Stories Archive, Volume One
The Griffins of Thurman Street
by Therresa Griffin-Kennedy
We Are Stars
by Tyler Malone
by A. Molotkov.
by Andrea Broxton
The Griffins of Thurman Street
Mary slips past me, into the dim kitchen, silent, a disembodied spirit; her bare feet not making so much as a sound. I am not acknowledged in any way. She’s walking to the cluttered pantry to fetch some secret item.
The long arched window to her left is un-curtained; with the glass covered in a greasy opaque film. It looks dismal and totally in keeping with the rest of our house. I try to make myself invisible and unnoticed, trying to forget the scene of the previous week. I lower my head as I step aside to let her pass. I act tired, carrying my bag with my leotard, pink tights and tattered ballet slippers.
I’ve just come in through the back door, from ballet. My school, North West Theater Ballet is located in the lot adjacent of our back yard. One hop over a feeble metal fence, twisted and collapsed and I’m there-my unofficial refuge from the family. They don’t say it, the instructors Danny, Beth and Richard, but I think they know: that it’s better for me to be there than at home.
The kitchen is semi-dark; the dishes, pots and pans collecting again in the porcelain sink. Mary has not done her chores, but then I haven’t either so I can’t complain. Later Mama will be angry, calling us down from our bedrooms for another all night lecture replete with yelling and profanity as we sit silently, forced to listen.
At the kitchen table, she’ll be complaining about fairness and why should she have to do “everything.” Mama’s crazy tirades often run late into the night, sometimes well past midnight, occurring at least once a week.
They interrupt my fitful efforts to do school work, mulling over some English literature assignment at the dining room table. Neither she nor my father ever notices, and neither asks me about school or how I’m doing. Eventually I don’t try anymore and leave my books in my bedroom untouched for weeks at a time.
My Lincoln High school counselor looks at me sadly each time we meet. He’s reaching retirement age and is clearly burnt out. He tells me that I could be a straight A student, if only I would “apply” myself. “If you just show up Therresa, you’ll get a C and at least pass. You have so much potential; you’re such a bright girl. What’s the problem… can’t you tell me?” He warns me that if my grades and attendance don’t improve, the school will eventually ask me to leave.
I can’t tell him the truth that no one in my family cares about my academic success; that my family is crazy, with three of my eight siblings suffering from mental illness. The words won’t form in my mouth. How can I tell him that the only pleasure I get is going to ballet class and pretending I’m someone else?
There I’m good at something. I weigh 125 pounds, kind of chunky for five foot three but slender enough, strong, flexible, flat chested and small boned. “Perfect for ballet” my teachers all say. My grace is fluid and I’m as flexible as a contortionist; consequently, the other girls are jealous of me, because I’m better than they are and that awareness pleases me. It’s like a narcotic to be in ballet class and I never want to leave. I mop the floors after school to help pay for lessons. Eventually Danny and Beth stop asking for tuition money.
The shame of it makes me work harder, cleaning the office, answering the phones, filing, dusting, mopping the floors even more, keeping my head down.
In time, they look at me with new respect; they come to value me, to smile when I come in early on the weekend knowing that the 2,500 mass mailing will be done soon because of my tireless work. One of the ballet mothers asks Danny, “Does she TYPE?” in a joking manner. “Therresa is ours!” he jokes back, wagging a finger at her in mock warning. I smile, looking down silently at my piles of envelopes, sorted by zip code, feeling valued, wanted.
Later, after those all night lectures with our mother, Mary and I are expected to go to school the next day, refreshed and eager to tackle the world with a joyful heart. How can I tell my counselor any of the truth of it? All I manage to do is smile wanly and agree, nodding my head uselessly; nodding my head, nodding my head.
He looks at me as if the whole heartache of the world is right in front of him, as if his heart is breaking just to see me; it is then that I turn away, waiting for it to be over, so I can leave. If I smile enough, agree enough, nod my head enough, promise to do better, he’ll take pity on me and the punishment of his concern and sadness will be over and far away from me.
It’s hard having more than half the family gone now. There is such a feeling of continuous anti-climax. Where once there were nine of us kids, with Mama and Daddy working together, all of us living in the same house, in a kind of content chaos, now there’s only Mama, Mary, Galen, and me. All the others are gone now, grown up: married or in the custody of Daddy.
I think back to the scene. I can’t even remember why they got into the fight in the first place; all I do remember is that Marcia and Mary got into an argument in the kitchen. Then they were screaming at each other and one of them had broken the backdoor window, across from the stove. Shattered remnants of glass lay all over the dingy yellowing linoleum floor, complete with nicks and deep gouges in the worn plastic surface.
“Little Justin” Marcia’s boy, was crying, teetering into the kitchen on his chubby one year old legs. He had fallen over, his arms outstretched, cutting his hand as he landed on a small shard of broken glass, which like sand, lay in a fine accumulation all over the floor.
I had just come home from Ballet, had not even had time to take off my jacket, while preparing to sit on the sofa, before I had to run into the kitchen. Marcia was on top of Mary, straddling her, punching her in the face with the expert technique of a boxer. Mary was crying, on her back, wailing, twisting, trying to get away, pulling at Marcia’s long billowing auburn hair. In the tumult Justin was ignored, as they continued to struggle, his arms and shoulders upraised in fright, his fists little balls. I scooped him up, carried him out of the kitchen, clutching him to me, kissing his wet, tear stained cheeks, as my own eyes began to sting with tears.
Pressing his tender bleeding hand with my own, after seeing it was free of any shards of glass; I lied to my little nephew, telling him everything was going to be “okay.” His horrified pink face, down-turned contorted mouth, and pained eyes sent a visceral reaction through me.
The way he’d looked up at me so desperately, toddling towards me on unsteady legs, begging me to rescue him from this new craziness made me feel sick to my stomach. I hated my family, I hated the Griffin family! How could they do this in front of Justin? He was so little, so innocent! What was it about our family that prevented grace from ever being expressed or demonstrated? Then it ended, as quickly and mysteriously as it had begun, and Mary ran upstairs to hide in her room, where for some reason, she kept her bedroom door always open.
Mary could never have known how much I’d wanted to stop it, how much I wanted to comfort her after it was all over, after Marcia finally left, unceremoniously snatching Justin from my arms, but I couldn’t. That kind of thing wasn’t done in our family. I wouldn’t have known how. What would I have said? What would I have done? And would she have even allowed me to comfort her?
Naturally Mama was not at home; she was at Fredrick and Nelson’s in the Book Department, next to The Orange Slice on the Mezzanine, working the swing shift, trying to scratch together a living for us. Trying to make sure that the rent for the house was paid. That scene, the scene of my older sisters Marcia and Mary, like so many others would be forgotten, ignored, not talked about.
The avoidance of the truth of our life, was something we were all good at perpetuating. The truth of it just disappeared into some cosmic void, never to be spoken of again.
Eventually, Mary’s tall, thin body comes out of the pantry after she has searched in the darkness for some object, perhaps some brown rice, or millet or perhaps one of her many bottles of vitamins, herbs or supplements.
I sit at the breakfast table, slumped in the darkness, and vacantly stare past the dining room into the living room. The television is on, the volume low and is the only source of illumination in the room. Galen sleeps undisturbed, his adorable baby face small and white against the dirty mauve arm of the sofa. Curled up under a blue flannel blanket, he murmurs brokenly in his sleep, calling for Mama.
I glance back at Mary, curious now, wondering what she’s doing, what is she poking around in the pantry for? It could be anything, yet in my vague, fatigued state I realize I will probably never know what she is searching for.
Mary is quite talented at hiding small objects within her palm so they cannot be seen. She is good at lurking unnoticed and taking in unseen information in that inscrutable way so uniquely hers. I contemplate Mary’s hair, shoulder length, dark blonde, thick and normally very pretty, with a nice wave that gives her appealing oval face a winsome quality.
Her beauty is often talked about. People say she could be an actress, or model; she is so pretty, with patrician features similar to a younger version of the silent film actress Lillian Gish. I notice that once again her hair is unwashed-for over a week this time, in all likelihood. The smell had been sweet and pungent as she passed me-the smell of a Griffin. Not an offensive smell, just sweet and heavily fragrant. But to me, it was the smell of insanity.
To me, her smell was the smell that went with the whispers she sometimes whispered to herself when she thought we couldn’t hear. The smell accompanied the way she would sometimes jab her right elbow, painfully, into her thin ribs, or step over a threshold, only to step back, then forward again as she walked up the dark stairwell to her room on the second floor. I avoided having to smell my sister’s oil drenched hair by never being home, by staying at the studio as much as I possibly could.
The smell of my sister was just too painful and hard for me to understand. Why wouldn’t she want to be clean I wondered? Why would she go days without bathing? But she was only one in an already large family full of sad tales, non-stop nonsensical events, and an overall sense of general bad luck. The luck of the Irish was something that we certainly never had-not the Griffin family of Thurman Street.
Mary finally exits the pantry carrying a pile of clean sheets and pillow cases. Folded perfectly, they glow with a yellow cast that gives the impression of ivory colored fabric lit somehow from within. The sheen of a high thread count is attractive in the dim light of the kitchen, with the only illumination falling in through the southern facing window from a street light down the avenue, some distance away.
The beauty of the new sheets resting in Mary’s perfectly formed arms is an odd contrast to the overall diminished state of the cabinets she stands next to, or the battered refrigerator or dog eared posters tacked on the peach colored walls.
I can see she holds a newer set of bone colored sheets Mama purchased at Fredrick and Nelson some time before. She had purchased four separate sets and we all used them interchangeably. Only Mary kept her set aside, which she cleaned and stored for her own private use.
Mary stands before me and with her head downcast and her usual defeated slouch, quietly says “Mama’s not in a good mood today. She called, you know how she gets sometimes. I didn’t have time to wash the dishes… because of my school work. Do you think you could? Before she gets home?” Her fatigue seems almost impossible. How could anyone be so tired, especially a young 18 year old high school senior? It was, however, the end of the day.
“I guess I could do it” I respond. “Is there anything to eat?”
“Yeah, there’s some of that Jambalaya Goulash stuff she makes. You really shouldn’t eat it though; it’s full of Nitrates from the meat”.
Then without saying anything more, she slips out of the kitchen and up to her room. I watch blankly over my shoulder as she steps over the hall threshold, beyond the dining room, then steps back whispering to herself, then over it again before finally going on her way to bed. The sheets mean later, in a few minutes, she will spend an hour taking a shower with the natural shampoos and soaps she buys at the Food Front Cooperative. She will be clean for a while, the sickly sweetness of her hair diminished. Her hair will look lighter, will appear blonder and will stand up with the glossy wave that complements her face and skin.
I turn and rise from my chair, noting the time on the wall clock as 9:28 PM, shedding my heavy navy coat, leaving it to lay on the polished wooden breakfast table, bare and gleaming. I walk to the sink. I take the fresh bar of Ivory soap, press it against the steel wool, and begin slowly and methodically to clean the clutter of plates, cups, pans, and the heavy copper tea kettle given to us, used, by yet another relative I can’t recall.
There are faint vestiges of the remaining Goulash Mama cooked in one of the copper pans. Made with our own garden tomatoes and onions, along with rice and beef and spices, it looks as if it had been made only a short time before. I know there will be several containers of it in the refrigerator waiting to be consumed and enjoyed. Mama is, if anything, an excellent cook with a flair for unusual cuisine.
The hot soapy water slides over my hands like viscous oil, warming them, and in the shadow filled room, I allow my vision to blur momentarily, so that gazing at the moving water, it appears as fresh cow’s milk, silken, luminous-white and ropey.
I pretend it actually is fresh milk from a cow, because that’s how it looks in the dim light and the hallucination seems fanciful to me, delightful and pleasing. I smile to myself, then feel the smile slowly sag into nonexistence, leaving my face. Steam continues to rise languidly from the double porcelain sink as I wash and rinse, placing the items carefully in the dish rack.
Looking out the kitchen window, through hooded eyes, to my left and facing south, past the clipped lawn, I see the studio in all its glory. The ugly orange monstrosity that it is glows under the nearest street lamp-the awkward red-headed stepchild that you end up loving the most. All the lights are off. The metal and glass windows pulled open to allow in the perfume of the night air; with carried scents of the dank river and late spring blooms, cooling the dusty interior.
The whole of the structure looms in my view, seeming to glow with a solitary purpose I will never fathom. Its eye like windows, silently accusatory and withholding, stare back at me. I slowly allow my eyes to close, fatigue consuming me fragment by unwilling fragment.
I think of the cold goulash waiting for me in the refrigerator in neat compact plastic containers. I want so much to taste it-to help quell the empty ache within me. I think of Mary, my exquisite sister, with such a tenuous and fragile hold on reality and I consider my own helplessness. Not in any conscious way, but rather a collection of passing sensations which filter through me like vibrations passing through a bridge or the imperceptible flutter of a flag in low wind.
I am going through the motions: washing, rinsing and putting things to order. Embracing the glimmering, undulating darkness, my closed eyelids, unable to hold in the two tears that cling to my exhausted face as they make their way down to meet in the softness of the flesh under my chin, open slowly, staring into and past the white filmy water.
Copyright 2011 by Therresa Griffin-Kennedy
We Are Stars
Outside a Las Vegas hotel, The Crescent Moon, Chad Chaos considered unzipping himself to show his credentials when he heard the demand, “Credentials please.” The lips the words escaped from were colored by Chocoberry lip-gloss, applied thickly like melted chocolate, obliterating the line between refined and raunchy. The body under the mouth was mostly two large chest bulbs that built up her bust. Before Chad Chaos could present his credentials, his body guard handed over a glossed invitation, pulled from his rented dinner jacket to avoid appearing in another of his boss’s sexual harassment suits. The bouncing D-cup bouncer read the invite like it was her own mother’s obituary. “Welcome to the Adult Movie Awards, Mr. Chaos.”
Chad Chaos was up for Best Group Scene. His scene was art. His movie was Out to Pasture: Oldies but Goodies. After a forty-seven minute scene, he went off like he was putting out a fire.
Two women opened the doors. They each had a high school diploma and a monthly birth control birth subscription. Chad Chaos ignored one of them offering her ass to his palm. No underwear. An event photographer saw the scene and begged to capture the moment, “Mr. Chaos, of you want to, spank her, please.” Chad Chaos saw the porno paparazzi and their demanding faces of fanatical fandom begging to see him punish the girl, Ally Eighteen, a newbie in the industry. She was used to basements and hand cameras, not annual contracts, and not this attention. She pulled a tiny nipple from out of her dress and directed it to Chad. Those holding cameras begged and pleaded, but Chad Chaos disappeared from their lenses through the open doors.
Recorded orchestral music lifelessly replayed to begin the award show. The sounds introduced a face perfectly fitted for a TV box. Although most everyone in the United States knew his face, the night’s host introduced himself and welcomed the crowd. He appeared on news networks with options about topic forced his way. That evening, he was too happy to share the room with so much sex. That evening, he was the host.
“Outside are celebrities, or those who people call real celebrities. They’re lined up. They’re almost in the street. They’re pushing against the closed doors like parents wanting a the newest hard to get toy for Christmas. Slobbering chumps. I think it’s obvious you people are the real celebrities. They want you, all of you in this room. You give what people want. You are the lights, sights and sounds of Las Vegas, but in people’s homes. Ladies, they enjoy your bodies like buffets; guys, you are the tall and erect hotels they vacation in. You give what people what they hope to see at the movies. And what the award-winning stars give in the back of cabs.”
Lounging in praise, the attendants laughed and mocked the recent cocaine powder powered scandal of a Hollywood super-starlet. As the mirth rose, from the stage, the host saw the hotel doors open as late-comers ushered in. The back rows were illuminated. With the open doors saw tits too big to be gifts from god—the Lord was not that generous with girth and firmness. He saw cell-phone photo ops conducted in once private darkness.
“This occupation is the only economy that isn’t struggling. That’s because TV and movies are too tame, and you ladies and gentlemen, love your work. Your love is work.”
As his opening monologue scrolled on the teleprompter, the host wore the mangy mask of the crude comedian as he moved on to make jokes about semen being the juice of the porn biz; how it was the cheapest fuel on the planet, but as he spoke, he watched only dresses sparking like rain drops in mud.
When the opening monologue came to an end, the host put his hands in his pockets, microphone too, and let out a yawn. And lazily drew the microphone back to his face. “But now, after being here for awhile, I’m bored with all this. All of it. All of you. Everyone and everything in this room bores me. This carnal carnival of sensuality and sex toy reps only makes me sleepy.” The host let out another yawn and stretched his arms, pulling his shoulders back; his microphone caught the sound of a pop. “This isn’t sexy,” he said pointing to a table of women who each spent an hour on nose powdering alone. “All of you screw for the camera—only one person screwed the camera. Her performances of Cleopatra, Ayn Rand, Calamity Jane, Sappho, and Pocahontas each exceeded everything history books and Hollywood tried to create. ”
Electric anticipation, everyone felt it. Something big was coming their way.
“Only one person has loved this work for a lifetime. Ladies may I introduce to your labias and gentlemen may I introduce to your junk, the jazz of jizz, the mother of the mother lode, my co-host this evening, Gemstone Jeanie!”
The nearly clothed but still fully triple X-rated crowd panted, puffed and ejaculated cheers and acclamations in convulsions as if the Lincoln Memorial stood from its stone chair and recited the alphabet backwards. Still gasping, they clapped as Gemstone Jeanie lit up under the stage lights. Gemstone was the archetype that every piece of ass in the industry was weighed against. She was the basketball star whose shadow cast over every season’s megastars. No one wanted someone better than Gemstone, but no one could be better than Gemstone. Gemstone cut everyone into ribbons film. She made the darlings of desire feel like deleted scenes on an editing floor.
Standing at the podium, her prom queen hair fit as naturally as a wet mutt mounting an aged but still paid to be maintained show pooch. Her eye lashes, thin with a hint of reddishness, curled from her face like they tried to scratch wounds into her forehead. She smiled as little as she could because smiling is when the wrinkles show. No one knew how little she wanted to be standing there. Favors were called in for the feat. She was begged and worshipped to for her presence. At that moment, she wanted to be at home, in bed early. Probably asleep with her hand intertwined with her husband with their wedding bands scraping metal.
But an award was coming her way soon.
“I would—” The crowd continued raving, cutting her sentence short. Gemstone didn’t allow the wrinkles of affection or annoyance show. “I would like to thank something very special to me; something very special to us all. On behalf of everyone in this room, I would like to thank my tits!” The breasts she shared with the room were caught in a library’s worth of photos and hundreds of days worth of film. After retirement, this was as graphic as Gemstone’s pornography got. After calling chicanery quits, Gemstone found a Methodist man who did not know her body was a traveling circus. He wasn’t present to see his wife on display, the host noticed.
“I want to thank all our tits,” Gemstone said as she pointed her geriatric but gigantic, scientifically sustained chest at the crowd. To the left and to the right. Gemstone wasn’t unhappy to bare her breasts, doing so meant she had to talk less. The host thought no one should be elated to see an old lady’s chest, but he had no idea that Gemstone had taken the innocence of every man in the room. In late night lust, they found Gemstone Jeanie. Some ladies stood up from their seats, offering themselves but exposing themselves to Gemstone’s golden dress.
“Silicone and whiskey are the keys, ladies,” she said as she tucked her well-worn breasts back into like they were the pocket lining of blue jeans. “Nothing preserves like those two.”
“Instead of laughing, can all of you respond like that for the rest of the evening,” the host said nervously, feeling like he was back in youthful days, when he was a comedian opening for third-rate, or at best, B-list acts in dive bars that paid in canned beers, zip-lock bags of Swisher Sweets, and the occasional waitress.
“All that pink color, it is like heaven, isn’t it,” Gemstone said to her co-host. “This is the heaven I’ve hoped for. I’m in heaven among pink stars in the sky. And like my co-host said earlier, you are stars. Outside, those divas and prima donnas with their resumes and acting classes mean nothing to our art. We are what people watch in the dark. We are the sex gods, and when you’ve fucked this much, there’s no needed for any other heaven.”
Being called co-host was not something the host enjoyed hearing. He chewed his cheek and thought little be believed in Gemstone’s tone, but each member of the audience was devoted to the Gemstone’s lip service in honor of them. Off script, Gemstone continued praising pornography as the host watched the teleprompter’s text skip past a monologue he spent hours writing.
In the tone of a referee breaking up a boxing match, the host set the award show back on course. “Now some recognition for the films this year that caused divorces, rawness, kept the lube industry alive, and stained so many sheets.”
An hour into the show and already awards for Best Sound Track, Best Gagged Girl, Best Once-Illegal Sex Act, Shortest Gay Scene, and Most Outrageous Film, which went to Doughnut Glory Holes, where at each instance of a male character’s climax, the film would cut to footage of Bavarian cream would erupting from a pastry.
The host, momentarily free of Gemstone Jeanie, walked out to his cued stereo music alongside adult star Alvin Aventinus. The host had no clue his fellow presenter was eccentric to the point of no humor. The host knew that Alvin was the queen of queer porn and that he had the word TENDER tattooed down his penis. “I thought some put Taco Bell hot cause packets under the hotel’s toilet seats. I felt bad that a prank would be pulled on such a night. But then I realized that Minerva Everglade, winner of best anal, used the restroom before me,” Alvin said as he snickered through his nose, into the microphone, unprepared for what he said because he was not present at any rehearsal.
“This next award,” said the host, “is as valuable as Larry Flynt’s golden wheel chair--
“Or his erection,” Alvin injected.
A few laughs answered back as the crowd filed back into to their seats. Most were sweaty from drinking and an active evening—doing what the cameras told them to do was exhausting. But no matter how dainty the dress or how well-fitting the tuxedo, the actors sold their bodies during the numerous intermissions.
“This next award is for a life time of not faking it,” said the host.
“She perfected industry into art,” Alvin said, finally following the teleprompter.
“From scenes on her knees to backseats, she has been an inspiration. She has chewed up and spit out--
“Or sometimes swallowed—” Alvin said as he strayed from the prompter.
The host shoved Alvin to the side. “Actors and actresses for more than two decades.”
“So this year’s Life Time Achievement Award can go to no one else but--
“Gemstone Jeanie!” Alvin screamed into the microphone. His voice along with the speakers cracked.
Gemstone was prepared not to smile. The spotlight hit her table. She hugged her manager, a kindly Jew from Mt. Carmel country; a man who thanked God for the sex industry. He built a community center from the money that Gemstone Jeanie’s body produced.
As she rounded the circular tables, decorated with flowers pulled from the soil and condemned to glass vases curved seductively like a woman’s silhouette, the crowd stood to clap once again. All Gemstone Jeanie looked at was the screen behind the presenters. Four-digit numerals of year her first movie was released faded into, and then dissolved from the screen. The film was a parody of Amish life, Shameful Shamus.Her first scene was in the back of a black horse and buggy in Lancaster County. One take was all they got. In an Amish community the music of public sex does not go unnoticed, nor do cameras and booms. They were caught a tobacco field and the whole crew was hunted with men with beard, bibles, and bats. Hand carved, of course.
As Gemstone walked closer the stage and her prestigious award, the montage became a blur of positions and perversions. Group jobs in the snow to solo acts under the sun on beaches. The metamorphosis of hair styles and body hair. A clip flashed of the exposé she cooked up to nab crooked public figures, Jerks and Jerk-Offs. A room of actresses and hidden cameras would descend on a ensnared preacher, senator, or university dean. It wasn’t’ the power of sex as much as the persistency of sexual appeal. Some called it rape; some called it porn with a conscience.
Gemstone saw her own body on film, flipped horizontal, hung vertical. She had never seen this much of herself. She had too many awards from doing too many movies, but anytime she would be nominated and a clip was played, she would look down and count the bubbles in her drink. Decades, Presidential administrations, wars and recessions went by clip by clip. Her career was compressed into a series of sequential close-ups and half second fetishes.
As she lifted her high heel to steady herself on the first step as the last clip played from her last movie. Gemstone Shines On. It was filmed on her wedding night. When she was younger she would enjoy real intimacy with the windows wide open. The curtains would be pulled as far to the side as they could. Doors would be unlocked. She said she didn’t need heaven earlier that evening, but her marriage was her real afterlife. On the night she wanted affection and confidence more than anything hotel workers planted cameras in the room and sold the footage.
On the presentation screen, her true love was in grainy black and white. Gemstone heard chuckles at the standard missionary position. She remembered being in love on that hotel bed. The host stood aside after Gemstone shrugged off a hug from Alvin Aventinus.
She stood in front of a room of sex icons—who and what people wanted to look like when their own clothes were taken off. With all the sex, she wasn’t pleased. The crowd stopped clapping and one by one, slouched in stages until they were all seated. Gemstone tapped her wedding ring on the podium. Her curls hung from her head and were pushed away like a swing with her heavy breathing. She leaned over to the microphone, seeing the seconds ticking down for her acceptance speech, and said, “Jerks and jerk-offs.” She left the stage, stabbing her heels into the each step. Her award, a glass shard reading Lifetime Achievement, was left on the podium.
Gemstone parted a sea of waitresses dressed as French maids. No one could pretend not to notice her leaving. Everyone in the room was flabbergasted by her real emotion. Gemstone Jeanie’s passion kept the recorded music from playing. The Teleprompters were devoid of any text. As she reached the doors, the host took to his microphone; well-rehearsed, he shuffled along to the next category. “Since Watergate, the term deepthroat as been too political. But these next ladies take it back, and take it all down.”
Copyright 2011 by Tyler Malone
When her life unexpectedly ended, I was in the same automobile, which allowed me to see the face of death. The raindrops, those unwitting witnesses of our fight … the car skidded … I was unable to regain control. A memory: the telegraph pole stuck by the edge of the road, silently and inexorably headed our way, in such a manner that it was senseless to resist. When I came to, she was still with me. But it was only a first impression. In reality, she was no more. Her head, painted over with blood, rested on my hurting, bruised shoulder constrained by the indifferent embrace of a safety belt. A safety belt she had so carelessly neglected while improvising our last scene.
The officials arrived: the police, the ambulance, the firemen. I felt powerless to get out of the car, even to turn my head to the right, in the direction where she had been only such a short time ago, from where only a minute earlier had emanated a passionate flow of verbal hostility. Had been, still somehow close, despite all the vulgarities that had plagued our life. It was impossible to believe that the verdict was irreversible.
Naturally the fate would have it that I got away with only a small collection of bruises and scratches: a short list of questions, a short entombment of several extremities in their respective casts, a short series of chats with a psychiatrist. But my decision was already made. All that was happening was perceived from an emotional distance, like a provincial railway station the train passes at a barely lowered speed.
Everyone’s life has those places. One of my places is a hillside plaza – a wonderful location for nocturnal observations, meditations on unfulfilled destiny – with every light taking on a special meaning, be it a pedestrian’s cigarette or an automobile’s eye. I thought it was high enough. Once I told her that if I ever chose to take that step, I would select this place, this method. She replied that it was not reliable enough. We were interrupted. I never found out how seriously she had taken my words. At the time, I may have not meant them completely seriously.
But the thought itself was not new or unexpected, I had cherished it in my imagination like a stuffed toy I could bury my nose in when no other choice was left. I knew that our existence together was doomed. I couldn't keep her. I had no emotional energy left to keep anyone or anything. Even so, there remained occasional moments of harmony, when hope swelled inside my lungs and I felt there was still a reason to keep trying.
The banality of our story has not ceased to fascinate me even now: her meeting a semi-comical individual referred to with a smile, their conversations at work. But an accidental revelation soon opened my eyes to the fact that the era of conversations had mutated into something different, which I could not, or did not want to, guess in time. Me, I still believed in our magical forever, in our fairy tale for two; I was still convinced that it was impossible, unthinkable to imagine someone else as a replacement. And she, she acted as usual, in no hurry to share the new information. Perhaps some remnants of a feeling for me still wiggled in her heart, perhaps they lay dormant there in their shadow state. Her silence, her cool ability to act as if nothing was happening, are still lodged in my heart like sharp claws of pain.
This was a fairly unpleasant period, marked by her hesitant oscillations between me and my newly found rival. To a natural question why I did not cancel, why I continued paying for the subscription, I can give a terrifyingly simple answer: because of those isolated days, hours, minutes when it seemed that time could be turned around by sewing the future together from the patches of the past. Even armed with my latter day tolerance, I would not describe her attitude in those days as sensitive. This was to be expected. For the sake of objectivity I must mention: by then I too had shown her a variety of faces other than my best.
This is how it went on, until an accident in the rain terminated this much overextended play. Without a doubt or a chance of compromise, everything was over. And I realized with full clarity that I would prefer to give her away to any rival, any monster on Earth or elsewhere, if I could know, could be sure that she is alive, that she exists. I don't think I was quite myself those days. Only the decision I had made gave my life any meaning. What was I waiting for? Perhaps I thought that once I had made up my mind, I would not change it. Thus the particular day did not matter.
Even in that state I was unable to suppress my annoying, pointless feeling of responsibility: I sorted out my affairs, gave a notice at work. I took all possible measures to ensure that my disappearance was a minimal burden for those around. Does it mean I’m a good person, or does it mean I’m well-trained?
Then one night it became clear that further waiting was unnecessary. My thoughts turned backwards and, having leaped over a significant portion of reality, landed in that strange world where we were still together, where she was, where one day she would no longer be, but I did not know it yet. On my way to my destination I was aware of the special significance of these minutes. My eyes carefully reviewed the setting, in some cases correcting the pre-existing information in my memory – a memory that was to stay powered on for only a while longer. In one place I even took a roundabout route to give myself the pleasure of a last glimpse at an elegant old church lost amidst boring new buildings, an orphan dear to me. The silence, the darkness of the spellbound universe were harmonious with the vacuum inside me, with my utter indifference towards what was going to happen. Yet it occurred to me that the true goal of my deviation was to assign the whole endeavor an esthetic finality, a sense of perfection. But who else, except for me, was going to appreciate this one-actor show, in which the audience had not yet had the chance to enter the theater?
Later, standing on the banister between the plaza and the area designated for free flying, I saw that the height was definitely adequate. But I no longer had a chance to convince her of that, even with my own example. It was hard to believe that the myriad details the world presented to me in their nighttime finality would instantly fade into nothingness. Suddenly I lost my balance. For a few seconds I was twitching and swaying on that banister, right on the edge between existence and an accidental death. Or, to be more precise, between an accidental death and a premeditated one. Maybe I should have taken advantage of destiny’s unexpected offer? But I didn't have time to weigh all the pros and cons of this option: primitive instincts took over, returning me into the state of balance (after what had felt like a million seconds of panic). Unexpectedly, the need to pursue the intended course of action seemed questionable. An indescribable lightness, almost happiness, overtook me. Instantly it appeared laughingly illogical that for her betrayal I was planning to give up my own participation in the show. Everything was still ongoing. New actors were bound to enter the stage. Events could unravel in a completely new, unforeseen direction. I felt joyful realizing that in the end, she was unable to ruin me.
After that, everything was fine. I won’t lie: momentary fits of nostalgic depression still visited me. It seemed that a harmony once possessed was never to be recaptured. But a minor application of will power was enough to clean up my soul. Naturally, a replacement was found – a woman who made it all peaceful and lighthearted, without blood-thirsty fights and without lies – until I became aware of the fact that this very calm was the danger, that I was growing discontent with the newfound silence. A previously undiagnosed addiction to our exhausting quarrels, grand reconciliations, those large and small tempests, was twisting and turning my mind. This revelation surprised me at first, but then it seemed logical, like underwater reefs exposed by the tide, previously hidden in the subconscious. The hopelessness grew. All possible antidotes had already been tried, and none of them had worked.
Last night, as I was positioned inside my apartment witnessing a series of events unfolding on the TV screen, I realized: what was started must be brought to completion, even if with a great deal of delay. All the dirt that had accumulated in my soul blew away, replaced by peace and certainty, a certainty that this time I would not change my mind.
One might consider this a good place to end this story, handing it over to the reader to complete. But let’s not be too hasty. Truth is, in describing almost a year in my life I did not dare to tell the truth.
It was I who killed her.
We were speeding down that dark, rain-soaked road, telling each other things one should never say, never have to hear. The weather inside us was just like outside: cloudy, humid, humiliating – especially compared to all of our crystal clear, sunny moments, all of them by now a matter of the past. When the car skidded, I thought: is there really a point in continuing this game if it is clear with an almost mathematical certainty that I cannot keep her, that in her vacillation between me and not me she is going to end up in a solely predictable place which is not me? Naturally, I could have controlled the car, or at least tried to. Instead I hit gas, jammed the pedal into the floor, hearing and feeling with my entire body the sound of the obediently energized motor. I looked at her. She knew – of course she knew. She understood: what used to be her future had just shrunk into a tiny lump, a barely visible marble. This is when she smiled. I didn't have time to wonder why. Right at that second the exclamation point of the telegraph pole in question, frozen in silent expectancy by the edge of the road, interrupted my sentence. I made a slight steering motion, sending us towards our fate. I thought this second, the last one for both of us, was going to bring everything back, create a singular entity out of the two of us, an entity that would last forever! But stupid, unnecessary, second-rate details always hinder the most important intentions. I was wearing a seatbelt, while she was not.
Her last smile haunted me for days. I kept trying to understand what it had meant. Maybe she was happy with this ending? I’m certain that the situation was painful to her too. At times her pain seemed to be even stronger than mine. She was unable to help herself. Humans never are. Maybe this smile was a last blessing she chose to give me?
No, it did not work, we were unable to merge into a singular entity. I had miscalculated. I wanted both of us to go away together, but I came unprepared. Doesn't this mean it’s time for me to follow?
After the accident, I found myself looking – in the streets, on public transportation, everywhere – looking for her, as if she might appear from around a street corner or raise her head from a library desk, or perhaps – who knows – even knock on my door. What would I tell her? Would I apologize? It’s hard to say. One thing is clear: I could not imagine a sacrifice too great for even a slimmest chance of this mystical meeting.
Now everything is said. No secrets left. I don't know who would make a good candidate to judge me. My imaginary reader? Those who knew me? A stranger who does not have a clue about any of this? I don't really care: let anyone judge me if they wish.
Better yet: I will judge myself. I will interrupt this overextended mistake. I will pay her back. Pay someone back – whoever made it so that in our last second together, in an accelerating car, I ended up wearing a seatbelt – while her carelessly packaged, infinitely breakable body surrendered so willingly, so completely.
Copyright 2011 by A. Molotkov
It all started with a quote from an old high school acquaintance on Facebook. One of those people who friended me that, truthfully, I can’t really remember. As I wasted my time scrolling through mundane posts, I drew a kind of foggy blank with some, most likely, hallucinated mannerisms, sort of an approximation of the phantom who cheerily quipped: "In the depths of winter I finally learned that there lay within me an invincible summer,” Albert Camus.
I don’t know what the weather is like back home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, but today it is gloomy in Nashville, more than gloomy. It has anthropomorphized into a nasty, cutting relative you just wish would go home. We have had no sun, maybe one partly cloudy day in five weeks. Other places are receiving record snowfalls, but we remain torpid gray, alternating flurries and sleet. If it snows, it happens at night, so that by the next morning it is sleeting and the snow quickly retreats into nasty, dirty bundles deposited at the corners of the street.
May I tell you a little bit about myself? My company did away with my office so I work from home. My job is boring. You would be weary just to hear me recant its description. It is one of those jobs that need a ton of explanation just to inform the listener of my vocation. This is futility because by time I am through with my lengthy, technical depictions my listener is either indifferent or has a blank, glazed look on their face. I haven’t been out of my pajamas in weeks. I have two and a half inches of gray streaks transitioning into sad, faded locks that had once been a gleaming color labeled “Foxy,” packaged in a box adorned with a woman tossing voluptuous, ginger tresses. I could go on and on, but let this last description suffice. I left home today with greasy hair pulled tight to my head in a clip reminiscent of a giant spider, pajamas with a hole under the arm wrapped in a Snuggie bound (already loathing myself) for Hardees’s for a Thick Burger, giant onion rings and a large Coke. I drove around town eating my fine meal, and then across town to a drive-thru convenience store where I purchased a bag of Chips Ahoy. Most of cookies accumulated as crumbs in my lap, or stuck between my teeth. The ones that escaped raced like runaway slaves to my hips.
I haven’t always been this way. I used to go to Macy’s and have a personal shopper clothe me. I had a French manicure on fake nails. I’ve had liposuction and there may still be a little Botox losing strength in my face. Nutrisystem is still being delivered to my door. I still cared.
I did this for a man. I met him on plentoffish.com. I enjoyed his company and attention while it lasted. Later it seemed that I had snagged a not-so-great catch from polluted seas and apparently, he was a serial monogamist sex addict. I was enthralled with the newness of the experience, not the actual experience. In reality, he was very indecisive, insecure, watched me the whole time during sex. He forced his penis down my throat so hard I imagined my colon would march right up my digestive tract and slap him right out of my mouth. For our six month anniversary, he gave me sapphire earrings and then wanted me to go out to a fancy restaurant with no panties on under my new dress with his sperm running down my legs. Maybe he was like a lion marking his territory. In reality, it’s not that big of a loss.
That is my trouble now; nothing seems to be a loss. When you lose the ability to hope or dream, it is a type of death. I wondered if I was a misanthrope who likely suffered from undiagnosed autism or Asperger’s disease. At parties and gatherings, I always seem to be situated between two conversations, never catching enough of any of them to participate. I am always anxious and uncomfortable in those settings. I have retreated to my home. The only calls I get are wrong numbers and telemarketers. I really don’t like anybody or anything anymore.
My mood could indicate that I have surrendered. Perhaps it could mean something more, an end of vanity, a beginning of reason, and a gateway to wisdom. I doubted those theories, though appealing, as I drove on, disgusted with the cookie crumbs that settled in colonies along the frontier of my Snuggie. The houses I passed seemed to creak with rheumatism brought on by the cold. Yesterday the wind had been fierce, but today the air hung heavy and wet as if it was indifferent too. I thought about the Camus quote. I could not imagine an invincible summer residing within me. I burst out laughing.
To my great amazement, a hole appeared in the clouds as a searchlight of sun blinded me at the red light, like it was a sign! Holy shit, could this be a Saul cruising down the Damascus Parkway moments? Did I have anything really to lose by just rolling with this? Just look at me; I think not. I reminded myself that it is so easy to say no to living. My spirits had not been lifted this high in months. I felt like the sun had given me an adjustment from a cosmic chiropractor.
I decided to take a different route home that wound around by the river. When I reached the bridge I saw the most beautiful chalk drawing. I recognized the artist from an article I had read in one of those folksy features in the Sunday paper. A thriving tent city by the river was about to be cleared away to make way for a new development, the sort of cheesy affair that is so popular today, the convoluted, model village with quaint shoppes and sidewalks that meander in wavy lines like a drunkard laid them out. The homeless population was being told they must relocate to a shelter. The artist was a homeless man who, despite being very gifted, believed he was a dog. He refused to eat any of the sandwiches passed out by the Christ the Rock Baptist Ministry. Finally one of the exasperated good souls brought him a new packet of chalk and a bag of Old Roy dog food from Wal-Mart. It was the only gift he would receive. He became known as Old Roy because he ate dog food. He never spoke, but would bark and howl at the moon.
I pulled over. Most of the men around the small fire were dead-eyed. But Old Roy’s burned icily blue with a raw intensity. He looked biblical, with a matted beard and long hair reminiscent of the wilderness version of Jesus or John when he was noshing on locusts. His body was slight but muscular. It seemed a shame for someone so gifted to be denied a real chance to develop his talent. I lowered the window and called his name.
“He don’t talk to no one, Miss,” said one of the more observant homeless crew.
I realized I had to think like Roy if I was going to reach him. I opened the door of the passenger side and spied an onion ring on the floor mat that had escaped my mouth during my recent feeding frenzy. I held it up between my fingers and whistled while patting the seat. To my great amazement Old Roy bounded into my car and snatched the onion ring. He began sniffing and licking up the Chips Ahoy crumbs. I closed the door not really knowing what I should do next. I drove away slightly panicked, progressing to majorly panicked. I have forgotten how to behave with people. Then it hit me, he is a dog. I am just rescuing a stray dog, a dog that makes nice art. I’ll take him home, buy him some paint, and treat him like a pet just like when I inherited Mr. Pickles, my mother’s miniature Dachshund, when she went to the nursing home. The odor in the car was overwhelmingly foul. I fought the urge to retch. I let down the window and Roy happily stuck his head out as I drove down the I-65.
I realized that I would have to wash Old Roy sooner rather than later. In a perfect world I would have established some trust first, delaying actions that might terrify him until he was familiar with me and his new surroundings. There was a large whirlpool into which he must be coaxed. The whirlpool had never seen any use in my history with this current residence. The unused behemoth basin is flanked by a large expanse of windows that seem to be de rigueur for my neighborhood here in the cul-de-sac. How could I begin to describe how much I detested this neighborhood? I was surrounded by cookie cutter mini-mansions and neighbors, the “Perfects,” with their 2.5 children, usually named Chase and Morgan or some other contrivance that sounded like a banking or brokerage firm. Their days were filled with Suzuki lessons, ballet classes and Peewee soccer games. The moms drove minivans in their tennis or workout clothes, the children were still young enough to be adorable and the fathers have just bought their first sports cars. I had came to the door smoking a cigarette when little Barclay from next door rung to deliver my Girl Scout cookies. She looked absolutely stunned and I realized she had probably never seen anyone smoking before. Life was still perfect in her world. It’s funny to think of myself marooned here, granted this house in the divorce decree just before the housing bubble burst. I was the hidden sore on an otherwise perfect body.
I don’t know what the neighbors saw from behind their custom plantation shutters as I pulled the Land Rover into my driveway with Roy hanging from the window barking at squirrels. I didn’t dare open his door until I had safely pulled into the garage. Even though it was a three car garage, it wouldn’t take long for the stench to build. I cracked one of the doors slightly and went to the master bath to prepare.
I heard snorts and scratching as I approached the garage again. I opened the door to find Roy had overturned the garbage. He was in the throes of shredding a load of papers destined for recycling that I had been too lazy to carry to the curb. I screamed for him stop, but he continued, undisturbed. I finally recovered my wits. “Bad dog,” I yelled. Roy retreated sheepishly into a corner. I called for him but he would not come. I went inside and got a couple of belts and after wrestling with Roy, I got one around his waist and looped the other belt around it until I formed a primitive leash and I began to tug. These were fashionable relics from my old life, defiantly not meant for dragging beasts down hallways. At this rate I would never get him into the bathroom.
I went to the computer to see if I could find some help online. I surmised from several sites and the Dog Whisperer that I would have to coax good behavior rather than react negatively to bad behavior. I didn’t have any dog treats, so I used a bag of gingersnaps. Maybe Roy would not notice the difference, after all, he did eat the onion ring.
I tugged Roy to the first gingersnap and drug him to the next. Roy gave me a coy smile as he approached third and followed the trail to master bathroom. He placed the pile of collected cookies at the edge of the tub and undressed and climbed into the awaiting water. He looked pretty content there.
“Water dog, huh Roy?” I tried to hide my embarrassment, thinking dog, dog, pet dog, and so I gathered up his clothing and made for the washer before the stench overtook the whole house.
I had rummaged through my bathroom drawers and found an unopened gift basket with an array of Moonlight Magnolia, scented bath products. Were you ever the recipient of gifts that just reeked of loved ones not having the first clue as to who you were? I was a tomboy and never used prissy magnolia, scented soap. I had three or four unopened Enya CDs. My sister used to complain that I only played music that no one else could listen to like punk and jazz. I don’t know how the logic trajectory meanders from Mingus to the soft, ethereal waters of Enya’s shore. I presumed Enya and soap and lotion are the default gift purchases when you are irresolute. In any event, I cracked open that bad boy and started washing Roy.
Roy seemed to luxuriate in the bath water, shocking after the scene in the garage and the tug of war toward the bathroom. I was genuinely grateful for the foaming bath crystals and the conditioning shampoo. Roy loved me massaging his head with the shampoo. He tilted his head and licked my hand. We advanced further into the treasure trove of the basket to the sugar scrub and its enclosed loofa and the final coup d’état, the Conditioning Hair Repair. I drained the water and sprayed Roy a couple of times along with the bathtub which was heavily soiled and no longer virginal. I held up a towel for Roy, covering my face in the process, but immediately he had began running around the bathroom shaking, snorting and rolling on the bathmats, then he tore down the down the hall barking.
The first few weeks with Roy, as with any pet, were quite an adjustment. I really wasn’t used to any routine. After a few accidents in the house, I learned to read Roy’s restless pacing and circling as a signal to let him out. I kept to a schedule of regular meal, potty and sleep times. The first few nights I tried to station Roy in the guest bedroom. My resolve to keep him there waned as he plaintively whined, broke into incessant barking, mournful howls and relentless scratching outside my locked bedroom door. At 3:30 a.m. on the third morning I opened the door, not caring if I was raped or murdered as long as there would be rest at the end of the experience. My fears were unfounded, and Roy dove under my bed. The huge, tall carved four poster was a hand-me-down from my grandfather, who was the ambassador to Venezuela, a beautiful remnant from our gracious past, and perhaps the only diplomatic thing about me. I handed Roy the extra pillow from the empty side of the bed and the unused duvet folded at the foot of the bed.
Once we were entrenched in our routine, I went to the Artist Pad and with the assistance of the lavender-headed clerk, purchased an array of brushes, drawings pads, pastels and oils. I converted the unused bonus room above the garage into Roy’s studio. It was adjacent to my own office so that I could keep an eye on him. Roy was amazingly prolific. He churned out one beautiful painting after another. Stylistically his work seemed deceptively primitive, almost like it had been drawn by an exquisitely accomplished Aborigine. Roy’s lines were bold and deft. I wondered how and when he began painting.
I should tell you that even though Roy never spoke, he would exhibit normal human behavior in certain instances. Most of the time, he conducted his actions in such a canine manner that I would forget that he really was a man. He wriggled on the carpet on his back waiting for me to scratch his belly. He would deposit a tennis ball at my feet for me to throw. But then, he would stick his hand out for a cigarette from time to time. He helped himself to a single malt scotch from the bar after he retired from painting and had washed his hands and brushes. He had very refined table manners, and refused to eat from the dog bowl after the first couple of weeks. To my great dismay, he declined to use the toilet and open doors. I had to install a doggie door and a very tall privacy fence in the back yard so that he could conduct his business. The first week he was here, my next door neighbor, Nancy Collins, stomped over, ranting that her church study group, the Bible Babes, had seen him lift a leg and spray a tree. I told her that he was from New Guinea, and my ministry, “If you only knew what this poor man has lived through and how long it took him to get to this country. They don’t have toilets there!” I yelled at her until tears puddled in her eyes and then I slammed the door. He would chase Powderpuff, their cat, until the terrified creature scrambled back over the fence trailing its tail the size of a serving of cotton candy. Nancy was godly enough to overlook these disturbing occurrences, but even I was disconcerted when Roy followed me and sniffed my butt.
I grew to enjoy Roy’s company after my initial anxiety passed. I acclimated my schedule to his. He required a lot of extra work and attention from me, but I concluded it was a healthy lifestyle adaptation. Though I grew irritated with him frequently, I knew I was happier than I had been in years. As with any pet he lowered my blood-pressure and gave my hitherto pathetic life meaning and focus. Roy became my pet.
Roy was an enigma without resolution. He refused to speak except in the form of barking. If he divulged any of the fragments of his life to me, it was usually in his artwork. After I remarked that his last painting was so smart and sophisticated, I said, Roy your instincts as an artist are so perfect. Surely you had training. How did you start painting? Roy formed the word Exeter on the canvas and then proceeded to paint over it.
“Exeter, the shi shi prep school?” Roy nodded. “Jesus, Roy, if you went to a posh school like Exeter, what were you doing living in that tent city by the river?” Roy put his brush in turpentine and wiped his hands on his towel. He retreated from the room with his head hung and a defeated posture. I was stunned. I ran down the hall after him and found him curled under my bed. I put my hand under the bed and pet Roy. He winced as if I had struck him.
“Roy, I am truly sorry. I didn’t mean to be so insensitive. You are my only friend in this world. Please know that I didn’t mean to upset you.” I felt Roy nuzzle my hand and lick it a few times. I left the room. As naïve as it sounds, this was the first time I had really wondered who this man was. I considered him my pet. I had a pet that created beautiful things. I considered him crazy and incapacitated, perhaps like myself, unable to mingle in the world but smart and productive all the same.
Roy usually wakes up before me. He has started making the coffee. I ascertained he found my coffee weak and puny from the disdainful faces he made. I found the addition of shade grown organic Ethiopian coffee on the grocery list held by the magnet on the refrigerator. I guess the man who used to eat Wal-Mart dog food expected me to shop at Whole Foods now. Even though I will come downstairs to find my new Vanity Fair completely shredded or one of my Crocs chewed in half, he deigned to insinuate my coffee is not fit for human consumption. I was taking orders from a man who stood at the base of the backyard trees barking incessantly at squirrels if I left him out too long.
This morning he wasn’t sitting at the table reading as usual. His copy of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice lay face down on the table. He had left me cranberry/orange scone (another of his requests) and some fruit on a plate. I showered and dressed, wondering where Roy was. I assumed he was in the studio but none of his implements were on the table yet. I started to search the entire house and yard to no avail. I felt panicked. I finally went into the garage as a last resort. My heart sank. The car was gone. I stumbled back into the house in a somnambulistic state. In the mud room, the contents of my purse were strewn on the counter. My wallet was gone.
I can’t remember the last time someone had the power to hurt me. I know it sounds ironic considering the dissipated state into which my life had lapsed, but I felt so ashamed. I collapsed at the kitchen table. I looked out the bay window at Spring in full force. The trees had started to leaf and pink, yellow and white blooms dotted the perimeter of the yard. My eye rested on the brilliant emerald of the new grass. I saw a man-sized pile of shit nearby and started to sob.
I curled up under the giant bed and smelled the pillow that had touched Roy’s head. I realized that this might be the last time I smelled Roy’s particular aroma of soap, grass and oil paint. Carved vines and flora snaked the mammoth mahogany posts of the colonial relic. I stared at the dirty baseboards and the developer’s choice of beige paint. The beige walls seemed to herald the misery and bland life that would once again be mine. I ran my hand along the off-white carpet as if reaching out to pet Roy. I encountered my possessions: socks with holes, bent eye glasses and my underwear. He had started to grab my underwear when I showered and had run around the house growling with them in his mouth. I looked at the beyond-faded, threadbare, cotton panties. Who wore wretched drawers like these? Jesus, even a homeless man couldn’t handle living with me.
I drifted into a miserable sleep too incapacitated to even get a drink, my usual remedy. Before Roy, there were way too many wine bottles tinkling in the trash. Even sleep was no escape. It hurt to breathe. I felt like a homicide had taken place.
I woke to loud barking. I felt so disoriented, like I had a hangover. Roy was pawing at the leg that protruded from under the bed. “Roy, you’re going to wake the dead. Stop barking…” My head throbbed from all the crying. Roy continued to bark at full throttle, by the door. I had no option other than to grab my Kleenex box and follow him.
His enthusiasm waned when he had seen my face and guessed the reason for my tears. He held up a finger as if to say wait a moment. He poured me a glass of wine. As I drank, he hugged me and kissed the top of my head. Roy proudly brought out bags from the garage, lots of them.
How did this dog man go shopping? Had he driven to the mall and entered Banana Republic, barking until the clerk retrieved the sweater off the mannequin? Had he dug through a pile of lingerie with his paws, slinging garments every which way, gathered a bunch of panties in his mouth and then deposited them at the cash register? Most bewildering was the bag that contained hair coloring, makeup, nail polish and a host of grooming products which required me to read instructions in order to determine their uses. Roy barked loudly for me to help him take the bags to the bathroom. I grabbed the ibuprofen bottle and swallowed several. This was not tiptoeing into the water, but diving in and being swept along with the fast moving current.
My dear readers, guess what day this was? Easter, day of resurrection. I was shaving my legs for the first time… in I didn’t know when. I watched from the Palladian fenestrations that flanked the mammoth whirlpool as Roy dug a hole the size of a Volkswagen in the backyard. Just as I took care of Roy’s nasty clothing while he was safely ensconced in the tub our very first night together, he filled the crater with my holey PJs, Snuggies, Crocs, and ratty underwear. Oh, Christ, did he just dump out my Cheetos?
I had to admit that I felt a lot better about myself after I gave up all the processed food and started wearing actual clothes, bright colored garments with zippers instead of elastic waistbands. Roy prepared our meals and his culinary instincts were as acute as his artistic ones. He growled at me if I tried to sneak more than a handful of cigarettes a day. He slapped my hand with his strong paw when I poured my fourth wine of the evening. Roy pissed me off at every turn, but even if I was in a constant state of vexation, I knew that I felt better than I had in years. The most intolerable illustration was his attempts to block my path of flight when he put on the Pilates DVD. The only time my dog allowed me back into sweatpants was when he coerced me to do Yoga Booty Ballet.
Roy had assembled quite a mass of artwork. I photographed his portfolio and started shopping galleries for a showing. I located a hip new gallery that seemed to be the epicenter of the current New York art scene, Atelier Annie. Annie Sternbach must have catapulted herself from her Chelsea Gallery to Nashville. She arrived breathless on our doorstep in record time. About all I could say as I greeted her for the first time was come in and excuse me. Roy was chasing Powderpuff again. The poor cat raced across the yard with Roy in hot pursuit, barking like banshee. Powderpuff lived up to her name as her fur bristled to the size of an electrocuted Pomeranian by the time she scrambled up a tree. Roy continued barking, and I tried to pull him back. I screamed at Roy, tugged at his clothing, and finally had to alpha roll him to the ground with my teeth at his throat.
“Roy, we have company!” I growled. The New Yorker viewed the spectacle with an urbane air of insouciance as if to say, hey, I’ve seen worse on my block. Annie didn’t exactly add a modicum of normalcy to the scene in the backyard. She wore a skintight black patent-leather flight suit. She had on incredibly tall clear acrylic platform sandals and her feet appeared to have been dipped in gold paint. Jet black hair swooped severely to one side of her head and her visible ear was covered in a mélange of gold jewelry, almost tribal in manner. “Roy, it is so incredible to meet you.” Annie said batting her inch long fake black eyelashes with a coy smile on fire engine, red lips. Roy was unimpressed. He spied his squeaking ducky toy across the lawn and trotted away from our conversation.
Annie arranged everything. The gallery organized a heavily publicized show. One disconcerting caveat was that Annie wanted us there for the opening night. My fears were assuaged as Roy boarded the plane, picked up our luggage at the carousel, and walked outside LaGuardia to hail a cab. Annie booked us in a chic boutique hotel with blazing red lacquer walls adorned with scary black, dancing shadow puppet figures on the walls. The was no check-in desk in sight, but rather a line of grim people in severe black suits standing behind glowing pink balls. The effect was sort of Khmer Rouge meets The Wizard of Oz. Annie met us shortly thereafter and took us shopping so that we might look presentable.
She arranged a personal shopper for Roy and took care of me herself. After I repeatedly asked Annie to “take it down a notch” as she veered toward clown clothes, we eventually found a nice black dress that pleased us both. I hate to brag, but I was shocked at the image that reflected in the mirrored triptych. Roy’s persistence in denying me wine and Twinkies along with the Booty Bootcamp workout videos had paid off. I had lost a lot of weight. My narcissistic admiration came to screeching halt as I heard the shrieking voice of the horrified sales clerk screaming at Annie. Annie tried to soothe him as he ranted. I fled to see what all the commotion was about.
“He pissed in the dressing room,” the irate, red-faced man bellowed. The beautiful salesman’s otherwise perfectly chiseled looks and flawless grooming had been thrown into utter disarray after encountering Roy. His expensive tie hung crookedly and wayward locks defied hair gel and hung stiffly in his face. “He ruined an Armani jacket. I told him to get out. Now he is hunkered down growling in a corner. He snapped at me when I tried to remove him. I want him OUT OF HERE!” The indignant, haughty man pointed a stern finger in the direction of the exit. He was stiff, but still visibly shaking.
“I am sorry. He’s not house broken. I forgot to walk him before we got here…” I ran towards Roy as Annie assured the man that Roy was a most prestigious individual, as if that explained everything, and that she planned to cover all damages.
Roy looked at me sad eyed and hung his head in the dressing room. He knew he had been a very bad dog. I furiously marched him out of the store. I pleaded with Roy in the cab, trying to impress upon him the dangers of misbehaving in New York. “We’ll be home tomorrow. You can’t pee on the street. Pee in toilet, pee in the shower, for fuck’s sake even pee on the hotel room floor. I’m sure rock stars have done that before. Just don’t get arrested. I don’t want you to end up in Belleview. Twenty-four hours, Roy.”
Annie delivered the packages to our room. She remained as imperturbable as ever, as if this was just a day in the life in her business. I supposed she dealt with all manner of crazy artists to whom misconduct came naturally. She left us to get presentable, and then fetched us in a limousine.
I hastily downed a couple of glasses of champagne as soon as we entered the reception. Roy was bored and sat in a corner on the floor, his own drink in hand, only slightly sniffing the butts of the patrons that passed by. I assumed the gallery had divulged Roy’s singular choice of lifestyle in his bio, since several guests wore dog collars. Annie introduced me to so many people, some dressed flamboyantly, but most dour and pale-faced, more closely resembling Moirae just back from snipping someone’s thread of life rather than art lovers. I was impressed to observe Annie in her element. Sales were brisk.
Once the gallery got busy, I had a chance to stroll the floor. Roy’s work looked stunning in this special place, not just stacked and leaning against the bonus room walls, but framed, highlighted with special spotlights. The colors of his landscapes were luminous in the light of the gallery, leaves and the rivers glowing like outlined jewels. I swelled with pride that I had made this happen. This could be the biggest accomplishment in my self-centered, pathetic life. I gazed at the faces of the normally lugubrious New Yorkers, registering surprise and delight as Roy’s brushstrokes spoke to them too.
“This picture is enchanting,” said a man strolling up to my side. “However, I think the ones that are my favorites are the ones he painted of you.”
“Yes, the ones in large room at the back of the gallery.”
I escaped from his side to the back room of the gallery. The walls were covered in great canvases of my countenance. My features looked like they had been carved from a woodcut and filled with stained glass coloring. My eyes filled with tears. I had no idea that these paintings existed.
“He wanted to surprise you,” Annie said as she came to my side and put her arm around me. “I have someone I want you to meet, Gloria Cornelius Gates, a major contributor to the Museum of Modern Art. She would like to see Roy’s work placed there. Can you fetch Roy to come meet her?”
Roy’s face broke into a wry smile when I approached. “Bad dog, Roy! Hiding those canvases from me all this time.” I pulled Roy up from the gallery floor by the hand and hugged him. He licked my forehead. “We have to meet someone Annie deems important. Let’s amble on over there and get it over with.”
I spied Gloria Gates chatting with Annie across the room. She was an imposing blond, with her hair piled high, and dressed to the teeth in what I am sure was a couture ensemble, discreetly shimmering with a neckline ringed in exotic feathers. When we got close enough for Annie to wave us over, I heard a low pitched growl emanating from deep in Roy’s throat. I had heard that growl before, it was the precursor typically heard when Roy spied Powderpuff encroaching on our lawn. I lunged to impede Roy, but he was already beyond my grasp in full chase mode, barking at the top of his lungs, and aimed straight for Gloria Gates. When at last Ms Gates realized she was the object of his furor, she scurried to flee. Her high heels were no match for Roy’s flat-footed speed and he quickly overcame her, knocked her to the floor and attacked her neck. I imagined Roy severing her jugular vein, as he growled, she screeched and feathers flew. Annie and I too ran in the direction of the mayhem, afraid Roy was going for the kill, but it was the feathers he wanted. He ripped the collar from the poor woman’s dress and disappeared.
Naturally, we left. I was furious and snatched the feathers from Roy’s mouth, throwing them out of the taxi window. I fumed all the way back to the hotel room. “I thought you had killed her, Roy,” I said as we arrived, opening a vodka from the mini bar, and flopping on the bed. “You should have seen her face. I have never seen anyone that petrified, the look of abject terror in her eyes. Shit, Roy…” I replayed the scene in my head once more and saw the poor socialite scrambling like the squirrels or Powderpuff, her torn frock in disarray as she sprawled on the floor, arms frantically flailing. “Shit…” Her screams and pleas for someone to call a dogcatcher or Animal Control. “Shit…” I dropped back on the bed and burst out laughing. “That’s certainly an evening no one’s gonna forget.” Roy came closer to me with a big shit-eating grin on his face. He shook his head.
“I love the paintings you did of me.” Roy leaned in over me, stopped for a second, stared, and then he kissed me. I always assumed it would be doggy-style, but Roy grabbed my legs and pulled me to the edge of the bed, threw my legs over his shoulders and we ignited like an explosion at a fertilizer factory.
The incident made all the papers. I was afraid Annie would be mortified, but she remained unflappable and said there is no such thing as bad press. Roy became the darling of the New York art scene, the New York Times Magazine did an enormous spread. His real name was Carter Woods Brighton, IV and he grew up in a swank suburb of Chicago. The family made their money in real estate. The story described him as a hybrid visual and performance artist. The whole dog act was just another way he expressed himself as an artist. Somehow, I felt a little betrayed. I had assumed that Roy was just as crazy as me. It pained me to think that I would never hear the sound of his voice. I knew there would be so many moments I would miss, a greeting of good morning, the telling of jokes and the words I love you, uttered when the need was dire. I teetered on the tightrope of reality, but gradually came to treasure the authenticity of our love, and knew that giving in to fantasy would only cause me to topple in my steps along the line. I concluded you can’t have everything. And so we left Mini-mansion Acres and The Perfects. After the show, we found a villa in the Caribbean.
We live by the green sea at the end of a dirt road protected and uncorrupted. Roy doesn’t have to be confined anymore, although he strays from time to time. The island is a small place, so the locals bring him back to me, his ecstatic face beaming through the wind as he grins on return in a jeep or pickup. When I am not too busy with the children, I make jewelry. I have quite a backlog of orders. I adopted three Haitian children. I was a little squeamish at the thought of combining our respective gene pools. No telling what kind of combustible incarnation that might be. We have a social anthropologist from Miami who lives in the guest house to study the dog language that Roy and the children speak. I know some people think it is warped, our family. I was tired of denying myself the basic rights of a human being, the ability to love, be loved and children. I’ll leave that quandary for the philosophers to quibble over.
It is Sunday, and I walk home with the kids from the rock Anglican mission church in town. I still have the sound of church bells ringing in my head. I stand in front of the kitchen window surveying the scene. The anthropologist quietly broods under a sea grape when he isn’t actively working. He obsesses about the girlfriend that deserted him last month. His mood and face turns dark in the shade of the tree. Bright, lime-colored chameleons sun themselves along the railing of the terrace and fuchsia bougainvillea waves in the sea breeze like flamingos in flight. I see Roy slowly cast his line as he reef-fishes at the far end of the bay. The water shimmers whitely at the reef, but straight ahead of my post at the kitchen window, it glows, first in turquoise, then emerald, luminous at this time of day. Our oldest has on goggles and breaks the shimmering aqua as he dives for rings just past the point where the surf breaks near the shore. My middle child sits at a table playing patty-cake with the baby and the rhythmic claps measure out the meter of the verse. I start to hum Shall We Gather at the River, recalling the beautiful, small voices of the children’s choir as they sang at this morning’s service:
Soon we'll reach the shining river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace
Yes, we'll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.
Copyright 2011 by Andrea Broxton
On a Monday morning in early October, three weeks before the big game, Malachy McSweeney paces back and forth on the loading dock of the Burning River Brewery, going round and round with the automated speed of a conveyor belt. The first stinging winds of autumn come whipping off the lake, kicking up dust and leaves and scattering cigarette butts across the parking lot. Somehow the icy air shrivels his already haggard face and drains his cheeks of color like the crabapples that litter the ground. His coffee quickly turns tepid and tastes acidic on the tip of his tongue. To keep warm he pauses beside a steel barrel where he vigorously rubs his hands above the dying embers. His fellow truck drivers huddle beside him, and in an oddly lyrical low-life patois fused from the slang of a dozen different languages and never heard outside the perimeter of these wretched streets, the men grumble about the impending winter imprisonment with their nagging wives, unappreciative children and disobedient dogs, dreaded months of sleet and snow when an epidemic of cabin fever sweeps through the city, making the men do things so desperate and despicable that many seek the guidance and mercy of the Jesuits.
Like a squadron of soldiers in a defeated army, the men form a disorganized line and await further orders. They fart and yawn and pick their teeth. They cough and wheeze and drum their chests with clenched fists. They stomp their heavy, black boots in time to the rhythmic scuff and scrape of forklifts against wooden pallets and the sharp percussion of robotic arms clanking against longneck bottles of beer. Then from out of this cacophonous canticle of machinery comes a booming voice that commands them all to “Shut it!”
Cloggy Collins emerges from the sweltering inferno of his small, windowless office and stares them down. Already chewing his first cigar of the day and perspiring profusely through his white collared shirt, Cloggy trundles across the loading dock, cradling what at first appears to be a large cardboard sarcophagus stuffed with human body parts--a jumble of arms and legs, elbows and knees. In a gesture meant to show his disgust and impatience with his sorry crew of drivers, he wipes the corners of his mouth with thumb and forefinger, flicking a pasty glob into the wind where it seems to freeze in midair before falling to earth and shattering like a delicate crystal of exceptional beauty.
“Here’s a little surprise, boys.” He drops the box on the platform. “New marketing strategy.”
With a wave of his hand and the word “Abracadabra!” he makes a life-sized cardboard cheerleader appear from out of the box. At six feet tall, she towers above these dwarfish men like some colossus of coitus, her long legs and smooth bronze thighs spread in a deliberately provocative pose, her tight tummy and delectable navel partially concealed by a pair of shimmering pompoms. Her bright eyes burn with uninhibited and exuberant lust. Her lascivious and dazzling smile encourage all present to come hither and pay homage to her unique majesty.
The men whistle, ogle, adjust themselves with frostbitten fingers; they discuss esoteric and vulgar sexual techniques, a Kama Sutra for the workingman--the Cleveland Steamer, the Tennessee Snow Plow, the Dirty Sanchez. Here is a clever decoy guaranteed to lure men by the thousands out of their comfortable recliners and into stores to purchase inordinate amounts of ale and to drink as much of it as their diseased livers will allow. Even McSweeney, the most reserved of the bunch, can’t help but grin. It’s a cruel deception, yes, but one that doesn’t deter his cock--that vindictive prick--from briefly nodding its otherwise somnolent head in the pathetic void of his trousers.
“Get these out pronto!” Cloggy shouts. “Put ‘em on top of every display. And try not to feel any of ‘em up. We don’t want no damaged goods. Now move it, all of yous.”
But before distributing the models to the drivers, Cloggy slides his rough hands around a narrow waist and brushes his bristly, tobacco-speckled chin against the airbrushed cleavage. His eyes grow bleary and distant. The wrinkles in his face deepen. When he speaks, it is as though he is in the midst of a drug-induced trance.
“This is what we all dream about at night, eh? This is what we deserve as men, as American men. Yessir, this is what it’s finally all about. What else is there? A winning team and a hot piece of ass to cheer on the players…”
With forced smiles, the drivers collect their share of cardboard women and jump down from the dock, but as they slog through the leaves that pile up in the weedy lot and make their way to the trucks, they are forced to endure the familiar gales of half-mad laughter that erupt from the gaping maw of Cloggy Collins.
Malachy McSweeney’s first stop is the Jesuit high school.
With their astonishing ability to discriminate between various types of rich, dried, delicate malts, the priests are acclaimed as connoisseurs of beer, and each week they request (some would say require) a delivery of lagers and stouts and fancy raspberry lambics from the local brewery. Under normal circumstances, they are so delighted to see Malachy McSweeney, their prompt and dependable deliveryman, and are so concerned for his safe passage through the dangerous streets of this once grand city, that they lay their hands on his head and say a quick prayer to Saint Fiacre--he’s the patron saint of cab drivers, true, but because the Vatican has yet to canonize a beer truck driver, it’s the best they can do.
McSweeney, ever grateful for these humble petitions to heaven, looks forward to his regular stop at the school, but lately he has noticed a change among the priests. They seem irritable and cast accusatory glances in his direction. Some openly stare at him and scowl. At the start of the football season, the Jesuits, who initially had so much to celebrate, doubled their consumption from the usual six kegs to twelve, but in recent days their celebratory toasts have turned into drunken disputes about sacking the head coach and the almost blasphemous suggestion of replacing the starting quarterback with an inexperienced backup. It’s still early in the season, but already the team has lost two crucial games, and playoff hopes are beginning to fade.
After he parks the delivery truck behind the main classroom building and starts to unload the kegs, McSweeney can sense the priests observing him from high atop the gothic tower. Their eyes burn past cloudy cataracts and through classroom windows smeared with the fingerprints of teenage boys frantic to escape yet another tedious lecture on heaven and hell. Though they speak of tolerance and forgiveness, the Jesuits clearly resent the fact that someone so poor, so uneducated, so utterly incapable of managing a crisis can wield such enormous power over them; that a man like Malachy McSweeney, a humble truck driver and inhabitant of the surrounding slums, can in some way be responsible for the fate of the football team and thus for the fate of the entire school. The fact that his son is the star quarterback is obviously a divine blunder, a cosmic joke. It goes against the natural order.
Trying to ignore their stares, McSweeney rolls the kegs one by one down the steep incline into the cellar where he places them in neat rows against the limestone walls. After completing this task, he removes his cap, bows his head, and waits for the customary blessing. He stands there for five minutes, but no one comes to greet him, not even to check the inventory or sign the invoice. Cold air roars through the baffling network of musty tunnels and sounds like a priest making a grim proclamation from the pulpit: “Failure in children can always be traced back to the parents!”
The words fly out of the dark like an assassin’s dagger; they hit their mark, strike deep, and McSweeney, fearing the mysterious power of the priests, races up the incline, climbs inside his truck, and speeds away from the school’s haunted landscape.
Although the rest of his route is a familiar one, to McSweeney it seems utterly alien and uncharted. The convenient marts and liquor stores are suffused with a ghastly blue light, and the sales clerks regard him with eyes that reflect their deep suspicion of thieving humanity. As morning turns to afternoon and as the white lines in the road begin to hypnotize him, he finds himself driving past his house, which is nowhere near his next stop. He shifts the truck into high gear and turns the volume up on the radio, but still he hears, or at least imagines he does, his wife’s voice, a sharp, high-pitched, nerve-rattling squawk that rips through the paper-thin walls of their bedroom, carried aloft on the massive swells of early arctic air. Her duty in life is to remind him of his utter ineptitude and to recite an endless list of repairs--oil the hinges, tighten the faucets, sand and stain the hardwood floors, patch the cracks in the ceilings, clean the storm windows. There is also the small matter of his tossing and turning in bed, his thunderous snores, his peculiar habit of screaming in the night. Her complaints even reach him in the basement, his only refuge, where he spends his evenings on the sofa, watching television and smoking the quality reefer he manages to procure from one of his son’s friends. In the basement he can at least pretend to be busy changing the filter on the furnace, setting mousetraps, and sorting through boxes of nails and screws. Usually this little pantomime is enough to appease his wife, but it doesn’t prevent the house from sliding ever further into decrepitude.
With a heavy sigh he glances at the cardboard model propped up on the passenger seat, his trusty co-pilot, and like a nervous teenager reeling in virginity, he places his hand on her knee. A sudden urge comes over him. Briefly he considers pulling over to the berm, lowering his pants, and pressing his aching manhood against her leg, but he thinks better of this plan and tries to snap out of his silly fantasy.
After parking the truck behind the Select’n’Save, McSweeney unloads a dozen cases of beer and navigates his squeaky dolly through a maze of shelves. On Aisle 69, he stacks the cases into the steep tiers of a ziggurat, like the one he saw in his son’s history textbook, and then places the cheerleader on top like some voluptuous temple prostitute of ancient Babylon. He steps back to examine his handy work, a master builder with a knack for symmetry and a sense of the numinous, but there is something about this scene that he finds deeply unsettling. He tries to reposition the model but soon finds himself massaging the small tattoo on her right thigh and stroking the faint outline of nipples beneath her half top. She gazes down at him and seems to indicate her pleasure with an almost imperceptible flick of her black and white pompoms. McSweeney’s face goes flush, his knees buckle, his lips form words of reverence and awe.
From the deli comes the sharp sound of mechanized death. An old woman, squinting from behind the thick lenses of her horn-rimmed glasses, stops cranking a hand-powered meat grinder to observe McSweeney.
He scuttles sideways toward the exit with the cardboard girl dangling under his arm. “This one is damaged,” he tells her with a sheepish grin.
The woman lets out a long, thin witch’s cackle that poisons the air with foul omens, then she returns to her work, stuffing handfuls of bloody scraps deep inside the funnel and cranking the handle until the meat oozes out of the grinder gray and gristly on the stainless steel countertop.
That evening, when he opens the back door of his house, a gust of wind sends a halo of leaves spinning above his head. Standing at the stove Maggie stirs a pot of chili, the sleeves of her high school football jersey crusted over with tomato paste, her white slippers sprinkled with the crumbs of stale soda crackers. “Hey, there, Malachy McSweeney.” She gives him a quick kiss on the cheek and says, “Would ya mind shutting the damn door? I like my chili without maple leaves.”
He does as he is told and then tries to ladle some chili from the pot.
She swats his hand. “Did you stop at the hardware store like I asked?”
She shakes her head, slowly, to make sure he registers her displeasure. “You promised to fix the furnace tonight, remember? There’s exposed wiring. Christ, if I left things up to you this place would burn to the ground. Maybe I should ask our son to fix it.” She turns her head toward the living room. “Oh, Frank!”
“No, no. I’ll check it out right now.”
“And close the basement door behind you. Smells like a wolf’s den down there.”
He slinks away, wondering if it’s part of the marriage contract, something in the fine print, wherein a woman has the option to put on a pair of slippers every night and treat her husband like a complete imbecile. At the bottom step, he pauses to listen to the creak and groan of the floorboards, and when he is sure that his wife has gone to some distant corner of the house, perhaps to the bathroom to sit on the toilet and read the sports page, he removes the cardboard model that he has folded and hastily concealed inside his winter coat. After smoothing out any unsightly lines and creases, he places the model on the coffee table, where for one frustrating hour, he contemplates her heavenly breasts, ruby red lips, and shiny black hair. Marveling at her statuesque physique and curvaceous wonderment, he vows to understand the inexplicable hold her beauty has on him.
In the end, there seems to be only one solution to the enigma. He lets his hand drift down to his pulsing erection. A natural phenomenon that needs no further explanation.
That night, as they occupy their separate territories of the bed and watch the Monday night football game on their new TV (a gift from the Jesuits at the beginning of the season), Maggie reaches across the widening chasm that divides them and strokes her husband beneath the sheets. When he turns to face her, he sees only a nest of curls, bleached white and wiry, protruding from behind her ears and over the pillow. Every now and then he catches the lingering scent of chili powder and spices. The flannel nightgown she wears makes her look square, squat, rigidly geometric. For some time now he has worried about her weight. There is a long history of heart disease in her family, and he often wonders how he’ll take to widowhood.
“Why don’t we try something kinky tonight?” she asks.
“Maybe you could do something rough. Something really dirty.”
He squirms. “Like what?”
“Spank me,” she says. “Slap me. Hard.”
“For godsake, Maggie…” He tries to think of a plausible excuse. In twenty years of marriage, she has never shown any interest in naughty games, experimentation, sin. Like him, she is a devout Catholic and shuns perversion. “But Frank is in the next room.”
She giggles, pinches his beer belly. “Oh, he’s sound asleep by now. He won’t hear us.”
“Aw, baloney. He stays up all night long, studying the playbook, strategizing, figuring out a way to win the big game.”
“Strategizing? You make him sound like Julius Caesar.”
“Yeah, well, he’s just as smart as the rich kids at that school. Smarter probably. He has real-life experience, which is something they don’t have.”
She rolls away from him and stares at the ceiling, her face drawn and sleepless. “That’s right, McSweeney, change the subject. I know you hate me. I’m a mess, I’m disgusting. The thought of making love to me turns your stomach, doesn’t it?” She sits up, resting on one elbow. “Well, let me tell you something. It isn’t natural for a man to neglect his wife.”
Though he half-heartedly denies the terrible accusations she levels against him, McSweeney can no longer pretend to be aroused by her thick shanks and enormous, jiggling thighs. She ceased to be a woman who could make him howl with yearning and deep desire. Marriage has turned her into a shapeless, fleshy hermaphrodite, a doting mother who treats him like a troubled child. He has contemplated leaving her, but like most men who are out of money and out of options, he is afraid to take action. Sooner or later he will need to do something, he cannot continue on this way, but his problems are so profound that rather than try to solve them, he finds it much easier to lock them away in a safe and lonely place where there is little chance of anyone getting at them. After twenty years of concealment, there is no telling how crowded with secrets his soul has become. Maybe he should discuss these things with the priests, get them out in the open, but he can’t think about that right now. It’s been a long day.
Maggie taps him on the shoulder, and her voice floats across the bed, soft and lilting as a lullaby: “Wake up, McSweeney, wake up. Look, it’s the new ad…”
He cracks open an eye and sees a collage of nonsensical images flickering across the TV screen, continuous quick cuts of scantily clad girls and bare-chested boys, their bodies painted black and white, dancing, gyrating, limbs interlocking in the golden sunlight of an autumn day. A football game. The referee blows his whistle. The players take their positions on the line of scrimmage. Long silky legs come into focus. The camera pans up to reveal a tall cheerleader--the cheerleader!--sauntering down the sideline, a gentle breeze sweeping through her dark hair. With libidinous and curious fingers, she fondles a bottle of beer and pours a sparkling stream of ale into her eager mouth. The quarterback, dumbfounded by her beauty, drops the football and is immediately crushed between two stampeding linebackers. The crowd goes wild.
McSweeney’s legs tremble. The cheerleader, while certainly no more attractive than a hundred other anonymous models who parade across the idiot box on a daily basis, nevertheless manages to radiate sex with every improbable and exaggerated curve of her surgically-altered body and reminds him that he, like all men, is a prisoner of his pecker, condemned by a pitiless dictator, and sentenced to a lifetime of captivity with little hope for parole. In the deep purple fog of flickering TV light, he touches his wife’s plump, pale breasts and, closing his eyes tight, dreams of the beautiful model, God how he dreams of her, and within minutes he is panting and thrusting his hips like he really means it.
Something comes over him.
After work one rainy night, Malachy McSweeney scurries behind the brewery and crawls inside a cardboard box where he waits for Cloggy Collins to lock up. One hour later, as the rain intensifies and pounds the sagging rooftop of his impromptu shelter, he sees the lights go out. Shivering in the wet and the cold and fumbling with his keys, McSweeney cautiously emerges from his cocoon and creeps toward the building. Though he refuses to dwell on the possibility of getting caught, it does occur to him that his boss might still be sitting at his desk, waiting for him in the dark with a model perched on his lap and a bottle of beer in his hand, a tire iron, a loaded gun.
“You sick, sorry fuck!” he imagines Cloggy saying. “There ain’t no work, not for crazy people, not for head cases, not for perverts!”
McSweeney feels short of breath and begins to pant. The world seems like a different place now, less predictable, more chaotic, and as he eases open the loading dock door and sidles through the brewery, he whispers, “I could do your job, Cloggy, I could do your job…”
His eyes rolling with fear, he enters Cloggy’s office and waits for something to happen. No one is inside. The place reeks of smoke and sweat and, though he cringes at its meaning, the ripe earthy odor of freshly spilled semen. He eases past wobbling stacks of yellow paper that clutter Cloggy’s desk and almost knocks over a coffee pot. In the far corner, buried under a mountain of greasy rags, a dozen cardboard women stare into space like girls heavily drugged and imprisoned in a faraway brothel, a bevy of tragic beauty queens captured by a cigar-chomping ogre and forced to pleasure him whenever he demands it. McSweeney’s mission has suddenly become one of great urgency: he must rescue these lovely maidens and deliver them from a life of degradation and servitude. He grabs a slew of girls and smuggles them out to the trunk of his car where he stacks them one on top of the other like slices of meat on a sex sandwich.
“You’re safe now,” he assures them. “Safe…”
He brings the models back to his house where, for several nights after the exhilarating heist, he performs what soon becomes a sacred ritual. When he is sure Maggie has fallen asleep and his son has gone to his room to study the playbook, he hurries down the stairs, always careful to avoid the creaking step or two, and there in the exquisite solitude of the basement, he lights three candles, always three, the magic number, and places the models in various spots around the room. Before joining them, he sprays cologne behind his ears and around his shaggy genitals. He pours a tall beer, smokes a fat joint, and drifts away, upward and outside of himself to another plane of existence where he is no longer a daydreaming working class stiff from a dying industrial city but a randy high school athlete at a wild party, a sophisticated playboy in a downtown nightclub, a movie mogul auditioning nubile starlets for his next summer blockbuster, a vampire summoning voluptuous succubi from his underground lair.
Usually these harmless adventures leave him satisfied and spent, but occasionally, as he stretches naked and perspiring on the couch and listens to the frightening boom of the igniting furnace and catches the foul scent of mildew permeating from the cracks in the cinderblock walls, he suspects that Maggie might be right. Maybe he is inept, and maybe he is something far more terrible than that.
Once, while preparing for his midnight rendezvous, he sniffs something rancid and discovers behind a wilted houseplant a heap of gnawed chicken bones. He doesn’t remember leaving them there. At such times his mystical visions turn sour, and he imagines things, truly devilish things--the state hospital, padded rooms filled with pleading patients, probing doctors, sturdy and determined nurses brandishing enormous dripping needles--but he tries to assure himself that all married men carry on sordid double lives. Some pop pills, some have illegitimate children, some dress in women’s clothing. What difference does it make?
Monogamy is an aberration. No man can belong exclusively to one woman, and it is generally understood that married men, when alone at night, do any number of things that they pretend to frown upon in the light of day.
The ritual continues without variation until Halloween, the eve of the Holy War, and before descending to his sybaritic playground, McSweeney sits at the kitchen table, waiting for his son to come home from school, and puzzles over how he could have sired such a creature, the great muscled Minotaur who, with his freakish physique and arrogant swagger, makes lesser mortals stare in fascination and quiver with dread. Since Maggie is incapable of cheating on him, he believes a mistake was made at the hospital, that two infants were switched at birth. Somewhere in the world a beautiful couple is mystified by their child’s inconceivable homeliness and lack of coordination, an affluent couple who expect perfection from nature because they themselves are perfect--refined, urbane, totally unaccustomed to the horrors of mediocrity: the self-loathing, the hopelessness, the terrible despair. Little do they know that two trolls are raising their son, but soon they will come looking for him and demand restitution, not from the hospital for making such an incredibly obvious and unconscionable error, but from the McSweeneys for bungling the job of raising the boy and not helping him achieve his full potential.
At four o’clock the changeling comes bounding up the back steps and into the kitchen. McSweeney crushes out his cigarette, sits up straight, tries not to slouch. It’s important that he speak to the boy, man to man. The football team cannot afford to lose another game.
“There he is, number 17 himself! The future Heisman Trophy winner.”
Maggie leaps from her chair and says, “Let me have those things.” She takes the boy’s varsity jacket and book bag and hangs them in the closet.
McSweeney, compelled to do the Jesuit’s bidding, tries to sound nonchalant, relaxed, but his words feel forced and artificial. It seems he has spoken them before, has rehearsed every line.
“How’d it go today, Frank? Teachers weren’t too tough on you, were they? They cut you a little slack, I hope. Remember, son, those people owe you, they owe you big time. This is national exposure we’re talking about. Enrollment is up, salaries are up…”
“Would you please give it a rest,” says Maggie.
He laughs at her, more maliciously than he intended.
She pulls a hot tray from the oven. “Frank, a reporter from the school newspaper called. Says he’s putting a big story together. He wants to ask you a few questions, take a few pictures.”
When McSweeney realizes the cookies are intended for Frank, he panics. “Jesus, Maggie, he doesn’t need to eat a bunch of garbage before the big game.”
“Oh, he can have a few. They won’t kill him.”
“His body is a fine-tuned machine, and you’re tampering with it. All that butter, oil, sugar. It’s poison.” He searches his pockets for a book of matches, another cigarette.
She slams the tray down on the table.
“What do you take me for, Malachy? Do you think I’m some kind of idiot? Do you really think I would poison our son? Do you think I would feed him anything that might harm his body? I know he’s a fine-tuned machine. How do you think he got that way? The power of prayer? No! For the past four years I’ve scrimped and saved to buy only the finest ingredients, only the best. Whole wheat, flax seed oil, spirulina, green tea, organic raisins, egg whites from free range chickens…”
McSweeney watches Frank walk over to the closet and grab his book bag and jacket. Beyond a few simple hellos and goodbyes, father and son are incommunicative. Both have an innate suspicion of sentimentality and can never find the appropriate words to match their feelings. An occasional handshake is the extent of the physical contact between them. McSweeney, however, wants to learn more about the rarefied social circles of the Jesuit school, the parties Frank is always attending, the study groups, the meetings with teachers and coaches. For a minute he actually considers following his son through the streets and alleys, creeping up to a window and peering through the parted sashes to spy on him. He needs to see what life is like for a high school quarterback. Is it as glorious as people say? Do the cheerleaders really fawn over him? Or are girls today just as cold and unapproachable as they were when McSweeney was a boy of seventeen? He badly wants to ask his son these questions. He must have the answers.
“Frank…” he begins, but the words die in his throat.
“Just remembered, Dad,” says the boy. “I have to go back to school to submit a term paper. And then I’m off to a friend’s house. Gotta study the playbook, you know.”
McSweeney tries to smile. “Glad to hear it, son. You study your ass off. I’m counting on you. We all are.”
Maggie pushes a plastic container of warm cookies into Frank’s hands. “Go on, go on, take them. They’re good for you. Prickly pear cactus, dragon fruit, wheat grass, soy lecithin granules, mountain bilberry, a handful of walnuts …”
Shortly before the clock strikes midnight, McSweeney searches through his son’s closet and finds the unique ceremonial garb he so desperately needs. In the basement, he sets up the models in a semi-circle, drapes them with costume jewelry, douses them in cheap perfume, and as he whispers the forbidden incantation--one so obscene in its description of sodomy that he feels nervous just saying the words--he catches a shining vision of himself in the mirror, a man transformed by a football helmet, immense shoulder pads, and a mesh jersey of black and white. It’s not the official team uniform, of course, not the one the players wear on game day; no, those things are kept under lock and key in the new stadium; it’s only the grass-stained equipment his son uses for scrimmages, but even this scratched and beaten gear works wonders and makes McSweeney feel twenty-five years younger.
He sucks in his gut, stands erect. With a winning smile, he listens to the musical clatter of cleats against the tile floor and endures the discomfort of his engorged penis pressing against the athletic supporter. Invigorated by this image of pure brawn, he lifts one of the girls, brings her close to his facemask, inhales her divine aroma, a singular bouquet that can never be fully appreciated by the uninitiated. The smell of cardboard reminds most people of parcels shipped through the mail, merchandise delivered, gifts received. They care only about the contents of a box--books and beer and blow-up dolls--and recklessly discard the most significant details of everyday life.
Suddenly he wonders if he can actually eat a box. All his life he has avoided a healthy diet--fruits and vegetables he abhors--but these girls are probably quite fibrous, good for his digestive system and high blood pressure. With his mouth watering in anticipation of this sumptuous feast, he unclasps the chinstrap and lifts the girl to his eager lips, but before he can chow down on the subtle mound concealed under the skirt, a terrible scream rips through the basement.
Confused by the eerie faces shifting in the shadows, he believes that one of the models has come to life. She stands at the bottom of the stairs, teetering wildly in her high heels, arms flailing in an attempt to balance herself. Something is wrong with her; she must be defective, an aborted mock-up, a rare blunder of mass production. When she does manage to take a step forward and penetrates the sacred circle of candlelight, she reveals her myriad imperfections: her airbrushed tits have turned ponderous and faintly green with a crosshatch of veins; her buttocks bulge from the white miniskirt, the firm musculature now lost forever under an inch of pitted cellulite; worse yet, her lovely eyes, once so full of lust, are now small and pink, almost porcine, and blink with a mixture of alarm and outrage.
McSweeney’s stomach tightens, his throat goes dry. “What are you doing?” he croaks. “Why are you dressed this way?”
“Why am I dressed this way?” Maggie cries.
“Yes. What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
For a moment his wife is silent; she looks in the mirror, adjusts her breasts, fixes her hair, and when she speaks, her voice has the old familiar tone of admonition, a thing that cannot be denied for very long. “I thought I might surprise you with this little number. I’m not stupid, you know. I see the way you beam every time that infantile ad comes on. Caught you red-handed, didn’t I?”
He clings to one of the models, hoping it might offer him some protection from these ugly recriminations. Through clenched teeth, he says, “Why don’t you leave me then? The fact of the matter is we can’t stand the sight of each other anymore, can we?”
Now her eyes soften, fill with intense pity.
“That’s not true,” she says. “You need help, that’s all. Don’t worry, we’ll get you some help. I should have recognized the signs. Let’s start the healing process. Let’s start right away.”
She grabs one of the cardboard models, breaks it over her plump knee, and like an enthusiastic Girl Scout at a bonfire, she thrusts it into the blue pilot light under the furnace.
To silence the pop and hiss of this erotic conflagration, McSweeney clamps his hands over his ears and wails, “My beautiful baby, oh, my beautiful baby!”
Oblivious to the danger, he slumps to the floor and tries to gather up the sharp cinders. Sparks cascade over cheekbones and bosoms and thighs, flames spread across the throw rug and singe the hairs on the back of his hands, but in the midst of this bedlam, he experiences a startling sense of inner calm that never abandons him, not even when Maggie comes charging across the room with a fire extinguisher and shoots an enormous load of white foam that dribbles down the bridge of his nose and drips from his chin in thick opalescent pearls.
Although it has taken many days to have this epiphany, McSweeney now understands that the model is an indestructible goddess, capable of being everywhere and nowhere, flickering forever in the ghostly light of the television, posing atop a pyramid of beer on Aisle 69 of the Select‘n’Save, pressed flat against a convenient store window where homeless men squander their last few dollars on jugs of red wine. For once in his life, he actually looks forward to standing on the loading dock of the Burning River Brewery where, in the cold of another autumn morning, he will wait for Cloggy Collins to roll open the door and reveal the miraculous vision of the model resurrected from the ashes. For as long as he lives he will have her. Again and again he will have her. She will never get fat, she will never grow old, and she will never tire of bestowing upon him the heavenly blessings of physical fulfillment.
Copyright 2011 by Kevin P. Keating
The Head Table
Looking back, the thing that can be said most justly of Cal, Tom, and Sheila is that they aspired to sit at a head table – the kind of head table that presides over banquets, luncheons, and prayer breakfasts, where ideally they could be raised above their peers on a dais, perhaps even backed up by a few flags. That Cal, Tom, and Sheila are still in LA, growing more than a bit long in the tooth, is one of the things that amuses me about this story. They're all a little like the reclusive old rich lady, sitting behind drawn shades in a run-down house, living in a long-gone world.
If you had checked an atlas or travel book late in the last century, you would have read something like this: "Many people think of Los Angeles as the entertainment capital of the world, but the city is a regional banking and financial center." What you would have read then is no longer true. The days of LA as a banking center are as gone as the days of punch-card programming and green-line printouts.
This is one reason I chuckle when I think about Cal, Tom, and Sheila -- especially Tom and Sheila. Tom worked at the time for America First Bank’s holding company, while Sheila worked for WampusBank, names that have disappeared as permanently as Packard or Nash. Their headquarters buildings still stand downtown, but the corporate logos have long since been painted out, and instead of floor after floor full of cubicles populated with diligent junior bankers performing menial tasks, the buildings have become server farms. They are so close to the main Los Angeles telephone switching nexus that rates for connecting web servers to the national network are the cheapest available.
So even the buildings where Cal, Tom, and Sheila presided over the first meetings of what would become NACSA are inhabited mainly by ghosts. Between the savings and loan debacle and banking deregulation, the big LA banks are history, their data centers lying empty or razed to make way for condos.
NACSA stood for the National Association of Computer Security Administrators. As banks and other businesses trusted more and more of their operations to computers, it didn’t escape notice that the computers provided new ways to steal, and leaving theft aside, even ordinary errors could become massively expensive. Thus a new occupational skill was born, and inspiration struck Cal, Tom, and Sheila: a new skill inevitably meant a new set of adventitious structures: a professional association, with meetings, banquets, luncheons, and prayer breakfasts, at which head tables would be an essential feature. Beyond that, their imaginations soared: there’d be the need for incorporation, bylaws, codes of ethics, conferences, certifications, even a Hall of Fame, into which, in due course, Cal, Tom, and Sheila would be inducted. They started their luncheon meetings in a room off the cafeteria at America First Bank's headquarters building.
Soon enough, somebody in the executive suite at Sasquatch Federal, the bank where Jeff Siddon was working, heard about the America First Bank luncheon meetings. The word went down to Lorne T. Ballardash, Sasquatch Federal’s CIO, that something needed to be done about computer security. And America First was running with the ball. Why wasn't someone from Sasquatch going to those lunches? Ballardash, I'm sure, looked around for someone with time on his hands whom he wouldn't miss if the guy took an extra-long lunch, and his gaze settled on Evan Frimble, Jeff’s boss. Evan called Jeff in, told him about the lunches, and said they’d both go.
"This could turn out well for you," Evan said. "If you get involved in setting this thing up, you'll get to be well-known in the business. That could be very good for your career." Jeff did have a small question in the back of his mind when Evan said this -- why was it Jeff that this was going to work out well for? Didn't Evan expect to be involved?
Once during this period, Jeff had a blind date. Naturally, at an early stage, they got into what each of them did for a living. She, as I recall, did some sort of government grant type work. Jeff told her he was doing computer security for a bank. They'd gotten along all right until he said that. All of a sudden, she stood up. "Why, that's just like trying to prevent shoplifting," she said. Her face was turning red. She was getting very upset. "You're just like some kind of store detective, trying to prevent shoplifting!" Jeff hemmed and hawed and tried to talk about keeping people from getting into the payroll file and e-mailing copies all over the company, but she wouldn't hear of it.
"Companies spend all this money trying to prevent shoplifting! They probably spend more money on preventing shoplifting than whatever little bit people take out the door! Companies should just treat shoplifting as a cost of doing business! They shouldn't be trying to stop it!" She was so mad she was spitting little drops while she spoke. In fact, she seemed to be talking to someone other than Jeff, someone who'd apparently been sitting at that cocktail table with them all the time, and Jeff never knew it. And that third person must have had some connection with certain baggage over shoplifting.
"Computer security! I think that's awful! You and your greedy corporate bosses don't trust anyone! It's as bad as trying to catch someone at shoplifting!" Jeff tried to blurt out something about preventing expensive mistakes, but she was already stamping out of the cocktail lounge in a rage. Sometimes blind dates go like that. Cal, Tom, and Sheila were past the blind date stage. Evan wasn't; maybe that's why he seemed to hesitate over getting involved in NACSA.
Cal, Tom, and Sheila were people utterly without talent or skills of any sort, save for self-promotion. If pressed, they could turn on a sort of reluctant, threadbare charm, though it was nothing that would gain them favor with any normal person. Cal Dripwater, in fact, was a dour, bad-tempered fellow who gave the impression that life had let him down in some important way. He'd retired from the Navy well short of flag rank, but even in his office at the aerospace company where he worked, he had what government types call an "I love me wall" full of all the framed commendations he'd gotten in the Navy mostly for doing nothing, and photos of himself shaking hands with some grim Admiral or smiling Senator as they handed him each award. From whatever history I could piece together from that record, it didn't seem like he'd ever spent much time on shipboard. Tom and Sheila were younger, sneakier versions of Cal, with all the thwarted ambition but without the Navy-officer polish. I'll get to them later.
As instructed by his bosses, Jeff diligently attended the monthly luncheon meetings at America First Bank. At that stage, they were in the final stages of whipping their Code of Ethics into shape and casting about for things that, for a computer security administrator, might be unethical. The Code's centerpiece, the big thing everyone promised not to do, was this: they would never, ever turn over the membership roster of the group to a headhunter. And in the most recent meeting of the group, it had been proclaimed by the worthies at the head table that, to be eligible to continue attending the meetings, everyone had to sign the Code.
Jeff signed it, of course. If a headhunter ever stopped him on the street and asked him for a copy of the membership roster, he'd apologize and say it would be unethical for him to do such a thing. But Jeff had actually begun to do more with the group than just attend meetings. This was because of Roy Kendall. Jeff couldn't bear to see Roy doing all the grunt work by himself.
In fact, Roy and Jeff were the odd ones out in that group. Roy had been a sheriff's deputy, and before that he'd been an MP in the Army. At some point the county decided it needed a computer security administrator, and somehow Roy got the slot. He transferred over to the county computer center from the sheriff's office. But then, using his law enforcement experience, he got himself a private investigator's license, and this entitled him to carry a concealed weapon. Which he carried.
Roy, you might guess, was pretty tightly wound. Several years later, he was fired from a job when, out of the blue, he took a dislike to one of the vice presidents where he was working and simply went to the building access system and, on his own initiative, canceled the guy's key-card. The guy couldn't come in the door the next day. Naturally, someone had to follow up and figure out why this had happened, and Roy was the culprit. I knew Roy pretty well by then. He'd gotten tired of that job, and he figured he'd twist the tail of the guy he hated most in getting himself out of it. He usually left his jobs under bizarre circumstances like that.
For a while, Roy and Jeff were always applying for the same jobs. Jeff could tell that, because a lot of the time, he'd go in for an interview, and the hiring manager would have talked to Roy just before he talked to Jeff. He'd still be shaking his head. "You won't believe who was just in here," the hiring manager would say. "This guy has a private investigator's license. Our security guys check briefcases when people come into the data center. He had a .38 revolver in his. He showed the security guys the permit, and he showed them it wasn't loaded. He had the cartridges in a separate box. The guys downstairs had to make him check it and pick it up when he left."
So the manager would shudder, and he'd want Jeff to reassure him that he wasn't like Roy, that he didn't carry a concealed .38, that he wasn't that tightly wound -- it made him look awfully good in comparison. Jeff got a job once exactly that way; the guy offered it to him simply out of relief that he wasn't Roy. So, all things considered, Jeff owed Roy a lot.
Roy, on the other hand, despite his very rough edges, had volunteered to be program chair, the one who made sure there were speakers for the next six months of meetings. None of the head table types was interested in doing that kind of thing. That, after all, was work. Let simpletons and weirdos like Roy take care of that.
It was a certain, largely unconscious, sense of common cause with Roy that led Jeff to start volunteering to do some of the work involved in the monthly lunch meetings. Not long after Roy became program chair, Jeff started mailing out the announcements for each meeting, which began to grow into a small newsletter. To do the announcements, he had to talk to Roy on the phone between meetings, since Roy was the one who knew what the program would be, and they got to know each other better.
Roy hated the people who sat at the head table. His disdain for them, which he began to express to Jeff almost as soon as they started working together, was clear and complete. On the other hand, his inner sense of what was important told him that the meetings were worthwhile, so he put a lot of productive effort into the programs. He somehow separated his feelings about Cal, Sheila, and Tom from the reasons why he volunteered his time to the fledgling organization.
The mere fact that Roy and Jeff did the work that allowed the lunch meetings to continue and begin to prosper didn't entitle them to seats at the head table at the meetings themselves. They continued to sit out among the ordinary folks. The only acknowledgement during the meetings that they even existed came when Sheila, who usually chaired the meetings, would ask Roy at the end of each meeting what the program would be for next time. That was it. The head-table people were big-picture types. Worker bees weren't in their view finders.
Neither Cal, Tom, nor Sheila had any background in computers. Instead, they sat in the meetings mostly complaining that computer security people didn't have much prestige, something we've already seen, and the only way they could think to get a good computer security program going would be to get more prestige, and the way they saw it, that meant they should become vice presidents and have half a dozen people to order around -- none of whom, of course, did anything remotely worthwhile. They'd just be easy fodder for the next ten-percent layoff.
Not that they didn't understand, at least at some level, the need for a supporting cast to enable their starring roles. Tom Van Ness, in fact, began to look at the work Jeff and Roy were doing, and the wheels began to turn. Maybe he could get something more out of them than he was already getting: so far, after all, little more was happening than that Cal, Tom, and Sheila got to sit at a head table once a month, which was good for the ego, but it didn't buy any groceries.
Tom Van Ness was the computer security guy for America First Bank's holding company. The holding company was actually just a very small corporation that didn't do much more than own the paper for the actual banks that America First controlled. It didn't even have its own IS department. As a result, Tom had few, if any, actual duties. His job was nothing more than to collect a fair-sized paycheck for occupying a box on an org chart at the holding company.
Without making too big a deal of it -- Sheila and Cal might have thought he was fraternizing a little too much with the rank and file, after all -- Tom began to chat with Roy and Jeff before the formal meetings got started. He realized soon enough (the vibes couldn't have been much clearer) that Roy didn't want anything to do with him. And anyhow, an unpredictable type like Roy who carried a concealed .38 wasn't likely to help a guy like Tom climb higher on the corporate ladder. On the other hand, Tom began to see that Jeff was working in exactly the areas that he knew nothing about, which is to say, how you actually did computer security.
This wasn't to say that America First didn't have a bunch of people who worked in computer security. Not only that, but any of them made a good bit more than Jeff made at Sasquatch. They had a vice president and a couple of assistant vice presidents, all working diligently on computer security. Except that none of them knew anything about how to set up procedures, or what could go wrong in the middle of the night and how to fix it. America First hadn't gotten very far with computer security, in fact. Tom got the idea that Jeff should work for America First's bank, doing data security, among the half dozen people who were already there. Jeff would know how things were done; they wouldn't, but that would all work itself out. He'd be able to show them how it should be done. Right.
And as much as Tom could be sincere, I think he was sincere in trying to talk Jeff into this. He began to mention it before the monthly lunch meetings, and he began to call him up about it in between. It's true that America First was a bigger bank, it paid better, and Jeff might have a better chance of a career path there. Tom knew the people at Sasquatch well enough to recognize -- as Jeff already did -- that he'd never advance there. They'd just let him go on being the worker who knew how to clean the emulsion buildup off the mixing paddles in the blending tub, while the guys in the Friday night poker game would get the promotions. Lorne Ballardash, Sasquatch's CIO, after all, had spent a dozen years at America First, and people still knew him there.
I think Tom thought that if Jeff went over to America First, he'd work hard, make a lot of changes, everyone would think the changes were just great, and Tom could take the credit. I think that was Tom's little fantasy. He'd put Jeff in there, the seed would germinate and take root, a year or two later everything would be lookin' good, and Tom would step up and tell the big boys at the top that it had all been his doing. This was how Tom and the others saw life from the head table.
So that year, Jeff was one of the people invited to Tom's Super Bowl party, and so he got to meet his controlling wife, Nell, and his three hyperactive kids, out at their brand new faux Victorian tract house with a three-car garage in Lemon City. He drank warm Bud Lights until they ran out, which didn't take long. All that was left in the cooler after that was Diet 7-Up. He ate tasteless, overboiled hot dogs, soggy potato chips, and bland, gooey chili that was mostly just catsup, with the other B-list invitees the Van Nesses had over to watch the game that year.
There were a few low-level people from America First, along with some moms and dads from the Cub Scouts and the soccer league. Nobody else was there from NACSA. As hard as Jeff tried, he couldn't dream up an excuse that would get him out of there before the game ended. Tom was thinking, I guess, that Jeff was an OK guy, and he might even be able to help him look good at America First, but he was still nowhere near good enough for the NACSA head table. Even so, they could be friends. In any case, his plan was under way.
Tom's plan was what you might expect of someone with no subtlety and little sense. He simply began calling up Phil Brottles, the vice president who was in charge of computer security at America First's California bank. "You ought to talk to Jeff Siddon about that position that's opening up," he kept saying. "He's the guy who knows how it's done. You need to hear what he's put in place at Sasquatch."
I have a deep-seated feeling that Phil did not appreciate these calls. Phil was a vice president. Tom wasn't. I think Tom's business card said "Computer Security Manager", or something like that, but Tom had nobody to report to him, and considering the whole holding company was maybe 50 people, Phil didn't take him seriously. And I would guess that Phil especially resented the implication, however slight, that because Tom worked for the holding company, he could tell Phil what to do. So I would guess that Tom's calls to Phil went, more often than not, unanswered.
Meanwhile, Tom kept calling Jeff. "I just put in a call to Phil Brottles," he'd say. "Phil's a busy guy. I've been telling him he's got to talk to you about the new position." Then he'd add something more to try to get Jeff excited about the deal. "You know, Phil used to be the CIO for America First's California subsidiary," he said one day.
"I don't understand," Jeff said to him. "Why would someone who used to be CIO be working on computer security?"
"Oh," said Tom. "What I hear is that he had to go through the mandatory alcohol rehab program. The spin-dry, they call it."
"But if it all came out OK, why was he demoted?"
"It didn't all come out OK," said Tom. "He had to go through the program again."
"Usually you don't get that option," Jeff said.
"But he was the CIO," Tom reminded him. He tried to re-focus the discussion. "I know he's going to want to talk to you about the opening when his time frees up. That's really the place where you belong."
Well, that tells you something about computer security. That's where they put CIOs who don't work out. But at the back of his mind, Jeff could see that it wasn't good for Tom to be pestering a guy like Brottles that way, even if he wasn't CIO any more. Looking back, I’d say Jeff simply should have told Tom in no uncertain terms to stop the process, he wasn't interested. But I'm not sure if even that would have worked. Tom had gotten it into his head that his career depended on getting Phil Brottles to hire Jeff, and in light of what eventually happened, maybe it did. Tom was just plain stupid, of course, which was what had earned him his place at the NACSA head table. The only one who wasn't stupid there was Sheila Lamprey, but we'll get to that in due time.
After several weeks of trying, Tom got Jeff an interview with the computer security people at America First. I'm sure they finally relented and said they'd talk to Jeff just to stop the calls. The person he got in to see was Janet Barnwell, one of the assistant vice presidents who worked for Phil Brottles. The interview was unofficial; he didn't fill out an application.
Janet Barnwell was a babe. Beyond that, she wore a men's oxford shirt, so that her boobs pressed against it as if trying to get out. Jeff chatted with her and answered her questions, but he was mostly just dazzled by what he was seeing. And that was of no consequence, because the interview was only a perfunctory courtesy she was granting to Tom. It lasted about ten minutes, and the whole time, her gaze was listless, her questions routine. It was the kind of interview where you know beyond a doubt that they already have someone else in mind.
So Jeff called Tom and told him this when he got back to the office. He still wasn't inclined (as I've said he should have been) to tell him to forget the whole thing. I suppose Jeff had some vague notion that it couldn't hurt to go on with the attempt. So after Jeff talked to Tom, Tom called Janet and got her impression. Tom reported that Janet was mostly concerned that Jeff didn't seem like the kind of guy who spent much time at the gym. Tom was all worked up about this.
"Why is she worried about that?" he asked. "This is a back office job. You don't need to be a pretty face."
"Maybe you need to be a pretty face to be around Janet," Jeff said. Tom muttered something. He was going to keep working on things.
So a couple of weeks after Jeff’s interview with Janet Barnwell, Tom called him again. He'd finally gotten him in to see Phil Brottles. "It doesn't matter what Janet thinks," he told Jeff. "If Phil likes you, you're in. He used to be CIO." This was the continuing fantasy of the guy who sat at the head table. It goes without saying that Phil agreed to talk to Jeff for the same reason Janet did, to get rid of Tom's pestering.
If Phil was once a CIO, he no longer looked it. His hair was thinning and combed straight back from above a puffy face, enough to remind someone of Joseph McCarthy late in life, after the booze and hard knocks had finished their work. He wore scuffed brown brogans and an old blue suit a size too big for him. He still had a corner office, but that looked a little too big for him, too.
Jeff handed him a copy of his resume. Brottles skimmed over it, then lifted the first page and glanced at the second. All pro forma. "Have you thought about working for one of the big consulting firms?" he asked "They have people who do your kind of work." It was as nice a way as he could figure of telling Jeff he wasn't interested.
"Yes, I have," Jeff answered
"Good," he said. They didn't say much more. Jeff was in and out of there in a very short time. He called Tom again and told him how it had gone. It couldn't have gone much worse, of course, and that was what he said. Tom didn't say much. He just said he'd get back. He still had hope.
When Tom got back to Jeff over the Phil Brottles interview, the news was definitely not good. He'd been going through the interviews at America First mostly because he thought the worst that could happen -- and that was the case he was planning for -- was that they wouldn't hire him. That wasn't how things worked out.
Tom sounded shocked when he told Jeff about it. Phil, it turned out, had apparently felt he was still in the CIO club, and as soon as Jeff left his office, he'd called up Lorne Ballardash, the CIO Jeff worked for at Sasquatch, to tell him Jeff was applying for a job at America First. Actually, this wasn't exactly true; he hadn't filled out an application, hadn't gone through human resources, and the interviews he'd had with Janet Barnwell and Phil Brottles were strictly informal, set up at Tom Van Ness's instigation. And of course, neither Janet nor Phil had the slightest intention of hiring him.
That probably wasn't enough to suit Brottles's purpose. I suspect he was hoping the information would be of enough value to Lorne Ballardash that Lorne would feel he owed him something. It wasn't, as far as Lorne was concerned; it was enough to make him angry, but not enough to put him in Brottles's debt. That wasn't good news for Brottles, because I think he had visions of Lorne taking him on at Sasquatch the way he'd done with other alcoholic cronies from America First.
But even if he didn't achieve his primary purpose, Brottles's fallback was to treat the call as a kind of reference check. Bankers can be very chummy about this kind of thing. They'll call each other up and gossip about each other's subordinates at the drop of a hat. That's what happened here. Lorne bent Brottles's ear about how they just didn't consider him promotable, and no doubt much more.
The result, I would guess, was satisfactory to both parties, though not as much as it could have been for Brottles: while he didn't get anywhere with the possibility that Lorne would take him on at Sasquatch, he did get an ironclad excuse for not hiring Jeff at America First that he could give Tom Van Ness and anyone else who might ask him about it. Tom would stop pestering him for sure now. At the same time, Lorne warded off the possibility that America First would hire away the one guy he had who knew how to do computer security.
It was different, though, for Brottles. Tom called Jeff up again a week or two later, and he said Brottles was finally out. Evidently his latest trip through the spin-dry hadn't taken.
Then it must have been two or three months afterward that Jeff got a form letter in the mail from America First's human resources department. "Dear Applicant," it said. "We've matched your qualifications against all our available openings. We're sorry to say that blah blah blah." He was puzzled. He'd never filled out an application there, and he'd certainly never sent just a random resume wondering if they had any odd thing that might suit him. How did America First get the idea he wanted a job there, to the point where they sent him a Dear Applicant letter, when there was no reason for their human resources department to know who he was?
His interview with Brottles had completely slipped his mind by then, and it took a while for him to realize what had happened. Brottles had taken the resume he'd given him in the interview and sent it down to human resources himself. That meant he could feel less dishonest about telling Lorne Ballardash Jeff was applying for a job at America First.
But even when it was plain to Tom that America First wasn't going to hire Jeff, he still wasn't done with him. He had another bright idea, or I should say, Tom, Sheila, and Cal all had another bright idea. Not only had they been getting everyone who came to the monthly lunch meetings to sign a Code of Ethics, they'd been collecting dues. There were actually very few expenses, mostly just postage for mailing out the monthly meeting notices to the people who didn't get them via e-mail. But they got the regulars to pay $60 a year for the privilege of attending those lunchtime meetings in America First's cafeteria.
With the minimal expenses and a steady income, that meant NACSA's bank balance was growing. In fact, it was growing to the point that someone was sooner or later going to be tempted to do something with it, almost certainly something stupid, illegal, or both. Roy Kendall was the one who began to point that out. Why, he wanted to know, was the group charging $60 a year for membership when its expenses didn't remotely justify that kind of money? Sheila likely knew exactly what the money was going to be used for, but she wasn't ready to give her plan away just yet. And since Roy was starting to ask those questions from the floor in the monthly meetings, the head table people decided maybe they needed to do something about the problem.
So to forestall criticism, Tom, Sheila, and Cal decided they'd use the money to throw a party. A big party; they had a few thousand bucks to spend. The meeting that May, they decided, wouldn't be a lunch meeting on a Wednesday; it would be a dinner on a Friday night, paid for by the dues the members had been contributing. There would be a program, with a featured speaker. There would be silver, good china, white linen tablecloths. There would, of course, be a head table. All this would require work, but they had Roy and Jeff to do that.
And somehow, Tom still had plans for Jeff. He hadn't been able to get him a job at America First, but he wasn't done with trying to make over his life into something more like what he thought it should be. Jeff had turned up at his Super Bowl party without a date. Never mind that even if he'd known someone he could have taken to the party, knowing what he knew by then, he wouldn't have brought her. But when Tom wasn't looking at life from a head table, he was viewing it from the living room picture window of his big, new tract house out in Lemon City. What he saw when he looked at Jeff was a reclamation project. He was a mess, to be sure, but he had promise. For that matter, he could see not one, but several places where he might be able to set Jeff’s life in better order. And this time, he was going to get him laid.
When I speak of Tom, Sheila, and Cal sitting at the head table, I don't mean to imply they were the only ones there. At normal head tables, there's room for at least half a dozen, and NACSA's head table was no exception. Tom, Sheila, and Cal were the inner circle, but others sat there. I would call them associate members, not-quite made men or women, so to speak. Their leadership skills and their qualifications in the computer security field were, if such a thing was even possible, lower than those of the inner group. As a result, they tended to last at head table seats for some period of months, but eventually they drifted away, while Tom, Sheila, and Cal stayed where they were.
One of the associate head-table members during this period was Marybeth Stamper. Marybeth had some connection to Cal Dripwater, who was the apparent sponsor of her associate membership, though since Marybeth and Cal were such dreary, grim-faced, and utterly conventional people, their connection could only have been a respectable one. Tom, who'd been casting about for some potential way to get Jeff laid, settled soon enough on Marybeth. Nor can I exclude the contribution of Tom's wife, Nell, in his reflections on this matter. In Tom's, and no doubt his wife's, opinions, the appropriate blind date, hookup honey, or potential life partner for a hopeless mess like Jeff must also be a hopeless mess.
Nobody, of course, knows what was in Marybeth Stamper's heart. She may actually have been a very sweet person once you got to know her. And we've already heard Janet Barnwell's observation that Jeff didn't appear to spend a lot of time in the gym. Marybeth was, as these things go, a size or two bigger than what might be implied in saying that someone didn't spend a lot of time in the gym. On top of that, her clothes were all too small, so that seams were always on the verge of pulling apart, and buttons were holding on for dear life. Her bangs were often plastered to her forehead with sweat. Never mind that during this period Jeff had an account at Brooks Brothers, and at least his suits fit. Tom decided Marybeth and he were perfect for each other. Why not? If anything, Jeff was in worse shape, because he got along with guys like Roy Kendall, and at least Marybeth sat at the head table.
So, just as he had when he was trying to get him a job at America First, Tom kept calling him up between the monthly NACSA lunch meetings. "You and Marybeth are both going to be at the dinner in May, right?" he'd ask Jeff. "Don't you think that would be a perfect time to go out on a date? You could go someplace for drinks after the meeting." By this time, Jeff knew Tom's methods well enough to understand that he was making similar calls to Marybeth. He was in full Cupid mode. Jeff could tell, because at the monthly NACSA lunch meetings, every time Marybeth saw him, she tightened up and looked away in disgust.
Jeff and Roy Kendall, meanwhile, worked on the May dinner meeting. Roy lined up a speaker, and Jeff found a hotel and looked at the menu. But Tom was still pursuing his agenda to bring Jeff and Marybeth Stamper together, or get them hooked up, or whatever it was he had in mind. At Tom's instigation, Roy set Marybeth up to give a presentation at one of the regular lunch meetings before the May dinner, apparently to showcase her talents in computer security so Jeff would think well of her.
She talked about her job and her department at Consolidated Thermonuclear, the defense contractor where she worked. It was plain before she'd gone on very long that she didn't have much knowledge of computers, still less computer security. This was the kind of thing Roy hated to hear. If there was a reason he despised the people at the head table more than for their lack of leadership ability, it was their lack of technical knowledge.
"I hope you don't mind my asking this," said Roy during the questions after Marybeth's presentation, "but why are you in this group? It doesn't sound like your job really has much to do with computer security." That was Roy, of course.
"My job is much more important than computer security," Marybeth answered. "Much more important. We are the Security Coordination Department. We put together all the information from all the other security departments and pass it on to the government and our board of directors so they will understand our whole environment is secure." The other people at the head table started nodding their heads enthusiastically. Of course this was true. If someone at the head table said something, it most certainly was true. And the rest of the room was starting to become uncomfortable. They were pretty sure the people at the head table knew what they were doing, but you could never be completely sure of such things, and they didn't like the challenge to their thought processes so soon after lunch.
"But you don't seem to have anything directly to do with computer security," Roy repeated. "From all you've said, you don't seem to know much about it."
"We're Security Coordination," Marybeth said once more. "It's much more comprehensive than computer security." Cal, Sheila, and Tom started nodding their heads even more emphatically than they had before. And Tom decided it was time to wrap the meeting up. The people at the head table would do anything they could to get rid of Roy, except he was the only person willing to do the work of program chair. And of course, there was the .38 in his briefcase.
When the night of the May dinner meeting finally came around, Tom had the seating all worked out. Jeff got to sit at the head table, for the first and only time he was with NACSA. That was because the head table was especially big -- it looked like the hotel had run two of their regular long tables together end to end, so there were about a dozen seats there, for the speaker, his wife, and various other people. Roy didn't get to sit at the head table, even though he'd done as much work as Jeff had. But they had Jeff sitting between Marybeth Stamper and Tom's wife, Nell.
The placement was so that Nell could watch Jeff and make sure he didn't escape. Tom still had the idea that Jeff was going to go out for drinks with Marybeth after the dinner. But it was all in vain. Marybeth didn't want to go out for drinks. Actually, if she'd wanted to go, Jeff would have taken her.
Exactly why she didn't explain all this to Tom or Nell in the first place, I don't know. Maybe she did, and they didn't listen. But what Jeff got to hear over dinner -- garden salad with croutons and choice of dressing, sliced roast beef or baked cod filet, peas and carrots, rice pilaf, roll and butter, custard cup for dessert, coffee, I think something like $29.95 per person, including tax and tip -- was that she had an Intended. In the UK. In fact, she'd quit her job, and was in the process of packing to leave for the UK to join her Intended.
This was a very long story, and she told it to Jeff earnestly, though with a definite hint of snobbery. Her Intended was in the UK. Whatever Jeff was, he was not in the UK. He was in Los Angeles. She made that very clear. I don't know what the point of that was, since she was from LA just like everyone else -- no doubt she was already practicing a plummy accent, but wasn't ready to spring it on them just yet. Jeff was all for the guy in the UK, of course, and happy he didn't have anything else to explain to Tom or Nell when he and Marybeth didn't leave together. I'm not sure, actually, why she felt she had to give such an elaborate excuse. Jeff hadn't actually ever asked her out, after all.
She was wearing a pleated gray skirt with a plaid vest that evening, and they fit for once, probably new and purchased for her trip to join her Intended. And for all I know, everything she said was true, though Jeff was always a little puzzled that for all the talk of an Intended, she wore no engagement ring. Still, he never saw her at another NACSA meeting. So that was the end of Marybeth Stamper, and that was as close as Jeff ever got to getting laid at NACSA.
That notwithstanding, the dinner was held to be a great success. The only other area where it fell short was in not spending down as much as it should have of the group’s swollen bank balance. This, though, was something Sheila Lamprey had likely anticipated. There was enough money – or perhaps, with a few additional months of membership payments, there would be – for NACSA to hire an attorney and incorporate. This had been Sheila’s dream all along. To sit at a head table with no solid organization beneath it was, in her view, to sit in a house built upon sand.
"Hi, Jeff, it's Sheila Lamprey!!" she said on the phone one day, as if she were being introduced as a television quiz show host. She was full of little projects she wanted to assign to him. She wanted a brochure made up for NACSA, and that would be only preliminary to a web page.
"Hi, Sheila," he replied, trying to take some middle course between seeming not to care and the puppylike enthusiasm she apparently expected.
There was a muffled, "I'm running late," delivered with her hand over the receiver, apparently speaking to some subordinate back at WampusBank, where she worked. "I'm running late," she repeated. Then, "No, I'm running late," louder but still muffled with the hand over the receiver. Exactly what the other person in the office was trying to do to delay her, Jeff could never quite figure out. She was always, it seemed, running late. The bosses at WampusBank loved it. It meant she was very important.
That out of the way, she came back on the line to thrash over some inconsequential details of the brochure. How big were the photos of herself, Tom, and Cal going to be? Would the paper be pearl colored, or light buff? By the way, how was Roy making out with future speakers? Jeff had the impression she wasn't able to extract information from Roy as easily as she could get it from him. Roy, I have a feeling, would have heard the bit about running late and told her to call him back when she had the time. Jeff was starting to miss working with Tom, and he never thought he'd miss working with him.
He was doing this because his employer had told him to go to the lunch meetings, and beyond that, his boss had told him to get involved. Like Roy, he also saw some inherent worth in a professional group. And with Sheila working on incorporation, he thought some further good might come from that. After all, with bylaws, there would have to be elections of officers to specific jobs, and they could do away with the unelected drones that now occupied the head table. So he continued to make the best of things and put up with Sheila’s phone calls.
Meanwhile, Tom had had some bad news. America First Bank was cutting back. Someone had looked at the org chart at the holding company, and they'd found Tom doing computer security, except that the holding company didn't have its own computers, and Tom was in charge of exactly nothing. Jeff had known this for a couple of years, but it took that long for someone at America First to figure it out. In any case, Tom had his job cut. Since he was at the holding company, he got a sweet severance package, plus a phony office address and phone number to make it look like he still worked there. You'd think this would give Tom a lot of time to work on the NACSA incorporation, but he was looking for a new job, and Sheila wanted the project under her thumb anyhow.
The attorney they hired to work on the incorporation was a friend of Sheila’s, which after all seemed logical. She no doubt was pestering him with phone calls the same way she did with Jeff. When she brought it up at one of the lunch meetings, everyone thought it was fine. They trusted the people at the head table, and in any case, since NACSA was up to then an unincorporated association, there were no rules. The rules would only come when the articles of incorporation were finalized.
So it was no surprise when Sheila announced at a lunch meeting that the legal work was finished; the articles of incorporation and the bylaws were ready for approval.
“So will there be elections for officers?” Roy asked.
“Well, no,” said Sheila. “The officers who will start the organization are part of the bylaws. When you vote to approve the bylaws, you also approve the first set of officers.”
Roy and Jeff in particular took a more careful look at the package of papers in front of them. It was true. In fact, Cal, Tom, and Sheila were written into the bylaws, not just as the first set of officers, but in effect as Head Table For Life. That was what you got when the attorney who drew the whole thing up was one of Sheila’s cronies. Roy was mad. He started to sputter about possible conflict of interest.
“We need a sergeant at arms,” was Sheila’s response. “It seems to me that Roy is out of order.” Nobody was likely to remove Roy from the meeting, considering the .38 in his briefcase, but Roy got the message. He got up and left on his own. Jeff thought the matter over and left as well. He wished the head table luck in finding anyone else to do the work.
Tom got a new job in short order, working at Deloitte. After all, he was Executive Vice President of NACSA, newly incorporated, and likely to be a big rainmaker. The others did equally well. They were good at interviewing, and the hiring bosses could look at them and see reflections of themselves. In fact, not long ago, all three were inducted as the first members of the group’s Hall Of Fame. Roy and Jeff eventually left the field.
Copyright 2010 by John Bruce
THE COLOR INSIDE A MELON (excerpt)
You reach a certain corner of the city, a certain hour, when you’ve taken a hit and there’s a threat in your face — and it’s something else altogether. It’s not at all the town you know. This when you’ve learned to work its angles, even a street-market in midsummer, the stink and caterwaul and the need to squint, because a fishmonger hosing down his stall seems to cast a halo over the day’s catch. You’ve learned the code in the echo off the stones at 2 AM, too. Could be some lonesome soul out trolling for company, could mean you should double-check the lock. You’ve grown accustomed to the compromises, the lurching after one stubborn aspiration or another and against the short leash of everything else. Yet you reach the right urban cranny, or rather the wrong one, where your head’s burning from someone else’s knuckles, where the guy’s actually got a knife out — then whatever you think you know, it was a fairytale. It could be Sodom, could be Xanadu. If you’ve got a view, a terrazzo, a rooftop, if the blow you took left you facing away from the party and out over the view, then the city first appears rimed or studded with gold, that’s the pain of course, and even after the hallucination fades you’re left with something else entirely. Five stories below (or is it fifteen, for a woozy moment there?), the hubs and spokes wink in and out of sight. You can’t rely on the streetlights. It’s no longer Naples, the place a native Italian would call your "adopted home." That city’s disappeared. It’s gone to join the one you were born in, another place that people were foolish enough to think they knew, the better Mogadishu that your father and mother believed would last.
All of a sudden, all over again, you’re the alien. You’re a fresh pair of arms, un braciolo, ready to wade onshore in an unlit cove. Except this time there’s no boat. Risto stood at the terrazzo wall, pawing his head, wondering if he’d have to fly.
It wasn’t as if he could call a cop. The man who’d swatted him was a cop, or as close to it as Risto was going to find here. This rooftop was part of a club, tonight’s location for the club. His assailant worked as one of the bouncers. Up here at penthouse level, the building had two apartments, and now Risto found himself pinned against the rooftop railing of one apartment by a rawboned creep who, just five minutes earlier, had been standing watch outside the door to the other. The other place still had a door. Behind the door, no doubt, they kept a whore or two. They must’ve had a card game going, too, the crew that ran this dance-and-drinks arrangement, this party that floated from one abandoned building to another. Whores and cards, that’s what brought in the real money. The take would be paltry at what passed for a bar. Likewise, over at what passed for an entrance, the doorway without a door, the club wasn’t going to get the full cover charge from everyone who made it up the building’s stairs. Never mind that this apartment was the larger of the two, the place with a real terrazzo. The roof here might’ve held potted palms, a grape arbor, back before the spring earthquake.
They had a sweet setup, La Fenestrella, tonight. Plenty of dance floor. Still, the bar and the cover wouldn’t bring in enough to keep the cops looking the other way. The club was asking five Euros, but Risto had seen a couple of girls pay no more than a wide smile. His friend Giussi had been waved at the mention of a name. As for this bouncer, he might’ve been paid in Ecstasy. Granted, that Risto should find himself in a place like La Fenestrella was itself a wild hair — but this free-handed "security" had gone off more wildly still. As the man muscled Risto over to the terrazzo wall, he’d kept grinding against Risto’s butt. Looking to tweak his high?
Risto himself may have started tweaking, though he was cold sober and hetero. He choked out a wisecrack, You should try this on my friends. If the tough guy wanted to cop a feel, he should try Risto’s pal Giussi. Giussi, working the dancers, had already made a pickup. Or the bouncer should put the moves on Risto’s so-called "cousin" Eftah. Eftah would’ve welcomed the attention, because in a club like La Fenestrella, the men who liked men tended to prefer his boyfriend. The cousin’s boyfriend was a Moroccan hothouse flower, and here the crowd was mostly mushroom-shaped. Out of the sub-Sahara, like Risto.
Not that he had the chance to explain. The bouncer squelched his little quip — another wild hair, on a mission Risto would’ve sworn was serious. He wound up head and shoulders over the rooftop rail.
Below, the hubs and spokes winked and reeled. Was that the market where they gave good weight on the fish? Or over there: a boulevard you could walk safely till deep into the night? Risto discovered he had a hand free. He pawed his head and, as best he could, shifted his weight back onto his heels.
He’d made an easy target, no question. At his first job in Naples, he’d been the smallest brother working the docks. Tonight, worse, he was a doughboy compared to most of the crowd. These clubgoers picked the local tomatoes and mucked out the buffalo barns; they did the heavy lifting for the cut-rate construction on the city’s periphery. Risto might be as dark as any of them, but he had the fingers of a keyboard jockey. Truth was, he did most of his job with his eye. He ought to be the last person to raise difficult questions, around La Fenestrella. And just now, he ought to try and find some help. Try and see, insofar as he could, if he had any friends out on the terrazzo. Working against the wrist pinned in the center of his back, Risto wormed this way and that against the rail. There, yes, a friend: Eftah. Did Risto actually give a yelp, when he spotted Eftah? The man might not be a cousin, but in La Fenestrella he was the closest thing to family. He was a lot more reassuring than the out-of-joint city below. Risto gave a cry and Eftah loomed up, such a slab of immigrant beef he could’ve worked as a bouncer himself. At the first whiff of Eftah’s scent, an amber musk you’d think he’d have outgrown long ago, Risto’s attacker let go. Both of them got some breathing room.
Risto sized up his adversary. A tall stretch of tarred rope, a Tutsi build. The man’s sharp corners were brought out by his jacket, a narrow-waisted, canary-yellow disco affair worn with the cuffs rolled. Plus a V-cut Afro, another throwback. But then this Papers — that was the name he’d given — wanted people to look. He wanted customers; he had a sideline. Papers ran a business out of a hidden pocket, a custom arrangement sewn inside the back of his coat. That was where the trouble had started.
And it could’ve gotten a lot worse, Risto had to admit. Papers stood head and shoulders over him, and the man’s moves suggested he’d done time in the military. A quick back-of-the-hand smarted as if his middle knuckle were a deadbolt. Worse, Risto was the newbie in the crowd. In his gallery, at the desk where he keyed in his checks and deposits, he might be Citizen Aristofano, a legitimate Italian. Tonight however he’d been the stranger, so slow to catch on that he’d pestered one of the enforcers in an off-the-books club for foreigners who lacked official paperwork. Most of them, like Risto, revealed a lot of melanin in their outer epidermal layers. But they didn’t know him; his legal status had him moving in very different circles. Whereas these two big guys now standing to either side, keeping him boxed in by the rail, they’d often slipped into this "Little Window" (never opened on the same street twice). This probably wasn’t the first time they’d gotten their knives out, either.
Workaday knives, and neither man made a show of the weapon. Both kept theirs low, hip-level. A minute ago, a minute and a half, the bouncer had flourished his, menacing Risto. Putting that threat in his face. Now however Papers and Eftah might’ve been back in Mogadishu, boxing in a pig, ready to get on with the butchering. Both blades were serrated towards the tip and Eftah’s was the classic, the tool. A thousand uses, and the cousin liked to boast that his was Finnish, the best. Papers held a switchblade, something that might once have been a showpiece. But by now the handle was badly smudged, the plating nicked. The serrations made you think of cutting wedges from a melon.
And how could anything be a showpiece, here in this brokendown venue? Show, art, the pleasures by which a gallery owner like Risto made his living — what did that have to do with this brute of a corner and hour?
He knew the neighborhood on the map. Like most, it sprawled across one of the Naples highlands, the outcroppings that hemmed in the old center and the bay. Not so bad a neighborhood, in this city you could find far worse, but nevertheless you couldn’t rely on the streetlights. Repairs were still catching up, after the earthquake. Fifteen weeks ago, back in springtime, tremors had wracked the metro area. Italian authorities had rushed in, to be sure, plus international agencies, NATO people, the UN. Since the last big quake, in 1980, they’d made a point of having plans in place for the next. Still, even now, there remained pockets that lacked for infrastructure. Even fifteen weeks later, the sulfur lingered on the air, as if Vesuvius were one of those cookies you cracked open just to drink in the smell. Tonight, the most visible evidence of repair work had been the barricade at the entryway to the palazzo, five floors below. The building was one those that’d been judged too dangerous to live in. PVC pipe blocked the front doors with a rig that suggested a jungle gym, the crossbars x’d with orange tape.
That was it. Naples had organized repair teams, Rome had sent down emergency response units, NATO had put uniforms on the street and the UN had whipped up international coalitions for relief. Still that ramshackle Do-Not-Cross was all that remained of their work. A joint or two had probably come undone during the first aftershock after the thing went up. If there’d been a chain, a lock, anything like that, it was gone now, and the warning tape had pulled from its staples. Strips flapped on the summer night, kaboom! orange. Their flutter caught the light from some rewired block nearby, and Risto thought of his gallery, of Chagall and his fireworks.
His gallery, his business, the whole-cloth construction called law and order — in tatters against the dark.
So, among the outlaws, what’s your best move? Risto drew to full height, though some ratchet in his spine seemed to skip a gear, and he winced too at the mix of cheap perfume and rooftop tar. Out here they kept the bar and DJ. But he squared up, Citizen Aristofano, gallery owner. He palmed his shaved head, a fingertip-massage. He had the impression that his big semi-relation also laid a hand on him, for a moment anyway. Eftah shifted closer, anyway. But he too was watching the other, him with the bat-wing shoulders and the black-market sideline.
Risto made sure he had the man’s eye. "A new world, eh. That’s what you promised, a new world."
Outside the other top-story apartment, the still-intact door, Papers had made a kind of presentation. Heavy-knuckled though he was, he’d shown a light touch, jogging a manila folder just enough to allow contraband documents to slip out partway.
"But look what you show me. I could be back with the thugs in ‘Dishu."
Now those documents were once more tucked out of sight, at the back of the dealer’s flashy coat. The man himself was turning wary, glancing behind him.
"The promises you made," Risto went on, "I was right to push you a little. Find out what kind of a person I was dealing with."
Any other situation, his toughneck pretense would’ve made him laugh. But Papers had shifted to the defensive, unmistakably. When you glanced where he kept glancing, you could see he’d come a long way from where he’d been posted.
"What kind of a person I’m dealing with, that’s what I’ve got to find out — "
"He’s with you?" Papers turned to Eftah, frowning.
The so-called cousin replied with a smile. He could count on the impact, teeth like his in a place like this. The Italian dental plan didn’t include these clubgoers.
"Ef-tah, right? The brother who charges a white man’s rent."
"The black lord," said Efath, "of no-account real estate."
"And this type here, he came with you?"
Even as the bouncer asked, he thought again about his job. He cast his eyes across the terrazzo, once more. No one appeared to have taken an interest. La Fenestrella must’ve had substitutes handy, and besides, trouble like this didn’t make much of a dent in the party. So what if one man wrestled another to the edge of the roof, and then a third stepped in? So what if the knives came out? Most of these brothers and sisters were carrying some weapon or other. Most of them hadn’t needed September 11th to remind them what you can accomplish with a box-cutter.
Anyway this was Sunday, at least till midnight. The main attraction so far was the breeze up here, a relief this late in July. Most folks clustered along the crates-&-coolers bar, though a few couples had begun to bop around the DJ’s setup. Everyone had better things to do than worry about some squabble in one corner, with the exception of the lone white couple. Two kids hardly out of their teens, they’d withdrawn to the far side of the bar, wide-eyed. Their faces had seemed especially white to begin with, in contrast to their black hipster getup, going Goth for La Fenestrella. Now they were pale with worry as well. Among the Africans, though, Risto noticed only one paying special attention. Another rawboned type, this was, his wrists and elbows scuffed with labor, chalky. The guy had been dancing, and the girl looked ready to party. She’d given some thought to that tube top, a mint-green cone serving up chocolate scoops. But her partner was ignoring her, all of a sudden. The way he stopped dancing in order to study the confrontation at the rail, you could see he’d put in years as a hardscrabble field-hand, scowling at the weather. He and Papers might’ve shared a look, as well.
Risto’s thought was: when a man’s dealing in contraband, naturally he’s going to have backup. But Papers was asking a question.
"You want to make an arrangement, truly?" His Italian had that street formality.
"You came to me, isn’t that right? You figured I had the money."
"I did see you have the money. I did see — you were looking for something. A man who came looking, you know? What if I told you I wondered if you were police?"
Eftah gave a snort, keeping it friendly.
"In fact. For him to be police, how does that make sense? Doesn’t make any sense at all, the police going to so much trouble. Besides, they’d never send a little houseboy like this."
The dealer bared a crimped row of teeth, and meantime his backup closed in. This new arrival wanted everyone to notice, too. He got his sandals flopping, punctuating the DJ’s thrum. If he had a weapon he kept it out of sight, but when he and Papers stood together, the sales team, there was no mistaking that they’d made their way across the Mediterranean by tooth and claw.
So it was two against two, and Risto had no better option than to keep pressing. "Then how," he asked, "did you and I ever set off a comedy like this? Two reasonable people, trying to do a bit of business."
"Signore, are you forgetting? You put your hands on me."
"You wouldn’t give me a straight answer. I was trying to ask about our poor murdered brother, and all you had to say…"
"Again with that faggot. Again, the murdered brother."
"But, how else am I to know who I’m dealing with? How else, except — "
"Houseboy, what do you need to know?" Risto’s line had always been a lame excuse, and this time Papers kicked away its cane. "You need a debate, ‘New blacks in old Europe?’"
The way Eftah smiled, you’d think he’d enjoy a debate.
"Blacks like that boy," the dealer went on, "what can I tell you? What, another pair of working arms? Another one who’d never find that next step up, the new world? But then there’s you, a man who came here looking."
Aristofano: philosopher of happiness. Giussi had explained, Giussi of course, he never missed an opportunity to show off his education. And these days the gallery owner would’ve taken himself for a happy man. Granted, the name had started out as a convenience. Back when he’d owned little more than the shirt on his back, a teenager new to the Naples accent, he’d accepted this hey-you with a shrug. "Aristofano" was the best that the locals could do, especially the Chinese who ran the docks. Anyway his actual name had a dubious quality, as one of the possible titles for a lizard god out of the Bakool Hills. A bush word, it posed a challenge for Risto himself, even when he was young. His parents had grown up with the colonial languages. Three times they’d been forced into exile, yet Mamma and Papà had never let go of that dream, Mogadishu as the Jewel in the Horn of Africa, the vibrant crossroads where North met South met East met.... Anyway Risto had spoken Italian in the home and gone to the last of the schools run by the Dominican friars. His brother too.
These days, sure he was happy. He was happy in his marriage. He was twice a father, with his kids in that agreeable parenthesis between infant demands and adolescent rancor. He had an Italian passport and, around his adopted city, a winner’s reputation. Yet here he stood, well past the breaking point of law and order. By now they might be into Monday morning, the working week.
Didn’t make sense at all. But then, even a black-market man in a bright yellow coat would have to admit: neither did bloody murder. The ugly business Friday night could’ve been a textbook example of homicidal insanity. On top of that, it tended to bring out the madman in anyone who heard the details. When Risto had suggested, quietly, that La Fenestrella might be the likeliest place to begin looking for answers, to find out who could be responsible for such a slaughter, both the men in on his little secret had agreed at once. Now, granted, out on the club’s rooftop the doubts came on strong. The doubts left spots in his eyes; the scalloped blades to either side seemed to catch some glare. Still, Risto wasn’t here alone. Eftah and Giussi hadn’t come along just for the dancing. They didn’t mind the dancing, God knows. The doormen knew them on sight, the kind-of cousin and the well-read friend, and they must’ve been among the first to learn tonight’s location. Whenever La Fenestrella found a place to set up, the notice went out via text message. A cryptic notice, naturally. That’s how the warlords who ran the joint liked to keep it, and Risto’s two companions had emphasized that he needed to do the same. If the gallery owner intended to get some answers, he needed to put his questions in code. Even the faintest signifier for the law could (Eftah’s boyfriend had been the one to say it) "get a man’s throat cut." They’d been schooling him, sure, the veteran Fenestrellans. Nonetheless, they’d agreed with him. They’d agreed that to visit the club that very night, and to put out a few feelers among its patrons, was more than anyone could expect of the police.
What did the police care about another brother cut to ribbons? Another shadow, a clandestino?
The cops would note the fine bottle-black of the victim’s Shabeeleh Valley skin, and they would ascertain that he’d gone by the name La Cia. They would determine, given the way in which he’d died, that he’d hustled after whatever rough sexual comfort he could find. They might even figure out that he’d preferred men. With that, the authorities would have a report, nicely typed, along with a list of the evidence found at the scene. Throw in a few turn-your-stomach snapshots, and they’d have a file. An official file labeled in block letters and assigned a drawer.
Tonight, back in the building’s stairwell, Eftah had put it this way: "I’ve lived in Naples too long to have illusions about the law."
And Aristofano’s distant relation had lived here far longer. Eftah admitted to 45, though like Giussi he much preferred a nattering game of Pin the Age on the Clubhound. Then too, like La Cia, both Giussi and the cousin had a tenuous standing under Italian law. Eftah had set down an anchor, in this country — he held title on three apartment buildings, somehow — but Giussi was almost as much a clandestino as the victim. He scratched together a living, mostly in film and performance, and so every year brought some fresh wrangle about his work visa. The hoops an immigrant had to jump through, here in Italy, supplied Giussi’s stage shows with some of their wittiest sneering. But a low opinion of the authorities was hardly limited to folks with his or Eftah’s skin-tone. White Italians too, or savvy ones like Aristofano’s wife, could see that the homicide had already become a political football.
Ordinarily a crime like this, smeared with the warpaint of perversion, would’ve been beneath the attention of the mayor and the regional governor. Yet since the discovery of the body, midnight Friday, both these ranking local politicians had given the case a good deal of lip service. They’d thrown around expressions like "the new and welcoming Europe." The city’s mayor complained in particular about where the killing had taken place. The scene of the crime had been another "irregular" dance club, like tonight’s roughhouse venue. La Cia had bled to death in the former back office of a clothing factory, where the lone window was papered over with a notice under the seal of the Regione di Campania, a warning that the building was too dangerous to enter. But then again, if you asked the governor of the Regione, he’d say the setting was incidental. The governor went on a harangue against the immigration agencies. If the agencies had been doing their job, they would’ve had this illegal on a boat back to Africa long ago. The blame for the murder, in other words, lay at the feet of the national government, the party in power up in Rome — the party of the mayor. The opposition to the governor. His Regione had responsibility for condemned buildings, while the mayor’s Commune were supposed to ride herd on the folks who hid out in them. High-sounding charges flew back and forth. In no time, Aristofano’s wife had started to look dubious.
You think a white girl doesn’t know bullshit when she hears it? Paola asked, nodding towards the latest web-broadcast.
Risto tried to match her grin. Born in Naples, his wife had the local cynicism, tangy, as much juice as rind.
You think I can’t tell when they’re playing games?, she asked. Telling stories? There’s blood on the floor, and these two, all they care about is their shoes.
Actually, Risto had come to admire the mayor. In this country she seemed exotic, a woman in high office. After the quake she’d run all over the greater metro area, laying out cash and posting uniforms. She’d arranged for the "Earthquake I.D.," a document essential for many of the homeless. But when La Cia went to pieces, so did whatever benefit of the doubt Risto was willing to give Madame Mayor or anyone else in authority. The victim hadn’t been a friend, but he’d been a friend of friends. He’d been among the circle that came through the gallery. So Saturday morning, after he’d put the RAI news up on the widescreen so that Paola could see what had him devouring the internet so ferociously, Risto was glad to hear her cry bullshit. He tried to match her grin. But he didn’t need to hear it, in fact he knew better than she, and the uptick at the corners of his mouth felt like a mask slipping into place. Beneath, something else entirely was taking shape. He couldn’t share this yet, neither with her nor with anyone else, he’d needed one more day, today, and lunch with a friend, ostensibly a small and comfortable Sunday gathering. Over linguine and octopus Risto had polished off three full glasses of wine. Good country Falanghina, three glasses and then some. After that he’d found a moment alone on his balcony with Giussi.
"I’m going to make some inquiries," he’d told his friend. "I’m going to find out who killed La Cia."
Giussi now, he always wore a mask. The man’s cadaverous build was nothing special, not for an Ethiopian, but in his case the metabolism seemed connected with the wit, the timing. In centuries past he would’ve come to town among a troupe of Players, up on stilts and tooting a fife. He would’ve had a quip about that tube between his lips, too. Today after lunch, Risto had closed the balcony doors behind them. Should his guest erupt in some stage business, Risto hadn’t wanted Paola to notice.
But Giussi too had kept it quiet. "Inquiries, brother, hmm."
Blinking, the host settled against the balcony rail.
"Inquiries, oh la, one thinks of a senator on trial. One thinks of a case that could drag on into infinity. I’d advise against ongoing inquiries."
Risto looked back through the doors, but Paola was in the kitchen. She loved the hostess do-si-do.
"The better part of wisdom might suggest, rather, a brief exploration only."
"But, naturally it needs to happen fast." Risto’s nod was agitated. "An investigation like this, eh."
"If the pieces don’t fall into place in the first, what is it, 60 hours? Isn’t that what they say? If the killer doesn’t turn up in the first two-three days, hmm, I’ve seen enough noir to know..."
"No, no." Shaking his head, more agitated still. "I don’t want to hear it."
Also Giussi’s smile was hard to take, nonchalant, paternal.
"This is no movie. Giussi, this — whatever we find, we take it to the police." Somehow he kept his voice down. "I’m not looking to wind up with a knife at my throat. I wouldn’t even bring up the idea if I didn’t have a deadline in mind."
"By the night of Expo in Città, shall we say, my brother?"
"Expo in Città, Friday? Maybe give everyone something to celebrate?"
"Actually we’d have to finish our business by Thursday night. The Expo’s the next morning. My own performance, down by the Galleria, that’s at lunchtime."
"Sure. Your show, that too. It all comes together. We hand the butcher over to the police and then go out and enjoy the party."
"Oh la. Doesn’t he sound reasonable? Aristofano filosofo."
At some point Risto had begun massaging his eyes. He spoke to the fire-pink creases between his fingers.
"It’s just, the boy deserves better. A brother like La Cia, left in ruins."
"America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel."
Okay, uncover the eyes. But Giussi gave no explanation, dropping blithely into a chair. "A sweetheart out of New York," was all he said. "Or a former sweetheart, alas, a man no longer with us. You’d recognize the name."
The gallery owner had been working himself up to this for a day and half. His whisper roughened: "Guissi, you don’t understand. The Expo, you think that matters? What matters is Paola. My wife — she’s the time limit."
His guest cocked his narrow head.
"Paola’s out of the picture, this week. Morning after tomorrow she leaves to join the kids, and she’s staying away till the Expo."
"Eftah," Giussi said. "For this adventure we need Eftah. You know he’s game."
"Eftah, oh la yes, the Black Lord of the No-Account." Giussi’s way with a zinger, to be sure, was his strength. The Marxist-Leninists had gone so far as to contract him for a couple of sloganeering rap numbers. "But not your Paola, no, not the Madonna of the Bedtime Fairytale…"
"Madonna? Giussi, you don’t understand. What matters is, what we’re up to now, my Paola, she’s got no part in it. Whatever we get done, it’s got to happen while she’s out of the city."
There’d been more to consider, naturally. They’d had a thousand questions, Risto and his Sunday visitor, but they stuck to essentials, in shorthand and sotto voce. The performer was already close to the case, as one of La Cia’s lovers and one of the subterranean cognoscenti. Giussi had known about the warehouse setup where the boy was killed, and today at the end of the meal, as the limoncello went around the table, he’d received the text about La Fenestrella. The Little Window: no greater gap necessary, for a flexible animal.
You did need to be flexible. Eftah appeared to have the wrong body, entirely, for tonight’s location. Wrestling through the tumbledown barricade at the building’s entrance, the former construction crew chief failed to notice one of the staples that held the tattered warning tape. He tore a thumb.
But Risto slid in without a hitch, though he was startled by the bawl of pipe against pipe. The noise recalled the mew of his daughter’s stuffed kitten. Rosa loved to torture that toy. There were times she ordered Tonino to get his sword, an accessory out of Gladiator, and cut off the kitty’s head. They had all the toys they wanted, his little naturalborn citizens. They got to spend the last six weeks of summer in a 300-year-old home above the harbor at Agropoli. Their last name might be Alkair, but their grandfather was a heart specialist, a surgeon who’d scrubbed his hands so hard and often they glowed a Paris white. Nonno liked to joke that he preferred the body’s innards; he couldn’t care less about the color of its integument. Integument! Such cultivated chatter allowed Risto to entertain the notion, tonight, that if his in-laws or his children had known what he was trying to accomplish, they’d see the justice in it. The kids and grandparents would cheer him on. Paola too, if he’d told her.
Naturally he’d been tongue-tied, after he and Giussi came in off the apartment balcony. The performer was the one who’d come up with the alibi. A boys’ night out, Giussi had called it — tonight, in fact. A flimsy line of talk, considering that Risto had spent plenty of time with both Giussi and Eftah that same week. The gallery was taking part in the Expo, the events were city-wide, and both men had pitched in with the arrangements. Still, if the white girl knew bullshit when she heard it, this time it drew out a different sort of smile. While Giussi and Risto set up their appointment, Paola had actually put in a suggestion. Her murmur was like a woodwind flourish, and the husband had no trouble imagining that, if she knew what he was really up to, she would approve. She would understand he had good reason for ending up in a bad fix.
A three-way fix: not only did Risto have the drop behind him and the knives in front, but also he felt soft spots in the roof. Would it give way if they grappled again? At least now, beyond the two bad guys, he spotted a second bouncer.
A buffalo-headed lug, this man settled in alongside the door without a door. He kept his distance (three strides? five?), but he was watching the face-off at the rail. If La Fenestrella had any objection to corpses littering the dance floor, this man was the first indication, and after a long moment Risto remembered him. He remembered the t-shirt, much too tight, decorated in butterflies and flowers in lavender and lime. The guy appeared to have mixed up his clothes with those of a preschool daughter. Still he’d been the gatekeeper for the entire penthouse floor, the Buffalo at the top of the stairs. One pocket of his shorts had bulged with Euros, singles, fives, tens. When Giussi had approached, however, this doorman had merely touched his change-making hand to the Ethiopian’s narrow buttock.
He’d hissed, warmly: Jewws-see.
The gallery owner had watched from a couple steps below, just the place if you wanted to see your friend get fondled. Just the place to take your own measure, in an echoing stairwell full of illegals. Transplantation to the North was built from scratch, a business of instinct and imagination; the hallowed virtues, the sweat of your brow, mattered less than quick thinking and dreaming without letup. Risto had worked up a sweat, sure. He’d worked his goalie’s hands, the kind of grip that came in handy when he was hoisting and sighting, hanging and fitting. But only in the art crowd would he be considered large. His build suggested the broken stub of a brick-brown aqueduct, glimpsed out a train window on the way to Rome. And his look too had profited from constructive dreaming. He’d made himself over as a fireplug designed by Sister Mary Corita. With his head shaved, his earring gold, and his shirt gaudy, he helped create a buzz. No suit and tie for Gallery Wind & Confusion!
Risto’s appearance also owed something to the larger model beside him — the last man standing, out of his original family. The younger "cousin" had spent nearly fifteen years in Naples, and in all that time he’d never seen Eftah go a day without shaving his head. The Black Lord wore an earring too, prompting nervous jokes about Somali pirates. Yet in a dodgy moment, the man’s greatest contribution might be his playfulness. Eftah was a light-fingered arm-breaker. Confronted with rough business in an abandoned building, he thought of West Side Story. Or maybe the west side of Africa, the way he’d decked himself out, in a dazzling wraparound from Senegal. The top’s single lapel left a yawning V that showed off his pecs, scrawled with curls, the more impressive against the melon-green and -crimson slashes of the shirt’s design. The getup was almost as childish as the Buffalo’s.
Childish had often seemed just what Risto needed. Often his own story, the immigrant success, weighed on him. With Eftah he could relax. Just this week, he’d let the overgrown party animal talk him into a dubious favor. Risto had agreed to hold a flash drive for him. Eftah held title on three buildings, including his own five-story palazzo, but for some reason he needed to keep this backup thumbnail at the Gallery Wind & Confusion. On top of that, he preferred to leave the material encrypted. Nonetheless Risto had taken the flash drive and tossed it into his desk. The cousin always had some fringy business going, some "experiment." When Paola had heard about the thumbnail she’d only rolled her eyes.
But in a dodgy moment, was Eftah who you wanted at your back? Him and the Homosexual Mod Squad?
The gallery owner had made it as far as the bar, the planks and crates and coolers. A single choice on drinks, either an American vodka concoction, vodka and orange pop, or coffee-and-gold pints of Nastro Azzuro. The options left most people checking out Eftah’s boyfriend instead. The pretty young thing stood hipshot, you might say "smoldering." He spoke so quietly that Risto had to lean in, under the dj’s ambient groove. Eftah’s lover had something to add about the case; he too believed that to find this killer they needed to go around the law.
"Don’t forget," said the boyfriend, "the police are all brothers in homophobia."
A smart mouth, on this golden Moroccan. Giussi, though you’d think he was out of earshot, cracked a smile. These two thought along the same lines; they shared a similar build. Thirty years’ difference between them and either one could fold up comfortably in the back of Eftah’s Smartcar.
"As a general rule," the boyfriend went on, "the police don’t waste time with a child of Sodom."
He preferred a French name, and what a name, Mepris. His accent had a French sibilance. Then there was Giussi’s accent, growly: "But this, no one could ignore it, not this spectacle."
The way La Cia had been cut up, it looked as if the murderer too had preferred men. Yet the first to stumble across the remains had been hetero, and more than that citizens, white folks. The sort of hipsters who got a thrill out of visiting an "irregular venue." This twosome had gone in search of a private nook and, just as they were hit by the smell, they’d stepped into the outer ripples of coagulating blood.
"A spectacle," Giussi continued, "befitting a legend, really."
Risto kept his own whisper businesslike. "People will talk, sure. There’s already a lot of talk, but it doesn’t change anything."
Giussi slid closer, in time with the music.
"Doesn’t change the calendar, you know?" The gallery owner palmed the top of his head. "The last week before August, half the police are at the beach."
"Oh la, and doesn’t this make it more of a legend, that the boy has a guardian?"
Risto massaged his scalp, knuckles and fingertips.
"Think of the occasion for our revels," Giussi went on. "A fairy child, an ugly death, a magic island bespoiled. But then arrives the wizard, who unfolds the truth, who restores the sacred community."
Risto caught the reference, The Tempest. He hadn’t read the Shakespeare, but he’d seen his friend onstage often enough, flavoring his performance with tidbits from the play. Now Giussi found some correlation to this blood and guts? The victim had been found naked. His clothes lay folded against one wall, as if at first he’d gone along with the arrangements. He’d put his hands behind his back for the cuffs and he’d dipped his head so they could strap on the ball-gag. The rig barely fit over his broad and shaggy ‘do, a touch of Superfly. La Cia had loved the blaxploitation stuff, and he’d first come to Italy to enroll in a university film program. That was just the sort of thing the police wouldn’t have a clue about: the boy’s dreams, his temptations.
The white news stations didn’t get it either. The killer had taken La Cia’s cash but left behind his student visa. The permit had expired, to be sure, but you never knew when it might prove useful. Might spring you from a roundup or get you past a landlord, even out-of-date. The I.D. was the first thing anyone in this crowd would’ve snatched — unless, like this man with V-cut and the switchblade, the killer had his own stash of papers. Yet the white folks’ news tended to concentrate on another detail, the serrated blade. Risto had done his research, since yesterday morning. He tracked down first the statement out of Homicide and then a couple of websites run by apassionati of murder. Odd how intense some people got over this stuff.
One site carried the coroner’s report, or so the blogger claimed. The page had arrived as a scan, he claimed, and Risto found the details convincing. He’d never seen, what was it? Three exclamation marks? Five? Never seen so many on a government form. Yet once you confirmed the nature of the wounds, it raised a whole new question. Whoever had done this must’ve ended up covered in blood, and how could such a horror show ever slip away without getting noticed? Under the shell of one mystery, another. Part of the solution appeared obvious, though. Look around, Citizen: it’s obvious. La Fenestrella kept the lighting murky, just as they must’ve at the crime scene, the actual fly-by-night. Likewise, wherever they opened for business, their back rooms offered plenty of places for a change of shirt. Then too, it wasn’t difficult to find patrons with bruises, with unscrubbed stains. One playboy here was making his moves with a bloody wrap around his left hand.
Still, Friday night must’ve left a mess. The killer appeared to have gone first for the carotid; he’d disabled his victim, before he began tearing away the other pieces.
The coroner, once he’d cleaned out the gutted eye-sockets, had turned up the telltale ragged cuts. The fisherman’s tool had also torn away a swath of cheek. The right thumb, though, must’ve presented the greatest difficulty. Sawing that thick digit from the rest of the hand would’ve taken so much time and effort you wondered why the murderer hadn’t wanted the trophy. You wondered about a lot of things, like why he hadn’t taken the scalp or the genitals. Scalp and genitals, either or both, were generally on the menu when a sociopath got out the knife. But this guy had left La Cia intact between the legs and above the eyes. The butcher had preferred a different pound of flesh, and what’s more he’d left it behind. The police had found both the eyes, two deflated glue-sacks, and the thumb. Either the killer or someone with him had shown a certain tidiness, nestling these scraps against the shrunken belly of the victim. La Cia had known how important it was, in the Industry, to keep the weight down.
In La Fenestrella the working week itself lost a few pieces. Sunday night looked to be as much of a party as Saturday. Looked to be mostly Ladies’ Night, or so it seemed to Citizen Aristofano, as far outside the law as he’d been in all the fifteen years since his night sea journey from Libya. Long before he spotted the dealer’s accomplice — the second former farmhand now standing dead-eyed before him — Risto had noticed the man’s dance partner. She’d come here to be noticed, brimming out of that candy-colored tube top. The dj was into a slow jam, eye of the hurricane, but that hadn’t stopped her from jigging along. If there were anything you’d call a dance floor, it was mostly about the girls and their gladrags.
Even in a club-space that relied on clamp-lamps and moonlight, Risto could follow the money. He could understand that these girls held decent jobs. They might not work regular hours, but they weren’t whores either, or else they’d have been out along the roadside as soon as the sun went down. During the drive from downtown Risto’s crew had passed one cluster of prostitutes, loitering round bonfires of looted construction materials. The fires weren’t about heat, not in July, but rather backlighting, advertising. The girls in La Fenestrella, on the other hand, must’ve wangled a hotel or restaurant shift that started late. Nevertheless they appeared determined to suffer a full day’s hangover. Most were having a two-fisted good time, the vodka-pop in one hand and a hash-and-tobacco twist in the other. In most cases, one of those arms was slung round a man.
For once the sisters had the advantage on the lone white girl. Not a bad-looking girl, a peroxide bombshell, with money enough to tart up her babyfat. She too had the cleavage working, in a leather vest. But she was frightened. Even before Risto’s trouble started, he’d noticed how the little rabbit clung to her boyfriend. She didn’t realize that the Africans here would never come near her. Not at these prices. The brothers had noted at once that her man also wore designer leather, and besides that he’d brought his own beer, a muddy Irish import for them both. No one was about to mess with the obvious Daddy’s boy (at least, not here under the moon and the clamp-lamps), and no one would touch his punk Britney either. Yet the white kids huddled apart from the crowd, on the far side of the bar. They kept their distance, too, from the other penthouse apartment, the one with a door.
Risto had only a hazy sense of the top-storey layout, each apartment with its own entrance off the stairs and its own roof access. He knew, though, that somewhere the clubowners had set up a generator. Across the tarred roof ran extension cords, industrial orange. Might’ve been a party orange, something to go with the corkscrews of pink crepe overhead. Loose Zs of the paper had been strung back and forth, looping through the city night from the penthouse gutters to a couple of poles latched somehow along the terrazzo rail. Only the dj’s setup appeared fully equipped, up to specs. And, talk about a spectacle, look at the guy on the spins. The dj wore dreadlocks and a silver-striped djellaba, but he was as white as the rabbits in black leather. White enough, anyway: Neapolitan Drab. You’d think the poser had agreed to work the turntables in exchange for a fat spliff or two, except he had a hookah going. A full-dress hookah, thick-hosed and hip-high, and when you caught a whiff of what the dj had in the bowl, it was nothing like hashish, leafy rather. Some apple in the mix.
A strange hire, for such a joint. Stranger still was a certain trick of the light. Risto had to frown at the spins, the records that seemed to ripple in the dj’s cone of light. The reflection created a halo, a winking golden arc.
He had to frown and scrub his face. The scene in the Little Window could’ve set him glowing in the dark, himself. Here he was a stranger, trying to play (okay, Giussi) a wizard. He’d lost whatever connection he’d once felt to the ramshackle streetcorners of Mogadishu, the young men out smoking their dinner. Yet in Naples, on this fifth-storey corner, the only difference was the occasional flash of a high-end item. That guy in the canary-yellow jacket, for instance. A jacket that might’ve been a halo for the upper body, while up on his head the man wore something diabolic. He wore his Afro in a V, twin-spiked. What was he, a pimp vampire-killer?
Then Eftah loomed at Risto’s shoulder, offering a beer. The gallery owner declined, instead waving the other two close as well. Quietly he suggested they each work the room on their own.
"That’s best," he said, "discreet."
"Well," said Mepris, "I can’t promise I won’t act up a bit if I find myself face to face with, ah, you know who."
"Oh, Mepris," Eftah said, "always the drama."
"But, what was that? Quel dommage! I was just beginning to think Daddy might for once recognize the importance of honesty and fair dealing. Listen, lover, honestly: who are you to tell me about drama?"
In fact the older man was the one striking a pose. Eftah had his chest out, his chin up, Mussolini on the balcony.
"Now our kinsman here," continued the boyfriend, "he wanted us in on this for a reason." His voice dropped. "It’s less than perfectly safe, this."
"It’s an experiment," Eftah said. "Try it out for a few days, that’s all, try it and see. Risto will know where to draw the line."
"He knew enough," Giussi put in, "not to mention this to his wife."
Giussi. Rarely did he open his mouth without leaving a wound somewhere. But the performer was right to interrupt; nobody needed a lovers’ quarrel. There’d been enough of that during the ride out, the bickering across the seat-back.
Now Eftah and Mepris gave it one more scowl, before all three made their separate ways across La Fenestrella. Risto, just watching them walk, could see that their hormones carried a different tune from the rest of the crowd’s. The rest was the ladies dancing and the men buying. If the floor ever filled up with boys, if Eftah and Mepris and Giussi might ever seem truly inconspicuous, that would happen late. Towards dawn, maybe, you’d stumble across man-on-man couples in the corners. One such pair was featured in a photo for Risto’s upcoming show. Almost a Mapplethorpe thing, that shot. It did without Tuttavia’s odd new trick, her spot of yellow illumination, but the hand of one man stood out, black as a cuttlefish against the underpants of the other.
Tuttavia was the natural choice for his gallery’s contribution to Expo in Città. Risto had selected 15 of the woman’s latest photographs, all taken at a place like this. A party-pit off the books, bristling with a scavenger’s glamour. As for the exact location, the artist refused to say. She was like that, a woman of mystery. Tuttavia, no other name. And maybe she’d earned the right to a few affectations, as the artist most people would consider the gallery’s star. Risto intended to leave up her latest sequence right through coming month. No August off for Confuso & Vento! The photographer’s way with light and shadow was never less than fascinating, and her latest pieces often set you staring. Two especially — the two that featured a halo. Risto had never seen anything like it, a halo, as clear as the curving reflections along the dj’s records tonight. In each photo the glowing sickle framed a man’s head, the same man. The composition emphasized the head, to be sure; composition was Tuttavia’s secret weapon, the way she sculpted her documentary black and white. Yet the young man in these two shots wore a cowl that hinted of gold. A corona or whatever, it made the head pop, emphasis on emphasis. God knows how she’d pulled it off.
Tonight, too, Lovers’ Lane had been arranged. The industrial cable trailed from under the dj’s hookah to the doorway with a door, and it too glinted gold, here and there. But this power line remained earthbound and comprehensible. You knew that, inside the other penthouse apartment, you wouldn’t find things much better lit. Even the sky-boxes of Naples had something of the cave about them. The window might be the latest technology, photo-sensitive, but the view took you back to when Caravaggio was in town. Or further, to when Christ was a carpenter. Tonight, behind the remaining terrazzo door, even a rookie detective knew what he’d find. There’d be a generator, possibly two, plus some extra muscle, "club security." Maybe a Rasta buffalo, maybe a Hollywood V-cut, this enforcer would be posted by the table for poker or scopa. He might be doing double duty, since they’d also have a whore in a farther room. A whore, a mattress, maybe a bottle of sanitizer — but the people who ran the place would want someone else to keep the take. Then beyond her room, deeper within this cavern in the clouds, you’d need to feel your way, perhaps holding up a cigarette lighter.
No furniture, no bed except tufa-dust. Yet the dark and the rough provided an opportunity. You’d have the opportunity, if you were of a mind to cut someone’s throat. If you carried a knife, you’d have the means.
The motive, eh. The motive must’ve been some unlikely shit indeed, considering that his throat wasn’t the only thing cut. Must’ve been as unlikely as a file folder in La Fenestrella. A file folder, you couldn’t help but notice, and Risto was to remember later, with his back to the rooftop rail, how quickly Papers had gotten his attention. Who was this guy, working in office supplies? Most clandestini came looking to score a stick of hash or a sister to smoke it with. But here was someone who not only offered a more portable product, but also could swiftly peg a potential customer. The gallery owner had barely started trolling for someone to ask about La Cia when this dandy beside the other apartment’s doorway, this gatekeeper in dandelion, locked eyes with him. In another moment the stranger had whipped out his folder. God knows where he’d got it, but suddenly the thing was up before Risto’s eyes, its cardboard pale against the other man’s fingers, long fingers yet baggy. The folder could’ve been a mirror, throwing light into Risto’s face. Or no, that was the necklace, thick silver, reflecting flashes off the nearest clamp-lamp. Yet the man’s features were something else, drawn and weathered.
Risto had come to a halt, staring. The stranger drew closer, using his file to gesture off the rooftop, to take in the floating glimmers of better-lit neighborhoods.
"Good evening, brother. Would you call this a city?"
Risto had run into this kind of street formality before. He tried his rusty Arabic: "A’salam alekom."
"Masa’a alkair. Good evening." His friend was louder than the music required. "Italian is better, no? Considering where we find ourselves, in the North."
Again the man waved the folder, this time indicating the hemisphere. Risto figured: first opportunity.
"My brother," he said, "you’re right. Even a terribilità like Friday night is nothing compared to what we’ve left behind."
"Such terribilità." The other was either showing sympathy or making some calculation based on Risto’s command of the language. "It makes us men, no?"
"Most prefer not to think of it. The mutilation, the cold-blooded murder."
"The hardship. It makes us strong, this."
"We’re strong, yet still we have to suffer. Just this weekend, that poor brother was cut to ribbons..."
"Many suffer, yes. But you and I, the struggle makes us stronger. Men such as ourselves, we seize our destiny." Between them the dandy raised his free hand, making a fist. What you could see of his arm revealed a ropy lap of muscle. "We cross oceans and deserts, and we build our own palace and city. No?"
Risto, not quite smiling, cast around for the others. This salesman, whatever his product, must’ve noticed that his mark hadn’t come to the club alone. Giussi, however, was nowhere to be seen; you had to figure he’d found a mark of his own and slipped inside. He was always quick on the trigger. As for Eftah and Mepris, they’d fallen into a fresh squabble, on the far side of the dj stand.
"Don’t you believe we can seize our destiny? Construct our own city?"
The pretty Moroccan, shouting, looked like he might take a bite out of Eftah’s head. Mepris had already lasted longer than most of the cousin’s boyfriends.
But what good did that do La Cia? "Things — are in place for me," Risto replied.
"But certainly. You have some good schooling in that head of yours. You put good food on your table, besides. Anyone can tell that at once."
Aristofano drew up his chest, trying for his own Mussolini.
"And it’s this that makes me ask. Would you call this a city?"
The question was deliberate, no linguistic misfire, and Risto began to wonder about the blazer and the jewelry. The neck-piece had the same broad double-curve, Mayan or Aztec, as the bracelets Risto saw on his star photographer. Plus this clubgoer wore a feminine scent, incongruous with the distressed leather of the face. Jasmine?
"A person," Risto tried, "who likes women. I have a woman, ah, ah, a lover."
"Certainly, a man of your quality." The other’s gaze revealed a hint of amusement. "A lucky man."
So much for that idea.
"Brother," the stranger went on, "call me Papers. Doesn’t that help us understand each other? Doesn’t it help to have a name, when a man comes out of nowhere to ask, for you and your woman too — is this your city? Is it, in fact? You say you make your way, here among the palaces of the North. But in this city the very stones in the streets are laid out for someone else."
Again this Papers was waving towards what you could see of Naples, the humidity-smogged warrens down towards the sea. Meantime, he slipped a finger into his folder, up to the meaty second knuckle. He exposed a fragment of ivory paper. The bond looked rare, heavyweight; there might’ve been a letterhead.
"Just look at this city. This idea of the North’s, so out of date in our century."
A letterhead, yes, black against the ivory.
"This whole idea of walking distance. But why can’t a man construct his city anywhere he wants? A new city for the new world, you know? A brother with a head on his shoulders, you give him a laptop computer, you give him an active account number, he’ll build his own city."
Risto ground a knuckle against an eyebrow.
"A computer, an account, a Kalashnikov — for a man of destiny that’s a city."
"Destiny, eh. It’s more about opportunity, I’d say."
"But isn’t that exactly what I’m talking about? Isn’t this all about opportunity? A good computer, a weapon and ammo. You put those in the right hands, the man will build a whole new world."
"A man like myself, maybe. With things in place, could be. But then there was that poor brother, the night before last. Do you remember…?"
"Oh, everybody remembers him. The things I know about that, that moocher, if you put them all together, they only prove what I’m talking about. A brother such as you needs your own city. Your own palace, for you and your fine sister."
Papers jigged the file folder, its innards flashing. The gesture brought out his height advantage, a mantis over a beetle. But as the salesman launched a new line of talk, something like "here in my hand is your new address," Risto broke the code. It didn’t matter what had clued him, which word or detail of the stationery. Didn’t matter. Wherever you came across documents like this, lately they were as easy to identify as the money-wise gaze with which their owner met Risto’s startled, sudden understanding. The guy had Earthquake I.D.
Papers jerked his head towards the doorway behind him, his necklace flashing again. This gesture too was easy to translate, and couldn’t help but recall the murder. Risto however looked over the document. The dealer had let about an inch of the paper show, out the top of the folder, and this revealed not one but two letterheads. Both were well-known: the seal of a United Nations agency, the umbrella organization for all the quake-recovery efforts, plus the imprimatur of the local NATO base, a compound out in the mozzarella ranchlands. Earthquake I.D., citizenship for sale. In a crowd like tonight’s, it didn’t matter that the documents were temporary.
Following the terremoto, authorities had needed some stopgap certification for a lot of the newly homeless and shirtless who claimed to be citizens. Three thousand folks? Five? They could no longer pull out some sort of government identification. Some had their information zapped by the electro-magnetic pulse, while others lost documents the old-fashioned way, crushed or soaked or torn to bits. Authorities in America had run into the same problem after the hurricanes that hit New Orleans. Across Indonesia, the year before, the Christmas tsunami had ruined tons of paperwork. In those places, the first help on the scene had needed to begin by writing down names. Here between Vesuvius and the Burning Fields, too, lists had been drawn up. Promises had been made, as up in the chambers of Parliament they went hoarse asserting that Italy wasn’t some benighted territory like ghetto Louisiana. In the Bel Paese they had more than enough supporting documentation, somewhere or other. Everyone would get back on the books in no time. Meanwhile the Naples mayor, in one of the moves for which Risto admired her, had worked out an agreement with the UN and NATO. They’d printed up the provisional documents such as these, now brandished in an illegal club by a crook telling lies.
Only a magistrate could issue the I.D., and only according to regulation. A quake victim needed a witness and some sort of secondary documentation. Also the papers were intended to serve their purpose for no more than a few months, until census-takers both federal and regional finished their inventory. The official line was, by fall everyone in and around the city would be back to the same birth certificates and wedding licenses as ever. The paper trail they’d never thought twice about.
Sure, this fall. Insh’alla. Here and now, I.D. like this might be worth triple the biggest poker pot on the table behind the door.
Not that Risto didn’t have his doubts. "Those can’t be the good ones."
"But, who says they can’t?"
The gallery owner leaned close, never mind the man’s perfume. The motive — this could be the motive. "The good paper, from NATO? That would be interesting."
"There’s the Signore. Thinking like a rich man."
"Eh. I can see the usefulness."
"There’s the good word. With a head like yours and papers like these, what’s to stop you from ending up like Berlusconi? What’s to stop you from getting your own island? Your own new world."
Some number of the I.D. forms, some unknown number, had made it to the black market printed on NATO watermark bond. Who knows where they’d come from? One story had it that an American spider-woman had gotten her claws into the pass-code of a NATO colonel. Another rumor was that a couple of amateurs had the good luck to take down a key liaison and snatch his briefcase. In any case, if you were looking for legal status in this country and you got your hands on one of these, the original papers, you’d hit the jackpot. You had full vestiture in the very grain of the stationary. As for the signatures needed, anyone could forge those, and who could say how long it might take before some bureaucrat took note of some discrepancy? Who could say how much longer before the cops got involved?
Now, suppose a person had dangled contraband like that in front of La Cia.
"But with a head like yours, my friend, signore, you understand. Materials such as these, how could I ever reveal how I came into their possession?"
Risto might’ve been studying another of those murder websites. He thought of the local mob, the Camorra, then thought again. The original papers, the ones run off at the American facility, needn’t have wound up in the strongbox of some clan chieftain. The bad guys wanted in on the action, naturally. But over the past two-three months, with so many loose cannons rolling across the city’s deck, even a stowaway like this could’ve lucked onto the good I.D.
"Just step inside with me now, get your hands on one. You remember when you got the photo for your work permit, signore? You remember that photo paper, the edge like a blade? These papers, the Americans kept them under guard round the clock."
Edge like a blade, a fine fairytale. Why not, when customers couldn’t tell the genuine paper stock from an imitation? Risto himself didn’t know what to look for. He could’ve used better light and a magnifying glass. He could’ve done without the dj’s bassline, and what he would’ve really liked was to wipe the smile off this con man’s face.
"A fellow with a head like yours," Papers went on, "will realize. You get these and a computer, and anything’s possible."
Once more the gallery owner looked for help. Mepris too had slipped away, now, and Eftah was dancing with the white girl. A laughable match. The way the girl could shimmy, boneless in her leather tubing, you’d think she was the crepe paper. Eftah on the other hand looked solid as a peg. He was a tent-peg, and the tent was battered by high winds. Laughable at first glance, infuriating at the next.
Again the dealer jerked his head towards the door behind him. Either V of his hair could’ve been a pointer. "Don’t you want a look?" he asked. "Some place where there’s no one in the way, where — "
"Some place where you’ll have no witnesses?"
Risto’s voice might’ve been a noisy thing hung on a wall.
"Some place," he went on, "where you could cut me to ribbons?"
Papers showed military training, coming to attention. The gallery owner held his gaze, letting the guy see just how great this felt, how satisfying.
"What are you," asked the con man, "some kind of schoolboy? Schoolboy waving his hand in the air?"
Risto blinked and got a fresh perspective. To this stranger he must’ve sounded like a white man. Like an utter clod of a white man, he’d revealed exactly what he’d been thinking.
"Waving your hand in the air. You forgetting I’m from the South? Maybe that’s what I used to do down there, is chop off a nosy boy’s hand."
Still Risto couldn’t lower his voice. "Friday night, Papers. Just Friday night, a boy got himself killed."
Still, this felt delicious. The outburst had undone his head and shoulders, after a long pair of mornings hunched at his computer over less-than-legal websites. It felt as if this was what he’d been looking for. As if earlier today, out on his balcony, he shouldn’t have spoken in code.
"Again about that sorry mutilated faggot?" Papers too sounded closer to honesty. "Don’t try to tell me you’re police."
"Police? My guess is, you’re the one with friends on the police."
The other glowered but moved in time with the music, opening his coat. The pimp-jacket proved to be a custom job, with a wide pocket inside the back.
"That faggot?" said Risto. "He had a name, you know."
"What are you, the Gay Avenger?" The man showed a row of teeth. "You know I recognized a couple of those queens you came in with."
"So you’re a regular, in places like this. You knew La Cia."
"Everyone knew La Freccia."
The boy’s name had nothing to do with the cha-cha. Rather, believing it would somehow help his career, he’d chosen the Italian word for "arrow."
The dealer was turning away. "The asshole liked to think he was Hollywood, but he would go into the back with anybody who had the price of a beer."
When Risto grabbed his elbow, Papers came round with his worst face yet. "Faggot. Putting your hands on me?"
Risto had the sense of losing connection, logic at the end of its rope.
"Schoolboy. Smart as you are, you couldn’t see that piece of shit was in for it?"
"So you know something about it, how he died?"
"Sure I do. That piece of shit, he was looking for trouble — "
"Don’t call him that." He lost connection; he went into a show on flip-cards, a flicker of ragged dancers and dangling bulbs, and among these a Risto-card flashed up, a tough guy who grabbed the crook’s sun-colored lapel and yanked him down face to face. The scene took on dimension and stink only when Risto wound up facing a knife. Papers had a lot of tricks up those sleeves, didn’t he? He was as smooth at whipping out his tiger-striped weapon as he’d been at putting away his contraband. Not that the owner of Gallery Wind & Confusion knew anything about fighting hand to hand. Not that his sudden glimpse of a nightmare from long ago, from another continent, was any help tonight. Tonight might trigger a dread flashback, a head split by a machete, but it was a flicker of the Joker. It could’ve been his own head split open, emptied by a wild mounting thrill: Now we’re getting somewhere. He needed to concentrate just to drop his hand from the other’s lapel. He could barely understand that the man was saying something more about the police, the absence of police.
Likewise difficult was bringing the blade into focus, the serration, the chipping.
"The Avenger," growled the dealer. "Maybe tomorrow night, you’ll be the one who needs the Avenger."
Just like that, Risto was knotting up again. He needed to concentrate.
"You think I wouldn’t?" Papers went on. "You think your money makes one bit of difference?"
This was the first person Risto had met. The first half-hour of his investigation. And as for the guy’s bloody talk, you couldn’t give that much credence. Friday night, the same as tonight, Papers would’ve shown up with his business in his pocket. He would’ve come looking to move inventory. Risto struggled against the flying debris within, the ferocity of release. "What I think," he said, "is you came here to make an arrangement."
Of all the words to put a real fear into him...
"Arrangement, faggot? That what they call it these days?"
The gallery owner had a response, another question about the I.D., but in the next moment he was thoughtless with pain. Stabbed? Had Papers used the knife, or just the knuckles around the knife? He was an enforcer, a gatekeeper, and quick too about yanking his victim’s arm half out of its socket. Risto was almost to the railing before he got the picture: clouted, bent over, in a headlock. Plus there was the grind at his butt, as if a thug on X were trying to tweak his high. There was his choked and feeble attempt at a joke, nothing to do with anything.
...try this on my friends? What friends, where?
The white girl’s dance partner, the tent-peg, was nowhere to be seen. The girl herself looked to be gone as well, along with the other leather-bound rabbit. Yet the rest of crowd — so far as Risto could tell, pinned at the roof’s precipice — revealed little concern. The dancers eased away no more than a step or two. The women did appear defenseless, too much flesh and not enough armor. Yet their shimmy went on uninterrupted, and the men seemed downright oblivious, their brains between their hips. The dj flipped through LP’s as if seeking the best soundtrack. The scene came close to setting Risto off again. Close to whipping around on his attacker, so that one or the other or both would wind up over the rail.
Imagine how the city’s hubs and spokes would start reeling then; imagine the outreach of the orange warning tape, fluttering in the boulevard winds.
But there, yes, a friend: Eftah. The biggest of his friends, displaying his handyman’s favorite, its blade unfolded. Then a minute later the dealer’s accomplice had squared the triangle, and for all Risto knew this backup carried a weapon of his own. He too might saw off a man’s thumb. And a minute later:
"How did you and I ever set off a comedy like this? Two reasonable people, trying to do a bit of business."
"Signore, are you forgetting? You put your hands on me."
"You wouldn’t give me a straight answer. I was trying to ask about our poor murdered brother, and all you had to say…"
"Again with that faggot. Again, the murdered brother."
"But, how else am I to know who I’m dealing with? How else, except — "
"Houseboy, what do you need to know?"
Copyright 2010 by John Domini
THIS IS NOT A CONFESSION
When I was twenty-two years old I was hit on the head by a cricket ball and knocked unconscious for several days. Those few days changed my life forever. When I finally came round it took me some time to realise that I was awake and it took me even longer to work out where I was. I tried to think of what had happened to me and how I had ended up in hospital and the only thing I could remember for sure was that I had been standing on a school cricket pitch near the boundary enjoying the warm spring sun on my neck as I watched a kestrel hover mid-air in a field across the road. And the next thing I know I am laying in a hospital bed.
The ward was silent and gloomy. I noticed a clock over the door and I could just about work out that the time was almost 6:30. But was that 6:30 in the morning or 6:30 in the evening? I had no way of knowing. I didn’t even know what day it was. More important than that, I didn’t even know why I was here. I was a strapping twenty-two year old fit and healthy, full of energy and vigour. So why was I here? What had happened? Whatever it was it must be serious. Young men like me don’t end up in hospital unless there is something seriously wrong. And another thing; Why was it so quiet? Where was everybody? Where were the doctors and nurses? Where were my mum and dad? Shouldn’t they be here? Why was I all alone? Had they forgotten all about me? Was my condition that critical? Was there really no hope? Why was I was being left alone to die?
Finally I did hear the sound of some activity outside in the corridor. I winced in pain as I turned my head towards the sound. After what seemed a long time the doors into the ward swung open and I could see the fuzzy outline of a nurse. My eyes followed her as she walked over to the windows at the far end of the ward away to my left and I watched her as she yanked the curtains open. The light poured in and its brightness almost overwhelmed me. But now I could clearly make out the figure of the nurse. She looked to be in her mid twenties, slim, with short blond hair and really pretty.
“Cor!..just look at the knockers on that one!”
Where the hell had that come from? That loud harsh voice bursting all over my head. I raised myself up painfully from the pillow and looked round at the patients laying in the beds on either side of me but they seemed to be fast asleep as far as I could make out and everyone else in the ward looked to be asleep as well.
“I bet that dirty bitch isn’t even wearing any knickers!” That same voice cried out shrilly, “nurses, eh! They’re all sex mad!” Did someone have a radio on? Had someone switched on a TV?
The nurse noticed that I was awake and walked over to the side of the bed. She looked down at me and gave me a beautiful smile. “How are you feeling?”
“Okay,” I said mumbled hesitantly, “I think.”
“I’ll ring your parents,” the nurse said “they’ve been very worried about you.”
“What happened? Why am I here?”
“You were hit on the head by a cricket ball” she explained.
“You’ve been unconscious for days.”
“Oh” I said again. I found talking difficult. My mouth felt numb and my words came out at odd angles.
“Just look at that!…I bet she’s an animal in bed!”
I jerked upright in shock and looked at the nurse with a startled expression on my face.
“Are you all right?” the nurse asked me a note of concern in her voice.
“Er…yes, yes” I said hastily.
“No…I mean, yes.”
It was strange but it seemed to me that she hadn’t heard anything.
“You just looked a bit upset about something, that’s all. Are you in pain?”
“No. Thanks. I’m fine…honest.”
She flashed me another dazzling smile.
“I just thought I heard something, that’s all.”
“You’re damn right you heard something!…hey? Give me half a chance and I’d be in like Flynn! What about you?…eh?”
That voice again. Where on earth was it coming from?
“I’m sorry about that,” I said blushing with embarrassment.
The nurse looked puzzled, “about what?”
Had she really not heard it, that screaming voice? “That er…I just… “ My voice trailed off and my words were left hanging in the air to fend for themselves.
She looked at me with a blank expression on her pretty face.
“Didn’t you hear it?” I asked her again.
“I thought…I thought, “ I stumbled and floundered not at all sure where I was going.
“You must be very tired. Why don’t you rest?” the nurse suggested.
I nodded. Why not.
“And I’ll call your parents,” she added.
We all have a guardian angel. A small voice in our head that is barely audible and that we rarely, if ever, listen to. But ‘my other voice’ was hard to ignore. There was nothing small about ‘my other voice’ and I had no choice but to listen. And ‘my other voice’ nagged me more than my mother did.
“What are you doing that for?…why don’t you think? Where’s your common sense? If you don’t know what you are doing stay out of it!”
The trouble was that he liked to give me advice, even when I didn’t want or need it.
“Watch how you‘re walking man… Jesus!”
“You’ve stepped on the cracks on the pavement with your right foot twice in a
row…so you better do the same with your left foot now.”
“Just to be on the safe side.”
I’d be just about to go into a shop when he’d say, “If you can nip in through that open door without it touching you then you’ll have a lucky day.”
Have you ever heard such rubbish? But I’d have to do it, what choice did I have?
“If you can get that crumpled piece of paper into the bin from here you will have a brilliant future.”
“Best out of three then.”
I missed again.
“Oh for gods sake!…I give up.”
It was all very childish I know but what could I do?
“Why are you always wearing brown shoes?”
“What’s wrong with them?”
“What’s wrong with black shoes?”
“So why the fuck don’t you wear them… just for a change?”
“What are you having today?
“What are you on about? What’s wrong with chicken?”
“You had chicken yesterday that’s what’s wrong with it!”
“No I didn’t.”
“No? What about that ‘hamburger’ from that Take-a-Way then? Wasn’t that a fucking chicken burger?”
“So?…Maybe it was. What’s it got to do with you?”
“I‘ve got to watch you eat that shit, that’s what its got to do with me.”
I’d be watching a film on TV and all of a sudden ‘my other voice’ would yell out, “Seen it!”
“Seen it? I havn‘t see it, so how could you have?”
“Trust me you’ve seen it all right but it was such utter shite you’ve just forgotten that you’ve seen it.”
“Well if it’s all the same to you I want to watch it anyway, okay?”
“Fine. Suit yourself?”
“They all get shot in the end by the way.”
“Oh for God’s sake!”
“You’ve spoilt it for me now.”
“But you’ve seen it, so what’s the diff?”
I turned over to BBC2 and started watching Newsnight.
“I’m sick of hearing about the war in Iraq. Why do they keep banging on about it? Just listen to them…’our boys are dying’…And what did they expect? They’re soldiers in a war. That’s what happens in a war!”
‘My other voice’ demanded that I turn over. It didn’t matter that I might want to watch it, he didn’t want to so therefore I couldn’t either.
‘My other voice’ wouldn’t let me read the papers in peace either. I read ‘The Guardian’ and he made it very clear he didn’t approve.
“’The Guardian?…’The Guardian’!”
“So?…What do you want to read that leftie rag for?”
“To inform myself about what is going on in the world.”
“Don’t be such a poncy twat. Do you know what I hate about that whiny weepie leftie bleeding heart rag?…Everything is our fault. Look at global warming. That’s all our fault.”
“May be it is.”
“Listen, do you know what causes global warming? Too many people, that’s what. I mean, there are 1.3 billion Chinese in the world. Now I ask you, does the world need that many Chinese? I doubt it.”
“So what do you think I should be reading then? ‘The Daily Sport?’”
“Why not? At least it’s more fun than…’The Guardian‘. If you keep reading that crap you’ll just end up topping yourself. And anyway, other papers will at least offer you a decent free DVD now and then; one that you might actually want. But what does ‘The Guardian’ offer you? A bloody poster on where you can find:‘The Best Camping Sites in England’ or they tempt you with a poxy little booklet on: ‘The most popular museums in Great Britain.” How fucking boring!” ‘My other voice’ almost screamed in my ear. “Now, if they were to give away a DVD of lets say…’Debbie does Dallas’ then they’d be sold out in 5 minutes.”
“May be ‘The Guardian’ doesn’t think that their readers are interested in porn?”
“Oh, you are joking right?“
“No. Why should I be joking?”
You read ‘The Guardian’ and I know you’re interested in porn.”
“No I’m not.”
“Yeah right!” snorted ‘my other voice’ with a sneer as thick as syrup.
“I’m not! Okay?…Jesus!”
“Okay…calm down. I believe you. Thousands wouldn’t, but I believe you.”
‘My other voice’ could not be quiet for five minutes and whenever he started talking it wouldn’t be long before we got into some stupid and pointless argument.
“Why do they always say, ‘they were full of life and had everything to live for?”
“What do you expect the parents of a murdered child to say?”
“And why do they always start to blub on the box? It’s annoying.”
“They’re heartbroken that’s why!”
“Then they shouldn’t be on the box then.”
“It’s a human interest story.”
“Well I’m not interested.”
So I don’t read the papers very much anymore and for the same reason I watch very little television. I mean, what’s the point? I can’t concentrate on anything with ‘my other voice’ giving me a running commentary on everything. I’ve even had to stop playing my computer chess game because he was always meddling.
“Move that pawn.”
“The one next to the Queen.”
“Just do it.”
I decided not to. I am not a Grand Master or anything but I became pretty good at playing against the computer; even when I played ‘black’ and even when I played at the most difficult level. I usually manage to hold my own and I have won my fair share of games. So I ignored him. But after three further moves I was stuck. I tried to think the problem through but in the end I had to admit defeat and so I pressed a button and the computer took back my last three moves and then I pressed another button and watched the computer play my moves for me: its first move was to move the pawn next to the queen.
“I fuckin’ told yer…didn’t I fuckin’ tell yer!” ‘My other voice’ cackled gleefully.
“Piss off!” I growled.
“You’re shit. You know that, don’t you? You think you are so clever. But you’re not, you’re shit!”
‘My other voice’ always had plenty to say and I was constantly subjected to an endless stream of comment and opinion about everything.
“Hey, look at him. Look at him eat. He’s putting that food on the end of his fork into his mouth as if he thinks it’s poisoned….Hey! Look at her. No, over there… that
biffer by the counter? Her whole body is sagging. Her flesh looks as if its sliding off her bones. Look! Look! She walks like a zombie as if she’s in a trance. Still, you
have to feel sorry for the old bitch.”
“Come off it. Imagine that you are an ugly duckling when you’re a little kid only to discover you are an ugly duck now that you’ve grown up?”
Or I’d be standing in a shop thinking of what to buy and I’d hear him snort.
“That always makes me laugh.”
“When people try to sell you stuff by telling you it’s ‘only’ £14.99 or something.”
“And your point is…?”
“My point is: What do they mean, ’only’ £14.99? That’s not even worth £1.99. never mind £14.99!”
There was no stopping him sometimes.
“Can you tell me why people waste their time jogging? I mean, what‘s that all about?”
“To keep fit and healthy?”
“By jogging in the ‘rush-hour’ and taking in huge lungful of lovely carbon monoxide?”
“Just drop it.”
“And why do people have to walk round all the time fiddling with their mobiles.. That call can wait. It‘s not life and death. So why pretend that it is?”
“Oh give it a rest,” I pleaded.
“And another thing, why people think it’s okay to park on double yellow lines if you leave the hazard lights on ? Can you explain that to me?”
“What’s wrong with people? Why do they move so slowly? They’re like old age pensioners. Just look at them!”
“Calm down will you.”
“Christ! We’ve been walking down this road for ten minutes and havn’t seen a single white face.”
“What of it?”
“They’re everywhere! Bloody hell. I bet if you went to the North Pole you’d find a Paki corner shop!”
“Could be very handy if you’re at the North Pole on a Sunday night and you suddenly realise that you have run out of sugar.”
“Funny man. But I’m serious, because you know what your problem is?”
“No, but I’m sure you are going to tell me.”
“You are sleepwalking through life. You are oblivious to everything around you. It‘s time you woke up. You could be walking through a battlefield or burst into the middle of an orgy or trip over a bar of gold and you wouldn‘t notice a bloody thing!”
That was the main problem with ‘my other voice‘, it could never stop interfering. I couldn’t even go to the toilet without him having something to say.
“How long is this going to take?”
“How long is what going to take?”
“You taking a slash?”
“What‘s it got to do with you?”
“Fifteen minutes. That’s how long you’ve been standing there.”
“No I haven’t.”
“Fucking hell man if you‘re going to go, then go!”
“Shut up and leave me alone.” But he never did. He never ever left me alone.
“Why are you always reading?”
“I enjoy it.”
“You should get out more.”
“I’m fine as I am.”
“Bullshit! When was the last time you had a bird? You don’t even have any friends. It’s not healthy. You should get out more and meet people.”
“No thanks? Are you going to spend the whole of your life living like some fucking hermit?”
“Can’t you see that I’m reading a book?”
“I worry about you,” ’my other voice’ said.
“Don’t bother, I’m fine as I am.”
“But I do. I worry about you. Have any idea how boring you really are?”
“I like being boring.”
“Don’t be a prick!”
“How I live my life is none of your business.”
“That’s where you’re wrong…it is my business, you’re my business.”
“You sound like my mother.”
“I know you better than your mother. I know you better than you know yourself…”
“I know what’s best for me,” I retorted sharply.
“That’s where you’re wrong pal…I know everything about you. I know what’s really going on in your head. I know about every sordid little thought that you’ve ever had. I can see right down into the deepest and darkest corners of your soul and I can see things than even you don’t know about and which will get you put away forever if anyone ever finds out. And you know what? No one ever will. That’s why I am here…It’s my job to look after you and make sure nothing bad happens to you.”
The truth is he, this ‘other voice of mine‘, made me nervous. I tried to ignore him but that was practically impossible; he was always there. Where had he come from? Why was he in my head? What did he want? And, how long was he going to stay? His explanation was simple, he was there to look after me. But as far as far as I was concerned I didn’t need looking after I was fine just the way I was. I didn’t want to be taken care of or be told what to do. But ‘my other voice’ had other ideas. And he had plenty of those; I eat too much crap food, watched too many crap films, read too many crap books, I had a crap job. My life was crap. And I suppose, I was crap. I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t shag birds, I didn’t get drunk, smoke dope or doing anything remotely exciting or interesting. “If you’re not going to do anything with your life…why bother living?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m just saying, you can lie to other people as much as you want just don’t lie to yourself that’s all.”
“Who says that I do?”
“Come off it. You don’t care very much about anything. And you don’t like people I know that much.”
“That’s not true!”
“All I’m saying is be honest with yourself.”
He confused me. He would say things and tell me things, things that I knew weren’t true and then he would try to convince me that it had been all my idea all along.
Living with ’my other voice’ very soon started to become a real nightmare. And it could be really frightening sometimes too when, without warning, he would suddenly pop into my head.
“Oh fuck!..fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”
“You didn’t turn the gas off!”
“Yes, I did.”
“Yes I’m sure.”
“Suppose you’re wrong?”
“But I’m not.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Think about it. The gas is full on. The house goes up. Innocent people are killed and injured. Little kids are orphaned. And why? Why? Because you couldn’t be fucking arsed to check and just make sure. How could you live with yourself then, eh?”
“Don’t be a smart arse! I know what’s going on in your head, remember? And I know for a fact you couldn’t live with yourself.”
“But the gas is fucking off!”
“Really? Are you really really sure? You know what you’re like. Remember that time you left the back door unlocked?
“That was years ago. And it only the once. And anyway, nothing happened.”
“Oh I get it, you’re just going to hope that you get lucky again. Is that it?
What could I do? I had no choice but to get off the bus at the next stop and cross the road and wait for the bus going in the opposite direction to take me back home again.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” ‘my other voice’ screamed.
“What does it look like?”
“Are you fucking crazy. Thanks to you people are dying and you stand there waiting for the bus!”
“No one’s dying.”
“How the fuck do you know? You’re standing at a bus-stop two miles away, anything could be happening for all you know!”
So I started running. He made me do it. I ran as hard and as fast as I could. It was a race against time. It was a matter of life and death. And it nearly killed me, I never thought I’d make it. I was covered in sweat, my heart was bursting through my chest, my sides were killing me. But ‘my other voice’ would not let me slow down or rest, “hurry!” he urged me frantically, “before everyone’s dead!” Finally I got there, I turned the corner into my street and…there it was, my house just as I’d left it!
“Oh what a relief!“ ” ‘my other voice’ cried happily.
It took me a few minutes to get my breath back and for the pain in my sides to subside before I could speak, “I told you I’d switched it off…and no one’s died either as far as I can make out.”
I would be in the supermarket doing my shopping and it was only after I had passed the cashier and paid and it was too late to do anything about it that ‘my other voice’ reminded me that I had forgotten to buy coffee.
“What about coffee?”
“Why didn’t remind me earlier…now I have to go back and queue all over again.”
“You should have made a list. Why didn’t you make a list?”
That’s what really annoyed about ‘my other voice‘. He always had an answer for everything and you could never tell him anything.
“Hadn’t you better fill in that form?”
“What’s the rush? It doesn’t need to be sent in for another two weeks.”
“But why wait?”
“I told you, it doesn’t need to be sent off for another two weeks. It can wait.”
“Why wait if you can do it now?”
“I don’t want to do it now, okay.”
“Why, are you busy or something?”
There was nothing I could do about it. There was no point in arguing. So I filled in the form.
“There you are, that wasn’t so bad was it?”
And I like to go into bookshops sometimes just to have a look around. But ‘my other voice’ howled in protest.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m just going to pop into the bookshop.”
“Pop in? What for?”
“I just want to have a look.”
“You haven’t got the time now you’re late enough as it is.”
“I wont be a minute.”
“You haven’t got a minute.”
And as I wandered around looking at the latest titles on offer ‘my other voice’ would moan and sigh.
“You sound like a whinny little kid being dragged round the shops by his mum to buy his school uniform.”
“This is so boring! Its so pointless! You’re not even going to buy anything.”
There was no rush, no crisis and no emergency but ‘my other voice’ always acted as if it was. I’d be standing in the kitchen watching the rice boil when ‘my other voice’ would suggest that I might as well sort our my packed lunch for tomorrow.
“Cooking? You’re watching the rice boil, that’s not cooking.”
“What the hell do you know about cooking?”
“Come on you little prick stop making such a song and dance about it. The fridge is right behind you.”
“I told you…I’m busy!”
“Busy doing fuck all. And that’s your problem. You are always busy doing fuck all!”
“I wish I was as clever as you.”
“That’s got nothing to do with it. It’s just that to you everything is a problem. Every time I say something and have a suggestion to make you come back with a list of reasons why it wont work.”
‘My other voice’ hadn’t bothered me too much at first but slowly and surely and without me realising it at first ’my other voice’ began to take over my life and tried to run it for me, even though I didn’t want him too. ‘My other voice’ was always getting me into trouble and making a fool of me. He would be talking to me and I would answer him not realising that I was talking out loud. Imagine how embarrassing that could be for me and how frightening it was for other people when they heard me muttering and mumbling to myself. I noticed that people would give me strange looks when they saw me talking to myself in the street. I tried not to but it was difficult to have a conversation with ‘my other voice’ without talking out loud. My parents worried about me and my friends, the one’s ‘my other voice’ said I didn’t have, kept asking me if I was “all right.” I knew that they thought I was round the twist or on drugs or something. They all kept asking me if I needed help or if “there was anything you want to tell us.” They suggested that maybe I should “take a break from it all” and that maybe I should see a doctor “or something.” But there was nothing anyone could do, there was no escaping ‘my other voice‘.
Half the time it was impossible to even carry on a conversation without ‘my other voice’ chipping in.
“And how is your mother?” A neighbour asked who’s name I still didn’t know even though she had lived next door to my parents for over fifteen years. I’d bumped into her on the street by accident and I’d had no choice but to stop and talk to her.
“She is very well thank you.”
“I haven’t seen her for a while.”
“That’s because she is much too busy to have time to poke her bloody nose into other people‘s business, you old boot!”
“Is she still teaching?”
“Yes, but only part-time these days. She has to look after my dad after his accident.”
“Oh yes! Wasn’t that awful? I hope he is he feeling better?”
“Yes, much better thank you.”
“How about minding your own business you nosey old cow. Do I ask you stupid questions about your cats?”
“Anyway, I have to dash to the post office before it closes.”
“Yes. Just go. Please!…just fuck off!”
“But it’s been so nice seeing you again.”
“And its been nice to see you again too.”
“I’m lying by the way.”
“Give my regards to your mother and father wont you?”
“Like fuck I will!”
The bloke sitting next to me at work asked me if I’d had a good weekend.
I shrugged my shoulders. “Not bad,” I grunted reluctantly.
“Do anything interesting?” the bloke then asked.
“Yes, actually I spent the weekend chopping up babies and eating them!”
“Not really. I just chilled out.”
I thought for a minute the conversation was going to stop there but then, “Hey, did you hear what happened to Colin?” the bloke cried very excited all of a sudden.
“Stop talking. Do you really think I look like someone who gives a shit?”
He started to tell anyway me but luckily the phone rang and I had to answer it. By the time I put the phone down again the bloke had just finished telling someone else “what had happened to Colin” and had forgotten all about me: thank God.
I know people don’t mean any harm but all this polite chit-chat is rather pointless. I’m no good at small talk anyway but sometimes you just can’t avoid it.
Every day on my way to work I would be accosted by a beggar under the railway bridge and everyday he would ask me if I had 10p “for a of cup tea.” ‘My other voice’ took a firm line.
“10p for a cup of tea?” ‘my other voice’ sneered, “where the fuck can you buy a cup of anything for 10p? Ask him where he gets a cuppa for 10p so we can buy one. Lying bastard. Tell the lazy fucker to get a job!” A new tactic for trying to get money out of unsuspecting members of the public was for beggars to ask for bus fare so that they could “get home.” ‘My other voice’ was not sympathetic to their pleadings; “What a cheeky bastard. Tell him to walk. If he starts now he’ll be home by seven.” One day I passed a homeless man who asked me if I could “spare some change?” I walked on by without responding and I heard him call out after me in a loud voice, “have a nice day you tight fisted little shit!” I could feel my face redden and I lowered my head and lengthened by stride. But ‘my other voice’ went absolutely bloody mad. “Did you hear that?…did you hear what he just said?”
“Forget it! My royal arse I will!”
The next thing I knew I had spun round and was retracing my steps until I was standing practically chin to chin and nose to nose with the homeless man. “Now you just listen to me, you miserable little reptile,” I heard myself spit out “I work for my money. I work for a living. Because unlike you I chose not to piss my life away on drink and drugs. You chose your life and if that means living on the street begging for money that is your choice and if I ignore you because I don’t want to waste my hard earned money that I have to work for on lazy bastards like you then that is my choice too…okay?” I don’t know who was more surprised; me or the homeless bum. I turned round and quickly walked away. ‘My other voice’ was crowing in triumph, “my God! That showed him! That showed him!” I was stunned. What on earth had got into me? That wasn’t me. I didn’t do that. I didn’t have arguments with crazy smelly dirty beggars and other street riff-raff. All I wanted was a quiet life. What on earth had got into me?
‘My other voice’ was, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a troublemaker which was annoying to say the least; but it could also be down right dangerous sometimes. It was all very well for him to have a big mouth but it would be me who would end up having to face the consequences. A typical example was that day I was walking down the street with a heavy bag slung over my shoulders when a woman coming towards me walked right into it. I heard her mutter angrily as we passed and before I knew it I had turned round and heard myself cry out, “what’s the matter with you? Didn’t you see me? Didn’t you see the bag? “
“Why didn’t you get out of my way?” the woman complained sourly.
“What me? I should get out of your way? I’m not the elephant around here!”
The woman let out a loud squawk and hurried on her way while I scurried away in then other direction with the loud course laughter of ‘my other voice’ rattling around in my head., “you tell her my son, that’s the way to do it!”
A man stopped and asked for directions to the railway station.
“Tell him to go left and then at the lights, left again.”
So I did. But I wish I hadn’t. To get to the station was a left and then the first right at the lights. I thought about running after him and giving him the right directions but ‘my other voice’ told me not to bother.
“Fuck him. If he wants to know the way he should put his hand in his pocket and buy a map.”
And then there was that time I was in a pub and I bumped into a man standing behind me and spilled some of his pint, and mine.
“Oh sorry mate,” I stammered. He was a big bloke, and I mean big. Not fat. Big.
“Watch it, eh?”
“Tell him to go and fuck himself!”
“I can’t do that, are you crazy?”
“Hey friend…who are you calling crazy?”
“Tell him to meet you outside…the fat fucker!”
“Not you, me.”
“What are you drinking?”
“You’re pathetic. You never stand up for yourself.” my other voice screamed in rage.
Then there was that time when I was on holiday in Italy when I was stopped by the police who wanted to see my papers and took me down to the local cop shop while they checked me out. ‘My other voice’ was furious.
“You’re just going to take this shit from them…wop cops! Tell ‘em you’re English. Go on just tell that wop bastard that you are E…n…g…lish!”
“I’m English.” I said to the sergeant lazily leafing through my passport.
“Si, si,” he mumbled without even looking up.
“Assert yourself for Pete’s sake. Bang your fist on the table and tell them what’s what. It’s the only way to treat these people. Tell ‘em if it wasn’t for your dad they would all be eating sauerkraut!”
“Is there a problem?”
The sergeant shock his head.
“So I can go?”
“But if there is no problem, then there is no reason for me to be kept here.”
The sergeant looked up. “You sit.” He pointed to a wooden bench behind me. I sat down.
“You really enjoy being kicked around don’t you? It must be fun.”
“Hello?” the sergeant was on his feet waving his finger me, “what you say?”
“What?…oh. Er,” Shit! What had I said? What had I done?
“Don’t apologise for God’s sake. Demand your passport back. Insist. These fuckers always give in if you stand up to them!”
“Nothing? You think you funny. All English not so funny.”
“No…I mean, I wasn’t talking about you. It wasn’t you. I was just thinking out loud.”
“Don’t cry now will you? I really couldn’t stand that.”
“Sit okay. Wait. Understand?”
“Absolutely. No problem.”
“No problem? Why the hell do you put up with all this shit beats me.”
“Piss off and leave me alone.” I hissed under my breath, “it’s nothing to do with you. So just for a change mind your own damn business.”
Most irritating of all though ‘my other voice’ was obsessed with girls. He always had to stare at every girl we passed on the street and he always had something to say.
“Look at the knockers on that one!…hey see that one, what breed of dog is that?…what about the pins on her!” And if he had to look then so did I and not all women liked being stared at.
“What are you staring at?”
“Sorry my love, but I was thinking about giving you 8 out of 10 but now that I’ve had a proper look at you I’ve decided to give you 6 out of 10 instead.”
You should have seen her face. I wanted to apologise but my other voice wouldn’t let me.
“Hey look at that one…not her, the one with the legs. Yeah, her. Why don’t you chat her up.”
“I don’t know her and she doesn’t know me.”
“And what’s that got to do with the price of tea?”
“Anyway she’ll just take me for a weirdo.”
“No she wont. Besides she wont realise that until later when it’s too late.”
“Look its so simple. Just go up to her right, and say that you are lost and that you are looking for directions. You say something like; you are from London or something and that you are looking for, I dunno, a hotel let’s say. She wont tell you to get lost I promise. But you apologise for bothering her and give her a ‘puppy dog look’ and say that you asked her only because she looked so friendly. She’ll love hearing that. And then you compliment her on her beautiful eyes or her nice smile or her lovely hair and she’ll practically give you a frenchie there and then. And you tell her that you are only staying up here for a week or so; say you are visiting your mum in hospital, and then you ask her if she can recommend any good places in town to eat, drink or where people go out at night for a good time. And she’ll only be too happy to tell you and then you say something like; ‘well I’d love to go out and relax and have a bit of fun while I’m here but I don’t know the place and I’m all on my own maybe I can buy you a drink some time?’ She’ll be flattered and then you ask her if you could have her number…and away you go!”
“Bob’s your uncle right?”
“Don’t be smart arse, ok. I’m only trying to do you a favour alright. I mean lets face it your no hit with the ladies are you? I’ve seen blokes who look like the hunchback of Notre Dame pull more birds than you.”
“Anyway she’s not my type.”
“Oh I know, Claudia Shiffer is your ‘type’ but guess what, even if you met Claudia Shiffer you would have absolutely no chance with her or with any woman like her. So you better start concentrating on real woman that you could actually get.”
“Well I know what I want and I’m prepared to wait.”
This was a topic of conversation that we’d had time and time again. I got sick of talking about it and I tried to tell him to stop but he wouldn’t listen to me.
“Don’t give me that, you’re as interested in birds as I am so you can stop pretending.”
“It’s got nothing to do with pretending.”
“Come off it…listen it’s the simplest thing in the world pulling birds believe me. All you’ve got to do is go into a decent pub, not too crowded and sit down at the bar. And when you see a bird on her own that you like the look of just go up to her and ask her what the time is. Then you give it five minutes and then you ask her again and you apologise for bothering her but you tell her that you are supposed to be meeting your date but she is late and you are worried that she has stood you up. That will get her interested and you just start talking to her and you say to her that you don’t know this girl very well and this is the first time you are going out with her and she is the first girl that you have gone out with since you broke up with your last girlfriend three years ago because she really broke your heart, see. She was a lovely girl and it wasn’t her fault that it all went wrong but its taken you a long time to get over it. By now the girl at the bar will be all ears and sympathy and you then ask her for advice on how to win your imaginary birds heart and before you know it you’ll have a real bird .”
“That simple is it?”
“Nothing to it. Try it.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“What’s there to think about?”
“I want to wait until I’m in the mood.”
“You want to wait until you’re in the mood? Jesus! Well, Don’t wait until your knob falls off.”
It was thanks to him and his “help” that I got beaten up. He was always looking for a fight but it was me who suffered. It happened in the city centre on Saturday night while I was waiting for the bus. These two lads turned up obviously having just rolled out of the pub and clearly fully tanked up. I stood well away from them and tried to make sure that I avoided eye contact.
“Low life scum!” ‘my other voice’ bellowed, “pond life! Trash like that should be strangled at birth. No use to anyone, just a pointless burden on society if you ask me. Spend their whole life on the dole sponging off society.” I turned round slightly to look at them, “ugly little bastards aren’t they…rat faced and ragged arsed little vermin!”
“What you staring at mate?”
“Posh cunt, eh?”
“Not really, what kind of fucking English is that?”
“It’s the Queen’s English. And if it’s good enough for the Queen then it’s good enough for you.”
“I’m going to smack you in a minute, pal.”
“Oh, I see: I’ve got a minute then have I?”
“A smart arse as well!” the lout growled menacingly.
“It’s called ‘comic timing’, you’ve either got it or you haven’t.”
They walked off leaving me on the floor with a bloody nose.
“Why didn’t you duck?”
“Oh shut up!”
“No, seriously, why didn’t you? A swift jab into his kidneys an uppercut to the jaw. Easy peasy!“
“Oh really? Didn’t you see the size of him? And what about his mate. There were two them you remember?”
“His mate wouldn’t have done nothing.”
“Just for once why don’t you just belt up and leave me alone!”
“Stop your whining?
“Hey, you’re not the one who got the bloody nose.”
“I told you to duck.”
“I case you’ve forgotten it’s thanks to you I got into this trouble in the first place.”
“Are you blaming me?”
“Who should I blame?”
“How about you blame yourself for being a gutless wimp?”
“I don’t remember inviting you into my head or inviting you to run my life!”
“Don’t start being clever with me sunshine. I’ve been in your head all your life…but it’s only now that you are forced to listen to me.”
I saw the bus coming. I got up from the ground wiped my nose and counted my change. The bus came to a stop, the door opened and I got on, paid my fare and sat down. We sat in silence as the bus took me home. I was boiling with rage and shame.
“Look mate, I’m sorry I yelled. Okay.”
“Don‘t bloody sulk.”
“I’m not sulking.”
“It‘s for your own good, believe me. I only want what’s best for you.”
“I said forget it.”
The bus came to my stop and I got off and started to walk the short stretch to my house.
“All the same, you should have bloody ducked.”
Sometimes though he gave me real hell. I lost my wallet once. I’d been to the library to do some photo-copying and I remember I had taken my wallet out and put it next to the machine. Next thing I know, I’m in the supermarket at the check out when I suddenly realise that my wallet is not in the pocket of my jacket where it should be.
“You haven’t gone and lost it have you?”
“No! Fuck you!”
Meanwhile I had put my bag down and had began to frantically search all the pockets of my clothes and through every crease and seam of my bag for the missing wallet my body bursting out in hot prickly points of sweat as panic and despair seized me.
“You genius!” ‘my other voice’ sneered, “How stupid can you get!”
“If you’re not going to help you might as well keep it shut!”
“It’s hard to believe that you are an adult and not some dim-witted little kid.”
“Shut the fuck up for Christ sake and let me think!”
“I leave you alone for just five minutes and look what happens!”
I didn’t understand it, how could it have happened? I cast my mind back to the moment when I had been in the library. I knew I had it on me then because I had taken it out to get my change for the photo-copier but after that my mind was a complete blank. Shit! Fuck! This was just so unbelievable!
“Be quiet and let me think.”
The library wasn’t far away so I ran back and asked if anyone had handed in a wallet. But of-course no one had. So I had to run all the way home and ring Barclaycard to cancel my card taunted all the way by ‘my other voice‘.
“What a Nob Head! Loosing your wallet like that fuck me, you are just so bloody hopeless. You really are!”
And then there was that time I went on holiday and somehow I managed to arrive at my hotel a day too early.
“I don’t believe this!” ‘my other voice’ sighed and I could feel him rolling his eyes and shaking his head, “you have a special talent for fucking things up, you know that don’t you?
“Calm down. It’s no big deal. It’s just a simple mistake.”
“Oh I see…it’s just a mistake. Well that’s okay then! Lets forget it then shall we.”
“Yes, lets,” I said standing at the ‘Check-In’ desk “its not going to be a problem, I’ll just have to pay for an extra night that’s all.”
And it wasn’t a problem. They had a room free and I paid for an extra night. But ‘my other voice’ just went on and on about it.
“How on earth did that happen? I mean, don’t you read the itinerary? Don’t you check the dates and stuff?”
“But I did! I did!”
“And you still managed to get it wrong. You’re unbelievable. Really unbelievable!”
And I remember laying in bed dog tired trying to get some sleep but ‘my other voice’ was not giving me a moments peace.
“This is a great place to pull birds and even if you can’t manage that then the prostitutes here are famous for being young, gorgeous and cheap. Even you could pull one.”
“I’m tired. Leave me alone.”
“Oh yeah, I know you want to visit museums and churches shit like that.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“What’s wrong with having some fun? Come on…you know you really want to.”
“No I don’t.”
“Don’t lie to me. I know how desperate you are.”
“No I’m not.”
“Hey…you wont survive just by wanking all the time. It’s just not healthy man. All you have to do is pay a tenner…just a tenner! Don’t you want to shag some delicious sexy 18 year old blond?”
On and on he went. I don’t think I got to sleep until 3 o’clock.
And it was thanks to ‘my other voice’ that I lost my job. I work, or used to work in a bank. It wasn’t a great job but it was a job that paid the bills but thanks to ‘my other voice’ and his ‘help’ I lost it. I spent a lot of time dealing with customers and sorting out their problems. I didn’t enjoy the job, partly because working in a bank is dull but mostly because the general public are so incredibly stupid and when something goes wrong it’s always someone else who is at fault: me usually. They get into debt; it’s my fault. Their direct debit doesn’t go through because there is no money in their account: that’s my fault as well. Their cheque bounced: my fault again. They are charged for exceeding their credit limit and making unauthorised withdrawals: again that’s my fault.
“Ask the silly bitch if she knows what unauthorised means?”
I didn’t of-course which annoyed ‘my other voice‘, “you’re such a fucking coward. Stand up to these people and don’t let yourself be pushed around.”
I tried to explain to the woman on the phone that this charge had to be made as she had exceeded her agreed credit limit with the bank and in such cases it was the bank’s policy to charge customers. This was not a satisfactory explanation as far as she was concerned and she went on to say that she did not think that was not an acceptable way to treat someone who has been a loyal customer at our bank for many years.
“Fuck me, ask her if she went shopping to her local supermarket does she think they would let her walk out with a packet of bacon stuffed under her coat and not pay for it just because she was a “loyal customer”? Who wants loyal customers like that anyway!”
The woman on the other end of the phone started to get very irate and complained that I was being extremely ‘difficult’ and she complained that I wasn’t ‘listening to her’. Well unfortunately, I couldn’t listen to her and to ‘my other voice’ at the same time.
“Jesus H. fucking Christ!” screamed ‘my other voice‘, “I don’t believe this woman! What’s wrong with her? Does she think she can tell you what to do? Tell her you work for the bank; and not for her. Tell her, contrary to what she might have been told; the customer is not always right!“ ‘My other voice’ was very distracting in situations like this, its hard to concentrate and think when he was yelling advice in my head and I had to be so very careful that I didn’t accidentally blurt out something that I shouldn’t.
The woman on the phone demanded to speak to my supervisor. I told her that she will have to put her concerns to the bank in writing. She said that she wanted to speak to my supervisor…now! I told her that no supervisor was available. She said that in that case she will stay on hold until he was available.
“Tell her that you wont be there to keep her company and that she will have to sit on hold by herself.”
I didn’t though. Instead I went to the toilet and then went outside for a smoke. When I got back to my desk I could see that she was still on hold. I asked her if she was “okay to stay on hold?” she said “no” but she warned me that she would call back and “take the matter further…”
“Madam you can do whatever you wish”, I heard myself say “and I‘m sorry I couldn‘t be of assistance.” I could sense the woman on the line pause while she wondered if I was being sarcastic or not. But I can be such a good actor sometimes it’s very hard to tell. I fooled her, but I didn’t fool ‘my other voice‘, “you sly dog you.”
My line manager wasn’t impressed though. He said that they had received a complaint about me from a customer and he added that it wasn’t the first either. He was looking down at my file as he talked and then slowly lifting his head he removed his glasses and told me that he didn’t like my attitude.
“What’s wrong with it?”
But instead of answering he reminded me of bank policy when dealing with customer complaints. I tried to explain what had really happened but the little prick wasn’t interested in what I had to say.
“I don’t get it” I said, “all I’m going is following bank procedure and when someone complains about it I’m at fault?”
“That’s not the problem.”
“Then what is?”
“I’ve already told you; your ‘attitude’. You sometimes can a little…brusque? Especially recently.”
My manager leaned back in his chair and chewed on one of the arms of his glasses. He suggested that it might be beneficial if I want on an “action plan” which I wasn’t to interpret as punishment or as any part of a disciplinary procedure but merely a means to help me improve my “customer handling skills.”
“There are training issues here that I think need to be addressed I think it could be beneficial and help you to improve your job skills.”
“Tell him to shove it!”
So I did, not in those words exactly but I did ask if working in a bank meant I had to give up my civil rights? Apparently it did. He started to tell me once again all about bank policy and my obligations towards my employer etc, etc. But in the end we decided to terminate my contract by mutual consent with immediate effect.
I wasn’t that bothered quite frankly, after all there were other jobs in other towns. The only thing that I missed about that bank was Natalie. She looked and acted like a gypsy princess. I remember the first time I saw her I didn’t think much of her but she definitely grew on me. She was very lively and loved to flirt and she was loud and cheeky and always had a little teasing smile on her lips when she talked. We got into the habit of taking our breaks together and sitting at the same table in the canteen for lunch. I really got to like her. She was very lively, funny and pretty. But above all she had a really fantastic body: a really great arse.
“I’m a ‘tit’ man myself.”
“You don’t say.”
“Why don’t you ask her out?”
He was always pestering me to take her out.
“When hell freezes over?”
“She likes you though…I can tell.”
“You sound very sure.”
“Oh for God’s sake…you can be such hard work. She fancies you.”
“She’s a dead cert I promise you. You really blew it that time when she asked you out for a drink on her birthday and you said, what did you say?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Well I remember. Shall I tell you what you said? You said… nothing. You just ignored her pretending you hadn’t heard. My God what’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing is wrong with me.”
“Well you could have fooled me. She fancies you. You fancy her. But you ignore her.”
“No I don’t.”
“Yes you do.”
“Not everyone is obsessed with women like you.”
“Who do you think you are talking too. I know what’s going on inside your head. I know every thought, every dream, every fantasy that you have ever had. And I know for a fact that you are obsessed with women too. Its just that you like to pretend you aren’t and I’m here to tell you that the time for pretending is over.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? I’m having to listen to this bloody lecture just because I didn’t go out for a drink with Natalie on her birthday?”
“It’s about time you came face to face with reality.”
“Is that a fact.”
“It is. I keep telling you that I’m here to help you. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
My life changed when I met Elizabeth and I had ‘my other voice’ to thank for that. When I saw Elizabeth it was love at first sight. She was my fantasy woman. My dream girl. ‘Miss Perfect’. She was gorgeous and I mean; gorgeous. I thought about her all day and dreamed about her all night. Whenever I saw her I got scared; scared to come too close to her, scared that she would look at me; scared that she would talk to me. I was afraid. But what was I afraid of? That she would see through me? ‘My other voice’ sneered at that notion; “don’t be fucking ridiculous. She’s a dumb blond.“ But to me she was an angel, a goddess, a princess out of a fairy story. Looking at her was like looking at the sun; stunning, irresistible but dangerous. So I tried to protect myself and not give myself away by putting on an air of indifference and reserve whenever I was in her presence. . I had to concentrate on making a real physical effort not to panic whenever I was near her. At work I could very easily have sat at a desk facing her so that I could look at her and have a chance to talk to her but I didn’t dare and instead I made the conscious decision to sit where I couldn’t see her.
Yet she was always friendly to me. I once remember going up to where she was sitting at her desk in our office and asking her if she had any ‘payment forms’ and she turned to look at me and gave me a brilliant smile.
“She likes you!”
But I didn’t return the smile and just looked at her with a blank expression on my face patiently waiting for her to hand me some ‘payment forms‘.
“What the hell are you playing at?“ my voice yelled at me in disbelief, “Say something to her!…for God’s sake!”
“How many do you need?”
“A couple will do fine.”
“Don’t bottle it you gutless little shit. She likes you!”
“Here you go.”
“Fuck me! You haven’t got a clue, have you. All you had to do was be nice to her, all you had to do was be sociable. But what did you do?”
“Oh shut up. I don’t even know her.”
“Then make it your business to get to know her.”
She was always friendly to me and it seemed to me that she went out of her way to say ‘hello’ whenever she saw me and she never failed to and say ‘bye’ before she left the office at 5 o’clock even when it would have been the easiest thing in the world to slip away unnoticed. And she would always give me a little wave if she saw me when she walked by surrounded by her girlfriends or in the company of some bloke who had decided to attach himself to her in the hope of getting into her knickers. It made me think that maybe, just maybe she liked me: but I didn’t want to put it to the test.
“You are a complete prat! A girl like her expects to be chatted up.”
“I‘m not like that.”
“And what good is it doing you? All you are doing is pinning like a love sick puppy with a hard on that you don‘t know what to do with”
“Don‘t be so disgusting.”
“You‘re really hard work, do you know that?”
It was ‘my other voice’s’ idea that I sat down at Elizabeth’s table and joined her for lunch one day. But I was so nervous. I wanted to talk to her but I had no idea what to say; “Don’t worry about that, leave the talking to me.”
“Do you always go out to the supermarket for your sandwiches?” Elizabeth asked.
“Yeah, well I need to get out of the office and stretch my legs.”
“And do you always eat ham.”
“No, not always. I used to have cheese on my sandwiches but after five years I decided to it was time for a change.”
“Wow!” laughed Elizabeth good naturedly, “you really live life on the edge.”
“And sometimes it can be terrifying.”
Jane and Annie joined us and so did Harold. I had seen Harold many times before hanging around Elizabeth and monopolise her and generally act as if she was his bird, which she wasn’t. He got a chair and forced it between her and Jane and sat down and turned to face Elizabeth and just started to talk her as if the rest of us weren’t there.
“What are you doing on Saturday?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll call you, Okay?”
“I don’t know?”
“What d you mean?”
“I’m going out with my friends, I think.”
“You think?” Harold looked perplexed, “well that’s okay, I’ll come too.” “I’ll call you Okay?”
“She can’t,” I suddenly said, “she’s going to the cinema.”
“Really?” asked Harold staring intently at Elizabeth.
“Yeah. Really she is,” I said “she’s going to see ‘Star Wars’.”
“It’s a great film.”
“Who with?” asked Harold anxiously.
“With me of-course,” I told him “who else.”
“You like ‘Star Wars?” Harold asked Elizabeth in disbelief.
“I don’t know,” giggled Elizabeth.
Harold glared angrily at me.
“Have you seen ‘Star Wars’?” I asked him, “you should, it’s a great film.”
Harold got up and giving me an ugly looked, “call me okay?” he practically ordered Elizabeth before leaving.
We all watched him go and join his friends who were sitting at another table.
Later Elizabeth and me were in the lift going back to our office.
“Is ‘Star Wars’ really a great film?” she asked.
“No. It’s crap.”
“Ask her what films she likes!”
“You’re weird,” she said with a smile.
“No, I mean in a nice way.”
“She’s crazy about you!…ask her out! Go on!”
But I wasn’t sure. So I didn’t.
And yet, on the other hand…well, for example once or twice our department had gone for a night out and Elizabeth had looked round to see where I was and had motioned me to join her group and had made room for me to sit next to her. We hadn’t talked much but it did seem to me that she liked me. But I couldn’t get away from the feeling that I was kidding myself. Because if I was honest she behaved to all the other men that I saw her with in exactly the same way she behaved towards me. I couldn’t escape the feeling that she just wanted to add me to her menagerie of male admirers: A eunuch in the court of Queen Elizabeth. Well, thanks but no thanks.
We were standing outside smoking while Elizabeth scrolled through the numbers on her mobile.
“Oh” she exclaimed sadly.
“I’ve got no friends. No one called me.”
“Well, I tell you what?…you could always ring one of those 0890 numbers.”
Elizabeth chuckled. “You’re funny,” she said.
I realised that this was my chance. But I didn’t take it. And just then Jane and Annie joined us and the moment was lost. Was it pride? Or was it cowardice? Was it because I was too proud to admit to her that I loved her or was it because I was afraid that she would laugh in my face. “No!” ‘my other voice’ screamed in fury, “it’s because you’re stupid, that’s what it is. What does it matter if your pride is dented! What does it matter if she turns you down! Jesus. H. fucking Christ! What do you think is going to happen. You make no effort at all and then you mope because nothing happened! What do you expect to happen? Do you expect her to throw her knickers at you? Do you think she will run through the streets naked shouting your name? Do you think she will beat down your front door begging for a shag?”
“Why the hell not?” I snapped back, “I use ‘Lynx’ all the time.”
“There you go again. Instead of action all I get more of your smart mouth. This is no time to be clever pal, this is serious…serious fucking stuff!”
“Oh for Pete’s sake, get a grip. It’s not a matter of life and death.”
“It is for you my old china, and no mistake.”
One Saturday we had all decided to spend the day at Alton Towers on one of our regular team social events that our company was so keen to promote, all for the purposes of encouraging a ‘positive team spirit’ among the employees in our company. It was all a big pain in the bloody backside if you ask me how can you create a ‘positive team spirit’ if you hate your job and you sit in an office surrounded by people that you have nothing in common with? But on this occasion I was really looking forward to it; Elizabeth would be coming. I sat on the coach next to a window my heart thumping as I watched everyone get on. I could see Elizabeth outside surrounded by her girlfriends and, in the background there was Harold striving to get her attention as she talked and giggled with her friends. The coach driver was becoming impatient and told everyone milling about outside on the pavement to hurry up. I watched everyone get on and glared ferociously at anyone who I thought might be thinking of sitting in the empty seat next to me…I was keeping that free for Elizabeth. But what is it that they say about the best laid plans of mice and men?…well that’s what happened to my plan. Some fat slob called Geoff who worked in Finance, I think, took the place I had been keeping free for her. “But that’s because you didn’t tell him to ‘fuck off’ like you should have done and told him that seat was saved. It’s no use blaming mice, or whatever…”
When Elizabeth finally got onto the coach and made her way past me down the aisle she did acknowledge me with one of her bright smiles and a wave. It made my heart leap but I fought back the urge to show how delighted I was by this gesture and it cheered me up even more when I saw that Harold hadn’t even managed to get a seat anywhere near her either. The whole journey there I sat and looked out of the window listening to what was going on behind me; I could hear Elizabeth talking loudly with her girlfriends and the voice of Harold as he tried to join the conversation and to my pleasure he wasn’t having much luck. They were talking about some friend that they knew and recounting their adventures on a recent night out. Yet still Harold tried to throw in his ‘pence’s worth’ into their conversation but they just ignored him. I couldn’t understand why he just didn’t give it up as a bad job and stopped making a bloody fool of himself.
After about a 90 minute drive we finally arrived and the first thing we all decided to do was have a big english breakfast. I sat at one table with some lads from my department and when I looked across to the other side of the restaurant I could see Elizabeth sitting with her girl friends and there was Harold who had pulled up a chair and had placed it against the end of the table and was still trying to bewitch Elizabeth with his wit and charm; you couldn’t mistake his loud braying voice and his harsh laugh. What a creep. But then I saw her turn to talk to him and laugh and I could literally feel the blood in my veins turn to ice. What was she doing? Why was she encouraging him? “Maybe you should be doing what he is doing and letting her know that you like her and are interested in her?”
Eventually everyone finished eating and drifted outside and gathered together in little groups discussing what rides to go on and where to meet for lunch.
“Just go up to her and ask her what rides she is going on?
“What’s the point of that?”
“Fuck me! You are hopeless! Because whatever her answer it will give you an opportunity to strike up a conversation with her and the next thing you know you are walking side by side and arm in arm to the ‘Big Dipper’.”
“That wont fool her.”
“What are you talking about; she loves attention and she wont turn it down, even from Harold who she doesn’t even like.”
“If she doesn’t like him why does she let him hang around her.”
“Exactly; that’s all he is doing. He’s not getting anywhere with her.”
“She laughed at his joke.”
“Christ you’re innocent. She’s just knows how to behave around men that‘s all. If they tell her a joke she will laugh, even if she doesn‘t find it funny. It doesn‘t mean she fancies him you idiot!”
“How do you know?” I asked gloomily as I watched Elizabeth walk off with her friends with Harold tagging along faithfully bringing up the rear.
“Don’t worry about that. I’ve got it all figured out.”
So I ended up spending most of the morning wandering around Alton Towers with Chris, Alan and Dave and some others that I didn’t really know, not even their names. We followed the signs to the rides we had agreed to go on and stood in the long queues waiting our turn drinking the cans of beer that we had brought with us. Often as we went from one ride to the next we would cross paths with some of the others from our party and we would exchange notes or make plans to meet up later for a drink. I saw Elizabeth several times and I became more and more dismayed by what I perceived as the increasing friendship between her and Harold. I saw her laugh at something Harold said and watched her as she ruffled his hair. The intimacy of that scene burned a whole in my heart and made me wince in pain. ‘My other voice’ felt it too.
“I think it’s time for a spot of lunch, how about it?”
The whole group had agreed to meet up for lunch at pub near the lake. It was agony. Harold sat next to Elizabeth and never took his eyes off her though she didn’t seem to be paying him any special attention. I wanted to speak to Elizabeth but she never gave me an opening. She was too busy chatting noisily with her other girl friends. I saw Harold try to join in but it was girls’ talk and they didn’t give him an opening either.
She was sitting right in front of me directly in my line of vision yet I was afraid to look at her scared that I would give myself away.
“Smile at her for God’s sake you miserable bastard. If you act like a stone she will treat you like one.”
But I was waiting for a sign, I was waiting for her to make the first move. But she didn’t. Well if she thought I was going to throw myself at her feet then she was mistaken. I wasn’t Harold.
“She is ignoring you. Do you know why? Because everything about you is telling her to.” My other voice howled in exasperation.
I went outside and had a quiet smoke waiting and hoping that she would join me. If she was interested in me then she would take this opportunity to join me for a cigarette. But she never left the table. I don’t even think she realised that I had gone outside. I was still standing there smoking when our party sitting at the tables decided to leave and it was Elizabeth who called out to me and motioned me to join them.
“You’re always getting left behind.” she observed.
I felt like a happy child on Christmas day opening the present that he had hoped and prayed Santa would bring. She had noticed that I left afterall. She had been watching me. And why had she been watching me?
“Because she fancies you!”
Because she fancied me!
“What ride are you planning to go on now?” I asked
“Don’t know yet.”
“You must try ‘Oblivion‘”
“Vomit at 75mph. It’ll be fun!”
Elizabeth laughed, “I’m not sure about that.”
“If you haven’t been on that then you can’t say that you’ve been to Alton Towers you know.”
“Are you going on it?”
“On a full stomach?”
“I know, but lets face it, lunch wasn’t that great and I wont miss it if I loose it.”
One of her girlfriends yelled out for Elizabeth to join them and she motioned them that she was coming.
“I’ll see you later,” she said.
“She’ll see you later.”
“Yeah sure,” I said casually “I’ll see you later.”
I watched her trot away to join her friends who were standing in a cluster waiting for her. I noticed with glee that Harold was looking daggers at me. As for me I was riding around on the bike that Santa had brought me trying to keep that idiotic smile off my face.
I went on ‘Oblivion’ which wasn’t nearly as frightening as people liked to say it was. I think it was because the experience was so brief I didn’t have time to get frightened. I went on it again just to make sure, but the 2nd ride was no different than the first. Besides my mind was on other things. My head was full of scenarios of what would happen when I met Elizabeth again trying to work out what she would say to me and what I could say to her.
“Just be careful, if you get too stuck on one scenario you’ll just end up becoming tongue tied and you know what a bad conversationalist you can be.”
“Don’t run before you can walk. The last thing you want to be doing is rushing at her like a redskin waving your tomahawk over your head screaming and whooping at the top of your voice.”
“Oh for god’s sake.”
“I mean it. One false move could spoil it all. Just leave everything to me, okay?”
I didn’t wear a watch but to judge by the position of the sun in the sky the drop in temperature and pure guesswork I reckoned it had to be around 4pm. The plan had been that we would all make our way back to the coach at five. All the other guys in my group that I had been trooping around with all day had all decided to move onto the next attraction after just one ride on ‘Oblivion’ but because I had decided to have another go I was now on my own. They had told me where to meet them after I was finished and I slowly started to wander to where I thought I would find them. I thought I knew where I was going and I decided that I would get there quicker if I took a short cut. I should have known better since I am so useless with directions and it wasn’t very long before I realised I was lost. I had decided to make a right turn and had followed a path that took a gentle incline as it went through what looked like a small wood. It was completely deserted and so secluded I could barely make out the sounds of the crowds down below. I walked on along it until finally I rounded a corner and discovered to my surprise that I had reached the top of the hill where the path I had been following came to a dead end. I stopped to admire the view while I smoked a cigarette. It had to be close to five o’clock and so I decided I had better hurry back and make sure I didn’t miss the coach.
I had reached the bottom of the path where I had made that right turn that had brought me to that dead end when who should I see walking towards me, but Elizabeth! I beamed in delight and astonishment and she returned the smile with a blazing smile of her own.
“See that? Look how pleased she is to see you. That’s no act. She is not just being polite!”
“Are you lost?”
She nodded and looked a little sheepish.
“Maybe we should stick together and then we will be only half as lost and twice as likely to find our way back.”
She looked relieved.
“She wants to be with you.”
I pointed along the path that I had just walked down from.
“I think that is the best way to go now”
“Well we both know that the direction you are going in is wrong since that is where I have just come from because that was wrong too; so that just leaves that way.”
We walked side by side up the path talking; about work, about her, about me. She seemed impressed that I had been to university and had lived abroad and could speak French.
“I wish I could speak a foreign language.”
“There’s nothing to stop you from learning.”
“Oh, I’m just a dumb blond.”
“Maybe you are dumb but who cares…you are so fucking gorgeous.”
She asked me if I had a girlfriend, and I said no.
She asked me if I had ever been married! And again I said no.
What about her, had she ever been married?
“No!” she laughed. But she would like to get married one day.
What about boyfriends? Was she going out with anyone?
No one in particular, she replied adding that she was taking ‘a rest’ from boys for a little while.
So what kind of men did she like when she wasn’t ‘resting’?
Older men, she replied.
I stopped breathing for a second. I was ‘older’. Did she mean me?
“I’m telling you the truth man, she is sizing you up. She is thinking about it. She is thinking: ’is he the one for me?’”
I thought so too. I was getting so excited I could hardly stop myself from jumping up and down and punching the air with joy. But I started to get a little worried when I knew we were close to reaching the end of the path. What would I do then?
“This is your great chance.” My other voice advised me, “to use this little crisis to your advantage and bring you closer together. A shared experience like this creates a bond on which a real relationship can be built.”
We turned the final corner and Elizabeth let out a little exclamation of surprise as she realised that we had reached a dead end. We both stood in silence side by side for a moment and stared at the panorama before us.
“Crickey!” I cried trying to sound shocked, “it’s a dead end!”
“What now?” she asked turning her lovely face towards me.
“What now…you kiss her that’s what!”
“What?” asked Elizabeth looking at me in mild surprise.
“I can’t believe it.”
“Kiss her! Kiss her!. Now. Do it now…fucking hell don’t just stand there like a melon. Take control of the situation and you take control of her. Women want to man to lead them and to take charge. So be a man. Tell her you will get her out of this.”
“Simple as that, yeah?”
Elizabeth gave a slightly nervous smile, “what are you talking about?”
“Oh..er, no I mean ‘it’s simple’. It just came out all wrong.”
“Will you please just stop fucking around? Put your arms around her, pull her towards you and give her a kiss!”
I took a step towards her and touched her elbow with my fingers, “it’s not a problem” I assured her, “we’ll just go back the way we came and keep on walking until we reach a sign post…there are sign posts all over the place all we have to do is look for one that says; ‘entrance’ or ‘exit’ or ‘car park’ or something.”
Elizabeth nodded. “Sounds like a good idea.”
“Now kiss her! “
I don’t know what went wrong. I stepped up and stood beside her and tried to put my arm around her and give her a kiss. I can only think that I must have startled her because she gave a sudden jump and on an impulse jerked her face away.
“Come on! Just take her in your arms and kiss her!”
I reached out with my arm and tried to take hold of her. Elizabeth pulled away from me.
“What are you doing?”
“It‘s all right” I stammered. “I just want to talk to you.”
“Stop grabbing me then?”
“Just listen to me.” Why was she behaving like this?
“I just want to go back.”
“So do I. So do I!” I assured her.
“But what are you doing?”
I could feel myself start to panic. And, if I was honest with myself also a little annoyed. I was only trying to help and she was becoming hysterical.
“You don’t understand.” I told her a twinge of impatience in my voice.
“But what do you want?”
“I just want to talk.”
Elizabeth suddenly turned and started to walk hurriedly down the path and I chased after her. Why was she making such a scene? I felt angry and confused and also a little scared. I had to make her calm down and see reason and make sure she did not do anything stupid. When I caught up with her I grabbed hold of her arm to make her stop. She struggled to free herself from my grip.
“Let go! Let go!”
“Just stop and listen will you? I’m not going to do anything to you? Okay. I just want to help!”
Why wouldn’t she listen to me? Why wont she stop running? Why was she screaming and shouting?
Everything was getting out of control and there was nothing that I could do to stop it. I was scared at where this was all going to end. I was afraid that she would get me into a lot of trouble. God only knows what she would tell people and the humiliation and shame would be too much for me to bare. Who would believe me? What would they think? I would never be able to leave the house again. I would loose everything and all because some dumb blond had a fit of hysterics and had started to rush around blindly like a deer spooked by a shadow or a snapping twig. I was determined to stop her and make her listen and make her understand. But all she did was scream and struggle. I was terrified that someone would hear and I put a hand over her mouth to stop her attracting attention to us. All I wanted her to do was shut up and calm down so that I could explain everything to her because then she would understand.
I don’t know how but I must have slipped and before I knew it we were on the floor sprawling out on the ground under the bushes.
“Help! Help!” screamed Elizabeth at the top of her voice.
“Don’t do that!” I begged her.
“Get away from me you nasty little creep.”
“Are you going to shut her up or shall I?”
I clamped my hand over her mouth again and kept a firm grip. And I sat astride her body and pleaded with her to stop screaming and to stop struggling. But it only spurred her on to resist me even harder. What a bitch! What the fuck was wrong with her? Why didn’t she stop? I was petrified that she would slip away and escape and god only knows what would happen then god only knows what she would accuse me of and god only knows what would happen to me when I hadn’t even done anything. Why was this bloody bitch trying to make a fool of me and get me into trouble when all I wanted to do was tell her that I loved her.
But then finally, finally, she stopped struggling and I felt her body relax. At last she was calming down. I kept my hand over her mouth for a little longer to be sure that she had decided to behave from now on.
Eventually, when I saw that she was completely still I slowly pulled my hand away from her face.
“Will you stop it now? I don’t know why you have been behaving so foolishly nothing is going to happen to you, I promise. All I want to do is talk. Just let me explain.”
I watched her face and waited for her to say something but she didn’t say anything. Nothing at all. See was looking at me but not talking to me. “Don’t sulk, come on.”
“Give her a slap, maybe that will do the trick.”
So I did. Nothing.
“Again. But harder this time.”
“What’s wrong now god damn it.”
“I think she’s dead.”
“Just look at her. Can’t you tell.”
I looked closer at Elizabeth’s still face. I grabbed her by the shoulders and gave her a hard shake. Why wasn’t she moving?
“Cos she’s dead. You killed her dummy.”
“Who was it then?”
I fell back and put my head into my hands and started to cry. Christ! What a nightmare. How did it happen? Why did it happen? This can’t be real?
“Oh yes it is. She is dead and you killed her.”
“You can‘t blame me. I didn‘t mean it. Why didn‘t you stop me? This is all your doing.”
“It was all your idea.”
“I told you to kiss her, not kill her.”
I couldn’t stop crying. I was shaking. Sweat was streaming off my face. I could feel myself burning as if I was having a fever. Oh God, please, if only I could turn the clock back. How I wished it was five minutes ago. I hadn’t meant it. It was just an accident and if I could do things differently I would; I would. Oh God to think that this day had started like every other day of my life and had ended like this! How could it have happened? This wasn’t true was it? This wasn’t real was it?
“Well it is real so deal with it. There’s no point in crying over spilt milk.”
“Is that all you have to say?”
“What else is there to say?”
I knelt over Elizabeth’s lifeless body and blubbered; “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…please forgive me. I didn’t mean it. I love you so much. You were the only one I ever wanted. I didn’t mean it. I’ll never forgive myself.”
“That’s very touching.”
“I will always love you. I will always keep you in my heart.”
“Why don’t you kiss her now. If only ‘goodbye’?”
I leaned over and kissed her forehead and then on her mouth.
“It’s not like that at all.”
“Still, you might as well shag her as well.”
“You disgust me!”
“Hey this is what is all about. You were obsessed with fucking her. Your bloody head is full of nothing else. So okay, now is your chance.”
“Suit yourself. But still, it would be a shame to leave without having a proper look at her.”
May be I shouldn’t have done it but I was in such a state of shock and distress that I didn’t know what I was doing, but I stripped Elizabeth and stood back to admire her.
“There’s no denying it she is well fit.”
I had to agree. Her figure was perfect.
“Hey look at that. She’s got a shaven fanny. Kinky!”
“Stop it. Show some respect. She deserves that at least!”
“Hey all I’m doing is tell you the truth. She’s pure filth.”
“Don’t tell me, don’t tell me anything anymore, okay? I loved her.”
“Prove it then. Show her that you love her. Do you think that is what a real man would do who is not afraid to show his true feelings? Do you think he would just whine and feel sorry for himself like you do?”
“You don’t understand how I feel.”
“I doesn’t matter what I understand, but it is important that you make her understand. And there is only one way to show her how you feel and only one way to prove to her that you love her.”
So I unbuckled my belt and dropped my trousers and pulled down my underpants. I got down on my knees by her feet and gently spread her legs open and I crawled between them and I showed her how much I loved her and how much she meant to me. When I had finished I rose to my feet and slowly did myself up feeling rather embarrassed.
“Come on man cheer up. Admit it, you enjoyed it. You had fun.”
“But I’ll miss her.”
“Agh!…bullshit man. There’s plenty of other fish in the sea.”
“I suppose so.”
“You suppose so? I know so. Now come on, admit it. You feel better in yourself. You feel calm. You’re more relaxed. Can’t you feel it? A great weight has fallen from your shoulders. You’ve got her out of your system. And believe me, if it feels right then it is right. And I promise you next time it will be better and get easier. Trust me.”
I sat down and had a smoke. God, I needed it!
“Come on” said ‘my other voice‘, “lets get back.”
“What will I say when people ask me if I saw her or know anything?”
“Dunno, but we’ll think of something. Just Relax.”
I stubbed out my cigarette. ‘My other voice’ was right. I was feeling much better. I then knew that ‘my other voice’ would always look after me and that from now on everything would be all right.
Copyright 2010 by Ryan Hart
An Interview with SUNIL SHARMA
Sunil Sharma is a trend-setter in new fiction in India and a perceptive bilingual critic. His short stories have already appeared in New Woman (Mumbai), Indian Literature (of Sahitya Akademy, New Delhi), Indian Literary Panorama (Mumbai), Contemporary Vibes (Chandigarh), Seva Bharati Journal of English Studies(Medinipur) and Indian Journal of Post-colonial Literatures (Kerala). Besides that, he is a freelance journalist in English. His areas of strength are Marxism, Literary Theory and Cultural Studies. His book on the Philosophy of the Novel—A Marxist Critique is already published.Minotaur—dealing with dominant ideologies and sociopolitical realities of the 20th century is also recently published from Jaipur (India). The novel has been favourably received and reviewed in India and abroad. Frank Joussen, the noted German poet and scholar , comments, “…if fiction wishes to regain its former importance in today’s discourse make sure it is politically poignant and artistically brilliant as this astounding debut novel by Sunil Sharma.” Shaleen Singh,the Editor of Creative Saplings calls Sunil Sharma as “a great story teller with lots of promise.”
He is currently the Vice-principal and Head of the Department, English, Model College—an A-grade college affiliated to the University of Mumbai, Mumbai—MIDC, Dombivli (East) in District Thane, state of Maharashtra.
He can be contacted through email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
JAYDEEP:: How do you want to be introduced to the reading world?
SUNIL: An extremely ordinary guy--- middle-class, suburban and small-town, not much to look at and heavily out-of-shape; a Bellowian character on a curious search for meaning and personal connectivity in an indifferent universe, often feeling terribly lonely in crowds; an odd man out in an increasingly commercialized culture where bonds are disappearing fast, like rupees/dollars in the recessionary economy. He is a guy who is grounded and often kind, with an extraordinary interest in life, and its deeper aesthetic reflections in historical categories like art, painting, philosophy, theory and literature. These are the various substantial material modes of cognizing the surrounding world.
Sunil tries to make sense of life through art. And, most of the time, he is successful. Life, to this 51-year-old, obese bloke, speaks through great art. The last spiritual enclave left for sensitive minds, in an extremely reified world.
At a more mundane level, I teach in a suburban college of Mumbai; freelance and do creative stuff. At my avuncular age, that I still continue to produce beautiful objects for contemplation, surrounded by spiritual ugliness, is itself pretty surprising. Most of us become emotionally dead in our early fifties! Nothing surprises them or inspires them. They just think of the afterlife and a possible date with a kind light, at the end of the dark tunnel!
Somehow, nature and God---two important reference points for the New Age guys---have been kind to me. This prolific production---this engagement with ideas in sensuous form---is a compensation given to artists by nature. It makes me survive the grim realities of my social condition via the fruitful employment of aesthetic faculty.
It is like finding poetry in a soulless red-light district!! The way great Sarat Babu did or Baudelaire in the underbelly of a grim Paris
I think all of us carry a bit of Van Gogh and Kafka in us---the modern/post-modern artist. A bit of sadness and morbidity and melancholia that get transmuted into great art. It is a constant marker of the sterile age! Early Eliot! Or, like a typical Chekov character with a finer sensibility who is caught in a cruel dross world. His Ward Number Six is a good illustration of this mental state where these sensibilities become a great burden on your sensitive soul. The sad fact is that all the ideals have deserted us. Expressing this mood through art gives lot of cathartic relief and fulfillment. Reading them also does the same function. Art, to me, gives inner balance and a sense of organic completeness, things that otherwise are missing in the real world of commerce and brutal competition.
It is like a pointing signboard on a long hard journey.
It does not mean I live in a vacuum or a bubble. I daily battle different existential odds but tend to find mental refuge in art and literature, as a survival strategy. It is not an escape from realities of life but a conscious seeking/ cultivation of the Beautiful and the Sublime in the works of the great writers, poets, dramatists, painters and musicians. It is like making your castles on the beach that give you creative joy and delight, although next day, you may not find them there, washed away by the sea. These two symbols of transience (castles) and eternity (sea) exemplify the efforts of an artist---big or small---against the powers of an unforgiving Time. Great art---like Homer’s, for example---stands out in this march of relentless time, giving you a sense of history and enduring finer values dear to every age---like democracy and equality.
Great art enriches you spiritually and emotionally, making you whole again. That is art as a therapy for me!
In this conception of art, you may find echoes of George Lucas and Frankfurt School of Marxism. For me, I repeat, classical and contemporary serious, non-commercial, avant-garde art resonates with nobility and beauty and sublimity and finally, restores a sense of wholeness. This is one of the advantages of great art. It firms you up and empowers you via its analysis and positive historical sense of robustness and optimism, even in the face of darkness of spirit. It is a kind of dialogue with the brilliant masters of the world. It gives you strength of character and hope. It shows that things never remain same and change for better. They evolve. Spartacus by Howard Fast and Shakespeare, Balzac and Shelly talk of the same evolutionary world. It resists status quo at every level.
JAYDEEP: Hello!! Good morning! Tell me about your childhood and parentage….
SUNIL: Middle-class background; happy childhood; parents, both teachers in Ghaziabad, near Delhi. The most beautiful part of my life spent in the innocent 70s and 80s, when India was young, dreamy and still ideal.
Father was a great scholar and fine human being and a writer who could not publish much; mother, a drawing teacher. Pa was/is a solid influence. Ma is still a fighter and a person who can smile away all her blues---typical powerful female prototype of Portia or Linda Loman, I guess.
JAYDEEP:Who were the authors you read in childhood?
SUNIL::Dickens , Hardy, the Metaphysical poets, Browning and the Romantics; Gorky, Tolstoy, Chekov, Turgenev and Dostoevsky among the Russian masters; Flaubert and Maupassant, and Hemingway. Premchand, Nirala, Mahasweta Devi, Ismat Chugtai, Qartullin Haider, Manto and Amrita Pritam, among others, are my guiding stars in life.
JAYDEEP:How did your early reading shape you as a writer?
SUNIL:Writing initially for me was a pathway to exotic lands and a vicarious pleasure. Victorian England? OK. Go to Dickens or Hardy and you will get transported to a different realm. Stage coaches and inns and all that. With Cervantes, you fight the windmills. With Scot, you relive the old England of knights and tournaments. With Homer, you are with the gods!
This capacity of art to open magic casements on the distant past and lands is really remarkable. It enriches your plain imagination as a reader in this collaborative process. It uplifts you from the mundane into the sublime and leaves you drenched in ecstasy or, jouissance in the Barthian sense of the term. It is your West Wind uplifting you from the thorns of life and giving you a sense of direction and courage and solidarity.
These writers are the summits of world literature and embody the best humanistic values of every national culture. They talk of finer values like justice, equality, freedom and brotherhood---the “transcendental ideas” (post-structurlist critics, please excuse) --- that have shaped up the world in last five centuries or more. I inherited the same vision from these great writers. Their writings are a protest against the general and prevailing inhumanity of the world and an eternal human desire for a more humane earth where everybody is treated as equal. Very few writers can now equal them. Current Lit. scene is very effete and disappointing! You are left with no giants now---only the arrogant pygmies and manipulartors!
Art has become a commodity that fetches you millions and fame but those early humanistic concerns are missing from this status-quoist art!
The great era of art, after the 80s, is over---at least, for some time!
JAYDEEP:Your schooling? College?
SUNIL: Vernacular. Typical Victorian system carried forward from the colonial times to produce clerks for the new elites. Dickens makes fun of it in Nicolas Nickleby. The disconnect with reality is still there. The literary giants told me about life more than the textbooks!
An ordinary resume. Not much to talk about. A system that purely promotes rote and conformism; not the creative or lateral thinking. It stifles your curiosity and individuality and innate creativity.
It needs to be radically revamped.
JAYDEEP:Your English is so strong that a reader forgets your linguistic identity as English the Second Language….How did it happen?
SUNIL: Only a Freud can psychoanalyze the springs of linguistic wealth! Conrad is my favourite who learnt English at 19 or so and mastered the Queen’s English that few natives could write! Nabokov did that.
Kazuo Ishiguro and Michael Ondaatje----are two other recent examples. Raj writes back! Ishiguro is one of the most celebrated contemporary fiction authors in the English speaking world, having received four Man Booker Prize nominations, including winning the 1989 prize for his novel The Remains of the Day.
At a more personal level, it comes naturally. Having internalized the syntax and the intricate idiom and grammar of felt immediacies and the foreign colonial language now Indianised by us, the crystallized form and the immediacy get dialectically articulated in my works. Objective co-relative? Yes. Of course, lot of hard work goes into these small pieces. Beyond this, I have no idea about the achieved clarity, spontaneity and cadence of my English. It all comes in torrents, those images and startling words, fresh from their morning sleep, tender in your hands---bouncing and hyper… It all comes down to feeling the ribbed, multi-layered words and rendering them in all their crystalline purity, hardness and malleability. Most writers have been doing this task only. Pound, for example. Or, Mallarme, Vallery or much earlier, Browning and Donne.
JAYDEEP: Your debut novel has a strong historical sense. What is the reason for it?
SUNIL: Grounding in Marxist texts and praxis has provided the much-needed clarity, I guess. They helped in making sense of the real world from a scientific, philosophic and historical perspective. It helps a lot, the illumination. The dark contours suddenly get luminous and even back-lit.
Marxism is nothing but history on the move from lower stages to higher stages of evolution. The novel is strictly written from that historial and dialectical materialist point-of-view only; the beauty is: it is nowhere apparent. The entire philosophy has been artistically transmuted into sensuous images and fast-moving narrative. I like novels written in the first-person narrative style and the narrators often exhibit human failings.
JAYDEEP: What’s about your University education and research?
SUNIL: Research was on Marxist aesthetics. That helped a lot in sorting out and straitening things out in life. Again not much to talk about, thank you!
JAYDEEP: How did Marxist model help you as a writer?
SUNIL: By making me understand the evolution of society and culture from a historical, humanistic and liberal perspective on life and reality. It equipped me with an artistic vision that is progressive and positive, not fractured, depressive, nihilistic and anti-historical as is the case with the 20th-century artistic vision of life, history and humankind.
JAYDEEP: What are the major matrix of your short fiction?
SUNIL: Loss of humanistic values; increasing consumerism in urban centers; increasing commodification of relations; the naked dance of power and big money, casteism and communalism. The hardships of rural India and slums are things that dominate my artistic consciousness—kind of Baudlerian vision of the Parisian life.
JAYDEEP: Do you write flash fiction?
SUNIL: Yes. It is very exciting!
As a freelance journalist, I know words should be used economically.
Flash fiction is for the reader in a hurry.
JAYDEEP: Can you mention some of your representative short stories published?
SUNIL: Modern Pilgrimage; Eating out with the Kumars; Farewell to Dad; The Twins; The Butterflies; The gourmand Meals and many others that give the real India to the alert readers in English.
JAYDEEP: How about your debut novel?
SUNIL: Very ambitious. The 20th-century is the backdrop. It examines all the major ideologies of the last century.
JAYDEEP: What is the source of your inspiration for a mammoth novel like The Minotaur?
SUNIL: Socio-political and economic realities of the last century. It is a political novel that deals with the history of major political and economic ideas. It deals with major political ideologies that have moved millions of people, world-wide.
JAYDEEP: K V Dominic, the editor of IJPCL, comments on your novel as “…a telling comment on dictators and totalitarian regimes.”…Do you agree with this observation?
SUNIL: Yeah. It about a social construct called power and its abuse by men who started as noble but ended up as the mass-murderers! It is about these hollow dictators who thrived in last century in Latin America, the Philippines, Africa and South Asia and the Arab world. Marquez has exposed them so brilliantly!
It is about Socialism as a political theory and its abuse in Russia and the other third-world nations. In a way, it is a universal story going back to Roman times through the figure of Caesar, the hero. It is a study of power as a discourse and its effects on a collective and conscience! It is an out and out political novel. It is also philosophical---Iris Murdoch kind of thing or William Golding or Camus kind of preoccupations with the nature of world and epitomologies.
The notable thing about it is that these tough strands beautifully mesh together in the narrative and seamlessly flow in a fast manner, like a fast-flowing river. It is not heavy read!
The Minotaur is a profound engagement with the history and philosophy of ideas of the last century, in highly polemical way, without making that very obvious to the reader. There can be no innocent reading of this intellectual novel, though. You have to take positions here. The art has to become militant again and provide radical illumination to the recipient’s dulled consciousness. It is like Gorky or Mann revisited. Complacencies are being challenged by this novel that nobody was interested in publishing for more than seven years. That goes for talent scouting. Finally, it got published from a small press, recommended by a young critic. One thing I am sure. It is going to be one of the landmarks of this century.
JAYDEEP:: The aim of creative process ,to me, is to put the age in right perspective by challenging the dominant master narratives or the prevailing political ideologies as the popular view-points of the ruling elites and creatively. What is the basic structure of The Minotaur?
SUNIL: Exactly. My novel examines the rise of political power, democracy and absolute dictatorship, in the name of socialism across the centuries in history of the world and asserts that the people power is the last arbiter in any political system that finally counts. It is a critique of socialistic orthodoxies, Stalinism and third-world despotism. It is a searing critique of all those powerful power discourses of the past that talk of justice and equality of human beings but later come to deny the revolutionary effects of those very master narratives to the people down below. It moves up and down between past, present and future and employs many literary symbols productively.
JAYDEEP::What is your next novel?
SUNIL: About middle-class Indian in search of real India of billion people, going back to 5,000-year-old heritage. It is going to be monumental work on our pluralistic nation and its heritage.
JAYDEEP: What is your opinion about the literary editors and academic canon formation in India?
SUNIL: Most of the literary editors are young and extremely talented college teachers and doing a fine job of spreading the word. They could never get the opportunities to enter the hallowed gates of the metropolitan universities here and elsewhere. Yet, they are very devoted and hard-working folks. I hold them in high regards. The University dons are lazy, arrogant and a new aristocracy that won’t allow outsiders at all, merit be damned! Camps flourish everywhere. Aijaj Ahmad has strongly denounced their parasitic relationship with the West. Should I say more?
JAYDEEP: Are you satisfied with the so-called literary canon in India?
SUNIL: Not at all. It is university-driven, crony culture. It is snobbish, mostly elitist, and very arrogant. Most of the canonization is, as I just claimed, a pale effect of the Anglo-Saxon and French axis only. It does not recognize new voices originating in the country. It is a different kind of apartheid here. A new colonialism. Teachers from colleges do not stand any chance here in this bogus academic system. Bookers and the West decide about the major writers here. It is very parochial and stifling process.
JAYDEEP: Do you write critical works/essays?
SUNIL: Occasionally. On Theory and Marxist aesthetics.
JAYDEEP: How about your short story collection?
Sunil: It is being brought out from the USA by a fellow American writer and editor. Next year, it will come out.
JAYDEEP: What makes the Indian English short story a neglected genre?
SUNIL: There is no space for it in mass media. It has shrunk. No literary journals for it, either. Successful writers lobby for awards but do not give back or mentor or publish little magazines.
Then writing in a foreign language need a bit of naturalness and spoantenity that are sorely missing from new middle-class writing. English comes across jaded, boring, stifled and dead in these writings. Craft needs to be practiced more carefully. The dialectics of form and content needs to be done more artistically and conscientiously by the writers.
JAYDEEP: What is there in the future of Indian English short story?
SUNIL: For attention-deficit times, it is the only viable literary form for communicating the micro world-vision for micro community of readers.
JAYDEEP: Do you read Tagore’s short stories in translation?
SUNIL: Yes. At one point, Tagore has deeply influenced me—as he has done the rest of the thinking India. His metaphysical bent is an offshoot of Kabir who is my favourite saint-poet. His ‘Kabuliwalla’ still brings tears in my eyes! Tagore is a great writer who brings genuine human pathos in textual discourse.
In this context, I would like to mention Prof. K V Dominic’s fascinating critical book on Tagore’s short stories titled as “Pathos in the Short Stories of Rbindranath Tagore” published through Sarup and Sons, New Delhi.
JAYDEEP: What according to you, is a good short story in contemporary time?
SUNIL: Like a fast ad that should catch you from your scruff of neck and deliver the message in your solar plexus!
JAYDEEP: What is your immediate wish?
SUNIL: To be read and critically dissected by the readers and young critics alike. Thanks for such a lively perceptive interview!
EPILOGUE (from “The Minotaur”)
The ghosts appeared abruptly at midnight and easily blended with the surrounding shadowy background. Stealthy and fast movements had earned the popular nickname for them. In fact Ghosts were highly-motivated insurgents who struck out swiftly at government targets and then simply evaporated in thin air, leaving no trace. Their secret lairs in high mountains commanded a panoramic view of the battered and blacked-out capital. Now, at this unearthly hour, these fierce men in dirty and faded fatigues took up positions at strategic entry points to the bleak city. The cloudy and freezing December night looked sinister. A harsh shrieking wind had kept blowing from the surrounding mountains for last many days. An unusually wet spell had kept the residents indoors for previous one week. Even otherwise there was not much work. Capital had slowly become deserted. People just fled their homes and migrated to safer South. Fear and desolation prevailed. Bombed-out buildings dotted the skyline, smoke still billowing from the smoldering ruins. A stinking hell-hole for hoards of foreign reporters staying in the Hilton City—the only 5-star surviving hotel-- for last many days. The run-down, rotten old capital was in the grip of severe winter and raging civil war. Death was stalking every corner. Nothing was safe any more. Anaconda was burning. Ghosts were there that night for their decisive contribution to a coming carnage.
A winter of discontent had descended rapidly as divine curse on hapless Anaconda—capital of New Land— now being torn apart continuously by the invading forces of the exiled warlord and dissident former general Oscar Wee-Wee. His guerrillas were moving fast towards the barricaded capital through previous fortnight, burning and killing people in their unstoppable victory march. December 25 was the chosen date to smash their way into the palace of Constantine Caesar—the hated Leader of this communist third- world nation convulsed by great civil war for last one year-- an unstable political condition common to these parts of volatile Latin America.
Three years after his wife abandoned him (left in the early morning hours just before dawn, slid from under the sheets without letting the bedsprings creak, put the car in neutral, pushed it down the driveway and into the street before starting it), Devin Wentworth finally musters the strength to attend a colleague’s party. Someone has just published a book or received a grant or had a marriage annulled--rarely is there a point to these kinds of things, any excuse to get drunk before the start of a new semester will do--and though he is a little uneasy about leaving the comfortable clutter of his books, the beautiful logic of his coffee-stained papers with their indecipherable marginalia, he is glad for the opportunity to socialize with old friends and to politely laugh at the same banal jokes and stories they’ve been telling for years.
With a pensive grin he enters the crowded house at the corner of Breyner and Andersen, but before he can say hello to the other guests or thank the host for inviting him, he is ambushed by a small, sprightly woman with short, boyish hair who lights a cigarette, takes him by the arm and leads him over to the makeshift bar in the corner of the room. From the dizzying assortment of booze she selects a bottle of “homemade medicinal tea” and demands a quick tutorial on the “ins and outs of monkey sex from a man who knows his stuff.”
“I’m outlining a new novel,” she explains. “It’s about high school athletes. But that’s all I’m willing to divulge. I never talk about a current project. I’m superstitious that way. Most writers are. That probably sounds ridiculous to you since you’re a scientist.”
“Not at all” he says. “In fact--”
“Listen. I absolutely must know all the specifics about Bonobo chimps and their sex rituals. Surely our nearest relatives engage in…unusual sexual practices. Apes doing it doggy style. I’ve asked around, and everyone tells me that you can recommend some interesting scientific studies. A sort of Kama Sutra for monkeys maybe?”
Devin stammers and feels his cheeks turn red. He is a bookish man, awkward, poorly dressed, horribly out of practice when it comes to engaging members of the opposite sex in casual conversation, and he’s not exactly sure how to respond to this outlandish woman. He feels claustrophobic, short of breath. There is a constriction in his chest, a painful throbbing behind his eyes. With a handkerchief that may or may not be clean (he’s not sure how long it’s been in his pocket), he dabs sweat from his brow.
To clam his nerves he makes a scotch and soda, and as the liquor gradually takes effect he leans against a wall and listens to the woman speak, mesmerized by the way the words cascade over her lips like a waterfall. She proves to be exceptionally cogent and well-read, and for the next thirty minutes, without pausing to allow anyone to formally introduce them, she talks about the myths and legends of the Whittelsey Indians and their belief in the malevolent spirits who preside over creation, driving all of humanity to the brink of madness with desperation, loneliness and pointless suffering.
“Oh, that was very insensitive of me,” she says, raising a hand to her mouth, “to speak of suffering.” Like the other guests at the party, she knows all about his failed marriage, his schizophrenic wife. “I’m such a farshikkert chaleria. But I’ve never been one to shirk from the truth, no matter how embarrassing it might be. I’ve personally outed many people. And not just closeted homosexuals. Atheists, too. It’s all for the best, don’t you think? Cathartic. Let the cat out of the bag, I say. Secrets are nasty things, bad for the soul. They’re the ruin of so many men I know. People are going to talk anyway. Sooner or later word gets around.”
Devin doesn’t agree but smiles the way a man sometimes will when he knows he’s dealing with a beguiling and slightly dangerous woman. Her eyes are crafty and unwavering, the color of the Mediterranean Sea as viewed from high on a Lisbon hillside, silvery-teal, blue-green, eyes made a little bleary by her medicinal tea. Devin isn’t sure why he thinks of the Mediterranean, of Lisbon, he’s never been overseas. In fact, his travels have never taken him far beyond the great lake of his hometown, a body of water that for half the year is a frozen waste that shimmers like an enormous piece of sheet metal under the smallest speck of sunshine. As he ponders this mystery, the woman says something that so bewilders him that he momentarily abandons his cherished principles of reason and logic and gives credence to the romantic notion of kismet.
“As you can probably tell, I’m a passionate person. My ancestors came from Portugal, and the Portuguese are a very passionate people--politically, theologically, sexually. I inherited a rapacious appetite for all things Portuguese. Their writing has a noticeable effect on my intellect…and libido.”
By nature and training Devin is a devout skeptic and has learned to doubt his own intuition, but after carefully assessing the situation he arrives at a startling conclusion: this woman is flirting. When was the last time that happened to him? College? Graduate school? Primatology seems to be the last thing on her mind. It’s a matter of simple deduction. He observes the way she moistens her lips, plays with the ends of her hair, lets her blouse sink lower and lower to reveal her surprisingly ample cleavage.
With a haughty smile she touches his hand and, leaning in close so that her breath makes his flesh tingle, she tells him how the work of Luís Vaz de Camões inspired Elizabeth Barrett Browning to write Sonnets from the Portuguese. “Allow me to give you a little recitation,” she whispers. “‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…’”
As the party winds down and only the seriously inebriated remain, Devin is given some sobering information.
“Ah, yes, that’s Batya Pinter,” says Father Mullins. The old man stumbles along the foyer to the front door, the last of the Jesuits to leave the party and one of the few in attendance who doesn’t attempt to disguise his penchant for whiskey with hypocritical proclamations about the wickedness of drink, the lure of the bottle. “From the way you two were yammering away I assumed you already knew each other. She’s our newest faculty member. The editor of the literary magazine. We hired her because she has a number of important connections in the world of letters. Interviewed dozens of luminaries--Jose Saramago and Antonio Lobo Antunes. Even the legendary Ricardo Reis. Last month she translated and published several poems by Fernando Pessoa. She’s quite brilliant. But I’m afraid she’s also…”
Father Mullins coughs into a fist and glances over his shoulder to make sure no one is within earshot.
“This information is strictly confidential, you understand, but since your son may come into contact with this woman, I feel you have the right to know.” He tries to enunciate his words, but the consonants are slurred, the syllables protracted and comically musical. “Some of us think Pinter is a sexual omnivore, bedding men and women as the mood strikes her, and that she may be guilty of, how should I put this delicately, debauching a few of our students, those giggling pimply-faced boys with grand ambitions of becoming the next Nabokov. Of course we can’t prove these allegations, not in the legal sense of the word, but we do have circumstantial evidence. She keeps strange hours, locks herself in that office late at night, requests that certain boys stay after school for reasons that are unclear…”
Devin shakes his head and dismisses these allegations as the drunken maunderings of paranoid cleric. He has never taken seriously the rumors circulating around the school. The Jesuits are terrible gossips, worse than any cloister of women.
“I couldn’t help but notice,” says the priest, “that Pinter has taken a sudden liking to you. In fact, she seems rather overly friendly, if I may say so. A most interesting development. Yes, quite interesting.” He places his hands on Devin’s shoulders. His breath smells of whiskey and cigarettes. “Allow me to ask a small favor. Keep an eye on her for me, would you? Get to know her better. Oh, I don’t expect you to spy on the woman, not exactly. Just find out if things are…kosher, if you get my meaning.”
Devin nods. He’s always been a most ingratiating fellow.
Father Mullin slaps his back. “You’re a good man, Wentworth, a good man!” He steps outside and totters along the sidewalk. “I know I can trust you with this delicate mission.”
Devin offers him a quick salute and then turns to the mirror in the foyer to check his reflection. He smiles, pinches his chin, cocks an eyebrow. The booze has made him brash, Bond-like. He looks as unassuming as a character in a Graham Greene novel--a bit ruffled perhaps but still presentable, guilt-ridden of course, that goes without saying, but also poised, classy. With a sudden surge of confidence he find Batya and touches her hand. He suggests she accompany him back to his house a few blocks away in what the students call the Faculty Ghetto.
“We can ransack my shelves for books about the autoerotic behavior Bonobo chimps. I’m sure we’ll find something that will…satisfy you.”
She puts her drink down and extinguishes her cigarette in the empty cup of tea. “Let me get my coat,” she says.
As they walk along the midnight streets they listen to the familiar wail of police sirens, the sound of newspapers flapping in the trees, the powerful stream of urine from a gibbering bum in an alley. Batya leans against Devin for support, she is very drunk indeed (“What kind of tea was that?” he asks her), but once inside his house she lunges at him with animal ferocity, something Devin actually knows a little about and is able assess the following morning by the severity of the scratches on his back and the number of bite marks on his shoulders and neck.
That night if he lasts longer than his usual four minutes it’s only because he, too, is cross-eyed drunk and keeps yelping with pain and pleasure whenever Batya, nimble as a gymnast, bends and slides and twists over the bed. She slaps his ass, tugs on his hair, grinds her thighs against his pelvis and, in a style that can only be described as dictatorial, shouts filthy words in an ancient tongue he does not recognize, demanding that he make her scream with his langer lucksh, that he abuse her with his batampte shmeckle.
She yearns for abuse, wants to be dominated, victimized, but it’s all a ruse, she is in total control, Devin knows this perfectly well, and he tries to oblige her until the final moment, the supreme moment, when she groans between clenched teeth, “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach!”
To his credit, Devin has never brought a woman back home for the purposes of copulation (in fact, Batya is the first woman he has taken to bed since his wife left him), but this does not excuse the lurid and passionate caterwauling that keeps his son Tom up half the night. At first, Devin isn’t too terribly concerned about his naughty behavior. Surely by now Tom must understand that his father, like all men, has certain needs. Besides, in this day and age most teenagers are pretty savvy about the ways of the world. Nearly half the students in this year’s graduating class come from broken homes and have witnessed intrigues and scandals of every sort, things unmentionable, unpardonable, excommunicable. In any case, the encounter with Batya was an anomaly, a one-night stand, a moment of weakness on his part, nothing more.
But Batya seems interested in more than just a one-night stand and says to him, “Sometimes a man’s weakness can be his best asset. Sin opens a door to the world of possibilities, while virtue only slams it shut.”
In the days that follow she liberates him from the pitiable consolation of masturbation and converts him to a whole new world of hedonistic pleasure. Suddenly his lonely nights are filled with delights and enchantments of every kind. The sex is raw, filthy, probably illegal in several states, and Devin, who has resigned himself to a life of celibacy, nearly weeps at this incredible stroke of good fortune.
Still, he has a sense of decency and wants to protect Tom’s innocence, so he takes Batya to a decrepit flophouse down the street, the ZanzibarTowers and Gardens, where the landlady rents rooms by the hour. At first the seediness of the room adds an extra element of eroticism to their coupling, but the novelty quickly wears off. Domesticity is a force to be reckoned with, it tends to burn its heretics at the stake of public opinion, and while Batya is in many respects the most modern of women, she is also the product of an orthodox upbringing and cannot dispense with tradition altogether.
“Technically speaking, you’re still a married man,” she reminds him as they lie in bed. She puts an ashtray on his chest and taps her cigarette. “You never divorced your wife. And here we are running off to some roach-infested room. What, you don’t think people will talk? The Jesuits? Your students? Your son?”
He doesn’t like the tone of her voice, the sudden seriousness of it, and rather than answer her right away he spends a moment studying the cracks in the ceiling. He looks for patterns, tries to find the point where the cracks begin.
Batya sighs. “You realize what the real problem is, don’t you? After your wife left, you never took the time to sit down with Tom to discuss his feelings. Has he heard from his mother lately? Do they communicate?”
“Fathers and sons don’t talk about those kinds of things. We internalize our despair, our rage, our angst. It’s only natural. It’s inherent in the genes. It has something to do with evolutionary conflicts, group selection. Complicated stuff. Technical.”
“Dear god, listen to this man!” Batya says in exasperation. “Your son needs you and all you ever do is talk monkey business.”
The truth is Devin no longer understands his son. While most kids his age try out for the football team or join the marching band or pilfer a few beers from the fridge to share with their buddies around a bonfire, Tom spends most of his time alone in the stinking lair of his bedroom, poring over his books like a monk in his spartan cell. What he does in there no one can say, but sleep doesn’t seem to be part of the equation. Devin has pressed an ear against the door but has been reluctant to trespass on his son’s privacy. He’s afraid of what he might find inside.
And so after one wonderful month of bestial rutting, Devin and Batya return to the relative cleanliness of his home where their relationship becomes quite tame, conventional, uninspired. Though he has never been particularly susceptible to paranoia, Devin finds himself sitting quietly at the edge of the bed, having hardly broken a sweat during their brief roll in the hay, obsessing about the inadequacy of his cocksmanship. He lists the reasons why an attractive woman like Batya would remain faithful to him, her fumbling and incompetent middle-aged lover.
He is no sexual dynamo, he’s willing to admit as much, but he believes that all men are inept lovers to some degree, clumsy and insensitive. On this point most women will surely concur. Among great apes the sex act is not the stuff of sonnets and flower gardens. Male chimpanzees climax with quickness and ease; they seem to understand the brute necessity for reproduction and the importance of passing on their genes. Human males aren’t so different. On average (and in this regard Devin is quite average) a man orgasms in less than five minutes, a disheartening statistic for any woman hoping to fulfill some erotic fantasy, the details of which may have been carefully worked out weeks, even months, in advance. It is perhaps for this reason that most women in a committed relationship never bother with infidelity.
And yet there is a paradox here. Unlike men who tend to be visual creatures, always sizing up height and weight and firmness of tit, women are much more discriminating, selecting mates who will make for excellent long-term partners; they look for certain qualities in a man: stability, intelligence, sanity. A tall order to fill, no doubt. Odds are Batya will find someone or something--man, woman, vibrator--that can pleasure her physically rather than emotionally and spiritually.
On a Sunday morning in October as he reads the newspaper, alternately shaking his head at the puerile arguments on the op-ed page and sipping a cup of instant coffee, Devin hears the sound of bare feet slapping against the linoleum floor and looks up to see his son, a skinny, hairy, greasy mess of a boy, trudging toward the refrigerator. He resembles an obdurate Iron Age patriarch, angular, gaunt, hunched over, staring into space with eyes that are bloodshot and crazed as if trying to calculate the distance between the present moment and the final one, the great mystery of the death, so that the reality all around him is almost nonexistent.
“Good morning,” Devin says to him.
Tom mumbles something terse. He drinks straight from the carton of milk. He smacks his lips and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. After emitting a low, gurgling belch, he scratches his face and stands beside his father’s chair.
With great reluctance, Devin folds the newspaper and places it on the kitchen table, hoping Tom will take the hint and decide to leave him alone. Batya is right, of course. He should probably speak to the boy, ask what’s on his mind, but dealing with teen angst used to be his wife’s forte, not his, and he doesn’t particularly want to hear about his son’s silly social problems. It’s much too early in the day for that sort of thing.
“Is Batya here?” Tom asks. He glances at the pack of cigarettes on the kitchen counter.
“Batya? No, she left early this morning. She’s working on her novel. Conducting more research.”
Though he has never been permitted to read a single page of her book or invited to spend the night at her house in the country, Devin is thrilled to be involved with a creative type, a real bohemian, someone the Jesuits claim to respect and admire but secretly abhor and distrust. After leading such a boring life, Devin has become a kind of double agent, a man of high adventure. He relishes the intrigue.
Tom crosses his arms. “That’s too bad. I was hoping she’d still be here.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I’m going to the chapel. For Sunday services.”
“You’re going where?”
“To church, Dad. It starts in…” He glances at the clock. “Less than an hour. I wanted to know if Batya cared to join me.”
“Did she express an interest?”
“In attending a Catholic mass?”
He shrugs his shoulders. “I’d ask you to come, but I know how you feel about these kinds of things.”
“What kinds of things?”
“Religion. The hereafter. God.”
In this house the topic of religion is taboo. Devin’s atheism must always be kept secret. Aside from the occasional wedding and funeral, he does not attend church services and tries to avoid them whenever he can. Religion, he must admit, is something of a mystery to him. He can’t comprehend why so many otherwise perfectly rational people take this nonsense so seriously. It’s only by consulting the dusty tomes written by his colleagues that he can distinguish between the warring factions of Christian denominations that flourish and spread like green muck in the steaming malarial swamps of the American spiritual landscape.
Devin detests ritual and scripture. The stodgy, parataxis style of biblical prose fills his mouth with the dust and grit of the Sinai itself, but out of curiosity he has skimmed a few passages from the Old Testament. He read about King Saul who, despite passing laws strictly prohibiting his subjects from calling upon witches and exorcists and mediums, traveled incognito to the desert oasis of Endor to consult a necromancer from whom he hoped to receive the guidance of the dead. From this story Devin has devised an axiom upon which he can base all arguments about religious thinking: “The level of devotion among the faithful is in direct proportion to their hypocrisy.”
Now he pushes aside the newspaper and says, “Let me ask you something, Tom. What kinds of things have the priests been teaching you lately?”
With an impudent smile the boy answers, “Don’t worry, Dad. They haven’t been brainwashing me, if that’s what you want to know.”
In fact, it is what he wants to know. He sends Tom to the Jesuit school not for the tiresome tautologies of elderly clergyman but for the rigorous curriculum, the militaristic discipline and, since Devin is a faculty member, because the tuition is free.
“Indoctrination, Tom, that’s what I’m worried about. Disinformation. Manipulation.”
“Jesus, Dad, I just want to go to church. The Jesuits have nothing to do with it. I’m leaving in ten minutes.”
Using his spoon, Devin stirs his coffee and watches the cream spiral slowly and naturally into an infinitesimal galaxy. By adding another drop of cream he transforms the Milky Way into a rapidly expanding crab nebula. For a long time he stares into his mug, contemplating the far flung stars, and after some consideration he agrees to accompany his son to mass. He wants to see what the boy is up to, surely he is up to something, all seventeen-year old boys more or less are. But he is also curious to find out what the priests are up to. Over the years Devin has become better acquainted with these men, with their values, their ethics, their politics, and though they profess to be well meaning they are in fact always a little too eager to take advantage of a boy who is particularly susceptible to the Jesuitical arts of rhetoric and persuasion.
Intentionally designed to look out of place among the warehouses and factories of this decimated industrial city, the little Romanesque chapel, built of flint and rubble masonry, is a structure one is likely to encounter while traveling through an isolated Irish hamlet. The curious carvings on its archways seem so ancient, so faded from wind and rain, that they might predate Christianity, the work of recalcitrant pagans or barbarian invaders. The enormous frescos that dominate the apse depict angels and virgins and Jesuit missionaries, mythological figures meant to instill the requisite fear and awe in the parishioners, and indeed the place seems to echo with the voices of peasant farmers ground to dust by the rigid doctrines of a dying priestdom.
Today the chapel is filled nearly to capacity, but Devin and Tom manage to squeeze into a pew near the creaking wooden door. A dungeon door, thinks Devin. As he mentally prepares himself for an excruciatingly boring ritual, he looks around and is a bit surprised to see so many of his rambunctious pupils sitting in silence, their hands resting on their knees. If only they would behave this way in the classroom. Eager to record their unusual behavior, Devin reaches for the pencil and scratch pad he keeps handy in his coat pocket (no self-respecting scientist would leave home without these essential tools), but before he can jot down his observations the pipe organ blares an alarming chord. The congregants jump to their feet, open their hymnals and, with their heads raised high, drone a tuneless dirge.
Father Mullin emerges from a cloud of incense and marches down the aisle to the tabernacle. When the lugubrious singing finally ends, the principal raises his arms and recites the opening prayer. The ceremony moves at a glacial pace, and Devin is forced to cover his mouth and suppress a yawn as he listens to the introductory rites, the act of penitence, the kyrie, a reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It isn’t until the homily starts that he becomes fully aware of Father Mullin’s voice as it sweeps back and forth across the chapel, an impressive instrument that booms and thunders and startles Devin out of a daydream about Batya’s tight abdominal muscles and muscular ass.
“Whenever we encounter evil in the world,” says the principal, “we must turn the other cheek. The Lord instructs us to do so. He asks us to tolerate and understand our ideological foes, demands that we refrain from casting judgment on our enemies. There is evidence for this in the gospels, indeed there is. But Christ also provides another kind of teaching, one that we must carefully consider in our own day and age.
“A man from Gadarenes was possessed by a legion of demons. Shunned by everyone in his village, the man lived among the tombs near the sea. When Jesus encountered the man he took a swift and immediate course of action. He didn’t ask anyone’s permission to cast the demons into a herd of swine and didn’t ponder the ethics of slaughtering these innocent creatures. He didn’t discuss the matter with his disciples and didn’t negotiate with the demons.
“This may seem like a distant episode until you realize that demons dwell in the minds and bodies of so many people today. Look no further than the high school classroom where some teachers have fallen prey to the insidious cult of secular humanism and the fanciful theory of natural selection. But I ask you: what is so natural about natural selection?
“Science tells us that Nature isn’t a thing but a process of infinite change, turmoil, confusion. Nature abhors order, and as a result the universe is in a continuous state of flux. Nothing is permanent. There is no ground of being, no definitive order to the cosmos, no guiding hand. There is no grace, no wholeness, no divinity, no fixed intent. Science goes even further and makes the wild and unsubstantiated claim that human beings are not separate from nature but are merely the end result of random processes. Indeed, we are the process, we are nature. Surely this accounts for the insidious belief that humans have evolved from clever chimpanzees with a penchant for sodomy.
“Why, no less a genius thanPierre Teilhard de Chardin satirized these dangerous ideas with his paleontological hoax Piltdown Man. He understood that we are fundamentally different than the beasts of the field, that we are more than ashes and dust with a primal urge. God created us in His image. He gave us the breath of life. But scientists, by rejecting God and the concept of original sin, gamble with the fate of their eternal souls and with the souls of their students. They commit the most egregious crimes upon their charges, turning respectable, God-fearing children into materialists, religious skeptics, free-thinkers.
“And so we return to the man from Gadarenes, and we must ask ourselves an obvious question: do such demons lurk within the hallowed halls of our own institution, can they dwell among us, unnoticed, unseen, untouched? Have some of our teachers been infected with a sickness that is rapidly spreading through our entire society? Have they been corrupted by deceit and treachery?
Devin feels his heart begin to race, and it takes all of his willpower to keep his eyes focused on Father Mullin. He desperately wants to look around the chapel to see if anyone is laughing, whispering, pointing in his direction. Someone has ratted him out, he’s sure of it. Someone has told the principal that he is an apostate, an unbeliever, an interloper. But who could it be? Who would double-cross him? Batya? Tom? One of his students? And if so, why? What’s the motive? Then again, perhaps motive doesn’t matter all that much. In this world there is no shortage of insidious plots, and behind each one there is a Judas willing to make a moral compromise for a short-term gain.
Father Mullin grips the sides of the pulpit and cranes his neck past the microphone until his head seems to hover above his flock, and this time when he speaks he sounds not like a man of learning but a crazed apothecary hawking his worthless medicines to a hostile mob on the verge of tarring and feathering him unless he can produce some tangible results.
“The faculty members of this school are committed to the core values and teachings of the Church, I am convinced of this, but let me be clear. Should I find an impostor among us, a trickster, a heresiarch, I will not hesitate. Like Jesus I will fight the devil. I will banish him from this place. And believe me, believe me all of you, I will win the battle.
“But victory in one battle does not mean victory in war. And that is why I’ve come before you today. Students must take part in the struggle, too. It is up to you to keep your eyes and ears open and to spread the gospel by traveling to those places where the divine Logos has been distorted by this new religion called science. Missionary work, gentlemen, missionary work is what God requires of you. Because a day of reckoning is coming, yes it most surely is!”
For the rest of the day Devin tries to understand the meaning of this homily.
The need to personify evil is deeply ingrained in the minds of today’s congregants, but because modernity has forced them to abandon the old mythological imagery--Beelzebub sharpening his pitchfork and setting aside time in his busy schedule to pose for another Hieronymus Bosch triptych--they demand the Church provide them with a new and improved devil, one so clever and insidious that he might even be sitting next to them in the chapel. Gone are those innocuous hymns of love and praise that once filled the air. In their place are the words of an ancient deity who speaks from out of a burning bush and who takes great delight in decimating the minds of credulous churchgoers as though they are a tribe of heathenish Canaanites.
On Monday morning, certain that he’ll find a pink slip pinned to his office door, Devin takes the unprecedented step of altering the content of his lectures and gives them a more faith-based tenor. After a brief talk on primate spirituality he shows his students a documentary on how chimpanzees display grief at the passing of a loved one. He points out the look of shock and bewilderment in the eyes of these sorrowful creatures and how they seem to kneel before the dead. Convinced that his classroom is bugged and has probably been under constant surveillance for weeks now, Devin speaks as clearly as he can. “It’s almost as though they’re praying.”
At noon he joins Batya in the faculty lunchroom. Since he doesn’t have much of an appetite, he spends much of his time trying to read the faces of his colleagues, observes their body language, makes a mental note of those who avoid eye contact with him. Which of them is the professional character assassin? It’s impossible to say. They all wear masks of total indifference. This includes Batya who tosses his name into a hat for the “monthly drawing.” Everyone is eager for another night of reckless drinking, and as the seasons wheel around, each faculty member takes a turn hosting a party--the obligatory Christmas celebration, the Saint Patrick’s Day bash, the Memorial Day cookout--and now, as luck would have it, Devin is picked to host this year’s Halloween masquerade.
Sensing his trepidation, Batya strokes his knee under the table and says, “Just remember, if it hadn’t been for the party at the beginning of semester we never would have gotten involved.”
Devin gives his grudging consent because, he must admit, without Batya he would have no social life at all. He has plenty of time to berate himself afterward.
On the day of the party Batya is nowhere to be found, and Devin, a chronic procrastinator who has never hosted a formal gathering of any kind, is soon overwhelmed by the sheer volume of refuse in his house, the old phone books stacked in dusty corners and the black pyramids of dead flies that have collected on the windowsills. He vacuums the rugs, sweeps the hardwood floors, wipes the walls, brushes cobwebs from the ceiling. He can’t remember the last time he changed the sheets on his bed, a thought that troubles him greatly. What kind of woman would tolerate a man who lives in such filth, such squalor?
He considers asking his son for help but decides he doesn’t want to be left alone with the boy for an extended length of time. Especially not today. It’s Tom’s eighteenth birthday, an important milestone, but Devin has never been the sentimental sort, he doesn’t believe in candles and cake and bright balloons. Small children celebrate birthdays, not grown men. But before he resumes scrubbing the toilets and sinks Devin creeps along the hallway and slips a card with a ten-dollar bill under his son’s bedroom door.
At twilight several figures wearing black cloaks and Venetian masks knock on the door, and Devin, who has completely forgotten about the time as well as his own costume, ushers his guests into the living room. Despite their obvious dismay at the deplorable conditions inside, they compliment him on the loveliness of his home and waste no time lining up at the folding table to load paper plates with raw vegetables, spinach dip and precooked cocktail sausages wrapped in bacon.
By eight o’clock, two-dozen people jostle for space inside the tiny house, and at some point, Devin is not sure when, he’s busy opening cases of beer and mixing martinis, he smells cigarette smoke and hears shrill laughter. From the way her eyes are spinning it’s clear that Batya has already had quite a lot to drink. She turns the stereo on and twists the dial until the house resounds with a trio of classical guitarists strumming a rhapsodic fado. Satisfied with the volume and the mournfulness of the tune, she walks into the living room and holds court near the fireplace. Batya has a way of attracting an audience, and before long a small group of men are laughing at her stories.
“When I was a child of six or seven,” she tells them, “my aunt presented me with the gift of a doll. She felt sorry for me, I think, her strange niece. I had few friends and always avoided the company of children my own age. I spent bright summer afternoons in my bedroom, reading books and acting out plays. After she gave me the doll, I murmured a quick thank you--my parents raised me to be polite---and then I rushed up to my room. I was so excited I almost tripped over my own feet. Using a pair of scissors and a coat hanger, I methodically dissected the doll, taking it apart not in some haphazard fashion, cruelly and stupidly as a boy would, no, but with genuine curiosity, piece by piece, thread by thread, to see how it had been manufactured. I became so engrossed in these labors that I failed to notice my doddering old aunt standing in the doorway. She was a snoop, didn’t believe in knocking, and when she saw the neat piles of arms and legs on the floor and the coat hanger in my hand she cried out in horror. I must have looked like some back alley abortionist.”
The men laugh, they do spit takes, they choke on their cocktail weenies. Laughing loudest of all, however, is Tom who stands apart from the others. In the flickering firelight he looks deranged, menacing, unhinged.
“I didn’t see you come in,” says Devin.
“Jews are condemned to burn for all eternity!” the boy shouts. “Doomed to the agonies of hellfire, every last one. Saul Bellow and Moses Maimonides and Karl Marx.”
Devin doesn’t know what to do, he isn’t very good at handling confrontation and could use some help right now, but when he turns to Batya he sees something in her eyes that alarms him, a look he recognizes from their first night together, the night when she tore the clothes from his pathetic, middle-aged limbs. Just as a great white shark trolling the high seas reacts to the scent of a wounded fish, so Batya is sent into wild fits of desire when she senses the presence of an emotionally distraught male, and it becomes obvious to Devin that Batya, far from being angry with Tom, has an uncontrollable urge to devour him as she has reputedly devoured so many boys before, those docile, delusional scribes who toil away on the magazine long into the evening hours like children in a sweatshop, gangly and bespectacled copy editors who leaf through insurmountable piles of dog-eared manuscripts and smirk at Devin, the ridiculous cuckold with the thinning hair and noticeable paunch who sometimes shows up at the office to take the editor to lunch.
Devin is about to object to his son’s hateful words when Batya sets her drink down on the coffee table and puts a hand over Devin’s mouth.
“So Jews are going to burn, are they, sweetie? You forgot to mention George Gershwin and Woody Allen and Groucho Marx.”
This generates more laughter from the happy and sagacious guests, but from Tom there is no laughter.
“I’m simply giving you the facts,” he says to her, “and the fact is you’ll burn, you’ll burn.”
“My dear boy, you’re not being reasonable.”
“It’s not me, it’s God. And you can’t reason with God. He does what he pleases. He makes the rules and enforces them. And He says that unbelievers will burn!”
Tom marches closer to the fireplace. In his hand he holds several copies of the school literary magazine, the ones Batya has personalized for Devin with salacious notes and crude drawings. She is particularly adept at drawing phalluses and women caressing them with their hands and lips. One by one Tom tosses the magazines into the fire. The pages blacken and curl and shrivel. Devin gazes into the fire and is startled to find that the ashes of the journal look no different than the ashes of the newspaper he used earlier to kindle the flames. In some strange way he feels like he has been deceived, that despite what the experts say, genius and mediocrity meet the same fate and in the end are indistinguishable from one another.
Batya smirks. “It seems I’ve been invited to an old-fashioned book burning.”
With a wavering voice, Devin says, “Tom, I think you should go straight to your room.”
“My room? Don’t worry, Dad. I won’t disturb you. I’ll leave you two alone tonight so you can fuck each other silly. Fuck your brains out.”
The boy storms out of the house, slamming the door behind him.
To Devin’s surprise the guests don’t check their watches or make excuses or begin to leave; they keep on drinking just as before. They’re used to unruly behavior from obnoxious boys and don’t seem in the least bit bothered by Tom’s antics.
“I’m so sorry…” Devin says.
Batya pats his hand. “Don’t worry. Attend to your guests. I’ll go check on him. He just needs to talk things over with someone.”
Devin is unsure if he should be grateful or suspicious, but he has no time to analyze the situation. The party rages on. His guests demand more booze--another case of beer, another carafe of wine, another bottle of whiskey. “Out of control” is the phrase he would use to describe the situation, and it isn’t until well after midnight, when the final guests spill from the house laughing and dancing and singing some bastardized version of the school’s alma mater, that he realizes Tom and Batya are nowhere to be found.
The next morning Devin considers calling the police to report the boy missing, but Tom is eighteen now, an adult in the eyes of the law, and the police will simply tell him that a man of eighteen can do whatever he damn well pleases. They will probably suggest he try Tom’s classmates to ask if they have seen him, but this idea is an absurd one since Tom has no friends, no confidantes. No enemies either. Hoping to distract himself from the growing sense of unease he feels, Devin wanders through the house, picking up plastic cups and paper plates smeared with bright orange cheese dip, but after an hour he realizes there is no sense in delaying the inevitable. He picks up the phone and dials Batya’s number. It rings three times, four times, and when she doesn’t answer he leaves a series of rambling messages that range in tone from anger to despair to outrage. He sits on the couch and waits all afternoon, but she fails to return his calls.
That evening he drives twenty miles to her house in the country, a place he has been forbidden to visit. He races up the gravel driveway and hammers on the door until he thinks he might break the damn thing down. Cupping his hands around his eyes, he looks through the front windows. The rooms appear dark, empty, uninviting, but Devin, unwilling to accept defeat, creeps through the neglected flowerbeds thick with weeds and ivy and searches the property until he finds a wooden ladder inside an old tool shed. He props the ladder against the back of the house and climbs to the top window. There he sees a four-poster bed, neatly made, a nightstand crowded with books, an empty glass, a bottle.
Satisfied that she is not home, Devin climbs down and does something extraordinarily juvenile but also strangely gratifying. He gathers a handful of fermenting crabapples that litter the ground and uses them to pelt the house. He smashes a ceramic mug left on an Adirondack chair, shatters a window. Then he unzips his pants and, taking his prick in hand, pisses on the hardy mums that grow in big clay pots around the porch.
On Monday morning he arrives early to school, hoping to confront Batya before the morning bell rings. Instead he finds a note posted to her office door: “Ms. Pinter will not be in today.” He walks over to the cafeteria, but Tom is not sitting alone in his usual spot in the corner, staring at the wall, daydreaming, doodling geometric patterns in his notebook.
Devin tries to stay focused on his work, but as the day wears on his mind begins to drift. He thinks of all the different people Batya might be with, men and women, boys and girls, fathers and sons, there is never any shortage of willing partners, real or imaginary. During his final lecture he fervently explains to his pupils how primates experience mental as well as physical pain, that there is no sharp dividing line between human and animal anguish.
“Great apes have been known to combat despair with dance and mock battles and sport. To call this behavior spiritual or ritualistic is no exaggeration. And that is why we have a responsibility to these creatures. The Hebrew word v’yirdu does not mean ‘dominion’ as it is commonly translated in the first chapter of Genesis. The word actually implies ‘rule’, but rule of a very particular kind, rule that is synonymous with stewardship. Like the great biblical kings who ruled over their subjects, Saul and David and Solomon, we are to rule over creation with care and respect and justice. Indeed, we are commanded to do so by the great celestial dictator who rules without mercy. You do see the irony in this, don’t you? Of course you do. You’re perceptive boys.”
The boys do not understand what he is saying, and it occurs to him that he no longer understands either. They whisper and giggle and nod off while he speaks, and when he dismisses them a voice comes over the public address system.
“Mr. Wentworth, may I please see you in my office?”
For the first time in his long teaching career Devin begins to understand how students must feel when the priests reprimand them--it’s a combination of resentment and humiliation and shame, but most of all shame, and when he enters the principal’s office he instinctively focuses on the tips of shoes, which are old and scuffed and mud splattered, a pauper’s shoes. Father Mullin leans back in his chair and lights a cigarette. A hard rain pelts the windows like thumbtacks. Outside, the boys pull their coats over their heads and battle their way through the gusting wind.
“Ah, Wentworth,” says Father Mullin, indicating a chair, “I’ve been expecting you. By now I’m sure you know why I’ve called you here.”
Devin nods and like a groveling sinner makes a long confession, tells his superior everything that has transpired since the beginning of the semester, how he has been sleeping with Batya and how he believes she has run off with his son.
When the principal speaks his words are slow and measured
“That’s quite a story, Wentworth. I must say that I had no idea that you and Pinter were seeing each other outside the classroom. There were, as you may have guessed, rumors floating around, but I never pay any attention to that sort of thing. Gossip is the devil’s business, eh? And quite frankly I didn’t think you were capable of…committing such a serious infraction. You are aware, of course, that any kind of romantic involvement between faculty members is strictly forbidden. It complicates things, creates the potential for a sexual harassment lawsuit. And we both know how women can be. They see things differently than we do. I’ll need to give this matter some thought. A committee must convene to discuss the seriousness of the situation.”
Father Mullin points to the ashtray at the corner of his desk and snaps his fingers.
Devin dutifully pushes it toward his superior.
“You’ve obviously been through quite a lot, Wentworth, I want to thank you for your honesty, and I think I may be able to help you locate your son.” He crushes out the butt of his cigarette and lights another. “I spoke to Tom on Friday afternoon. He seemed troubled, on the edge of a great precipice. I tried to offer him guidance, suggested he spend some time at the rectory. He seemed appreciative. But just this morning I learned that he left town to do missionary work with a group of his classmates. Right now he is working in a small town called Gehenna. I only know this, mind you, because his name appears on the list.”
He pushes a piece of paper across the desk to Devin.
“Naturally, I thought he received your permission to go.”
“No,” says Devin. “We never discussed it. Is there a way to call him?”
Father Mullin takes a long drag on his cigarette and exhales loudly. “I’m afraid we don’t allow missionaries to use of any of the conveniences of modern life, telephones and computers and so forth. We want them to have as little contact with the outside world as possible. But I’m only too happy to show you where the boys are on a map…”
It takes Devin the better part of the day to drive to that remote corner of the state. Deep in the rounded mountains and misty valleys, he sees few signs of civilization and wonders what life is like for the people who inhabit these impoverished villages with names that have been lost to time--Sheol, Tartarus, Megiddo, Moreh, Tabor, Jezreel. He drives many miles before coming to a crossroads, but this other road--if it can be called a road at all--is just a long, narrow stretch of mud with the deep markings of tractors or combines. Devin slows down and decides to make the turn. The grooves and ruts are deep and wide and offer little traction. His rear tires spin and squeal. He hits the breaks hard and then pumps the gas. He is pitched and tossed in the front seat, but eventually the car lurches forward.
He passes spacious, clapboard farm houses and small tilled fields where wheat or maybe rye once grew. As the sky turns purple with twilight the road tunnels into a dark wood and skirts the banks of a blackwater river. A colony of ramshackle trailers teeter like rusty little boxes on the crumbling embankment just above the upper falls as though the inhabitants are simply waiting for the first big rains to sweep them away downstream to a new life. A group of children stand outside in the thistle and cypress spurge. There are six of them in all, horribly thin, morbidly obese, their skin pale and green from the onset of some disease long believed to be eradicated from the earth. In the fading November light they resemble a lost tribe of gnomes, fabled creatures from the worn, wrinkled pages of a storybook but a storybook Devin has never read, he was never in the habit of reading to his son, and so the children appear all the more sinister to him. He asks for directions. They hoot and scale a pile of junk, the rusting shells of cars, and point downstream.
A mile further down the road in a steep-sided valley Devin manages to spot a small fire where the missionaries have set up camp. The boys huddle around the fire, warming their hands, staring intently at the floating embers that cool and fade and turn to ash. They listen to the nocturnal sounds of the big woods all around, to the calls of sandpipers and mallards on the river. The place has the feeling of a religious gulag, a rehabilitation camp for non-believers, and Devin gets the sense that Father Mullin has sent him here as a kind of punishment.
In the dark it’s hard to make out their faces, but Devin can tell right away that Tom is not among them. When he asks about his son’s whereabouts the other boys cast pitying looks in his direction.
That woman, they tell him, came from the city and told him to get into her car.
Devin nods. No further explanation is needed. He is about to walk away when the boys ask if he’d like to join them in their simple meal. The Jesuits do not provide funds, missionaries are expected to go from door to door begging for alms in imitation of the saints and prophets, and while it’s certainly true that Gehenna is one the poorest towns in the state the people here are generous and give whatever they can spare. The boys share a can of beans, a bag of overripe apples, a few ears of corn, some small pieces of gamey meat that they slice into thin strips with bowie knives. Among the glowing embers are the scattered bones of a large rodent, a rabbit perhaps or a possum, and the boys explain how they hunt for meat.
After they finish eating they pass around a jug of medicinal tea.
“Did she leave this with you?” Devin asks when the jug reaches him.
Yes, they say. A gift.
“But isn’t it a sin,” he inquires, “to pollute your bodies with this stuff?”
Maybe so, they say, but they do not abide by any rigidly defined dogma, not when they’re so far from school. The tea induces visions of a mystical nature, the woman assured them of this, and they are eager to look upon the face of god, no matter how questionable the methods. The tea shocks them into a new awareness of the world, aides them in their efforts to escape the claustrophobic confines of the ego. The Indians of the Peruvian rain forests have their Ayahuasca, the shamans of the American West their peyote, the sub-Saharan Africans their Iboga, the people of Gehenna their white lightning, and the Jesuits their blood of christ.
Devin has never tried the tea and takes small, hesitant sips. Its effects are initially quite pleasant--it warms his belly and makes him feel a little light-headed--and during the course of that long night he takes larger sips whenever the jug comes his way. He sits cross-legged by the fire and learns a great deal about these boys, about their beliefs and practices.
Life, they say, is a feud between humanity and the devil, God takes no part in it, that’s why there is so much suffering in the world. Suffering is the great answer everyone is seeking, the proverbial meaning of life. Happiness is a temporary thing, impermanent, as illusory as a dream, and suffering only a prelude to even greater depths of despair; it hints at something far more wretched than the trivial miseries of day-to-day existence.
“What can you possibly know about suffering?” Devin is tempted to ask, but he knows that some of these boys, the unlucky ones, have already seen their fair share of death, divorce, addiction, heart ache. Disaster heaped upon disaster. Youth offers no immunity from life’s tragedies.
At some point the discussion turns ugly, the boys begin to argue among themselves, they wrestle near the flames and exchange blows, a clumsy, sweaty two-step accompanied by clapping hands and laughter. Devin can do nothing to stop the chaos. Invisible fingers pin him to the ground. That evening he is beset by many strange visions. Nightmare creatures, simian in their visage, small, misshapen, scarcely conscious of anything other than their own hunger, scuttle out of the cerulean shadows to crouch near the blinding firelight. They--the visions, the boys, the curious swampland things, he’s not sure exactly what--circle around him, inching their way closer and closer, scabby mutant monstrous. They sniff and chortle and prance around, and when they reach out to touch him, to stroke his cheek with their hoary nails, Devin buries his face in the dirt and screams. He screams for the daylight, for mercy, for someone to rescue him and give him a reprieve from the unceasing torments of this wretched existence.
In the cold, wet, tenebrous morning, an hour before dawn, Devin rises from his makeshift bed near the still crackling embers of the fire. His head pulses with dark arterial blood, a pain so excruciating, so unbearable, that he whimpers like a dog when he lifts his head. His tongue is swollen from the tea, his eyes sting from the woodsmoke, his brain sloshes around his skull like a black soup. Somehow he manages to get to his feet and staggers away from the camp undetected while the boys are still asleep.
He continues on his journey. In hellish agony he drives through the hills and valleys, past miles of crooked fence posts and rotting dairy barns and rusty pickup trucks. Since the sky is overcast and unmarked by the first faint smudges of daylight, he cannot distinguish east from west. He scans the shoulder for some familiar landmark, a sign directing him to the nearest interstate, but in the hazy beams of his headlights he spots only a wooden cross that has been hammered into the soft earth and, further along, a dead dog. Highways, he thinks, are a lot like graveyards.
Twenty minutes later he comes upon an unambiguous sign of his son’s presence. He pulls into the parking lot of the Hinnom Motel, and for the rest of the morning he stands besides Batya’s car. Although Devin is a man of science (he must continually remind himself of this), he is also a jealous lover just as Tom’s god is a jealous god, and he can no more control his emotions than the beating of his own heart. Like everything else about human nature, jealousy is genetic, as immutable as a mathematical equation, an indifferent evolutionary force hard-wired into the species to protect and prolong the intimate association of love.
It burns him to think of it, but inside one of those rooms, in the flickering blue glow of the television, unholy and unpardonable things are going on. Should he pound on the door, demand that his son come outside and return home with him. After careful consideration, Devin chuckles sardonically at the misnomer. A home is supposed to be a sanctuary from the cares of the day, or so he has been led to believe, but this has turned out to be a terrible lie that has been perpetuated through the ages. Call it the propaganda of family life. The truth is that there will never be a place on Earth where mere mortals can feel completely safe. Maybe his son has already come to this realization, even as he sleeps in the arms of a woman who has vanquished his childhood faith, a woman who in the end will prove utterly incapable of protecting him from the horrible forces that rule the world.
Copyright 2010 by Connor Caddigan
I am the best fighter pilot in the world
But it wasn’t the rain that woke him up. It was the hollowed out thunder-smack of serrated rock ripping free from its cliff and sailing off in dead-like slow-smooth motion towards the sea.
Though proficient an impresario he was, he had carried on his duties with a muffled terror and the fabricated confidence of someone who knew quite well he should never have brought his dog to the Company Party.
The set was then seemingly gentrified of the need for his position as Third Insidious Lurking Element to the right of the main dramatic action.
There was a 3”x5” swatch of tightly flattened sheet metal, a wooden handled rubber mallet and a plastic bucket full to the brim with warm summer creek water; on top of the bucket he had carefully secured a colander he’d found in the kitchen. It was time to make a thunderstorm. Just like Mom used to do.
All slightly used.
“I like it”.
No self esteem.
Low self esteem.
Nope, yep, no self esteem.
“Oh, me too then”.
And then, you know, it just hurts sometimes.
I guess that’s just maybe what I feel like, maybe.
…but, it was a gift.
A tall, pretty girl came into the coffee shop where he sat reading. She ordered something. He couldn’t hear what. They made eye contact. He smiled. She received her drink from the Barista and left. He could see her through the window as she glided off down the street. He thought, I’ll never see her again, as she crossed into the intersection and was smashed by a municipal trolley.
He contained a high grade of unsuitability for application.
Man, he like understands the shit that other men come up with, like better than other men.
Relax, he thought, they all feel like frauds too!
Pardon me, it’s not that I’m broke, it’s that I haven’t any money.
Talk about life.
It’s going to rain.
I want you to know.
The happiest moments always seemed to fall some other time than now.
He cried a little. And it felt good. But he couldn’t say that he enjoyed it.
He sat quietly and prayed for a truth that tasted like candy and sat shiny red and huggable warm atop a straight-to-my-thighs-but-I’m-worth-it Hot Fudge Sundae; instead of like an angry fungal bloat loitering just outside his stomach, with a dip in, taking its sweet time picking a direction in which to once and for all expose its bust-all-hope grin.
And when it came to music, he was sweet on blues piano, whistlin’ and the trumpet.
His overall Who-He-Was shrank more and more toward the floor as his head grew larger and his lower half weakened. He fainted, but the guy who told the story was more imaginative in his explanation.
He really never thought he would get this old. Not really.
She couldn’t help but notice. She liked him. She could tell that he noticed her.
He sat alone and recounted made up chapters of his own life, and laughed, and let himself go, backwards, into reality.
He made a point to do nothing; and to do it honestly, so as to have never ruined-it-for-the-rest-of-us.
There was a man seated next to him. He was older, the man, well dressed and talking to himself, non-stop; something about a continental breakfast in Des Moines. They were a long way from Iowa. He couldn’t help but think: there is nothing worse than crazy people who can afford to eat where I eat. He looked at the man- hard, hoping he’d Shut the Fuck Up! The man ate a maple nut scone and drank black coffee. They’d ordered the exact same thing.
I don’t feel like it.
I don’t know.
They’d remained on his face since birth. Nothing he could do. Everything that could save and be saved, kill and be killed was contained in the deformation. If only he’d use them to see.
Excuse me, can I have everything?
Oh, yeah, he’s an ass, but gorgeous honey, gorgeous.
I would encourage her to have protected sex when she cheats on you. That’s what I do with mine.
The note was addressed to Momma and read simply: Promise me you’ll forgive the man that finally did me in.
And but she continued having babies with no discernible affect on anything at all.
He’d walked in one direction so long that he found himself turned around; without ever having had to look back.
She didn’t feel right about how They looked at the children here, angrily, as the little ones ran about smiling; like They expected them to frown and be adults.
Tell me about it! But please, do so rhetorically.
A man in the world scared a woman in his dream; and he just laid there doing nothing.
I could tell by the way the old man’s skin no longer resisted the earthen draw that he didn’t have the strength for much of anything anymore. Where-we’re-all-going sucked at his cheek bones like a dust heavy sheet draped over the hardened edges of an antique wicker rocking chair. But just before he died he raised up, high as he could, grabbed my arm and stared well into my eyes with the vehemence of a man on fire, saying simply: Son, you’ve got to stomp out into this godless mind-fuck of a world and fashion your fortune the hard way…you’ve got to win it!
He could no longer order iced coffee at the café. The wrapper from the straw cluttering the table made it nearly impossible for him to relax.
All at once I’d had the conversation with my father. It had been coming for a long time, but it was still awkward how the old man just came out and told me I was gay.
At some point he just got too old to enjoy his life, and so he worked.
He’d left the party, alone. According to a flashing bank clock it was close to 3 a.m. A police car stopped at the red light in front of the intersection where he was waiting. Did you hear gunshots, the Cop asked? The walk sign flashed and he caught a glimpse of the large cuffed man in the back seat of the car. Fireworks, he said. It was the 4th of July.
Lacking the funds for a vacation from his town, he simply averted his resting perspective, up, by 20 degrees; and all of a sudden began watching an entirely new life passing by.
He watched two pigeons mate on the ledge of the Fitness Club while he waited for the bus. And when they’d finished, he admired their sense in not pretending that they cared about each other.
There was a guy who rode the bus who looked exactly like him. And he felt like they both knew it. And it was weird.
He wanders through some volume of space suspended between take off and landing – just like you.
He often resembled a man who’d run farther than he should in a shorter amount of time than was possible: red, moist, and two thoughts ahead of his mouth.
Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?
Well Orange you!
She was too beautiful to wait in lines. And so it goes without saying that she had nothing in her possession that need be obtained from a Motor Vehicle Bureau.
As she sat at the café with wet pants and an empty mug, she’d sincerely hoped that she was still thirsty.
How could you not hate that little kid? Look at him!
They sat on opposite ends of the subway car reading the same novel and humming the same tune. They didn’t notice one another, speak, or ever see each other again. They simply moved through their lives, perfect for each other, alone and unimpeded.
Based merely on the face value of bus ridership, more people, statistically speaking, should be dying alone.
Can you tell me when Wimbledon starts?
Maybe I should just lie.
Standing somehow stacked in a mere two dimensions, horizontally, they seemed as some form of hyperbolic tessellation, the mob, with their pitchforks and torn faces, demanding blood but frozen, animation suspended, as if willing to be coerced by any sort of simple explanation, some basic antidote to the violence that was necessary; though none too willing to dole out.
Everyone always makes it to where we’re going. Always.
The luckiest among us simultaneously want who we need; and me too, but with you.
She needed a man she could count on to need her too.
He wanted to walk down that one road, where simple shadows covered tracks, and the only face he saw was hers; where after so long a time he looked still at her sunshine lips and ached to kiss them twice as long as that first day- way back when. Big and small, all things, until death made it hard…he loved her is all.
I can’t tonight, Sugar.
How about sometime?
…to which she replied, maybe.
I kind of want the one I picked for you.
All the Girls wore green T-shirts. All the Girls were white; impossible to tell one from the other. An older, fatter one (Girl), barked in the general direction of leadership. They all got on the plane. Some of them fell asleep while the rest pretended to enjoy the movie.
A Man and Woman sat down next to her. He crossed his legs, Indian-Style. She leaned on him, parasitically. He opened a large hard backed novel. She hated them, immediately.
Wanna see my laser?
Maybe, at the company picnic, if I go, I’ll show you my belly.
There was no chance that that girl was there to see me, as in exactly none.
Maybe the guy with the headphones on is actually listening to your conversation.
They bumped elbows on the center console of the station wagon on their way to her wedding. They both apologized; and then neither of them used it.
He stood frozen and watched the immensity of the train moving across the horizon end-to-end; much different than the framed approach and recession he was used to.
How could she be qualified? She’s not even good looking.
He followed the Doctor from the now empty waiting room. He hunched forward onto the paper covered gurney. The Doctor said things but He could only stare back in response; as for the first time the sick man understood what it was to be truly alone.
That one had a strikingly angular profile. That one maintained more sexual allure with her hair down around her face. He pretended to sleep so as to preempt any gentlemanly awkwardness in relinquishing his seat to someone in need.
Honey? We’re out of Tequila.
And then she was walking next to him on a crowded city street –
Her: Isn’t it strange to believe that you’re merely thinking something; only to find that you’ve been saying it all out loud?
Him: Is that something that happened, or is that happening now?
Her:Like we’re asleep and this is a dream.
Him: (pointing) I go this way.
Her: (pointing) Me, that way.
Him: Have a nice life.
Her: Yeah, you too.
As he slowly failed to remember her name, so became his own face, unrecognizeable.
…and then just like that, as if the only remaining solid, he moved through forces unimpeded, repeating simply: I am the best fighter pilot in the world…
Copyright 20009 by Nathan Thomas D'Annibale
A Different Kind of Book Review for a Different Kind of Book: Some Thoughts on “God Loves Rich Kids and We Smoke Off the Same Cigarette” by Robert Louis Henry
“Nothing is a valid point of view.
The world is a giant square shaped place, and you live on its moon, dreaming of the surface below.
Know that overwhelming feeling you get that somehow you’ve lost track of your life?
It’s not fake.”
(from “Only Perspective”, from God Loves Rich Kids)
Warning: This is not a real book review. Writing like this will get you bad grades. Nothing is resolved, and it’s almost all opinion.
Before I talk about Robert Louis Henry’s new book, I have (let’s make that want) to talk about “organic development” in writing.
Sometimes, it shows, as in (most famously) Kerouac’s work. You can pretty much tell the guy was just hopped up on speed and wrote the whole thing in a week. That worked for a few books and novellas when he was young, then he dried up. So, we could say that when writers write without anything more than a flash of inspiration, it’s easy to tell. Except…
Sometimes, as in Paul Bowles or T.C. Boyle’s work, you can’t tell at all, and when you find out it makes you kind of jealous. Yes, it does. Don’t pretend you’re not human.
Bowles: “Notes are useless to me unless there is a portion of the finished text to which they can be applied; I knew I must write enough of the finished text to serve as an umbilical cord between me and the novel before I landed in an unfamiliar place, otherwise I should lose it all. As the ship drew nearer to Ceylon I found myself recalling Kafka’s well-known aphorism: From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached. I doubt that he meant it to be applied to the writing of a book, nevertheless, it seemed relevant to the situation”
(Introduction to “Let It Come Down," Black Sparrow Press, 1990 edition)
Boyle: (regarding his short stories) “I have no outline, I have nothing. It’s all an exploration…”
(AirTalk, January 26th, 2010)
The point being, (mine, that is) sometimes you have something to say; and if you think too much about it, or try to fit it in too neatly within a story, it just doesn’t come off with as much power as it might have. Big ideas seem small when subjected to too much reflection. As dancer and performance artist Rebecca Chapman used to tell me when I was starting out as a writer: “Self-reflection is bunk.”
Or, perhaps we are best able to say what we really think or feel when we don’t think too much about how other people, or even ourselves, might feel or think about what we have to say. This would seem to be contrary to the whole academic approach to creative writing; what we at BR refer to as “workshopping your stuff to death”. Many who remember when we used to write rejection letters will be familiar with this phrase. Like when you hear a new record, and you can tell they’re using pro-tools to hide their fuck-ups, instead of taking the time to re-record the whole track.
If the two extremes are high modern self-consciousness and “first thought, best thought”, Robert Louis Henry’s writing is somewhere in the middle. You can see he’s very aware of himself as writer, while he’s writing, and yet he seems to plow ahead anyway, consequences be damned. All of which sounds like there are a hundred different ways in which it couldn’t possibly “work”.
But for this reviewer, me, it does; we don’t have to decide to be highbrow or lowbrow any more. We can discuss phenomenology and food, love and fucking, in the same piece or even the same paragraph.
Rather than dancing around big ideas…you know: the existence of God, ethics and morality, the “meaning of life”, that we as a “post-modern” generation of writers are supposed to be “over” or “beyond”, he immerses himself in them. The result is a collection which makes you think, (even causes you pain if you’re half-way sensitive) without forgetting, somehow, to be fun to read.
I’m going to ignore Henry’s poetry, which is really too good to dissect anyhow, and focus on this “stuff”, here; especially as he doesn’t take the easy way out and start with his more accessible work, but hits you right at the beginning with this, this, this “prose”. Part one is called “God Loves Rich Kids”, prose pieces. “And We Smoke Off the Same Cigarette” is part two, poetry.
Regarding “God…”, then…as Louis Henry explains in his introduction, “…many times you’ll wonder if I’m ever actually going to get to a point, or tell a story.” Which would be awful if, as is so often the case with so-called “experimental” writing these days, that were the overt and self-conscious point of what he was doing; “in his hands” it comes off wonderfully in that same way that Richard Brautigan or Douglas Copeland could always make you enjoy reading without having to pay so much attention to who, what, where, when you were reading about, and why, exactly, you were reading in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong…I love densely plotted, Dostoevskian/Dickensian type stuff as much as the next novelist, but Henry is doing something with his prose which would only suffer from too much filling in. He realizes this, and allows the form he has chosen to take over; going, in the process, to places he might never have made it to had he started from somewhere else. There are ideas here, without which formalism, whether of the exacting or of the “look how little I care” type, loses whatever relevance it might have had a hundred years ago. You’ve heard of philosophical novelists, now get ready for free-verse philosophical prose stylists.
Yes, and because…there’s poetry at the heart of it.
If the truth has to be anything, it has to be effortless.
If there is anything the truth cannot be, it is pretentious.
The prose in “God…” feels …not to say was, because there’s always a distinction between the craft of writing and the impression the writer creates…
…anyways FEELS effortless, and never pretentious. Louis Henry tells the truth in perhaps the only possible way: by being honest. As in “Souls in the Post,” for example, where he writes:
“My mother once asked me, if I had a gun against my head, what would I say if I was asked if I believed in god?” (Louis Henry distinguishes between God and “god”, and do be prepared for the idea of a deity to come up again and again in different contexts and from different perspectives throughout this collection.)
“My response was:
‘Whichever answer I thought would stop the bullet.’
If you haven’t guessed, I recommend this book. So, buy it, I say. Or maybe he’ll give you a copy if you agree to write a real review about it.
Copyright 2010 by J de Salvo
THE NUT TREE
The cottage’s garden had no walls, and had never been shut off from public view during its long life. It had beautiful hedges, with gates for the village children or the passing gypsies with their oddly scrambled clothes and wandering eyes, to glimpse and see the blooming within. At all seasons, even in the coldest winter, there were flowers or green of some kind.
The gardener living at this time in the cottage, spending his days where he worked at the mansion garden, and early mornings and long twilights in his dominion, had inherited the quality of his family, with an added quality of his own, the final fruit, as it were, of all who lived there before him. He was young and strong, with the rugged beauty that sunlight and open air lend to clean features and fair hair. His great hands were gentle, and his eyes shared with the sea where they rested so often its changing gleams of green and blue, dark and light. His nature was particularly happy, a balance of confidence in his own occupations, with a mild tolerance and whimsical amusement for all other conflicting ways. He might be called a simple man, for his mind was close to a child’s in calm acceptance, delight, or wonderment in things he did not understand, or could not control. He might be termed unambitious, for he was as content in his garden as many men have never been content; he had no desire to leave his home and better himself. People would say to him as he leaned on his spade at the gate, “Why don’t you travel, lad? There’s many a fine duke or prince who would take your service, and treat you fair as a gentleman, with a fine house and men beneath you working their heads off, and you merely giving the orders and consulting with milady, and such. You waste yourself here amongst us and up at the mansion where the family’s poor and fast dying out.”
But his answer was always the same. “These are my flowers, and they need me, and, God help me, always will be mine and in need, or my sons’ after me.”
And the loiterer would smile, and say, “How’s our little Nancy?” for the gardener had a brotherly affection, unuttered though obvious, for little Nancy Trellyn in the village down below. At mention of her, he burst into song, some light air of the day, a ballad, or a chantey’s rollicking verse.
Or if they said, “Lad, your eyes are always heading seaward when they’re not on the soil, and you’re a good hand with the sails, why don’t you take to the sea and make a fortune in Chinese shipping?” his answer would be, “The sea is mine to watch and wait beside, and I’m happier in its known friendliness that if I captained a dozen great ships.” With his power so highly weighed, he might indeed be termed unambitious.
He possessed perpetual cheer. Frost or sudden storm spoiling careful work of weeks would sadden him, but to put the hurt right would mend that gloom in a moment. Some said he had not suffered enough, and as they said it, knew they were wrong, for his life had in no way been a silken easy one. His father, companion of closest kind, had lain ill and in pain for many months before death released him; and worse, his younger sister had fallen in with rotten company, had run off with the rottenest of the lot. Her succeeding life had been unceasing pain to her brother until kind death had freed her from the miseries of poverty, shame, and disease. The two children she left lived with the gardener now, one a lark of a child, and hopelessly crippled.
And yet he was not sad, nor bitter; an intelligence to the seasons and growing plants perhaps was founder, or that thread of cheer running through him, a grip of his hand in the warm and compensating hand of nature, a positive assurance that however bleak and black the world lowered, the crimson of maple buds would gladden the same world each spring. He had suffered, and cruelly; his sister had been a proverbial light of a man’s life, quick-tongued, gay, charming the air about her with pranks and laughter, until that weakness of hers, love beyond the wisdom of one man, had shadowed her. To see her so, and be in a way powerless to help her must have been hard for the gardener. But he had shown no bitter regret or censure; her weakness in her love, he thought, was her very strength, and without that weakness and the agony of spirit of her lover’s faithlessness must have brought her, the gardener believed she would have amounted to less. But in the village some still affirmed his time would come. “He will be struck down himself, his own stream has felt no freezing cold, when that comes, and he will be on true trial.”
He was, as gardeners may if they are tempered with their work, south after for advice and consolation. Old women, coming to borrow from his herbs would mourn husbands long dead, or half-grown sons, lost a sea a half century ago, or a quarter because they wanted to hear their voice giving its eternal philosophy of time and compensation, the give and take of all things. Girls stopped, for words of encouragement, shy as his own violets, and begged for a rose to wear in the fronts of their frocks, or to trim up their shawls, for a tradition had long lived in the village about his roses. They brought what the heart wished, if the wish came from a pure heart. This tradition was not of the young gardener’s making, but had come to birth in older times, when herbs and lore of them were live forces among people.
Now there ere jokes about the rose wearers, and it took some courage to walk up the hill and beg a big bloom with half the village aware of your destination, and the lad who was to wait that night at the seawall awkwardly pleased, or swaggering over the knowledge that his lass was going up into the garden for a bloom to wear with him.
Nancy Trellyn rarely came by during the late hours, or the early ones, when the gardener was singing at work among his golds and flames, and whispering greens, for it cost her too many a tease from her tall brothers and buxom mother. “Going up, not for a bud,” they’d say, “but for the flower himself,” and her smooth cheeks would flush, though her tongue would be quick with a sharp rejoinder. Her mother sent her up to take presents to Nicky and Jane, little gifts that all the mothers of the village made a matter of rivalry between themselves. If Nancy’s mother sent up a jar of fresh put-up strawberry jam, why Mrs. Engleby would find that she’d baked an extra bit of cake, and would run it by her Joe. The gardener was an object of sympathy, and his two waifs of affection, and the presents they received were tangible signs of their feelings. You couldn’t say soft words to him; he was not that kind of man; even during the worst of his troubles, with his bonny sister coming home to him coughing and cruelly changed, the greatest, and at that a morsel, you could do was to take up a loaf of bread, or knitted socks for the children.
Perhaps what caused the difficulty in approaching him was his baffling cheerfulness throughout, as if the sun were shining on his days, and on Nicky and Jane’s, and on their wasted mother, instead of the dark and cold fog that really hung over them all. The villagers never became used to this; they liked to throw themselves deeply into whatever emotion came tumbling down the street, if it were anger, or lurking death, or indignation, they had words and tears and laughter for all events that shook their world, sincere always, and as always exaggerated.
But Nancy was a pretty girl, and the neighbors all thought she would fill the empty spot in the gardener’s house, and if she did, it would be a fine step for her, and a good thing for the lad, the lonely, poor thing, with two children on his hands, and nothing but work from morn till night. In the winters the village saw much of the gardener, for he’d come down to the inn for a pint on a cold evening, while the children were taking tea with Mrs. Engleby, or Mrs. Russet, or Nancy’s mother. He’d sing along with his warm voice there with the men gathered for a rousing “Blow him away,” in chorus. After he left, they would listen for his passing with crooked Nick on his shoulder, and Jane tagging at his heel, all three lusty voiced, though Nick’s was sweet as a silver flute. And sometimes Nancy would go up with them to fetch back something her mother thought needed mending or tended to, and then her voice would join theirs, as they started up the cobbled road. They would sing until the road struck the shoulder of the hill, and then all but the gardener stopped, for the steepness took breath for dealing.
Nancy, too, was interested in the experiments he made on his flowers. He never just bought and planted seeds; each must in some way be bettered by its life in the garden. She listened and watched with more patience than many of his descriptions on the fine point shades he’d produced in his roses. Everything, he believed, must be made better for being with him, whether it was a little root from the woods, or the heather of the hills, or a fancy, foreign bulb, must in some way grow more perfect, bloom fairer, or smell sweeter after it sojourn within his hedges. “It’s the way of growing things,” he said, “and we, who cultivate them, must do our share.”
His most prized experiment at this time he kept secret, even from Nancy, which worried her, and at the same time gave her pride, for if he was working on something so special that he couldn’t tell her, then it must be something of magnitude, of importance beyond any of his other trails. He had been working for a long time on this one thing, and Nancy didn’t suspect nor could she guess when its time for blooming would come, though her intimacy with the gardener allowed her the privilege of saying, in close to a whisper, “How is it coming these days?”
And he, laughing at the reverence in her voice, would say, “Wait, Nance, and you’ll soon see.”
He kept it where the peach trees grew, and so she knew it must be a tree, and not another rose. For this she was a little sad, for in her woman’s heart, she had hoped it would be a rose, and perhaps named after her, that filled his time and thoughts. Then no one in the village, neither neighbor nor brother, could tease her for walking up the hill for a gardener’s bud. She would have on all to herself. His father had named his rose after ladies, one, the Maria, after his wife. Each of the young daughters up at the mansion had one, Laetitia, Alice, and Grace. These were pretty names, thought Nancy, and wondered whether a rose called Nancy would carry enough dignity.
She was walking up the hill now, with a basket of cookies for Nicky and Jane. The day was a fine one, a Sunday early in May, with the warmth of June already haunting the air and deceiving one into thinking summer here; Nancy had worn her light blue dress, which, because the gardener had once called it sky-colored, was forever endeared to her.
She soon came within hail of Nick, who was singing in the sun on the doorstep, his feet on the path, and the wind blowing through his light hair. She called his name, and he called Jane’s, and Jane scrambled out of the house still with her cleaning apron on, to run down to meet Nancy.
“Is it cookies?” she said.
Nancy nodded, a whoop of joy, echoed by Nick, escaped Jane.
The gardener had come out now and stood at the door, regarding the three of them as he so often did, with a twist of affection on his lips, and a half-smile. Nancy, turning her face to his was cut by his expression. He looks at me as a child too, she thought, and he’ll never think of me as anything else. A feeling of hopelessness welled up in her, and that drift of shyness his presence sometimes brought her, swept down.
She felt shyer with him, really, than she did with other grown-ups. She could give the butcher’s boy sharp words rivaling her mother’s over a poor chop or a late visit; her tongue at a tea table never subdued, and her wisdom on turning heels was respected by all but Mrs. Engleby. But he subdued her, her eighteen years and her long skirts shrunk with him near, and she lost power of crisp, ready answers so easy with the village boys.
And yet she knew he liked her; his Nance, was his name for her and he gave it to her now, as he stood in the cottage door, with the sun on his face, and his hands holding a broom. That broom struck her with compassion that he, a man, should have to spend his Sundays cleaning was more than she could stand.
“Let me have the broom,” she said. “I’ll finish the sweeping.”
No, Nance, no. I’ve finished all that needs to be done. Forget the rest, and come up on the cliffs with us. I’ve been promising the children a walk to the headlands to see the gulls nest. Come, we’ll go now.
He swung Nicky onto his shoulder, and Jane threw her apron inside the cottage, graded a coat for Nick and a shawl for herself.
“You’re a true mother to Nick now,” said Nancy,
Jane smiled with pride.
“The wind may be cold for him up there,” she said and tucked up her skirts to make the walking easier, as the women did when they went up to the cliffs to find mushrooms in the fields. Nancy tucked hers too, though more from fear of dirtying the cloth of her sky-colored dress than from the inability to manage her skirts in a rough climb.
The gulls wheeled and screamed, and the grass, cool, silvery turf, looked too as though summer was not far off. Once they paused, for the gardener’s eye had seen a little splash of purple in the shelter of high turf. Early thyme, he told them, and they all bent over it. Then he struck up a song, and they did not dawdle until the cliff edge was reached. It was a high cliff, jutting out to make the south side of the harbor, though abrupt and harsh in outline, it always possessed friendliness and peace for those familiar with it. It had been the walk of too many widow women, with their eyes turned to the sea, the object of too many old men looking for their evening peace, the playing ground of too many Nick and Janes; they could scramble at safe distances from its edge, and find treasures and play pirates on its height and loneliness. The children scattered now to find a cairn they’d built with two buttons buried beneath it in the autumn.
Nancy stood by the gardener, watching his face with an intensity matching his own gaze, though his was far flung to seaward. He broke from his dream and spoke to her.
“Not playing today, my Nance?” he said teasingly. “The other children will miss you sorely.”
She was stung to reply with a sharper note than her voice had ever had for him.
“You think I am a child?”
“And so you are, though you do wear a dozen petticoats and long skirts.”
In confusion she looked down at her skirts, and saw that they were twisted up still, showing yards and yards of Sunday ruffles, all wet and bramble torn. She tried to speak, but embarrassment stifled her.
“Sit down, then, and on my coat like a proper lady”
He spread it out for her near the edge of the cliff, and helped her, bowing, onto it, and then flung his long length beside her, chin on hands, and eyes seaward again.
“I’m a crusty old bachelor, and you mustn’t mind what I say. It’s without meaning; but indeed, Nancy, you must grow up a good deal more if you want me to mistake for a proper lady.”
“We’ll pretend you are a grown lady, Nance, just for this day I’ll forget the pigtailed child I’ve known so long.”
He sat up stiffly and asked Miss Trellyn if the days wasn’t fine, and air soft for this time of year, and broke down by asking if she’d remembered to bring the cookies with her.
“The air makes me hungry,” he said like a boy.
Then they talked about the village and Mrs. Trellyn’s rheumatism, and Nancy soon smiled with ease. She even dared to ask him how it was coming along.
His face shifted to new lines.
“Nancy, it’s going to bear fruit. I counted two buds on it this morning; I’m uncomfortably impatient for their ripening.”
There was something in his tone that startled Nancy. He cares too much for it; it’s not right to care so much for a tree.
“What tree is it?”
“A nut tree, Nance, a nut tree,” his voice drifted into dreaminess.
She was surprised—that didn’t sound strange.
“What will it bring or bear?” she said feeling very daring to enter so far into the privacy of his thoughts.
“Bring me?” he said. “It will bring me the world, kings, queens, princes, all will hear of its wonder, from England and France they will come to see it, from Germany, from mountains and plains, from up north, from the south, and from sunny Spain!”
“And bear?” she whispered.
“I don’t know, Nance. I don’t know,” he said quietly.
Together they were silent.
Jane and Nicky came up, and clamored for the cookie basket and the gardener clamored too, and looked at Nancy to see if she understood that he was playing the child now, and letting her have the pleasure of being the one grown-up of the group. Their road home took them along some cliffs, across the fields, where evening already gentled the colors and hazed the network of trees at the horizon. Nancy stayed with them, they begged her so, and cooked their tea, washing the dishes afterwards. It gave her pleasure to turn her hand at fixing up things a little in the gardener’s house. For all his care and Jane’s budding housewifeliness, the place had a scattered frantic look.
Then the children were tumbled into their trundle bed, and the gardener walked to the edge of the hill with Nancy, staying there in the dark until she waved a light from her own window when she had reached home. This was his way, he said, of keeping his eye on the safety of all his children, for he could look back at all the cottage which held the sleeping ones, and down into the village one the waking one on her way home.
Nancy, the day having been an almost perfect one was full to the brim with happiness. She allowed herself to forget his accent on her youth while thinking how sweet it would be to live up there always, and have his care on her hands forever; then she remembered the strangeness of him when they were on the cliffs. “A tree,” she murmured, “a nut tree,” and shivered a little when a wind from the incoming tide curved up the road. But she had a smile for her mother, and a gay “O, such a good day,” as she swung the lamp to and fro in the window.
The weeks slipped by, the first roses bloomed, and then the ramblers covered the house in crimson, and the hollyhocks pointed to the sun, while at their feet portulaca were as passionate seekers of light. Primroses were dainty, and larkspur tuned with the Canterbury bells, and lavender scented the garden heavily, and bees hummed about the snapdragons. The children were out all day; even in the rain they picked raspberries and gooseberries, bursting baskets to take down to their friends in the village. The gardener had built a little cart which Jane could pull for Nicky, and the two searched for mushrooms in the early mornings. If there was a mist, heavy coast mist curling and creeping on the headlands, they would listen for their uncle’s voice, never going further than his caroling could reach.
His newest song was his favorite that summer, but it had no real words as yet, at least not complete ones. Sometimes it was about the King of Spain, or a nut tree, but beg and tease as they would, still he never explained it. They knew it had something to do with the special experiment, but even Nancy could not untie the mystery, or find sense to the words.
In the early fall, that time of first gatherings and gleanings, the tree bore its fruit. The children knew it the second they woke, for they heard the gardener’s voice singing clearly outside, his tree tune, but this time with words complete, and sung with ringing exultation. They left the trundle bed and ran to him where he stood by the brick wall. They turned their tousled, sleep-heavy heads up to him, and then followed his eyes and outstretched hand. There, on the little nut tree gleamed, glittered, glowed, strange fruit.
“It’s a pear,” said Nicky.
“And a nutmeg,” said Jane.
“But they’re all gold and silver,” said Nicky.
Both looked up at the gardener to see if they were meant to rejoice at this strange thing. His face demanded it, though they were doubtful, filled with strangeness. Again he sang, and they forced by his excitement, joined with him.
“I had a little nut tree, nothing would it bear,
But a silver nutmeg and a golden pear,
The King of Spain’s daughter came to visit me,
All for the sake of that little nut tree.
I danced o’er the water, I danced o’er the sea,
And all the birds in the air couldn’t catch me.”
By noon all the village had come up to see this strange tree, this little, obscure nut tree that bore fruit in gold and silver. The wives came up, first on pretexts baldly obvious, later with no pretense other than doubting curiosity; the neighborhood children came and stayed all day, playing in the garden, offering information to travelers on the road; the fishermen came as their boats brought them from the sea; the master at the mansion sent word that he would be down before sunset. Those who saw the tree wonder-dumb confronted by it, and spilling voluble the moment they’d turned away, and were safely surrounded by chattering, uncorked friends. “It’s unnatural,” they said, though pride in their gardener swelled that day. “He’s not going to have to live in this quiet nook now.”
And though the crowd thinned somewhat at noon, it had billowed beyond its former proportions by twilight. People from the next village had gathered, news of this sort spreading fast, and any who had gone home, returned, for they all wanted to know what the verdict of the master of the mansion would be, how he would take this unnatural thing, but until then they would not go home. They wished to spend the evening discussing whether they did or did not agree with the opinion of their gentry.
The gardener seemed to walk in a daze; he went up to the mansion at his usual hour, and fumbled through his work, his eyes, color of this day of a dark sea storm swept, resting forever on vistas not visible to others. His joy of the morning had passed; he was helpless, bewildered, beneath the immensity of his own achievement.
The master walked down with him from the house, saying incredulous pleasantries. The gardener said nothing; he rubbed his hands across his forehead when he saw the thronged garden and heard the hum of speculation slough off into murmurs as his approach with the master was noticed. He led the way through the crowd, past the cottage and its purple walk of michealmass daisies, through the herbarium, along the wall of patterned fruit trees. Nancy’s white and worried face caught his passing glance. Nicky took his hand, and Jane his smock’s edge, and they stopped in front of the nut tree. The master looked, and touched, and gave a gasping cough; he looked at the people waiting for him to denounce or praise, but he spoke no word.
He shook the gardener’s hand, stared once more at the silver nutmeg and the golden pear, and moved out of the garden the way he had come, but swiftly. The villagers followed him, struggling out until a few gypsies were left with Nancy, and they too walked away, Nancy casting one last look at the gardener, standing just as the master had left him, The gypsies camped in the field across the road; their fires burned all night, and the gardener could see his fruit catching that firelight; the first striking of the morning’s sun found him sitting still beside his tree of passing strangeness.
Fame spread fast. All happened as he had said to Nancy. He was visited by the curious, the skeptical, the garden specialists, the flower fanciers. Offers were made to him for positions in manors, castles, palaces. The Queen herself sent a pompous person to investigate this tale of oddity in her realm, but the oddity proved fact, and the fruit ripened and took on more radiant luster every day. In late autumn the pear and the nutmeg dropped from the tree. The gardener, still uncertain of his bewilderment, didn’t know what to do with them. The village persuaded him to present them to his Queen. Very uncomfortable and handsome in a new suit of velvet, he took them to her palace. She was kind, and asked him if he would consider coming to her gardens to work there, with men under him and little to do but give orders and continue his wonderful work. With care they would make the gardens the rarest in the world. Thanking your highness very much, he said, he would think about it, and returned to his cottage to wait the winter and the relief of the quiet.
He whittled Nicky a brace, jointed and smooth, and played games with the children and sang. They went down to the village for tea, and he sang as of old in the inn. He puttered among his boxes, growing slips and seed lets for spring planting. He whistled over his work, cleaned the house on Sunday mornings, and waited for Nancy’s coming on Sunday afternoons when her mother sent her up with a basket of tidbits. But something within him had changed; a force in his life had gone, or was it some new force that had come in?
It had not turned his head, his fame and glory; he had not grown ambitious and over-weaning, he was not seeking a way to outshine his accomplishment. He seemed to be waiting. His eyes would seek the harbor, and then move beyond it, out to sea and to the south. He was waiting, and Nancy knew it, and was grieved. Coming less to the cottage than she used. to. He scarcely seemed to miss her, and she knew that, too, and grieved more deeply, and took to seeing her village friends more often. Dismissing the teasing persistence of her worry with a “the course of true love never did run smooth,” Mrs. Trellyn nevertheless showed a smoother side of her rough tongue than formerly.
While the winter passed quietly in the village, and the earth slept, and news and people moved more slowly with the roads torn by ice, and the seas dangerous through storms, the nut tree’s fame crept farther abroad. It moved from place to place, taking its time, pausing at an inn for a week, moving from there with the next traveler, spending one night in a great city, the next in a shabby posting-house, the next on the sea over a hot rum in the captain’s cabin, with the sting and spray of the waves swirling up the ship’s sides, moving from port to port, from town to town, moving ever south. In June it reached the court of Spain, where a beribboned beau prattled it to a lady-in-waiting, to impress her and win a reward. It moved from her, the tale of the nut tree, still simply told, for it defied exaggeration in its own enormity, to the listless ears of infants, the King’s daughter of Spain.
She, in her perpetual imprisonment of grandeur and ponderous magnificence, languorous, bored, rarely listened to her ladies as they chattered about her. She lived as much as she could in a world of vague dreams, dreams that allowed her freedom of body and spirit, that were placed in open fields, on high mountains, or on the vast and changing seas. It was her only vice, this dreaming, and not a serious one. Her ears were closed to the “Lord thus-and-so’s” and he told me such a tale, but this day “silver nutmeg” drifted to her through the maze of words. She turned her head.
“A nut tree,” Inez one the ladies was saying, “a common nut tree like those in the courtyard.” She pointed them out to the group surrounding, the grove of shaped ones kept for their shade in the Infanta’s garden. “And,” said Inez, “he took them to the Queen and she—“
“Who took what?” said the princess, sitting bolt upright now; her fan dropped, and motion turning the languid lines of her figure to alert beauty.
“Madam,” said Inez, “it’s a story monsieur de Vigny brought down from France. He heard it at an inn on the way. He has traveled so far, sent by his country, and all to see you, madam, in behalf—“
But the story. The story!”
Inez told her the story in its amazing, stripped simplicity. The fan moved now, not listless.
“And there is a quaint song the gardener made up about it; de Vigny sang it for me.
“I had a little nut tree, nothing would it bear,
But a silver nutmeg and a golden pear,
The King of---“
“I cannot remember the rest,” she said with a stutter. The princess, whose swift scorn, anger, pleasure, she knew well, might be insulted at the boldness of a gardener using her name lightly in his song.
The Infanta rose.
“We will find de Vigny. He will finish it!”
And so she heard the rest of the song, sung with a guitar for accompaniment, with her ladies about her, and softness and heat weighing in from the hot courtyard. She heard more of the gardener, of his garden, his waifs, of his youth, and his simplicity.
“Imagine,” said Inez. “He said ‘thank you kindly to the Queen, and I’ll think about your offer!”