Carola Gómez, whom he charmed and corrupted with a promise of sexual escapades once she had helped him to seduce Eléna Serafína.

For Eléna Serafína her beauty was truly her downfall, for not only did it inflame the lust of every man she encountered—from the elderly gentleman whose nether regions had been asleep for decades to the boy just entering puberty—it stirred to life envy in the hearts of girls and women who believed themselves above envy, including those whom she counted among her friends. Carola Gómez, as empty headed and selfish as only those can be who fail to perceive beneath the surface of things, was blind to all but the physical beauty of her friend and of the boy she wanted desperately to be with. That the price for gaining the one was losing the other did not trouble her, and she agreed to convey Ramón’s notes to Eléna Serafína the same moment the request was made.

What began tentatively soon became a passionate exchange of lover’s vows. Carola Gómez was kept very busy as go-between and sometimes wondered if the erotic high jinx that Ramón had pledged would be sufficient recompense for her efforts. She was also disappointed that Ramón’s affection for her friend seemed to be sincere. When he had solicited her aid he had made it sound as if he regarded the whole episode as a lark. But now, reading his notes to Eléna Serafína before passing them on, she always wept because the words were full of poetry and the most profound understanding of sentiments that all women long to have whispered in their ear. She went down on her knees at her bedside and prayed that when he had had his way with Eléna Serafína, whom she had grown to hate, he would write such things to her. What she was too ignorant to realize was that Ramón, coming from a sophisticated household, had consulted his father’s library, where he discovered The Collected Works of William Shakespeare in translation and was cribbing liberally from The Sonnets and Romeo and Juliet. Eléna’s notes in response professing gratitude for Ramón’s courtesies, though passionate in a restrained, and ultimately childish, way, were far less forthcoming, and after the first two or three Carola did not bother to read these before placing them under the stone in the schoolyard, where Ramón came by later to retrieve them.

There is no getting around the fact that Eléna Serafína was all too easily duped by Ramón’s borrowed eloquence, and she soon agreed to a clandestine meeting, away from meddling influences and beyond the range of prying eyes.

The sexual history of our race is filled with stories of young women losing their virginity in untimely fashion to unprincipled young men. Eléna Serafína had fallen under a spell, and with her imperfect understanding of her own sexual potency, allowed—some would say invited—the worst to happen. Her friend Carola provided the pretext, agreeing to tell María Concepción that she and Eléna were going to her house to do their homework together, while in actual fact Ramón was waiting for the object of his desire in a field beyond the village. Carola led her friend, like the proverbial lamb to slaughter, along the road that took them out of the village, chattering all the way about how intelligent and handsome Ramón Casimiro was, and advising Eléna to be nice to him. Because the boys were segregated from the girls at school, Eléna Serafína had never been alone with any boy other than her brothers. In the field she took his hand and smiled. Ramón smiled as well and, placing his other hand on her cheek, gasped at the divine softness of her skin. Eléna looked over her shoulder to ask Carola what she should do next, but her friend was gone. This was not part of the arrangement, and her heart began to tremble. But Ramón quieted her fears, gently stroking her while saying that Carola would be back in a few minutes and in the meantime they might as well lie down in the grass and get comfortable.

To his credit, he was not rough with her, but in his eagerness to be persuasive tore several buttons from her dress, which was one her mother had pieced together from an old tablecloth and finished with a drawstring that had come from a sack of potatoes. Once he had her clothes off, he could hardly contain himself. Her beauty was far greater than he had imagined, even in his most zealous adolescent fantasies. All in all, for Ramón, though he achieved climax much more quickly than he would have hoped, it was a pleasing and gratifying experience, worth all the dishonest scheming in which he had engaged, even worth the embarrassment of having to ally himself with that odious little Carola Gómez, whom he had no intention of ever touching let alone taking to bed. When he was done he stood and, tossing her clothes toward her, curtly instructed Eléna Serafína to cover herself. Then, valorous to the end, he left the naked, weeping girl where she lay in order to go home, where his mother would be preparing his supper.

Claudia sensed a change had taken place, and within a week had determined that her daughter was carrying a child. The girl, innocent to a fault and utterly incapable of telling a lie, readily confessed what had taken place. Her naïveté was so complete that she was unsure if she should be proud or ashamed. Claudia knew of the family of this boy. The father was powerful in the unions and the mother, with her rich woman’s airs, had all of the teachers at the school eating out of her hand. There was nothing to be gained from making claims and hurling accusations, so she decided to keep Eléna Serafína at home until the baby was born.

And so the months went by. María Concepción, bitter with the knowledge that her mistake was costing her family so dearly on this occasion, lost the ability to smile, and at the sight of her stern elder sister Eléna Serafína, whose condition had made her excitable, invariably broke down into tears. Antonio José, encountering Ramón Casimiro on the street in Envigado one evening, gave the boy a black eye and would have done worse had his friends not been there to restrain him. Claudia wrote to Francisco that all was well, but her heart was heavy with foreboding because a child cannot develop normally in the womb within an atmosphere made poisonous by rancour and spite. She tried to lighten the mood in the household by baking sweet cakes and keeping all the windows uncovered, and by telling stories that she thought her children would find amusing, but often discovered she was eating the cakes alone and speaking only to herself. María Concepción’s scowls, Eléna Serafína’s tears, and Antonio José’s anger sapped her strength, and she had just taken to her bed when, halfway through the ninth month, Eléna appeared at her side saying that the moment had come.

The timing could not have been worse. Though Claudia was confident she could deliver a baby herself, when she saw it was a breech she decided that Antonio José would take the cart and go into town to fetch the doctor. However, the rains that had started the previous day continued unabated, and Antonio José did not get very far before discovering the road was impassable. When he returned home alone Claudia began to weep, for she knew that she could not deliver this baby without help. María Concepción assembled the necessary implements and provided plenty of hot water while her mother made Eléna Serafína comfortable, but when the baby had been delivered up to his neck, Claudia’s worst fear was realized. He was stuck and would come no further. Without delay, she would have to cut Eléna in order to make the passage easier. Placing a damp towel in the new mother’s mouth in order to stifle her screams, she ordered Antonio and María to hold Eléna still while she performed this delicate and risky manoeuvre. The incision she made with a kitchen knife was small but produced so much blood she could not see what she was doing. Finally the baby came free, but it would not breathe and Claudia’s efforts to revive it proved futile. This left them with the task of saving Eléna Serafína, who was bleeding to death before their eyes. They tried damp towels and bandages, even cauterization, but nothing would staunch the flow of blood. In an automatic gesture, the delirious Eléna had taken her two siblings by the hand and maintained a grip of unnatural strength. It was almost as if she thought they might pull her to safety. But as the seconds ticked by and the blood continued to flow, her grip slackened, and it was not long before the girl’s struggle ended. Soon the only sound to be heard was the rain drumming on the roof of the house.

Claudia had the baby with no name interred with his mother. Nobody dared voice an objection. The Cordoba family’s frequent visits to the cementerio of San Gregório had, in the most unfortunate way, earned them the right to dictate how things would be done. Even the new young priest was not above looking to Claudia and Francisco for advice on how best to conduct una misa por los difuntos.

 .

The Death of Antonio José

This was in the days of compulsory military service, and at seventeen Antonio José had reached the age when he could expect to receive the call. He awaited his conscription notice with anxiety, but also eagerly, torn as he was at the thought of leaving a home that had seen more than its share of tragedy but which was also familiar and dear to him. When the letter arrived, three days after his birthday, he was disappointed to learn that he was being assigned to a camp far to the north, deep in the desert interior. His friends had been telling him stories of others who had performed their service in towns on the coast, where during their leave they consorted with the local girls and visited the beaches and casinos that attracted cruise ships carrying American tourists who were always on the lookout for ways to part with their money. In his mind, Antonio José had constructed a vision of himself in a starched white uniform, a beautiful girl on each arm, raking in stacks of chips at the roulette table. He understood that the reality was probably less glamorous than his fantasy, but like most boys his age he also was not fully aware of the kind of humiliating, boot-licking grunt work that basic training actually entails.

By age seventeen Antonio José felt cast adrift in a dangerous, hostile world with no idea why he was there. The deaths of eight siblings had burned eight holes in his young heart and left it permanently scarred. His only means of shielding himself from more pain was to keep all people at a distance and hold himself aloof from serious emotional attachments. To this end he cultivated a callous and defiant public persona, pretending to care about nothing and no one, even though he cared deeply about everything and everyone.

After the death of Eléna Serafína, he pulled away from his mother and sister, and with menacing silences and accusing glances made them think he held them responsible. At home he quarrelled with María Concepción, bringing tears to her eyes by calling her a bitch and even una buscona—a whore—even though he had no basis for such allegations and did not himself believe she was anything other than a gentle young woman whose heart, shattered by grief, could never be mended. For her part, she told him he was behaving like a fool, causing them all to suffer needlessly when they had already suffered enough. To forget his sister’s pain, he went into town with his friends on weekends and caused trouble, getting into fights, breaking windows, defacing public property. But try as he might, he could not lose sight of the immense divide that existed between his true caring self and the delinquent identity he was working hard to adopt. Unaided, he would never become genuinely heartless and convincingly project the image of a sullen, disrespectful teenager. He needed help. And the instrument he chose to help him in his quest was alcohol.

Antonio José had seen his father falling-down drunk more than once, and it was true that Francisco had a weakness for drink. He could easily have destroyed himself in this way. But he demonstrated true strength of character by moderating his intake and exhausting himself through hard work. He had escaped back to the mines shortly after Eléna Serafína’s funeral, but when Claudia wrote to him about Antonio José he returned home determined to rein in the boy’s wayward tendencies and set him on the right track.

It was customary for boys to be initiated into the ways of men at an early age, and Antonio José had enjoyed a glass of red wine with dinner when he was only fifteen. Claudia had permitted this and Antonio José never drank more than a single glass and never exhibited a thirst for more. His habitual drunkenness at sixteen therefore came as a great surprise, and he was a surly, argumentative drunk. Francisco’s presence in the house did nothing to inhibit his craving and, if anything, made it worse since he was unable to avoid the disappointment in his father’s eyes. Prohibitions were put in place, but by Saturday night Antonio José had always managed to lay his hands on money that his older friends could use to buy a bottle of wine for him. However, despite the heartache he was causing, Claudia did not want her last remaining son to enter the military without fanfare. They held a celebration for his birthday, with presents, cakes, and wine, and Antonio José was allowed to get staggeringly, roaringly intoxicated. At midnight Francisco, Claudia, and María Concepción carried him to bed and tried not to listen while Antonio José, out of his mind and raving, scoffed at them for the misery they endured, for their regrets, for their constant state of mourning. He said he was going to be free. He would change his name and make a life for himself somewhere else, away from the pernicious influence of the Cordobas of Envigado province. He remembered none of this in the morning, but on a subconscious level some vestige of this sentiment must have stuck. As the day neared for him to leave home, he grew pensive and less cantankerous. A few weeks after his conscription notice, a subsequent letter had arrived with a schedule and instructions he was to follow upon his arrival in the northern military outpost of Puño. He had gone into town to purchase the train ticket and told everyone he was leaving Wednesday morning. Over several days, while Claudia prepared pastries and other tidbits he could enjoy on the trip, he packed his belongings. However, on Tuesday morning while it was still dark he got out of bed, took his filled duffel bag, some scraps of food, his shaving kit, and a few other important items, and quickly left the house. The train pulled out of the station at five a.m., heading north. He said goodbye to nobody.

Antonio José’s train did not go all the way to Puño. It made its final stop in Arica, where he was to board a military transport bus that would take him inland to his destination. Arica was a port town, located in a beautiful coastal region blessed with a dry warm climate that attracted thousands of native and foreign holiday goers to its glistening beaches. The schedule told him that he had a few hours of leisure before he was to report to the local Cuartel General, where the bus would be waiting. He was tired after his trip, which had taken more than forty-eight hours, and had slept only fitfully. But the sight of Arica, brilliant in the morning sunlight, with its winding cobbled lanes, resort hotels, coconut trees, and brightly painted buildings inspired him with a sense of adventurous longing. He had never been anywhere like this, and was instantly filled with resentment that his family should have held him back, as if this had been done deliberately, in full knowledge of the pleasures of which he was being deprived. Moreover, the follow-up correspondence he had received had long since dispelled the fanciful notions that had earlier filled his head. He was therefore not convinced that the military was where he belonged and regarded the two years of service awaiting him with suspicion and fear.

He carried his duffel bag with him into a café and took a table by the window. Instantly, as if by magic, a little man with grey hair and an unruly moustache appeared and with a damp cloth wiped down the table. With an inviting smile he asked Antonio José what his pleasure would be. Antonio José ordered a cup of coffee. However, he had already received two cheques from the state, one as an advance on his military salary and another intended to cover his transportation costs. He had cashed these and had therefore a substantial wad of pesetas stuffed into his jacket pocket. At this decisive moment his thoughts travelled upon two distinct paths through his mind: one which saw him spending the next two years in Puño, which was reputed to be a barren, desolate encampment where he would be living in uncomfortably close quarters in a tent with a mob of sweaty new recruits, performing menial labour from dawn to dusk, eating tasteless gruel, and pissing behind a cactus, and another which summoned him to live his life to the fullest, to experience all he could in the short time allotted to him. He called the man back to his table and ordered breakfast and, purely out of curiosity since he had never tasted it before, a whisky.

Of course, Antonio José did not understand that, genetically speaking, he had the makings of a true alcoholic and that the first drop of fiery amber liquid to hit bottom in his stomach would ignite a thirst that would not be quenched until he had consumed the entire bottle. His father had beaten back the demon only by sheer will power, but Antonio José was far from the sobering influence of his family. Having arrived in the cosmopolitan resort town of Arica feeling cheated by fate and in the mood to be more than a little reckless, with his pocket bulging with pesetas and two years of state sanctioned imprisonment on the horizon, he didn’t stand a chance.

The little man in the café was no innocent bystander. The duffel bag and the wad of cash branded Antonio José as a new recruit, away from home for the first time, and the little man knew that the military was willing to pick up the tab for whatever mayhem these inexperienced, vulnerable young men created. He also knew, though officially it was unacknowledged, that every season the military expected a small number of new recruits to go completely off the rails, to lose all their belongings, all of their money, their dignity, sometimes the clothes off their back, sometimes their freedom, and sometimes their lives. The little man had seen it happen on a number of unfortunate occasions. But who was he to go against fate? In fact, a widespread belief existed among the tavern owners, barkeepers, casino operators, pimps, drug dealers, bootleggers, and purveyors of pornography who did business in Arica, that this was the way in which the military weeded the weaklings and derelicts and perverts out of its ranks before they found their way in. Popular opinion held that these businessmen and -women were in fact performing a vital service for their country. By providing a source of temptation that only the most grossly substandard of its citizens would be unable to resist, they were saving their armed forces hundreds of thousands of pesetas in tribunal and court marshal costs that would otherwise be spent after the fact when these inferior young men showed their true colours. The little man in the café therefore believed that, though technically it was against the law to serve hard liquor to a teenager, and especially unethical to do it before eleven o’clock in the morning, he was bound by a sense of duty and national pride to fill the order. This was how Antonio José Cordoba found himself lifting a glass of the finest American whisky to his lips before he had been off the train for twenty minutes.

The first sip filled him with a warm feeling of kinship for all humanity and a supreme sense of self-confidence, and he quickly drained the glass. He drank his coffee as well, but suddenly the food he had ordered seemed repulsive, and without tasting a single bite of breakfast, he paid his bill and left the café in search of an open bar or taberna, where he could do some serious drinking.

Lined up side by side along the road that faced the beach was a tempting array of establishments suitable to the boy’s purpose. He selected one and went inside. Here, in a smoky interior made intimate by subdued lighting, the middle-aged woman behind the bar, who felt upon her broad shoulders the same weighty responsibility for her country’s welfare as the little man at the café, filled glass after glass according to the instructions of her young patron. When Antonio José could no longer hold himself upright on his stool, she assisted him into a back room and laid him down on a cot, where he instantly began to snore. She also rifled his pockets and helped herself to the money he owed her, along with a sizable tip. She forgot about the duffel bag, which sat abandoned on the floor of the taberna for a short while before another patron, who had been keeping an eye on these proceedings, walked off with it. Antonio José awoke an hour or so later aware of only one thing: he was going to die if he did not immediately have a drink. He did not know where he was, but in the muddle that his brain had become, this did not register as a concern. When the same woman refused to serve him—because she now recognized him for what he was: someone who would happily drink beyond his means if given the opportunity—he raised a stink and was forcibly ejected.

Outside, he wandered along the boardwalk beneath the afternoon sun feeling himself hard done by and craving that deep affection for all humanity and the supreme sense of self-confidence that had warmed him earlier. Without these the world was intolerable and all the people in it seemed deceitful and small-minded. Finally, in a side street close to the port, nestled between a boating supply store and a muffler repair shop, he found a drinking establishment that would serve him. He sat down and pulled the much diminished wad of cash out of his pocket and laid it on the counter.

Events become sketchy at this point, but the one thing that is certain is that Antonio José did not survive the night. He was found by the morning’s first light face down in the shallows near a wharf where amateur anglers went to collect bait and cast their reels. The back of his head bore the imprint of a mortal blow, but the autopsy, carried out under the watchful eye of a military coroner, showed that he had in fact drowned before he could die from the effects of his wound. The body was shipped home, with the costs graciously borne by the state, and delivered to his family, who had spent several frantic days trying to establish his whereabouts after his surreptitious early morning departure only the week before.

Francisco was now in demand at the mines and had been promised a good salary and credit toward a pension for the years of service he had already put in. After Antonio José’s funeral, and before leaving once again for a work term of indeterminate length, he sold the house that had seen the death of one child and delivered another to an ignominious fate at the hands of strangers, and relocated his wife and daughter to the farm where he intended that he and Claudia would live out their final years. This was also on the San Gregório road, but much further away from Envigado, in view of the mountains and situated in virtual isolation on the plains between the highest hills.

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The Death of María Concepción

María Concepción wanted to make her mother happy. This, she felt, would be her mission in life. However, because she had lost the ability to smile, and because she was by nature dour and judgmental, humourless and quick to tears, she faced great impediments to her aim of re-inventing herself as a carefree, amiable presence within the home. She did not really enjoy housework and had no intellectual ambitions, though she had been a competent enough student and always received the praises of her teachers. She was also thin and gangly, with shapeless legs and almost undetectable breasts, and she wore her frizzy reddish-brown hair long and tied back from her narrow face. She had suffered the pangs of loss every bit as sharply as her parents, for she had been a mature ten-year-old when little Federico Adolfo had choked on a button, and her memories of her other siblings lives and deaths were fresh and never far from the active centre of her mind. She was, in short, a living repository for all the sad events that had taken place in her family’s history, and she became blushingly conscious of this every time her mother’s gaze lighted on her and then seemed, as if in response to a reflexive aversion, to shift quickly away.

Claudia was at a loss to understand her behaviour toward her daughter, whom she loved more than her own life. After a few months spent alone with her in the farmhouse, the girl’s grim presence was causing her the kind of physical discomfort with which anyone who has attended the sickbed of a dying loved one will be familiar. They did not argue, but the girl had a way of looking at her that seemed to peel the layers away and leave her exposed. Claudia stopped seeking her out and, in fact, began plotting ways to avoid her. When by necessity they must be together, she suffered her presence as she might an offensive odour or a nest of spiders that could not easily be got rid of. The meals they shared were particularly trying. María Concepción seemed to feel obliged to maintain a flow of conversation no matter what effort it cost her, all of it meant to avoid discussion of the one topic weighing most heavily upon both their minds and none of it anything that Claudia wished to hear. Claudia was always glad on those occasions when she could truthfully declare she was unwell and would take her supper alone in her room.

On Sundays they hitched the horse to the cart and side by side rode to church in San Gregório, where they endured the uneasy salutations of their fellow parishioners, every one of whom knew the family’s tragic history and none of whom were able to make their attempts to appear untroubled by the presence of the Cordoba women in the least convincing. On Saturdays they loaded the cart with the goods they had prepared for market and made the long journey together into Envigado. These simple activities should have given Claudia great pleasure, a pleasure one could reasonably assume would be heightened by the simple fact that she was sharing them with her daughter. But, inexplicably, Claudia derived no satisfaction from anything she did when María Concepción was at her side and found the girl’s austere company and forced chitchat a source of great anxiety. She did not wish her ill, but looked forward to the time when she would be free of her.

At nineteen, Claudia had reason to hope that María Concepción would, after attracting a suitor and getting married, soon be leaving home. She was, though unsmiling, not without her physical charms. Men sometimes approached her outside the church after mass, and others tried to beguile her with suave glances and bravura displays of eloquence at the market. But because she was timid and could not smile, none of these advances met with much success, and, seeing that the girl showed little interest in anything other than clinging to her mother with unseemly devotion, Claudia decided to begin laying the groundwork for an eventuality that, if God had any grace at all, could not be far in the future. She began talking with exaggerated enthusiasm about other women she knew whose daughters had married well and who were now raising families of their own. Into the awkward silences that were strewn like stones throughout their conversations she dropped the names of young men whom she regarded as suitable matches. As if the girl had ever expressed such a desire, she sighed and said she would have no objection if María Concepción still wanted to move into San Gregório and get a job as a schoolteacher. And finally, and in a regrettable moment of vexation brought on by the girl’s apathy toward everything but her mother’s needs, she reminded María Concepción that when she was nineteen, she was married and had already given birth to two children, a fact of which her daughter, having been one of those children, was painfully aware.

María Concepción could only see that her mother was roughly cutting off her attempts to form a meaningful bond with her, and it dawned on her one day over breakfast, while she watched Claudia tentatively slice into a hard boiled egg, that her mother was afraid, afraid in the same manner that a person fears an incident or experience that will cause her pain. Claudia might be blind to it, but her daughter—once she had analyzed the pattern of recent behaviour and understood her mother’s dread—realized in a blinding flash that when Claudia looked at her she did not see a healthy young woman who had every reason to go on living. She saw someone who had not yet died but whose time was fast approaching. This neither shocked nor alarmed her, but it did enable her to understand why her mother was always pushing her away.

With only these and similar notions to keep her company for hours at a time, the girl began to speculate further. There must be about her, María Concepción thought, a negative aura, a toxic cloud or vapour that, though invisible, influenced people and events around her in a harmful way. She looked back over the years, recalling her siblings, each one in succession, and thought about her role in their deaths. And for each she found a reason to believe that, had she said something at an appropriate juncture or behaved in a slightly different manner at a crucial moment, that child would still be alive. It was enough that she thought her mother was struck with terror at the sight of her, but in a short time she had also convinced herself that her mother would somehow achieve contentment if she were gone. From here it was a short leap to the conclusion that her mother wished she would die. And from here, it was logical to assume that she deserved to die.

The girl continued to live her life and perform her chores, but once she had allowed these ideas to permeate her consciousness she became less of a flesh and blood entity and more an ethereal, vaporous presence. She spent hours out of doors, in the full glare of the summer sun, tending to the rose bushes with which she had formed an unlikely attachment. As time went on and the roses flourished, saturating the air around the house with their perfume, her skin acquired a milky translucence and her body became even more willowy and fragile than before. She drifted about the house in complete silence, shocking her mother with sudden and unexpected appearances at her side, floating from room to room and, like a shadow, leaving not a trace of herself behind, only the faintly perfumed scent of rose petals. Claudia did not see her eat a morsel, did not hear her speak a word for days at a time. She tried to rouse herself to alarm, but found she had not the heart for it. It was like the child had died along with the others and was already beyond her reach.

And then there came the day when María Concepción failed to appear at breakfast. Claudia forced herself to go looking. The house was silent, but outside there was a breeze and already the birds were filling the rose-scented air with their song. She crept along the passage to the girl’s bedroom. Within her heart fear mingled with hope to create something she neither recognized nor understood. When she thrust back the door without knocking she was shocked to find the room filled with light. Through the wide open windows the rose bushes reached numerous tendrils forward like groping fingers. María Concepción lay on her bed with her hands clasped over her breast holding a single pink rose. Her skin was pure chalk white and her abundant red hair was spread around her on the bedclothes in luxuriant shining splendour, concealing the pillow on which her head rested. Her eyes were closed as if in sleep, but her slightly parted lips had curled into a smile at the thought that now, after years of suffering, her mother would be happy.

§

Many years later news of the death of General Allesandro Aguaria-Duarte filtered down to the common man by way of gossip and innuendo. First it was the nurse who had pressed her ear to his mouth and heard his deathbed confession, then the priest who had been called in at the last moment to perform the rite of Extreme Unction. Then one of the General’s bodyguards, who had long been living abroad, went on American radio and spoke about the General in the past tense. Finally there was such a clamour in the street that the state-controlled media had no choice but to report the death as a fact. The President hung his head and declared it was true, adding that the reason it had been kept secret was concern for public safety: the fear that in the midst of their celebrations people would behave badly and cause themselves and each other harm. But in truth, the President feared that because the economy was not as robust at this point in his term as he had promised it would be, people would look back on Aguaria’s administration with nostalgic longing and, forgetting the insane and random brutality that had been his trademark, turn the late General into a saint and his grave in the Cementerio Parque el Prado into a shrine.

Claudia, when she finally heard the news of Aguaria’s death nearly a year after the fact, made no connection with her own life. She had to think for a long while to bring an image to mind, and when she did, she saw a little man with a big moustache wearing military garb riding a grey stallion. Then she thought no more about it.

But she thought often and deeply about her children, who had visited this world far too briefly and passed into the next as if lured by some enticement impossible to resist. Fifty years after the death of her last she could still be seen making her weekly trek to the cementerio of San Gregório, where she swept off the graves of her offspring with a wicker broom, paused over each to mutter a prayer, and then trudged home along the dusty San Gregório road. As the years went by she often spoke of these visits and the things her children had done with the lives they had never lived. Federico Adolfo was a famous poet and had read to her from his latest project, a series of dramatic poems depicting the great military victories from the country’s long history. Carlos Vincenzo had become a college professor and visited the Galapagos Islands, where he studied the climate and the marine environment. The creatures he described seemed so outlandish and unearthly that she could hardly believe her ears. Ana Luisa had become a dancer. People all over the world paid money to see her perform. Antonio José was a soldier, César Javier a tram conductor. The others had all become parents and gave her the news of what their own children were up to. To hear these stories never failed to lift her spirit because for a mother, there is nothing more richly satisfying than to listen to her children describe their accomplishments.

When she understood that the last year of her life had arrived she brought each a special gift, and if anyone had been brave enough to commit the blasphemy of opening the paper bags in which the gifts were delivered, they would have found:

For little Federico Adolfo: the button that had unfairly claimed his life, which the doctor had presented to the young mother after conducting his examination. Claudia had kept it all these years, intending she knew not what, but the time had come to return it. She had often taken it from its hiding place to examine it, a plain black button from a pair of Francisco’s trousers. It had gone missing, and so distracted had she been by the squalling of her children she had not given it a second thought. Until it was too late.

For Sara Violeta, who had been so irritable and greedy for her feedings: the rubber nipple off the baby bottle she had used once the child had been weaned. The bottle had long since been broken, but if it had not been she would have brought that too.

For Carlos Vincenzo: the school bag that had been found in the forest close by his remains, still stained with his blood. She had never washed it. It was empty and she had always been curious to know who had taken his books and pencils.

For Eva Cristina, who had perished most mysteriously under the influence of a pernicious but unknown contagion: the two little cloth dolls, Bella and Lorenzo, with which the girl had been able to amuse herself for hours at a time.

For Pedro Diego, her little daredevil, the boy who would not stop laughing: a photograph of his friend María, the girl who had won his young heart and who, standing next to the family, had wept long and hard at his funeral. Claudia had discovered the photo in his school bag among his belongings after he had been laid to rest. It bore teeth marks along its edges and this strange fact had always brought a smile to her lips.

Ballet slippers seemed an appropriate parting gift for Ana Luisa, who had dreamed such noble and ambitious dreams but who fell victim to the despair of failure much too early.

Poor César Javier. Something had prevented him from eating his lunch on the day he had died, but he had carried it with him until that truck had ended his life. For him she brought two fresh cheese and tomato calzones to appease his hunger.

What else could she have brought for Eléna Serafína, the only one of her girls to bear a child of her own? Few mementos remained, but the one that stood out was the oversized brassiere she had had specially made to contain the girl’s enormous breasts.

For Antonio José: the object of his single-minded craving and the instrument of his ruin, a bottle of red wine.

For her beloved María Concepción: a little basket filled with rose petals.

§

Francisco retained a deeper recollection of Aguaria’s tenure as president. He had often cursed the General under his breath, especially when bearing one of his children to an early grave. But when news of the little man’s death reached him one hot dusty day when he was enjoying a cigarillo and a drink of homemade aguardiente at a sidewalk café in San Gregorio, he waved his hand in front of his face as if chasing off a fly. “The damage has been done,” he said to his old friend Egberto, who had likewise suffered under the tyrant’s rule. The faces of his ten dead children passed before Francisco’s eyes as the two old friends raised their glasses. To dispel the memory Francisco looked upward, into the piercing afternoon sun, and briefly considered the anguish that human beings are capable of enduring. By silent and mutual consent, he and Egberto toasted General Allesandro Aguaria-Duarte, the little man whose vanity was the object of an entire country’s derision. It had caused mayhem far and wide, led to the demise or disappearance of thousands, robbed families of their offspring, ruined the nation’s reputation on the international stage, and brought close friends to blows. “The waste,” Egberto commented, shaking his head. “Imagine the waste.” Francisco nodded, knowing, after all, more about waste than anyone could ever imagine.

They turned back to their game of backgammon. It was Francisco’s move.

—Ian Colford

 

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Remarkably, more than 30 years after his first story was published, Ian Colford keeps finding things to write about. He gets most of his ideas from overheard conversations and from just keep his eyes open, but when the pickings are slim he makes things up. Often, an idea will simmer for a year or two before the writing starts, with the final product bearing little resemblance to the original concept. “How the Laughter of the Nation …”  was originally included in the draft manuscript of his novel The Crimes of Hector Tomas (2012) but was cut during the editorial process. He is grateful to Numéro Cinq for giving this story its web debut. A novella, Perfect World, is forthcoming from Freehand Books in 2016. At present he is working on a sequence of stories using characters that appeared in his 2008 story collection, Evidence. He works as a librarian at the Sexton Design & Technology Library at Dalhousie University.

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Jan 042015
 

Fernando  Sdrigotti

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The sign said ‘Rome’ and pointed to the left but we pressed right ahead. It was an average circular road with scattered flat houses, advertisement boards, cars rushing in this or that direction, smog, vast expanses of industrial space, empty soft drink cans and rubbish lying on the hard shoulder. Manu was driving, I was sitting next to him, and Mika was at the back, filming everything with a camcorder.

“Why didn’t you turn left?” I asked.

“Sorry?”

“There was a sign for Rome… I thought we were going to Rome…”

“Easy, bro! Relax!”

Relax… Everybody says that all roads lead to Rome but apparently this is a myth – at least in its periphery. And to make matters worse all circular roads look the same. We could have been driving near Buenos Aires, São Paulo, London, Paris, Kathmandu, Leeds, Johannesburg, Mexico DF, San Francisco, Ontario, Reykjavik, anywhere or almost anywhere. Manu took a right turn and we went over a level crossing. The car slowed down and this guy who was standing by the barrier looked into my eyes – why, I don’t know. Soon we took a narrow street uphill. Manu drove fast and the cars driving towards us drove fast too. Once or twice in the space of a hundred metres we narrowly avoided a crash, but everything seemed calculated, precise – there was a prearranged agreement. Mika was quiet, her mind focused on her camera and the camera was focused on me. Or maybe she was just filming the passing cars – I didn’t turn around to find out.

“We’re not going to Rome,” Manu said.

“Cool,” I said. He was waiting for me to ask where we were going.

More narrow roads, more steep roads, the smell of pine trees. Manu would occasionally point to this or that place. He wouldn’t give any explanation, just point to this or that place and tell me to look. Look there, a typical Italian house. Look there, a church. A path getting lost somewhere. A pig. A mountain. Greenish fields. Vineyards. A convent. A dog. More vineyards, another vineyard, another convent. That’s not a pig, it’s a Great Dane. Twenty minutes later we reached a place called Rocca di Papa. Manu parked the car by a little square.

“Fancy a walk?”

“Sure,” I said.

It must have been three o’clock in the afternoon, the streets were empty and the sun was already weak. We left the car and crossed to the other side, where there was a viewpoint on top of a steep cliff. Manu leaned against the railing and lit up a cigarette; he passed me the pack and I lit up too. Mika was pointing the camcorder at me and I looked down below and saw a dog scavenging food from a bin liner bag. It was full of rubbish down there, on what looked like someone’s back garden. How irritating must it be, to have everyone in town dumping their shit into your backyard. I turned around to look at Mika and instead of seeing Mika I saw a camera lens. She gestured from behind the lens – I passed the cigarettes her way; Manu elbowed me.

“Look,” he said. “Over there, that’s where Rome is.” I looked towards the horizon: a palette of yellows and light greens and grey clouds coming from what looked like small garden bonfires.

“I can’t see anything, only smoke,” I said.

“Can you repeat that again? I forgot to press REC!” Mika said. She nodded and smiled.

“I can’t see anything, only smoke,” I repeated. She gave me the thumbs up.

“Behind the smoke is Rome,” Manu said.

Mika had been with the camera in my face since I had arrived the day before. Cameras feel like guns sometimes and it’s impossible to get used to them and everybody hates a closeup. But I didn’t complain, it’s the direction things are going right now, no point in fighting that. We are constantly observed, photographed, filmed – Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame taken to its logical conclusion: we’ll all have our fifteen minutes of registered irrelevance, on a daily basis. When Mika finished her cigarette she tossed it down the rock face and filmed it; I looked at the cigarette all the way to the bottom and so did Manu. The cigarette fell on the rubbish but missed the dog. She laughed, a beautiful laugh; she seemed happy and she had this very intense perfume, totally coherent with her laughter.

Soon we started walking again, sloping upward a narrow street that seemed to get narrower with every step. The sun, barely visible, dropped between tall houses, breaking through clothes hanging out to dry from side to side. My eyes hurt from the sun even though it was almost gone. The scene was too picturesque to be taken seriously, too typically Italian, in a way I couldn’t really explain although I’m half Italian, or so says my passport.

“Tomorrow we can go to Rome… If you want,” he said. I didn’t reply but I thought that I would just take the train to Rome and fuck him and his car – he was in control of the situation as long as he could drive me around. I was going to go to Rome on my own; or maybe just stay in bed all day. Or maybe just take the plane back to London and spend Christmas on my own. Or not, I didn’t know. Mika who was lagging a few metres behind, turned back to the little square we had just left, filming, of course; Manu caught me looking at her.

“I bought the camera for her birthday,” he said. “She wants to do films.”

“Nice camera.”

“It would be good if you talked to her about it… Give her a few tips… You know the drill.”

“Not really…”

“I thought you worked with films…”

“I do. But I don’t do films.”

“I thought you taught film.”

“Yes… Sort of.”

“So?”

“I teach film history, and theory. But I don’t do films – I could never do a film.”

“Still. Talk to her about films when you have a chance; give her a list of films to see, a book to read, something. She’s a nice girl; a bit slow, but good with visual things. She’s obsessed with that fucking camera. She says she wants to do a documentary; but she doesn’t have a clue…”

“That’s commendable,” I said. “I mean, documentaries are great.”

“Yeah, whatever; it keeps her busy. Talk to her… I hate documentaries, bro.”

“Manu, can I have your shades, please?”

“No way!” he said. “It’s not even sunny…”

“I didn’t sleep last night; I’ve got this terrible hangover. Lend me the shades, will you?”

He passed me a pair of aviators; I put them on. The sky was nicer staring behind them; the sky is always nicer from behind a pair of shades. We continued walking and soon we reached what looked like the town centre. The streets were empty and all the shops were closed – it was dead quiet.

“Take me to a bar, Manu. This is depressing,” I said.

“Have you seen any bars?”

“There MUST be a bar…”

“Don’t bet on it.”

He was right, maybe there wasn’t a bar. The only visible thing was the end of the hill and a group of teenage girls coming our way. Manu stared at them as they walked past. He turned around and saw that Mika was quite far, filming something high above, probably the clouds.

“They wear too much make up but I’d fuck them anyway.”

“They are too young…”

“They are never too young. They are either legal or illegal.” I didn’t reply.

We reached the top of the hill – there was a church. All town was standing there, on the sidewalk, in the middle of the square. Cars parked everywhere. Old and young, kids running around. A funeral, a wedding, a baptism, something, a reason to put make-up on, to wear your good clothes, to turn up in a shiny car. We walked past a group of young men – I found it striking that several of them had plucked eyebrows.

Salve,” said Manu . “Cè un bar qui intorno?”.

He spoke with them for a while, then said ‘grazie a couple of times and we kept walking.

“There’s a café up there,” he said. Mika caught up with us.

“I shouldn’t be filming you from behind,” she told Manu. “You’re going bald.” Manu didn’t answer. She stopped filming him and directed the camera towards me. I threw my cigarette on the floor and tried to crush it with my left foot but missed it, stumbled, and kept walking to break a fall.

“You missed the cigarette butt. Why?” asked Mika.

“What do you mean ‘why’?”

“Yes… Did you miss it on purpose?”

“Not really… I should have tried with my right foot,” I said.

“Do you want to do another take?” she asked.

“Sure.” We went back some metres and she filmed me trampling on the butt. Manu watched from the distance. I found the second take easier than the first one.

“Cut,” said Mika and we kept walking.

Soon we reached a little square with a fountain, a telephone box, a café, and a couple of tables by the sidewalk. Manu walked into the café; Mika and I sat at one of the little tables. It crossed my mind that Manu hadn’t asked what we wanted to have. He would probably bring a coffee when all I wanted was a large glass of red wine.

“He didn’t ask…” I said.

“He never asks,” said Mika from behind the camera. She was filming the table arrangement, some floral tacky thing. I looked around – there was a fat idiot kid playing with the telephone box, shoving a piece of wire manically into the coin slot. I became hypnotised with him, jerking the wire, completely taken over by his piece of wire and the phone box; on and on and on, making love to it. God knows what he was trying to achieve or if he could even think of achieving anything. He was one with that wire and the phone box. I envied him.

“Film that retard,” I said to Mika and she pointed the camera towards him and eyed me from behind the lens – she didn’t say anything but I felt her disapproval. “Yes, I shouldn’t use that word,” I said and winked at her. She smiled back and then kept filming the kid.

“Fuck!” she said.

“What?”

“I’ve run out of batteries!” She laughed very loud; I laughed too.

“Just look at him instead. Then film yourself talking about him, at home; about not being able to capture what you see, something like that,” I said. “It would work well – it’s self-reflexive; people like self-reflexive shit.”

“What do you mean by ‘self-reflexive’?” she asked.

“As in a film about making a film,” I said.

“That’s brilliant…” she said and lit up a new cigarette. She stayed quiet, watching the kid. “You know a lot about film,” she added a bit later.

“Yes,” I said.

“Give me a tip…”

“Oh, that’s hard.”

“Just one tip,” she said.

“Hmmm… You mean another one!”

“Come on!”

“It’s all in the details.”

“Interesting… How?”

“Yes… In the details, like that kid and the phone booth. If this was a film about you and me, let’s say about an affair between you and me, I would pay more attention to him than to you and me.”

“What does he have to do with you and me?”

“Exactly!”

She stayed quiet.

“I’ll think about it,” she said at last, and smiled, just as Manu came back and placed a tray with three espressos on our table.

We stayed a bit longer, laughing at the kid and his phone box, Manu and I chatting about Christmas, the family back home, about never going back. Mika stayed quiet throughout, smiling at me every tenderly now and then. When we left, the kid was still there, shoving his piece of wire into the phone box in the dark.

—Fernando Sdrigotti

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Fernando Sdrigotti is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. His new book Shetlag: una novela acentuada, has just been released by Araña editorial, Valencia. He tweets at @f_sd.

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Dec 082014
 

Mary-Morrissy-NLB

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The treatment doesn’t make me sick, it makes me dazed. And tired. Dog-tired. Fatigue strikes like a power cut and I have to sit down ─ now ─ or I think I’ll die. The hospital is a stone’s throw from Suesey Street, the part of town I used to frequent a decade ago, when we were an item. Last week, after my session, I found myself wandering there when I had one of my turns. It was a thundery kind of day; the sun was spiteful. There I was, passing “our” pub. Where we would meet on days like this one, hot and humid, or on brown afternoons threatening rain, during our two seasons together. Either way, this was where we would meet in secret and hide from the prevailing climate of prying eyes.

As I halted in front of the pub, I wondered if I could still rightfully call it ours, since on the outside it had clearly been made over. The masonry is now a fuchsia red and there’s a new name over the door – it’s called Billy Pilgrim’s now. I suspected that inside would be similarly altered ─ primary colours, stainless steel, loud music, themed. Superstitiously, I’ve never gone back there. But needs must. Migrainous from the sun, I knew if I didn’t take the weight off my feet soon, I would fall down on the street. I pushed through the pub’s double doors with the same milky glass panels I remember from before, and became a visitor in my own past.

I made my way through the outer bar to our spot in the long back room, under the big station clock, so, you said, we wouldn’t be reminded of how little time we had. The relief of sinking into pub leatherette was ecstatic. I looked around furtively in case I had registered out loud to the fact. But there was no one in the pub except for the bar-tender, a blocky, shaven-headed young man, with his sleeves rolled up and nothing to do. Apart from him ─ and he was probably still in short trousers when we were meeting in here ─ the rest of the pub was unchanged. The same polished oak, marble-topped counter, partitions of dimpled glass, brass rail to lean your feet on, a snug in the front of the shop, a back room and a mirror behind the bar so that even before you’ve got drunk you’re seeing double. The smell was just the same too. An oozing mix of stale porter and pungent urinal. I sat in our corner gratefully and ordered a mineral water. (A bald woman wearing a wig downing vodkas alone at four in the afternoon would have seemed as big a cliché as our affair – the older married man and the youngish single woman trysting in a pub. These days I’m trying to avoid clichés, even age-appropriate ones.) The electively bald barman landed the glass on the low table with a clink-clunk and obligingly opened the bottle and poured. I drank thirstily. The flinty taste of the carbonated water set my teeth on edge ─ funny aversions afflict you with chemo. I pushed the glass to one side where it spat effervescently still trying to be the life and soul of the party.

I confirmed the barman’s suspicions that I was a mad old bat when I called him back and ordered coffee instead. It came in a thick cream catering cup, slopped obligingly in the saucer. It was thin and bad, from a jug stewed for hours on a hot plate of torture. But it was like a madeleine to our long lost affair. With each sour sip, I was no longer visiting my past, I was right back in it.

After treatment, most sensible people would go home and crawl into bed. But post-chemo, the last thing I want to do is to give in to sleep during the day. If I do, it means I’ll be awake – and alone ─ in the blackout hours. Ironically, I live alone, or should that be I live alone ironically? I have made it a practice to call out “Honey, I’m home” when I let myself in as a joke to myself, on myself, and to puncture the squeamish silence of a house unmolested since I left it. I try to imagine the Sanforized existence that would match my smooth and hearty greeting. The set of “I Love Lucy” comes to mind, a gleaming kitchen rich in appliances, a brave suburban light. Not my dim and over-shadowed household. I use all the tricks of wolfish loners to combat solitude. I talk my way through tasks aloud. Trina, I say, time to sluice the tub. And so I set to, wiping down the surfaces, the tiles, the wash-hand basin and colouring the bowl with a squirt of lemony liquid. And because I can never manage to keep the towel wrapped around me ─ and now my body geometry can’t support it – I end up naked and sweating amidst the disinfectant fumes, the closest I get to a sexual glow these days.

This was the time of day we used to meet. It annoyed me that you would arrive breathlessly as if you were just managing to squeeze me in. But once you sat and calmed, we entered another time zone where all other pre-occupations fell away. So absorbed would we become that a parade of our nearest and dearest could have passed by and we wouldn’t have noticed. This place absolved us from being furtive; it was the only time we were not mindful of our situation, where it became just the pair of us, alone in the world. Perhaps that’s why it was so intense; for an hour-and-a-half twice a week we played ourselves. No wonder I hadn’t wanted to come back. But as I sat there, I found myself soothed by the atmosphere, not haunted by the associated memories. In the torpor of an empty afternoon pub, I realised I’d found the perfect asylum for the chemically blasted.

It didn’t stay empty for long, of course. Students started trickling in, a few pensioners arrived, men with caps and newspapers, and embroidered the bar. A family of tourists, Italians, guide book in hand, joined me in the back room. Mama, Papa, Silvio and Chiara. They took photos of themselves with their phones. Papa tried a pint and didn’t like it; the children bought crisps and released salt and vinegar into the air. I ordered another coffee and settled in. Not out of nostalgia. I cannot be nostalgic for something I destroyed myself; I am not that perverse. I stayed because it was easier than going home. And then, coming up for five when I was totally off-guard, when I had made my own of the place, you arrived.

Really, it was you. You, as a boy, that is. Slender – you always said you’d been a beanpole in your youth ─ a thin hollowed-out face, gaunt almost, a mop of black curls and eyes to match. It was uncanny. The boy wore a sludge-coloured rain mac over a faded t-shirt, a pair of navy drainpipe jeans, dilapidated Beatle boots with pointed toes. If it wasn’t you, this boy must have raided your youthful wardrobe. He sat in the outer bar in the corner but right in my line of vision. He – you, what pronoun to use? ─ nodded at the barman. He was a regular, it seemed. (Did you have a life in this bar before it became our haunt, I wondered?) He fished a paperback out of a canvas satchel and began to read. When the barman steered a pint towards him, he raised his eyes to say thanks and his gaze met mine. Well, I was staring. He raised the pint to his lips – I almost expected him to raise it in a toast – and then over a moustache of foam he smiled directly at me. Then I knew. Knew it was you, because that crease appeared between your eyebrows (the one I thought had come only in middle-age from too much worry) and your mouth turned downwards. You don’t smile up like most people. It isn’t – wasn’t ─ a mirthless smile, just one tempered with a clownish sadness. I felt myself weaken all over again. Shyly, I smiled back. Why shyly? Because I felt all my old uncertainties return as if I too had been spun back in time. To a time before I met you. To a “you” you’d never known. You settled into your book. By right it should have been one of those orange-covered Penguins – Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene – but without my specs, I couldn’t work out what it was. After the initial startlement, I felt invisible and pleasantly voyeuristic. I was happy to sit and watch you. After all these years, I finally had you all to myself.

Sharing. That’s what usually dooms an illicit affair in the end. The mistress not wanting to share. But I didn’t care about that. In truth, I didn’t feel I was sharing you with anyone. She was just the silent partner as far as I was concerned. I just didn’t want anything broken because of our association. I hated it when you talked about your past. Not because it contained her, but because it contained you. You blamed the past for our predicament. Bad timing, you would say. If I’d met you when I was younger we could have. . . We could have what? Obliterated your mistakes? Had children? When I still could. You could have brought out the maternal in me. If you’d known me then you’d understand. . . Understand what, though? That you weren’t always this rueful self? The trouble was I couldn’t imagine you younger; I could only see you as you were. Acting old, your role to impart wisdom, already writing me out. Don’t do what I did, you used to say, don’t marry for gratitude. As if I were inundated with suitors seeking my hand. I was 37 and considered past it. Worse than past it, because I was engaged in a fantasy relationship that couldn’t stand the light of day. That’s what my girlfriends told me. Even if you had managed to leave the silent partner, I’d have got the worst of you, an old man with sagging dugs and slowing walk, enduring a guilty superannuation trying to win back his wounded off-spring. I would get compromise while the silent partner would have had the wholehearted best of you. That ardent, warrior youth you seemed so nostalgic for. I would become the bath-chair pusher, the caretaker, witness to your decline. That was never my style. For one thing, I’ve always been careless. Careless with people. Other people might mistake it for carefree; not the same thing at all. I am free of care because I care less. I was not vigilant enough even about myself, as it turned out. If I had, I might have noticed the giveaway pellet of hardness on the underside of my breast, right over my heart.

The clock struck six and a girl breezed in. She had long, sand-coloured hair and a gapped fringe. She wore something filmy and floral. Not my type at all, but then that’s presuming I was your type. She looked like the kind of girl who’d stand on the shore with a towel to dry you off if you were in swimming. Girlie was territorial about you, fixed you with her big eyes and talked – a lot – some breathless account during which she would snatch your hand for emphasis, or poke you playfully on the arm.

“And then he asked me if I’d cover the late shift. . .” She exhaled indignation. “I mean, really!”

You played with the ends of her hair and gazed at her with an unseemly kind of yearning that made me look away. Then you leaned in and kissed her. She was bruised into silence by your lips. That was something you used to do with me. In mid-flight I would find my words smothered by your mouth. It used to infuriate me that you couldn’t bear my small talk. Looking at it now, I recognised desire. As you disengaged, another person joined you, a boy this time. I thought maybe I’d be able to identify him. Maybe he’d be someone who had survived into my time? But I couldn’t. He had a face whose features seemed in untimely progression. He had a boy’s eyes and soft chin, but a man’s brow and nose. His mane of nondescript hair grazed his dejected-looking shoulders. I christened him Lionheart, but it was you, with your dark looks, that consumed my attention. I kept you constantly in my sight-lines and every so often our eyes would meet and lock for a moment, though as the pub filled up with office workers, it was harder to maintain a clear line of vision. Girlie produced a phone and I could hear you planning the rest of your night. You wanted to go to a gig with a band called Methuselah, Girlie wanted to go for something to eat. Lionheart eyed Girlie, then you – he seemed to have the casting vote. I wasn’t sure who he was most in love with, you or Girlie. Between the standing army of drinkers, I kept on catching your eye. A quizzical eye, at first, lightly sardonic, then more calculating, curious. This is how it was when we met. Even with age you couldn’t cloak your emotions so everything got played out on your face. I felt, somehow, you were communicating with me, over the heads of your friends and the Friday night crowd. But what were you saying?

I hadn’t thought of you in years. Really! Not in that way, I mean. Not in the pained malignant way of the unrequited. But no, that’s not true. I was requited. During that time with you I was more alive and more unhappy than I had ever been. Maybe the two go together. Now I am chronically content and half-dead. Though even at the time I knew what we were doing was a recipe for heartbreak – someone’s. Yours, as it turned out. In the end, I couldn’t stand the tension of waiting to see who would break first. You? Me? Or the silent partner? I wasn’t slave enough to the cliché to wait for you to say – I can’t leave my wife. So I ended it. Chop chop. A swift guillotine. I remember your face when I said it – here on this very spot. Everything fell, as if I’d struck you. You started bargaining furiously.

““I’ll do it, right now.”

““It’s not that,” I said but you weren’t listening.

““Here, I’ll phone her now,” you said, lifting the mobile like it was a brick with which you were going to smash your life to pieces. On my account. A gesture. Our gestures give us away.

““Put it away,” I said. “It’s over.”

It’s not every day you get a chance to see the prequel to love. That’s what kept me in a sticky, airless Friday night pub sipping cold coffee. I’ve never liked being alone in a pub – call me old-fashioned. Even when we were together, I hated being early. Waiting for someone I was never sure of, full of dread about being hit upon by amateur predators. That wasn’t a problem now. If anyone was a predator in this situation it was me. But I couldn’t bear to leave before you. It seemed important this time around that you leave me. Finally at half seven, the three of you rose, gathering up your stuff and pushed out into the main thoroughfare of the pub. Immediately, in a pincer movement, three of the suited ones moved into claim your space. I felt the betraying heave of disappointment that goes with the beloved’s withdrawal of presence. You turned to go; then you stopped and whispered in Girlie’s ear. She looked back at you briefly then bounced towards the exit where Lionheart was waiting patiently. I could see his face lighting up as she approached. Ah, so it was her he was after. He pulled open the door and she darted through it. He followed her. You turned towards me. I felt panicky but told myself to stop. You were going to the toilets, maybe, or using the side-door, the one that opened out on to a laneway, the one I used to favour when we were together. I could see your head bobbing up and down as you weaved your way around the crowd that stood between us. I was trapped; this was too close for comfort. I had not banked on our worlds actually colliding like this. You stopped in front of me.

Chemo fugue, my friends say. It was your ex-lover’s son you saw. But no, I knew you had fathered only daughters. A trick of the mind, the light. But no, it was none of that.

“Do I know you?” he asked.

When I didn’t answer – well, how could I answer? ─ he rephrased it.

““Do you know me?”

He was more earnest than I expected. You were never earnest; had it beaten out of you, you said, in the rough justice of boarding school. You were playful in company, serious in bed.

““It’s just that. . .” he started. A lighter voice than yours; age makes us growl and grate.

““Yes?” I said, feeling the bloom of ambiguous trepidation show on my face.

““Can I . . .?”

I nodded.

He folded himself on to the small stool opposite me that had remained empty except as a repository for bags and jackets. He laid these carefully on the banquette seat beside me. If it was a delaying tactic, it worked. What was he going to say? Could he do me for harassment? Young people are touchy about this sort of thing and I had not kept custody of the eyes, as we were instructed in convent school.

““You’ve been staring at me all night,” he said simply. No outlandish accusations, then.

““I’m sorry,” I said, rising to go. I had been a bad voyeur; I’d attracted attention by the focus of my own. “I have to go. . .”

I tried to squeeze by him but he grabbed my arm.

“Why is that?” he demanded. “What do you want?”

To turn the clock back, I wanted to say. He gripped my wrist and looked up at me imploringly.

“Are you my mother?”

That broke the spell, the chemo fog.

“What? No!!”

“Are you my mother?” he repeated and stood up. There was the steel I knew from your eyes, the grit of refusal. I shook him off, my folly made manifest.

“My natural mother,” he hissed in my ear.

The airwaves had been full of stories of adoptees trying to trace their natural parents; I felt I had stumbled into someone else’s reality show. I tried to wriggle out of our awkward embrace.

“Are you the woman who gave me up? Who gave up on me?” He raised his voice. “Who refused to meet me but feels free to spy on me? Are you?”

There was a ripple of anticipation in those around us; a pub crowd recognises when there is a row brewing. What I wanted to say was yes. Yes to everything. Except to the accusation of motherhood. To that I wanted to say – do you think, dear boy, that if I were your mother, I wouldn’t rush bald-headed to claim you?

“Is it you?” he pleaded, “come for me?”

Oh God, I couldn’t bear the interrogative. I had come for you. But the wrong you. I yanked my hand away and ploughed my way through the crowds of drinkers, jogging elbows and upsetting drinks as I went. A couple of aggrieved “heys” followed in my wake. I stepped out into the laneway where more shirt-sleeved drinkers had spilled out into the golden evening. Once clear of them, I ran. I ran, clutching my false hair in case I should lose it too. In my haste I crashed into a stack of shopping trolleys parked in a bay outside one of those late-opening supermarkets. I ducked in and found myself in the refrigerated aisle. He didn’t follow me, or if he did, he didn’t find me. I counted it as a lucky escape, a remission of sorts.

—Mary Morrissy

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Mary_Morrissey_300_200

Mary Morrissy is an award-winning Irish novelist (The Hennessy Award, Lannan Foundation Award) and short story writer, the author of three novels, Mother of Pearl, The Pretender and The Rising of Bella Casey (long-listed for the 2015 IMPAC Award), and a collection of short stories, A Lazy Eye. A second collection of linked stories, Diaspora, is forthcoming from Jonathan Cape. Her website is available here.

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Nov 302014
 

Adrienne Love author photo

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I am beyond hot for Jeremiah, who’s only 20, half my age, and in a relationship. But the relationship isn’t the problem because Jeremiah’s not in love with his girl—he’s in love with me. And it’s not our ages either, though I could be his mother. The problem is that while I would love to shag Jeremiah silly—God knows I would—I’m in love with my husband, Thomas. Really. It’s these darned herbs I’m taking—Shitavari: Capable of 100 Husbands and Ashwaganda: Strength of a Horse—to get us pregnant.

After all baby makes three and all that crap.

I am a horny mess, what with all this bewitching of my ovaries, and Jeremiah knows I’m hot for him, Good Lord. If that boy presses his cute little checkered pants arse against my apron one more time I’m going to lose my cucumbers.

§

One day, in the kitchen at the restaurant where Jeremiah and I work, I’m snatching meatballs from the hot line, smiling at the cooks, hungry, and hoping I can flirt my way into getting all of us, all the waitresses, fish for dinner instead of fried chicken (because my doctor says fish have enzymes, which are good for womb juices and such), and Jeremiah, cooking, shoots the daggers of his deep blue eyes right into my own, My Lord.

“Oh, I know what you want, Elsie,” he says.

Shifting my hips around, trying to hush the hunger in my groin, I pretend not to hear him.

“Oh, I know you hear me, Elsie,” he says.

I’m trying so hard not to smile, and I won’t look up for anything because I know he’s still throwing those daggers at me.

“Say, Elsie,” he says.

“Yeah?”

“Whatcha doin later?”

“What do you mean?” I shift again, but it’s no use. Twitching all over, I focus harder on my meatball.

“Oh, Elsie, you know what I mean.”

My eyes betray me. They look up at him, dog gonnit. Just as he closes his mouth over the breast of chicken in his hand, searing his tongue. Liquid juices down his nude forearm and streams into the sleeve of his chef’s coat. Eyes watering from the heat, his smile cracks open when he’s finished chewing. His tongue swoops down the back of his hand, still cupping the breast, and he laps up all that moisture. When he laughs it’s so damned sexy. But I melt when tears stream down his face. Sensitive men drive me wild.

Speechless, I back my own arse out of the kitchen fast as I can manage. Head thrown back, palms pressing my pulsing thighs through my apron, I sway through the dining room as if in a dream. Dear god what on Earth am I going to do?

§

The next morning when I pull up to work on my motorcycle, Jeremiah’s puffing away on a cigarette out front. It’s still early, dark as night, and the breakfast crowd won’t be along for a while.

“It’s cold out here Elsie,” he says, hands in his pockets, cigarette puffing between his lips.

“I know. You shouldn’t be smoking.”

He shrugs and looks away, hands still stuck in his pockets like he’s after something. There’s something wrong this morning, I think. Or maybe he’s just tired. For a moment I think we’re safe—that I won’t be tempted by him any longer. He’s just a kid, after all, and I’m, well I’m just not. Something inside me wants to press his head to my breast, but not like that. I want to do it like a mom. I want to take care of him. Rubbing my fingers together and breathing heavy into them, I try to warm up while he smokes.

After his cigarette, he looks up.

I follow him up there, looking where he’s looking, but it just looks like sky to me. Little stars piercing the darkness. He keeps on looking, searching, so I search his face, which is long and sad. “Hey,” I say to him. “You okay today?”

His head still angled up, away from me, hands still in his pockets, fingers wiggling wildly around in there, he’s still searching. Shoulders shrugging, he says nothing. He blinks back tears.

“Hey,” I say to him. “Jeremiah, what’s going on?” I warm my fingers with one more big exhale and then I touch him on the forearm. I wait a few minutes, just like that, and neither of us moves. “Do you want me to go?” I ask him finally.

He shrugs.

“Do you want to be alone?”

His gaze descends back down the ladder of the sky until it finds the earth. In our four years working together I have never known Jeremiah to look at the earth unless he’s bending to pick something up.

“Sweetheart,” I say, stepping in closer. “It’s me, Elsie. Sweetheart, Jeramiah, you can talk to me.”

Maybe I should have stopped right there. Maybe I shouldn’t have pressed him anymore, but I couldn’t help it, seeing him in pain like that.

“Jeramiah, I love you, you know.”

The passion I’d been harboring for him drains from me. I want to protect him. I suppose it’s a different type of passion. One passion replacing the next. Stepping closer, I wrap him up in my arms. If someone drives past, this is what they’ll see: a tall, gangly young man, hands stuffed in his pockets, staring at the earth beneath his gnarled shoes; a middle aged woman, arms wound round his middle, pressing herself into his side, her head on his bicep. It might look like the end of an affair, which it is, sort of.

“Time for work,” he says, and spins round on his heel, preparing to leave me dumbfounded and raw, but I stop him. “Jeremiah,” I plead, “wait.”

“Why?” he asks. “What’s the point? We’ll talk and I’ll tell you I love you, and you’ll go home to your husband, and I’ll still be alone, I’ll still be missing you. Forget it, Elsie. Just leave me alone.”

“Jeremiah,” I begin, but I don’t know what to say. What can I say? Sinking down onto the curb, I hide my face in my fingers. He stays. He waits for me to say something to make it better. “Sweetheart,” I finally manage, “I’m old enough to be your mother, and I love my husband. You don’t love me—”

“I do, Elsie,” he argues, and spits at the earth. He kicks the garbage can with the steel toe of his boot. “You see?” he asks. “I knew you’d say this. I know you love Thomas. But you love me, too.”

“No,” I lie. Because lying to him is the only thing to do.

What can I possibly say to Jeremiah? Yes, I love you, but not in the way you want me to love you? That I’m out of my mind, all jacked up on herbs, a last ditch effort to achieve pregnancy without IVF at my age? That trying to achieve pregnancy might be just a last ditch effort to revive my stale marriage? That all love goes stale eventually, and that you have to find the one you want to work through the staleness with? Is that even true? Does all love, eventually, go stale? Do I still love Thomas? Does he love me? Or are we fooling ourselves? I’m older than Jeremiah, and I’m supposed to be wiser. But I feel like a fool.

After Jeremiah leaves, I cry, head in my hands, until he hollers at me through the open kitchen window, announcing the first table of hungry breakfasters waiting to be served.

§

That night, groggy from an evening nap, and still recovering from my morning outside the restaurant with Jeremiah, I’m nestled into the sofa in my living room, drinking hot buttered rum (something I do when Thomas is gone and I’m feeling lonely) when the door bell rings. The mantel clock, a wedding gift from Thomas’s mother, shows quarter past midnight. The San Francisco skyline twinkles at me through the porch window. Haggard and drunk, I stare out onto Russian Hill. The city is sleeping. I should be sleeping, too. Disoriented, I rub my forehead with the back of my arm and ignore the bell. Perhaps I imagined it? Thomas is on the east coast for super bowl parties with his buddies, and I’m not keen on being left alone at our apartment in the city anyway. Sipping my rum, I begin thinking to myself, All those people out there
The bell rings again.

This time I’m a little startled. “What?” I call from the sofa.

“Elsie, it’s me, Jeramiah.”

“What?”

“It’s me.” Rightfully wondering whether I’ll scold him, ignore him, or permit him to enter my home, he waits a minute. But then, “Jeram—”

“I heard you,” I holler. My mug I place on the coffee table, and I pad on over to the door, bumping my knees on the hearth and my hip on the corner of the hallway wall. I wish for a mirror in our foyer, but we don’t have one, so I can’t notice my hair and all that. I just open the door for him and turn away before he enters. In a moment, he hovers over me as, rum in hand, I resume my nest in the sofa. “There’s hot buttered rum on the stove. Mugs over the sink.”

“Thanks.”

I watch him as he helps himself in the kitchen, sort of guffawing for a moment when I remember in my haze that he’s not even of legal drinking age. Suddenly I feel old.   And very lonely. But as I watch his body at the stove, his long, strong arms stirring the pot of rum as it reheats, there’s an awakening in me, a hunger licking its chops. How long has it been since I craved Thomas like this? I can’t remember the last time we made love because we wanted to. We fuck now and then because we should, because we’re married, because we’re telling ourselves we want to make a baby.

“How did you find me?” I ask.

“I followed you.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“Why?”

“Why do you think, Elsie?” He enters the living room with two steaming mugs. One he hands to me, “Your old one is probably cold.”

I take the hot mug from him and stare hard into his eyes, bold because I’m drunk. For a moment I’m lost.   “It doesn’t matter,” I lie. “Rum’s rum.”

“Taste them side-by-side,” he says, and his smile erupts. The irony is inescapable. What if I could taste Jeremiah and Thomas side-by-side? Who would I choose?

I sip from both mugs. Obviously, the hot one tastes better. The old one, I discard.

Smiling wildly, Jeremiah buries himself in the pillows on the sofa next to me. He presses himself so far back into the cushions that I think he might disappear, and in that moment I know I’ll be hopelessly lonely without him. Sipping our rum, we’re quiet together, which is odd. Quiet’s how I knew something was wrong this morning. I’m not sure whether it’s the quiet between us or my rum haze or the left over grogginess from my nap or what, but I don’t bother him about the fact that it’s after midnight and he doesn’t bring it up. Smiling, instead, I lift my head from the pillows and face him. His face is closer than I expect, so I wind up inches from him, staring straight into the daggers of his eyes. The blue is twinkling. I can’t tell in the moonlight whether his eyes are full of tears or whether I’m drunk and the lights from the skyline in the window behind him are reflecting onto my own eyes, but nevertheless his eyes look moist to me. I wonder if he’s been crying.

“Jeramiah, Sweetheart, I have no idea why you would follow me home,” I lie, knowing how he wants me.

“Yes, you do.”

“No.” I wait. I sip my rum. “Besides, Jeramiah, I’ve been home since 4:00 this afternoon.”

“Not today.”

“What?” Now I am surprised.

“I didn’t follow you today.” He brings the side of his leg closer to the side of mine. My insides gasp and purr.

With one hand I grip my hot mug like it’s my lifeline; with the other I reach for the blanket on the armchair next to me and yank it over my lap. A chastity belt.

“Elsie.”

I don’t say anything. I can’t say anything. He’s a child. I’m a middle aged woman. I’m married. He’s confused. So am I. This is wrong. I sip my rum.

“Elsie.”

I sip my rum.

His nude forearm brushes my knees as he reaches for my lifeline.   Unwrapping my fingers from my mug with his calloused hands, rough and burned already from only a handful of years cooking other people’s food but still so soft and tender because of his nascent age, he leans into my space. I’ve never been this close to him before and looked. I follow the veins from his hands to the rolled up sleeves of his gingham shirt, and imagine them circulating all his want throughout his whole being, making it possible for him to follow me home, to pursue me like this. When the veins disappear inside his clothing I follow their imagined routes to his heart. Then I climb the ladder of his anatomy, from heart, to hairs poking out above his shirt collar, up his neck to his jaw. He bites down on something and his jaw bulges, and I imagine that he’s imagining what it might be like to taste me, and I know I want him to taste me. My eyes crawl up his sideburns and over the bridge of his delicate nose to his eyes. I don’t know what I expect or want to find there, in his eyes, but it’s exactly right. There is so much sadness. In him. In me. He watches me watch him, both of us quiet.   Effortlessly, like water moving, he suddenly slips his hand inside the slack neckline of my pajama blouse, cupping my naked breast. His movements are liquid, dreamlike, and I have no time to protest. Holding his hand there, breathing, we’re still, and I think for a moment that perhaps I’m not awake.

“I need you, Elsie,” he says, squeezing my nipple between two fingers, hand so big he holds my rib, my breast and my sternum in one palm. I feel small, so feminine; this feels so right.

“I know,” I say.

“You need me too.”

“I do,” I say.

“Can I kiss you, Elsie?”

Falling forward, I burrow into his chest with my forehead. If I let him kiss me, I’ll dissolve into him, all the way. I’m the kind of woman who falls in love fast. I’ll end up loving him more than I already do if I let him take me to bed. Deeply, I inhale him. “Not tonight,” I whisper, because I’m too drunk and lonely now to stop him from taking me to bed if I let him kiss me. And because it’s true what I said in the beginning, I love Thomas, too.

There’s a silence at the center of unrequited love, the deafening kind of silence that tells you you’re alone—that you always have been alone, and always will be alone. If love is a storm, unrequited love is a hurricane, most destructive at the outset and ending, quiet in the middle. I had known Jeremiah was in love with me for years, and I’d relished the attention, sure. Who wouldn’t? And at my age? My own love affair with my husband having grown into something dormant like the center of a hurricane, though I’m told love evolves—becomes less and less pregnant with passion over the years, but ever more rooted and fierce if it’s real. Perhaps our dormancy is sending a message to my body—Do not get pregnant! There’s not enough love here! Maybe you need that pregnant passion to get through the unbeautiful parts of childbirth together.

According to a National Geographic article I read once, biological love lasts only three years in human beings—about the time it takes to court, seduce, impregnate, gestate, deliver and regain sufficient post-partum independence for survival. I remember wondering about supposedly happy couples with multiple children. Were they somehow able to fall in love over and over again? Or was there a lie in there somewhere? And what about Thomas and me? Nine years. Had we been able to expand the storm of our love? Is that three-year storm elastic? Or are we trying for children to delay the inevitable? To keep the clouds from passing, and carrying us over to the other side, closer to the end?

As I fall asleep on the couch in the twinkling light from the city and the glowing moonlight after Jeremiah leaves I think about Thomas, and how we once ached for each other the way Jeremiah and I now ache for each other. I wonder whether my having an affair might be just the thing to shake things up, to help Thomas and I move toward the other edge of the hurricane. The thought of it makes me shiver, I’m so sterile and cold in my reasoning.

§

I stay on the couch, sleepless, still a little drunk, as morning rises. By the time daylight whispers into the living room I’m lost in a fantasy. My head presses back into the corner of the sofa, my legs drape over its back, my body turns away from the windows. I writhe. My breast pokes out from beneath the slack neckline of my pajama blouse, and I remember Jeremiah’s fingertips, so young, so desperate. My nipple stings with the memory of him squeezing.

I’d wanted to tell Jeremiah that love gets easier, but it isn’t true.

As sunlight breaks into the living room I reach for my old, cold mug of buttered rum, the one I’d been contently drinking before Jeremiah arrived. In one, hurried gulp, I take it in. I don’t want the night to end. As the rum slithers into my body my eyes roll back, and then I reach for another mug, and then the other. Three, I think. Three mugs. Sufficiently drunk, again, I fling myself back into the couch as if I’m thrown in a fit of passion. Whose passion? It hardly matters. I just want passion. I want to feel alive. Cupping my hands between my legs, one palm over the other, and pressing my head into the corner of the sofa until it hurts, and then pressing harder, just to feel it, just to feel something, I shove my fingers into my insides and I imagine one of them, Jeremiah or Thomas, or maybe both of them, there. They’d be pinning my arms to my sides with their knees, smiles erupting, the daggers of their blue eyes piercing right through me.

And then the locks on the door rattle, and Thomas is standing in the doorway. Bemused by my spectacle he crosses the room in his work suit, and still holding onto his luggage he comes to hover over me. We’re speechless and still. Inspiration stirs in him—I know him well enough to recognize it instantly. After all, he’s all geared up on herbs for procreation, too. Momentarily, I wonder whether he, too, has been lusting after some hot young thing. Probably. Men are like golden retrievers. If you don’t pet them, they’ll find someone else to do it. The thought of Thomas lusting after someone else chokes me, but he drops his suitcases and yanks his tie off so suddenly my mind is erased as the longing inside me grows louder and stronger. Stepping out of his shined up dress shoes and jingling the change in his slacks, he strips everything off in a hurry. As suddenly as he’d appeared in the doorway my husband is nude before me, the grey morning light and the fog outside matching the grey in his hair. Saying nothing he kneels in front of me, and with soft, manicured hands, those hands that shake other hands in boardrooms in the financial district before the sun comes up every day so that he can provide this fancy apartment in the city for us, for the family we’re supposed to create, he pulls back the layers of my blankets and pajamas, one by one. He finds the back of my head beneath all the pillows and cups it with both hands. Lifting me up so he can see my eyes he hovers just above my face, his hazel eyes—they’re hazel, not blue—are dark and hungry. He slips a small hand over the front of my neck and it’s clammy, but familiar. The grizzle of his beard scratches my sternum but it’s all hot and wet as he licks and oozes his way down between my breasts, skipping them. He’s always skipped my breasts. My nipples sting again with the memory of Jeremiah, but I forget Jeremiah as Thomas licks all the way down. Maybe one day I’ll ask Thomas not to skip my breasts, I think, as I watch him squat back on his haunches like an animal. My husband laps at the moisture between my thighs, my legs thrown over his shoulders.

The pad of his thumb bursts it’s way inside me, and then it’s gone. For a moment I panic. Where did he go? Suddenly we’re not touching anymore and I can’t feel him anywhere. I can’t live without him. I know this. Scared, my eyes fly open, and I discover him standing over me again, watching, licking his lips.   Fast, he swoops down and lifts me up off the couch, carrying me into our bedroom. With me in his lap, both of us sitting up, he enters me. As he does, he finally speaks to me. His team didn’t win the super bowl, he’s not sure if I know. The truth is, I don’t even know which team is his team. Before, I believed this was a problem. Not because I don’t know, but because I don’t care. But, wrapped up in him, I know none of that bullshit matters. Nothing matters, as long as I have Thomas, as long as we can connect like this. How long have we been disconnected?

Laughing. Suddenly we’re laughing so hard, and then, heads thrown back, bodies rocking in time together, arms and legs wound round and round like knots keeping us from falling apart, we come together.

When I wake up on the couch it’s after 1:00 in the afternoon, and I’m alone. Thomas is still on the east coast. Rubbing my eyes, I vow I’ll never lose him.

§

Two months later, carrying my husband’s child, I pull up on my motorcycle to work the lunch shift at the restaurant. I barely notice Jeremiah waiting for me out front. I hurl myself off my motorcycle just in time to lose my helmet and barf in the bush on the sidewalk. Groaning, knuckles in my eyes, I sink down on the curb to recover.

When Jeremiah re-appears minutes later and offers me two mugs, one with hot water and lemon, the other with Sprite, I stare up at him for a moment, jaw slack, and then turn and wretch in the bush again. He searches in his pants pockets after setting the mugs down on the sidewalk, jingling change.

“Jeremiah,” I beg, “please don’t smoke. It’ll be too much.” I gag, and hurl again.

His smile erupts and he bends down to rub my back. “Soda crackers,” he says, and produces two packets from his pockets.

“Thank you.”

“Do you want to be alone?”

“No. Not right now. Please stay.”

“Worse than yesterday, huh?”

“Yeah,” I say, wiping my mouth with my sleeve.

“Here.” He thrusts a stack of napkins at me.

“Thanks.”

“I thought this was only supposed to happen in the morning.”

I want to laugh, but I wretch again.

He looks up at the sky, and when I’m recovered I follow him. A few minutes later he asks, “Have you figured out yet when it happened?”

“No.” My gaze falls to the earth.

“I thought you’d want to know.”

“It’s too soon I think.”

He keeps his eyes up in the sky. “Have you told your husband yet?”

“No.”

“When?”

I’d promised Jeremiah that I’d tell him. That I’d tell Thomas about our affair, even though it’s over. Somehow the truth is important to Jeremiah, in his nascent age. But the truth would only hurt my husband, and we’re finally connecting again. I don’t want to spoil it. So I lie to Jeremiah: “Soon, but not tonight.”

—Adrienne Love

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Adrienne Love lives in Sausalito. She earned her MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Art in 2013.  Her work has been published in Numéro Cinq and Yoga Journal.

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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.

.

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.”

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.”

.

“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.”

.

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.

 .

“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.”

 .

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.

.

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?

 .

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?”

.

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.”

.

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

.

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

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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.