The pages of Far
From the Thick of Things drip with incongruous, dreamlike images: a
clever trollup braving an earthquake on a London street, a garage sale genie
who takes wishes instead of granting them, a theater actress who meets her
former self at a graffiti-strewn dead end. It’s these absurd juxtapositions—the
extraordinary in the ordinary—that reveal the mechanics of the universe, as
well as the inner-workings of our own hearts. 83,535-word Far From the Thick of Things uses
language itself to reveal the human condition, but only the spaces between can
breathe metaphysical truth. Equal parts whimsy and poignancy, this collection
of short stories is populated with colorful, diverse characters. We meet them
at different stages of life, observing the dots that connect over time, weaving
a mysterious tapestry of destiny, free will, and complete randomness. Some of
the eccentric characters are cuddly, others prickly and rough around the edges.
But all are—like us—redeemable.
The Trollop, the Hobo and the Dandy
walked the length of Brewer street, towing a tiny wire handcart with a wobbly
wheel. She traversed the stretch daily after leaving the West End theater where
she spent afternoons, picking up a fresh baguette on the way home, or a stick
of butter, or whatever was needed for supper that evening. No one shopped in
bulk back in the day—oh, maybe a burlap sack or two from the weekly farmers’
market, but it was convenient enough to shop daily; there was a butcher and a
patisserie on every block. Not to mention a produce stand on every corner—two en route from the tiny equity waiver
theater to home. And post-depression, who could afford to stuff a shopping cart
on equity waiver (read: non-existent) wages?
to the city to pursue her dream of acting in the theater, like so many before
her. Though her tiny flat was far from the thick of things, tucked away on a
narrow stretch of Whitcomb Crescent, the hustle and bustle was a heartbeat
away. Walking to and from the lanky brick theater with its rows of rickety
mahogany seats and its burgundy velvet curtains that smelled perpetually of
pipe tobacco, she got her fill of humanity and felt she was part of something.There was the trollop who always said a kind
hello through curls of cigarette smoke while leaning seductively against a rain
gutter at the corner of Berwick, the loner in the fedora who could be seen
slipping in and out of the seedy motion picture house a block later, always
alone. The hobo at Lexington Street called her by name and said ‘God bless’
whether she was in a position to spare a shilling or not. On the rare occasion
there was anything left after making rent, she’d place several coins in his
palm, a token of good will at best. He’d jingle the coins between soot-stained
knuckles with a broad, toothless grin. Secretly Ruby Fuller suspected or hoped
he was actually heir to a small eastern bloc country and had chosen to lay low for a spell. He didn’t
need the coins, but liked how shiny
they were, the sound of their jingling.
was low on morals, to be sure. But she was clever. If any banter was exchanged
beyond a polite hello, it took the form of a witty commentary on some current
event or other. Despite her destitution,
the woman was well read.
The loner in the fedora was equally bankrupt,
morally speaking. Ruby knew full well what kind of films were shown there in
the dark, what strain of patron populated every fifth seat, and what went on
beneath their long, pin striped trench coats. Her suspicions were confirmed
whenever the young man hurried in or out, eyes glued to the buckled,
the usual suspects. If Ruby did not encounter two of the three during the course
of her day, she knew she’d wandered astray or stepped into an alternate
universe through some portal disguised as a newsstand. Oh, there was plenty of other foot traffic.
Her own street ran smack through the heart of the Jewish ghetto. Most pedestrians
there were devout Hasidim, costumed in kippas or wide-brimmed kolpiks and long,
eccentric (in her opinion) sideburns she’d learned were known as payot. And
weaving between them, the strange bedfellows that seemed to come hand-in-hand
with the Jewish ghetto in most metropolitan settings—the dandies. The same ones that frequented the stag theater.
judged the characters she passed. She herself had come from means, even if
she’d insisted on being independent when she moved to the city. Mum and Dad had
retired early, lived on a fixed income. She was young and healthy, and in a
much better position to garner a living. And the war had made it feasible for a woman to earn her own
livelihood without resorting to turning tricks like the clever trollop. Not
that she judged. She had the foresight to recognize that with time, her own
resources could dwindle—her own currency.
The world had always worshipped youth, but she’d not bought into the
mentality. She rarely thought about age, as a number or a comportment. The form her non-judgment took was this: given
slightly different circumstances, she could find herself, in a heartbeat, right
there alongside the trollop or the hobo or the dandy. It was not an effort for
her to be gracious, accepting or tolerant—merely her nature. It never occurred
to her to be otherwise.
she’d slipped on that johnnie while crossing Brewer Street and nearly twisted
her ankle, she’d simply drawn a tissue from her clutch, kneeled and folded the
thing into the tissue, depositing it into the nearest rubbish bin. She did not
like the thought of some old Rabbi breaking a hip, or worse—meeting his end—in such an inglorious encounter. Besides,
birds are known to choke on rubber products.
think of it, she was morally opposed to rubber products altogether. “They’re
not biodegradable,” she’d heard
herself say. The new term would gain popularity over time, but for the moment
the other young actresses at the theater would label her ‘progressive.’
afternoons honing her craft—learning the dell’arte tradition and doing
improvisation and simply reading the works of the great playwrights, silently
mouthing the dialogue but not daring to run a scene with an actual partner. When
a casting call was posted, the other girls dove in headfirst without
inhibition, and from afar Ruby learned the whole affair was largely political.
for Perchance To Dream, Ruby was
approached by the director, Nathan Whitaker.
you audition, doll?” He asked, earnestly enough. He’d approached her on the
darkened stage as she gathered up her belongings and stuffed them into that
wobbly handcart. She’d assisted with the auditions but nothing more ambitious
gasped, taken off guard. “I don’t suppose I’m ready…”
stepped closer, gently easing the cart to the warped floorboards of the stage.
His hand lingered on hers.
“When you are ready,” he assured her in a scarcely
audible rasp, “I’m confident you’ll do quite well. In fact, I’m sure of it. “
nothing. The footlights blinded her, rendering everything beyond them a
featureless black void. Nathan’s hand was on her breast, gently stroking the
coarse fibers of the blouse she’d picked up at the second hand store on Warwick
watched you in class. You have a gift.”
she blushed, paralyzed, unprepared, unable or not wanting to remove the hand
from her breast.
I’ve seen, I can guarantee you are
ready—moreready than those other
Ruby was not
Whitaker was a celebrated director. He was as handsome as any one of those
cocky aspiring actors who hung around the theater, with their pompadours and
horn-rimmed glasses and ironic seersucker suits. But the twenty years he had on
them only gave him an edge. Though still a virgin at twenty-three, Ruby had
impulses. And there was something sexy—though
she would never have used the word in polite conversation, about character. The fine lines that appeared
around Nathan’s jowls when he spoke, those that defined his vaguely tortured
brow, all spoke of experience. Of richness. Ruby could not have seen any of
this coming, but found herself tempted all the same, wondering if she could
separate work from play. Whether taking logical advantage of opportunity would
cause her to question the very gifts this man saw in her.
footlights went out with a thud and
the two were left standing—levitating—in
an ambiguous void as black as pitch. His image persisted in her mind. Those fine lines may have been etched by
experience, she realized, but they
are not character.
His hand was still on her breast.
removing it, she simply turned away, allowing it to drop to his side. The sound
of it grazing his smart hounds tooth blazer was deafening in the hollow dark. Final somehow. Ruby Fuller retrieved her
cart of modest affairs and was gone.
Fifty years later
I really need to oil that thing.
The wobbly wheel of Ruby Fuller’s cart squeaked
incorrigibly, echoing off the stucco facades of Brewer Street. The stretch had
been renovated recently, the third time in her memory, and the cheap modern
building materials did not absorb the sound like the more durable, lasting
brick and mortar of her day.
earthquake-proof,” she’d been informed by the contractor, a third her age,
who’d singlehandedly developed the whole area. “They’re retrofitted. Instead of collapsing like brick, they’ll sway.” With that the man demonstrated,
writhing and undulating in a mildly sexual, if awkward, manner.
old woman summarized, unimpressed, trying to picture the buildings doing the
same. She rattled on with her baguette
and a random assortment of library books. A block later it occurred to her: earthquakes in London?
She considered turning around to put the man in his place,
but thought better of it. She was nearly
home. She was returning from the equity waiver theater that had somehow
remained standing, wedged between midrise office buildings with street-level
businesses. There was still plenty of foot traffic, as renovation often meant
gentrification. Which meant ‘trendy.’ Instead of Hasidic Jews, she passed
hipsters and yuppies and tourists.
In her day,
the progression went like this: a neighborhood started out avant-garde—a well-kept
secret. Then word got out and it became trendy, then mainstream, and then the
fun was over altogether. The ghetto days became lore as the artists and
musicians and screenwriters were pushed out by the franchises to more
affordable areas. Nowadays, even in its bohemian phase, a neighborhood could
boast at least one Chipotle and several Starbucks without losing its
credibility. When a Wall-Mart appeared at Brewer and Warwick, Ruby had stepped
inside out of morbid curiosity. She’d parked her wobbly cart just inside the
entrance and looked around. She’d stayed long enough to see screaming,
unattended children, and to hear a lackadaisical cashier request a price check
for tampons over the PA system between smacks of chewing gum. When she’d braved
Starbucks, Ruby had witnessed a bandage being changed at the neighboring table.
entered either establishment again.
stuck to her familiar route. She’d left the theater just as rehearsals started
for an upcoming revival of Cats. She’d
picked up the groceries needed for supper, and was nearly home. She’d passed
the clever trollop, who was no longer turning tricks at her advanced age, but
passing out rations at the halfway shelter she’d established on a grant. Ruby
had passed the loner ducking into the seedy cinema as he’d done several times
weekly since its opening decades ago. The old man’s cataract-shrouded eyes remained
glued to litter-strewn pavement as always.
The hobo had
long since passed.
At the time,
Ruby imagined he’d collected on his inheritance and was ruling a small Eastern
Ruby had learned to adjust her vocabulary. Though occasion rarely presented
itself to discuss the hobo or the trollop or the dandy, in her head she knew
they’d become the homeless man, the prostitute and the homosexual,
respectively. Even if she did find it
neighborhood had become known as the gay community. It was full of handsome
young men with notable physiques who knew how to dress and occasionally walked
hand-in-hand. In her day they were known simply as ‘bachelors,’ with an
understanding that what they did behind closed doors was their own business and
no one else’s. Now their business was everyone’s business.
Of course in
the theater she’d known plenty of ‘bachelors,’ or as the more eccentric of them
were called, dandies. In fact, she’d nearly married one or two. Despite
declining the overtures of a celebrated and influential director, she’d stayed
on at equity waiver. She never told anyone about the encounter, and Nathan
never directed another production there. He’d learned he didn’t like ‘slumming
it.’ Ruby landed roles, even lead roles,
and felt sure she’d done the right thing rejecting his advances. The right
thing for her integrity, if not her career. But in the end, though she was
practicing her craft, the roles that came her way were still just equity
waiver. And the bright lights of Shaftsbury, or even Broadway one day, still
called to her.
roles in larger productions evaded her, she would become painfully aware of the
importance of the casting couch, of influential individuals and the grapevine
and the small, incestuous world the theater would turn out to be. She’d blame
her career plateau on that one fateful decision. But when her head hit the
pillow at night she’d wonder if doing so wasn’t just rationalization, if there
wasn’t an inverse relationship between one’s degree of success and the number
of war stories one accrued.
moment, it was equity waiver, in the same theater that had brought her up.
night of her first noteworthy role—Stella in the hit new show streetcar Named Desire, she’d met a
young American soldier on shore leave from the Navy. He’d been so smitten he
dashed to the corner grocer during intermission while his mate held their
seats, and purchased a dozen red roses.He’d
waited at the stage door and presented them to her with a nervous grin. So well
scrubbed was he, standing there in his pressed white uniform holding that
crimson red bouquet, and what a picture it made, that she married him within
When he died
on the front lines at Kumsong, Ruby was glad he hadn’t done so a virgin. She
was glad to have given him that gift.
planning it, the memory of their breathless encounters would become sacred to
her as well: the brushing of swollen lips, the gentle thrusting in utter
syncopation, the oneness of their heartbeats as they climaxed together amid
cool, rumpled sheets.
spent time with other men over the years—mostly those she met at the theater.
But they’d turn out to be dandies more often than not. She’d never again share
a bed with a man, nor even a kiss. As the very idea grew more and more remote,
the memory of it became more and more precious.
reminisced as she walked, dragging her cart across buckled pavement. She often
lingered in the past, if not always among the bed sheets. Suddenly her cart
planted itself stubbornly of its own accord and she halted.
reason it came surging back to her: the day she’d turned down Nathan Whitaker’s
indecent proposal. She’d walked away without a word, made it through the dark
house of the theater with her cart, and out to the street. Her heart beat like
a hummingbird’s. Her mind reeled mile-a-minute. She traversed the familiar stretch
of Brewer Street in a daze without any awareness of it. Its sights and sounds
and smells were an abstraction, the only true
reality the moral dilemma that spun in her head.
“You did the
right thing. “ A voice permeated her reverie, popping the bubble.
smiled through a cloud of smoke. “You did, Sweets. I promise.”
For a split
second, Ruby wondered if her encounter with Nathan had been audible through an
open theater window, or if the woman was psychic, or had simply read it all in
her gait and downcast expression. It
didn’t matter, she decided; It was one of those days when the universe
Ruby moaned softly, a single tear cascading down her flushed cheek. And then
the fear returned.
“What if I
never act again? It’s my passion.”
placed her long cigarette holder between pursed, painted lips, extending a hand
to take hold of Ruby’s. The hand was weathered beyond its years, nails painted
with abandon as if to compete with her ruby red lips.
you,” she advised simply. “Ain’t one of us gets to choose the hand we’re dealt.”
There was something prophetic in the woman’s musing, but Ruby could not foresee
the incredible losses to come. That Kumsong would just be the first of many.
after a spell, the seemingly destitute woman surprised Ruby: “The trick,
Sweets, is to be in the present moment, whether you’re livin’ your passion or you
ain’t. To be there for the good, the bad, an’ the ugly. There’s beauty in the
Ruby was not
sure what they were talking about anymore, but her heart lifted. Suddenly she
had the guts to ask: “How do you do it? Do you turn out the lights?”
laughed, ruby lips parting to reveal perfect rows of pearl-like teeth. “Hell no, Sugar! I just don’t kiss…”
wondered what this meant. How preserving something so silly and arbitrary could
rationalize such a lapse in morals. For the first time in her young life, Ruby
The practice would only get easier. With every
disappointment, a judgment. With each loss a reflection and each missed
opportunity, an aspersion. Observations became opinions, and opinions beliefs. The
world became a very different place.
the gap between the Walmart and the tiny flat she’d kept all these years. A
woman with a tramp stamp and low-riding jeans bent over just inside the enormous
store window, retrieving a screaming toddler.
thought. And then she chastised herself as she did everyday. She wondered how
she got there—thoughts so sharp and prickly, how the world had changed so
drastically around her. If the world were the way it used to be, she wouldn’t
have to judge it! Oh, she knew it was all connected; the nastiness without
reflected the nastiness within. But knowing a thing and reversing it were two
moment, something happened that had never happened before. The woman literally forgot how she got where she
stood. That she’d been at the theater, not performing on its stage but sweeping
it for cash. That she had no pension and her measly social security had not
allowed her to retire.
warning, the earth began to quake. Violently. The toddler screamed and the
tramp chased after him. Merchandise plummeted from the shelves and cheap stucco
rained from above, narrowly missing Ruby and the other pedestrians on the
cement walk. The ground jostled from side to side, setting the buildings to
swaying like a man’s hips or two bodies entangled in cool, crumpled sheets.
Ruby could not bring herself to dash into Walmart. But the world was
collapsing, raining down lacerating shards of flack.
woman yanked her wobbly cart into motion and dragged it along, ducking into the
side door of the stag theater next to the Walmart.
pitch-blackness was all consuming.
failing eyes adjusted to its chaotic flicker, the movie screen seemed light
years away. She felt for a seat in the palpable dark, planting herself on cushy
velvet. The silhouettes of scattered patrons revealed themselves slowly—a
motley crew at best. As she’d always imagined, they sat alone, punctuated by
empty seats in-between. Though the earth continued to jolt, all of them remained
Enormous chandeliers swayed overhead, ceiling tiles careened
into empty seats.
wondered if she was comfortable expiring here, in a stag theater with lonely
bachelors. The idea was about as glorious as slipping on a johnnie on the way
to synagogue. But she couldn’t relocate now.
Amid the torrents of shrapnel, she realized she had bigger fish to fry than
location, location, location. It was the whole ending. It would never do. She’d
never married. Never had children. So much had passed her by. There was so much
to regret. Only now, in the final act, could she say it had not been worth it.
That preserving her integrity warranted no crown in heaven. That preserving
one’s heart out of loyalty was a romantic idea, and overrated. That ideals and principles
and ethics and morals and all those other invisibles were just dust and
scratches on the celluloid if your life was an empty screen. What good is a theater if no one is there to
act on the stage? The old woman pondered with what she thought might be her
last ounce of mental fortitude.
cascaded down her cheek, no longer flushed and youthful but quilted with character.
She’d stopped performing in the theater—only cleaned it. She’d stopped seeing
movies—it hurt too much. And now here
she was, an old lady trapped before a silver screen, unable to escape the movie
of her life. She wiped away the insolent tear and allowed herself to focus on
the screen light years away. The last thing on Earth she expected materialized
on it. The flickering image was not a stag film at all. There were no naked
dandies, no tangled sheets or limbs helplessly intertwined.
The film all
these men were silently watching was It’s
A Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart. She was sitting in an art house, one
that played revivals.
there was a stirring next to her. She’d seated herself next to one of those
silhouetted, anonymous patrons, and he was fumbling beneath his pinstriped
Who tosses off to Jimmy Stewart? Was all
she could think.
her that the motion picture house had survived three gentrifications. But even
more so, that it still played art. Ruby
squinted at the stranger next to her, trying to assemble the flickering
fragments that made sense of the dark. It was the dandy. The man who’d ducked
in and out of the tiny theater all these years, alone. And here he sat, fedora
in lap, grinning smugly as if he’d always been beside her and always would be. Those
eyes that had never looked up from the pavement were fixed on the screen,
twinkly blue and wistful and full of good humor. Brimming with the fullness of
life. He was an old man now, as old as her.
did Ruby notice the man had company. To his left sat the trollop, and to her
left, a male figure whose stately garb was dripping with diamonds.
The man was
fumbling again, trench coat stirring. When it parted, it was not a penis the
man withdrew. Only a hand. A knotted, arthritic hand that reached out and held
hers in the silent dark, as the world fell around them.
Phil Jacobs started jogging at fifty. He’d had a mild
scare—an irregular heartbeat they said was due to a bundle block he’d been born
with but which had gone undetected. Still, it was enough, when combined with
the acute awareness that his father and brother had both died of heart failure, to inspire dietary changes—one lump of
sugar in his afternoon tea, not three—and
a sudden interest in track and field. He’d take leisurely jogs at dawn before
commuting to his London office, or once his supper had settled at night if he’d
been unable to fit it in on a given morning. Straightaway, he felt like a new man.
Oh, he’d had his brush with track and field in parochial
school what seemed ages ago. So the wellbeing and sense of accomplishment that
came with his daily excursions was not a new discovery per se—just something excavated, like a treasure chest lain dormant
for ages untold beneath the crushing weight of an unforgiving tide, coddled in
the threadbare carcass of a wrecked pirate ship.
He’d pass familiar sites—the incessant scrim of densely
packed birch trees, the warm amber glow from the bay windows of that
magnificent mansion on the hill behind the forest preserve—but suddenly saw
them in a different way. The birch trees, as monotonous as the recurring
patterns they formed seemed to be at first glance, actually thrust from the
earth at random angles, exciting the eye with rhythm. Their velvet-black knots
and striations winked from the mad flurry that flew by, as though acknowledging
a shared secret. Still, as meditative
and rejuvenating as the regime started out, the man quickly became aware he was
running from something.
Something more than death.
“Phil,” Ann’s voice stabbed into his reverie, both lilting
and grating at the same time. He’d slipped in the side door of their country
cottage, was already stripping sweaty cotton from a lean torso.
“Yes, Love,” he replied, tossing his crumpled tank top
into a wicker hamper. He’d entered through the laundry for the very convenience
And already she was on him.
“Did you sign that paper for Sarah?”
“Yes, Love,” he cooed in his wife’s ear when she appeared
in the threshold from the parlor. “It’s in the post. I’m way ahead of you.”
“Not me. Sarah.” Her voice was terse. “She rang about it
Sarah was a college freshman, the second of their two
girls to go off to university. She needed proof of her independence to qualify
for scholarship. Problem is, Phil had claimed her on his taxes right up to the
moment she’d relocated to her tiny brick dormitory. So he’d be paying
out-of-pocket until she was eligible for financial aid in a year.No matter. Unlike many, Phil had figured
college tuition into the estimated cost of childrearing.
“Good on you,” Ann praised, awarding her husband with a tiptoed
kiss on the cheek. Her severe chestnut pageboy bobbed as she settled to the
tile floor in her sensible flats.
Phil placed his sinewy hands about her slender waist,
pulling her closer. Her tension dissolved, reluctantly. He teased her cheek
with an unshaven jaw, gently reminding her he was, in fact, a man. He knew he
was emitting a slight musk, but she’d always liked his scent. That’s what chemistry is, she’d even
said in the early days. It’s all pheromones.
One partner’s funk just jives with the other’s. It means genetic compatibility.
She hadn’t meant to use academic-speak, but after eight hours of lecturing
as an adjunct sociology professor, jargon was bound to spill over.
Nowadays, she was more apt to push him away.
“You, young man, are in need of a good shower,” she
Though the message was clear, she followed it up with a
pat on the behind as he passed, to soften the blow of rejection.
“You used to like my funk,” he lanced with good humor
over a glistening shoulder.
“I like sweat. Not B.O. There’s a difference. Not to be
too technical, but it lies in the bacteria quotient.”
Phil laughed despite himself as he continued down the
narrow hall from the laundry. “Such a romantic. I’m sure there’s a position
waiting for you at Hallmark.”
Phil obeyed his wife out of habit, turning toward the
downstairs water closet off the hall. No need to wait, he’d unfastened the
fraying string and let his threadbare sweatpants drop about his ankles. He
kicked them into the loo ahead of him. There was no call for modesty these
days; the couple had the cottage to themselves for the first time in two
decades. Surely there was some benefit
to having grown children. Not that the two were experiencing empty nest
syndrome. Phil had looked forward to
an empty nest. Instead, Ann had found herself pregnant at forty-three,
something neither imagined was even a remote possibility. The term immaculate
conception had been thrown around, and in order not to interfere with Ann’s
plan to become tenured, the moment their first boy arrived home from hospital,
they’d hired a nanny.
It was she who
rounded the corner from the salon just as Phil turned, stark naked, into the
downstairs wash closet. Her patent leather flats screeched audibly on faux
Normally Beth was well on her way by this hour. Once Ann
arrived home from the local college and received any and all updates on sleep
or feeding schedules, any significant developments on the ‘stool’ front, Beth
jumped in her vintage BMW and headed home to Stallion Springs to complete her
own homework. She was a college sophomore; Ann had handpicked her from
Sociology 101 to help out.
Any modesty Phil possessed at fifty yielded to
opportunity, and he eased the bathroom door shut with a minimum of urgency. At
the last millisecond before the latch clicked, reverberating exponentially against
faux marble, his eyes locked with Beth’s.
He proceeded to lock the door behind him, something he
did only when necessary—and embarked
on one of the longer showers of his life. He never had any guilt tossing off
over the nanny; part of him suspected his wife selected her not in spite of,
but precisely because of, her youth and beauty. A little favor to spice things
up. Or to take some of the pressure off of herself. And the man was always
horny after jogging—something about his junk swinging free (he never wore a
jockstrap—too restrictive.) But it wasn’t the friction that got him going. It
was the mental freedom that tempted his
mind to wander. Instead of alpha waves, his reverie more often than not
ventured into fantasy.
That tendency, combined with such an utterly flawless
moment in the hall, whipped up the perfect storm. There was heavy lathering
head to toe, front and back. His fingertips caressed the live wires of his
throbbing feet, toes ecstatic to be free from those sweaty Converse high tops. His
calloused fingertips moved on the length of his body, finally lingering, making
circles around his already erect nipples. Ann would never have worked his nipples. Beth surely would; her generation had
fewer hang-ups.Not to mention noshing
him off. For Beth’s generation, a good nosh off was the equivalent of a
handshake. Though Ann and her friends likely did their wifely duties, they
didn’t enjoy it.Penises altogether were considered a
necessary evil—an inconvenience to be tolerated.
Beth and her friends, thanks to the Internet, gobbled them up, appreciated
them nearly as much as gay men did.Phil
pictured the nanny down south, going to town on his knob, her twenty-two
year-old lips puckered and full. And when he went down on her—the least he
could do—it was not just her juices he was extracting; it was her youth.
Phil came with a
stifled moan, tossing his head back and allowing the showerhead to caress his
face and shoulders.
He toweled off, wondering when the knock would come, the
grating voice making sure he was ‘alright.’
To her credit, it was his heart she worried about.
When Phil went upstairs, the baby was down—Tucker was his
name—and Ann was in her study preparing the following day’s lecture.
“You smell good,” she noted, not turning from her work.
Phil’s own musk now mingled with the somber tones of Old Spice, a much more
“I’m going to whip up some supper,” he called to her from
across the study. “You hungry?”
After supper, the two fell asleep to the Late Show, side
by side, arms at their sides.
A week later, Phil was jogging through the forest
preserve crunching numbers. He was a CPA—his work a far cry from what his wife
did for a living—and more often than not it followed him home. He tried to
focus on his junk, swinging free, tried to think of Beth—anything to escape the
spreadsheets and figures that nipped at his heels. But he just couldn’t get
there today, couldn’t find that open clearing. The birch trees crowded him, winking
hollow black knots taunting him from a void blanketed in dusk’s silvery
After work, he’d stopped home just long enough to pull
his gym bag from the back seat of his Lexus and change in the driveway. He knew
better than to go inside, even for a moment, and put himself alone with the
nanny. Ann had decided once and for all to chip away at the baby weight and upped
her workouts. Three nights a week, they paid Beth extra to stay late while Ann
did her cardio at Hollyglen Fitness. Phil adjusted his jogs to the new
schedule, so as not to put himself in temptation’s way. Having an affair with
the nanny would not only make him a walking cliché; it could destroy his
marriage. But surely it couldn’t hurt to think
about Beth while jogging. Ann probably wanted
it that way. And so he did. Often.
But tonight the image of her full cheeks and full breasts
and pouty lips could do nothing to force out thoughts of work. It was numbers
that chased him in the falling dark. Only numbers.
And then, in a
split second, the spreadsheets dissolved, the abstract figures that nipped at
his heels disintegrating in a puff. Several hundred yards away, he’d spotted something
curious. The highway split just on the edge of town. The pavement on which he
normally jogged skirted the forest preserve that was their backyard. Its
offshoot ran parallel further down an embankment, leading to a small gated
community inhabited by horse people. Stallion Springs, it was called. Ann’s SUV
rattled along the highway from town. But instead of taking the high road toward
their cottage, it slinked along the lower tributary headed for Stallion
Springs. None of this would have been disturbing to Phil had there not been a
figure in the passenger seat. A male figure.
“How was your workout?” Phil asked. Suddenly he was the terse one.
“Fabulous, Love,” she sang, pinching a section of midriff
between her sports bra and yoga pants. “I think I’m making a dent.”
Phil rolled onto his side on their queen-sized bed,
watching her watch herself in the full-length bedroom vanity.
“I hated the gym at first,” she reflected. “But it really
grows on you.”
“So does bacteria.” Phil had once seen a science program
that pointed out, complete with CG graphics, the innumerable
microorganisms—parasites—hosted by the human body. And showering made no
difference, the narrator was sure to say; their numbers only increased
exponentially with the introduction of water.
Phil continued watching his wife as she stripped off her
sports bra in one fluid movement and her breasts jiggled in the dim light from
the upstairs loo. Phil wondered what had gotten into her. Or more accurately,
didn’t need to wonder.
He hadn’t showered since his jog. Even so, she attacked
him, yanking the worn sweat pants to his
ankles after peeling off his sopping sneakers.
“I haven’t showered,” he protested.
But she didn’t seem to mind. She was going to town down
there, bobbing the way he’d imagined Beth or one of her friends might. When she
straddled him moments later, he felt a bit used but quickly got over it. He had
a man’s instincts, after all. He silently thanked the evolutionary theory Ann
often rattled on about that men didn’t struggle with feeling objectified. In
his youth he’d been able to judge girls for being promiscuous, then fuck them
all the same. Objectifying them was not a turn
off; truth be told, it was necessary to
do the deed.
“The height of arrogance,” Ann diagnosed when Phil had
confessed as much. “To judge a woman for being a whore, then use her all the
same.” She’d diagnosed him two weeks into dating, and he was hooked. He loved
her for her brilliant mind. She’d also pointed out he was comfortable with
objectification because he himself had been touched early on. He was compartmentalized. Though he’d had
plenty of carnal experience before meeting Ann, her hand was the first loving touch he’d known. And here she
was, decades later, objectifying him. For
the past few years, on the rare occasion she was fired up for whatever reason, she turned him into the
equivalent of a delivery boy.
Not that he was complaining.
It was on Wednesday he’d seen her SUV slinking along the
highway toward Stallion Springs. Friday was her next gym day.
Phil Jacobs skirted the scrim of birch trees, tracing the
border between crumbling asphalt and delicate brush. His arms jostled loosely
at his sides, his jaw hung slack and listless. Even so, the shock of the
pavement ran through his joints tonight more than ever, reminding him his
nerves were all connected. And then he felt it. That microscopic blip. That one
missing beat that felt like a hiccup in the universe. Whenever his heart
palpitated, he said a silent prayer thanking the Lord things worked as well as
they did. Considering the natural order of things was chaos, Phil found it
redeeming that his car started as often as it did, from one random spark.
Maybe it was that tiny blip. Maybe he wanted to get away
from all those prying eyes that stared him down from the birch forest. Whatever
the impetus, Phil found himself veering from the high road. In moments, he’d
barreled down the slope of the divided highway, cutting through mustard yellow
grasses to that offshoot that ran in the wrong direction. By sheer coincidence,
an SUV was arriving from Hollyglen, meandering from its melancholy dusk-draped
The vehicle disappeared momentarily due to a cleft in the
landscape. When it reappeared, accelerating out of the wide turn in the road,
its speed was unexpectedly fast. Phil dashed into the mustard yellow grasses as
it roared by, narrowly missing him. His heart hiccupped.
It was not her.
Phil found his wife exactly where she was supposed to
be—at the gym. He’d added an extra mile to his jog by taking the small detour
down Highline Avenue, the street that ran through town perpendicular to the
highway. But it was worth it. His heart no longer felt it was beating out of
sync, rebelling against his body.
The floor-to-ceiling windows of Hollyglen Fitness offered
a full view of its members: all those gym rats and rhoid heads and yuppie moms
that stared at themselves blankly from treadmills or lifecycles, headphones
further cutting the off from the real world. Instead of exercising the way God
intended, with the wind in their hair, gently kissed by the sun. Suckers.
Ann was not doing cardio. Instead, she held a
ridiculously light dumbbell in each fist and traced the circumference of the
gym’s cardio room with long, exaggerated lunges. Phil stationed himself in
shadow between groomed hedges, assuring himself the squares of fluorescent
window light would not give him away. Just then, he saw that Ann had company. The kid had been refilling their water
bottles. But now he joined her, gently placing a hand on her back as if to
remind her of her posture. It lingered there, neither firm nor relaxed against
taut Lycra, neither pushing nor pulling. His other hand found her belly,
countering the one in back, massaging her poise as she strode with awkward
All was on the up and up; she’d had a trainer for two
years now. Phil made the decision to put the matter to bed then and there, not
to say a word. If he did, she’d probably say that yes, her trainer lived in
Stallion Springs and his car had broken down. She was simply giving him a lift.
She’d also say he was getting suspicious in his old age. Truth be told, she
liked his jealousy. She’d once put on her professor cap and made him feel
better about it by saying, “It exists for a reason. Propriety keeps the family
unit together, contributing to propagation. We can’t demonize all our instincts.”
Ann attacked her husband that night. She went down on
him, however selfish the motivation, then straddled him once he was rock hard.
Phil was reminded of their first few years of marriage. She’d been a prude, an
inexperienced one, nearly frigid. But somehow, during her first pregnancy, her
hormones had gone awry. In the still of night she’d turn to him (as if
demon-possessed, he’d later razz her) and throatily command:
“FUCK ME! NOW!!”
Phil did not mind being used. Sex was sex. He did not
care what whet her appetite during the day—even if it was a fitness trainer
half his own age. It was understandable. And if he could fantasize about the nanny, however cliché, turnabout was
Why then, after she rolled off of him, did he continue to
picture the kid’s hand on her back? Their taut, toned physiques coming together
on a leather workout bench, him forcing himself inside her with gym-worthy
grunts. Suddenly something dawned on him
he’d never considered: Ann was a college professor surrounded by horny college jocks. Virile Adonises in the prime of
their lives, with chiseled abs that required no effort whatsoever. With perfect
skin and perfect smiles and perfect stamina and worst of all—perfect arrogance. That brand of cockiness he’d
once known so well, the one that had allowed him to judge a girl for her sexual
appetite even while fucking her balls deep.
Phil Jacobs did not sleep that night.
The trees flew by, angles more opposed than ever, limbs
knotted and torqued. The empty spaces between seemed more staggered than ever,
whispering to Phil Jacobs of chaos from deep, wind-scored hollows. The forest
preserve, once so orderly and comforting, was a meaningless jumble.
He had no earthly idea why he’d done it. He often changed in the driveway for his
jog. But he’d timed his jog with Beth’s departure this time. He’d locked eyes
with her through the salon window as he dropped his trousers and she gathered
up her affairs to leave. He’d stuffed his junk into his sweats last of all,
She hadn’t looked away.
And now, her BMW rattled along behind him, navigating
crumbling asphalt. Without turning, he shifted his trajectory. Slyly.
Seductively. Down a narrow, unpaved side road. Boy he was good; she followed.
Still, he did not look back. Cat and mouse, it was called. He still had game. The blood rushed into
his groin as he planned their imminent encounter in his mind. He’d objectify
her, in ways Ann would never tolerate, and she’d like it. He might even call her a whore.
Once out of view of the main highway, Beth
parked between two colorless birch trunks and Phil heard the engine sputter and
die. In the waning light, he spotted a small clearing just ahead. Moss-laden,
fertile, open enough but covert enough. A curtain of lacy vines hung from
contorted branches, attempting in vain to conceal the empty pocket. To make it
Phil heard a car door slam, but no footsteps. He lingered
halfway down the congested footpath, halfway to the sacred but forlorn
clearing. Still no footsteps behind him, no crunch of twigs or leaves.Dusk was falling, muddling details in purple
confusion. They didn’t have much time; he’d have to turn around.
The reason he’d heard nothing behind him was simple:
she’d removed her clothing, every thread, was now folding the garments
meticulously. She placed the stack neatly atop the hood of her car and
advanced. The two locked eyes—his hungry and alive and desperate all at once,
hers oddly serene. Lord but she was a thing of beauty. Her straw colored hair
spilled across pale alabaster shoulders, lightly freckled but pristine. In the
dimming ambience, purple tones rendered her complexion even fairer, impossibly
ethereal. She navigated the narrow, leaf-strewn path like a ghost, tender feet
stepping gingerly as if across hot coals. The gait was deliberate, seductive,
hips pronouncing themselves with each sway—not yet having incubated life but
promising as much. Her muff jumped out against the pale, as much a signal as
any traffic light or any tropical flower begging to be pollinated.
When she reached him Beth continued on, the swing in her
hips a primal signal to follow. She stepped into the fertile clearing,
porcelain feet gently depressing verdant moss. With a delicate hand, she
propped open the lacy vine curtain in invitation.
Before Phil could join her in the glade, something
alarming happened. Something wholly unexpected, but more than that, something
that would profoundly change the course of events and his heart forever. A
deafening growl reverberated through the woods, setting the trees to quaking,
their leaves to falling madly all around. A dark shape sprang from a cavern at
the back of the glade, one Phil had not even noticed in the gluttonous dark. In
a split second it was on her, whatever it was, tearing her limb from limb,
decapitating her with a pop and a spurt of blood, spattering the pale trees and
her pale corpse and the verdant moss with violent red.
His heart accelerated as he sprinted, panicked and
irregular. Fight or flight, his body warned him. He doubled over when he
reached the familiar highway, pavement dark and rich compared to the footpath,
and wondered what in hell he’d just
witnessed.As much as he wanted it to be
a bear or a cougar or a mountain lion, his heart knew in no uncertain terms
what he’d seen.
And it was not of this earth.
He looked down. Thankfully, he’d not been spattered.
Phil Jacobs caught his breath, made sure not to touch her
car or even the stack of clothing, and continued on his jog.
Ann found a new nanny within a week; the college girls in
her classes were always in need of extra income. In the past the Jacobses had
entertained the idea of a live-in nanny;
when it came up this time, Phil made it clear it was a bad idea all the way
The investigation was short-lived. No foul play, the lead
investigator determined. Only a wild animal could have lacerated her flesh the
way it did, down to the bone. Only feral teeth could have serrated her spine. What
the girl had been doing in the woods without a stitch of clothing would remain
a mystery. Old-fashioned provincial reserve compelled investigators to leave
the matter alone; to avoid scandal out of respect for the girl’s family and
reputation. Though she’d been in the Jacob’s employ, that very evening no less,
Phil was never even questioned.
The new nanny was
chubby and wore braces to correct an overbite.
Phil breathed a
sigh of relief. But knowing he’d dodged a bullet, his heart continued to betray
him. The hiccups grew more frequent.
One Saturday night, Ann suggested they attend church the
following morning. It had been awhile.
“Absolutely,” Phil agreed without saying more. He’d
attended parochial school as a child, found services nostalgic. And before
becoming an accountant, though he’d nearly forgotten about it entirely, he’d
considered studying theology. He’d even checked out a few local seminaries.
Strangely, the sermon that Sunday had to do with infidelity.
The scripture Thou shalt not covet they
neighbor’s wife was referenced. More than once. There was talk of the difference between
religious sins and moral sins:
religious sins went against man’s covenant with God, while moral sins had to do with man’s transgressions against his fellow
After services, the couple picked up young Tucker from
church daycare. In fellowship court, neighbors and acquaintances cooed over how
quickly he’d grown. There was talk of growth charts and percentiles and what was
‘normal.’ Phil’s own growth spurt had come in middle school. Until then, he’d
remained in the lower percentile, though neither the chart nor the concept
existed at the time. He certainly hadn’t sported a mop of unruly blond locks
like Taylor. And that stallion of a trainer from the gym.
At afternoon tea, it was just the two of them. Taylor was
napping. The sun beamed lazily between blinds, flooding the quaint breakfast
nook of the Jacobs’ cottage with nostalgia. Ann caught Phil, out of pure habit, attempting
to drop a second lump of sugar in his tea. She reached out, removed the spoon
sternly from his grasp, and laid it gingerly beside his cup and saucer. He
“The church really frowns on divorce,” Ann commented
matter-of-factly, out of the blue. “Still. In 2015.”
Phil’s lip curled involuntarily with amusement. “Should
it be otherwise?”
“We’re living longer than ever now,” Ann pointed out. She
swept cinnamon lochs from her face, and Phil saw the sociology professor in her
coming from a mile away. “Once upon a time we were wired to maintain lifelong
monogamous relationships. And we were capable,
because you bore children when your hips were at their prime, reared them while
you had the strength to do it, and once they reached independence, you died!”
“Hmph.” Phil’s grin spread. He waited.
“Now that lifespans have doubled,” she went on, “we’re
challenged with maintaining monogamous relationships for decades longer than
Phil already knew what he was going to say. “Well, as an evolutionary theorist, surely you think
nature knows exactly what it’s doing.
You’ve said yourself every social norm and more, every institution including dating rituals and marriage,
exist to propagate the species. That we’re no different than animals.”
She thought about
it. “I do believe our values evolve to suit what is needed to adapt. But
sometimes it just takes our biology time to catch up with our ideas. Or vice-versa.
Even our daughters the vegans have carnivorous teeth, for heaven’s sake.”
“So then current divorce rates are an extension of a
serve evolution as population control.” Phil posited.
“Sure,” Ann nodded.
“But the truth is,” Phil pointed out, playing Devil’s
advocate, “with or without traditional marriage and forbidden divorce, the
masses are still fucking and popping out kids.”
“True.” Ann smiled as if to signal they were in
agreement. “Like I said, the system is not perfect. There is catch-up time.”
There was a long pause. Not an uncomfortable one, but a
hiccup, a gift, a silence of birds chattering and lacy curtains fluttering and
indefinable memories, shared ones, filling a tiny kitchen with fondness.
“Do you want a divorce?” Phil Jacobs asked at last.
Her eyes were moist, fixed beyond the fluttering sheers.
She said nothing.
Lying beside her in bed that night, Phil wondered why he
hadn’t done it. Why he hadn’t taken an opportunity so within reach. He could
have, right then and there, proposed an open marriage. They wouldn’t have to
use the term ‘swingers,’ or ‘wife-swapping’ or anything remotely sleazy like
that. It would just be an agreement—a covenant—made
by two people with a shared history they wanted to preserve, two people who
also happened to understand the new rules: he could fuck whomever he wanted and
so could she, while they were still young enough to procure. And still, they’d
grow old and pick out patio furniture together.
He’d bring it up after church the following Sunday, he
He shouldn’t have done it; luck always runs out
eventually. On some level, if he was going to propose the new rules, he needed
to know if he had it in him. As Phil Jacobs craned his neck to peer over the
trimmed hedges at Hollyglen Fitness, he saw what he’d wanted to see.
The kid’s hands on her, front and back like before, but
nothing to do with posture this time. Not neutral like before, forging
equilibrium, but throwing every thing off-balance. If what Ann had said was
true, it was his pheromones she was
addicted to now. His sweat she liked.
How dare the kid touch that belly when it had borne children nearly his own
age. How dare he take such a familiar liberty—such ownership.
How dare she allow it.
Phil ran. He ran to create alpha waves, that mind space
in which mental chatter disappears. But he’d never been good at it—only at
fantasy. He ran faster, to wipe the image from his mind or to get okay with
it—the image of his hand on her, the kiss they’d shared seconds later. Even if
he could get okay with it, even if he became a glutton for punishment, just
another cuckold, even if his own molestation wired him for it, would he want to
do the same to her? To burden her with equally indelible images? Maybe the covenant,
it finally came to him, mind racing, was not to burden the one you love with
indelible images over which to obsess. Maybe the very agreement was to spare
them out of love. To lock such images away like a treasure chest in the carcass
of a threadbare shipwreck or a heart beating in a ribcage.
No matter how fast Phil Jacobs ran, the image of the kid
was right there at his heels. The more he taxed his heart, the more it gained
on him. Like a racehorse. He imagined
luring the kid to that clearing in the woods. Getting him naked somehow,
watching his perfect physique being torn limb from limb in a smattering of
blood. Night was falling and Phil was disoriented but still he ran, unsure if
he’d taken the high road or the low road, unsure whether he was headed home or
to Stallion Springs, where young bucks waited to fuck your wife.
His heart was beating an irregular warning, the hiccups
more and more frequent, like gaps in the universe that threatened to expand and
take over all. Like the black spaces between the winking eyes of trees, the
chaos that waited to consume.
He had to stop.
The man doubled over in the fleeting purple twilight,
trying in vain to catch his breath. To slow his heart. He’d strayed from the
familiar crumbling pavement of the highway. The forest around him was
uncharted. As the last fleeting warmth
abandoned a corner of the sky, Phil’s eyes adjusted to the moonlight that
remained. It slathered crisscrossing branches, hopelessly intertwined, trying
in vain to make order of them. It was then that Phil noticed: he’d wandered
into that tiny, fertile green clearing.
If there was any blood left on the trees, it had dried
brown and was camouflaged—neutralized—by
the cool moonlight. But the gently draping moss shared hues with night’s ambience; the moon only accentuated its
sensual folds. Phil brushed aside the curtain of vines, now sparse and
revealing. He stepped with trepidation into the vulnerable glade, like a
shrine. The pale trunks stood erect, no longer jumbled, their winking black
knots agape. The universe had never been so agape. The man’s hand went
involuntarily to his ribcage, checking for a heartbeat. The gaps were growing
longer. The hollow breath of the universe was filling them in. Despite his
reticence, his palpable fear, Phil Jacobs drove deeper. He’d been unable to
resist taking the detour to peep in the gym window; he was no more capable of
defying the forceful strings that now guided him like a marionette.
The cavern yawned wide, neither menacing nor inviting,
but very like a womb. Inside, some inexplicable ambient light, or an imagined
one, extruded stone walls from the unsettling dark. The chamber was a cave, but
also a labyrinth.
The puppet strings compelled Phil Jacobs onward, despite
any remaining will of his own. Shedding his will was freeing somehow, feeling
he was little more than a slave to destiny. He suddenly identified with all
those whores he’d used, their drive to reduce themselves to objects, to be
chewed up and spit out by the universe in its mysterious dialectic.
He could already hear its grunting. Its hot, tantalizing
breath glancing off helplessly entangled facades like the chambers of a heart.
They grew ever more concentrated as he neared the center of the maze, his own
heart anxious with dread but perversely self-destructive at the same time. He
was headed toward doom, but had never been more lustful of a thing.
Whatever awaited him at the core, he knew his heart might
not hold out. That its final blip may well glance off the very stone walls that
He reached the center of the labyrinth.
It was already there, salivating. Throwing a huge shadow
to block the inexplicable light. It had the torso of a man, an impossibly
muscular man defined by sinew and pulsing veins. It had his physique, the kid’s, pale like a white stallion but broiling
with blood. Its powerful thighs were matted with fur, reversing painfully into
equine haunches and hooves as polished and iridescent as conch shells. A long,
whip-like tail stroked the corrugated stone walls seductively. The enormous
head and neck pulsed with equine fury, eyes fiery and inhuman. Its gaze fixed
on Phil, vertical pupils slamming shut as if zeroing in on prey.
“Are you going to tear me limb from limb?” Phil wanted to
The deep growl penetrated Phil to the core like a red-hot
poker. Ever so slowly, the eviscerating tone morphed, vibrations forming words.
“You know that’s not what I want.”
Suddenly the vertical slits were entire universes. Phil
felt he was looking into the microcosmic universe of his own life.
“You’re not going to eat me?”
“No.” The creature’s tail whipped impatiently.
“Thank you,” Phil heard his own voice utter, raw and
abject, unsure if it was thanking the beast for sparing him or rejecting him.
“I think you know what I want, “ the bass rumble purred
I finally occurred to Phil: it was the running that taxed
his heart. Only the running.If there
was any hope at all for his heart, he knew he had to be still.
And he knew what was coming next.
Ever so slowly, he unfastened the frayed cord and dropped
his sweats to his ankles.
The Distance Between
Next door to Brewer
Street Theater stood a nondescript midrise brick building with misshapen
windows. Their sills were tired and waterlogged, some spilling even
wearier-looking succulents from corroded wrought iron planters. At night, the
portals twinkled like slow-burning stars—marigold embers spangling an
indifferent brick cosmos with signs of intelligent life. The ashen cinder block
building flanking the other side of the lanky theater house was identical,
rendering both incognito.
Passersby mistook the facades for those of residential
suites. But their skewed vertical windows told a different story, even when smoldering
into the wee hours: several floors of the derelict structure had been leased as
an annex by a reputable university outside London, designated as labs for the
thesis projects of grad students. The idea was for the university to establish
a presence in London proper, while providing students a connection to the
hustle and bustle. A lifeline to the pulse of the real world that awaited them
Maurice Steadman and Garret Milne were two such upper term
students, and more often than not the ones burning the midnight oil. They could
be seen hunched over monitors or reading punch cards in the semi-dark, their
high-tech (for its time) equipment incongruous amid soot-smattered brick,
mortar, and chipping plaster. In their infancy, computers spanned entire rooms,
spat out data on ridiculously large manila squares; such means were necessary
to calculate—to convert all that abstract chaos into something meaningful. When not scrutinizing punch cards, the two
young men could be seen on the building’s roof, gazing at the cosmos through
sophisticated telescopes mounted between corroded water towers and oxidized
rain gutters. They’d been thrown together by faculty on a joint thesis: Parallax: Alternative Methods for Measuring the Distance Between Stars. Their
research entailed mathematical equations and axioms; even the most powerful
telescope could not come close to validating the abstract data. Their research
Even now, Maurice Steadman’s olive skin furrowed between
heavy brows as he squinted through the eyepiece of the tripod-mounted
monstrosity they’d heaved up the fire escape.He let out a heavy sigh.
“You really can’t see it?” Garret needled him incredulously,
pushing blonde bangs from his own freckled brow.
Maurice squinted harder, every muscle tensing with his
ocular mechanism. Then, all at once, his shoulders drooped in defeat.
“You’re joking! To me, it’s clear as day!” Maurice bragged, nudging
his partner aside and restationing himself before the eyepiece to the cosmos.
“Looks like I could reach out and grab it!”
His hand swiped at nothing.
Their data had revealed the existence of a small, smoldering
amber star—Jen 3.5, normally invisible to the naked eye. But the parallax shift
that occurred between when they’d begun their thesis and now, fall, had
revealed the small beauty to empirical evidence.
As though he’d failed at something vitally important,
Maurice seated himself on a hooded vent that slumped in tandem with his spirit.
“I can’t focus on it,” he lamented, feeling the need to
explain himself.I’m trying, really.
It’s all those other heavenly bodies competing for my attention!”
Years later, when it became a thing, Maurice would be
diagnosed with adult ADD. Garret would even provide a testimonial to help him
get his diagnosis—and access to medication.
“Well, for the record, it’s beautiful,”Garret
assured him. “Jen 3.5 may not be a
nova or a supernova, but it’s stunning. For me, everything else around it just
Garret seated himself beside his partner. The two were as
different as night and day—Maurice dark and exotic, Garret familiar and blonde
and—obvious in appearance. Gravity
took hold of the boys’ collective gaze, dragging it like an anchor into the more
immediate sea of city lights that mirrored heaven. The lights twinkled
incessantly, a reeling tide of possibilities. Some of the shimmering lights
were large, some small, some near and others far. Some shone cold and
fluorescent, others pulsed warm with incandescent welcoming. In
the closer buildings, silhouettes could be distinguished blocking the light:
children running about past their bedtime, lovers kissing or throwing things
about, loners gazing into the night in still silence. Without voicing the fact,
both boys felt they were looking out at the myriad of possible lives that
awaited them after graduation. Maybe administration had it right to let them
dip a toe in the pool before diving in cold turkey. To minimize the shock.
Both young men had come from small villages in the
country—one a farming community and one fishing. They’d bonded over a shared
affinity for sunburned farmers (or fisherman) short on teeth, for John Deere
tractors or schooners, for melancholy sunsets hanging over gently waiving crops
or choppy seas. Just as powerful a cement was their shared distaste for
bible-thumping, ignorance, and sawed-off shotguns. That alone—the prospect of escaping
the small-mindedness of provincial life—was enough to justify the other challenges that came along with
Long before partnering on their thesis, the two had been
thrown together as dorm-mates by sheer chance. Their paths had first crossed on
moving day when Garret’s mattress collided with Maurice’s hutch in the narrow dormitory
hallway. Within a week, the congestion problem would be resolved—one bed
instead of two. They’d shared a kiss that very first night, effortlessly—a
goodnight peck that turned into an all night affair of spooning and telling
stories in the dark (Maurice saying he felt like a kid at camp again) and then
melded into a brief interlude resembling sleep. Then they’d woke with stiffies
and done it all again.
They were late for class that day.
Their arrangement would not have flown in the country; in
London, no one batted an eye. The university’s liberal mindset managed to trump
the pervasive conservatism of the nineteen fifties; no one from the dorm
monitor to the Dean of Students asked about the lumpy mattress that found
itself slumped against an industrial dumpster in the alleyway behind the
Still, the two refrained from holding hands in public—only
on the couch at home, fingertips gently grazing, firing sparks from the
connection. Both knew the feeling was mutual, undeniable, a gift. All else followed, effortlessly: the
joint shopping sprees, the melding of tastes and habits—the formation of a household. Their temperaments and dispositions were
blissfully copasetic; neither had ever felt so at home.
Oh, some of what they built together came from mimicry,
relationship models they’d seen; how could it be otherwise? But for the most
part, their relationship was its own animal, a docile one requiring no handbook
or training manual.
Despite their compatibility, despite the wellbeing and inner
peace it brought, Garret couldn’t help but sense, at times, there were corners
of his lover’s mind he would never know. Dark
corners, like cigarette-burned borders vignetting an idyllic tableau.
Maurice had spoken of abuse—horrific things he’d overcome. Garret did not have
the life experience to know these were the things that reared their ugly heads
over time, chipping away at bliss.
Oh, part of him likely subscribed to the quaint notion that love conquers all. His own upbringing
had been far from a fairy tale. But he’d repackaged it, thanking the good Lord
he’d been raised with the good sense to make lemons of lemonade. Simply put, to
compensate for any damage done by his alcoholic father, his mother had fitted
him with rose-colored glasses. It would be painful when they were eventually torn
off—they’d been surgically attached—but for the moment, the boy was glad he had
tools to cope: ideals, ethics, morals. A productive thought process (some
called it positive thinking) that allowed him to transform and renew, transform
and renew. To cleanse the world.
It would not be enough.
After graduation, the couple moved into a small West End
flat. Garret hit the ground running, continuing his research (only for a salary
now) with the company where he’d interned during his undergrad studies. The
work was an extension of what he’d specialized in at university; he quickly
found himself at the forefront of Interstellar Parallax. Maurice found work
with a rival research institute. Several of his studies were published in
scientific journals. Still, his name did not ring synonymous with the cutting
edge like his partner’s.
It may have been professional jealousy at work, or simple
pride: the feeling that he was the breadwinner’s wife and not the breadwinner
(men being socialized as they are) but whatever the case, resentment came to
roost in Maurice Steadman’s heart.
It did not take long for the young man to stray. He took to
long strolls at night, promenades that compelled him along the moonlit Thames,
under Waterloo Bridge, to that nondescript underground pub with no sign above
the door. The one you rang to enter, professing in a whisper to be a ‘friend of
Dorothy’s,’ the equivalent of a passcode.
The darkened den was a microcosm of the city—its seedy
possibilities, its moral ambiguity, its endless options and overstimulation. In
a small town it was easy to commit; one settled on whomever was in front of him.
In the city, with so many prospects, one held out for whomever offered the most…advantage.
It was here among the myriad of swirling options that Maurice
encountered Jack Pershing, an old acquaintance from the fishing village of
Whimby. The man was not an old flame, but a spark that had never been kindled.
So much had changed: London’s rules were different than those of Whimby’s. Both
men knew themselves better than before. Not to mention Jack had grown into a
strapping, handsome man with a smart moustache. And his own law firm.
Maurice Steadman traded up.
Oh, Garret Milne was no slouch; he was world-renowned. But he was devoted to research. And research did not pay, whereas chasing taxis did, and
The day Maurice moved out,
Garret saw him shed a tear, for the first and last time ever. He himself was
“I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing,” Maurice rasped
from a damaged place. His brooding, heavy-lidded eyes flashed moist in the
Years later, Garret would figure out it had all been a test.
That on some unconscious level, his lover had hoped he’d fight for what they
had. Fight for him. Save him from himself. But in the moment, Garret’s
ideals told him tests were emotional manipulation, that one cannot make another
want to stay, and that the old adage
was true: If you loved something you set
it free; if it came back to you it was meant to be.
Garret finally understood
that the dark cigar-burned corners of his lover’s mind, the ones he could never
know, spawned demons. They were rearing their ugly heads, blinding Maurice with
superficiality to what truly mattered, driving him to sabotage the best thing
that had ever happened to either of them. To forfeit a gift from the universe. Garret knew in his heart Maurice was sentencing
That night, each of them acted on the thing drove him:
Maurice on visceral, mysterious, broken instinct, and Garret on the heady
ideals that had saved him thus far. That night both men made the most momentous
error of his life.
And nothing would ever be the same.
After his lover was gone for certain, the buckled wooden
door having clicked shut with finality, fickle footsteps having faded with any
hope of rewinding time, Garret remained paralyzed on the couch in nearly complete
and utter darkness. The fluorescent glow of a computer screen flattened his
expressionless features, the machine itself spitting needless punch cards from
Just then, with a thud, the lights went out.
The city’s entire power
Garret stumbled to the distorted window frame and gazed out
at an unrecognizable London. Her skyline stood stark and wretched against the
night sky, but any sign of life below was swallowed in unforgiving black. No
twinkling, welcoming lights, no shadow puppets dancing or dirty laundry hanging,
no sordid lives on display. By contrast, the heavens jumped forward, Milky Way
flung from horizon to horizon incubating countless nebula, clusters of stars as
old as time. Garret had never seen the city this way; normally the city lights
obscured heaven altogether.
In that moment, nothing was what he’d presumed it to be.
Nothing made sense.
Fifty Years Later
Garret Milne made his way down Jewel Street toward the
L-train at Nassau, planting his right foot and then dragging the left along to
meet it. Navigating the buckled sidewalk was not always such an excruciatingly
slow affair; he’d landed on his hip the day before after losing his footing
rearranging the few sparse items on his mantle. It was not broken; that much he
knew. It would take time, but his body would return to its old self. He refused
to accept that this was the new normal. He refused to be seen, even by
strangers, with a cane.
The old man waved at Mrs. Stefanowicz, his neighbor. They’d
exchanged the same familiar greeting for nearly thirty years. Oh, when he’d
first moved to Greenpoint in his mid-forties she’d stared him down with
suspicion, girded eyes staunchly compressed beneath a surly brow. The
well-entrenched Polish community was insular at best and any outsider,
especially a Brit, was subject to scrutiny. Mrs. Stefanowicz herself was third
generation, but had never needed to learn English; that’s how exclusive the
Brooklyn neighborhood was. At first, Garret found her and her family an odd
bunch, leaving their shoes on the porch at night. Garret had made it a point to
count the bodies that came and went from his neighbor’s residence, comparing the
figure to the number of shoes. It was disproportionate; he came away convinced the
shoes multiplied at night.
Garret Milne did not mind being an outsider, despite moving
to Brooklyn to disappear. As a gay man, he’d long since grown used to being the
odd man out. And despite being an ethnic anomaly, anonymity would prove effortless
in Greenpoint; kids today, even if they learned his name, would have no inkling
of his contributions to science—the many articles that had transcended academia
and made it into Time Magazine or Popular Science.
He’d left London ostensibly to trade in research for aerospace, or
more accurately, a crown in heaven for a paycheck. Practicality had set in, and
he knew he’d need to sock away retirement funds while he could. No pension, and
no children of his own to look after him. But despite very real practical
concerns, part of the man knew his ambition had waned with a broken heart, and
he was relocating in order to fade away. Like a whale leaving the pod. Even
before leaving London for the tri-state area, he’d found himself isolating more
and more, allowing his world to atrophy. Consciously, he’d told himself he was
simplifying his life in an admirable way. He took public transportation when
needed, but mostly rode his bicycle—to the local grocer, the library, his
favorite coffee shop.
When he arrived in Brooklyn
at forty, any semblance of a social life shriveled like kielbasa on a hot
sidewalk. He’d been able to blame it on the long commute to Greenwich,
Connecticut, where the aerospace facility was located, shrouded in lush, green
forest. The train to and from simply ate up too much time. And then, weekends,
he was too exhausted to step out. Oh, maybe a stroll to the corner café for
morning cappuccino when there was little chance of meeting anyone or having to
put on a good face. Though logistics did hinder things, the truth was he’d
thrown in the towel.
The more people had
disappointed him, the more he’d stopped trying. He’d always clung to some kind
of naïve hope humans were capable of rising above their animal nature and acting
on their best behavior, that they could be guided by true principle and not the
pleasure principle. That they could delay gratification and operate as man did
best, tempering base drives with intellect. But time and again, they’d proven
his quaint notions nothing more than fantasy.
His first love had broken
his heart, to be sure. Healing had taken time, (he was a Scorpio, after all)
but the resilience of youth told him the disillusioning event was all for the
best. Once he’d rebuilt his ideals (as he’d have to do many times in his life)
he’d even told himself had the two remained together, their growth would have been
retarded. Maurice had his own heart broken a few years after leaving, and
wanted Garret back. But Garret found the prospect degrading; he’d moved on.
He’d licked his wounds, mourned his illusions in a chrysalis, and emerged
reborn. What new person went back to his old self?
He’d have a few more false
starts in the years to come. The second love of his life touched his heart and
mind, but in a different way than Maurice. Garret allowed himself to be raw,
vulnerable, in ways he’d never been with his first love. But in the end, the
chemistry was just not there; the two should only ever have been best friends.
His third love would be primal, visceral; their lovemaking would move
mountains. They’d climax at the same millisecond every time, breathing into one
another, the very impossibility of it a gift from the universe.But the tempestuous affair would end
painfully, leaving him to feel he’d betrayed his good sense and danced with the
devil. Leaving him sure the gift had come from below. Each ending reshaped
Garret’s heart in its own cruel way, but still, his lemons-to-lemonade nature
told him it was all leading somewhere. That one day he would find everything in
one package—the mind, body, spirit connection. The universe was preparing him for it.
Even his growing self-sufficiency he’d frame in a positive light;
ideally one had to be complete without another; only then did one have
something to offer a relationship. He’d heard it said that the moment one
stopped looking, true love appeared. In the mean time, he’d just have to pay
attention so as not to grow too set in his ways.
Somehow, things changed in the waiting. While basking in his
completeness, ever ready to turn his head not out of desperate need but only if
someone came along who could enhance
his complete life, he grew old. His currency dried up.
With waning assets and waning options, his perspective on the past
began to sour. Lemons become, well—lemons.
Stripped of his familiar rose-colored glasses, the truth became all too
clear: rather than preparing him for some grandiose destiny, the trials of his
heart had been for naught. The rose-colored ideals had been nothing more than rationalization.
When Maurice had wanted him back, it was the hubris of youth, and nothing more,
that convinced him he’d outgrown the stilted relationship.Trading up for integrity rather than material
gain was still, in the end, trading up. It was arrogance to think he’d ever
find better. Nowadays, he’d give anything to turn a head.
He’d lost touch with Maurice twenty years previous, about a decade
after moving to Brooklyn. After that, other than hearing mention of his former
lover’s name in a journal from time to time, there had been nary a blip from
the universe. He’d often wondered what became of the man, even found himself
checking the obituaries out of morbid curiosity. When the internet took off,
he’d conducted the occasional Google search. Nothing. He’d scoured Facebook,
knowing even while doing so that Maurice wasn’t the Facebook type and his conspicuous
absence meant little. He’d checked LinkedIn—still nothing. Eventually Garret
found himself wondering how a person could so thoroughly disappear without a
trace. But then, he’d managed to do it.
“What do you need?” A voice called from a tiny yard on Jewel Street.
The old man paused, planting his left foot and dragging the right
along to meet it.
He turned. The old woman looked like her voice: plump, eccentric,
full of wisdom and humor. He’d never seen her before, though she lived a mere
three doors down. Her figure was matronly, wrapped up in exotic scarves and
slathered in costume jewelry. Heavy eyeliner adorned almond eyes that turned up
in the corners, thin lips were lined to match. Her dark hair formed natural
finger waves streaked with silver. Full, rouged cheeks resisted gravity,
filling out any folds that might have otherwise appeared with time.
The woman’s mass was distributed horizontally; she stood five feet
tall at most. As if to compensate, she sat perched atop a teetering heap of
incongruous affairs in the middle of the yard, stocking feet dangling
nonchalantly over a manicured lawn. The artifacts consisted of cheap luggage, a
stuffed armadillo, antique Persian rugs rolled into tight scrolls, old tube
televisions and lava lamps and an accordion. Endless shoes, worn and shapeless,
a lamp with water stains, emerald blue shot glasses and an art nouveau chandelier
with missing panes. Vinyl phonograph records, a queer teapot and exotic cups, old
pulpy dime novels—Great Expectations
and To Have Or Have Not, The Stars My Destination by Alfred
Bester. The woman resembled an old world gypsy as much as anyone Garret had ever
crossed paths with.
And she was having a garage sale.
“Good morning,” Mr. Milne greeted her, tipping his suede fedora and
attempting to continue on his way.
“What are you looking for?” the woman demanded a second time,
hopping from her perch into a pair of wooden clogs.
The old man planted a foot and dragged the other behind, attempting
in vain to make his escape despite the ball and chain. The old woman was
“Whatever it is,” she sang, “I’ve got it right here!”
Before the man knew what had happened, she’d grabbed him by the
wrist and was escorting him with a minimum of grace down one of the aisles
between folding card tables. Here were yet more absurd juxtapositions: ceramic
wiener dogs sprouting dried flowers from strange places, bauble heads and
pickaninnies and lawn jockeys. Salt and pepper shakers and Jesus pencil cap
erasers, exotic crystals haphazardly placed in emerald green molded glass
“I really don’t need anything, Ma’am,” Garret assured her, making a
concerted effort to remain polite. “I live a very simple life. And I’ll be late
catching the L-Train to work.”
Neither excuse was a lie. He still commuted to the facility in
Connecticut three times a week to act as consultant; he’d not yet had the
luxury of retiring. And to say he was a minimalist was an understatement. Things,
too many things, always proved to get
in the way. Just yesterday, he’d twisted something trying to rearrange the
three possessions on his mantle he actually cared
“I’ve got it!” The woman
exclaimed with a jubilant flourish of pudgy hands. “I know what it is you
need.” And then, before turning toward whatever it was she had in mind, she
looked at him. Into him.
Without wasting a moment,
she plucked something from amid a haphazard pile of kitsch on the third card
table to her left. She blew on the artifact, and a cloud of dust billowed from
it, settling to the manicured lawn.
Garret Milne’s jaw dropped.
The item in her chubby-fingered
grasp was a collapsible antique telescope mounted to a sophisticated tripod. It
looked Chinese and Arabic and Victorian and futuristic and otherworldly all at
“This was given to me ages ago,” she recalled. “By a monk high on a
mountaintop between Nepal and Tibet. Back then, there were no borders—not the
way we know them now.”
The old man was awestruck, speechless,
found himself turning the gilded cylinders over and over in his palm.
“It sounds very special,” he said at last. “Surely you don’t want to
part with such a fantastic treasure. Considering it was a gift.”
“The monk said all gifts
are to be passed on,” she assured him. “Paid forward. He said when I met
someone who needed it, to pass it on. It’s been ages, but I’ve never been so
sure of anything in my life.”
“Someone who needs it?”
Garret said with a chuckle not meant to come across as ingratitude. “We have much more powerful telescopes now.”
“Their power does not come
close. This treasure was found when they broke ground on the monastery. It
predates Nepal and Tibet both. It predates the monks themselves and their
fathers and grandfathers.”
“What then, is its power?” Garret pursued.
“To make its owner happy.”
Something made the old man
bristle, so that he nearly dropped the thing in the grass. “I don’t believe in
happiness,” he heard himself say. “Happiness is a fantasy, a romantic ideal
invented by those who don’t know true contentment. I have contentment, and that
The man set the artifact on
the card table next to a porcelain candleholder resembling Elvis, and felt
himself inching backward toward the sidewalk.
“Perhaps,” the old woman
suggested with infinite compassion, retrieving the object and following close
behind, “you have forgotten what happiness is. Like a crab in boiling water,
you’ve grown used to your surroundings.”
The man was almost to the
sidewalk. But something about the woman’s words stopped him in his tracks. A
small tear, the size of a pearl, rolled down his cheek. Despite his resistance,
something in his body decided it was now or never and a trembling hand reached
for his billfold.
“How much would you like
“As I said, it is a gift.”
The woman assured him, wrapping his shaky fingers around the armored body of
the ancient telescope. And with that, she turned toward her second customer of
the day. Mrs. Stefanowicz was marching across the manicured lawn.
He could feel it jostling about in the pocket of his cardigan as the
L-Train rattled toward Union Square. There, he’d transfer to Grand Central,
where he’d have the almond croissant and black coffee he’d enjoyed there thrice
weekly since becoming a consultant and limiting his commuting days. Then he’d
jump on the train to Greenwich, Connecticut, and he’d pass the time reading the
New York Times cover-to-cover. Bringing the antique artifact along to work
would not have been his first choice, but he’d not had time to stop off at
home. He kept a hand on it throughout the day, gently caressing its coarse
patina, to make sure it never left his person. Oh, the morning’s synchronicity
had worn off, its magical fog yielding to the very real possibility the woman
was not a gypsy but a loon, her merchandise less likely exotic artifacts than
estate sale acquisitions or thrift shop fodder.
Still, she’d somehow paired him with his first love, astronomy, without
a palm reading or a single exchange of personal information. She’d sensed the
gift was meant for him. Needless to say,
he was intrigued.
As the day wore on, he remained vigilant, searching his heart for
any tinge of happiness—any microscopic blip or flutter. But at quitting time,
he did not feel any happier. His day had
offered all the same highs and lows he’d grown accustomed to: the bliss of
caffeine and an almond croissant, the frustrations of the facility—an elusive
code or the very existence of the twenty-three year-old sycophant who ever
clawed and scraped to climb the corporate ladder but didn’t know what he didn’t
know. Nothing was more frustrating
That night, he hopped off the train prematurely at Brooklyn Bridge.
He found himself perched at its base, gazing out across choppy, moonlit waters
toward the Manhattan skyline. He withdrew his new possession, extending its
armored body segment by segment. Gingerly, he stabilized its tiny tripod atop a
cement slab and tilted the telescope’s gaze to the sky. But the night was
humid, heaven shrouded in turbulence. Garret could not recall the last time
he’d seen stars hovering over the Manhattan skyline. Or for that matter, the
last time he’d bothered to look up.
Tonight, the city lights shone
as prominent as ever, rendering heaven a silly, outdated notion. The old man
found himself surveying what his vantage point did proffer, even if it insisted on withholding the cosmos. He
darted from window to window, thrilled at the prospect of playing voyeur. Suddenly,
Garret was reminded of a moment a lifetime before, when he’d sat with a young
man so polar in appearance but so like himself in many ways. They’d been crouched
at the starting line of their lives, gazing at the London skyline and silently
pondering what lay ahead. They’d surveyed the domestic scenes playing out in
tiny, skewed windows, no different than those sprawled before him now. It
nearly startled Garret: nothing had changed. Only him. Though he could never have predicted it, he’d become the
loner gazing out at the world from a misshapen sill.
It dawned on Garret the woman was right; he was the crab in the boiling water. Depression had crept up on him.
Though he prided himself on being content,
on his ability to transform what
he saw and renew his faith in order
to get out of bed each morning, the truth was he’d once aspired to he happy. Blissfully, blindly happy. And he’d known what
it was to be so. It was true: getting up everyday required hope—that silly thing they say springs eternal—a belief that one is
redeemable and can make his difference in a vast cosmos despite being dust in
the wind. But being blissfully happy was a different prospect altogether, one Garret
Milne had forgotten existed.
As a child, he’d dreamt he was a constellation. In the dream, a silent
voice had run through him like a whispered breeze. You are made of stardust, it said. Now, in a single moment, the
voice came back to him, reminding him true bliss was not some elusive,
over-romanticized ideal to be coveted, the pursuit of which was doomed to fail.
It was his natural state. His birthright. He knew because he’d once had it. He
hadn’t created it through alchemy or transformation. He’d not mastered any
axiom spit out by that room-hogging oversized calculator. It had fallen in his
lap as if from heaven—a gift.
The old man’s rusty keys
clanked riotously as he wriggled one in an equally rusty lock. Once he’d
mastered it, he threw open the tall, splintery door to his darkened flat.
Moonlight skidded across buckled hardwood, climbing the fireplace and bathing its
lonely mantle in quiet blue. He approached it, not bothering to throw on a
He’d decided to give the ancient
telescope a home on the mantle; apparently, it took time to work its magic. It’s gotta be lived with, Garret had
Of course, things would
have to be rearranged. Three items adorned the faux marble surface, marking it
a shrine of sorts. The first was a climbing succulent that spilled from a wire
basket, reaching for the floor. He’d transplanted it ages ago from the wrought
iron planter that edged his windowsill on Brewer Street, and managed to keep it
alive all these years. The second item was a snapshot of his parents, who’d
died in the late eighties within days of one another. The third and final item
was a book titled It’s All Perspective. Its
yellowed pages were coddled in a thick embossed leather cover. Written by the
founding father of stellar parallax, the tome had inspired much of Maurice’s
work during their time together. It was the one item his lover had forgotten to
take on leaving. When Garret had stumbled to the window in the blackout, he’d
kicked it to the wall by mistake. He could have returned it at some point; the
two stayed in touch for many years despite the acrimonious nature of the
breakup. For some reason, Garret said nothing and held on to the book.
Apprehensive of falling on his hip a second time, Garret slid a
small stepladder from the breakfast nook. In the melancholy moonlight, he
created a space between the droopy plant and the leather book. He positioned
the telescope there, angling it just so.
He backed into the room,
cocked his head to view the new arrangement in a variety of ways to make sure
it would do, and went to bed.
That night, he dreamt he
was a constellation. The familiar voice returned to him, the voice of the
universe like a whispered breeze. Or was it is own voice, the soundless one
that narrated his reverie? Regardless, it spoke to him. Not of stardust this
time, or his essence or a state of bliss. The voice rattled off only data. Numbers. Abstract figures in an
incessant barrage. And then, in the dream, Garret discerned the source of the
voice. Though it vibrated everywhere and nowhere, bodiless, a tiny, distant
star pulsated with each utterance. Dwarfed by novas and supernovas, the tiny yellow
ember was easily overlooked. It was Jen 3.5.
Over breakfast, Garret
pondered the visitation, wondering what it meant. In fact, he began to question
his entire life’s work. Stellar parallax was the only means to accurately judge
the distance between stars. Without it, a map of the heavens appeared flat,
dimensionless, lending itself to misinterpretation. To the eye, the relative
size of stars, how brightly they burned, all those other factors confounded the
distance between stars. Everyone saw them differently. Until the abstract data
But so what?
Everyone knew objective
truth was tenuous at best, that one’s subjective experience is all he can be
sure of. That the reality that allows us to build bridges and drive across them
is nothing more than consensus. So why had he devoted his life to proving again
and again that the truth is relative depending on perspective? That the
distance between stars is greater than we think? That we’re all just floating
bodies, millions of light years apart, like countries without borders or entire
constellations, doomed to live and die alone?
Garret rinsed the remaining
porridge from his ceramic bowl, realizing he needed to take a walk if he knew
what was good for him. As he reached the door, he glanced back at the
I wonder if I’m supposed to do something
with it? he pondered.
He decided to ask the Gypsy
woman, but when he reached her manicured lawn three doors down, neither she nor
her haphazard affairs were anywhere to be found. A moving van was parked in the
drive, loaded up with the possessions of what looked to be a medium-sized
Mrs. Stefanowicz will know
what’s become of our mutual neighbor, he decided. After all, she’d perused the
bizarre yard sale just after he had two days previous.
But when he reached the old
Polish woman’s stoop, he stopped in his tracks. A muffled sobbing permeated the
buckled, powder blue door. He looked down at the pile of shoes on the porch—the
pile that over the years had dwindled from thirteen to eight to five and now two. There had been but two misshapen pairs
of shoes for some time now. Occasionally, the woman’s children would come to
visit and she would smile cheerfully watching her grandchildren run through the
sprinklers on particularly hot and humid days, pigtails flopping.
Reserve compelled the man to turn on his heels, to spare the woman
embarrassment and allow her privacy. But what if she needed something? He might
be able to help. He turned back and rang the buzzer.
The splintery door groaned
open in agony. The woman’s deep-set eyes were red-rimmed and raw. The batik
paisley kerchief that swaddled her face was stained with tears.
“My love—gone,” she said simply in broken English, as if to explain
her distraught appearance.“Mr.
Stefanowicz die yesterday in hospital.”
A wave of sadness washed
over Garret. Words were a long time in coming.
“Please accept my
condolences,” he offered earnestly once he was able to wrangle his words.
The woman reached inside
her screened door and produced an ornate pewter and marble tray heaped with krowki.
“Please,” she insisted.
Garret obliged, humbled by the
woman’s grace at what was surely a difficult moment.
As if to explain the excess
of treats, the old woman managed: “My children come this afternoon. To plan
“Ah,” Garret sighed, relieved to know she would not be alone.
He offered his condolences
one more time and continued on his walk.
At home, Garret Milne planted himself in the antique wingback chair that
was one of few furnishings in his modest living room. It was oriented toward
that shrine of a mantle, as if gazing into an invisible fire.
But he was looking at the
It had not brought him
happiness—not yet. If anything, his day had been characterized by melancholy.
The eccentric Gypsy’s sudden, unheralded disappearance made him sad, though he
did not know why. Mrs. Stefanovicz’ loss had felt like his own. Perhaps due to
pending mortality, Garret seemed to be feeling things more deeply these days. Especially the feelings of others. Nothing to do with the telescope.
On his afternoon walk, he’d seen a bird splashing through a puddle; it brought
a smile to his face. He’d passed a basset hound walking its master, nose glued
to the ground and folds of skin cascading like an accordion with gravity. He’d
seen a perfect white rose that spoke of perfection. All of it took the edge off
of the loss he felt, upgraded acute sadness to melancholy.
When are you going to start working? He mentally asked the
It said nothing in reply,
remaining perfectly still.
Mrs. Stefanovicz had sent
one of her grown children over with a handwritten invitation to her husband’s
services. The funeral took place at the cemetery, but the memorial service, an
all day affair, took place at her home afterward. Garret put aside any social
anxiety he felt and paid his respects. Afterward, he was glad he’d done it.
Some of the woman’s children had learned English, made sure to translate any
and all anecdotes about Mr. Stefanovicz that were shared in tribute. The Polish
pastries and desserts were to die for. Though Garret felt every iota of sadness
in the room, eyes moist and a perpetual lump in his throat, it felt healing.
When he left, he shared a tight embrace with the recent widow, something he
hadn’t done in thirty years of being her neighbor.
Walking home, he pondered
how such loss could feel healing. He’d been to many funerals (too many) in his
life and they always promised a good, life-affirming
cry. The loss of a broken heart, on the other hand, stayed with you. It changed
the very shape of your heart. Suddenly
he had it: death is part of the natural order of things, he decided. Whereas a
broken heart involves deception. In the former case, one can continue to
believe in the laws of the universe; the latter makes one question them, throwing
his hands in the air in futility. Though he’d learned one did not have to be
dumped to have his heart broken—the world could break it or it could break
slowly over time, even within a
marriage—he’d decided long ago not to trust anyone who’d never experienced it.
Summer was turning to fall;
the humidity lifted. One evening, through his parlor window, Garret noticed the
stars that began spangling a shimmering purple twilight. By the time he’d
assembled the ancient telescope in his back yard, they were everywhere, like
fireflies reflecting on a frozen lake.
To his amazement, what the
old man saw through the eyepiece was the first thing the artifact had yielded
that remotely resembled magic. Instead of the dense clusters that defined the
Milky Way, the ancient contraption cancelled out certain stars altogether while
enhancing others. Garret imagined the resulting constellations, those that
pronounced themselves from all the rest, were actually ancient formations, those
mankind never had occasion to witness. He suddenly knew, beyond all reason,
that the telescope predated not only the monks and their ancestors and even the
monastery—it predated the very mountaintop on which it had been built.
Garret grabbed a scratch
pad and a number two pencil, began madly scrawling what he saw through that
lens. He did this nightly for months, as long as the weather allowed, charting
the heavens as the earth careened about the sun on its strange axis. In spring,
he had an entire sequence committed to chicken scratch. But what to do with it?
What to make of ancient constellations and their parallax shift?
A sudden storm ended the sequence of charts abruptly; Garret took it
as a sign to stop. That very night, in the pouring rain, he had a strange
dream. His intuition—the photographic memory of his subconscious, recalled each
and every arrangement in the sequence of mad chicken scratch and laid them one
over the other in his mind’s eye. The mandala that was formed was hypnotic,
mesmerizing. But more than that, it formed a face, old and wise, framed by a
ghutra above and a long, sweeping beard below. In the center of the forehead
beamed a star that seemed to have survived eons, one that had followed Garret
throughout his life: Jen 5.3. That tiny, smoldering ember that had come between
himself and Maurice all those years ago. The one that had been hidden from his
lover’s view, its smolder hardly enough to compete with more brightly burning
The genie spoke.
Its voice was silent and omniscient, defying description. Garret
knew it well from his own reverie. To be
truly happy, it commanded, you must surrender
the three things you love the most.
The next day, though he was
not expected at the facility, Garret rode the train to Greenwich Connecticut.
He’d been vectorizing the charts, feeding them into the system to record the
progression, the pattern. All he had to do now was assign numeric values to the
sequences, and convert those numeric values into letterforms.
It was an all day affair,
but when it was over the old man held a single sheet of recycled paper in his
To be truly happy, it read, you
must surrender the three things you love the most.
He sat in a daze in that
wingback chair, just as he’d done for hours. His hands, just beginning to show
signs of arthritis, remained folded in his lap. There they were before him on
that faux marble shrine: the three things he loved the most. He’d been staring
at them for hours, so he’d long since made the realization: the three things
that meant most to him represented memories.
There was the picture of his parents, now long gone. They’d been the first connection
he’d ever known in life. Though they hadn’t done everything right, the bond had been unbreakable. Even now he spoke
to them daily. Maurice’s book, bound in that leather book cover he’d bought at
Pickadilly bookstore to protect it, was also a link to the past. Something he’d
refused to let go of. The succulent, so obstinate and persistent, was the only
one of the items that linked past and present, its sweeping tributaries a
through line to who Garret used to be.
He wondered vaguely what
the genie had meant by surrender. Would
he have to burn the items? Take a blowtorch to them? And if he did, would the accompanying
memory go up in smoke along with them? Somehow, likely due to the incredible
nature of the whole dilemma—to surrender or not to—he found it one of the more
excruciating decisions of his life.
What kind of genie takes
things instead of granting them? He fumed, his moral dilemma turning to
Garret stood in a huff, approaching the mantle-shrine. His fingers found
the succulent, tracing the blue-green bulbs that showered toward the earth in
tiers, like a waterfall. Then they moved on, picking up the gold-framed
snapshot and gently caressing it through callused skin. In the grainy,
black-and-white snapshot, his parents smiled from a distant past, about to
board a Ferris wheel. This was the photo that most captured his resemblance to
his father. And there, held listlessly at his mother’s side, were the
rose-colored glasses she so often wore, the ones she had fitted him with.
Garret moved on, found his hands reaching out involuntarily, clutching that
leather-bound volume to his heart and gently caressing. A tear formed in his eye.
Suddenly, without warning, something fell from its pages, fluttering
to the hardwood floor.
With a grunt, Garret stooped
to retrieve it. Slowly, with equal parts exhilaration and reluctance, he
unfolded the yellowed notebook paper. It was Maurice’s writing. But the letters
were hard to distinguish, the words they formed, due to the tears that already
streamed down the old man’s face. He wiped them away, determined to focus
through the deluge.
Garret,I saw it tonight, the note read. Jen 5.3. Somehow, all those other heavenly bodies retreated, all those
million year-old balls of fire and swirling gas. They all just disappeared. And
you’re right; it’s beautiful! –Maurice
The old man saw his hand form
a fist, crumpling the note. And then it was quaking, his tears turning to
anger. He had no earthly idea why it meant so much to him they saw the universe
the same way. Or why knowing it hurt so, like the twisting of a knife. Why hadn’t his lover said something at the
time? Perhaps he felt he’d made his decision and the damage had already
been done. The book had intentionally been left behind; if he’d found the note
all those years ago he might have fought for what they had, exactly as Maurice
had secretly wished. Still, it was not Maurice Garret blamed for his discontent;
it was the universe. Why had it
withheld the information all this time? Why had that tiny paper remained lodged
between buckled pages for so many years, and why had it decided to dislodge
now? As universes go, the one Garret Milne knew was a cruel one.
He felt his body in motion, no longer weary but determined, trudging
across the patchy yard to that flimsy wooden shed. He found the sledgehammer in
no time, was marching back into the living room and swinging it madly through
salty tears, heaving over and over again. He’d been loyal to his principles,
able to tune out all the noise. He’d been loyal to his lovers, never distracted
by opportunity. And for the past several decades, he’d been loyal to his
memories. But the genie was right; it’s our memories—our attachments—that stand in the way of bliss. They’re full of pain
and regret and even fondness—fondness so deep it hurts. Garret Milne had opted
for contentment, forgoing risk and
adventure and passion and romance for fidelity. But he’d surrender it all in a
moment for bliss.
Even as he watched the
leather book cover curl up in the flames, growing brittle and decomposing, he
felt the memories fading with it, going up in a puff of smoke. It was just as
he’d suspected. Oh, he knew they’d just say he had Alzheimer’s, not that some
Genie had wiped him clean.
It was a crisp fall morning
Garret wrapped the old metal telescope in tissue paper and headed out. He knew
who he’d give it to. After all, a gift was to be passed on. Oh, he had no
recollection of the Genie or what it had told him to do. He simply remembered
buying the thing at a yard sale. He knew it had the power to make its owner
happy, and that its original owner, a monk, had said it must be passed on to
whomever needs it the most. Since it hadn’t worked for him, he’d give it to
He stopped off to buy a
nice gift bag for it. The novelty store on Nassau had plenty of nice gift bags.
Maybe he’d even pick up a bow and a greeting card and really spruce up the
presentation. The woman behind the counter fluffed several sheets of tissue, on
Before Garret placed the
ancient artifact to rest in all that heavenly ambrosia, he extended its body and
placed the eyepiece over his eye socket. Through the shop window he was able to
focus on the row of facades overlooking Nassau, the storefronts below bustling
with activity. Pedestrians walked to and fro, some so close to the shop window
they wiped his screen entirely. And then, all of a sudden, a stranger appeared
at close range, displacing all else. Garret nearly dropped the contraption.
“Garret? Garret Milne?”
Came the voice. It seemed oddly familiar, but he couldn’t place it.
The man standing before him
was his own age, equally silver at the temple, but darker in complexion.
“It’s me,” the man rasped
excitedly. “Maurice Steadman!”
“I’m sorry,” Garret smiled.
His memory had been slipping more and more lately. But instead of turning away
to spare himself embarrassment and risk offending the stranger, he smiled from
ear to ear, taking the man’s hand in his in a hearty handshake. There was naught
but bliss in his heart.
But the dark-complected man looked disappointed, wounded even, and
wandered on his way.
When the woman was done wrapping his gift, Garret thanked her warmly
and continued on his way, whistling a blissful tune. On the way to Mrs.
Stefanoviz’ place, he saw a bird splashing through a puddle and his heart
delighted in it.
A few years later Garret
Milne found himself in a retirement home for senior citizens diagnosed with
Alzheimer’s. His only nephew had taken care of the details, even made him meet
with a lawyer to complete a living trust.
The first day in his new
home, Garret was told he would be rooming with another Alzheimer’s patient with
a similar background and similar interests. The man’s mattress was being
maneuvered into the shared room from the hall, when it collided with Garret’s
mahogany hutch. The two locked eyes, both wishing they knew why it all seemed
“Glad to meet you,” Garret
greeted the man, taking his hand.
The orphanage was a dusty place, and dimly lit. No matter the
time of day or year, beams of speckled sunlight dared enter only at oblique
angles, illuminating narrow slivers of buckled, faded wooden floors. Arranged
haphazardly to conceal particularly unsightly water stains were great Persian
rugs with fantastic designs, also choked with dust. As if to compete, the musty
aroma of mildew hung in the air, a permanent resident of Wonderlodge Home for
Children. The must and soot were perfectly warranted; the orphanage was
actually a Victorian cottage predating the village of Slumber Cove itself.
The building’s classification as a cottage was somewhat
misleading; in truth, it stood austere and grand, tiny shuttered windows
dwarfed by a colossal Moorish spire like the Taj Majal’s. Some of the other
boys and girls found the place oppressive—scary
even. Especially in the rain. I, on the other hand, saw (and smelled and
heard and otherwise sensed) nothing
Its nooks and crannies begged to be explored—laundry chutes and
dumbwaiters leading to unknown places, pointy gables that had been converted
into box rooms and attic space and then completely forgotten. My exhaustive
exploration of the grounds, of course, was done in secret. During playtime, I’d
steal away from the others and slip into some dark corner or other. Though it
took an entire childhood to fully discover the place, the slow revelation—the
magic of it—made all the lonely waiting worthwhile.
There came a time when I did not have to seek out magic; it
came to me. At the age of seven, I was abducted by a small band of clowns.
But only for a week.
They were your standard issue circus clowns—joyfully sad,
provocative, creepy but not sinister or stabby, jubilant and vaguely
inappropriate.They exhibited all the
qualities one would want from a circus clown. Only they did not take me to the
big top or a carnival. Instead they took me to strange, exotic places far away
from buttered popcorn, cotton candy and screaming children. They took me to
places with strange names (that could not be found on any map) and places with
no name at all (which I did not bother looking for on a map.) Far away places
where birds swam and fish flew, where lakes reflected in skies and not the
other way around. I saw upside-down sunsets that tickled the stars. Looking at
them I felt jubilantly sublime and sublimely jubilant. I felt ecstatic
melancholy and somber whimsy and a number of other things difficult to
Later in life I would recall them only vaguely, as if from a
dream, and yet never fully forget them, as if from a nightmare. Wherever they
came from or continued to dwell, the poetic things I saw and felt hinted at
what lay ahead—all the horror and beauty life promised.
My final night with the clowns (though I did not know it would
be at the time) I saw the birth of a star. The clowns never spoke a word the
entire week, but somehow they told me the star was mine. That it was more than
a ball of gas; it was a whole world awakening.
I was returned home after a week, in one piece.
The staff asked over and over again where I’d been off to. But
I’d never spoken a word since arriving at the orphanage shortly after birth, so
my silence was received as customary.
A week later I was adopted out to a middle-aged couple with
frosty silver hair.
They quickly became Mum and Pop, the first I’d ever known. They
came with a brother and sister—a built-in family.
I began speaking, and
stopped seeing fish that flew or birds that swam. The clowns only visited in my
Until they didn’t anymore.
Eventually even my dreams were clownless.
I studied business and became an entrepreneur. I married and
bought a home in the suburbs with a white fence and an orange tree in the yard.
My wife Zoe became pregnant a year into our marriage.
The night Zoe was due to give birth (or so we thought) her
labor turned out to be a false one. The hospital staff sent me home but kept
her for observation should there be an encore performance.
The moon was hanging full and low when I passed Slumber Cove’s
only orphanage. Silvery light frosted the treetops and the peaked roofs. The
great Moorish spire of Wonderlodge Home for children thrust higher than all the
rest, silhouetting itself against the enormous cratered disc.
For some reason, I pulled over.
Twenty minutes later, I found myself still parked, gazing at
the iconic image like a postcard sent to me from childhood. I’d driven by the
landmark countless times, but rarely if ever thought of my childhood there—the
long lonely waiting or the magic that
made it all bearable.
But tonight, the half of my brain that was not anxiously
fretting about impending fatherhood, the responsibility that came with it, the
part of me that was considering running away, dwelt in that nostalgic place
known as childhood. Just beyond the
iridescent halo of the harvest moon, a tiny star was burning brighter than the
others. Signaling to me.I recognized it
as my star—the one bestowed on me by
clowns. The one whose birth marked the unfurling of a world. My world.
It suddenly came to me: when the clowns had appeared to abduct
me, they’d not shown up on foot or arrived in a taxi. They’d climbed one-by-one
from that old, rusted trunk in the orphanage’s basement. It had been
off-limits, but I’d found a way to get in through a crawlspace in the back
For some reason I found myself stealing across the narrow
sidewalk, skirting the great Cyprus hedge that hugged the property, slinking
past the porch and the kitchen windows, careful to remain in shadow. What are you doing? I asked myself. You’ve gota mortgage and mouths to feed. Sanity to preserve!
The crawlspace was still
there, its louvered hatch askew as it always had been, partially shrouded by
overgrown weeds. I threw it aside as quietly as possible, eased myself into the
mysterious dark. The trunk was there, exactly where I’d left it: slid up
against a mildewed cement wall beneath the stairs.
I gazed into the dark recess, wondering what it would take to
pry the thing open—a crowbar? A sledgehammer? And if the clowns were still
available, would I have the guts to steal away with them and leave the life I
knew behind? Half of me wanted it more than anything. The other half would miss
my wife, my unborn son, the connections I’d made in life. Why couldn’t one have
both, I wondered—the magic and the
connection for which it was a substitute? I’d learned in college most of man’s
endeavors were driven by fear. But when we obeyed it or stuffed it away in a trunk,
the clowns went with it—the inexplicable, the indefinable, the inconvenient. The blinding beauty
between the cracks in life’s façade, the possibilities of true imagination that
make life worth living.
I decided to return to my
car, and my life.
But first, I’d slide the
trunk away from that mildewy wall, just a bit, out from under the splintery
stairs and into the light. That way, should some kid be adventurous enough to
explore the endless nooks and crannies of the dusty old manor, he might stumble
upon it, and what climbed out of it just might make all the lonely waiting
The Sculptor’s Muse
The sculptor worked in darkness,
among the paltry beams of lurid light that insinuated his cold stone
basement-turned-studio. On the rare occasion his creations saw the light of
day, were put on display at the urging of a gallery owner from the village, the
public were awed by their unearthly beauty. The sculptor was respected and
admired, even when absent for months on end, chiseling away in palpable dark. When
not on display, his creations dwelt there with him in the cold, damp stone
quarters that were as much a prison as a studio.
always been a recluse. He’d been born right there in the cloistered village
where he would live out his days and die. The home into which he was born was teeming
with chaos, as was the world beyond it. His older, louder, more obstinate
siblings demanded every last grain of attention from his parents, leaving him
to occupy himself for hours at a time gazing intently at the mobile in his
crib, colors endlessly churning with the rotation of the earth or fluttering in
some invisible draft from nowhere. He quickly learned to be self-sufficient, to
require little from the world without. The village itself was as chaotic as the
boy’s household. Its men hustled about, forging weapons in order to feed their
families, the younger of them marching off to war regularly or drinking in the
local tavern and fabricating brutish offenses among themselves.
understood none of it. He spent his time turning inward, imagining a world
without conflict, without war. To pass the time, the boy began trying to
extricate the world he envisioned from the dark universe of imagination in an
attempt to share it with the others of the village. He would chisel away at the
sheets of marble that lay about in droves; the village’s main export, after weaponry,
was limestone. On occasion, the quarries yielded stubborn, useless veins of marble
that held no value under the limestone-only ordinance of the village, of all
villages in the kingdom.
cast-off chunks took shape at the boy’s hand, one slab paring itself down to a
winged Pegasus, another whittling itself subtractively into a cupid with tiny
scalloped wings that seemed to flutter in the reticent morning light. All were
pristine—both refracting and absorbing the light with sublime perfection,
suggesting their divine origin to the few who beheld them.
The boy took
no credit for the alchemy—felt he was simply serving the universe by giving the
ethereal creatures form. But his siblings were enraged at this ability to
transform—hunks of useless marble no less—into artifacts of blinding beauty.
Not to mention the boy’s father lived in constant fear that visitors would
catch glimpses of the purposeless, impractical relics and not know what to make
of them. And so it was the boy was banished to the family basement to forge his
creations in lightless solitude. The turn of events proved inconsequential; the
swarthy expanse so resembled the boy’s vast, limitless imagination he felt he
could pluck divine inspiration directly from it—give his muses concrete form as
easily as take a breath.
One day, as
the mad frenzy of creation slowly drained from him, the boy returned from some
threshold to stand in his body and gaze upon what had materialized. He was
nearly eighteen now, and his creations had grown ever more sophisticated. The
slab of marble had been taller than him, and despite the odd impurity that
miraculously managed to crumble to the stone floor as negative space, what
remained was flawless. The figure was that of a boy on the cusp of manhood,
identical in height to the sculptor himself. Its physique was ideal—taut and
toned and powerful and imposing—the ideal balance of form and function. Efficient
musculature held the memory of the stone’s geometry, chiseled planes promising
strength and fortitude, and yet these lines were softened by delicate sinew, by
the impossible perfection of poreless skin that brought a tear to the eye.
from the youth’s thick shoulders were robust wings like those of an eagle.
Though one-third again the statue’s height, when folded into repose their
unearthly power remained harnessed. They appeared to quake there in the dull
pallor of the subterranean prison.
opened its eyes.
did not blink, remained transfixed.
When at last
he tore himself away, the sun had long since dipped behind the remote mountains
to the east.
took to sleeping in the basement, unable to tear himself away from his
creation. He joined his family for meals but returned immediately to the obsidian-black
chambers that called to him, where solace waited to enfold him in basalt wings.
As if to
defy the void, the statue emerged from it stark white and iridescent. It never
spoke. Its pupil-less eyes exacted a hypnotic hold on the sculptor, who found
himself wishing he could run his fingers through the chiseled curls that framed
such an angelic countenance. The two stood nose-to-nose for hours at a spell,
the menagerie of former sculptures falling away into nothingness all around.
The sculptor would not forget his
children; that much he knew.But he also
knew he’d solicited his most perfect creation to date, had coaxed from darkness
a promise of perfection from the universe itself—a vision of what was possible.
The statue required little of the sculptor. No food
nor drink, no nourishment beyond his frequent attention: a fixed and steady
gaze, the light grazing of a raw-knuckled hand.
had no desire to sculpt. Oh, the drive might return one day, but for the
moment—call it the fear of falling short of the perfection he’d achieved—he
remained content to leave his tools scattered in neglect on the damp stone
floor. The statue moved about soundlessly, with barefooted grace, even as the
sculptor slept. Its wings fluttered imperceptibly. The sculptor’s dreams were
empty and visionless; in place of images lived the vast comfort, the profound
wellbeing of connection. The statue’s company rendered all else needless, even
the sculptor awakened to find the statue gazing at him, seated in reverent silence
at the foot of the tiny cot he’d dragged to the basement.
sat up, mildly startled.
It was then
the statue extended a stony, forceful hand, lifted the sculptor to his feet
like a feather so they stood face-to-face.
precise moment, a maiden from the village was making her way to market. She was
passing outside the sculptor’s residence, fishing a coin purse from her
handbag, when an insolent silver coin dove to the flagstone walk, rolling
swiftly downhill. She chased after it, snatching it up just before it escaped
into a rain gutter. She raised herself up on willowy haunches, then stopped
suddenly. Before her, a tiny, rusted iron grate separated her from a dark
basement, sealing off its sole window like a prison. Curiosity got the best of
her and she found herself squinting into the somber interior as if through
There they were—two
nearly identical figures—one impeccably alabaster in appearance, the other
coursing with the blood of humanity. They stood in a tight embrace, encircled
by a scarcely discernible entourage in the sketchy dark, kissing passionately.
captivated. Riveted. She’d never seen anything so beautiful in all of her
flaxen-haired maiden had heard of the boy who sculpted; rumors had flown
despite his father’s best efforts to quell them. And now that she’d seen his
wares for herself, the maiden rushed home to tell her father, who was a gallery
later, she brought the man to visit. The sculptor’s father led them to the
basement, the idea of financial gain—a practical
application for his son’s predilection—dancing in his eyes. Not to mention
the fair maiden might get the boy’s attention, force him out of that dungeon
where he spent all his time.
iron door groaned open on miserable hinges. The statue stood perfectly still,
down to the feather.
men flanked an ethereal maiden, who stood bathed in a sole shaft of errant
light from above. The visage was perhaps the fairest the sculptor had seen,
honey-colored hair spilling across a pleated peasant blouse and pronouncing
supple breasts. Her slim waist was cinched tight, revealing a svelte, willowy
frame. Full lips coursed with blood, as if to rival the rosy cheeks that
flushed further when her eyes met his.
The boy felt
things he’d never felt before.
At first, the
prospect of parting with his creations did not sit well with the boy, sounded
akin to severing a finger or worse. But the more time he spent basking in the
maiden’s fairness, while their fathers discussed a business arrangement, the
more detached the sculptor felt from his creations. The father’s hunches proved
prophetic when the two youths began stepping out together—to market, to
festivals, even to the local tavern. It was there, animated by spirits, by the
contagion of the music, where they shared their first kiss.
returned home in the wee hours, stole to the basement in stealthy dark. He
threw open its heavy lead door, and his heart sank.
statue stood motionless in the center of the dim chamber, surrounded by lacerating
shards of marble. Nothing but shards—senseless, chaotic fragments, like
serrated bones, of what had once been divine creations solicited from beyond:
seraphim and cherubim and satyrs and centaurs.
“Did you do
this?” The sculptor demanded, eyes flooding with tears.
The statue said
The sculptor cried, rage surfacing in him now. “Did you do this?!”
leaned against the damp stone wall, catching guilty moonlight, but the sculptor
did not want to believe the story it belied.
stood silent and pupil-less in the wan, pallid light from the tiny street-level
window. Its steel bars cast confusing shadows over all.
came over the sculptor—something visceral and unexamined. In a split-second, he’d
hefted the pickaxe from its indifferent station against the wall and found
himself heaving furiously, cleaving marble and sending shards of it careening
through the confusion of light. And then he was standing perfectly still, arms
flaccid and vanquished, breathing heavy as he surveyed the dark chamber. The young
man was shocked at what he’d done: the stone floor was but a graveyard of
broken tooth-like fragments, some large, some small, each indistinguishable
from the next.
feeling came over the man. And then numbness. Utter, pervasive numbness. Life
had effectively ended for him.
It took some
time for the maiden to tell her father there was nothing left to show; he’d
already scheduled an exhibition, though far in advance. In place of anger, the
man extended grace, seeing that his daughter had fallen in love with the young
sculptor. He hosted a lavish wedding ceremony in the gallery’s rose garden,
then put the newlyweds up in a quaint cottage on the edge of the village before
a great, winding moor. For a healthy percentage of the first exhibition’s
proceeds, to be collected at a later date, their accommodations would be covered.
As well as a space for the sculptor to create a new body of work. The new
studio, at the sculptor’s insistence, occupied the cottage’s basement, where
little light dared tread.
inspiration refused to strike.
dragged slabs of marble into the lightless vault, but found himself staring at
them blankly for hours on end. He needed his muse. On the cold stone floor, he
scattered the shattered fragments he’d brought along from his parents’
basement. He’d made sure not to confound the fragments—those of his muse with
the senseless, anonymous ruins of other inferior creations. And though he was
confident he had all the assets necessary to reconstruct his muse, he hadn’t
the first clue where to begin assembling them.
was joyful. So much so that the diversion rendered the muse little more than a
distant memory, and the sculptor nearly forgot why reconstructing it had seemed
so vitally important. But as the seasons turned and the exhibition’s opening
night drew nearer, he was reminded of the urgency. He’d made a promise. And if he was going to keep a
roof over his wife’s head, not to mention that of their newborn baby soon to
arrive, he had to produce. One needed
a muse in order to create.
painstakingly, over the course of the year, fragments were turned over,
examined, turned over again and viewed from a myriad of angles. They were
assembled tentatively, and only once the sculptor was convinced he had them
right, cemented with conviction. Ever so meticulously, the figure reappeared,
the one that so resembled the sculptor himself. When it stood complete, it had
lost an inch in height. Its pristine surface was scarred with deep fissures that
ran from toes to wingtips. It was imperfect.
Still, its great wings fluttered in still shafts of
amethyst light. Its pupil-less eyes opened evenly.
looked elated to see its master, who tried to hide any pity his own eyes might
But just as
quickly, elation turned to disappointment.
you’ve done to me,” the broken muse lamented. Its voice was an earthquake,
slabs of earth grating one another.
ever so slowly, its marble eyes shifted to the pickaxe in the corner. “If you
do to her what you did to me, I will be perfect again.”
followed his muse’s gaze to the pickaxe, bathed there in a shaft of sinister light.
Though he had no earthly idea why it should be so, he knew the muse’s words to
be true. Still, he bristled at the suggestion.
wings twitched impatiently and a stone fist clutched the sculptor by his tunic,
lifting him from the floor with unearthly force.
“We must be
together,” the muse commanded, voice gravelly with plumes of sediment.
live without you,” the sculptor agreed. “Nor you without me. But the rules have
There was a shift
in the inscrutable marble eyes. A pieced-together forearm began to tremble.
Rather than testing its waning strength, the muse returned its master to the
on, you will remain here with me,” the sculptor explained. “But you must be
content with half my attention. It is the only way for you to remain. I will
never forget about you and I will always return. I promise.”
looked as if it might crumble. But when its eyes returned to its master’s, they
were abject and submissive. “I understand.”
shared a kiss, one rendered more powerful by imperfection, by gritty aggregate so
much more sensual than the cold antiseptic of marble. The friction, the
dissonance, was electric.
made his deadline. Opening night was populated by creatures drawn from that cool,
still reservoir he’d known so well, only now it was more like an abyss. The beings
who materialized were grotesque, demonic, beautiful in their sublime imperfection.
The sculptor had made no attempt to idealize. The muse had done its job,
stirring about with barefooted grace in the cruel dark, lingering at the
sculptor’s side, remaining close, remaining obedient.
was well received, by both the critics and the public.
sold, every last one, leading to a second showing. And a third.
wife would never speak of what she’d seen. Oh, she knew it was down there,
milling in darkness. But it’s not like the thing required anything; even
houseguests would eat you out of house and home, but not a muse. From then on
it would remain there, slightly broken, content to dwell obediently in the
sculptor’s presence and never to see the light of day.
suburban street has it: that one eccentric house that captures the imaginations
of neighborhood children, for generations. It’s set back from the sidewalk,
stately but shrouded in shoddy foliage. Peering through thorny, intersecting
branches invites intrigue—that brand of speculation only childhood can do
justice. Tall tales are spun about the origin of the brick manor or the Tudor
cottage, at once enchanted and sinister, like a faerie tale. Built by a
Transylvanian count or sprung up from the very earth, completely abandoned (as evidenced
by boarded up windows) or inhabited by a mad scientist and his bevy of ghosts.
neighborhood, the origin of said residence was no mystery. If you believed the
talk, that is. No reason not to—the rote mythology only added to the mystique
of the colossal old Victorian cottage: It had originally been constructed in 1837,
in Slumber Cove, Maryland. The monstrosity had been moved to the even sleepier
town of Glendale, California in the early seventies on a flatbed truck, then deposited
on a double lot on a cul de sac at the end of Maple St. As a child, I pictured
it making its way west, being shuttled past cornfields and alfalfa crops on its
flatbed truck, like a great land-locked ocean liner.
in the quiet Glendale neighborhood, the house surely stuck out like a sore
thumb. Over the years, cottonwoods and shrubbery had grown up around it,
concealing the larger part of its mass. But the second story, with its peaked
gables and enormous Moorish spire, towered head and shoulders over every last
house on the modest cul de sac.
owners had passed; the old world relic had been inherited by the couple’s
eldest daughter. She moved there with her husband, a psychiatrist who swiftly
set up his own private practice there in Glendale. The couple were clearly from
means, both of them. Neither old money nor nouveau rich, their brand of wealth
(rarely seen in Glendale) was the kind that spawned eccentricity. The grounds
were cluttered with incongruous affairs. Not plaster flamingos or koi ponds or
even lawn gnomes, but inexplicable artifacts whose original function was
distinctly ambiguous. Oxidized antique washing machines sprouting cherubs or
dolphins with weeds poking from their blowholes. Incinerators and tiered marble
fountains long since drained but still clumped somehow with lichen and hanging
moss. Misshapen wire cages with rusted locks, strange bird feeders and Easter
Island cinder gods. Corroded swing sets with faded plastic seats that looked to
have been jacked from a public playground, a section of rollercoaster track
with a single mining car rusted to it. Even a jungle gym. Everything on the
grounds seemed to shout to the neighborhood children: Come! Climb on my crusty armature! Lacerate yourself on my broken nubs
and tetanus-ridden prongs!
exactly what my brother Walter and I planned to do! Peering saucer-eyed between
parted vine curtains, our imaginations wandered in tandem.
“Gotta be at
night, though,” Walter qualified. “You hear me, Jason?” He was a year older
than I, at eight, so his way went.
thing,” I agreed.
He had a
point. The psychiatrist ran his practice out of an office on Brand Boulevard,
Mom had once said. But his wife was home most days, could be seen hanging
laundry on a corroded clothesline or moving about inside the upstairs gable
that faced my own bedroom across Maple St. Rumor had it the couple had once had
a child, but the boy had died an untimely death at seven. My age. Since, they’d
contented themselves collecting not children, but junk.
bedroom window, I traced the moon-drenched contours of the colossal Victorian.
During the day, it was powder blue with white trim, horizontal wood siding
chipped and weatherworn. At night the blue melded with the iridescent cobalt
ambience, leaving its immense, slate-tiled turret to silhouette itself against
a harvest moon. No one stirred inside.
Jason!” Walter whispered insistently, prying me from my bedroom window. It was
witching hour on a warm summer night; the jackets we threw on were camouflage
as much as anything. Plus, they’d come in handy weaseling between thorny
branches and navigating angry, rusted prongs. We slinked across the silent cul
de sac as discreetly as possible, but the enormous moon bathed the asphalt in
its pearlescent glow like a lighthouse. The street seemed to have widened;
crossing it was the equivalent of crossing the Atlantic. When we reached the
far side, we took refuge in the shadows of great, rustling cottonwoods.
Walter whisper-shouted, edging his way between a low picket fence and a mangy
discussed the plan: rather than taking a straight shot into the yard, we’d make
our way covertly between the psychiatrist’s lot and his neighbor’s, then hop the
fence into the backyard to start. Surely more to see there anyway. Once we were
sure the coast was clear, a full exploration of the grounds was in order.
we drove between lots, the higher the yellow grasses grew on the one side. They
glistened pale in the scattered moonlight, consuming the picket fence entirely.
A stagnant, summery aroma wafted on the warm midnight breeze; the rustling of boughs
high above was interspersed with a chorus of chirping crickets and boisterous
frogs. The first thing we saw after hopping the completely shrouded fence was a
good-sized pond bordered by mismatched rocks and reflecting the abalone moon.
When we got
right up on it, we saw that it was wriggling with tadpoles. Their darting rippled
the water’s surface, shattering the moon in a million pieces. All around the
pond, towering, shadowy forms extruded themselves from the overgrown lawn, like
watchers. The artifacts in the front yard had the look of inherited things, or
stolen things, or treasures acquired at estate sales and Oxfam shops. Here,
ambiguous assemblages of steel girders and scaffolding spoke of three ring
circuses and amusement parks.
had time to figure out what any one item was, or once was, something drew both
our attention at the same time.
faint, distant laughter were skimming across the lawn. They sounded canned,
electronically distorted like those of a television laugh track.
And then we saw the flicker. The back porch was aglow
with ice blue TV light that bounced off the white support columns and the chair
rails and even the sills of shuttered windows. Someone was watching T.V. on the back porch.
But rather than startling us into flight, the laugh
track and the mesmerizing blue light only emboldened us. We crossed the lawn,
dashing from one monolithic museum piece to the next, wanting to see more.
Huddled between a dented mining car and an errant stretch of track, we stared in
wonder, as if watching T.V. on one’s porch was a wondrous recreation. We were
both thinking the same thing, we’d later confess: carting a T.V. out onto the
porch, never mind the sofa and wingback chair and comforter, watching
who-cared-what under a harvest moon on a summer night surrounded by crickets
and frogs, was something only rich people got to do. Eccentric rich people. The most Mom ever let us do was pitch a tent
in the lawn and play cards with a dim plastic flashlight.
warning, something rustled the grasses at the base of the rollercoaster track,
and the two of us looked down, startled. A family of mice darted from between
the tall ochre blades, squeaking as they crossed what remained of the lawn. One
by one, the rodents scurried up the painted concrete stairs, congregating at
the base of a chipping column. There they froze, hypnotized by whatever was
being broadcast this late at night. Walter and I looked at each other in the
pale moonlight, astonished. The mice were watching T.V. with…whoever was under
that enormous comforter.
was vitally important to know what they were all watching. Once, I’d stayed up
late enough to see every last network sign off. It was an eerie feeling witnessing
the Iwo Jima memorial dissolving to static so abruptly, being assaulted by
white noise. It haunted me as a child. That’s all there was when the broadcast
ended? Just white noise? I hoped death would be more glamorous.
and I strained to discern the dialogue that spawned the disjointed, cacophonous
laughter of the laugh track. But before we could identify the witching hour programming, something
alarming happened. A horrific groan yielded to a deafening rumble behind us. We
turned. Without warning, the dented mining car, which had been perched—cemented—at the apex of its arched
track, dislodged itself and began careening hellward.
No time to
discuss a plan. No time to do anything but scatter, both of us bolted for
freedom on different trajectories. Not for the light, or the sidewalk or even
Maple street per se—anywhere was preferable to here. To a haunted amusement park rife with rodents.
We met one
another, scabbed and bruised, in the shadows of the cypress trees beside our
own home. For a good five minutes neither of us spoke; we simply huffed and
puffed, trying to make sense of what we’d witnessed.
“Don’t go in
there ever again.” Was all Walter said when he’d caught his breath.
brother’s warning, or in direct defiance of it, I of course did go back. I’d recently scored my own
bedroom when Dad finally converted our box room into something remotely
livable; Walter was none the wiser as I stole out my second-story window into a
gusty August night. I shimmied down the bare trellis that Mom had big plans for
but never got around to, dropping at last onto our patchy lawn.
from miles around synchronized their chirping, animating the night and
conspiring in my nocturnal adventure. I tried a different tack this time;
rather than hopping the camouflaged picket fence midway, I skirted the
periphery of the lot to its deepest point. Here, a crumbling block wall
separated the property from its neighbor one street over. It would be a
straight shot across the lawn to the back porch—no chance of inadvertently
setting a Ferris wheel in motion or awakening a rollercoaster.
through tall grasses interspersed with clumps of willows and withered cattails.
I could see the flickering cerulean glow over waving ochre tufts; it called to
me as hypnotically as before. Like a cheetah stalking its prey, I traversed the
vast, parched Savanna in no time. There was no moon tonight, nothing to compete
with the flickering neon haven of the cozy porch. More importantly, nothing to
give me away. Still, I felt vulnerable, exposed, found myself darting from one
random, discarded item to the next. Nearest the porch, a great rusty drum rose
up from the sea of blades and stalks. It was a cement mixer; I knew from having
accompanied Dad to work on countless occasions. But it may as well have been a
Mayan temple, posing itself authoritatively against the stark, moonless night.
I clung to
its base like a buoy on the tide, peering around its amorphous mass at the
mysterious lighthouse of a porch. The TV was opposed, as always, by the
incongruous couch and the wingback chair. The psychiatrist’s wife was perched
in the heart-shaped chair in her pajamas, knees drawn up beneath her chin.
Draped with a crocheted Afghan, she tossed handfuls of popcorn into her mouth
to sporadic peals of canned laughter.
couch, the massive quilted comforter billowed like a tent, morphing every now
and again when an arm reached out for the stainless steel popcorn bowl. The
aroma of hot chocolate hung in the air. The family of mice were in attendance
like before, hanging back and feasting on their own assortment of snacks from
the nearby trash bin.
knew there was nowhere else I’d rather be at that moment. I suddenly longed to
be nestled right there under that comforter. There was something novel and adventurous,
familiar but exciting about the whole scene. But mostly, there was something…cozy about it. I found myself overtaken
with a nostalgia for which I had no context. Oh, maybe I’d felt something
similar roasting marshmallows or making S’mores on a camping trip. But it was
something more than chocolate or sugary, sticky-sweet marshmallows that I found
cozy. It was the feeling of unconditional safety.
I would come to learn that such a feeling is unique to childhood if it
exists at all; after that, anything could come at you: the I.R.S., bill
collectors, the overwhelming strife in the world impossible to reverse. And
only you could shoulder the burden.
For now, the
closest thing I could equate to the warm fuzzy feeling was that scene early on
in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate
Factory, in which all Charlie’s relatives snuggle up in a single rickety
was surreal to say the least, like the extension of an aborted dream. In all
the absurdity, the thing that struck me most—in fact, it downright startled me,
sent me bolting back across the savanna and into my own empty bed—was this:
there was a third figure on that porch. As the psychiatrist’s arm reached out
for a fistful of popcorn, the comforter dislodged itself for one tiny second,
succumbing to gravity. In that split second, I saw him, in no uncertain terms:
a boy of seven, like myself. Towheaded and slight, leaning against a great
barrel chest and blinking incessantly to stay awake.
hopping the dilapidated block wall at the back of the property, I spotted it in
the moonless ambience: a pair of binoculars was slung across an errant, twisted
branch that poked up from the sea of yellow grass.
For the rest
of August, I plastered myself nightly to my bedroom window with those
binoculars. I’d wait until witching hour, or on occasion if I’d nodded off
early I’d wake suddenly at midnight as though I’d forgotten something vitally
important. There was little to see; all the action was on the back porch. On occasion, I’d glimpse the
silhouetted form of the psychologist’s wife moving about listlessly inside the
peaked gable opposite my window. But once she retired to the backyard, all that
availed itself was that mysterious neon glow from the rear, taunting me.
“He died of
pneumonia,” Mom said, citing a newspaper article from years previous, around
the time the psychiatrist and his wife moved in. They’d moved from New Orleans
when she’d inherited the house. But the article failed to say whether the child
died before or after the move.
I’d been sly
in my prompting, so as not to alarm Mom with my sudden interest in neighborhood
lore. And needless to say, Walter was not a resource I dared tap into.
The kids in
the neighborhood told a different story than Mom’s. Or rather, several. Timothy Hutchins had it on good
authority that the couple had beaten the child to death before leaving New
Orleans and buried him under a slab of concrete. Escaping the authorities was
the sole reason for their move to the
west coast, according to Timothy. Eventually, when the new owners of their home
in Louisiana tore up that porch, he knew, they’d discover the kid’s remains and
law enforcement would come after the couple. It was only a matter of time.
Jessica Fletcher disagreed. Her version
of the story held more water; she’d heard adults
discussing the grim details, after all. The child had not been beaten to
death at all. He’d been poisoned. And
it had not been an intentional or malicious act. Rather, the boy had taken up
Voodoo at the tender age of seven; his untimely death was the product of a
ritual gone wrong, involving incantations, chicken feet, and…arsenic. In Jessica’s version, the body
was brought along, as the poor woman could not bear to pry herself from it in
her grief. According to the adults, there was no record of a proper burial in
Glendale, or services of any kind. Word was, the unfortunate child was buried
there in that yard, beneath the miscellany of oddities.
part made sense. It was always in a vacant, dazed state that the psychiatrist’s
wife shuffled about that peaked gable. When she hung laundry in the late
morning or early afternoon, her empty eyes looked far beyond the clothesline.
The only remote expressions of joy I’d seen from her came on that porch the
night of the harvest moon. She’d tossed her head back, laughing along with the
laugh track, tossing popcorn carelessly into her mouth.
August, I could help myself no longer. A harvest moon hung full and low,
framing the enigmatic cottage in mystique. I found myself climbing
leg-at-a-time out of my bedroom window, binoculars secured about my neck but
swinging wildly in anticipation.
later, I was perched in the tall grass, stalking. I squinted, through
binoculars this time. The towheaded boy yawned and stretched, fighting to stay
awake. I identified with the feeling of keeping slumber at bay, not wanting to
miss a single cozy moment. It occurred to me I’d never heard a single line of
dialogue issuing from that vintage TV with its rabbit ears and oval screen.
Only the laugh track.
something metal groaned in the yard. I turned. Any moment, a mining car was
bound to dislodge itself, barreling toward me and revealing my presence. Or
worse, squashing me like a pancake. Instead, it teetered indecisively atop its
arched track, perfectly centered in the cinnamon disc of the moon. There were
other noises—those of scuttling in the grass, impatient creaks or irritable
moans from hidden artifacts. The frogs and the crickets had cut out altogether,
yielding to a silence of rusty moans. The place was a graveyard, but it was
coming to life. Slowly, cautiously, I raised the binoculars.
What I saw
through their antique, amber-tinted lenses has not left me to this day. An
entire world was awakening around me in the dark, one that existed always but
could only be seen or heard or otherwise sensed
through those magic lenses. The tracks were not rusted at all, nor were the
mining cars cemented to them. They were careening wildly about under an
enchanted moon. Ferris wheels spun and fountains spewed and great sledgehammers
rose and fell. There were children. Dozens of them from every walk of life,
pigtails flopping or bowl cuts stubbornly defying night’s breeze, laughing and
twirling and screaming with delight. And to amuse them, an equal number of
acrobats and clowns and fat ladies and strongmen.
I never went
Nor did I
make ever make sense of the invisible carnival. Had it come with the house from
Slumber Cove? Had the couple accumulated the junk to attract the children and
satisfy some perverse need? Had the children then been murdered, resulting in
ghosts? Or was it all just a fanciful creation? The amalgamation of childhood
imagination with the whispers of adults, the gossip that sprouts up to fill the
gaps in what we don’t understand?
hopped the block wall that night, the binoculars flew from my neck. I left them
I all but
forgot about the strange alternate reality I’d glimpsed that night. It settled
among other fanciful dreams or memories, dusty old volumes on a high shelf. I
became occupied with other things; such is the nature of youth and attention
continued to haunt my subconscious. The one recurring dream that characterized
my wonder years was that of being there on that porch, bathed in the flattening
blue light. It was me beneath that comforter, leaning against that barrel
chest, stretching and blinking to stay awake. Swaddled by the aroma of hot
chocolate and popcorn and…safety.
Looking out into the nebulous glow, I’d strain to identify the program on that flooded
oval screen. But before I ever did, I’d start awake, straight out of the dream.
leaving for college when we met in the street. I’d just tossed my third and
final suitcase into the idling taxi that would take me to the airport, when the
psychiatrist pulled up in his vintage BMW. Dusk was falling; he was arriving
home from the office on Brand Boulevard I’d never seen. I’d always imagined it to
be boxy and nondescript—the opposite of their home.
college?” The man called cheerfully across the cul de sac, approaching from his
heard the psychologist speak. I’d never bothered to learn his name, for that
matter. The voice matched his appearance: the full beard and the stocky frame,
that fusion of culture and roguishness that was ever so slightly out-of-touch.
His voice, like his shocking blue eyes, turned up in the corners.
answered him. “Savannah.”
“Ah,” the man exclaimed on approach. “You’ll
love it there. My wife and I are from the south.”
psychiatrist planted himself before me. His look beamed with pride, the same
pride it would project were I his own son. He’d grown older; his barrel chest
was a bit more sunken than it once was, the full beard more peppered with
silver. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with sadness at never having gotten to know
“My wife and
I wish you well,” he assured me wistfully.
reason, I found myself suddenly invested in her happiness. “Please tell her
goodbye for me.” And out of nowhere, I found myself fighting tears.
seemed to understand. Our roles suddenly reversed and he embraced me tightly,
there in the cul de sac, as if to lend me strength for the journey ahead.
The Dead End
Carmen Goldstein dashed through the side entrance of
Brewer Street Theater, letting her affairs clatter to the darkened stage. The
cast were already gathered in a tight circle center stage, awaiting notes from
the previous night’s run through. Tonight was final dress, and it was poor form
to show up late to final dress. Especially when you’d been lucky enough to land
the lead in Dare To Live. Especially
when opening night was the following evening and this was your last chance to
get things right.
The production’s director, Nathan Whitaker, hustled
toward her, materializing from the blackness between wings. But instead of
reprimanding her, he stooped to help organize her affairs: the wig from act two
she’d taken home to restyle herself, the three new options for angora sweaters
she’d brought from her own closet even though it was late in the game.
“You all right?” he asked, earnestly bracing her slender
shoulders in broad, capable hands.
“Thank you, yes, “ she convinced herself, lifting her
large almond eyes so that the footlights refracted just the right dazzle.
“I’m ready,” she sighed, transforming exasperation into
“I believe in you,” the man reassured her, giving her
shoulders one last squeeze before restoring his capable hands to a flimsy
clipboard scrawled with notes. “I only wish you
believed in me,” he followed up,
the mischievous twinkle in his deep set hazel eyes betraying the dual meaning.
Carmen’s eyes flashed to the circle of patiently waiting
thespians, the sprinkling of young aspiring actresses.
“I’ve no interest in being one of your conquests,” she
asserted, putting him in his place with good humor as she always did.
“I told you,” he protested, “those days are over.” The
man’s crescent-shaped eyes morphed, quite convincingly, into those of a puppy.
She was not
sharpened. “Once a lothario, always a lothario.”
The man looked almost wounded. “Not true,” he defended.
“Even the most shameless dog will tell you when his head hits the pillow at
night, that playing the field is ultimately an empty pursuit. A dead end road.”
“And that’s where you find yourself,” she echoed back.
“At a dead end. In that case, I’m flattered to be your dead end, Sir Whitaker.”
“You’ve got it twisted all around, my lady.” Here he took
her hand, like so many times before, turning feelings of rejection into faux
confidence. “I’d love to tell you all about it over a nightcap.” Old habits
Carmen’s wits ran out. She withdrew her tiny hand from
his, her good humor sprouting thorns.
“We’d best concentrate on what’s at hand,” she
reprimanded. “You know full well Irma Callahan will be front and center
tomorrow night. And I needn’t remind you she happens to be the most important
critic on the scene. Nor that opening night is everything if we are to take
this production to Shaftesbury.”
“You speak the truth, my lady,” Nathan conceded, prying
himself from the tractor beam of her unearthly charms. “But I’m not giving up.”
Carmen smiled as she turned away, throwing him a bone out
of proper breeding.
“Memories flood my weary heart…”
Carmen’s rich, tremulous alto, so bursting with visceral
subtext, projected to the foyer of Brewer Street Theater. Act two was well
underway, each cast member doing his or her best to incorporate their notes
from the previous night’s run through. Carmen, as she’d done when faced with
Nathan’s come-on, wavered between confidence and paralyzing, debilitating
insecurity. The former kept the latter at bay, even if she hadn’t yet figured
out why. She often questioned her dramatic choices later, the authenticity of
her interpretation, but in the moment performing on that stage—any stage—gave her wings. It always had.
Even now, as her monologue rang throughout an empty
house, she basked in the solace. It transported her to the moment, what seemed
like both yesterday and a lifetime ago, when she’d cemented her relationship
with the stage:
She was seven years of age. She stood, petticoats
perfectly still, patent leather shoes not fidgeting in the least, belting the
lyrics of Ten Cents a Dance into a
black void. The footlights
obliterated all, wiping away anything distasteful or unsavory or unbecoming,
replacing it with fantasy. The stark black nothingness beyond the blinding
footlights was whatever she wanted it to be.
One thing was sure: whatever she fancied it to be on a
given night, whatever she projected on it, what came back was love. That
incredible energy from all those faceless, anonymous folks that cradled her
like a cocoon. Even as a child, albeit a child prodigy, she recognized the truth: the stage was the only place she felt safe.
“LOUDER!” A lacerating voice serrated the cocoon. It came
from the wings, shrill and terrifying.
“Louder, Goddamn it!! And stop fidgeting!”
But I’m not
fidgeting, she thought, careful not to stray from the lyrics. Her arms hung
perfectly still at her sides, not tempted in the least to fuss with the
ridiculous petticoats she was forced to wear. They’d run the song endlessly,
not just in rehearsal, but every waking moment in their modest Chelsea flat.
She was performing as impeccably as ever. Still, it would never do.
When the applause
finally died after final curtain, young Carmen rent herself from the
validation, the affirmation, the safety of
the cocoon. Reluctantly, she edged toward the ominous wings stage left.
What a contrast it always proved to be emerging from such
profound comfort to a violent swat on the behind, however padded with knickers.
Carmen was her mother’s ticket out of the dump she’d
found herself in, both literally and figuratively. To Mabel Goldstein, there
was no dignity raising a child alone in a tiny run-down flat when you’d been
brought up with means. When she’d found herself knocked up at seventeen, out of
wedlock, she’d been sent away to the country like so many girls before her. But
instead of letting them give her baby away to strangers, Mabel had returned
home with the tiny, helpless thing, ready to face consequences.
She was quickly put out. Disowned. Though she could have
negotiated another solution, taking work as a seamstress in a factory that
allowed her to keep a bassinette on the floor beside her was a concession she
was willing to make. She found herself a modest flat in Chelsea—the very
affluent neighborhood where she’d been raised. The residence, however, was
situated on one of its slummier streets, in a pocket longtime residence
preferred to refer to as ‘Chelsea-adjacent.’ It may have been something
resembling love that had driven her choices, but the bond Mabel Goldstein
shared with her infant quickly turned to resentment. More than that, as the
psychiatrist who’d eventually diagnose her put it, the child became an
extension of herself. Not property. Not a creation. A projection. Simply put, the whole ordeal had driven the woman stark
She took to frequenting local pubs, attempting to land
stability in the form of a man. Several nights weekly, she’d lock Carmen in her
upstairs nursery and stroll down to the smoky pub at Lexington and Brewer where
she kept her own personal barstool. But word spread as fast as her legs, and it
took no time at all to earn a reputation. Switching haunts didn’t help; despite
being smack in the center of London proper, Chelsea had all the trappings of a
small provincial town: the backwards values, the piety, the gossip. When Mabel tired of overhearing
herself referred to as a harlot, a hussy and a strumpet interchangeably, she
made a decision. As long as the prospect of respectability had been left in the
dust, as long as she’d been labeled, she figured she may as well make it
official. She began turning tricks for cash.
The liquid revenue was a far cry from the wages of a
seamstress. Still, if they were going to get ahead, she simply could not throw away cash on a babysitter.
Instead, she brought her johns home to compete transactions.
From her nursery, young Carmen could hear them conducting
their business. All of it. She took
to singing lullabies to drown out the grunting, the headboard, the mattress
springs.One day, just before climaxing,
one of Mabel’s johns went perfectly still, cocking an ear.
“To whom does that angelic voice belong?” He’d heard
young Carmen’s rendition of When You Wish
Upon a Star through paper-thin plaster.
Though the girl would be beaten for it, the turn of
events was fortuitous.
The john was a talent agent.
In no time at all, Carmen became a phenomenon on the
London stage. Adored by critics and audiences alike, her rising star eclipsed
all others. ‘Carmen Goldstein’ became ‘Carmen,’ and she was all the rage. The It girl.
Having a meal ticket did little to improve Mabel
Goldstein’s mental state. She stopped turning tricks, but remained haunted by
the level to which she’d stooped. She’d chastise herself. She’d reprimand and
shame and even punish—only it was not
herself on the receiving end—it was that tiny little extension of herself. That
seethe vehemently after ransacking her daughter’s room in the middle of the
night and throwing things about. “You dirty little whore!”
At nine most girls had no inkling of the word’s meaning.
Carmen, conversely, had heard it nightly from the lips of those shadowy men who
came and went. Uttered with horny disdain between primal grunts.
At fifteen, Carmen met a boy. Nothing at all to do with
the theater. The faces of her public had remained anonymous, masked by
darkness. She hadn’t met the boy at school either; she was being tutored
between performances in lieu of public school. She’d met the boy, three years
her senior, at his workplace—the corner grocery. She’d been allowed to walk there
on one of many occasions Mabel sent her to fetch a pack of smokes. He was spraying down heads of lettuce when he
saw her, ended up dousing his shoes and those of several nearby patrons.
The two took to meeting up in secret, in the few stolen
moments Carmen was afforded weekly. One day, blinded by love, emboldened by it, she brought him home,
ready to face consequences. Instead of beating her daughter or throwing the boy
out, Mabel greeted him politely. She proceeded to treat him to afternoon tea
and fresh-baked scones.
Carmen sensed a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Eventually word got out that the former floozy had had
her way with the produce boy. But he had just turned eighteen, so no charges
were filed. Knowing first-hand how paralyzing her mother’s will could be and
how terrifying her wrath, Carmen let the boy off the hook. But even so, even
knowing her mother was stark raving mad, nothing could soften the blow: her
heart was broken.
Broken though it was, Carmen knew in her heart it would
be a very long time, if ever, she tried again at love.
From that point on, the stage lost its appeal for Carmen.
It was no longer the safe place it once was. The cocoon had been shredded. As
logic would have it, her career trajectory followed.
Granted, she was now an adolescent, a maladjusted one at
that, but the only roles to come her way were, well, those of maladjusted
teenagers: Rhoda in The Bad Seed, Vida
in Mildred Pierce, Abigail in The Crucible. She related to Vida’s
desire to do away with her mother. She even resonated with the themes of The Crucible—the chasm between
appearance and truth—delivering what she considered to be inspired
The critics did not agree.
Her talent manager (she’d kept him all these years,
despite how their paths had originally crossed) would ask her regularly if she
was practicing her craft. Taking workshops or classes.
“An intuitive child actor does not a Sarah Bernhart
make,” was his way of putting it. “In fact, quite the opposite. It is well
known there is an inverse relationship
to be found.”
The roles dried up entirely.
At eighteen, Carmen got access to her finances. She
cleaned out her bank accounts and emancipated herself from her mother’s
clutches in one fell swoop. She used a portion of the money for university.
Nothing to do with theater nor film, nor anything art related. World History would be her major. She
never looked back. Oh, she continued to pay her mother’s rent, even visited on
occasion. It was she who eventually convinced the old loon to visit a shrink.
But she refused to take her medication.
Carmen did not go near a stage, or anything resembling a theater,
for a full decade.
Returning to the stage at twenty-eight for an equity
waiver production of Dare To Live was
an effort to revive her career. But more importantly, her heart. She’d chosen
equity waiver because the stakes were lower. Not to mention the director,
Nathan Whitaker, had been the first director to shed a tear at auditions and
say he believed in her.
Though the stakes may have been low, a bad review was a
bad review. And Nathan had plans to take the production to Shaftesbury. So
sweaty palms and a palpitating heart came as no surprise to Carmen opening
night. She had no earthly idea how things would go. How the critics would
respond. The most important of them all, Irma Callahan, would be right there in
the front row. Looking up her nostrils. But
just as important to Carmen as critical reception, though she’d not fully
formulated the realization, was whether she’d find that…place. That familiar solace.
She had them in the palm of her hand. End of Act two, and
they were eating it up. You could hear a pin drop.
Nathan Palmer watched from the wings. He would have been
beaming ear to ear had he not been fighting tears, fighting the lump that had
taken up residence in this throat.
“The truth is,” Carmen admitted through Eva Galante, her character,
“I didn’t have what it took. It takes faith
to live fully. Naive, childlike faith.”
Carmen felt the tear spill down her cheek, or Eva did, or
some combination thereof. And then, all of a sudden, she appeared lost. Nathan
squinted from the wings. Carmen squinted into darkness, as though what she saw
was vague and unfamiliar.
And then it happened. Some kind of power surge.
The houselights came on. Somehow. Just for a moment.
But Carmen saw what was out there. What was really out
there: People. Just people. Fanning themselves. Quieting their snot-nosed
kids.Coats draped over chairs and
programs littering the floor.
She’d hope to feel something out there—to reconnect. Feel
safe. But even when the houselights dimmed down again half a second later, all
she could picture were those people out there. So human. So frail. She could
hear them stirring in their seats, no bigger or stronger or wiser than her. She
did not feel safe. She felt more
alone than ever.
With a look of increasing panic, Carmen Goldstein bolted
from the stage. Heads turned as she cut through the wings stage left, stumbling
toward the theatre’s side entrance. She wrenched the heavy door open, heart
pounding, and flew out into the night. As the monstrous thing groaned closed
behind her, she thought she heard waves of applause from the house.
No one came after her. She pressed her back against the
heavy stage door, trying in vain to catch her breath, sliding to the pavement
in surrender. The alley was pocked and lacerated, gritty aggregate shooting in
tendrils across a tortured landscape. Somewhere at a distance an enormous
dumpster spewed funk, overflowing and ripe. The terra cotta brick and the
corroded fire escapes, the rusty water towers and the splintery wooden sills,
all were slathered in graffiti—something she’d never noticed when rushing in
the side door of the theater. Even more
alarming, she’d never noticed that the side alley through which she’d entered
was a—dead end. Not far beyond the
dumpster, a great wall thrust from the tired asphalt, sealing off the tiny,
Suddenly, there was movement. Dusk was just surrendering
to night, but in the faint, twitchy yellow light from a nearby wall sconce, a
tiny figure emerged from behind heaps of garbage. It was a girl, no more than
seven, wearing patent leather shoes and ridiculous petticoats. She advanced
awkwardly. Tentatively, as though walking on new legs. As if she’d just emerged
from a…cocoon. It was then that Carmen noticed: she had
There was no need for introductions. Carmen said nothing
as the girl approached, just sat agape, full of sweet surrender. The girl
reached up with a porcelain hand, as frail as a doll’s, and wiped the tear from
“Looks like there’s no going back,” Carmen pondered. “The
lights are on for good.”
The girl smiled with a patient wisdom beyond her years.
“You used to feel safe out there,” she sang, her voice a melody borrowed from
the stars that were beginning to materialize above. “But it was just a
Carmen let the words wash over her. Another tear fell,
and then another.
“All you ever wanted was to feel safe,” the girl offered
kindly. “To belong. To feel connected.”
Suddenly the traffic was inaudible. The
graffiti-slathered walls disappeared and the dumpster overflowing with trash.
Only the stars remained. And the ethereal figure that now levitated before her.
“And doesn’t that all just add up to love?”
In a flash, the girl was gone. The flickering yellow
light reminded Carmen she was sitting at the dead end of an urban landscape.
One with very few redeeming qualities. She could hear crowds gathering on the
sidewalk in front; Nathan must have called intermission. And then she could see
them, milling about with coffees in hand, excitedly discussing what they’d just
seen. Speculating about where act three would take them.
Carmen stood up, dusted herself off, and stepped into the
side door of Brewer Street Theater. Nathan was there, just inside, to greet
She collapsed into his arms, sobbing speechlessly.
“I’m sorry,” she said at last. “I’ve ruined opening
“You kiddin?” Nathan’s voice was cheerful. He took her by
the shoulders as he often did, squaring them so she had no choice but to look
into his eyes. “They’re eating it up! They don’t know the difference! In fact,
I want to keep it! It works!”
Carmen was not
consoled. “But Irma. The critics. They’ll know how the piece is supposed to go…”
“FUCK the critics.” Nathan spat.
Later the unconventional choice would be characterized as
avant-garde, papers lauding the both director
and his ingénue for being on the cutting edge. The musical would move to
Shaftesbury the moment the contract expired with Brewer Street. It would become
the longest running play in Theatreland history.
But all that mattered was tonight.
Nathan didn’t see it coming. Suddenly he was being
kissed. Long and hard. With passion. When the two parted, he couldn’t help but
“What’s come over you, doll?”
“How ‘bout I explain over that nightcap,” she teased.
“Offer still good?”
“Course! You kiddin’ me?”
Before she trotted off to prepare for act three, she
settled into his arms once more. His broad, capable hands caressed the small of
her back. His burly arms held her close. For the first time in her life, Carmen
Goldstein felt maybe there was something bigger, stronger and wiser out there
she could surrender to. For the first time ever, she felt…
marionette was kept in the basement among the cobwebs, the corroded pipes and
the scuttling varmints that would have fared better in the kitchen but didn’t
dare venture into the light. The basement hadn’t always been his home; Jacques, as he was known, had once lived
upstairs with the Holister family. He’d been given to seven year-old Jack, the
boy of the house, by his great aunt Marie-Martine Chaumet de Provence. She’d
been passing through on her travels for the first time in Jack’s short
existence, en route to some obscure eastern European country. Aunt Marie was
the exotic bohemian relation—the one rarely mentioned in polite conversation,
and only then in hushed tones. Jack’s older sister Mary had bristled awkwardly
at supper, displacing lumps of mashed potatoes with her fork for the duration
of the strange woman’s adventure tales. Jack, on the other hand, ate them up,
forsaking his meal entirely.
She spoke of
her travels to the orient, her time with the gypsies in eastern Europe and the
Bedouins in Arabia, her seasoned voice alternating between hooty overtones and
dry, throaty rasps that warned of all that could never be unseen. Mr. and Mrs.
Hollister looked from the middle-aged woman to their young son, his eyes wide
in astonishment. Their own expressions betrayed guarded concern, a scarcely discernible
shift from their customary poker faces. Jack had often sensed that the two were
sleepwalking through life in some sort of trance. And Mary, his older sister,
was dead-set in their tracks, content to mimic the expressionless masks
otherwise known as faces. They may as well have been made of paper mâche´.
And here was
a woman, one Jack had only heard of in whispered anecdote, whose eyes resembled
his own: wide and alive and unfettered, whose voice spoke to ever fiber of his
being that was unlike his parents. For a single evening Jack felt slightly less
alone, as if he’d found a kindred spirit in all the monotony. What he didn’t
know—couldn’t know—was that what the
two shared ran much deeper than the sparkle in an eye; what that sparkle
revealed was an unfathomable treasure chest of shared history—more than a
lineage or simple DNA—more like a shadowy beast that had the run of the collective,
trampling the patchwork quilt that was the landscape of dreams.
Grandparents had passed before his birth; he’d not had occasion to meet them.
Aunt Marie-Martine was the younger sister of his grandmother on his father’s
side—all that remained of a former generation. The woman did not explain the
origin of the marionette, only that she’d picked it up at a flea market near
Rialto Bridge in Venice, Italy. She’d found it next to a tiny, leather-bound
triptych depicting the rapture when unfolded on its tiny rusted hinges—the kind
old Catholic women carried in their clutches for emergencies. When guilt got
the best of them, the foreboding panels would be withdrawn, extricated from the
cosmetics, hairpins and chewing gum. A few hail Marys and they were good to go.
but before leaving, the eccentric aunt had presented young Mary with a mirrored
music box that played Frere Jacques, a
detail that infuriated the girl. The marionette, swaddled meticulously in
colorful tissue paper, played nothing when unwrapped. Just smiled silently from
the bed of crumpled tissue with reptilian beads for eyes. His grin was broad
but toothless, plastered across a hingeless paper mâche´ jaw. Gangly limbs
splayed themselves in every direction, listless and lacking in determination.
Only when aunt Marie took hold of the coarse wooden cross to demonstrate did
the nearly invisible strings grow taut, extremities springing to life. A satin headdress flounced atop the paper mâche´
cranium, something between that of a medieval court jester and the crown of a
from ear to ear. How could she have known that he adored puppets? That his only
recurring dream was that of finding one laying on the cement sidewalk outside
the front door, and then another, and another, forming a trail.
Marie-Martine Chaumet-de-Provence said goodnight, Jack imagined she’d not
simply hailed a cab, but had tethered herself to a great, broiling tempest
instead, or departed by hot air balloon at the end of the block. For a time the
marionette was a reminder of the woman. Jack would wake up in the middle of the
night to catch his toothless grin glinting in the pale moonlight, a reminder of
their shared secret.
you Jacques,” Jack decided.
head piece with its tarnished gold bells, so stately and ridiculous all at
once, cast long shadows across the wallpaper, poking as it did from a menagerie
of various and sundry stuffed animals. The good majority of them had been
amassed not from far-off lands but from carnivals that had passed through town or
from dime stores or the boardwalk at the local pier. Jack tolerated the motley
crew like family; after all, they were bound by geography alone, having been
thrown together inside the four walls of his bedroom without any say in the
matter. Jacques was the sole exception. Like Jack and his aunt, whom he
imagined was off somewhere wearing wooden shoes or sitting about a great
cauldron with Ubangis, the two were kindred spirits.
time Jack actually took hold of the coarse wooden cross and attempted to
conduct the invisible puppet strings, something strange happened. It felt as
though something were tugging at the strings. Not gravity nor inertia nor any
other earthly force; it was more like free will. Whatever it was Jack planned
for his new friend, whatever business or choreography he attempted, Jacques did
the opposite. From that point on, Jack decided it best to avoid puppet shows
altogether. Jacques would remain the centerpiece of the room, propped there
atop the pine dresser with the others, smiling inscrutably.
In the weeks
and months to follow, Jack would often reenter his bedroom afterschool to find
his motley crew of stuffed animals in disarray, or in a completely new
arrangement than how he left them. Often, it was his mother who had moved them
while dusting or vacuuming. Just as often, she’d not even entered the room.
was right smack in the crosshairs of puberty, his aunt came to visit on her way
through town. Like the first time years before, she’d called ahead with little
find that puppet, and quick!”
in his mother’s voice keyed into his own guilt, and Jack rifled in a frenzy
through the graveyard of neglected toys deep in his closet. He did not recall
the precise moment when the marionette had been banished to the forsaken pile;
the milestone, however pivotal, was lost among the flurry of other changes: the
appearance of pubic hair and the strange inability to wrangle his own vocal
chords. The confusion of his first kiss and the shame over his own impulses he
was forced to wear like an old hand-me-down overcoat.
When at last
Jack plucked his old friend from between a plastic fire truck and the terry
cloth hind section of Barney the Dinosaur, Jack felt elated and overwhelmed
with shame all at once. The doll’s paper mâche´ complexion, once flawless as
porcelain despite its lumpy constitution, was now blotchy and watermarked. One
of the beads had gone missing. And not just any bead, either—the left eye.
when propped up front and center atop his pine dresser, the marionette resumed
his former proud, regal appearance. Though the old woman had too much class to
ask after him, Jack’s mother was sure to throw open his bedroom door and draw
attention to the artifact with its mysterious origins.
Chaumet de Province’s hand went instinctively to her heart, jangling layers of
exotic beads from the world over.
“My heart is
full,” she beamed from the narrow hallway.
the woman asked a lot of questions and told few stories. Those she told were
light on adventure or romance but somehow infused with melancholy reflection.
She’d slowed down in her old age. Oh, she still traveled, but was more apt
nowadays to travel by taxi than caravan, to stay in hotels over mountaintop
monasteries. It was Jack who found himself rearranging his mashed
potatoes—leveling certain mounds and building others with the tines of his
dinner, Jack found himself alone with the old woman on the porch. She’d been
pacing its rickety planks to walk off dinner, while gazing out at the spangling
of stars. Jack seated himself on the antique swing, searching her eyes for that
glimmer that had once validated his entire being, his very existence. It was
there all right, but hard to distinguish, obscured as it was by cataracts. The
nebulous clouds, so much like tiny galaxies, complemented the silver streaks
that ran through the once dark locks of her shoulder-length hair.
“I want to
travel like you,” Jack revealed.
reached out a pudgy, warm hand and took hold of Jack’s. “This world is full of
adventure. Exotic places and people and sights and sounds. They will enrich you
old woman’s eyes drifted from the jewel-like stars to the dark silhouettes of
all we need to be rich already exists in our own hearts.” She thumped her own
ribcage and exotic beads jangled, some kind of armor over her own heart.
found Jack’s. “When I was very young,” she confessed in a scarcely audible
whisper, “My heart was broken. Irrevocably.”
was full of utter joy and sadness all at once. And then, in an instant, there
was only regret. “I’ve not stopped running since…”
from the porch with a certain melancholy as his mysterious relation, so exotic
and so familiar, disappeared down the suburban lane in a yellow taxi.
to his bedroom where Jacque sat atop his makeshift throne, the one that had
been pieced together in haste. He took in the missing eye, the inscrutable
smile, the satin headdress that now hung listlessly like a wilted flower.
Jacques to the basement and cast him into the dark void.
was bearable, but hardly. Jack focused on his studies, rarely thinking of the
life that awaited him but knowing exams and essays and good marks would put him
on the right path. He felt his eyes going dead like theirs, like tarnished
beads in a paper mâche´ mask.
Marie-Martine Chaumet de Provence’s funeral was a silent, stilted affair. Few
got up and spoke, confirming Jack’s suspicion that she was scarcely known to
her own family. He watched her being lowered into the earth, the last of a
Dust in the
Mr. and Mrs.
Hollister filed for divorce, despite their best efforts to wait until Jack’s commencement.
Mary had long since moved out, marrying young to get away. Jack had seen the sour
turn of events coming. He’d felt the resentment so thick it could be cut with a
knife, and then in its place the horrible, stifling indifference. He’d always
had the sense the two were sleepwalking through life, that only on their
deathbeds might they look beyond the surface of some deep pond and confess
regret or fondness or even affection. But he also knew things were not so
simple. Later he’d learn that no one sleep walked, that life was not just some
lucid dream, that we were all learning the same lessons; they just looked
different on different people. Different generations.
What he couldn’t know, blinded by youth and inexperience, is what actually drove his parents. What
invisible behemoth trampled the patchwork quilt of their dreams.
story haunted his own subconscious. Though she was spoken of only on rare
occasion, and even then only in a whisper, the story of her long ago heartbreak
loomed like a tenant in Jack’s psyche. Perhaps to save himself from similar
heartbreak, he’d avoided girls in school. Of course it was under the guise of
focusing on this studies. And doing so had paid off; he was accepted to every
last college he’d applied to. Thing was, he wasn’t sure he’d attend any one of
them. He felt the call of the wild—the urge to backpack the Himalayas and stay
in youth hostels and grow dreadlocks if he wanted.
The day of
Jack’s commencement, Mr. and Mrs. Hollister preened themselves before the
full-length mirror in the foyer, pretending to be a family. The divorce would
be final in a week, but the charade was still obligatory. For some reason Jack
found himself slipping away from them, padding down the hall like a marionette
on an invisible string, and yanking the beaded cord that hung from a swinging
yellow bulb in the stairwell.
He knew not
what compelled him, nor what he’d do after receiving his diploma, nor how he’d
break the news to his parents he was leaving, or if he even would. Maybe he’d
just disappear without a trace.
moth yellow light seeped down the concrete stairs like syrup, spreading across
a moldy cement floor. It climbed the splintered support beams that seemed to sag
with the crushing weight of the Hollister home. The home he’d grown up in that
was now a ghost of its former self. When the viscous light reached the rafters,
Jack emitted an audible gasp.
Jacques, not crumpled in a forlorn pile on the floor where he’d been tossed
years ago, but perched among the cobweb-infested rafters. He straddled a
particularly precarious crossbeam like a demented matador, paper mâche´ fingers
flailing as if to execute some kind of intricate choreography. Strangest of
all, the translucent fishing wires that should have been directing the dance
were taut, leading not down but up, where they disappeared between the mahogany
floorboards of the Hollister home.
As often as not, the idea of something stands in stark
contrast to the thing itself. Only on rare occasion does the reality surpass
its shapeless representation in the mind, thorny extremities writhing and
falling away to reveal the perfect rose at its center.
Later, he’ll equate her to a rose, imprisoned by media
thorns, the sense no less acute on first meeting. Ben Jamin 35-D’s line of work
often puts him in close proximity to the Empirian elite, if not always with
celebrity. Biomeme Technologies never lets on in advance who the client is,
either for security or to discourage fawning and replace it with pure shock. As
he navigates the colluded queue snaking its way toward the Empirian shuttle,
not a thought goes to who this one might be. He’s never been impressed with
social status or perceived value or celebrity or any of that fabricated
Empirian shit-sling. Inevitably the client will be just another entitled
bastard—some fucktard politician or jack-slacker sports figure or entertainer
expecting him to jump through circuit board hoops while remembering his place.
He tugs at the stiff uniform he’s been issued less than six
months ago, checking its cumbersome belt for Infogoggles and circuit detectors,
the trade tools most often needed on a call like today’s. He’s gotten used to
the drill since graduating, but still has the good sense to let the butterflies
have the run of his stomach. Puts him on his best behavior. He sweeps dirty
blonde bangs from a sweaty forehead, scowls into the dark metro tunnel with cobalt
blue eyes. A lithe cylinder fast approaches, comes to a silent halt.
Just as its expressionless passengers debark, a powerful
explosion detonates on the platform nearby, its deafening blast reverberating
through the subterranean M-station like a current through a fried biocircuit.
Shrieks of horror mingle with the hiss of cascading silt, aftershocks of
Ben doesn’t so much as flinch; such mild annoyances are par
for the course lately. Probably a pipe bomb. Old school. He steps over a mound
of carnage, entrails trailing, trembling hands reaching, and boards the electromagnetic
M-Train. Despite the mayhem, all systems remain operational. Terrorist attacks
rarely make it inside the insular dome of high society, remain self-inflicted
on the periphery. Once the shuttle enters the biosphere it will soar above the
strife, joining all the other invisible highways crisscrossing in its strata.
An intangible current reverses and
the narrow cylinder engages its coils. The velocity of it jetting off shears
the guts that have been splattered on the glass—the scarcely recognizable
innards and shreds of tissue. Only the hand remains, slapped there like an
ineffectual keystone cop directing traffic. Slowly, it slips toward the back of
the train and flies off.
The exterior wall of the estate is no more or less austere
than the rest of Empiria, rising monumentally from a sea of pearlescent stark white
facades. Their biomorphic silhouettes careen heavenward, imposing themselves
against a broiling cloud cover kept at bay by the scarcely discernible biodome
high in the atmosphere. Ben can hardly tell one sublime undulation from the
next; it’s his GPS implant that has guided him thus far, like a puppet on a
string, the master plan known only to his superiors at Tech Central.
At the main gate, a retinal scan permits him entry. A
narrow flagstone walk compels him between curved walls like unsavory flotsam on
the tide of privilege, to a second checkpoint.Here a rather impersonal instrument swabs his gums for the obligatory
DNA analysis that will let him move on. Then there’s the code he must enter at
checkpoint three, each retaining wall folded into the last like the petals of a
sterile white rose, leading to some inner sanctum. The labyrinth has been
forged by necessity, but the need for security has birthed an aesthetic
bi-product—the sense this is an introspective journey of sorts.
Mounted cameras gawk from countless roosts, perversely
recording the body scan and delousing. None of it is invasive to Ben Jamin 35-D;
such measures are all he’s ever known. On visiting Empiria, anyway. In the
Periphery, squalor prevails. It’s every man for himself.
A small courtyard separates the maze of parapets from the
estate itself, where armed guards flank a stately pair of double doors bordered
by opulent filigree.One of them pushes
a button and the doors part, hissing open in sinister invitation.
“You may make yourself comfortable in the foyer, 35-D,” one
of them advises. “Miss K will be with you momentarily…”
Miss K, Ben’s
brain parrots, tongue silently caressing the words in his mouth. Could it be? Really? He wonders, seating
himself in a plush crimson love seat shaped like a lotus blossom.
Though he’s never been wowed by celebrity, if ‘Miss K’
means what he thinks, he’s hit the jackpot. How many times has he jacked off to
the flawless image of Kamana K, however media-fabricated, submitting to the
hold on his psyche only an assemblage of tiny pixels could exact? How many
times has he found himself tempted to reach out a calloused fingertip to caress
that cold monitor, hoping to transcend its barrier and stroke a perfect breast,
a supple porcelain neck, an impossibly slender waist or jiggling posterior?
And he’s not alone. Every pubescent male—Empirian or Exterian, has shot to the fantasy of
her leather-clad, often bound-and-gagged personage. His mind cannot help
drifting to countless such lonely nights in front of a computer screen, such a
faithful surrogate for intimacy. Or better, yet, his Reality goggles and
apparatus, behind which she almost seems to be moaning for him alone, breasts
giggling to the touch of his Reality gloves.
Blood rushes to his groin, a reflex. But just as quickly,
the palpable excitement wanes as he becomes acutely aware of the dozen or so
cameras peering down at him in scrutiny. Not to mention the miscellany of
floor-to-ceiling mirrors, likely double-sided, that panel the walls of the
foyer, expanding it to an infinite kaleidoscope of self-reflection. It’s
entirely possible he’s being broadcast throughout the State, unwittingly
ensnared in its preoccupation with entertaining itself numb.
He wills the mound down beneath stretch denim, smears a
palm across the tangled mop of his head. A thousand versions of him do the
same, as reticent as him to meet her. Inferior stock aside, he’ll feel awkward
and homely in the blinding glare of her beauty. Life in Exteria has weathered
him beyond his twenty-six years, leaving him with a chipped tooth and crooked
smile. Still, when juxtaposed with the perpetual squint of deep-set eyes, the
burly, vascular physique of a laborer, the effect is impressive.
Suddenly, one of
the mirrored panels slides upward like a tile in a crossword puzzle. In its
absence, a darkened chamber extrudes itself in space, fracturing the fly’s eye
of perpetuity. And then, so slowly as to be nearly imperceptible, a series of
soft amber floor lights permeate the chamber, washing a pale figure into being.
It stands perfectly still, elevated on a pompous pedestal,
one leg half-folded in front of the other, hand resting on hip in a stance
seductive and authoritative all at once. Alabaster skin reveals itself in
sacred glimpses amid folds of sheer red taffeta that spill to the floor in tiers.
Or a version of
But where are the shackles and the restraints and the
feigned look of aroused terror? Where are the nipple clamps and the baby doll
voice and the slave-whore makeup? Though Ben recognizes the figure poised
regally above, the impression made is altogether contrary to its media
representation; instead of shouting to the perverse in him, it whispers to any
purity that remains.
“Welcome, 35-D,” she greets him, stepping from the
ridiculous pedestal. The petal-like tiers of her train shimmer as she glides
across slick marble. A thick braid of coal black hair swings in tandem with her
gait, so rich and dark as to absorb the light and render her olive skin fair.
Her exotic, almond eyes narrow, tempering a smile, impossibly full lips curling
up in the corners as she nears the lotus seat.
Ben rises ineptly.
She extends a hand. “Kamana K.”
Her voice is a velvety alto, effusive and fragile at once. Ben’s
heart flutters, what remains of it. He takes her hand in his, suddenly shameful
of all the times he’s used it to pleasure himself to her avatar.
She neither bristles nor sanitizes her hand once withdrawn.
After all, he’s been deloused.
“Come,” she both commands and invites as a second panel
glides heavenward, revealing a wide corridor. “We think the problem is in the
He follows after her abjectly, biting his tongue. Say nothing, he tells himself. The IT
handbook puts it in no uncertain terms: speak of nothing personal unless the
client instigates; make eye contact only when absolutely necessary.
“Have you been briefed on the details?” She asks, politely
From his backpack, Ben Jamin withdraws the brand new set of
Infogoggles Biomeme has issued him, places them over a crooked, sunbaked
nose.Now that he knows who the client
is, Technologies furnishes him a case history. He scrolls through the data that
appears on a virtual monitor, hovering on air as the two traverse the lengthy hall.
“Rogue activity. Recurrent. Possibly due to free radicals,”
Ben offers. “Is that accurate, Miss K? May I call you Miss K?”
“Please. And you, 35-D? Do you have a surname?”
“Ben,” the young man offers tentatively, thrilled she would
ask. “Ben Jamin.”
“The rogue activity, as you put it, takes the form of
surges. Random surges, when least expected. In the middle of the night an
entire wing will suddenly come to life, become operational.”
“Hmmm. Not so odd,” Ben reassures her. “Happens over time. ‘S
just a matter of finding the right synapses and rewirin’ ‘em. Don’t worry, miss—ere’s
little chance of a security breach or any sort o’ hacking. ‘S all internal
“That’s a relief,” Kamana smiles as an immense gothic door
slides open, yielding access to an opulent salon slathered in Versailles décor.
“It started here first, then spread to other areas. Strangest of all, the salon
has now gone dark.”
It’s true—only a dim smattering of pendant lights defines
the otherwise swarthy space.
“Well, miss, over time the overactive circuit can burn
itself out. Then…nuthin’.” Ben
“I thought this stuff was supposed to last forever,” the girl
Ben laughs. “If only. Hardware’s getting’ better all the
time. But biomimetics ain’t quite there yet. Free radicals can still get in.”
“Ah.” She’s looking at him in the dim light. At him, not through him.
Though he knows it would not look good to his superiors at Biomeme,
Ben secretly hopes it takes several visits to locate and rewire the synapses.
More than one occasion to bask in her presence.
He unhinges a circuit detector from his tool belt and
begins to massage the curved wall. He imagines it’s her curves he’s tracing—from thigh to hip to belly. And then he
catches himself. Snap the fuck out of it!
He tells himself. You need this job
you fucking ape! Still, as he continues to skirt the circumference of the
grand hall, he imagines he can feel her looking at him from behind. Then again,
it could be the dozens of mounted cameras peering from chartless dark vaults
Suddenly he stops.
“I gotta ask, Miss K. It ain’t a personal question…’s somethin’
I jes got to know. So as to conduct my business. Are we being broadcast?”
Kamana laughs, tossing her braid playfully. “Course not.
We’re on hiatus. Between seasons, as they say.”
He eyeballs the cameras. Indeed their shutters appear
closed, like cold, lifeless eyes.
“And Mr. and Mrs. K?” Though their daughter’s exploitation
has become the thrust of the show, they’re still a big part of it.
“They’re in Sector 6—the Levant,” she reveals, rolling her
eyes. “Looking for a husband for me. For next season. Ratings, you know.”
“Ah.” Ben returns to his work, for fear of lapsing into forbidden
personal territory or crossing some kind of boundary firmly established in the
handbook he was furnished at orientation. He’s been on the job a whole six
months since graduating trade school, and it would not look good to have a
dismissal on his record. Too many stains and one goes back to panhandling or
turning tricks like most of the Periphery’s castoffs.
He breathes again, fully, only once he’s boarded the train
for home. He leans his head against thick, curved glass, Empiria flying by
steeped in sunset’s fiery hues. The
M-train jets toward the aperture that will deposit him in the Periphery as if
into an alternate universe. Several kilonauts from the arched portal a bomb
goes off, sending a plume of debris crawling up the inner face of the biodome.
They’ve penetrated it. Made it inside.
No matter. He’s thinking of her.
Her image persists
in his mind, fleeting and tenuous as reflections on a pond. Her heavenly
countenance, her scent, the velvety tone of her voice. He struggles to
reconcile the impression with her media image. Oh, he knows it’s a distortion.
He knows Kamana K is just a part she plays, that the Reality Network is the
furthest thing from reality. Still, her true essence has proven alarming in its
More to the point, he’s startled by what it’s awakened in
him—something he was sure he mourned: the ability to want. The capacity for desire.
Oh, he’s lusted after her countless
times—objectified her, even shot on her virtual tits for God’s sake. But this
want is something different—the want of something real.
The want of more.
He’s not felt such desire
since before the heartbreak what seems a lifetime ago now. His first love ended
without explanation. And since, without his planning it, the walls went up.
And as often happens, the exterior world went the way of
his heart. Though he came into the world during a period of relative peace
between wars, the false sense of security, the imperviousness, crumbled with the destruction of the first biodome.
Terrorists. And now, all these years later, the world’s a more hostile place
than ever. It’s as if all the State has repressed has come to roost—all that’s
been festering behind the façade has spread like a cancer hell-bent on making
up for lost time.
Part of him knows the outside world is just a projection of
the one inside—that healing one means healing the other. And as remote and
unattainable a prospect as undoing his disillusionment seems to be most of the
time, he also knows it’s just within reach. He came across a buckled,
water-stained Old World paperback once, in the gutter. It said that every moment
is a universe unto itself that can be turned around. Alchemy, the author called it.
And in this moment,
he knows the Old World had it right; he’s been reminded in no uncertain terms.
He knows because he wants her.
There’s a familiar comfort in the melee—the discordant
symphony of clashing noises that wafts from the forsaken alleyways of the
Periphery to Ben 35-D’s shutter-less window. His shoddy loft teeters atop a
haphazard assemblage of terraced shanties flush with Empiria’s fortified wall,
scaffolds reaching for its lip in fruitless desperation, like tendrils. By
Exterian standards, this is the highlife. Luxury
Apartments, the penthouses are called, despite being pieced together from
various and sundry incongruous materials. Like the soot-stained tendrils they
form, Ben has climbed from the squalor of his birthright, from the lawless
cesspit of the Periphery’s meandering honeycomb streets, to the mid-rise
stratum of workers who support—enable—the
daily functioning of Empiria.
He’ll never be oneof
them; he knows that. He’s made of
different stuff. The genetic stock of Empiria’s elite has been painstakingly
engineered. The undesirable has been skimmed off, distilling the population to
an impeccably controlled gene pool, while rendering him the equivalent of an
ape. A much needed one, but still an ape.
As such, how could she ever love him? Inferior stock? To say
nothing of the consequences the State would impose. He knows he’s doing it to
himself: setting himself up by indulging the fantasy of her. Something in him
is a glutton for punishment, a lithe M-train on a determined course he’s
powerless to stop.
The sky outside his misshapen window is a swarthy, toxic
red. Twilight has long since succumbed to night, to the spangling of Exterian
lights that illuminate the pollution from below in a most unnatural way. To the
soothing cacophony of dissonance, Ben Jamin drifts into restless slumber.
In his shapeless reverie, he’s kissing her. Pressing
against those tender lips—firm yet supple—any resistance melting away to
invitation. In the dream her media image is nowhere to be found, all artifice
shed like a borrowed shell.
“You’re not what you’ve become,” he whispers in her flushed
ear. “You’re not what they’ve made you…”
His waking mind remembers the moment they sold her
virginity. He was on the cusp of puberty himself. The Reality Network had
tapped into the public thirst for blood, begun auctioning off hymens like throwing
Christians to lions. Of course they carefully preened her in advance—from the
pigtails and schoolgirl uniform with its knee-high socks, to the chastity belt
and carefully choreographed burgeoning of her own boy-crazy urges.
The highest bidder was a sheik from Sector 6.
The State was riveted—both the Exterian masses and the
Empirian elite. The breaking of her hymen was broadcast pay-per-view, of
course. As good entertainment would have it, Kamana K fell for her perpetrator.
Hard. But after breaking her in, the sheik who’d popped her lock returned her
to her parents used goods. Unfit for marriage.
Viewers shared in her public humiliation but salivated for more. The stakes
would have to be raised; anyone could break a hymen. Suddenly it was prime time
gangbangs and half-time specials. Just last Sunday she was nailed by the
winning team on the astroturf of Empiria’s main sports arena, the Colosseum. To
a dozen cameras on wires and drones for maximum cinematic effect.
Then of course came Birth Canals of the Rich and Famous, and
the Kamana K Speculum Tour of 2109 during
which viewers who’d paid enough could orchestrate the action or randomly shout
commands into virtual space.
Heaven knows what they’ve got planned for her next. Ratings
have not wavered; desensitization being what it is, they’ve consistently upped
the ante. But luck always runs out. And eventually, Ben knows, she’ll be put
out to pasture.
From his reticent slumber, Ben starts awake. When at last
he’s fully aware of his surroundings, he’s sitting full up on his dilapidated
cot, sweating profusely.
He’s tracing the voluptuous curves of the salon’s eastern
wall, reading blips like Morse code. He’s already detected one dead circuit—one
series of burnt out synapses—and replaced it, replenishing the transmitter fluid.
The self-healing wall has sealed itself around the tiny hole he’s had to drill,
leaving no evidence whatsoever of the intrusion. A corner of the room is lit
now; it’s there in the warm amber glow of pendant lamps that she keeps vigil.
Watches him with keen interest. It’s she who breaches a boundary, lapses into
“You seem different,” she lances, off the cuff.
Different from what? He
wonders. From other Exterians? From what
she expected? From yesterday? Doesn’t matter; she sees him. That’s what matters.
“So do you,” he returns over a uniformed shoulder. He
continues to scrub the wall, to massage it.
“I’m not her, you know,” is all she says next.
He doesn’t turn this time. “I know.”
The amber lights hum, a microscopic hiccup interrupting the
amber glaze that will burnish the moment in nostalgia once it’s retreated to
“I was born into this franchise,” she reflects, as if for
the first time. As if to explain something.
Don’t say anything, he
tells himself. Just let her talk.
“A Reality family is
a dynasty. A lifestyle.”
An abrupt surge awakens a corner of the room like an other-worldy
apparition, illuminating a ridiculously opulent chandelier more costly than all
Ben’s worldly possessions combined. A light fixture larger in mass than his
“But sometimes,” Kamana K continues pensively, “It feels
more like indentured servitude. You may think we’ve got it made up here. But
it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
“Count yer blessings,” Ben can’t help coming back. His
familiarity is the product of proximity, the sheer amount of time the two have
spent together, even in silence. He feels he’s known her his entire life.
“Just gettin’ te my shuttle this mornin’,” he continues,
illustrating a point, “Had te step over five homeless dregs, watch the arm of
another git blown off, then caught sight of a spur-o-the-moment C-section in a
Her eyes expand like solar systems, both refracting and
absorbing the light. She plays with her long, rope-like braid.
“All I’m saying is:
we’re victims of circumstance like everyone else—just in a different way. They
call us the ‘ruling class.’ But who’s really pulling the strings? We’re just
puppets for the masses. There’s no dignity in a dog and pony show.”
“Ain’t no dignity in pipe bombs full o’ nails. In scraping
human flesh off yer sneakers when ye come in at night.”
A hollow silence descends on the K Estate. A silence of
undetectable hiccups and curves to mask them and all that divides people.
Suddenly, she’s reaching out to bridge the divide, and they’re two souls made
of the same stuff.
“It wasn’t always this way. For either of us. Was it?”
There’s a tear in her dark, almond-shaped eye.
He stops scanning and turns. And then, hitching the circuit
detector to his wide leather belt: “Time was, ‘fore the bombing o’ Biodome One,
had the world by the frackin’ balls. The arrogance o’ youth, I know it now, but
all them books I come across in the muck tol’ me we created the world around us.
That we somehow invited disease through some tiny frackin’ crack, some kind o’
flaw in our thinking. Never did listen to the doomspeakers. I didn’t invite war or disease, so it wadn’t part
o’my reality. Well, 2100 changed all ‘at. The destruction of the dome. Taught
me straight quick there was a very real world out there we can’t none of us control.”
It’s then she surprises him for the first time. “We can control
how we react to it.”
The wisdom in her words does not keep him from playing
devil’s advocate. “Easy for you to say. You ain’t gotta deal with disease. Or strife.”
She throws her braid over a shoulder and sits up in her
lotus-chair. “Not true. Just yesterday a terrorist breached security at Wall
Sixteen. A dozen Empirians died.”
He’s seated near her now. For the first time, he considers
her disillusionment, how it’s the same animal regardless of circumstance,
greater maybe for so long having been sheltered from it.
“It’s a frackin’ cancer,” he hears himself say. “The State ain’t
never been so hostile.”
She surprises him for the second time. Could be breeding or
education that infuses her insights with the ring of truth, but whatever it is
they hang on the air without context, penetrating him to the core.
“Do you ever wonder if it’s not the world that changes, so
much as the eyes through which we view it?”
His eyes drift into abstraction, caressing the salon wall
with melancholy. They follow its curves into the scrim of darkness that
swallows all detail at a certain distance. For the first time, he notices it: A
floor-to ceiling mural, just opposite that enormous chandelier. He recognizes
the narrative from an Old School Bible he came across in a street-level trash
dumpster. Adam and Eve stand naked in the garden of Eden, before the Tree of
Knowledge of Good and Evil. There’s no snake—only the two of them, pearlescent
white skin as pristine as the facades of Empiria. It’s the tree itself that
beckons them, its low hanging, blood red fruit.
He knows that behind the clusters of engorged fruit,
circuits have been overused, synapses burned like obsolete things put out to
pasture. He knows that her words are true: with each disappointment, a crack
has appeared in the biodome of his life. With each disillusionment, a free
radical has gotten in. With every heartbreak a breach and a crumbling of ideals.
All that’s left is
The next day she insists he take a break. She’s printed an
array of sushi and poured them both glasses of hot saki. The color and texture
of the simulated cuisine is quite convincing; high society’s got the food chain
pared down, weaned itself off farming and agriculture. In Exteria you can still
find a good steak and lobster, despite scant risks. There’s no comparison, Ben
returns daily for what stretches into weeks, each time convinced the maze of
retaining walls has reconfigured itself, each time offering the obligatory swab
of tissue that will prove he’s who he professes to be. On arrival the armed
guards flanking the K Estate’s only entrance take to greeting him by surname
rather than number, a familiarity that does not exempt him from the delousing
and head-to-toe sanitizing vapor. And as long as he’s allowing his mind to
wander, he half suspects she’s programming errors to keep him coming back. The
sense could not be more acute when the faulty synapses lead to her bedchamber,
where sheer billows of fabric spill from a vaulted dome to enshrine a flower
petal bed in the very heart of the space. It’s an odd feeling—her lounging there
on it, the folds of her own shimmering gown spilling like iridescent rose
petals to the platform that elevates the canopy bed to the gods in ritual
sacrifice. It’s odd not due to the seductive curve of her hip or the plummeting
valley of her slender waist, or even the chasm of cleavage that glistens in the
cellophane light, but because of the swarm of cameras mounted to ribbed vaults,
staring down at them like a thousand soulless eyes. He knows they’re comatose;
the show is on hiatus. Still, there’s something unsettling about the whole
He hasn’t jacked off to Kamana K since meeting the
dimensional model behind the hologram. Could be it’s harder to objectify what’s
real, harder to get there. But just as likely it’s just that the show’s on
hiatus until Spring. There’s a prime time special in the works, but it’s not
yet been advertised, slathered like media-fabricated bile on the sides of
M-Trains and skyscrapers. The sobering thought returns to him—the prospect that
sprang him like a plywood board from a sound sleep, sweating with the thought
of it: what will the spectacle entail? What could possibly be left—bestiality?
Scarrification? Modification? If it’s bestiality they have in mind, it bodes
well for him; after all, in their estimation he’s the equivalent of an ape.
For the first time, the thought enters his mind, like a
tiny seed as yet unfertilized:
The thought of rescuing her.
“They found you a husband yet?” His good-natured chuckle
masks grave concern.
“Not yet, thankfully,” is her answer.
If she were to marry,
even some arrogant sheik, he estimates, she
might be spared. They might not put her out to pasture.
“They’re due back in a week,” she advises, “so they’d
better do some fancy footwork.”
“There was another breach today,” Ben says absently. “Pipe
bomb. Seen it wit my own eyes from the M-Train. Whole frackin’ tower down.”
The conversation always gets serious. Usually it’s she who
allows gravity to take hold, to cut through the superficial shit-sling. As if
she’s got no one else to confide in. Or no one she wishes to confide in. Nothing’s
at stake with him; they’ve got no mutual…well—anything.
“Why do you suppose
things are so bad?” She ponders.
He pretends he’s onto something behind the self-healing
Then, all at once his movements slow, allowing him to formulate his
“Time was I thought it was somethin’ we could fix. I come across a Old School book
once in an abandoned bookstore. Smack in the middle o’ the Periphery. Said the
hippies once adopted the phrase: Never trust no one over thirty. Funny—‘s the
other way ‘round now. It’s them angry youth who’ll mow ye down wit a high power
laser soon as look at ye, strap on a pipe bomb like puttin’ on knickers.”
He pauses. She waits. He likes that she’s interested in his
thoughts—even if they are the thoughts of a lower primate.
“’Ere’s always been angst,” he goes on. “Only now ‘ere’s
too much te fix. Nuthin’ left te sign up for. Every last thing makes life worth
livin’s been knocked off its phreakin’ pedestal te hear them tell it.”
He shakes his head. “Naw…it’s too big. Threw my hands in
the frackin’ air a long time ago.”
Her almond eyes narrow. “They’re doing nothing to fix the
institutions they despise,” she points out.
“’At’s cuz we’re so far beyond the prospect. Makes a person
“Then why not band together and destroy the institutions.
Or at least try? The violence is always
“Population control,” he says flatly, knowing his is not a
popular opinion. “No other way ‘round it. Someone, somewhere knows—call it the phreakin’
universe in all its intelligence—that there ain’t enough to go ‘round. So
they’re killin’ ‘emselves off, one pipe bomb at a time.”
“Come here,” she beckons suddenly.
What can he do but obey? He hitches the circuit detector to
his belt and advances tentatively toward the pedestal on which she lounges.
When he’s standing over her she reaches out a slender hand, taking his
calloused knuckles in hers, as though touch can heal all of this, transform the
moment or the universe and make it all fixable again.
A light breeze from nowhere moves soundlessly through the
canopy bed, expanding its billows like a breathless breath. The whole estate
breathes with it, the labyrinth of interfolded walls so much like a rose.
He knows it’s now or never. Her parents will return in a
week, someone will shout ‘action’ and the cameras will awaken from their
dreamless slumber. If he’s going to act, it’s gotta be now, under the radar.
Out of the public eye, and that of the feds. He can’t be incarcerated for
things done in the dark. Unless one of
those cameras is infrared, he reasons with himself, this is between her and
With that he kisses her full on the lips.
She braces his skull with fragile fingers, pulling him into
her. His stubble lacerates flawless porcelain. Ape or not, she wants him. It’s in her touch.
She pulls him on top of her ferally, her jaw slamming his
like a sack of flour, reaching down to grope a raging hard-on as her legs fall
to the side receptively. She’s already wet, he discovers with a raw-knuckled
hand. When he enters her, she gasps. Not the phony schoolgirl expression of
feigned surprise meant to convey what every man wants to believe—that his is
the biggest member ever permitted entry—but the gasp of remembrance despite
oneself. She’s surprisingly tight, all things considered.
They rock the ridiculous platform, him breathing into her,
canopy inhaling and exhaling with rhythmic abandon, hearts pounding in synch,
sweat mingling. They climax together, then collapse as one, him sill inside
her. Juices flow. Dopamine flows.
His head rests on her perfect breast, the one he’s
over-idealized in his mind, elevated to elysian heights. He can say it with
conviction, if only in his mind, for the first time in his life: the reality
was better than the fantasy. For what seems an eternity, neither of them move. He
feels it deep inside her ribcage—her heart’s beating in synch with his.
She looks down at him as if from heaven, reaches out to
stroke the deep furrows between his heavy brows. As if by doing so she can
smooth them away like earthen clay. And with them, his worries, his
disappointments, the weight of the world Exterian life has burdened him with.
It’s nearly imperceptible, but he catches it. Her eyes
flash for the first time to the circus of cameras, comatose but intently
poised. She leans in close, as if to shut them out, brushing his ear with
swollen lips. Their softness traces its contour, covertly plucking the rim with
forbidden tenderness. And then she whispers, almost inaudibly:
“They’re going to maim me…”
He shutters, tries not to should the cameras actually not be sleeping. Her look is one of
mild, forbidden terror.
So that’s what
they’ve got planned for the special—a
publicmaiming. That old world ritual
that’s made a comeback as fetish, along with ridiculous codpieces and
scarification and body mod. Once upon a time genital mutilation was a form of oppression,
a forced pillaging of that reservoir of female desire too mysterious and
daunting for the world of men. Now it’s nothing more than public shaming.
They’ve built her up, lived vicariously through her exploits, salivating all
the while. And now they’re tearing down the Madonna pedestal to erect a
crucifix in its place. A torture rack of cathartic judgment and obscene
“They can’t do this to you.” He hopes his outrage does not
register in his body language.
Her eyes flash again. “They used to do more than
desensitize. It was battery acid they used to disfigure—to make sure their used
goods were marked undesirable.” She pauses, wading back in time to a conflicted
place. “The sheik was kind to me…”
Ben does not agree, has to physically harness the torment
he feels in every extremity. She knows how to play to cameras, but the charade
proves too much for his demeanor. Despite his rage, or precisely because of it,
his body surrenders. He feels it go limp and tingly, his impertinent tuft of
tousled hair settling against her rising and falling bosom.
“We’ll think of something,” he reassures her, the world
growing fuzzy and tenuous.
Her face is the last thing he sees, framed by a corona of
dim pendant lamps like distant starlight.
An hour later, Ben wakes suddenly. It’s occurred to him all
at once. Reality has penetrated some minute fissure in the bubble they’ve created,
and his heart pounds like a jackhammer.
“I’ve got to get back.” If he’s not on the last shuttle before
it slips into that arched portal at dusk, if he’s left wandering the streets of
Empiria, he’ll be incarcerated.
She watches him beneath lazy, euphoric lids as he pulls on
his stretch denim overalls, straightening that god-forsaken leather monstrosity
of a tool belt. He leans over her, grazing her ear with three-day stubble.
“I’m going to get you out of here,” he mouths.
She blows him a kiss as he heads for the salon,
It’s not the first time she’s let him see himself out
unattended. But suddenly he feels them peering at him from all angles, every
lens gaped on its mounted perch, imagines he can hear their irises zeroing in
on him like prey. In the salon, the gargantuan chandelier flickers, casting
only shards of the vast, careening hall in shattered light. Abruptly, Ben
becomes aware of a detail he’s not noticed before: on the far side of the
salon, mirroring the first, a second mural flaunts itself in the semi-dark.
Adam and Eve are depicted thereupon, only here in the hours
and days following those of the first. The Tree of Knowledge breaks a distant
horizon, diffused as a fleeting memory. A brooding sky thunders forebodingly as
the two cower together, draped in pelts, shamefully exiting the garden of Eden.
They’ve been cast out.
Ben Jamin 35-D threads his way through the sludge-smattered
back alleys that separate dilapidated shanties in the Periphery. He’s made it
out on the last train just as the sun’s fiery disc sank behind the splendid
skyline of Empiria. Exiting the M-station, he gazed up at the colossal,
indifferent platform elevating privilege just out of reach. The dome was still
catching light. When the last of it waned, he plunged into the honeycomb havoc
that not so long ago represented all he ever knew or aspired to.
He heads for home.
A cluster of street urchins huddle about a rusted fifty-gallon
drum that spews flames, sends ash scattering like shrapnel to lacerate the
night. Squatters dart to and fro inside darkened, misshapen windows of Old
World shops. A sex worker hits her pipe, leaning against a corroded rain gutter
with die-hard determination despite limited prospects.
“Yo, Ben!” A boisterous voice cuts through the night,
bouncing off crumbling facades.
It’s Dr. Dregg, the corpulent middle-aged man who runs the
only shop in the neighborhood that peddles Old World relics. He fixes them up,
places them in a dirty shop window, then tries to sell passersby on their
mysterious function, to convince them they absolutely, categorically, cannot
live a single moment more without them. He’s managed to sell Ben on every last
book he’s come across in the muck, without any haggling at all.
“Evenin’ Doc,” Ben shouts back.
“Yo, come over here. Got a new find to show ye!” The man’s
closing up shop, boorishly pulling threadbare blinds and extinguishing tungsten
Ben keeps on. “Been a long day, Doc. I’ll stop by first
thing in the mornin’ on my way to the train. Promise…”
His mind’s on her. It’s reeling mile-a-minute. Grappling. Somehow
the prospect of rescuing Kamana K—extricating her from her shackles and all
those imploding walls—has become his reason for being. And at the same time, it
all seems like a perverse dream. Or a hologram.
He turns down a side alley, kicking sludge. The constant
activity yields to a dreadful, poetic silence, broken only by the scurrying of
varmints across muck-slathered pavement. The shortcut is nothing new. But its gritty
desolation is suddenly unnerving. Ben halts, thick-soled work boots skidding
through filth with the suddenness of it.
He’s heard something—footsteps—clattering
off decrepit facades. Ye learn to read
the signs in the Periphery, he’s heard himself explain. After a moment, he
continues on, resolves to feign nonchalance and let his stalker gain. But the
footsteps, so faint they masquerade as imaginary, remain peripheral. He makes
it to the old wrought iron elevator of his penthouse unmolested.
In the dead of night, a loud crash awakens him. Not from a
deep sleep, but from a feverish delirium that only vaguely resembles it. He
lights a kerosene lamp, wheels about. Turns out the racket was far below, not
in his apartment. Two feral cats are now having it out in a narrow,
As promised, he stops by Doc Dregg’s teeming sty on the way
out. He’s hardly slept. The morning’s taken on a surreal patina, like an extension
of some disjointed dream. Hazy sunlight refracts in halos from the various
artifacts lining a waterlogged windowsill.
“Top o’ the mornin’ to ye, sir!” The stocky, silver-bearded
proprietor calls over heaps of enigmatic junk.
“So what is it you come across? That you wanted te show
me?” Ben wants to know. He’s anxious to get to the K estate. No plan yet, but
he wants her to feel safe. To know one’s in the works.
“’Course it’s a book,” the man chortles. “Like to give ye
first dibs on every one crosses my path. Yer the only soul who reads
anymore—‘round here leastways.”
A pudgy fist withdraws a yellowed paperback from behind the
antique cash register, waves it so its buckled pages flap in the amber morning
“The Anarchist’s Cookbook, it’s called. 1971.”
Ben takes it, begins to flip through its contents.
“Everything from phreaking to hacking to explosives,” the
man grunts. “Even the dimmest wit could make a—”
bomb?” Ben finishes, eyeing the miscellany of corroded steel fittings lying
vapor clears in plumes, settling to the ground like volcanic ash. Ben steps
forward, wipes any remaining residue from his uniform.
enter the complex, 35-D,” advises one of the two attending guards.
not the guards he’s come to know. Ben tells himself they’re on vacation.
nervously in the foyer, fidgeting in a lotus-blossom chair, smashing unruly
bangs against a sweaty brow in one of the countless mirrored panels. Any moment
one of them will slide up and she’ll appear. She’ll step down from her pedestal
and glide across the marble floor, falling into his burly arms. She’ll brush
his sunburned ear with supple, coursing lips. She’ll—
It’s not her.
mirrored panel purrs open the figure descending from the pedestal is clad in
military black, steel-toed leather boots completing an austere tailored uniform
decorated with chevrons and insignias. The man’s high forehead culminates in a
sharp silver widow’s peak, arched brows shading dark, recessed sockets. Sunken
jowls form a terse smile as he strides across the foyer, extending a hand.
he greets, voice thin and raspy.
the man’s lean, vascular hand mistrustfully. His heart beats like a jackhammer;
he’s got the book, right there in the front pocket of his tool belt. Not once
has he encountered a Fed en route from the M-train to the estate, and surely
not on the premises themselves. But suddenly the footsteps he heard last night
and even this morning, the feeling of constant surveillance, are beginning to
Jakobah,” the man identifies himself. And then, after a tense millisecond, “Mr.
and Mrs. K send their regards and would like to thank you for the thorough,
conscientious work you’ve done on the estate.”
He eyes the man warily.
sent for their daughter to join them in Sector 6. They’ve found a suitor.”
it’s not true. His gut tells him so immediately. He’s seen the advertisements
that sprang up overnight, spangling buildings and the sides of hovercraft—the
shameless plugs to tune in for next week’s spectacle. It can’t be both.
“Why are you here?” Ben manages through a
the man entreats him, kindness nearly authentic. “Come.”
he takes Ben by the shoulder, guiding him toward the salon. The chandelier is
aflame now, burning so brightly Ben nearly has to shield his eyes from its
you drink?” the man is asking, positioning himself behind the bar.
martini,” Ben obliges.
two are seated on cushy velvet settees, the man leans forward, drink in hand.
“I regret to tell you that Kamana K is not who you think.”
Ben folds his arms.
think you do,” the man says gently, proceeding with caution. “I know you think
fondly of her, but her intentions may not lie where you think. Her loyalties.
She’s implanted you with a biochip.”
he’s being fed lies, that none of it is true. “Why would she want to surveil
surveillance. It’s a chip you’ve always had. It just needed replenishing.”
Ben’s hand moves to the base of his skull, where a dull throbbing has been
pestering him all morning. He recalls the dreamlike slumber he fell into the
day before, lying there among the crumpled ambrosia of her sheets. The man’s
words have the ring of truth. But if it’s true she did it, they put her up to it.
something, K-13: How many times have you been swabbed on entering the K
he confesses. “A dozen?”
many retinal scans?”
spirit of cooperation yields to resistance. “The same.” He replies flatly.
making sure we had our man,” General Jakobah explains, lips curling into a sly
smile. “And it turns out we do.”
the insignia on the general’s chevron, emblazoned beneath an embroidered pair
of eagle wings that is both austere and sublime.Empirian
Federal Government, it reads, gold threads shimmering in the chandelier’s
for you? For the federal government? You ‘spect me te buy that?”
inhales, drawing on his patience. “She works for The Reality Network. Mediacorp
owns The Reality Network.” The man tips his head, taking a long, indulgent sip
of his martini. “And we ownthe
Of course, Bean realizes—control by
diversion, oppression by preoccupation. Consumerism, greed, celebrity—it’s all
the same brand. Ben sighs. The ring
of truth is beginning to mute his brain’s objections, to bring things into
sharp focus. Jakobah reaches out a hand and clutches Ben’s shoulder consolingly.
“Let me start
at the beginning,” the man proposes. “Now I know you’re well-read, so some of
this will ring true from your education about the Old World. But what I’m going
to tell you is not common knowledge. To anyone in The State. In Empiria proper
or the Periphery or even Exteria. It must
understand,” Ben nods, unsure what he’s committing to. His world is reeling and
nothing is real anymore, least of all
the network. The man before him could be a hologram for all he knows. An
avatar. This could all be some sort of computer-generated matrix. He could be an avatar, for God’s sake.
Just a lowly pawn—a creation of the mind of the media gods.
begins a pedantic discourse:
know, after the war the State had to do everything in its power to ensure the
survival of its citizens. So much of our world was uninhabitable, our very
propagation was at stake. Our scientists were already on the cutting edge of
many things that would aid in our survival, including biodome technology,
epigenetics, space travel, genetic engineering. The upper class had been
custom-ordering the DNA of their children for generations—from blue eyes to strong
teeth and good health. But with the creation of the biodomes and Empiria, it
was time for the government to step in and regulate. While those in the Beyond
perished due to the fallout, those in Empiria thrived, and those in the
Periphery—well—supported life in Empiria. None of this should be a surprise to
his head in a daze.
surely don’t know is this: The Empirian gene pool, though impeccable, would not
endure. The price for conquering disease was grave. The random variations
needed for adaptability evolved out in the first few generations. And though
conditions in the biodome are controlled, adaptability is still necessary for
survival. Our scientists thought ahead about a solution. They looked to all the
randomness in the squalor of Exteria. The Periphery, to be precise.”
Ben has no
idea where the general is headed. The confusion shows on his face.
ever wonder, 35-D, why you are the only one among your peers who reads? Why
they’re killing themselves off around you? They’ve devolved. While our master
race was headed for Eutopia, your people regressed. Our evolutionary theorists
have determined that the need for civility was no longer an asset, so limited
were resources and so overpopulated was the small chunk of inhabitable land.
Things like morals, ethics, and principles became silly and obsolete. All those
invisibles, the socialization we Empirians continue to enjoy, were products of
an over-developed cerebrum, and of no use outside these walls.”
No wonder we’re killing ourselves, Ben
thinks. We really are apes.
I ask you,” the man posits, leaning further forward than before in insistence.
Ben notices his eyes are clear and blue, like ether. “Why do you suppose you’re
consider myself differ’nt,” Ben shruggs. “Jes love to read is all.”
just being humble,” Jakobah smiled. “The truth is you know right from wrong.
You feel a responsibility for your fellow man. Your altruism is not just a
trait that contributes to propagation but something you value. You are civil. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Ben mumbles, the Anarchists’ Cookbook nearly burning a hole in his pocket. He used to be all those things, but he now
knows how the world gets to you, how at some point you throw in the towel and
join the conflicted masses.
the time your birth,” Jakobah explains, “Our scientists conducted an
experiment. It was our only hope. We couldn’t just mate Empirians with inferior
stock, so inclined to war and strife. If we could reintroduce those invisibles,
implant socialization through AI,
epigenetics would ensure they took root over time, that civility would be
passed on. In this way, even from Exteria, viable genetic stock could be
gleaned. Viable candidates.”
Suddenly what he’s hearing sounds incredulous.
propagation. To reintroduce into Empirian bloodlines.”
long, excruciating pause. The chandelier flickers and the base of Ben’s skull
throbs and suddenly he knows.
“I was one
smiles with compassion. “The experiment was involuntary. Even your mother did
not know. The poverty in the Periphery allowed us to do it all under the radar,
to implant the chip at birth.Five
hundred infants. Over five years.”
what—now you’re rounding us up? Harvesting
us? What was it she implanted?”
the chip our scientists used in the experiment failed over time. It was
manufactured by the leading firm in biomimicry, to work with the body’s systems
and self-regulate. Which means it’s also vulnerable to free radicals. The
bombardment of free radicals in Exteria altered structures in the chips—drained them. Like a cancer, if you will.”
implanted a new chip?”
man’s compassion kicks in. He has no desire to tear down too many curtains in
one day. So he says it as gently as possible: “When the two of you were—intimate, the nano-opiates were
administered. It was no task at all to replace the chip once you were out.”
duped, shit-sure. Not just by her—by the world.
The State and its government and the media and all he’s refused to believe
but known on some level and kept at bay. By the haunting possibility that she does love him but acted on orders all
the same. That she was more loyal to her owners
than her own heart. The sudden crumbling of walls is as disillusioning as
the slow, painful invasion of free radicals that burn out synapses, the bomb
blasts that terrorize, the harsh realizations that fracture arrogance and erode
the truth. Where is she?” The man has shown kindness; Ben banks on his
compassion—as if he could begin to suppress the desperation in his eyes had he
“Mr. and Mr.s K’s parental instincts may have kicked in
in the final act,” the man explains. “They are in fact in the Levant, planning
a wedding. But Kamana K has other contractual obligations and sadly will not be
able to attend. Let me put this as simply as possible,” the man concludes
flatly, “The Reality Network has reclaimed its property.”
subsists in Ben’s eyes, and Jakobah quickly shifts trajectory. “The good news
is, your new chip is much better than the last; the technology has come a long
way. It should take no time at all to foster the Methyl groups that will encode
the new traits on your DNA.”
Then I can breed?”
wish.” The man is serious. “Of course any procreation must be registered with
the State. After a period of observation and an official confirmation, you will
be furnished an Empirian citizenship. You may live among the elite. Doesn’t
that sound a far cry from what you’re living now?”
Suddenly the sterility of the biodome seems like
a prison, its artifice and its obscene fixations birthed from sheer boredom.
The squalor of Exteria brims with the stuff of life—the textures and the sounds
and even the smells that are the aching beauty in the survival.
to think about it.”
course,” the man nods. “You are free to come and go as you please. But we will
need an answer within a week.”
He’s fidgeting now, wants out of the room.
will be under constant surveillance,” the man warns. “Remember, what I’ve told
you is confidential. You’re life depends on it. In a week we’ll know if
the Methyl groups have formed—whether the encoding has succeeded or failed.”
I’m still just an ape?”
smile is a concession. “If encoding fails,” he explains, “We’d still like to
make you an offer. We’ll extend the full package—full Empirian citizenship—in
exchange for your continued participation in the study.”
“My allegiance,” Ben suggests.
continue peptide therapy and monitor levels. Genetic desirability for the
inbreeding program is fluid, not cut-and-dried.
Methyl groups govern the expression or repression of genes on the DNA
strand. But all that matters is their arrangement at the moment of conception.”
it occurs to Ben. “If I’m one of five hundred lab rats, where are the others?”
He’s thinking of those kindred spirits he’s run into regularly, rifling through
or ransacking the mildewed remains of Old World literature in those abandoned
rounded up in 2108. Introduced to polite society in our first endeavor to
conclude what we’d begun twenty-four years ago. Let’s just say things didn’t…end well.”
face grows pale.
said,” the man reassures him, “Biomimetics has come a long way…”
Empirian shuttle penetrates the wall like a silver bullet, exits the arched portal
seconds later to a blood-red sky. A bomb blast has shaken the periphery mere
moments before; flack rains down in ashen hues.
Oh, to be
exempt from the madness. Shit-sure, their pipe bombs have begun to permeate the
inner sanctum, but the elite population to which he’s fast bound to belong
remains largely protected from the violence. The general’s offer is sounding
better all the time.
his loft, Ben drifts in and out of sleep to the riotous white noise that wafts
from crooked streets below. It’s a mingling of shouted threats and machinery
and the laughter of mischievous children. It’s the fragile beauty of
it, he decides. Being another shut-in of that sterile bubble up there, the
richness and poetry of life would be reduced to a distant hum, anesthetized by
the State. Their obscenely opulent preoccupations, the deliciously decadent
obsessions he now recognizes as diversion have been flawlessly designed by the
State. But more so, in a perverse way, they’re a surrogate for all that’s
chip could be restored—his morals elevated
once more—hope might come with it. He recalls Kamana’s words not so long
ago. About whether the world changes or just the eyes through which we view it.
Part of him knows he’d give his left arm, lose it to a pipe bomb packed with
nails, for a chance at the rose-colored goggles of his youth. Even if they’ve
All at once it occurs to him: there were no
footsteps today, glancing off the facades. No prying eyes hidden behind dark
glasses on the M-Train. Maybe they’re surveilling him from inside, broadcasting his every thought, impulse and mental fantasy
to the State. The thought paralyzes him. His body goes limp; he’s sure it’s
full of nano-opiates. But his mind shows no sign of slowing. Linear thought reels uncontrollably,
intertwining with shapeless reverie. They’re
mining it, he’s sure. Looking for subversion.
help it; he’s picturing her. Not
bound in chains but stark naked on that pedestal, perfect alabaster breasts
catching the light.
going to maim me,” the hologram in his mind repeats.
she’s the only thing that is real in
all the artifice—the duplicity and duality and the virtual reality that’s the
furthest thing from it. He knows she
loves him like he does her, that their coming together was mutual desire. The
want of something real. That despite
her imprisonment, despite the media shackles, her own will survives.
Her whisper was a plea.
Maybe I am an ape, he chastises himself. Am
I so weak-minded? A moment ago he was signing their contract in his mind,
fancying a life far above the strife in the superior simulation of Empiria. And
now, seconds later, he wants nothing more than to blow it up with a pipe bomb.
A thousand pipe bombs, and run away with her into Exteria where the Beyond is
toxic and uninhabitable, they say.
a visit to Dr. Dregg. He’s got everything they’ll need right there in the
perfect filth of his pigpen. He’ll bring The
Anarchist’s Cookbook and they’ll make a dozen of them—maybe a thousand. He’ll
scour the streets and the abandoned bookstores and round up the others—all
those curious individuals more interested in reading about the Old World than
blasting themselves to smithereens.
only solution. The only tourniquet for the hemorrhaging of his heart. She was a
momentary gift, but one that lived in the ideal world of aspiration long before
materializing in his reality. And now she’s being torn away like a limb or some
other extremity with which he’s not ready to part. The feel of it is
he won’t see her until the spectacle on Sunday. At the arena. Whether she’s one
in a harem in Sector 6 or bound by chains at Mediacorp doesn’t matter. Even if
he finds their covert headquarters, cloistered somewhere in all the obscene
luxury, he’ll never make it past the front gates. It will have to be public.
it that way.
have propagated exponentially. Every last skyscraper and bullet train sports
her likeness. In it her eyes betray nothing though they know what’s coming. The
abject, titillating boner-inducing fear has been displaced by sweet surrender.
standing outside the arena, hands trembling; a light sweat frosts his upper
lip. Anxiously, he pushes greasy bangs from a furrowed brow. The crowds inside are
boisterous, their collective chants palpably contagious, like blood rushing
into a groin. He imagines that their bloodthirsty cries glance off the biodome
confounded in atmosphere high above. Drones are diving, saddled with gloating
cameras; he can see them through the colossal Roman arches of the stadium.
Others careen about on zigzagging cables. She’s there on the platform, more a
crucifix than a pedestal but still high above the astroturf.
fingers the exposed threads of cold metal plumbing, his heart pounds like a
jackhammer. He knows the others are positioned about the circumference, like
battered, seedy shanties in the Periphery. They’ve crawled up through the
bowels of the great plateau, through the subterranean sewage canals and
climate-control vaults—the vast cardio-pulmonary system they were destined to
awaits the perfect moment, he ponders the conspicuous lack of surveillance that
has characterized the last few days. Maybe the State wants a big splooge-spattered finish. A showdown. In the end, oppression is all about ratings. And fear sells. It’s
as worthy a diversion as consumerism or sexual obsession. As sweat collects on
his nervous lip he wonders at the irony of it: how the good guys become the
terrorists in this world. In the skewed reality that is The State.
The click of
pedantic, hushing of childhood.
off marble, under velvet ropes, cruelly taunting now. Eviscerating with
He does it
to himself. Skirts the past like a dark, still lake, perched precariously but
never plunging past fleeting reflections that dance. Weekly, he plants himself
there—right there—on the brink.
aura simmers when the guard passes, tinged fur-standing crimson, then settles
back to good-humored cocoa brown. Pascal pulls the lead taut. It’s not Edwyn
who’s passed—the usual Saturday morning attendant. The gait is more deliberate,
less rhythmic, navy blue authority of the aura less tempered by magenta levity.
It’s all clanking keys and patent leather and billy club jostling.
Overkill, is Pascal’s assessment.
some stealthy art thief going to make off with ‘Chaque Jour Est Samedi’ in broad
daylight? Whip out an X-Acto blade and peel the un-stretched canvass off its
curved wall inch-by-inch before rolling it up like a Persian rug and hustling
it out of the circular gazebo enshrining it? Though it’s been years since
Pascal has seen the masterpiece with his own eyes, he knows it stretches
floor-to-ceiling, the centerpiece—indeed the only piece—in the room. And though it post-dates Seurat’s
quintessential chef-d’oeuvre by a good five years, Pascal also knows its title
is a direct reference to that hustling, bustling day in the park George so
masterfully captured, splitting complements and abstracting dapples of warm
morning light. Every Day Is Saturday, the English translation reads, gilded plaque
long since swallowed by darkness. As if to imply that the visual splendor of
the park, its sights and sounds, are a state of mind. That they’re all around
us, all the time, if we would only tune in.
In some ways
Pascal Picot treasures the darkness. Before it consumed all, when it but waited
in the wings like a stark sepia vignette, he was hyper aware of the gazebo’s Berber
carpeting, chewing gum smashed thereupon, the feeble insufficiency of the
nondescript wall sconces flanking the tableau. During the depression but before
the war, the museum renovated, replacing mildewed carpet with faux marble,
installing natural skylights, building an extra bridge across the lotus pond
for broader access. Weekdays, field
trips and guided tours make the gazebo a slightly less lonely spot on the map.
But today, it’s families—mostly families—hustling past en route to Modernism.
Or more interested in the cotton candy, magicians and acrobats who should be
relegated to Central Park but are granted the run of the gardens.
renovation years before gave the man hope. Not that the public’s tastes had
elevated—humanity was surely going to hell in a Modernist hand basket—but that
the economy was improving with war. That despite its ravages people still knew
what was important.
of it matters. He’s long since thrown his hands in the air, content to let Rome
burn around him, sitting on that stone bench in oblivious dark before a
masterpiece he cannot see, imagining all is as it used to be.
him is a blank canvass.
and the guard have company.
aura bleeds into the bungalow, like pigment on turpentine or sunlight across a
rippling pond. As auras go, it’s youthful. Unfettered.
up on all this, long before the thick-soled boots pivot, before the buttons of
a floor-length pea coat clatter next to him. Pascal wedges his highly polished
walking stick against an emaciated thigh, making room.
not crowding you here,” comes the spry voice.
all,” Pascal returns, his own voice raspy as pumice by comparison.
“This is my
favorite piece in the collection,” the young man offers. “Visit every week.
Amazing we haven’t crossed paths.”
The old man ponders in accordance. The guard keeps to himself, continues
pacing, jangling, projecting navy blue authority into an amorphous void. If it
were Edwyn on duty, he could explain the mystery—how it is the two have
remained ships passing in the night. But this changing of the guard has
rendered the moment an isolated one—a dreamlike bridging of past and present,
of fleeting youth and more fleeting experience.
“I just love
where it takes me. It really transports,” the boy marvels, wide eyes navigating
the canvass as if to circumvent daubs of impasto cerulean like icebergs.
say.” Pascal raises his gravely pitch along with thinning but errant brows. And
then: “You’re an art student then.”
silence yields the sounds of the garden, indifferent.
studies,” the boy confesses, wondering what gave him away. “NYU.”
Pascal smiles, feigning enthusiasm, profiting from the restored confidence of
his recent investment: dental implants. It’s
the academic-speak that rankles him, the heady dropping of elitist, highbrow
code words, often the furthest thing from an artist’s intentions. It’s all speculation, Pascal Picot
decided years before. But he has yet to decide whether it’s Art History majors
or Museum Studies who take the prize for intellectual masturbation.
“I’ve always loved this piece,” the boy goes
on, as if reading the man’s thoughts, his judgments. “Long before art school. As a child, I used
to stare at it for what seemed hours on end. I’d lose all track of time…”
an instant, the boy’s opinions are no longer white noise. The old man’s ears
wandering away from the others and just gazing at it—into it—feeling the colors had leapt from the canvas, were swirling
around me. Enveloping me.
smiles. He won’t let on, he decides. At least not yet. That he’s the artist.
The one who, long before time robbed him of the proclivity to do so, replicated
the dapples of light, the hollow reeds and gondolas, the parasols and the fiery
wells of molten sunlight they ensnared, the crisscrossing reflections on choppy
water. He won’t tell the boy how he sat in Bois de Bologne years previous, not
Gardin de Luxembourg as many mistakenly presumed, replicating sensory details
with precision, drawing on every faculty of observation. Whomever it
transported in the end, his process was once of empirical observation.
used to bring me here,” the younger man explains. “After she’d gotten my older
brothers and sisters off to school, before I’d started school myself, she’d
bring me here, to Central Park. I now know it was her time to unwind; that I
just happened to be there. And I was low maintenance—I required nothing of her.
Together we’d lie in the grass and stare up into the maze of branches and
leaves, the patches of blue eternity in between. Our fingertips would lightly
graze as we lay there, surrounded by fallen leaves. I just knew that was true
connection. It was the first I’d known in the world. Later I’d learn I imagined
it all, that the connection I felt was much stronger than what she felt. She’d
lived in the world for a time, experienced romantic love, the love of four
other children. Me? It was the only connection I’d known since arriving from—”
suddenly, allowing the riotous sound of unruly children to punctuate the
silence. And then:
carries the stern voices of mothers wrangling children; what he wouldn’t do for
a bit of sternness. For a reprimand or two. “This painting,” he summarizes,
however abstractly, “Was the first evidence I was not alone in the world. That
someone, somewhere, saw the world as I did.”
The old man
smiles. This is not artspeak. He
feels a twang deep in his heart—neither pleasurable nor agonizing—just a jolt
that reminds him it’s still there.
kid offers, extending a hand.
it in the eternal dark, tries to steady his own knobby fingers in its firm
grip. The hold is steadfast, palm warm and supple with youth, but not so silky
as to suggest privilege. The fingertips are abrasive; the kid has in fact
lifted a finger in his life, unlike so many of late. He’s indulged a trade. For
now the old man will have to imagine the perfectly square fingernails, not
manicured but immaculate with self-respect, white crescent moons pronouncing
themselves from a swarthy, Semitic complexion.
“And how is
it that you saw the world?” Pascal pursues, genuinely interested.
bows involuntarily; Pascal feels the flush of crimson.
“I was a
weird kid,” Isaac confesses. “As we lay there in the grass staring into the
clear blue, I wasn’t as interested in the more obvious clouds in which other
kids saw koalas or bunnies or even dragons. I was more interested in the
molecules that dropped from space, gliding incessantly through the blue
nothingness to settle in the grass.”
explain it, but this painting—the world it
represents—was beyond familiar. I knew that whoever painted it was made of the
same stuff I was.”
know Pascal Picot was not well respected in the art world. In his day, anyway.”
the youth objects, suddenly riled. Strangely invested in his childhood muse.
on. “Never once invited to exhibit with his peers. Not at Rue le Peletier in 1876. Not on Avenue de
L’opera in ’79 nor Rue des Pyramids in 1880.”
“Who cares?” Isaac’s tone is infused
with passion, like pigment-charged linseed oil. “He was before his time.”
Pascal scoffs, shakes his head
stubbornly. “The critics said the opposite. That he was a relic. Stilted, they said. Irrelevant.”
“Maybe at the time,” Isaac enthuses
defensively, “But Art History has treated him kindly. The man is credited with
lighting a fire under modernism. More than any of those impressionist hacks.
They just copied one another, replicating what the galleries expected, what
sold: the crunching of darks or exposing
of lights, putting all the information in only one world or the other, splitting
complements but not so far as to optically gray. The public had no category for
gray area. They insisted, however, on the obligatory bustle wearing, parasol-wielding
mademoiselle and 2.5 jubilant children. Picot bought into none of that. He
painted the world as he saw it. And
his vision was unique!”
Though it means something to the old man that
the books recognize him, something irks. Suddenly his own foggy voice, not what
it once was, brims with defiance.
“Picot’s voice was literal. Devoid
of interpretation. That’s what bothered the critics. It too accurately
reflected the empirical evidence. Those others hid behind their silly distortions;
Picot was able to capture reality and document
The old man’s tone grows so
cantankerous that Dudley’s fur stands on end. The lead grows taught. Keys
jangle mere yards away. A youthful amber aura shifts to a confusion of yellow.
The old man collects himself, feels
the need to explain. “The very reason Picot’s works were not accepted by
impressionists was their immediacy. Rather
than creating an impression—overexposing or underexposing, his work captured too much.”
“Perhaps he saw
too much,” Isaac suggests.
“In the end, it’s too literal.”
The younger man, driven by the
nature of youth, plays the devil’s advocate. “What makes you so sure his
perception coincides with universal truth? The objective truth?”
The old man is stumped. He’s never
thought of it that way. Doesn’t everyone
think his perception is the true reality?
“That’s exactly what spoke to me,”
the young man explains, his voice suddenly full of poetry. “The nuance. The
suspending of a moment. The acknowledgement of all those levels that exist in
every instant. He illuminated all that we tune out in life without even
realizing it. He proved that the narrow margin of perception we all agree
constitutes reality is just the tip of an iceberg.”
His eyes explore the painting, the
impasto daubs of cerulean, so much like fleeting glaciers.
“No,” Picot laments. He’s no longer
defiant, but resigned. “I even failed at that. I spent my life going inward
rather than outward. It was safer that way. I thought if I could replicate what
I saw and share it, it would bring me something. Now I know it was just
avoidance of the real world. I was biding
time. All I really wanted was to connect.”
The ensuing gap is a bridge, itself
an isolated moment in time and space, a changing of the guard. Both men know
the children are a haunting of past, the harsh, pedantic voices of mothers a reminder
of the present reality, the rules which must be abided. All that matters is
what we can see, touch, feel. How else could we build bridges—even that shaky
bridge over the lotus pond that got us here. Suddenly the tiny shrine with its
sole masterpiece is floating in space, among a spangling of koi fish and lotus
blossoms and drifting, isolated lily pads. Koi
live forever, Isaac’s read somewhere. Unless
killed off by something.
“You’re him.” Isaac marvels. “You’re Pascal
Picot!” The old man can’t see it, but his dark, heavy-lidded eyes are wide with
man’s sense of elation at meeting his childhood hero, his muse, is lessened
only by the profound sadness he feels. What it must be like to feel one has
wasted his life. That his work amounted to nothing in the end.
reaches out a hand, takes the knotted, nearly crippled hand in his own capable
believe the dream world is the real one, and this is all an illusions.” Isaac
says for some reason. “For me, as a child, this painting represented a world I
knew existed but that no one else could see. This painting told me I was not
alone. That I had a kindred spirit in the world.”
man’s heart lifts, just a bit. He’s known for a long time that painting was a
just a diversion. That his own inability to connect without the surrogate felt
like a prison. It occurs to Pascal Picot he’s unknowingly connected with
another through those iron bars, through his vision. More importantly he now knows his vision is not the
universal truth, but the furthest thing from it. It’s full of distortions. The
world he thought he was so faithfully replicating was in fact being seen
through some lens—one he did not even know he wore.
alarming of all, Pascal Picot realizes his eyes were going long before he
admitted it to himself. Those loose, expressive brush strokes that leapt off
the form—sure, they spoke of refracting light, like tiny halos. The keen
splitting of colors on the fly rang true somehow, if only as some mental prism
not everyone had. But the truth is, the abstractions evolved inversely with the
deterioration of his rods and cones, the failure of empirical evidence.
hadn’t ended there. Like a crab in boiling water, blissfully unaware of the shift,
he took greater and greater refuge in the realm his faculties could not
avail—that of auras and essences and vibrations, of feelings and visceral
instinct. Chaque Jour Est Samedi meant
we knew all we needed to know. We had all the goods within. Occasionally, we
cross some creaky bridge across a lotus pond to a shrine of sorts. We meet in
the middle between realms.
“May I?” The
old man raises trembling fingertips.
features are that of a landscape, epic and quaintly intimate at the same time.
Familiar and exotic. Arched brows careen against deep, sullen sockets where
lies the pain and aching sorrow rivaled by only a furrowed brow. The furrow,
that tiny furrow—It’s suddenly the world. It’s the impossibly beautiful possibility
that innocence may not prevail. Pascal’s fingers move on. Volatile undulations
dance, flinging quaking fingertips into space like a buoy on stormy tide. There
is a knowing in touch, unlike any disembodied voice or the insufficiency of
words. To Pacal, touch has always been evidence he’s alive. The tactility of a five
o’clock shadow is suddenly sweetly abrasive, proof of his existence.
silent moment, Pascal wishes for the gift of sight. He’s long since mourned it.
He’s spent his life documenting people from afar—studying, observing, recording
his findings. But now, in the final act, he’d trade it all for one single
moment of beauty. He’d gladly expire on that bench in that shrine on that lotus
pond in a garden lost to time for a chance to see the soul of another. His wish
is granted. Colors swirl off the nearby canvass, ensnaring the two,
transporting youth and age far from Central Park to some plane that exists
beyond screaming children and acrobats and cotton candy.
emerges from darkness. A single, crisp beam of immaculate white light pierces the
solitude, and the boy is there.
teeth gleam stainless white against poreless skin as yet untaxed by gravity. A
flawless complexion has not even begun to erode with the elements. The smile is
utter grace—that rare sharing of youth that has nothing to do with flaunting.
Oh, he could see the eyes as his own, if he chose to. But somehow the old man
knows, beyond the ability to know, that the outside world is real. It’s not
just some projection. That he’s crossed that bridge and met in the middle and
found the objective in the subjective.
And then, in
an instant it’s gone. Familiar dark reclaims all.
Pascal says to the boy, or the universe.
cocoa brown aura has deepened to chocolate. He’s snoozing. The authoritative
blue aura of the guard has taken on magenta warmth, more like Edwyn’s. The
voices of children have returned, harmonious now, less a taunt than a nostalgic
reminder of what can never be reclaimed. Slowly, it dawns on the old man he has
not, in fact, expired. He’s aware of his heart, but it’s beating more steadily
than it has in a long time.
French,” the boy says suddenly, stating the obvious. “Have you ever read Le Petit Prince?”
the old man obliges.
remember the chapter about ‘apprivoiser?’”
less,” Pascal claims, not sure where the kid is going with the reference.
reminds him how the Little Prince, only once he’s left his home planet,
discovers how the flower he loved, and thought unique in the world, turns out
to be one of thousands throughout the universe. Later in the book, he learns
how to make something ‘unique au monde’ once again—unique in the world: taming.
“Doesn’t mean much here. In this language. In this culture. But in the French
culture, ‘apprivoiser’ is important. Taming is essential.” He smiles, suddenly
glad he splurged on the dentures.
reminds the man how the Little Prince and the fox learned to trust one another
by meeting regularly, at the same time, without fail, over the course of days.
you lost your mother,” Pascal offers.
Isaac returns. The gesture means the world to him.
The two sit
in silence for a long while, perfectly content. The jangling of keys becomes
familiar, the rhythmic clacking of patent leather on tile.
his usual time to go, Pascal stands. He pulls the lead taut and Dudley rises on
his haunches, stretches in the golden afternoon light from outside.
next week, then?” Pascal asks nonchalantly.
Isaac returns. “Same time?”
The old man
has long gone when Isaac Buttons his pea coat, preparing to leave. An
involuntary smile spreads across his face as he approaches the tiny plaque he’s
read so many times before. Chaque Jour
Est Samedi 1877. For the first time, he understands the title’s meaning.
crosses the lotus bridge into Central Park, his
cell phone rings in the pocket of a floor-length pea coat.