True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it—oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly—very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this? And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously—oh, so cautiously—cautiously (for the hinges creaked)—I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights—every night just at midnight—but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he has passed the night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.
Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers—of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back—but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness, (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers,) and so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept pushing it on steadily, steadily.
I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in bed, crying out—“Who’s there?”
I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed listening;—just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.
Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief—oh, no!—it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise, when he had turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself—“It is nothing but the wind in the chimney—it is only a mouse crossing the floor,” or “It is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp.” Yes, he had been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions: but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim. And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel—although he neither saw nor heard—to feel the presence of my head within the room.
When I had waited a long time, very patiently, without hearing him lie down, I resolved to open a little—a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it—you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily—until, at length a simple dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye.
It was open—wide, wide open—and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness—all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones; but I could see nothing else of the old man’s face or person: for I had directed the ray as if by instinct, precisely upon the damned spot.
And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense?—now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.
But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I held the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could maintain the ray upon the eve. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man’s terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!—do you mark me well I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me—the sound would be heard by a neighbour! The old man’s hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once—once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eye would trouble me no more.
If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.
I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye—not even his—could have detected any thing wrong. There was nothing to wash out—no stain of any kind—no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all—ha! ha!
When I had made an end of these labors, it was four o’clock—still dark as midnight. As the bell sounded the hour, there came a knocking at the street door. I went down to open it with a light heart,—for what had I now to fear? There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police. A shriek had been heard by a neighbour during the night; suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been lodged at the police office, and they (the officers) had been deputed to search the premises.
I smiled,—for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house. I bade them search—search well. I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.
The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct:—It continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definiteness—until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.
No doubt I now grew very pale;—but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased—and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath—and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly—more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men—but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks! here, here!—It is the beating of his hideous heart!”
“FINE um whar you will en w’en you may,” remarked Uncle Remus with emphasis, “good chilluns allers gits tuck keer on. Dar wuz Brer Rabbit’s chilluns; dey minded der daddy en mammy fum day’s een’ ter day’s een’. W’en ole man Rabbit say scoot,’ dey scooted, en w’en ole Miss Rabbit say ’scat,’ dey scatted. Dey did dat. En dey kep der cloze clean, en dey ain’t had no smut on der nose nudder.”
Involuntarily the hand of the little boy went up to his face, and he scrubbed the end of his nose with his coat-sleeve.
“Dey wuz good chilluns,” continued the old man, heartily, “en ef dey hadn’t er bin, der wuz one time w’en dey wouldn’t er bin no little rabbits—na’er one. Dat’s w’at.”
“What time was that, Uncle Remus?” the little boy asked.
“De time w’en Brer Fox drapt in at Brer Rabbit house, en didn’t foun’ nobody dar ceppin’ de little Rabbits. Ole Brer Rabbit, he wuz off some’rs raiding on a collard patch, en ole Miss Rabbit she wuz tendin’ on a quiltin’ in de naberhood, en wiles de little Rabbits wuz playin’ hidin’-switch, in drapt Brer Fox. De little Rabbits wuz so fat dat dey fa’rly make his mouf water, but he ’member ’bout Brer Wolf, en he skeered fer ter gobble urn up ceppin’ he got some skuse. De little Rabbits, dey mighty skittish, en dey sorter huddle deyse’f up tergedder en watch Brer Fox motions. Brer Fox, he sot dar en study w’at sorter skuse he gwineter make up. Bimeby he see a great big stalk er sugar-cane stan’in’ up in de coruder, en he cle’r up his th’oat en talk biggity:
“‘Yer! you young Rabs dar, sail ’roun’ yer en broke me a piece er dat sweetnin’-tree,’ sezee, en den he koff.
“De little Rabbits, dey got out de sugar-cane, dey did, en dey rastle wid it, en sweat over it, but twan’t no use. Dey couldn’t broke it. Brer Fox, he make like he ain’t watchin’, but he keep on holler’n:
“‘Hurry up dar, Rabs! I’m a waitin’ on you.
“En de little Rabbits, dey hustle ’roun’ en rasfle wid it, but they couldn’t broke it. Bimeby dey hear little bird singin’ on top er de house, en de song w’at de little hird sing wuz dish yer.
“‘Take yo’ toofies en gnyaw it,
Take yo’ toofies en saw it,
Saw it en yoke it,
En den you kin broke it.’
“Den de little Rabbits, dey git mighty glad, en dey guyawed de cane mos’ ’fo’ ’ole Brer Fox could git his legs oncrosst, en w’en dey kyard ’im de cane, Brer Fox, he sot dar en study how he gwineter make some mo’ skuse fer nabbin’ un um, en bimeby he git up en git down de sifter w’at wuz hangin’ on de wall, en holler out:
“‘Come yer, Rabs! Take dish yer sifter, en run down’t de spring en fetch me some fresh water.’
“De little Rabbits, dey run down’t de spring, en try ter dip up de water wid de sifter, but co’se hit all run out, en hit keep on runnin’ out, twell bimeby de little Rabbits sot down en ’gun ter cry. Den de little bird settin’ up in de tree he begin fer ter sing, en dish yer’s de song w’at he sing:
“‘Sifter hole water same ez a tray,
Ef you fill it wid moss en dob it wid clay;
De Fox git madder de longer you stay—
Fill it wid moss en dob it wid clay.’
“Up dey jump, de little Rabbits did, en dey fix de sifter so ’twon’t leak, en den dey kyar de water ter ole Brer Fox. Den Brer Fox he git mighty mad, en p’int out a great big stick er wood, en tell de little Rabbits fer ter put dat on de fier. De little chaps dey got ’roun’ de wood, dey did, en dey hef at it so hard twel dey could see der own sins, but de wood ain’t budge. Den dey hear de little bird singin’, en dish yer’s de song w’at he sing:
“‘Spit in yo’ han’s en tug it en toll it,
En git behine it, en push it, en pole it;
Spit in yo’ han’s en r’ar back en roll it.’
“En des ’bout de time dey got de wood on de fier, der daddy, he come skippin’ in, en de little bird, he flew’d away. Brer Fox, he seed his game wuz up, en ’twan’t long ’fo’ he make his skuse en start fer ter go.
“‘You better Stay en take a snack wid me, Brer Fox,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Sence Brer Wolf done quite comin’ en settin’ up wid me, I gittin’ so I feels right lonesome dese long nights,’ sezee.
“But Brer Fox, he button up his coat-collar tight en des put out fer home. En dat w’at you better do, honey, kaze I see Miss Sally’s shadder sailin’ backerds en for’ds ’fo’ de winder, en de fus’ news you know she’ll be ’spectin’ un you.
“Son coeur est un luth suspendu;
Sitôt qu’on le touche il rèsonne.” – De Béranger.
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into everyday life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.
Nevertheless, in this mansion of gloom I now proposed to myself a sojourn of some weeks. Its proprietor, Roderick Usher, had been one of my boon companions in boyhood; but many years had elapsed since our last meeting. A letter, however, had lately reached me in a distant part of the country—a letter from him—which, in its wildly importunate nature, had admitted of no other than a personal reply. The MS. gave evidence of nervous agitation. The writer spoke of acute bodily illness—of a mental disorder which oppressed him—and of an earnest desire to see me, as his best, and indeed his only personal friend, with a view of attempting, by the cheerfulness of my society, some alleviation of his malady. It was the manner in which all this, and much more, was said—it was the apparent heart that went with his request—which allowed me no room for hesitation; and I accordingly obeyed forthwith what I still considered a very singular summons.
Although, as boys, we had been even intimate associates, yet I really knew little of my friend. His reserve had been always excessive and habitual. I was aware, however, that his very ancient family had been noted, time out of mind, for a peculiar sensibility of temperament, displaying itself, through long ages, in many works of exalted art, and manifested, of late, in repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity, as well as in a passionate devotion to the intricacies, perhaps even more than to the orthodox and easily recognisable beauties, of musical science. I had learned, too, the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain. It was this deficiency, I considered, while running over in thought the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people, and while speculating upon the possible influence which the one, in the long lapse of centuries, might have exercised upon the other—it was this deficiency, perhaps, of collateral issue, and the consequent undeviating transmission, from sire to son, of the patrimony with the name, which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of the “House of Usher”—an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion.
I have said that the sole effect of my somewhat childish experiment—that of looking down within the tarn—had been to deepen the first singular impression. There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition—for why should I not so term it?—served mainly to accelerate the increase itself. Such, I have long known, is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis. And it might have been for this reason only, that, when I again uplifted my eyes to the house itself, from its image in the pool, there grew in my mind a strange fancy—a fancy so ridiculous, indeed, that I but mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which oppressed me. I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity—an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn—a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued.
Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. In this there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old wood-work which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the external air. Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability. Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.
Noticing these things, I rode over a short causeway to the house. A servant in waiting took my horse, and I entered the Gothic archway of the hall. A valet, of stealthy step, thence conducted me, in silence, through many dark and intricate passages in my progress to the studio of his master. Much that I encountered on the way contributed, I know not how, to heighten the vague sentiments of which I have already spoken. While the objects around me—while the carvings of the ceilings, the sombre tapestries of the walls, the ebon blackness of the floors, and the phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled as I strode, were but matters to which, or to such as which, I had been accustomed from my infancy—while I hesitated not to acknowledge how familiar was all this—I still wondered to find how unfamiliar were the fancies which ordinary images were stirring up. On one of the staircases, I met the physician of the family. His countenance, I thought, wore a mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity. He accosted me with trepidation and passed on. The valet now threw open a door and ushered me into the presence of his master.
The room in which I found myself was very large and lofty. The windows were long, narrow, and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within. Feeble gleams of encrimsoned light made their way through the trellissed panes, and served to render sufficiently distinct the more prominent objects around; the eye, however, struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles of the chamber, or the recesses of the vaulted and fretted ceiling. Dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all.
Upon my entrance, Usher arose from a sofa on which he had been lying at full length, and greeted me with a vivacious warmth which had much in it, I at first thought, of an overdone cordiality—of the constrained effort of the ennuyé man of the world. A glance, however, at his countenance, convinced me of his perfect sincerity. We sat down; and for some moments, while he spoke not, I gazed upon him with a feeling half of pity, half of awe. Surely, man had never before so terribly altered, in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher! It was with difficulty that I could bring myself to admit the identity of the wan being before me with the companion of my early boyhood. Yet the character of his face had been at all times remarkable. A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely moulded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence, of a want of moral energy; hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity; these features, with an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple, made up altogether a countenance not easily to be forgotten. And now in the mere exaggeration of the prevailing character of these features, and of the expression they were wont to convey, lay so much of change that I doubted to whom I spoke. The now ghastly pallor of the skin, and the now miraculous lustre of the eye, above all things startled and even awed me. The silken hair, too, had been suffered to grow all unheeded, and as, in its wild gossamer texture, it floated rather than fell about the face, I could not, even with effort, connect its Arabesque expression with any idea of simple humanity.
In the manner of my friend I was at once struck with an incoherence—an inconsistency; and I soon found this to arise from a series of feeble and futile struggles to overcome an habitual trepidancy—an excessive nervous agitation. For something of this nature I had indeed been prepared, no less by his letter, than by reminiscences of certain boyish traits, and by conclusions deduced from his peculiar physical conformation and temperament. His action was alternately vivacious and sullen. His voice varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision (when the animal spirits seemed utterly in abeyance) to that species of energetic concision—that abrupt, weighty, unhurried, and hollow-sounding enunciation—that leaden, self-balanced and perfectly modulated guttural utterance, which may be observed in the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement.
It was thus that he spoke of the object of my visit, of his earnest desire to see me, and of the solace he expected me to afford him. He entered, at some length, into what he conceived to be the nature of his malady. It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy—a mere nervous affection, he immediately added, which would undoubtedly soon pass off. It displayed itself in a host of unnatural sensations. Some of these, as he detailed them, interested and bewildered me; although, perhaps, the terms, and the general manner of the narration had their weight. He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.
To an anomalous species of terror I found him a bounden slave. “I shall perish,” said he, “I must perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lost. I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results. I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul. I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect—in terror. In this unnerved—in this pitiable condition—I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.”
I learned, moreover, at intervals, and through broken and equivocal hints, another singular feature of his mental condition. He was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted, and whence, for many years, he had never ventured forth—in regard to an influence whose supposititious force was conveyed in terms too shadowy here to be re-stated—an influence which some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion, had, by dint of long sufferance, he said, obtained over his spirit—an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, at length, brought about upon the morale of his existence.
He admitted, however, although with hesitation, that much of the peculiar gloom which thus afflicted him could be traced to a more natural and far more palpable origin—to the severe and long-continued illness—indeed to the evidently approaching dissolution—of a tenderly beloved sister—his sole companion for long years—his last and only relative on earth. “Her decease,” he said, with a bitterness which I can never forget, “would leave him (him the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient race of the Ushers.” While he spoke, the lady Madeline (for so was she called) passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared. I regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread—and yet I found it impossible to account for such feelings. A sensation of stupor oppressed me, as my eyes followed her retreating steps. When a door, at length, closed upon her, my glance sought instinctively and eagerly the countenance of the brother—but he had buried his face in his hands, and I could only perceive that a far more than ordinary wanness had overspread the emaciated fingers through which trickled many passionate tears.
The disease of the lady Madeline had long baffled the skill of her physicians. A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character, were the unusual diagnosis. Hitherto she had steadily borne up against the pressure of her malady, and had not betaken herself finally to bed; but, on the closing in of the evening of my arrival at the house, she succumbed (as her brother told me at night with inexpressible agitation) to the prostrating power of the destroyer; and I learned that the glimpse I had obtained of her person would thus probably be the last I should obtain—that the lady, at least while living, would be seen by me no more.
For several days ensuing, her name was unmentioned by either Usher or myself: and during this period I was busied in earnest endeavors to alleviate the melancholy of my friend. We painted and read together; or I listened, as if in a dream, to the wild improvisations of his speaking guitar. And thus, as a closer and still closer intimacy admitted me more unreservedly into the recesses of his spirit, the more bitterly did I perceive the futility of all attempt at cheering a mind from which darkness, as if an inherent positive quality, poured forth upon all objects of the moral and physical universe, in one unceasing radiation of gloom.
I shall ever bear about me a memory of the many solemn hours I thus spent alone with the master of the House of Usher. Yet I should fail in any attempt to convey an idea of the exact character of the studies, or of the occupations, in which he involved me, or led me the way. An excited and highly distempered ideality threw a sulphureous lustre over all. His long improvised dirges will ring forever in my ears. Among other things, I hold painfully in mind a certain singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber. From the paintings over which his elaborate fancy brooded, and which grew, touch by touch, into vaguenesses at which I shuddered the more thrillingly, because I shuddered knowing not why;—from these paintings (vivid as their images now are before me) I would in vain endeavor to educe more than a small portion which should lie within the compass of merely written words. By the utter simplicity, by the nakedness of his designs, he arrested and overawed attention. If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher. For me at least—in the circumstances then surrounding me—there arose out of the pure abstractions which the hypochondriac contrived to throw upon his canvass, an intensity of intolerable awe, no shadow of which felt I ever yet in the contemplation of the certainly glowing yet too concrete reveries of Fuseli.
One of the phantasmagoric conceptions of my friend, partaking not so rigidly of the spirit of abstraction, may be shadowed forth, although feebly, in words. A small picture presented the interior of an immensely long and rectangular vault or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and without interruption or device. Certain accessory points of the design served well to convey the idea that this excavation lay at an exceeding depth below the surface of the earth. No outlet was observed in any portion of its vast extent, and no torch, or other artificial source of light was discernible; yet a flood of intense rays rolled throughout, and bathed the whole in a ghastly and inappropriate splendor.
I have just spoken of that morbid condition of the auditory nerve which rendered all music intolerable to the sufferer, with the exception of certain effects of stringed instruments. It was, perhaps, the narrow limits to which he thus confined himself upon the guitar, which gave birth, in great measure, to the fantastic character of his performances. But the fervid facility of his impromptus could not be so accounted for. They must have been, and were, in the notes, as well as in the words of his wild fantasias (for he not unfrequently accompanied himself with rhymed verbal improvisations), the result of that intense mental collectedness and concentration to which I have previously alluded as observable only in particular moments of the highest artificial excitement. The words of one of these rhapsodies I have easily remembered. I was, perhaps, the more forcibly impressed with it, as he gave it, because, in the under or mystic current of its meaning, I fancied that I perceived, and for the first time, a full consciousness on the part of Usher, of the tottering of his lofty reason upon her throne. The verses, which were entitled “The Haunted Palace,” ran very nearly, if not accurately, thus:
In the greenest of our valleys,
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion—
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair.
Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow;
(This—all this—was in the olden
Time long ago)
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A winged odor went away.
Wanderers in that happy valley
Through two luminous windows saw
Spirits moving musically
To a lute’s well-tunéd law,
Round about a throne, where sitting
In state his glory well befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.
And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.
But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch’s high estate;
(Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
And, round about his home, the glory
That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.
And travellers now within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows, see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody;
While, like a rapid ghastly river,
Through the pale door,
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh—but smile no more.
I well remember that suggestions arising from this ballad, led us into a train of thought wherein there became manifest an opinion of Usher’s which I mention not so much on account of its novelty, (for other men* have thought thus,) as on account of the pertinacity with which he maintained it. This opinion, in its general form, was that of the sentience of all vegetable things. But, in his disordered fancy, the idea had assumed a more daring character, and trespassed, under certain conditions, upon the kingdom of inorganization. I lack words to express the full extent, or the earnest abandon of his persuasion. The belief, however, was connected (as I have previously hinted) with the gray stones of the home of his forefathers. The conditions of the sentience had been here, he imagined, fulfilled in the method of collocation of these stones—in the order of their arrangement, as well as in that of the many fungi which overspread them, and of the decayed trees which stood around—above all, in the long undisturbed endurance of this arrangement, and in its reduplication in the still waters of the tarn. Its evidence—the evidence of the sentience—was to be seen, he said, (and I here started as he spoke,) in the gradual yet certain condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls. The result was discoverable, he added, in that silent, yet importunate and terrible influence which for centuries had moulded the destinies of his family, and which made him what I now saw him—what he was. Such opinions need no comment, and I will make none.
*Watson, Dr. Percival, Spallanzani, and especially the Bishop of Landaff.—See “Chemical Essays,” vol v.
Our books—the books which, for years, had formed no small portion of the mental existence of the invalid—were, as might be supposed, in strict keeping with this character of phantasm. We pored together over such works as the Ververt et Chartreuse of Gresset; the Belphegor of Machiavelli; the Heaven and Hell of Swedenborg; the Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimm by Holberg; the Chiromancy of Robert Flud, of Jean D’Indaginé, and of De la Chambre; the Journey into the Blue Distance of Tieck; and the City of the Sun of Campanella. One favorite volume was a small octavo edition of the Directorium Inquisitorium, by the Dominican Eymeric de Gironne; and there were passages in Pomponius Mela, about the old African Satyrs and OEgipans, over which Usher would sit dreaming for hours. His chief delight, however, was found in the perusal of an exceedingly rare and curious book in quarto Gothic—the manual of a forgotten church—the Vigiliae Mortuorum secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae.
I could not help thinking of the wild ritual of this work, and of its probable influence upon the hypochondriac, when, one evening, having informed me abruptly that the lady Madeline was no more, he stated his intention of preserving her corpse for a fortnight, (previously to its final interment,) in one of the numerous vaults within the main walls of the building. The worldly reason, however, assigned for this singular proceeding, was one which I did not feel at liberty to dispute. The brother had been led to his resolution (so he told me) by consideration of the unusual character of the malady of the deceased, of certain obtrusive and eager inquiries on the part of her medical men, and of the remote and exposed situation of the burial-ground of the family. I will not deny that when I called to mind the sinister countenance of the person whom I met upon the staircase, on the day of my arrival at the house, I had no desire to oppose what I regarded as at best but a harmless, and by no means an unnatural, precaution.
At the request of Usher, I personally aided him in the arrangements for the temporary entombment. The body having been encoffined, we two alone bore it to its rest. The vault in which we placed it (and which had been so long unopened that our torches, half smothered in its oppressive atmosphere, gave us little opportunity for investigation) was small, damp, and entirely without means of admission for light; lying, at great depth, immediately beneath that portion of the building in which was my own sleeping apartment. It had been used, apparently, in remote feudal times, for the worst purposes of a donjon-keep, and, in later days, as a place of deposit for powder, or some other highly combustible substance, as a portion of its floor, and the whole interior of a long archway through which we reached it, were carefully sheathed with copper. The door, of massive iron, had been, also, similarly protected. Its immense weight caused an unusually sharp grating sound, as it moved upon its hinges.
Having deposited our mournful burden upon tressels within this region of horror, we partially turned aside the yet unscrewed lid of the coffin, and looked upon the face of the tenant. A striking similitude between the brother and sister now first arrested my attention; and Usher, divining, perhaps, my thoughts, murmured out some few words from which I learned that the deceased and himself had been twins, and that sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them. Our glances, however, rested not long upon the dead—for we could not regard her unawed. The disease which had thus entombed the lady in the maturity of youth, had left, as usual in all maladies of a strictly cataleptical character, the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death. We replaced and screwed down the lid, and, having secured the door of iron, made our way, with toil, into the scarcely less gloomy apartments of the upper portion of the house.
And now, some days of bitter grief having elapsed, an observable change came over the features of the mental disorder of my friend. His ordinary manner had vanished. His ordinary occupations were neglected or forgotten. He roamed from chamber to chamber with hurried, unequal, and objectless step. The pallor of his countenance had assumed, if possible, a more ghastly hue—but the luminousness of his eye had utterly gone out. The once occasional huskiness of his tone was heard no more; and a tremulous quaver, as if of extreme terror, habitually characterized his utterance. There were times, indeed, when I thought his unceasingly agitated mind was laboring with some oppressive secret, to divulge which he struggled for the necessary courage. At times, again, I was obliged to resolve all into the mere inexplicable vagaries of madness, for I beheld him gazing upon vacancy for long hours, in an attitude of the profoundest attention, as if listening to some imaginary sound. It was no wonder that his condition terrified—that it infected me. I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions.
It was, especially, upon retiring to bed late in the night of the seventh or eighth day after the placing of the lady Madeline within the donjon, that I experienced the full power of such feelings. Sleep came not near my couch—while the hours waned and waned away. I struggled to reason off the nervousness which had dominion over me. I endeavored to believe that much, if not all of what I felt, was due to the bewildering influence of the gloomy furniture of the room—of the dark and tattered draperies, which, tortured into motion by the breath of a rising tempest, swayed fitfully to and fro upon the walls, and rustled uneasily about the decorations of the bed. But my efforts were fruitless. An irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my very heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm. Shaking this off with a gasp and a struggle, I uplifted myself upon the pillows, and, peering earnestly within the intense darkness of the chamber, harkened—I know not why, except that an instinctive spirit prompted me—to certain low and indefinite sounds which came, through the pauses of the storm, at long intervals, I knew not whence. Overpowered by an intense sentiment of horror, unaccountable yet unendurable, I threw on my clothes with haste (for I felt that I should sleep no more during the night), and endeavored to arouse myself from the pitiable condition into which I had fallen, by pacing rapidly to and fro through the apartment.
I had taken but few turns in this manner, when a light step on an adjoining staircase arrested my attention. I presently recognised it as that of Usher. In an instant afterward he rapped, with a gentle touch, at my door, and entered, bearing a lamp. His countenance was, as usual, cadaverously wan—but, moreover, there was a species of mad hilarity in his eyes—an evidently restrained hysteria in his whole demeanor. His air appalled me—but anything was preferable to the solitude which I had so long endured, and I even welcomed his presence as a relief.
“And you have not seen it?” he said abruptly, after having stared about him for some moments in silence—“you have not then seen it?—but, stay! you shall.” Thus speaking, and having carefully shaded his lamp, he hurried to one of the casements, and threw it freely open to the storm.
The impetuous fury of the entering gust nearly lifted us from our feet. It was, indeed, a tempestuous yet sternly beautiful night, and one wildly singular in its terror and its beauty. A whirlwind had apparently collected its force in our vicinity; for there were frequent and violent alterations in the direction of the wind; and the exceeding density of the clouds (which hung so low as to press upon the turrets of the house) did not prevent our perceiving the life-like velocity with which they flew careering from all points against each other, without passing away into the distance. I say that even their exceeding density did not prevent our perceiving this—yet we had no glimpse of the moon or stars—nor was there any flashing forth of the lightning. But the under surfaces of the huge masses of agitated vapor, as well as all terrestrial objects immediately around us, were glowing in the unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion.
“You must not—you shall not behold this!” said I, shudderingly, to Usher, as I led him, with a gentle violence, from the window to a seat. “These appearances, which bewilder you, are merely electrical phenomena not uncommon—or it may be that they have their ghastly origin in the rank miasma of the tarn. Let us close this casement;—the air is chilling and dangerous to your frame. Here is one of your favorite romances. I will read, and you shall listen;—and so we will pass away this terrible night together.”
The antique volume which I had taken up was the “Mad Trist” of Sir Launcelot Canning; but I had called it a favorite of Usher’s more in sad jest than in earnest; for, in truth, there is little in its uncouth and unimaginative prolixity which could have had interest for the lofty and spiritual ideality of my friend. It was, however, the only book immediately at hand; and I indulged a vague hope that the excitement which now agitated the hypochondriac, might find relief (for the history of mental disorder is full of similar anomalies) even in the extremeness of the folly which I should read. Could I have judged, indeed, by the wild overstrained air of vivacity with which he harkened, or apparently harkened, to the words of the tale, I might well have congratulated myself upon the success of my design.
I had arrived at that well-known portion of the story where Ethelred, the hero of the Trist, having sought in vain for peaceable admission into the dwelling of the hermit, proceeds to make good an entrance by force. Here, it will be remembered, the words of the narrative run thus:
“And Ethelred, who was by nature of a doughty heart, and who was now mighty withal, on account of the powerfulness of the wine which he had drunken, waited no longer to hold parley with the hermit, who, in sooth, was of an obstinate and maliceful turn, but, feeling the rain upon his shoulders, and fearing the rising of the tempest, uplifted his mace outright, and, with blows, made quickly room in the plankings of the door for his gauntleted hand; and now pulling therewith sturdily, he so cracked, and ripped, and tore all asunder, that the noise of the dry and hollow-sounding wood alarummed and reverberated throughout the forest.”
At the termination of this sentence I started, and for a moment, paused; for it appeared to me (although I at once concluded that my excited fancy had deceived me)—it appeared to me that, from some very remote portion of the mansion, there came, indistinctly, to my ears, what might have been, in its exact similarity of character, the echo (but a stifled and dull one certainly) of the very cracking and ripping sound which Sir Launcelot had so particularly described. It was, beyond doubt, the coincidence alone which had arrested my attention; for, amid the rattling of the sashes of the casements, and the ordinary commingled noises of the still increasing storm, the sound, in itself, had nothing, surely, which should have interested or disturbed me. I continued the story:
“But the good champion Ethelred, now entering within the door, was sore enraged and amazed to perceive no signal of the maliceful hermit; but, in the stead thereof, a dragon of a scaly and prodigious demeanor, and of a fiery tongue, which sate in guard before a palace of gold, with a floor of silver; and upon the wall there hung a shield of shining brass with this legend enwritten—
Who entereth herein, a conqueror hath bin;
Who slayeth the dragon, the shield he shall win;
And Ethelred uplifted his mace, and struck upon the head of the dragon, which fell before him, and gave up his pesty breath, with a shriek so horrid and harsh, and withal so piercing, that Ethelred had fain to close his ears with his hands against the dreadful noise of it, the like whereof was never before heard.”
Here again I paused abruptly, and now with a feeling of wild amazement—for there could be no doubt whatever that, in this instance, I did actually hear (although from what direction it proceeded I found it impossible to say) a low and apparently distant, but harsh, protracted, and most unusual screaming or grating sound—the exact counterpart of what my fancy had already conjured up for the dragon’s unnatural shriek as described by the romancer.
Oppressed, as I certainly was, upon the occurrence of this second and most extraordinary coincidence, by a thousand conflicting sensations, in which wonder and extreme terror were predominant, I still retained sufficient presence of mind to avoid exciting, by any observation, the sensitive nervousness of my companion. I was by no means certain that he had noticed the sounds in question; although, assuredly, a strange alteration had, during the last few minutes, taken place in his demeanor. From a position fronting my own, he had gradually brought round his chair, so as to sit with his face to the door of the chamber; and thus I could but partially perceive his features, although I saw that his lips trembled as if he were murmuring inaudibly. His head had dropped upon his breast—yet I knew that he was not asleep, from the wide and rigid opening of the eye as I caught a glance of it in profile. The motion of his body, too, was at variance with this idea—for he rocked from side to side with a gentle yet constant and uniform sway. Having rapidly taken notice of all this, I resumed the narrative of Sir Launcelot, which thus proceeded:
“And now, the champion, having escaped from the terrible fury of the dragon, bethinking himself of the brazen shield, and of the breaking up of the enchantment which was upon it, removed the carcass from out of the way before him, and approached valorously over the silver pavement of the castle to where the shield was upon the wall; which in sooth tarried not for his full coming, but feel down at his feet upon the silver floor, with a mighty great and terrible ringing sound.”
No sooner had these syllables passed my lips, than—as if a shield of brass had indeed, at the moment, fallen heavily upon a floor of silver—I became aware of a distinct, hollow, metallic, and clangorous, yet apparently muffled reverberation. Completely unnerved, I leaped to my feet; but the measured rocking movement of Usher was undisturbed. I rushed to the chair in which he sat. His eyes were bent fixedly before him, and throughout his whole countenance there reigned a stony rigidity. But, as I placed my hand upon his shoulder, there came a strong shudder over his whole person; a sickly smile quivered about his lips; and I saw that he spoke in a low, hurried, and gibbering murmur, as if unconscious of my presence. Bending closely over him, I at length drank in the hideous import of his words.
“Not hear it?—yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long—long—long—many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it—yet I dared not—oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am!—I dared not—I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb! Said I not that my senses were acute? I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin. I heard them—many, many days ago—yet I dared not—I dared not speak! And now—to-night—Ethelred—ha! ha!—the breaking of the hermit’s door, and the death-cry of the dragon, and the clangor of the shield!—say, rather, the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault! Oh whither shall I fly? Will she not be here anon? Is she not hurrying to upbraid me for my haste? Have I not heard her footstep on the stair? Do I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of her heart? Madman!”—here he sprang furiously to his feet, and shrieked out his syllables, as if in the effort he were giving up his soul—“Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!”
As if in the superhuman energy of his utterance there had been found the potency of a spell—the huge antique pannels to which the speaker pointed, threw slowly back, upon the instant, their ponderous and ebony jaws. It was the work of the rushing gust—but then without those doors there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold—then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated.
From that chamber, and from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the “House of Usher.”
In March I received an invitation to appear at IdiotFest, the second most prestigious event on the entire Idiot circuit. I called my mother.
─Don’t you remember, Mom? It was in San Diego last year. I was an alternate.
─Oh, right. Of course. Congratulations, honey. That’s wonderful.
─I have a solo performance the first night. On one of the side platforms. Then, the last morning, I’m supposed to participate in a workshop on fluids.
─I bet they probably heard about what I did at the Canadian Summit.
─I’m sure they did. You got a lot of attention for that. Listen, I wish your father and I─
─Don’t worry about that, Mom. Indianapolis is quite a haul from California, and tickets aren’t cheap. I need to start looking for bargains myself.
─They’re not paying for your travel?
─No, just a discounted room at the main hotel.
─I’m only performing on a side platform, Mom. I’m not exactly Maury Benjamin.
─There’s only one Maury Benjamin. Still, I’m sure you’ll do great.
─This could be a really big break for me. If I make a good impression there, I got a great chance of winding up at the Gathering in December.
─Did you tell Michelle?
─Will you? What about the girls?
I counted fourteen people gathered around the small, wooden platform, including a friend of mine from high school who lives in town. We had talked about going out for a beer afterward. I blamed the weather. Fucking rain. At 6:30 there were still probably two-hundred visitors snaking around the lobby waiting to check in. I tried not to think about it.
I opened with some incoherent bellowing, my mouth still dry. After moving to the floor and yanking out a fistful of hair, I began my slobbering sequence. This was the first time I was using an oil capsule in public. I had no trouble bursting it, but I had some difficulty determining the rate of its drainage. In the solitude of my apartment, I had trained myself to gauge the size of the capsule’s rupture by concentrating on the strength of the oil’s flavor in my mouth. Once that was clear, I would decide how much saliva to mix with the oil in order to create a plausible degree of viscosity. I used a rosemary infusion. With a crowd this small, and with this kind of professional lighting, the oil was probably unnecessary. But it would have been foolish to pass up an opportunity to try it out in front of an actual audience. Plus, I could ask my friend about it later.
As I prepared to return upright, I noticed the assistant to the impresario standing against the back wall, nearly hidden in shadow. Somehow, I had missed her entrance. She contacted me with the initial invitation. Called me out of the blue and proceeded to compliment me throughout the conversation, she even made reference to the fact that I craft my own dental prosthesis. They had done their research. Maybe she had come to this room to check on the sound and the lighting, or to record the turnout, or just to get a feel for the overall atmosphere here on the first night. Maybe she just wanted to enjoy my work, to catch the act of that up and coming guy who refuses to order his hideously yellow buckteeth out of Chauncey’s Idiologue. Still, I couldn’t ignore the possibility that she had arrived primarily to judge me. To decide whether or not I deserved this platform, to consider whether or not I would be invited to return next year, to estimate the potential long-term commercial appeal of my idiot, to ask herself if she hadn’t made a mistake by bringing me here in the first place.
By now I was standing back up, moving into my bluster. The snot, thick and generous thanks to the air travel, bubbled out of my left nostril and ran onto my lips. But then, for the first time ever in the middle of an actual performance, I began to wonder if I had made the right decision. As I heaved my shoulders and used my forearm to spread the phlegm across my right cheek, I found myself focused on the assistant to the impresario. Like more than a few idiots, I had considered the route of the moron and the fool as well. And despite the fact that I believed deep down my talent lie in idiocy, I was haunted by what might have been had I elected to become a moron. After all, even my manager would admit that the moron circuit had more than doubled in the last five years and was now threatening to surpass foolishness in overall market share. My manager didn’t try to hide this from me. But he insisted that none of this mattered. All you should do now is be an idiot. It’s all you can do. You are an idiot. It’s that simple. An enormously talented idiot. You’ve spent too much time, you’ve sacrificed too much to give up now. Could you have made it as a fool? Perhaps. If you had gone the moron route, would you be on magazine covers today? It’s not impossible. But you know what, your time is coming, I truly believe that. There’s no turning back. All you can do is go out there and do it. And be it. Be the perfect idiot. I’ll take care of the rest.
The assistant to the impresario shifted her weight and moved her clipboard from one hand to the other. My website had eight-thousand hits last week. In April I learned I had made it to the final round of a major fellowship and was encouraged to reapply next year. Plus, there were rumors of increased government funding. And I did still enjoy the actual appearances, when I always felt I had found my calling and been true to it. My manager knew I had started meditating, he knew I was reading some of the Buddhist masters. He was kind enough to resist taunting me for this, he understood that with everything I was going through there wasn’t any other way. The point of my craft, the goal in my eyes, was to empty myself into moments of absolute presence, such that all my practice and devotion could be translated into simple effortlessness.
A couple of high school kids got up and left the room, walking past a young woman at the edge of the third row who looked to be a professional photographer. The assistant to the impresario greeted an older man who, judging from his suit, likely worked for the hotel. I was finding it difficult to cry. Rather than fight it, I released an especially violent moan, which drew the faces of the audience back to the platform, and brought my attention to the closing urination. I made myself perfectly still, letting the drool and mucus run off my chin. Fixing my eyes on a random spot near the side of the room, far away from the assistant to the impresario, who remained visible only as the small yellow patch of her hair, the hair I recognized from her picture on IdiotFest’s website, I prepared to empty my bladder. The jock strap and tape had done their job, and the tip of my stretched-thin penis remained fixed high above my right thigh. I began to relax my entire body, starting simultaneously from the tips of my toes and the crown of my skull. My eyes closed as my feet sunk into the uneven heels of my orthopedic shoes. With arms hanging limp from my shoulders and with knees slightly buckled, I allowed my abdomen to relieve the pressure it had been forced to endure for the last three hours. I sensed a gradual shifting below my waist, and soon my pant leg grew heavy and warm. Visualizing the expanding contours of the darkness steadily covering the worn khaki on my thigh, I sought to limit the rate of flow. At around fifteen seconds I heard a faint gasp. At half a minute the room had grown perfectly silent. By the time I was done, a full minute later, by the time my right sock was drenched and a fair-sized puddle was likely glimmering as it spread out along the platform, I allowed myself to seek out the assistant to the impresario. She had tucked her clipboard under one of her arms and was leading the stunned audience in a round of applause that sounded like the work of much more than twenty-six hands.
The beer with my old high school friend was so-so. Naturally, he praised my performance, and his words seemed very sincere. Said he was blown away. He may have been willing to continue talking about my idiot much longer, but it didn’t feel right. So I asked him about his career, something to do with marketing or PR, or marketing and PR. We shared what little we knew about the other guys we used to hang out with almost twenty years ago. Laughed a little. Food was decent. Even though we left the hotel, I couldn’t help scanning the bar from time to time to check if I recognized anyone, or if anyone recognized me. He listed the other divorces he’d heard about. There were more than a few. I reminded myself to be thankful that he came out. Even told him I was grateful. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk about my performance, but I couldn’t really talk about any my art if I wasn’t allowed to express what it meant to me to be both exceptional and overlooked, to be an obscure genius, to be a man nearly, but only nearly, capable of finding solace in the expression of his own unique vision. I tried not to hate myself and my life again, so I reminded myself that here I was in a pleasant bar in Indianapolis, where I had recently shared my authentic self with a dozen or so perfect and similarly grateful strangers. He insisted that he pay and we told each other to take care.
Then I found myself back in the lobby, which was crowded, though not quite bustling. I scanned a number of small lounges, places where four or five pieces of furniture had been assembled for casual encounters. There were a few faces I recognized, but no one I really knew. I could think of two options. Go to the bar and order a drink, sit by myself, look at the televised sports, perhaps find someone to talk to. Adults did things like this, including adults at IdiotFest. Or go to my room. Turn on the television. Try to read. Take a pill. Sleep eight to ten dreamless hours.
I took out my phone, called Michelle, and had this conversation over the cheery din of the people gathered around me:
─Hi. It’s David.
─It went pretty well.
─My performance. I think it went well.
─Yes, I know. That’s good.
─The audience was kind of small, but I made a big impression, I could tell.
─That’s great. I’m happy for you.
─How are things there?
─Can I talk to the girls?
─They’ve been asleep for over an hour. It’s past ten here.
─Right. Of course. They’re okay?
─Well, thanks again for taking them this weekend. I appreciate it.
─You know, I gave a really strong performance tonight. I know I did. It could mean something for me.
─That’s wonderful, David, it really is.
─ Someone from the organization saw it, and I could see that she was amazed.
─Great. Really, but look, I─
─No, I mean, I just want to say, and I know I’ve said this before, but if my day comes, and I don’t know if it ever will, but if it comes, I won’t forget about your support and everything, about all those years…
─I won’t. It’s important you know that. I’ll make it up.
─No, I don’t mean that. I’m not asking for… but to you and the girls, I will.
─I should go. It’s late.
─Will you give them a hug for me?
On my walk to the elevators I passed a circle of people that included Paul Drexel, who had recently been awarded a genius grant. He was the first idiot to restrict his work to video installations, narrative-driven pieces shot in public spaces. We had met a few years earlier at a regional event, I found him tedious.
I turned around to see the blond head of the assistant to the impresario. She was smiling and looking at me.
I smiled back. She extended her hand. Her other hand was still carrying the clipboard.
I know. Hi.
Her hand was small for her height, but her grip was firm.
─I really enjoyed your performance.
─Thanks. Thanks a lot.
─No, really. I was truly impressed.
─I had heard some good things─
─You did? From who?
─From a number of people. It’s our job to hear things.
─But I mean it, that was better than good. That was a lot better than good. I’m sorry we couldn’t get you a bigger crowd.
─Don’t worry about it. I’m glad you liked it. I felt like it went pretty well.
─I hope we can get you a better platform next year. I don’t know, maybe you could even perform a Center Piece on the first night.
─That would be amazing.
─I mean, I can’t promise anything like that. Obviously.
─But, but you’re ready for something like that. You are.
─Thanks. That’s really great to hear. From you especially.
Her phone rang. She said just a sec, pulled a device out of her pocket, answered the call, and turned a quarter-rotation away from me. Someone from the organization. She mentioned the name of a cable station, and then I realized I shouldn’t be trying to listen to her conversation. I started to back away when she raised her finger toward me and made a strange face. She may have been apologizing or making fun of whoever was on the other line. I think it meant I shouldn’t leave. So I didn’t. I looked at her body briefly, at her face, wondering if she was attractive. I don’t think she was beautiful, but there was something warm about her, something that made her look more inviting that her physical features all alone would suggest. Some kindness, perhaps.
She got off the phone.
─Sorry about that.
─No problem. Everything okay?
─Just more bullshit. Nothing new.
I nodded. She asked if I wanted to have a drink.
I hadn’t been with another woman since the divorce. Just two dates. Or one and a half dates. A little kissing with the second one, someone my brother knew from his company. I wanted it to happen, I didn’t want it to happen. I tried not to think about it.
Gretchen wanted it to happen.
I was grateful to her well before we got to the room. She had an easy confidence about her, was able to put me at ease as she let me know she was happy to be in charge. I didn’t know what to order, so she suggested a particular beer. I didn’t know what to ask her, so she told me about the organization, about what it’s like to work with the impresario. I didn’t know if I wanted a second, or a third, beer, so she ordered for both of us. I didn’t know what to talk about, so I let her talk. When she started asking questions, I answered them, telling her whatever she wanted to know about my past, my art, and my ex-wife. And then she said, while the bar was still filling up, would you like to come to my room. I didn’t know that people ever really said such things. I knew they must. But I wondered how common it was and how likely it was that I would ever be asked such a question. For fourteen years it hadn’t been much of a possibility. It was, all in all, not a bad question to be asked, and I was thankful for my beers, for the way they allowed my face to not respond very much at all.
We had sex. This outcome was clear to me the moment she used her card to let us into her room. I was surprised to be so sure of something so new, but there could be no doubt. She went to the bathroom, tried different lighting combinations, took off her earrings and placed them on a dresser. Then she kissed me. We must have had the exact same breath. I smelled nothing.
Soon we found our way to the bed and our way out of our clothes. Her body, if not altogether better than Michelle’s, was fresher. This was a younger woman, with a tattoo of a pear tree on her hip. It felt remarkably reassuring to be with someone who seemed to have so few compunctions.
Quite quickly I was inside her. I thought, in these words, which announced themselves loudly, so this is what it’s like inside another person. Another fit. I removed myself for a moment, concerned about the possibility of premature ejaculation.
─Yeah. It’s just the first time since.
She smiled generously. Raised her head to mine and kissed my check.
─Well, I expect you’ll enjoy this. I’m going to do my best.
She may have laughed. I returned to her and things accelerated rapidly. Much more than not, her prediction proved accurate. I found myself calling upon some of my training in order to postpone my orgasm, and after a time I sensed she was both extremely pleased with and fairly impressed by my self-control. After perhaps ten to fifteen minutes we knew somehow to pause for a moment. Or maybe she just decided to ask me a question:
─Did you. With Michelle, did you ever?
─Did you ever, you know?
─Pretend to be an idiot.
I looked at her.
─Did you ever have sex with her as an idiot?
─No. No. I didn’t.
─Did you want to? Ever?
─I don’t think it was ever much an option.
─But did you want to? Did you ever want to?
─I guess I probably thought about it a few times.
─But did I want to?
She was stroking my back. We were on the thirty-fourth floor of a downtown hotel.
─Would you like to? Now?
I looked at her, at her nose and the way it lead to her mouth. Her features were a great deal more angular than Michelle’s. I touched her chin, which was smooth and red.
─Would you like me to?
─A little bit I would.
And so I did, a little. I watched her as she watched me, as I brought her such strange pleasure. It felt wonderful, mostly. I was good at this. The room seemed to grow perfectly quite except for me and the sound of our bodies, as if her attention silenced the circuits and pipes, the elevators and footsteps alive in this building, the late night traffic in the streets below. As I finished I thought, has Michelle been with another man yet? Was he kind to her? Did he invite her to be someone I discouraged her from being? Did it make him as happy as this Gretchen is right now?
I opened my eyes and found myself in a moment of pure uncertainty, with no idea where I was or even when I was in my life. I must have been dreaming just a second before, and my confusion led me to wonder if I still was. But I soon remembered. My head, near the edge of this bed, was pointing toward the outer wall. I tried to be completely still and listen for Gretchen’s breath, which was soon audible. The world outside was still dark, as dark as it ever got in the center of a city like this. I slowly left the bed. Once standing I looked back at her and a combination of red numbers on a digital clock that I had never before seen in a dark room in a strange hotel.
I walked to the window, pushed aside the curtains, and considered the view for a very, very long time. I was naked and unexpectedly calm, as if large parts of me remained asleep in that bed. The skyline was both unremarkable and interesting, as the traffic lights changed steadily even when there were no cars to direct. Though the rain had stopped at least three hours earlier, much of the city was still damp, and together the lights and the moisture created a pleasing effect. I felt truly alone, every bit as alone as I would have felt in my own room, twenty-nine flights below. This did not bother me. Eventually I turned away from the window, suddenly struck by an urge to wander the streets before dawn. I quietly found my clothes and shoes. While getting dressed I wondered what it would be like to be a source of pride for my family. I left Gretchen’s room, stepping carefully over the morning paper already waiting just outside her door.
The elevator stopped at the thirty-second floor. After the door slid open, Maury Benjamin stepped inside and pushed a button. I had only seen him in person three times since I first attended one of his shows over twenty years ago. I was visiting my older brother in New York, where he was going to school, and he and his friends dragged me to a performance. Idiocy was still a new art then, and, my brother told me on the way to the theater, Maury Benjamin was going to be its ambassador to the world.
In the twenty-plus years since I had only ever seen a few pictures of him out of character, and I was, in addition to the larger shock of being alone with him in this elevator, amazed by how conventionally he was dressed. A button-down blue Oxford, cuffless grey trousers, a herringbone sports jacket, a pair of plain penny loafers. He was holding a couple sections of that same newspaper under his arm, standing right next to me as the elevator resumed its descent.
He turned to me, studied my face.
─You look familiar to me, you know that?
I smiled, perfectly speechless. Not five minutes into that first show I was overcome with fear. As if the man on the stage were a source of heat, some out-of-control flame, as if by merely watching him I was exposing myself to great danger. But I experienced a weird joy, too, as if his performance were an invitation, a challenge to go forward into something I knew nothing about, nothing except its overwhelming authenticity. I decided that night, sitting right there in that crowded theater, this is what I will do with my life. He was responsible.
─I know! Of course. Look at this.
And he opened the Arts section of the local paper. And right there on the front page, right below the headline, “Idiots Invade Indy,” was a large, color picture of me from the end of yesterday’s performance.
─That’s quite a bit of piss, young man.
He laughed briefly.
─I mean, you must have been keeping some of that in your lungs. Unless you were smuggling it in a sack.
─Not me. Never.
─No, you look like the real deal to me. Must have hurt like hell, sitting on that bladder. That’s talent. And determination.
He turned back away from me and watched the elevator display the floors passing by in quick succession. Until he spoke again, without turning his head.
─You know what I did on my sixtieth birthday?
─About a month ago. 60. I moved my bowels in front of almost 4,000 people, some of whom had reportedly paid over $500 for the privilege to watch. Then, after a late lunch at the best restaurant in all of Manhattan, I was awarded an honorary doctorate from Columbia University. I gave the professors and donors a short speech, fresh out of crap as I was.
The elevator stopped just above the lobby, the display said 1R. The door behind us opened. Maury Benjamin started walking out.
─Oh, I eat all my meals in the kitchen. I don’t mind the performance, but I can’t stand the autograph hounds and all the other lunatics at these events.
I looked at him as he stood in the doorway.
─Say, you going to be at the Gathering?
─Not sure. I hope so. Haven’t heard back from them yet.
He pointed at the caption under the picture in the paper.
─Did they get your name right?
I read the caption.
─Yes. That’s me.
─I’ll put in a good word for you. But don’t think of it as a favor. Just curious to see all that piss in person. I myself was never much in the piss department.
Before I could thank him he turned and walked away, the door sliding closed a moment later. I got off at the lobby, only to see that it had started raining again. According to the clock above the reception desk, it was already late enough to call Michelle and the girls. But first I decided to a drink of water. Wanted to see if I could hold it until lunch.
Molly loved her red hat. It was full and round and bright. It was glorious and unadorned. That hat knew more than it was saying. It could have been a ladybug, it could have been a tomato, or a red red lipstick-red dragon of fire. But it held still and was just a hat, and Molly loved it for that.
Then one day Molly’s mama bought her a little blue hat. It was sly and superficial and it didn’t know any secrets at all. Molly smiled politely and said thank you. She didn’t want her mama or the blue hat to be insulted. She put her red hat on the peg and wore the blue hat that day. But before she went out she pressed her mouth into the red hat and whispered, “I love you and I’ll always want you.”
When her little brother Billy came out into the garden, Molly realized that her mama had bought him a blue hat just like her new blue hat. Molly was polite and didn’t say what she thought about that.
But as Molly’s mama bustled out of the house in a jingle of keys, Billy burst out crying. “Mama come with!” he said.
“Have you been teasing your brother, young lady?” Molly’s mama said sharply, opening her car door.
Molly felt like a playground swing had gotten its chains tangled up and kicked her off onto the ground, wham, dirt up your nose and no air left for breathing. She grabbed the blue hat with both hands and tugged it over her ears, to keep from saying anything mean.
She hadn’t teased Billy, not even once, since her Daddy moved away.
“I’m already late,” said Molly’s mama to Billy, kissing him on the head and removing his hands from her coat. “Molly will walk you, honey. Aren’t your hats darling?” She shut the car door and drove off, vroom, without saying goodbye to Molly.
At kindergarten Molly put away the blue hat in her cubby and went bareheaded. Mrs. Telliveller raised her eyebrows in surprise. Mrs. Telliveller was the youngest in a line of powerful kindergarten teachers stretching back to the days of Morgan le Fay, and she was no fool. Molly blinked twice to let Mrs. Telliveller know that The Hat Would Be Back.
Molly was considerably less powerful without her hat, and the other kids knew it. Devilish Denise drew with purple crayon all over Molly’s drawing of an octopus and Molly let her. Craven Cristoph and Unpleasant Umberto took all the green blocks and wouldn’t let her have any, and Enervating Emily and Spurious Sue cut in line in front of Molly at lunch. None of them would have dared, if Molly weren’t hatless.
So understandably Molly rushed back home, dragging little Billy by the hand so quickly that he fell down twice and started to cry. Molly apologized and sang him “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” and dragged him home a little slower.
But when Molly got to the peg, the Red Hat was gone.
“Where’s my hat?” she said to her mama.
“Your old hat? Honey, it’s too small for you. Don’t you like your new hat?”
“Where – is – it?” Molly said.
Her mama said, “I threw it out.”
Then Molly raged:
And Not O.K.!
Molly threw the blue hat on the ground and kicked it, and her mama took her to her room and left her there.
Oh red hat!
Oh red hat!
Oh red hat!
At dinner Molly still wasn’t happy but her mama said, “I’m sorry I threw your red hat out, honey.” So Molly, who knew how difficult it is for adults to apologize, said, “Okay.”
But it wasn’t okay.
So that night Molly brushed her teeth extra fast and got into her pajamas herself. When her mama was still struggling with Billy’s teeth and toothbrush, Molly bounced on the special place on her bed and flew
out the window
and onto the pine tree branch
over the roof and onto the top of the telephone pole
and skated along the wires
to the forest
to visit the Queen of the Owls.
The Queen of the Owls was drinking tea in a metal cup. Her white hair stuck out all over her head. She wore twelve coats and gloves with holes where the fingers poked through, red and bent. She had a fire going in an old paint can, and twelve owls sitting around her in a circle: a snowy owl, a great horned owl, a peat owl, a hoot owl, a screech owl, a nightsky owl, a coriander owl, a tick-tock owl, a can’t-see-it-when-you’re-looking owl, a fight owl, a friendship owl, and an owl-who-isn’t.
Molly was cold but she knew better than to warm herself at the fire of the Queen of the Owls without asking. She planted her bare feet in the snow and said, “I’m looking for my red hat.”
“Mmm, yes,” said the Queen of the Owls, and drank her tea. “Come warm yourself, dearie.”
“Are you sure?” said Molly.
“Oh, yes,” said the Queen of the Owls.
“Can I leave when I want to?” asked Molly.
“Oh, certainly,” said the Queen of the Owls.
“And nothing mean will happen to me?” asked Molly.
“If you insist,” said the Queen of the Owls.
So Molly darted past the tick-tock owl and sat in the lap of the friendship owl, who spread his wings protectively around her.
“Good choice,” said the Queen of the Owls, looking disappointed. The tick-tock owl folded up his claws.
“Thank you,” said Molly. “Now what about my red hat?”
The Queen of the Owls finished her tea and stared into the cup. The fire crackled, the cold night bit Molly’s toes, and the feathers of the friendship owl ticked her cheeks.
“It’s thrown out,” the Queen of the Owls said finally.
“I want it back!” said Molly. “Where is it?”
“It’s in the Outthrown Trashland, of course,” said the Queen of the Owls, “but you’re not brave enough to go there.”
“Yes I am,” said Molly.
“And even if you were, no one is brave enough to take you,” said the Queen of the Owls.
Molly said to the friendship owl, “will you take me?” But he blinked sadly and turned his head all the way around, and looked out into the night in back of him, so she could only see his feathers.
Molly looked at the coriander owl, but he did the same. So did the screech and the hoot and the peat and the great horned owl. So did the snowy and the nightsky and even the brave fight owl. Molly didn’t bother with the tick-tock owl. And the owl-that-isn’t covered her eyes with her wings-that-weren’t.
Then Molly got up from the lap of the friendship owl and ran out into the snow. She faced away from the fire and she closed her eyes tight and she covered them with her hands and she said, “will you take me, can’t-see-it-when-you’re-looking owl?”
Molly felt the small claws of the can’t-see-it-when-you’re-looking owl grab the shoulders of her pajamas. She heard its little wings beating, and she was lifted into the air.
“Molly!” the Queen of the Owls called, and her voice sounded afraid. “Don’t bring anything but the red hat back!”
Molly and the can’t-see-it-when-you’re-looking owl flew for a long time through the cold night. They heard the moaning of the moon and the scraping of the stars in their tracks. The dreams of bumblebees buzzed past them, and they flew through clouds of milk getting ready to rain upon the Doughlands. Molly kept her eyes tight shut.
Finally, Molly smelled trash, lots and lots of trash; and she heard the whispering groans and whimpers of everything lost and abandoned that wanted to find its way back to the world.
Molly’s feet touched the ground. She opened her eyes and saw
– heaps of socks, unpaired
– scarecrows and bell towers
– a few newspapers and many oldspapers
– sundials, spinning jennys, and busts of Lenin
– last year’s dolls and chewing gum
– the certainty that Man is in the center of the Universe
– the tennis shoes and basketballs of disappointed managers of fast-food restaurants in Oklahoma
– faith in Progress
– a billion pages of homework
…and a lot of other things.
Molly jumped through the air over great piles of junk and called: “Red hat! Red hat! It’s Molly! I’m here!”
“Molly!” cried a voice, and Molly landed on the roof of her old house. It was enormous and fuzzy and full of gables and slants. There was a man who looked like Molly’s Daddy, except that he was pale and had a rip through the middle of him stuck together with scotch tape.
“Molly!” he said. “Take me back!”
“You’re not my Daddy!” Molly said. “My Daddy lives in San Francisco.” She ran across the roof towards the chimney.
“I’m your mama’s love for your Daddy!” the man said, running after her. “Take me back!”
“No no no no no no no no! That’s not thrown out, you’re lying! I’m not taking back anything except the red hat!” Molly said, and she jumped down the chimney.
In the living room she crawled out of the fireplace, ran past dolls and wine glasses and her mama’s diploma, and up the stairs, calling “Red hat! Red hat!”
She opened the door to the baby’s room. There was Billy’s old crib and Billy’s old baby self in it — looking just like when he first came from the hospital, new and wrinkly and drooly and red. And there standing next to him, holding the bars of the crib, was an angry little green Molly flickering with fire.
“Hello Molly!” said angry green fiery Molly. “Take me back!”
“No!” said regular Molly and ran to the peg. There was her red hat hanging. Molly snatched it up and put it on her head. Then she jumped out the window and onto the roof of the house across the street. She faced away from her old house and closed her eyes and put her hands over them and called, “Will you take me home, can’t-see-it-when-you’re-looking owl?”
Molly felt the small claws of the can’t-see-it-when-you’re-looking owl grab the shoulders of her pajamas. She heard its little wings beating, and she was lifted into the air.
But just then angry little fiery green Molly jumped out the window, bounced off the roof across the street, and grabbed hold of Molly’s ankle in her fiery green hand!
Regular Molly couldn’t open her eyes. Her ankle burned and tickled. She kicked around with her feet, but little green Molly hung on tight. And so, that way, the three of them flew through the marshes of the night sky, and over the now baking Doughlands that filled the air with cookie smells, and heard the chuckling of the comets, and the muttering of the dawn gnomes sorting colors for the next day’s dawn.
Finally Molly’s feet touched the pine tree branch outside her bedroom window. The can’t-see-it-when-you’re-looking owl let go of her shoulders and fiery green Molly let go of her foot.
“Thank you, can’t-see-it-when-you’re-looking owl,” Molly said, “and thank the Queen of the Owls for me.” She opened her eyes and saw little angry green Molly slipping and sliding down the tree. Regular Molly pulled the red hat down tighter over her ears and jumped through her bedroom window and onto her bed.
She slipped her bare feet under the covers, because they had gotten quite cold.
Just then her mama came in, carrying Billy and his toothbrush. She stopped and stared at Molly’s red hat.
“I found it,” Molly said.
“How strange,” said Molly’s mama. “I thought I threw it out. It’s still too small for you.”
“Mama, please!” said Molly.
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” Molly’s mama said. She put Billy in the other bed and kissed him on the head. Then she turned off the light and went out.
Molly reached under her red hat and rubbed the place on her head that her mama hadn’t kissed.
When she looked over at Billy again, flickering green fiery Molly was in bed with him.
“You don’t remember how it was, do you?” said angry green Molly. “That’s the only thing I can think of to explain your behavior.”
“What are you talking about?” regular Molly said, sitting up.
“Molly,” said Billy, pointing at angry green Molly.
“We had Mama and Daddy all to ourselves,” said angry green Molly. “All the hugs, all the kisses. All the stories, all the songs. All the tickles, all the laughs. And then this thing came.”
“Molly — and — Molly!” said Billy, and laughed.
“And then all of a sudden, Mama could only ever hold this thing. It was always in her arms. It sucked her strength like a vampire. It drove Daddy away,” said angry green Molly, and she put her hands over Billy’s mouth and nose and shook him. Billy choked and struggled.
Molly leaped out of bed and pulled angry green Molly away from Billy. Billy gasped and started crying.
“You shut up!” Molly shouted. Her hands burned and tingled where she held angry green Molly. “You shut up or I’ll pound you into jelly!”
“Fine,” said little angry green Molly, slithering out of regular Molly’s grasp. “Then I’ll go make friends with the crows.” And she jumped out the window.
The door banged open and Molly’s mama came in. “What did you say, young lady?” she shouted. Billy kept crying and Molly’s mama picked him up.
“What?” Molly said, standing in the middle of the room.
“I distinctly heard you threaten your little brother, and I am very surprised at you.”
“No,” Molly said, “I didn’t –“
“Are you going to make it worse now by lying?” Molly’s mama asked.
Molly shut her mouth.
Molly’s mama shut the window and locked it. “We’ll talk about this tomorrow,” she said. “Shh, Billy, it’s okay, you can sleep in bed with mama.”
“No!” Billy snuffled. “Sleep — wif — Molly.”
Molly’s mama paused and frowned. Then she put Billy back in his bed. “Do you see how much trust your little brother has in you, young lady?” she said. “I hope you try and earn it from now on.”
Then she went out.
Molly put the red hat on the windowsill to protect her and Billy, and she put Babar and Celeste and Rumpelstilskin by the door. It was about all she could do. Then she got in bed and closed her eyes. Billy was already asleep.
The next day at breakfast, Molly’s mama looked tired and didn’t remember to argue with Molly about the red hat, so Molly wore it.
She walked slowly and carefully with Billy to preschool-kindergarten and sang “It Takes A Workin’ Man” to him and let him break icicles from under mailboxes and suck on them. She was having such a good time that she didn’t see angry green Molly run up and snatch the red hat from her head.
“You give that back!” Molly shouted and ran after her.
Little angry green Molly laughed and ran, but Molly had longer legs and caught up with her. She pushed little angry green Molly to the ground and sat on her, and she got her red hat back.
Little green fiery Molly kept laughing, though, and that gave regular Molly a very creepy feeling.
She looked back down the road and saw a huge flock of crows flying up into the air with Billy.
“Billy!” Molly shouted and jumped into the air. She jumped as high as the chimneys, but it wasn’t high enough to reach the crows. So she jumped onto the nearest chimney and then off the chimney into the flock of crows. She punched one crow as she flew by and it let go of Billy’s arm, but some other crows grabbed it again. Molly fell down onto a snowy roof and slid off it in a small avalanche. When she pushed her way out of it, the crows were even higher. Billy looked like an ant.
Molly pulled the red hat from her head and held it in both hands. “Red hat, red hat, I know you just like being a hat, but if there’s anything you can do, do it now!” and she threw the hat up in the air.
The red hat quavered and
paused and then
a red red lipstick-red dragon of fine red silk.
It flew up into the flock of crows and it smacked them with its tail. Pow! Pang! Zow! Zang! The crows went flying off. The hat-dragon caught Billy in its tail and flew him gently down. But as it flew down those crows came after it. They dodged its head and they tore at it with their beaks. Rip! And Strip! And Tear! And Shred! Finally the hat-dragon set Billy in a snowbank and fought back with its tail.
Molly raced for the snowbank and so did little green fiery Molly. Little green fiery Molly got there first. She grabbed Billy’s hand and tugged him to the road and without even looking both ways she pushed him out into it —
but Molly pulled him back.
Then she grabbed little green fiery Molly and lifted her into the air.
“You can’t win, Molly!” little green fiery Molly said. “You brought me back! I’m yours! I’m here to stay!”
“You’re right,” said Molly, and she put her mouth onto the forehead of little green fiery Molly and took a deep, deep breath, as if she was about to blow out the candles of a birthday cake the size of the moon. Little green fiery Molly only had time to say “Help!” once before Molly breathed her in and swallowed her.
Then she pulled Billy out of the snowbank, brushed the snow out of his face, and keeping tight hold of his hand, ran for the red hat.
The crows were gone, and all that was left of the red hat were a few shreds of red red lipstick-red fine red silk.
Molly sat down and started to cry, and Billy sat down next to her and cried too.
Mrs. Telliveller had a good idea what sort of thing might have happened when Molly didn’t show up, and came out looking. She sat down on the curb next to Molly, and she rooted around in her purse for some Kleenex and a cell phone, and she called Molly’s mama at work right then. She explained a lot of things, gently, in terms that Molly’s mama could understand.
Molly’s mama took the day off work and took Molly and Billy home. She left Billy playing with some blocks on the floor and she took Molly onto her lap on the couch and let her cry for a long, long time.
And when Molly finally fell asleep, still holding the shreds of red silk, Molly’s mama pressed her mouth into Molly’s hair and whispered, “I love you and I’ll always want you.”
After that, sometimes Molly wore the blue hat to school. Sometimes she did tease Billy and fight with him. Sometimes she felt sick to her stomach, and then she could feel the other Molly crawling around in there. Sometimes, when she was very angry, you could see the other Molly looking out of her eyes.
But every night, when she went to bed, her mama kissed her goodnight. Molly’s mama never forgot again. And all night long, Molly could feel that kiss on her forehead, warm and soft, keeping her safe.
Elli wouldn’t let me stop until we’d crossed the line into Utah. She was a nail in the passenger seat—rigid, sharp, her blue eyes darting back and forth between the speedometer and the double yellow lines. Dry rivers of makeup connected her eyes to her chin. Leon lay where I’d put him across the backseat. His chin was propped on a pile of Carlos Castaneda books. Strands of drool hung from the orange spines. His haunches trembled whenever we went over a bump. His glazed, suffering face was fixed on the back of Elli’s bare shoulder. We’d gotten most of the blood out of the slate-colored fur on his back but there were still flecks on his pale belly.
Route 89 flanked the scrub brush and dust of Nevada for thirty miles before turning north through Kanab. A half-empty bottle of Popov rattled in the cup holder. Elli lifted it by the neck. “We might need that,” I said. She paused, considering, and then sipped it anyway. Power lines, suspended from transformer towers, were strung across the sky as far as I could see. Probably they ran all the way down to Mexico, like bandits.
Kanab only had one gas station, a neat little Sinclair with a scrubbed forecourt and gleaming green pumps. I pulled in, parked. It hardly even smelled like gas, the air was so fresh. A pine forest came right up behind the store. “Home of the State Champion Lady Rams” read a banner on the window where the beer advertisements should’ve been. I put my foot on the concrete plinth beneath the pump, swiped my credit card, and lifted the nozzle from its holster.
Elli got out and stretched. Her long torso gave her a snaky, undulating look as she leaned right and left, her arms over her head, her bare feet on the pavement. She walked stiffly to the bathroom at the side of the store, rolling her neck. ‘Put some shoes on,’ I wanted to yell after her, but I knew she wouldn’t. She was free-spirited about germs, money, underwear, and directions. Everything else she worried about.
A clump of fur clung to the hem of her orange dress. One of the shoulder straps had fallen. It hovered above her elbow. Clothes had a way of slipping off her frame, unable to disguise the girl beneath. My shoulders ached from driving all day, and from carrying Leon.
She came out with a wad of wet paper towels, her face radiant with worry. She opened the Sentra’s dust-sprayed back door and started dabbing the fur around Leon’s wound. We’d doused it in vodka and bandaged it up as best we could with athletic tape and a clean t-shirt from my gym bag. The bullet had gone in through his hip. I wondered if it was a bad place for a coyote to get shot—if they kept any organs back there.
“He’ll be fixed up by this time tomorrow,” I said. “He’ll make it.”
Elli didn’t answer. She just kept dabbing. Her thin arms were surprisingly muscular. She didn’t work out, but she was tense all the time. Even in sleep she ground her teeth. Leon didn’t complain about her touching him. He never did; never growled, not so much as a snort. Elli put her cracked lips against Leon’s nose. Their eyes met.
A gust of wind came in from the north and I shivered as I replaced the nozzle. We were climbing into winter latitudes. “Montana,” she’d said, when I’d emerged from the canyon with Leon a bleeding bundle in my arms. She knew a vet there, a friend of her father’s. She’d seen him bring a shot wolf back from worse, apparently, and he wouldn’t report us to animal control.
“Everything okay out there?” the cashier asked, when I went in to buy some water and chapstick. She was prettier than most women who work in gas stations. Tan, with feather earrings and a mother’s worried smile.
I nodded, realizing there was blood dried on my shirt. “Spilled some coffee.”
Mountains began to break through the desert. Red ones first: mesas, buttes, hoodoos. I told Elli about the time my father took us to Zion. We stayed in a Travelodge in Hurricane. It had HBO, and my brother and I just wanted to stay in the room and watch. My dad got so angry that he broke the TV screen with his fist and we went home two days early. Elli traced triangles on the window with her finger as the yellow-brown landscape blurred by. She wasn’t listening. Her lips, wet now with chapstick, were pressed together. Freckles shone through the makeup carelessly dusted on her nose. She was beautiful in a wrung-out, haggard sort of way that I couldn’t get over.
Leon peed. It hissed onto the floor, soaking the carpet and empty Styrofoam cups under my seat. The sweet toxic vinegar stink made my eyes water.
Elli turned and watched him struggling to get out of his mess. He knocked two of the books off the seat. His paw flailed the air. His hind leg was soaked, the wet fur matted to the bone. Yellow drops slid down the plastic seat cover onto the floor. “It’s okay,” she said. “It’s okay.”
I rolled the windows down and let the dry air blast my face. We merged onto I-15: four wide lanes running north all the way to Butte. I kept my eyes away from the rearview mirror. In a day or two, three at most, I’d be back home, freshly showered, lying on my couch with a cold beer, watching women’s tennis. Brown grass grew through gravel in the median. Semis rattled as we passed them, spitting diesel from their dark underbellies.
An hour went by before Elli spoke. “He needs food,” she said.
“It’ll just make him shit,” I answered.
She looked at me like I was a half-squashed insect.
“I’m kidding,” I said. “C’mon.”
I took the Nephi exit and drove up and down the quiet Mormon streets, past rows of white clapboard houses with blue trim and lawns mowed down to a military stubble. There was a hardware store, a confectioner’s. I didn’t know what we were looking for. Leon liked to eat cats, and he liked to eat them when they were still alive. I suggested using catnip as chum to lure one into the car.
“It isn’t funny,” Elli said.
We found a shaded parking spot behind The Country Kitchen, between a dumpster and a waxed red Mustang, probably the manager’s—some kind of hotshot. I changed shirts, gathered the piss-soaked cups in the old one, and threw the whole mess into the dumpster. Elli cracked the windows. She opened the back door and promised Leon we’d be back soon. I came and stood beside her. I’d need new floor mats, maybe new seat covers. Her head barely crested my shoulder. If she ever left, it was the fresh coral smell of her scalp that would haunt me. “Be good,” she said, like he was her own son. “Stay.”
He lifted his head off the books, blinking. His amber eyes were wider than usual, glowing in the short white hair around them. His mouth was clamped shut. He was embarrassed, hurting. When he was happy, his mouth lolled open toothily.
Damn coyote. I reached out to touch his face. He whipped his jaws at my fingers, snapping.
“Goddammit.” I jerked my hand away. He’d bit me once, when he was just a pup, and I still had two small scars beneath my thumb. He was five times that size now. His incisors were a half-inch long and I’d seen what they could do to a cat’s skull. My ears rang. I wanted to hit him. I turned and walked quickly toward the restaurant.
Elli murmured to him, gently shut the door, and followed me inside.
The waitress led us to a booth in the corner. Each of her thighs was as wide as Elli. Her blue apron was stretched tight across her groin like a linebacker’s jock. I hoped the Mustang was hers. The vinyl covering the booth squeaked when I sat down. There were paper placemats and a cup of crayons. Elli looked out the window at a gray steeple knifing into the sky. Her blond hair was cut one length all around, at her chin. Her face was drawn and gray at the edges, marked by exhaustion, physically beat, but also lit by it, as if she were becoming more alive.
She ordered a cherry malt and a steak.
“You need food too,” I said.
“I’ll eat the potatoes.”
The steeple didn’t have a crucifix but it was a church, sure enough. I’d heard somewhere that you had to be a Mormon to go into a Mormon church. I wondered if that was true, and if so, what was inside. I drew Richard Nixon in green on my placemat—all glowering jowls.
The waitress brought the malt on a silver tray. A cloud of whipped cream floated on top. Elli gave it all of her attention. The tendons in her neck stretched tight as she worked the straw. The skin on her right shoulder was sunburned a deep red from the car window.
“Slow down,” I said. “Your brain will freeze.”
When the glass was empty, Elli folded the straw into a triangle. She filled the triangle with salt—a white pyramid. Dry blood was crusted around her nails.
“He tried to bite me,” I said.
She broke a grain of salt with her thumbnail. “He’s hurt and scared.”
“Well they’d kill him here. All these hunters.” I nodded at the empty street.
Country music was playing softly and the waitress snapped her fingers just once as she pushed through the swinging steel doors into the kitchen. My burger came out separated into components on the plate: lettuce, tomato, onion, bun—all lined up next to the patty. Elli watched me put it together and then she watched me eat. The steak in front of her was shaped like Nevada and just as barren. I could tell she was counting the seconds in her head—tick, tick, tick. The waitress was leaning on the counter by the pies, watching me too. I hardly chewed.
When the check came, Elli didn’t ask for a box. She just wrapped the steak in a paper napkin and carried it out, dripping, in her bare hand. I left a tip and followed her, smiling apologetically.
The air outside was sharp with the coppery smell of exhaust. Goosebumps rose on her bare arms. A drop of steak juice ran down her calf. It had been hot in Phoenix when we left. Now, dusk was settling over the Wasatch Mountains. The snowy ridges made a jagged pink EKG running north. I put my hand on her shoulder, feeling the bones.
“It was Rod,” she said, opening the back door. “I know it was.”
I shook my head. “There’s lots of people it could have been.”
“It was Rod.” She held the steak out to Leon. I told her to be careful, but it wasn’t necessary. He ate it gently, keeping his teeth away from her fingers. He nodded his head back after each bite, gulping down the meat. Juice clung to his whiskers. He glanced at me, smugly.
“Rod’s a fag,” I said. “They don’t have guns.”
Leon finished and licked Elli’s hands clean. “They have cats.”
“Had.” I laughed, despite myself.
Elli exhaled, long and slow, and I pictured myself as a chart inside her head. Two sides: good and bad, with scraps of conversation, things I’d done, memories, posted on either side. The bad side just kept filling up.
“I’m doing this for you, you know,” I said. “Skipping work, driving all this way. I mean, I care about Leon.”
“Do you?” she asked.
“Of course.” Anger warmed my chest. “But he’s a wild animal.”
She squeezed his skull, massaging the base of his ears. “So you’d let him die?”
“You know that’s not what I meant.” But maybe it was. He’d been trouble since the day we brought him home. He stank up our bed, gnawed the baseboard, shed everywhere. I’d find cat parts strewn around the yard: a paw wedged in the gate, innards on the tomato plants, a half-chewed skull on the welcome mat. He’d start to growl whenever I raised my voice at Elli.
He pressed his long bristly chin into her hands and licked her wrist. “We’re almost there, love,” she whispered. “Just a few more hours.”
I turned the heat on and we continued north. I held the needle at seventy-five for a while—I didn’t know what I’d say if a cop pulled us over—but Elli kept staring at me so I edged it up over eighty. The big empty plains closed around us until the only light was the wedge of the high beams. I was exhausted. My head hurt. The muscles in my thighs ached from climbing up and down the canyon walls, tripping in the dark. Leon had been well hidden in a dugout between two boulders. I’d found him and carried him out. Elli seemed to have forgotten that.
She sat with her feet up on the passenger seat, her arms wrapped around her shins, her thighs against her stomach. Her chin hovered above her knees. The dashboard lights shone hazy and green on her drawn face. Her left eye twitched, the pinched skin revealing the pattern of future wrinkles. We listened to the radio until it crackled and turned to static. I knew there were farmhouses and pastures not far off but it felt like the world could end and we wouldn’t know till morning.
Trying to stay awake, I pictured her naked. Right there in the passenger’s seat, like she was, except the dress and underwear gone. Her thin muscled arms wrapped around her knees. The skin over her ribs scratched and bruised from clambering through the canyon. Her body folded over itself, pressed together, the color of wheat.
I put my hand on her knee. I let it slide down to where I could feel the rough lace hem of her underwear. She shifted away from me, pushing down my hand and her dress.
Fine, I thought. Fine fine fine.
Salt Lake City was a ghost beneath the freeway: silent buildings forming the uneven steps of a skyline at night, the slow blink of airport lights. The temple, with its turrets and balustrade, looked like a lost castle, stranded on the wrong continent. An American flag hung motionless on a hilltop, lit from below.
Past city limits, the houses gave way to fields lined with huge crouching sprinklers. One of them was on, throwing arcs of mist into the night. Time sped up and skipped forward. I thought of the women I’d known, the places I’d been, bandits, wolves. The car was so warm. My head fell, then jerked upright.
“We have to stop,” I said. “Get some rest.”
We switched places at another gas station. The clerk watched us through the window, a toothpick rolling between his lips. He was black. Black in Utah. It couldn’t be easy. The motel next door was a long low twenty-roomer slung around a parking lot. ‘Thunderbird,’ read the blue neon sign. I knew the mattresses were probably thin with stained yellow sheets and sharp springs, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to stretch out. Leon’s eyes gleamed in the rearview mirror. Part of his tongue hung between his teeth, pink as bubblegum.
Elli drove with both hands on the wheel, ten and two. Her lips moved every once in a while. Pursing into an almost kiss, then pulling back over her teeth.
“Does this vet have beds?” I asked.
“At his house,” she said. “Go to sleep. I’ll wake you.”
I let my head roll against the seat. It smelled like fur and piss. The engine hummed beneath me and I imagined giant horses and giant natives, a hundred feet tall, thundering over the dark mountains.
The car was stopped when I woke. We were on the shoulder, a vast plain all around. The headlights were off. Pure black, and above, a field of stars. I blinked, trying to swallow some moisture into my parched mouth. “Look,” Elli whispered.
Leon was sitting up. His front paws were underneath him, propped unsteadily on the shifting covers of the books. His nose was pushed against the window. His scrawny body—only two, still a puppy—was angled down to where his wounded hindquarters rested on the seat. His eyes were fixed on the waning thumbnail of moon as if it held the answer to all suffering.
The dark southern hills rose and fell like waves. His breath fogged the glass.
He pressed his long gray ears flat against his skull, opened his mouth, and howled. High and sharp, the sound sliced open the roof and carried into the night. He held the note. Piercing. Desperate. It was so loud it hurt my eardrums.
“No,” I said. “No barking.”
His haunches shook. He slipped and fell against the door.
Elli was twisted around in the driver’s seat, stretched toward him, her face contorted, her skin the same color as the moon.
“Where are we?” I asked.
She paused, staring at me. Her bared eyes held something frightening: disgust, maybe, or the beginning of hatred. “Get out,” she said.
I looked at her blankly. A few strands of her hair stuck to the headrest, straight out beside her, taut with electricity.
“Please. Just give us a minute, alone.”
I fumbled with the door; I kept yanking the handle until she reached across my chest, shouldering me back, and unlocked it. I pushed open the door. The cold night air stung my face. I stood up, dazed, then leaned back into the car. Elli stared at me, her lips pulled tight, the tendons in her neck raised against her skin. Leon’s claws scrabbled the plastic seat cover in the back.
“He’s going to die,” I said, and slammed the door.
Pebbles crunched beneath my sneakers. I walked away from the highway, down into a ditch, and back up again. I smelled snow, trees. Idaho, maybe. I thought I’d walk until I found a place to fall down. Orion’s Belt and The Big Dipper hung at opposite ends of the sky. I couldn’t remember any of the other constellations. Just a mess of stars.
*This story originally appeared in Narrative magazine, 2013. Copyright © Maxim Loskutoff.
She called you two weeks ago. Just like that. Out of the blue. Today is Mother’s Day, and you’re going to see her again. You wanted to make as good a start to the day as possible, but on Saturday night you went to bed late and drunk and she wakes you with another phone call at twenty past eleven the next morning. She’s called to ask if you’re coming to lunch as you agreed. You say that you are. She asks if Fernanda is coming, too. You say that she isn’t; you already told her that. She asks you, please, not to be late, and you hang up. Over the past few days a voice in your head has been telling you that it’s your fault that you haven’t seen her in all this time, and you’ve begun to think about how that might have made her feel. Being with her is a trick you learned when you were a boy, but since you’ve grown up you haven’t been able to do it so well. Also, whenever you make an effort to be nice you lose patience. But for some reason you think things will work themselves out at the lunch. On Friday afternoon you got her a gift. You can’t remember the last time you did that. And you have something to say to her, a few phrases that will make everything right.
It’s midday on the third Sunday of October in a year that doesn’t and will never have a decade. You step into the bath and slip into cloudy, impeccable nothingness, like in an advert for cream or salt. You’re shrouded in silence. You’re swimming in a pool on the roof of a tower of thirty dark floors. No one else is there. You lean your back against the tiles and look up: no light or noise. The water is so clear that you don’t notice when it’s gone. The floor is grass, and you walk like Kwai Chang Caine, like Johnnie Walker in a Scottish meadow; there are white sheep that turn into a white cloud, and you open your eyes, cough and spit out a little cold water. You have no idea what time it is because in the bath it’s always late at night. Then you hear the noise of the traffic and, on the other side of the wall, a neighbour flushing the toilet before washing their hands and closing the door behind them.
Something on that corner of the avenue seems familiar. Almost without thinking you walk the blocks that separate your flat from the area where you lived with your mum and sister a few years ago. Only now, going back, do you realize that you never went very far. You can’t remember what used to be on the avenue. It definitely wasn’t a pair of internet cafés.
To pass by the door, acting on a somewhat morbid urge to see how things have changed, you’d just have to turn the corner and carry on for half a block, but you don’t move. Your phone tells you that it’s ten past two. You hail a taxi, and when it pulls off you search your pockets for money. When you arrive you have to explain to the doorman who you are. He doesn’t believe you’re her son; he’s never seen you before. He makes you ring the bell. Fourteenth floor. He asks you if you were away travelling. You smile and look away. On the desk from which he presides over the lobby is an expensive mobile phone. Finally, a strange man’s voice tells you that you can come up. In the lift you tidy your hair and clothes in the mirror. You stare at your face and think about your sister. Somehow you feel that you abandoned her. For a long time, during those early years in Buenos Aires, you two were the only things that didn’t fall apart. Your mum’s big hair and your skinny dad with his moustache. You were both trapped on their merry-go-round like a fare fought over by a pair of taxi drivers on a slow night.
But all that’s over now. It’s simpler. You just have to share a few meals a year with the two women, plus a guy and his family, in a fourteenth-floor flat with a landing, open door and, behind it, a window that looks out onto a balcony, the nature reserve and the river behind it. You go inside, but no one’s around. You come back out, ring the bell and wait, but nothing happens. You wander around the living-room and bend over to read the spines of books and inspect the smiling faces in the picture frames. Your movements are tense and cautious, as though the decorations might disintegrate at the slightest touch. Or as though you were burgling the house of a family that has gone out to spend the day in the countryside.
Naked except for a towel, a blonde girl who isn’t your sister comes down the hall. Before closing the door to the bedroom she turns to look at you for an interminable second. Then your mother appears by her side and gives you a hug. She hasn’t changed – a little thinner, the hair blonder and in a different style, new, less-crumpled clothes, but the same. She steps back, rests her hands on your shoulders, looks at you and hugs you again. Then she steps back again. She’s crying. She says that she’s crying from joy. You put your hand in your jacket pocket and feel the package inside. You hug and kiss again. You’re about to open your mouth when she steps back again. Her eyes are red. She tells you to follow her. She wants to show you the flat. But all the doors to the bedrooms are locked. She says that they must be getting changed and shows you the bathrooms; one of them is still full of steam, foam, and there is a wet pair of burgundy-coloured panties hanging from the tap. You sneeze once, and again. She says that it must be the carpet. You’d better go into the kitchen. You keep on sneezing; it’s almost as if you were doing it on purpose, as though for some reason you were trying to make a show of being uncomfortable.
As you blow your nose she asks if you can do her a favour. “What?” Everyone’s busy getting ready and she still has to take a shower, but she miscalculated and needs more cream for the sauce and also there’s no wine, and Gustavo doesn’t like to eat without wine. A door opens, and a man’s voice, the same voice you heard distorted through the intercom, asks where something is. Who cares if he doesn’t like to eat without wine? He can get it himself. You’re alone together, and you don’t know when you’ll get another chance. But at the same time you suddenly feel shy, and you agree to go out. She asks you to take Lucky with you. The dog comes out from the laundry room, stretching.
It’s a new neighbourhood built on land reclaimed from the river, a country club of towers. All the buildings are enormous, spaced out as though the ground wouldn’t be able to hold them if they were any closer together. They’re surrounded by well-kept squares with recently planted trees and new benches. In another life your best ideas came when you walked this same dog through run-down plazas, smoking for blocks along streets that you no longer dare to go back to. From the outside the only supermarket in the area looks like a designer boutique. You tie the dog up and walk towards the sliding doors, which open on their own. A guard grabs your arm and tells you that you can’t leave a dog tied up on the pavement. You try to argue, but he just points at a sign that declares it is prohibited and then to the dog’s lead tied up to the lamp-post.
You walk a further six blocks along the avenue to a Korean supermarket. You go straight to the refrigerator with the dairy products. The smell of floor cleaner tickles your nose. You compare several different kinds of wines and pick a couple of the more expensive bottles. At the till the lady in front drops all her things on the belt and walks forward so she’s standing opposite the cashier. The cashier can barely see her over the till. On the black rubber belt are a lettuce, paper napkins, bread, a cut of beef you’ve never eaten and two cartons of wine. She asks the cashier to let her know when the bill comes to twenty pesos. The cashier says that they’re at nineteen pesos forty, and one of the wine cartons stays where it is. She has everything else in two bags. You don’t see what happened to the other wine carton – if she has bought it or not – because as she opens her purse she tells the cashier that food is very expensive. How can food be so expensive? She takes out a wrinkled twenty-peso note, the kind of note you’d see in the hands of a child going shopping for the first time, a note that spent years rolled up in the trunk of a ceramic elephant studded with glass jewels. As she smooths it out before giving it to the cashier, she asks her if she has a mother. Then she asks if she minds working on Mother’s Day. They should change what Mother’s Day is, she says.
She’s wearing dark glasses and shorts that reach down to her white knees, making her look a little out of place. You can sometimes tell what people are about to say from their postures. Her mummy lost her mummy – she says “mummy” twice – when she was very little, and she always felt bad on Mother’s Day.
The cashier is looking blankly at the special offers at the butcher’s counter. By now she must not see words, just exclamation marks and numbers all along the aisle. Numbers and exclamation marks at every imaginable angle on the signs and labels, with bleach-scented light shining down from the ceiling. The woman goes on talking. She says that there was a time when it was called the Day of the Family, and she thinks that’s better. You put the cream on the belt. The wine carton isn’t there. It cost a tenth of the wine you’re going to buy. While you pay you peer outside worriedly to make sure that the dog’s still there. You walk back quickly, almost without moving your arms, as though the cream will go bad if shaken outdoors.
They’re all sitting around the table. You kiss your sister, shake hands with Gustavo, kiss each of their daughters and the youngest son, although you can’t believe that he’s wearing one of your T-shirts. You don’t say anything. She’s the one who mentions it, as if it will somehow bring you closer. He must be sixteen or seventeen. He’s one of those teenagers who’s done his growing already. He’s tall, skinny, wears his hair slightly long, and you don’t know whether he shaves or if his beard hasn’t come out yet. He barely says anything at the table. You wonder whether you have anything else in common; he must be using a lot of your things. You tell her that she should have asked. She glares at you for a second and grabs your hand. Then she gives you an exaggerated, slightly absurd compliment that you find more annoying than embarrassing. You don’t say anything, and she tries to kiss you in front of everyone, but you move so she just brushes you. You snatch your hand away. You can’t help it. It’s as though something physical has got lost along the way.
And she’s living with another man. It’s not that you mind – in fact, you liked Gustavo right from the start, after he said “So you paint?” After a couple of glasses of wine you rediscover the layer of genuine empathy that has always made your interactions with other people easier. You like how he treats her, how he speaks to her and the jokes he makes to cheer her up after what you say. And the story he tells. The week before he went on a trip and got caught up in a road block. But it’s his tone more than anything. By now you’re guaranteed to like him whatever he says about the incident.
It seems that ahead of him was a minibus carrying a band that was supposed to be playing a gig in another city that night. They were late, and some of the musicians and a few others who didn’t look very musical got out to see what was going on. After a while a couple of band members started to play with the protesters’ drums, and everyone sang and chanted. Almost all of them were children, teenagers or women, he says. Of all ages, thirty-something and up. They had turned five bicycles upside down, with the seats resting on the asphalt, and a couple of kilometres of cars and trucks had backed up on either side. Then the musicians took pictures of themselves in front of the protestors’ flag, all of them smiling. Make sure that the organization’s crest is in there, shouted one of the women. And another said, This is all very well, but the roadblock stays.
They were from a town a couple of miles away and were protesting against plans for a refinery to be built in the area. The musicians had to keep going; they weren’t going to get there in time, and the organizer of the gig went over to plead with the protestors. He said that they supported the cause, they supported every cause. In fact, the worn-out green army jacket he was wearing had been given to him by El Perro a couple of weeks ago. Gustavo made a face to emphasize the absurdity of the situation. They supported the cause, the organizer said again, and he offered to read out the protestors’ petition on stage that night. Then he gave them several copies of the band’s first album and a few of their second, too.
His two daughters are there as well. You know that one is called Delfina and the other Belén, but you can’t remember which is which. They told you when you were introduced – you stared at the one who’d been wearing the towel – but you didn’t say their names out loud; you weren’t paying attention. The tablecloth is getting dirtier and dirtier. They’re both blonde. One is twenty-six, the other twenty-three. One of them says something about the musicians, something like all women like musicians but then end up marrying someone with money. It could have been worse; she might have said “painters” or “artists”. Gustavo answers, Only the stupid ones. He says it nicely, as though he’s still trying to teach her things.
The twenty-three-year-old seems like the eldest, your mother told you over the phone in an amused voice. You’re a little annoyed that she’s acting so familiarly, but, then again, if you lived there you’d be meeting her in the middle of the night in the kitchen, in a nightshirt, sitting on the counter, stretching out her pale legs next to you, her burgundy-coloured panties bunched to one side in the light of the open refrigerator and the green numbers of the clock on the microwave reflected in the window. And then they tell you that they’ve changed the dog’s name. Now its name is Eliot because “they like it better”. You have nothing against T.S. Eliot, Eliot Ness, Billy Elliot, Elliott Smith, Elliott Murphy or Missy Elliott, but people can’t go about changing a dog’s name, so you start calling him. “Lakiii…! Lakiii!” you shout, louder and louder.
Then you stop because everyone is staring at you except for your sister. Belén and Delfina make faces, and you see the resemblance even if you can’t tell which is which. For a second you think that family is something you catch. Then you realize that your sister is closer to them than you, and you feel that somehow you weren’t a good older brother. But it’s too late now. For another second you think that your relationship with her is like the plant the previous owners left behind in your flat. The plant you don’t water, not even in summer, but which still survives and sometimes even flowers.
The only moment you get alone with her, you don’t know what it is, but you can’t give her the gift. You feel as though the package were broken or the product faulty when you had it all planned out perfectly in your head. You start to cough and sneeze, and Gustavo sticks his head around the door to see what’s going on. He asks you if you’re all right, and she rubs a cloth in your face, a paper napkin. She tells you that you need to quit smoking. It’s not good for you. That’s it, you want to leave. She says “please”. You think that she’s going to say something more, but she just says “please” again and looks at you. It’s raining hard, and Gustavo offers to give you a lift. If you say no you’ll end up ruining the day, and it really didn’t go all that badly. Much as you try not to you can’t help feeling a kind of twisted regret; every time you leave you feel like you should have stayed, and whenever you stay a little longer you feel as though you should have left.
The only sound inside the car is the muffled noise made by the windscreen wipers. When he stops for a traffic light Gustavo sees the bag in your hand and asks you what it is. You say that it’s a gift from someone that you don’t want. “Thanks for reminding me.” You forgot that you were planning to exchange it. If you don’t go now you never will. He says that on Sundays shops don’t usually accept exchanges or returns, but you just want to get out of the car without offending him. You say that now that the rain is letting up you’ll give it a try. He can just drop you off on the avenue. Before getting out you shake hands and hug briefly.
There’s a queue of cars at the petrol station. People are inflating their tyres and filling up their tanks before getting locked back into their routines on Monday morning. Sunday afternoon still has that fixed sense of melancholy that comes with the knowledge that you’ll have to go to school the next day, especially on an afternoon like this when you have lots to do and no time to think. You’re going to tidy up a little and finish a bottle of wine that’s waiting to be finished, and as you’re thinking about that you see the woman who lives on the sixth floor sitting in the lobby. She’s using the chair the caretaker sits on when he has nothing to do.
You pass by her in silence because ever since you got out of the car you’ve been feeling a little slow. She’s lived in the building with her two children – a boy and a girl, about six or seven, who always shout when they get out of the lift – since before you moved in. She’s from Brazil, but her ex is Argentinian. You once exchanged a few words with him at the door of the building as he was waiting for his children to come down. From her expression it looks as though she’s waiting for him to bring them back. Your dad was always late when he had to come to pick you up – an hour or two. You drop your keys, and she turns to look at you. She looks at you without seeing anything, a little slow herself. You say “Hello” as you push the button to call the lift, but she doesn’t answer, and you say that someone must not have closed the lift doors properly. You peer into the gap between the frame and the door and say, “Someone must be unloading a whole floor full of shopping.” But she still doesn’t answer and continues to stare blankly out into the street. Suddenly she leans towards you and says, as though she were completing a sentence she’d started in her head, or was saying just before you arrived, that fortunately her ex-husband has taken the kids to his house. The boy is getting impossible; he hit her this morning.
There’s something about her annoyance with her son and the exhaustion in her voice and face that make you look her up and down for the first time, noticing the body under the tights and T-shirt. You tell her that your grandmother, your “mum’s mum”, used to say, “There’s nothing worse in the world than hitting your mother.” She laughs. You think that you might be able make yourself attractive to her by adopting an air of gentle empathy and youthful vigour. You’re sure that’s the right approach, but you can’t think what to say, so you start to shake the package. The sound of the metal door opening makes you jump. It’s the elderly couple who live on the fifth floor. They always take a couple of minutes to leave the building.
You get into the lift together, and only when you get to the fourth floor do you say, “So you’re on your own…” You feel strange knowing that another flat in the building in which you live is both identical and different from your own. Maybe you’re a little frightened at the prospect of glancing into the children’s room and seeing their still unmade beds, clothes on the floor and the black arm of an articulated toy figure. “Until tomorrow afternoon, thank goodness, when they come back from school,” she says before opening the door, getting out and looking at you from the hallway. The nightshirt you were going to give your mother would suit her. Maybe it would be a little tight and a little short. You’d like to say something about tonight, about how it’s better to spend Sunday nights with someone, to tell her that you have an almost full bottle of wine that needs finishing, but you don’t say a word, and she says, even though it’s only six in the evening, “Sleep well,” and closes the lift door.
The living-room in your flat is an empty mess, and you left the lights on. On the table are three open books, a full ashtray, a jumble of photographs, the mobile phone and a glass with dregs of wine. On a chair is a crumpled shirt and on another a teabag on which you can still see the impression left by a pair of nervous fingers. There’s no wind outside, no cars, no noise, just a few lights that come on and off in a mysterious pattern. From the seventh floor this part of the city looks like a stage set after the closing night.
On the side of the bath is a bottle of ordinary shampoo, shower gel, a book with a flowery border, toothpaste for sensitive teeth, a cup of coffee and a toothbrush. There’s limescale in between some of the tiles, and the shower curtain is mouldy along the edges. It’s cold, and you can never get the window to shut completely. You’re in the bath, warmed by the steam and a second serving of hot water. Sometimes you spend all day in there, running the hot water tap every now and again with one foot, while the other deals with the plug. It creates an amniotic atmosphere.
You think that it would be nice if it rained. Just then, as if your wish had been granted by a merciful power, you see a flash of lightning and a few drops of water hit the misted glass of the window. You think about the Brazilian woman, about how she’s actually not too daunting at all and that you’ll be better prepared the next time you meet. Maybe you could get her to let you into her flat when the kids aren’t there under the pretext of checking to see whether your bath is leaking. Meanwhile, for the moment, you could invite someone to the movies. But you have no idea what’s on. Not even a title or an actor’s name.
Mr. Weeks called me out again tonight, and I look back down the hall of my house. I left the kitchen light burning. This is an empty old house since the old lady died. When Mr. Weeks doesn’t call, I write everybody I know about my boy. Some of my letters always come back, and the folks who write back say nobody knows where he got off to. I can’t help but think he might come home at night when I am gone, so I let the kitchen light burn and go on out the door.
The cold air is the same, and the snow pellets my cap, sifts under my collar. I hear my hogs come grunting from their shed, thinking I have come to feed them. I ought to feed them better than that awful slop, but I can’t until I know my boy is safe. I told him not to go and look, that the hogs just squeal because I never kill them. They always squeal when they are happy, but he went and looked. Then he ran off someplace.
I brush the snow from my road plow’s windshield and climb in. The vinyl seats are cold, but I like them. They are smooth and easy cleaned. The lug wrench is where it has always been beside my seat. I heft it, put it back, I start the salt spreader, lower my shear, and head out to clean the mountain road.
The snow piles in a wall against the berm. No cars move. They are stranded at the side, and as I plow past them, a line falls in behind me, but they always drop back. They don’t know how long it takes the salt to work. They are common fools. They rush around in such weather and end up dead. They never sit still and wait for the salt to work.
I think I am getting too old to do this anymore. I wish I could rest and watch my hogs get old and die. When the last one is close to dying, I will feed him his best meal and leave the gate open. But that will most likely not happen, because I know this stretch of Route 60 from Ansted to Gauley, and I do a good job. Mr. Weeks always brags on what a good job I do, and when I meet the other truck plowing the uphill side of this road, I will honk. That will be Mr. Weeks coming up from Gauley. I think how I never met Mr. Weeks in my life but in a snowplow. Sometimes I look out to Sewel Mountain and see snow coming, then I call Mr. Weeks. But we are not friends. We don’t come around each other at all. I don’t even know if he’s got family.
I pass the rest stop at Hawks Nest, and a new batch of fools line up behind me, but pretty soon I am alone again. As I plow down the grade toward Chimney Corners, my lights are the only ones on the road, and the snow takes up the yellow spinning of my dome light and the white curves of my headlights. I smile at the pretties they make, but I am tired and wish I was home. I worry about the hogs. I should have given them more slop, but when the first one dies, the others will eat him quick enough.
I make the big turn at Chimney Corners and see a hitchhiker standing there. His front is clean, and he looks half frozen, so I stop to let him in.
He says, “Hey, thank you, Mister.”
“How far you going?”
“You got family there?” I say.
“I only go to Gauley Bridge, then I turn around.”
“That’s fine,” he says. He is a polite boy.
The fools pack up behind me, and my low gears whine away from them. Let them fall off the mountain for all I care.
“This is not good weather to be on the road” I say.
“Sure ain’t, but a fellow’s got to get home.”
“Why didn’t you take a bus?”
“Aw, buses stink,” he says. My boy always talked like that.
“where you been?”
“Roanoke. Worked all year for a man. He give me Christmastime and a piece of change.”
“He sounds like a good man.”
“You bet. He’s got this farm outside of town — horses — you ain’t seen such horses. He’s gonna let me work the horses next year.”
“I have a farm, but I only have some hogs left.”
“Hogs is good business,” he says.
I look at him. “You ever see a hog die?” I look back at the road snow.
“Hogs die hard. I seen people die in the war easier than a hog at a butchering.”
“Never noticed. We shot and stuck them pretty quick. They do right smart jerking around, but they’re dead by then”
“What can you do with a hog if you don’t butcher him? Sell him?”
“My hogs are old hogs. Not good for anything. I just been letting them die. I make my money on this piece of road every winter. Don’t need much.”
He says, “Ain’t got any kids?”
“My boy run off when my wife died. But that was considerable time ago.”
He is quiet a long time. Where the road is patched, I work my shear up, and go slower to let more salt hit behind. In my mirror, I see the lights of cars sneaking up behind me.
Then of a sudden the hitchhiker says, “What’s your boy do now?”
“He was learning a mason’s trade when he run off.”
“Makes good money.”
“I don’t know. He was only a hod carrier then.”
He whistles. “I done that two weeks this summer. I never been so sore.”
“It’s hard work,” I say. I think, this boy has good muscles if he can carry hod.
I see the lights of Mr. Weeks’s snowplow coming toward us. I gear into first. I am not in a hurry. “Scrunch down,” I say. “I’d get in trouble for picking you up.”
The boy hunkers in the seat, and the lights from Mr. Weeks’s snowplow shine into my cab. I wave into the lights, not seeing Mr. Weeks, and we honk when we pass. Now I move closer to center. I want to do a good job and get all the snow, but when the line of cars behind Mr. Weeks comes toward me, I get fidgety. I don’t want to cause any accidents. The boy sits up and starts talking again, and it makes me jittery.
“I was kinda scared about coming through Fayette County,” he says.
“Uh-huh,” I say. I try not to brush any cars.
“Damn, but a lot of hitchhikers gets killed up here.”
A man lays on his horn as he goes past, but I have to get what Mr. Weeks left, and I am always too close to center.
The boy says, “That soldier’s bones — Jesus, but that was creepy.”
The last car edges by, but my back and shoulders are shaking and I sweat.
“That soldier,” he says. “You know about that?”
“I don’t know.”
“They found his duffel bag at the bottom of Lovers’ Leap. All his grip was in there, and his bones, too.”
“I remember. That was too bad.” The snow makes such nice pictures in my headlights, and it rests me to watch them.
“There was a big retard got killed up here, too. He was the only one they ever found with all his meat on. Rest of them, they just find their bones.”
“They haven’t found any in years,” I say. This snow makes me think of France. It was snowing like this when they dropped us over France. I yawn.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe the guy who done them all in is dead.”
“I figure so,” I say.
The hill bottoms out slowly, and we drive on to Gauley, clearing the stretch beside New River. The boy is smoking and taking in the snow.
“It snowed like this in France the winter of ‘forty-four,'” I say. “I was in the paratroops, and they dropped us where the Germans were thick. My platoon took a farmhouse without a shot.”
“Damn,” he says. “Did you knife them?”
“Snapped their necks,” I say, and I see my man tumble into the sty. People die so easy.
We come to Gauley, where the road has already been cleared by the other trucks. I pull off, and the line of cars catches up, sloshing by. I grip the wrench.
“Look under the seat for my flashlight, boy.”
He bends forward, grabbing under the seat, and his head is turned from me. But I am way too tired now, and I don’t want to clean the seat.
“She ain’t there, Mister.”
“Well,” I say. I look at the lights of the cars. They are fools.
“Thanks again,” he says. He hops to the ground, and I watch him walking backward, thumbing. I am almost too tired to drive home. I sit and watch this boy walking backward until a car stops for him. I think, he is a polite boy, and lucky to get rides at night.
All the way up the mountain, I count the men in France, and I have to stop and count again. I never get any farther than that night it snowed, Mr. Weeks passes me and honks, but I don’t honk. Time and again, I try to count and can’t…
I pull up beside my house. My hogs run from their shelter in the backyard and grunt at me. I stand by my plow and look at the first rims of light around Sewel Mountain through the snowy limbs of the trees. Cars hiss by on the clean road. The kitchen light still burns, and I know the house is empty. My hogs stare at me, snort beside their trough. They are waiting for me to feed them, and I walk to their pen.
*This story is taken from: The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Little, Brown, 1983.
In February 2001 we found exactly what we were looking for: a wooden house in the suburbs of Miami with large windows overlooking a canal with green water that flowed into the Atlantic. We considered ourselves lucky. It was a house at a good price in a peaceful spot far from the city. We didn’t have neighbors, except for the cats. We didn’t have bugs either. We painted it yellow, just like the metal mailbox we placed beside the front walk, and we replaced the glass in all the windows: some were broken; others just scratched. The wiring and the pipes were in perfect condition as were the hardwood floors; actually the place needed very little work. I polished and varnished the secondhand furniture we’d bought, made the curtains and valances and embroidered the pillows. We lived there about seven months until Philip’s death.
My Philip, it all happened so fast. Still, when I think back on it, I can see the sharpness of the cuts, the blood, the rubberiness of the exposed flesh. It all comes back to me with startling vividness.
I wasn’t happy but my days back then were calm.
My husband left early in the mornings and I spent hours sitting on the porch watching the cats with a book open on my lap. They wandered around indifferently with their feet always muddy from the swampy terrain. Maybe it’s a silly way to describe it, but I thought of them as little men strolling in the sunshine. Their curiosity and laziness entertained me. There were about seven of them (sometimes fewer) and I always took care of them.
When we moved in, I planted flowers in the ground and tried to grow a small vegetable garden, but nothing would take root in that wet clay soil. Everything immediately turned to rot in our small plot on the Florida peninsula. Our garden was a muddy and infertile uterus with a yellow metal mailbox full of flyers and coupons. Skittles: taste the rainbow. Only $0.99 with this coupon. Valid until 04.01.2001.
“No wonder it was so affordable, Jaime,” I said lifting a bag of topsoil: I was determined to fill our garden with plants, even if I had to put them in pots. “I mean, if you compare it to other houses in the area, the price was really good.”
Jaime was the owner of the shop. He was Cuban, with golden skin and long hair, still attractive at almost sixty. He liked to introduce himself by saying he’d escaped the heart of the fucking devil to live in the ass of his succubus.
“Now I know why, Jaime; no one wanted to live in that spot, with that ground that’s pure clay.”
My words might’ve sounded like a complaint but they weren’t. I just talked out of desire to converse with someone.
“Listen, put up a hammock and a wrought iron patio set,” he suggested. “Then you’ll see how much better and more cheerful. The garden I mean.”
I smiled weakly.
“And get a few citronella torches for the evenings.”
“We don’t have mosquitoes.”
“Damn, we’ve got all the bugs here, the mosquitos and those kids.”
Jaime and I spoke in Spanish, except when he said something vulgar. He only said curse words or insults in English. It was his way of distancing himself from what he felt didn’t fit his character or social position. He considered himself a gentleman, even when he shouted and ranted about Fidel and my shameless compatriot, El Che.
“It’s just that when I get started about the Cuban Revolution… Excuse my temper but I’m from Cienfuegos, Miss.”
“I’m from Cienfuegos” was his excuse, monolithic, unwavering. I have to look up the history of Cienfuegos to understand what this man is talking about, I told myself.
Jaime, the cats, and a group of teenagers—a fixture in the store parking lot—were the only living beings in the landscape of my days. There were seven cats; nine or ten teenagers. I’d made out two females in the group of animals; in the group of teenagers there was only one. I named the cats: Nevermore, who was all black, and Gondoliere, who had striped fur. I also remember Phileas Fogg, a perfect English gentleman who always waited patiently for the bowl of milk, and Franky “Frankenstein,” the oldest of them all. He had a cleft lip and arthritis. And, of course, Philip. My Philip. I never learned the names of even one of the boys. I didn’t know the name of the girl either: a bleached blonde with big eyes that always stared at me. Her stare was almost a battle cry. I know it’s not easy to understand what I’m saying. But I can’t, I could never have explained the girl better. They, on the other hand, the boys, were—or at least I thought at the time—easier to read. They looked just like the troubled teens in the movies: dirty, ripped jeans, T-shirts, sneakers, and baseball caps, terrible smell; always chewing gum and drinking beer at all hours. They got around on motorcycles; the one I thought was the leader had an impeccable Harley Davidson that glittered under the midday sun. I had a red Focus with beige leather seats which I drove to Jaime’s shop. It was the first automatic car I’d ever had. I liked being able to drive to Jaime’s without thinking too much, listening to country music. I felt as American as anyone; even more so as I loaded the car with the brown paper sacks full of things I’d bought for us and the cats. The car had a white license plate, LUK 620, with “Florida, a sunny state” inscribed in green letters. This is only partially true because in the south of Florida it rains a lot. In fact, that Monday morning the National Weather Service had issued an emergency alert about an approaching tropical storm that had the potential to turn into a hurricane.
Out of fear of the hurricane I went to the store and bought a week’s worth of provisions. While Jaime scanned the bar codes of all the items, I estimated I’d need at least three trips to get it all to the trunk of my car. The Cuban man worked alone, he was in a terrible mood, and he wouldn’t have wanted to help me anyway. I handed him my credit card.
“I once offered to pay those fucking kids to help with my customers’ purchases,” Jaime pulled the bags out from under the cash register. “But do you think trash like that has any desire to work, Miss?”
I’d told him a dozen times that I was married and I’d reminded him of my name another twenty times. But Jaime continued stubbornly with his “Miss.”
“Assholes, that’s what they are; the girl is the worst one of all, Miss.”
I wouldn’t correct him again. Not that Monday morning or ever. I was also in a terrible mood. My husband was going to be out of town the whole week. A business convention in las Vegas for him and a hurricane in the south of the sunny Florida peninsula for me.
“Couldn’t they hold it in Tampa or Orlando?” I’d asked him that morning.
“Headquarters makes the decision.”
My husband gave me a kiss, loaded his suitcase into the trunk of his car and left. That was it. He’d go straight from the office to the airport. A week in Nevada and me in the yellow house with the cats, an unopened book on the porch and the stuff I’d have to get from Jaime’s shop. And hear all about Castro and, about my compatriot, El Che. Exile, the sad Cuban exiled in Miami, Miss. Every time, as if he were the only Latin American exile in all of the United States. Every single time I went to his store, whether it was for fertilizer or cat food, it was the same. I had the impression that Jaime talked—a lot and badly—about the Cuban Revolution and, of course, about the teenagers, in order to hide something. All this that Monday morning as he rang up my purchase.
They’re criminals in training. I must’ve been crazy the day I tried to hire one of them, because . . .” He bit his lip and looked out the window: one of the kids was walking toward the store. “That’ll be thirty-five dollars, Miss.”
He then repeated not only the Miss but also the price, even though I’d already paid. I bagged my items without saying anything else. I could feel the boy’s stare on the back of my neck, Jaime’s suspicious silence. I took a couple of bags to my car.
“Hey, Miss; look what you forgot here.” I’d left a can of tuna and a can of hake for my little men next to the cash register. “You’re kind of distracted today. Be careful, because that’s not good.”
I went back home to feed my cats.
I’d done the shopping, I’d put everything away. I’d filled two bowls with milk and another two with cat food. Everything was done and it was only eleven o’clock on Monday morning.
I sat with the closed book on my lap. I didn’t have any plans, except to lie on the sofa and watch, after dinner, a documentary about hunting or fishing on the Wild Life Channel.
But the rain came ahead of schedule. The forecast had predicted the tropical storm would make landfall sometime after five in the evening; it started to rain around noon. All afternoon water crashed above, around, and up against our wooden house. There was something strange and intimate in the sound, almost a groan, as if the wood were remembering the forest from which it had come. The TV wasn’t working. It turned on but cable and cell phone service were out. Our yellow metal mailbox had also been knocked down by the wind sometime that afternoon, and dozens of flyers lay in the mud. Taste the rainbow and all that. What further destruction would the storm cause? Nothing worried me more than the cats—I don’t think I even thought of my husband’s flight to Las Vegas that was scheduled for around midnight. Where had my poor babies taken refuge? And my Philip? He was the fattest and smartest. His yellowish fur, his bluish eyes, and his theatrical personality had reminded me immediately of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Where were you that night, my Philip? Where did they find you? When we moved in, I wanted to bring him to live in the house with us. I bought a basket and embroidered a yellow pillow with his initials—PSH—but my husband said no, cats outside. Philip never lived with us. I thought about my Philip and about Nevermore and Gondoliere on that stormy night, and also about the two female cats that I’d never named, but mostly I thought about Philip.
The monotony of the rain made night come soon.
Gusts of wind blew invisibly through the darkness. For me it all seemed real and unreal at the same time. As if my head had been covered in a veil and through the tulle I could hear the raindrops and wind. So this was a tropical storm, I thought from my bed with a book—always the same one—unopened on my lap. The air around me whispered like a bunch of elderly ladies saying horrible things to each other. I thought all this without really understanding why. And outside, the wind, at eighty miles an hour, caused even the blood in my veins to accelerate.
Around ten at night it seemed like the storm was calming down. The wind blew weakly, a sound like playing cards being thrown in the air. Or maybe not. Maybe it was just my imagination somehow strangely linked to my husband, to his convention in Las Vegas—a whole week away from home talking sales strategies for fiberglass used to build slot machines and gaming tables. I got up and went to the kitchen to make myself a cup of hot tea. Outside everything was dark and darkness was everything until a bolt of lightning—like a long shiny fang gleaming in the mouth of the night—lit up the monotony of rain hitting mud. I opened the kitchen window a crack. The air carried the salty smell of the sea, of wet grass, hibiscus flowers. The air brought in life, stirred up and crushed into large refreshing gusts.
And then I saw them.
First just her. She’d picked up our yellow metal mailbox off the ground and she had it in her hand, like someone holding a scepter. She was walking toward the porch dressed in white. Her feet and the bottom of her dress were muddy. She looked like a priestess ready to carry out some ritual sacrifice. Also like a crazed queen. Then he appeared behind her. It was a new boy and he wore a huge backpack. I’d never seen him in Jaime’s parking lot. He was decidedly different from the others. Not only because he didn’t look like he’d stepped out of the same bad-boy movie, but because there was something in the way he walked, in the way he wore the backpack, that softened him. He, without a doubt, didn’t match the casting call for the crazy, dirty, bad guy. Finally, bringing up the ranks, were the rest—the grimy ones from the parking lot, with their baseball caps and their stench. They broke into two groups and posted themselves on either side of my house, in front of the kitchen windows. To look on dumbly in silence.
I quickly closed the window.
In an instant, I checked that all the windows and doors were locked. I turned off the lights. I ran to my room. My cell phone still didn’t have service. If I could’ve just made it to the car and fled. I was contemplating escaping out the back window when she said:
“We know you’re there, Miss.”
Fear pumped through my body like blood. I didn’t respond. I stayed still for a few seconds until she spoke again.
“The thing is, this house is ours. Isn’t it?”
The “isn’t it” wasn’t for me but for the boy with the backpack and the rest of the boys; at least, that’s what I think now. I went back to the kitchen and looked for the biggest knife we had. Then I remembered—they’d said it in a documentary about skinning prey on the Wild Life Channel—that a smaller and sharper knife can be more effective and is, without a doubt, easier to handle. I changed weapons.
Silence again. The only sound was my heavy breathing.
It wasn’t raining anymore, the dim starlight allowed me to make out the boys on both sides of the house in front of my windows: their white faces, their mouths hanging open, their noses pressed against the glass. Their breath fogging up the windows. Their wet puppy dog eyes. I wondered how much of the inside of the house they could see from that outside darkness. And then, the unexpected blow that made the glass of the kitchen window shatter.
The Crazed Queen, framed in my yellow wooden window. The water had made her mascara run and her eyes were even bigger and more deathlike. Her long hair was loose and her bangs were tucked behind her ears.
She gathered up her dress like a southern belle as she climbed through the window into my house, as if it had always been hers. Behind her came the new guy, her faithful choirboy with the mountain-climbing backpack.
I grabbed the big knife I’d previously discarded. Now I had two knives and I was barricaded behind a chair. It was obvious, although in the moment I refused to think about it, that if they all decided to come in and attack me there was no knife or barricade that would stop them. I wished more than ever, me who’d always been a gentle lamb, for a pistol.
Everything happened so fast.
But when I think about it now, I can still see the sharpness of the cut, the blood, the rubberiness of the exposed flesh, the entrails slipping from their membranes, the spindly bones. It all creeps back to my memory. Also the car lights, the screams. I always end up vomiting or with my stomach in knots at the memory of that night. My nerves are shot whenever I think about Miami, about those kids, about my husband, about everything that happened.
Now inside the house, the girl turned on the lights. She knew where the switches were; she could get around my house with her eyes closed. Without saying a word, the new boy opened his backpack. He took out: two large knives, a pair of disposable gloves, two trash bags, a hook like the ones butchers use to hang sides of beef in the freezer. And, inside a third bag, Philip. He set everything out neatly on the table. I thought that the cat was dead. I would’ve covered my mouth—I mean to say that’s the impulse I had—but I had my hands full with the knives. Anyway Philip wasn’t dead. He was drugged, I suppose, like the rest of those idiot kids. The half-open mouths of the cat and the kids with their noses pressed against my windows breathed almost in unison. Why didn’t they all come into the house together? Why did they stay outside? How many times had they repeated that identical ceremony? She, the Crazed Queen, inside with the initiate, and the rest, outside, watching the scene with their bovine eyes.
“Put the hook through his foot and hang him from that rail,” the girl ordered. From her accent, I could tell she was from the South.
I wanted to shout: “don’t do it,” but the words didn’t come to my mouth. I only took a few steps holding the knives out in front of me, like some armed sleepwalker. I didn’t dare do more than that, I wouldn’t have been able to do more than that. The Crazed Queen decided to preempt any possible surprises. She gave the sign to the boys outside and, a few seconds later, they were all inside the house.
“Put down the knives, Miss, and we’ll have a peaceful night.”
Two of the boys took me by the wrists and a third took the knives away.
“That’s better. Isn’t it, Miss?” the girl said (she called me “Miss” too, how ridiculous).
She petted met. Her hands were rough and cold; they smelled like rain, but her breath smelled of alcohol and cigarettes.
I wanted to insult her or spit in her face. I couldn’t do that either.
“Now, let’s do our thing; get to work,” she ordered the new boy. “We don’t want to be here all night. Do we, boys?”
The new one’s hands trembled a little. Could I count on him? Would he repent at the last minute? Did my Philip have any chance of getting away? The new one’s hands shook even more now. They were normal hands. Not fat or skinny, not bald or hairy. But you could tell—it was obvious—that they were soft hands, like a student’s, unaccustomed to manual labor. How much did Philp weigh? Around seven or eight kilos, maybe ten—he’d gained weight recently. For the new kid he seemed to weigh more than a deer. He didn’t dare to pick him up. Wounding or killing—an animal or a man, it’s the same—with your own hands isn’t the same as doing it with a gunshot, like those somber hunters on the Wild Life Channel. Now I know: the flesh tries to resist, it fights you. Muscles are strong and flexible. He had to find a way to insert a hook in the live furry flesh of the cat. Avoiding the bone, find the muscle under the fur. The blond fur of my Philip.
It wasn’t such an easy job.
Philip fought upside down, as much as the effects of the drug would allow him to, as the new boy battled his fear and disgust. I must’ve struggled against the boys who held me, because later, when everything was over, I noticed that I had bruises on my wrists. The new one, after several tries, through suppressed gagging, and Philip’s whimpering, managed to puncture the cat’s flesh. His left thigh. Philip hung by a leg and a thread of blood slowly stained his fur. Like an inverted Spanish flag: yellow, red, yellow.
The worst part wasn’t the helplessness. The worst part wasn’t being in an isolated house with some deranged teens who, who knows why, were practicing some initiation right using my favorite cat. The worst part was the uncertainty, the fear of knowing I was at the mercy of the Crazed Queen and who knows what drugs and how much alcohol she had in her bloodstream. Why did they want me to witness it? Why, out of all the places in the world, did they have to choose my house? Is that what Jaime knew, that my house had been these kids’ permanent base of operations? So many questions came to me and none of them had answers.
The Crazed Queen ordered the new one to lick a little of the blood that dripped from the animal. She even put her finger in the cat’s wound and brought it to her mouth. She painted her lips with the blood. Then she twirled several times, rolled her eyes back in her head and all the foul-smelling boys cheered for her with a strange chant and applause.
I’ll never know what other trials the complete initiation ceremony entailed.
Deep down, I was certain that the new one wouldn’t pass them all. I sensed it because his eyes didn’t have that wet gleam I saw in the eyes of the rest of her minions, nor did they have the fury of the Crazed Queen. I wanted to believe that, despite his desperate need to belong, he still had a spark of good in his eyes. The new one was the only one of the group that was capable of hesitation—out of fear, disgust, or whatever reason—and hesitation is what helps us conserve a glimmer of humanity. No, the new one would not pass the trials. I confirmed my suspicions when I saw that he was the first to run away.
The headlights of a car shone into the kitchen.
It was my husband coming home. He’d left his ID. Leaving behind his ID was his unconscious way of leaving behind his identity. He hadn’t been who he said he was for a long time now. Obviously, he wasn’t going on a business trip; obviously, he wasn’t going alone. The only truth was that he was going to Las Vegas for a week and that without his ID he couldn’t start the trip. And he came back home with her—bleached blonde, with big eyes, almost an aged replica of the Crazed Queen—seated brazenly in the passenger’s seat of his car. I don’t know why life sometimes plays this game of funhouse mirrors. But none of that pertains to this story. Or almost. The only thing that matters here is that the headlights were enough to scare them away. They all fled quickly, they scattered like nighttime birds at the first light of day; and the new one was first to go. All that was left behind was Philip, half-dead in our kitchen, and the backpack.
I unhooked Philip’s leg and put him on our table. There was nothing left of his theatricality, of the vivacity in his bluish eyes. His entire body was bloody. He didn’t even have the strength to whimper, poor thing. My husband came into the house with murky eyes and his feet covered in mud. What could we say to each other that we didn’t both already know?
I picked up the knife, the small sharp one like they recommended in the hunting documentary. My husband didn’t get the chance to ask any questions. Not who the kids were that he’s surely seen running away, not what they were doing there, not what had happened to the cat. He couldn’t even ask about the damn backpack as he tripped over it. I took two steps forward and he took four steps back. Without uttering a single word and without taking my eyes off his and with a single swipe, I cut the cat’s stomach wide open. I did it with such force that I also scratched the wood of the table.
In addition to the guts and blood, three wet fetuses with squinted eyes fell out. Philip wasn’t who I thought he was either. No one is.
My husband held back a gag. Then he collapsed onto a chair. The woman who was waiting for him in the car honked the horn two times. Somehow, she’d stopped mattering. It was like the cat’s blood had hypnotized us: it continued dripping from the wound to the edge of the table and from there to the floor. How many minutes would it take for Philip to become a flattened hide? How long did it take for the cat and her fetuses to lose their lives? I looked at my bloody hands and at the knife—it wasn’t raining anymore, I don’t know what smells the wind was carrying, or how many trees or plants the storm had pulled up by the roots. The blonde kept honking the horn rhythmically and with increasing urgency. My marriage was the exact opposite of what I thought it was. And I thought to myself that the only thing fertile and alive in that house had been destroyed by my own hands.
Who was Burke? His beginnings.
Born a caulbearer in the Bristol slums, in the quayside heap known only as “the Rat,” Jacob Burke, who would battle the great McGraw on that fateful day in 1824, was a winter child of the stevedore Isaac Burke and the seamstress Anne Murphy. He of Bristol, son of James, son of Tom, son of Zebedee, lifters all. She of Dublin and the cursed Gemini of Poverty and Fertility: Jacob was the twelfth of eighteen children, the third of the eight who survived.
It was a typical quayside childhood, of odd jobs and shoe-shining and sporadic bouts of schooling: quinsy, croup, and the irresistible temptation of diving from the piers. In the summer he ran with the flocks of children terrorizing the streets with their play.
He grew up quickly. Thick-necked, thick-shouldered, steel-fisted, tight-lipped, heavy-on-the-brow, the boy knew neither a letter nor the taste sweet until his tenth year, when in the course of a single moon, he learned to lip out the rune on the shingle at Mulloy’s Arms and stole an apple from a costermonger on the road to Bath. Two brothers, thinking they were bona fide Dick Turpins, had treaded into a life of brigandage, but by the grace of his mother’s daily prayers and father’s belt, Jacob Burke turned from the taste of apples and back to the straight and narrow of his bloodline, joining Burke père on the docks.
On the docks he remained, lifting barrels of fish and slabs of iron cold from the sea air, until his back broadened and his forearms broke his cuffs.
The ascent of Burke, including: the Riots. Also: his early career and its vicissitudes.
At age nineteen, Burke became known.
On the quay was a man named Sam Jones, and Sam Jones was a stevedore too, lifting with Burke from dark hour to dark hour. Sam Jones was an old man of forty when one morning his foot punched a rotted board on the dock and he went down beneath a load of flounder, one hundred and fifty pounds of fish in an oak-slatted crate that snapped his neck against the railing before he slumped, slipped, limp into the sea.
Sam Jones had a month’s wages coming, but the Company didn’t pay his widow, and on the docks the stevedores sat down and not a boat could move. Then the owners sent out their thugs, who fell on the men with clubs and iron pokers, and from the melee exploded the QuaysideRiots, of fame.
It was a newspaperman from London who first saw Burke throw a punch. When the riots were over (and Jones’s wages still not paid) the newspaperman found the boy back at work, resigned, murmuring a sad, low lifter’s song as he threaded the pier.
On that day (gray, preternaturally August cold, seagulls hopping on the jetty-rail) Burke stood on the dock, a ninety-pound bag of wheat thrown corpse-like over his shoulder. The newspaperman talked a streak. Jacob, not accustomed to long converses, didn’t set down the bag, said, Yes sir, like he was taught to speak to suits and elders, and occasionally repositioned the weight over his back. At long last the fellow drew out a calling card. Well? What do you think? Ever fought? asked the man, and Burke asked back: There’s a man’s never fought?
On the card was the name of a warehouse on the harbor, where over the following week Burke sent three men to the floor. They were hard affairs, fighters showing up on the minute as if it were nothing but a shakebag cockfight. No seconds, no ropes, no purse. If the Fancy went, it was only to scout. On the third night came a man, Cairn, who made an offer.
How Muscular became known.
There are five fights that first year. Five fights and Jacob Burke wins four. They are hush matches, dueled in warehouses or country inns or levees east of the city. Broughton’s rules. Bare knuckles. Twenty-four-foot ring. Round ends when a man goes down. Thirty seconds of rest, and the fight doesn’t end until a man can’t get back to the scratch. No gouging, no biting, no blows below the belt. No faking down to win a rest.
Cairn is his second. Also in his corner, holding his bottle, is an associate of Cairn’s, a Yankee who’d once been champion in New Orleans. Yankee must have a Christian name, but he changes the subject when Jacob asks. He has a crablike way of moving, of facing you, of rising to his tiptoes when he is about to speak, and Jacob thinks these are habits from the ring.
They are good to Jacob Burke, treat him like a son. Give him breeches and spiked shoes, read him the fighters’ correspondence in the Weekly Dispatch, get him victuals when victuals are dear. Take him to the pushing school, where they put up the socket fee and tell the girls he will be Champion of All England. There, amidst the crepe and taffeta, he is humiliated by the men’s attention, feels like he’s back in the ring, half thinks Cairn and Yankee will follow him and the girl to watch. When that winter his father is laid out with cough, they advance him money against his purses, and Jacob finds himself buying gifts for his mother and his brothers and his sisters. His winnings are small, five, ten pounds. He spends it all and borrows more.
Before each fight, Cairn takes him aside and tells him what scum the other is, makes it sound like he’s some avenging angel, meting out justice to a line of murderers and thieves and virgin-defilers. But Jacob Burke doesn’t much care. He likes the chance to hit and watch his man fall. A ha’penny Bristol rag, with a full page on the fistic, covers his fights but can’t seem to settle on a moniker, calling him the Quayside Brawler, then Stevedore Burke, Bruise Burke, then “Muscular,” which Cairn picks up for their promotions. It’s elegant, thinks Jacob. He buys a copy of the rag and brings it home, shows his mother which word on the page says “Muscular.” He writes it out for her in big letters on a piece of butcher paper, which she folds and tucks into the pocket where she keeps her lice comb. To prove the magnitude of his strength, he grabs two of his youngest brothers, one in each hand, and lifts them squealing high above his head.
He begins oiling his hair back in slick rows, which does little for his looks except emphasize the weight of his brow. He listens to tales of the professional fighters. He wants to be like Gully, so he buys a scarf for an ascot. Purse rises, fifteen and twenty. Buys a stovepipe of the first and wears it at a rake. Like Cairn wears his. Like Cairn, who in his day, he learns, was a bruiser too.
His days of cutting a swell are numbered. In his fourth fight, his match comes kicking and flapping at him like a bird out of a cage. He takes a thumb to the eye and has to spend a week taped up with brown paper and vinegar. Spikes a fever, but Cairn gets a surgeon to bleed him and he’s cured.
In his fifth fight, Burke defeats Bristol’s Beloved. It wasn’t supposed to happen; the fight was an exhibition, a setup conceived to make the champion look good taking down a specimen like Muscular, but Muscular is triumphant.
How it came about that Burke fought Blindman.
This is how it came about that Burke fought the Blindman:
In Lincolnshire, Broken Head Gall lost to the Moor, and in Liverpool, Will Skeggs beat Tom Johnson, who had no less than the great Peter Crawley in his corner, the butcher’s son known in his day as the “Young Rump Steak.” But Skeggs wouldn’t fight Broken Head, and at Moulsey Hurst, Tom Tate lost to “Le Petit.” So Broken fought Tate, but the fight was a cross, the Weekly Dispatch breaking the story that both men had met a fortnight before to fix. Then they went to Ted Shannon the Vainglorious, but Vainglorious knew Blindman, and Vainglorious said that if he was going to get killed, he needed a bigger purse for his widow. This left the Fancy looking for a man, and this left Burke.
The match was scheduled for February, but no one would post a farthing on Burke. So they called again on Vainglorious, but Vainglorious was gone, convicted of thieving and transported. They found a miller in Melchior Brown, from Manchester, who’d been breaking gobs on the tavern circuit under the nickname Sparrow. But Brown went down in just four rounds, and the next pick, Frank Smith the Picturesque, refused to fight Blindman’s murderous fists. So again they came looking for Burke. They decided Burke’s mum’s blood would get the Irish out, and Blindman would draw the Scots, and if there was a riot, then all the better. Besides, everyone knew the best fighters wore the Bristol yellow, and by then Burke had moved out of the quay, showing his mettle in a pair of battles at Egan’s Abbey.
Who is Blindman?
This is Blindman: Methuselah of thirty-five, icon of Scottish nationalists, hero of boys’ magazines, where he was drawn in monstrous proportions, sweeping Lilliputian armies down as if clearing a table for a game of cards. A dexterous hitter of steam-engine power. Won eighteen, lost two. Baptized Benjamin McGraw, he got his nickname in a fight in ’14, in the forty-third round, with eyes so swollen by the punches that he couldn’t see. Refused to have his lids lanced, saying he could beat his boy blind, and then leveled him, hard, as soon as they hit the scratch. After the fight, they asked how he’d done it and he answered, I hit where the breathing was. He had a patron in the Earl of Balcarres, who was said to slum with McGraw in Glasgow’s most notorious. He liked to tell how he’d even been asked to be Yeoman of the Guard, but with all the stories of cursing and rough living and all the girls he’d pollinated, the offer was rescinded. In ’16 he’d knocked down the champion Simon Beale in two rounds, and Simon Beale never rose again. In the famous cartoon published in the Gazette, McGraw was drawn shaking his fists over a gravestone, on which was written:
here in the shade lies simon beale
jaw of iron, fists of steel
won twenty-four fights with nerve and zeal
at twenty-five showed his achilles heel
took just two rounds for fate to seal
that no soul’s spared by fortune’s wheel.
Of course, there wasn’t a man among the Fancy who didn’t doubt Jacob Burke was going to get lathered. And Burke knew the rumors, but Cairn and the Yankee said he stood a chance, that Blindman was growing old, and Burke was improving daily in strength and science.
Truth was Burke didn’t need to be told. And Cairn knew, for Cairn had been organizing fights for thirteen years, and knew there wasn’t anything so proud as a twenty-three-year-old, except maybe a sixteen-year-old, but try to find a neck like Muscular’s on a kid. Only problem with Burke, he told him, finger pressed against his pectorals, only problem with you, is that Burke was too good and polite and he needed a little more meanness in him. Burke spent a good deal of time wondering about this, how a hitter could be a good man, wondering if he was good only because he was on the bottom and he couldn’t be anything else, that if conditions were different and he had something going, he wouldn’t be so. Once in a pub he’d heard, There’s no such thing as a sin man only a sin world, which he was told meant that the Devil was in everyone and it was a rare fellow who could keep him down. Then later, he started thinking that maybe he’d heard it wrong, and it should have been, There’s no such thing as a good man only a good world, and he started repeating it enough that he couldn’t remember if the basic situation was sin or good. Cairn said he was too good, but he knew inside that he hit because he liked the feeling of hitting the other fellow, which seemed at first like sin, but then he started thinking that if the other fellow was just like him, then the other fellow liked hitting too, and that meant he, Burke, was beating a sinner, and so he, Burke, was good, except when he looked at it another way, then the other fellow was also clobbering a fellow who liked hitting (him, Burke), this meant the other fellow was good, and Burke was a sinner for milling an upright man.
The reasoning went round and round like one of those impossible songs that never stopped, until Muscular decided that what he liked about the fight was that he didn’t have to wonder about such questions, only hit, because if you didn’t hit, you got hit. That was the answer!
The day approaches.
So Burke takes to training: docks in the day, dumbbells at dusk. Cairn has him running his dogs in the hills. Hits the bags of sand. Bans drink and the amorous.
The word spreads fast around Bristol. He hears a hush follow him where he walks. In the streets he’s besieged by the shoe-shiners, who beg to see standing flips and then set on one another for the title of “Muscular.” The girls lower their bonnets and lift their eyes when he rooster-swaggers past.
One night, on the docks, an old lifter called Booth approaches Burke as he makes his way home. Stepping in front of the boy, he grabs his forearm in a steel grip, says, This is a fool thing, and Jacob Burke says, Yes sir.
The posters go up, with sketches of the two men facing off as if they had posed together, shirtless, in ankle-boots and breeches, tied close with sashes. They say the fight will be held at Moulsey Hurst, southwest of London, but all know this is a sham to throw off the magistrates. The papers take to calling the fight Blindman’s Brag, as if it were not a fight but a showcase for McGraw. As if Burke weren’t even fighting.
One night, his mother is waiting for him when he comes home. They say you’re going to get killed, she says. Who says that? asks Jacob. They all say that, she says. I’ve been to the market. They say: Make sure they promise you the purse, Annie, ’cause your boy isn’t coming home.
Unspoken, but hidden in her words, is his father, who is coughing himself to bones and hasn’t been down to the docks in months. But she doesn’t say Jacob should walk away. Had she, then he would have squared his jaw and proclaimed he had his honor to protect. It is because she says nothing more that the doubts begin to eel their way in.
Except he knows he can’t get out even if he wants to. He owes Cairn, for the scarf, for the stovepipe, the food. Cairn says that with the purse from the fight with McGraw, he’ll be paid off and then some. He decides “then some” means even more if he wagers on himself. Then he will stop.
They find a patron.
Two weeks before the fight, Cairn quarries a Patron in a Corinthian named Cavendish; the rest of the purse is put up by the Pugilistic Club.
Cavendish meets Burke and Cairn at Ned Landon’s public house. He’s a dandy: curls, perfume, talking proud and fast and high. Wants to be called Cav, but Jacob calls him Mister Cavendish, and he smiles. He made his blunt during the Regency, and flaunts it, burns a bill before Burke’s eyes. Recites a fight poem that he had published in Bell’s Life, full of lettery words Burke has trouble getting his ears around. Cavendish tells a story about a fighter, laughing, says, Poor Tom had his eyes knocked from his head. Just like that. Plop. Plop. Couldn’t find work and suicided. Drank prussic. Plop. He laughs. Burke hates him immediately, feels his whole body tense when he hears him talk. He knows Cavendish is trying to look big by making him look small, but he can’t think of fast words to answer. Any other man, and he would hit him so hard he’d lose more than his eyes. He looks to his trainer, and Cairn tilts his head, just a little, as if to say, Easy, swallow the toad, Cavendish is putting up the purse.
Soaked, Cavendish begins to slur. Calls a wagtail over and throws an arm around her waist. Tells Jacob to remove his shirt. Says, Look at the symmetry, look at the strength. Says, Your mum’s Irish, Burke? Calls him My little boy. Touches his arms and says, Look, this is pretty. Drinks his blue ruin until it runs down his chin. Says he was a boxer, but he holds his fists with his thumbs inside.
They travel to the scene of the fight, where Burke meets a man who imparts his Philosophy.
The fight is set in Hertfordshire, in a field south of St. Albans called Dead Rabbit Heath. In St. Albans, they spend the night at a coaching inn. Cairn and the Yankee drink until they’re reeling, but Muscular is too nervous to keep anything down. The Publican is an aficionado of the fistic, the walls are decorated with sketches and mezzotints of the great fighters, and Burke recognizes Broughton and Painter, and the Jews Mendoza and Dutch Sam, and Gasman and Game Chicken. He wants to be like the portraits, still and quiet and distant on a watercolor patch all alone and glorious. But among the rabble that’s crowding the tavern, Muscular is cornered by a farrier, a fat, spectacled man who seems to have some reading behind him. Says he was a priest, once, which explains his fine diction, though he won’t say why they stripped his soutane. You’ll be one of the greats, he tells Jacob. Just look at you. Maybe you’ll lose tomorrow, but it doesn’t matter. Just hold your own, and soon you’ll be Champion. He asks if Burke knows of the battle between Achilles and Hector, but Burke has never heard of these two fighters. The farrier shrugs it off. You ever seen McGraw? he asks. Burke hasn’t, sketches only. Goliath, says the farrier. Like someone pressed two men into one. Misshapen like that too. You’ll see. Cauliflower ears. Ears? No! Cauliflower face.
He presses on. You want to hear my Philosophy? How are you going to win? Think, my boy. You want to win or you want to hurt him? Those are different things. Pastor Browne’s theory of the fight—you can tell the rest—is that anger only takes a man so far. That’s what all you poor boys start with: anger, needing it like a horse needs a rider. But soon that gets in the way. You boys go out and think you are fighting a boxer, but really you’re fighting the world. But a good fighter, you see, like Blindman, he knows that the man he’s fighting is fighting first to hurt and next to win. And he’ll use it. Use your hating to get you. That’s the difference. Men who fight to hurt will get it in their time. Gladiator in arena consilium capit. He’ll finish you. Mill you to a jelly. Get your head up in chancery and then where will you find yourself?
Burke doesn’t have an answer. He stares at the man, who’s got whiskers thick as string. The man’s going on about anger, and Burke’s tempted to say, There’s no such thing as a sin man only a sin world. I’m just hitting. He doesn’t want to talk anymore. But he won’t leave, won’t go to sleep either. A tavern chant swells. Then let us be merry/while drinking our sherry…
He has a sick feeling and thinks maybe he is scared.
They gather at Dead Rabbit Heath.
The fight is to take place another two leagues from the inn, on a field not far from the road, in a soft depression between a pair of hills.
Soon after sunrise, they take a coach. They pass crowds coming up the road, on horseback or foot. It is a cold morning, the light hesitant, the fields wet with dew. There are tents set up for peck and booze. The traffic’s slow, thick with broughams and horses. It takes Burke a long time to realize that the crowd is there, in part, for him. They park their carriage at a small clearing halfway up the hill. Burke gets out, followed by Cairn and Yankee. Almost immediately he is set upon by the tag-rag, who jostle him for no reason but to try to get close. They sing, Gotta get the Blindman, or the Blindman gets you. Muscular wears his stovepipe low over his eyes, his seconds flank him, leading him up a long path through the wet grass, over a rise and then down toward the ring. Both men hold him by his elbow. He knows it’s supposed to comfort him, but there is no comfort there. He thinks, Where do they flank men like this? and the answer is the gallows.
As they approach, there’s a massive crowd already gathered at the ropes, and he can hear a hushing in the near. They’ve got two stands set up by the ring for the paying, but the crowd overflows up the hills. He looks for his opponent, but Blindman is nowhere to be seen. He wants Blindman to be there, as if Blindman’s the only one who could know what he is feeling.
The ground is turned up like a pack of pigs came rooting through, but the ring is clean, neat, covered with sand, like nothing he’s ever fought in. They’ve strung two lines of painted rope, the scratch is already chalked. He keeps his greatcoat on as Cairn goes and speaks to the judge. He feels the eyes of the crowd on him, tries to ignore them, looks down, and keeps clenching his hands again and again. Finally, he lifts his face and looks out. The hill is all men, far as the eye can reach. There’s a pair of swells near him, ascots blooming, suits of bombazine, capes, and pearl buttons. Hey, Muscle, says one and then laughs. I’ve got money on you, Muscle, says the other. They’re talking funny, and then he realizes they’re mocking a brogue. He looks away.
Cairn comes back. This’s big, boy, he says. Ten thousand men, and not a stable free for a sleepy nag. Half the country wants to see our boy fell the Blindman.
Cheers and jeers as his opponent approaches.
Late in the morning, McGraw arrives. Burke hears the murmurs thrumming through the crowds, then shouts going up, the hillside parting for a dark figure to come through, surrounded by an entourage. They are far off, descending the opposite slope. For an instant it is as if he is watching a shadow at sundown, the dark hulk lumbering over his seconds. A fight song materializes out of the noise, but he can’t hear the words. Then suddenly, with McGraw halfway to the ring, something ugly must have been said, for the goliath lunges into the crowd. Then tumult, the black suits turning over as if they were dominoes. Burke can’t tell if McGraw is swinging: it’s all men coming up and falling back and shouting and flailing like some giant sea animal thrashing in the surf. Then his seconds must have gotten hold of him, for he’s pulled back, and the crowd ripples and is still. Murmurs now: McGraw is out of control, He’s an animal, they shouldn’t let him fight, but Burke knows his man did it for show, though he doesn’t know if the show is for him or for the crowd that’s come.
There are no more incidents. As McGraw gets closer, a quiet descends. At the edge of the ring, McGraw hands his greatcoat and hat to his second and steps inside. From his corner, Burke watches Blindman strip to his colors.
Jacob Burke has prepared himself for a giant, but he doesn’t think he has ever seen such a human as this. McGraw must be eighteen stone. Six foot six at least, but the illusion of height is increased by the size of his chest and belly, which set his head back like some faraway peak. Arms as thick as Muscular’s hams. Fists slung low. Skin pale blotched red. To call his ears “cauliflower” would be a compliment. Tuber is more like it, thinks Burke. Raw tuber that could break a knuckle. His nose is a gray-yellow color that makes it look like a dead man’s nose. There is so much of him that it is difficult for Burke to see where the man’s muscles begin: he looks like someone has taken a massive sculpture of a strong man and kept throwing clay on it in lumps, until the clay ran out. Burke doesn’t even know where he is going to land his fists. It seems like certain rules, like rules against grabbing the throat, don’t matter when it comes to Blindman, for Burke is uncertain where the neck ends and the head begins. He feels as if he were told to lift an awkward stone without a place to set his hands.
He knows now that he has been seduced by the promotion posters, which show the men facing off, as if they were two men fighting. This isn’t two men fighting. He thinks of the games of speculation he played as a child: If a lion fought a bear, if a turtle fought a buck, if a shark fought a giant fox. If an eagle fought a man of fire. Who would win? Who would kill whom?
If Muscular Burke fought the monster McGraw.
It is then that Jacob realizes he has been set up to lose, that Cairn and the Yankee could never have expected him to stand a chance against Blindman.
His pulse skitters, mad like a water bead in a hot pan.
He looks back out at the crowds. Now they stretch all the way to the crest of the hillside. The sound of their chanting is deafening. But he hears only Blindman, they are there to watch Blindman win or Blindman lose. Curse and praise but only Blindman’s name. The crowd doesn’t even seem to acknowledge Burke. Thinks Jacob: Who cheers the fox, when you’ve come to watch the hound?
The fight begins.
The Padders are at the ropes. There are six of them, a quintet of London coalmen and an ostler who is retired from the fistic. Their jackets are off, their cuffs rolled, fighting to keep the crowds back. Muscular realizes that while he has been lost in thought, his arms loose at his sides, his seconds have stripped him to his breeches.
He stands in a daze. He realizes he’s staring into the crowd, looking for someone he knows, another lifter from the docks or—thinking frantic now—a brother, or even his mother, when Cairn whispers something in his ear. He has almost forgotten his second, but now Cairn is behind him, his hands on Burke’s shoulders, massaging the massive deltoids of which he is so proud. Jacob shivers him off. Is he in on this? he wonders. How much is he being paid to have me get killed? He shakes his head as if there’s poison in his ear.
Behind him, he hears Cairn’s voice. Show ’em, Muscular. He coaxes Burke’s arms into the air, and Burke flexes. That’s right, Muscular, says Cairn. Show the old man.
What are the odds? whispers Jacob through his teeth. What am I at?
Cairn rubs his shoulders. Don’t worry, boy. You do the milling and I’ll do the betting and we’ll both go home rich men. He laughs, but Jacob doesn’t join him. No matter how hard he tries to throw his anger back toward the giant in the ring, he feels only betrayal, fury at his handlers for what is about to happen. The thought that Cairn and Yankee want him to lose vanishes, but what remains is somehow worse, that he is inconsequential. The idea that they could have cared for him any more than a trainer cares for a dancing bear seems now like an absurd fantasy. He was a fool to believe. He should sit, lay it down, get back to “the Rat,” to the quayside, to home.
They are called to the scratch. The judge joins the Padders in the outer ring. Burke sees Cavendish in the front row, toppered in a white stovepipe that is immaculately, impossibly clean. Beside him: the jostling bettors, the flit-fluttering fingers of a tic-tac man.
The two fighters shake. McGraw’s paws are like the rest of him, geologic, and while Jacob has a grip that can shatter a bottle, he cannot even get a purchase on the Scotsman’s hand.
Time is kept by a Lord from Essex. The judge launches his cant, promising strength and speed and stamina, a battle of brawn, a beautiful combat, a most severe contest for the benefit of Honorary Gentlemen. The crowd erupts.
May the best man win, says the judge.
Fists up and in the crouch, Burke can’t hear the bell for all the shouting. Before him, McGraw holds his pose, shoulders squared, his face a mask, waiting for the boy to come. Burke wants to strike, but he can’t move, can’t see a line through the giant’s arms. Blindman makes a kissing motion and the crowd roars. Muscle muscle, comes a taunt, and out of the corner of his eye, Burke sees the two swells laughing, and beside them Cavendish doing nothing to fight off a smile. Off the scratch, he strikes Blindman’s jaw. McGraw doesn’t budge. Again Burke strikes, and Blindman stops it with his left. His forearm barely gives. Blindman makes a face of mock surprise, brushes his arm as if brushing off a fly. Flourishes his fists. It’s a show for the crowd, and they reward it with laughter. Burke rushes again, left to Blindman’s jaw, feeling at the same time as if a brick has come down against his head.
Cairn takes him back in the corner, sits him, whispers, Tire him, Muscular, feet, Muscular, quick on the pins, dance like Mendoza, but Burke pushes him away, is back to the scratch before the Lord says thirty. Throws the instant Blindman gets up from his corner. Foul! he hears, but before they can pull him back, he’s down again, unaware of what happened. He tastes dirt this time, hears the judge call, First blood, and feels his cheek is wet. Hears numbers. Can’t distinguish the crowd’s shouting from the roaring in his ear.
Back to the scratch and Muscular down.
Back to the scratch. Blindman charges. Muscular turns, plants a fist in McGraw’s neck and the giant tumbles. The hillside roars like artillery fire. Then McGraw is up, his flesh shifting and shimmering, and Burke advances. He can’t think now; he can only move.
The fight continues.
The rounds seem to roll through him. Hook to Blindman’s ear. Burke to the mouth. One-two. One-two. Blood, tooth, and Muscular down. Jab to nose and Blindman down. Back to the scratch and Muscular pounds to the pudding bag, to the ear, to the ear, and the ear seems to crumple, break like a potato beneath a heel. Blindman down. Back to the scratch and Blindman rushes. Breadbasket, breadbasket, Muscular down. Topper in the ear and Muscular down. Pirouette, turn, and Blindman rushes. Muscular back, catches a heel and both men down. Back to the scratch. Fast in the eye, Muscular down. Again in the peeper, Muscular down. Blindman muzzled and Muscular down. Blindman coughs, spits out a grinder. Chop and chop and Muscular down. Back to the scratch and Muscular down. Blindman Blindman, Muscular down.
Eyelids swollen, tasting blood on his tongue, his knuckles wet with gore, Burke sits in the corner, letting Cairn’s hands caress his chest, Yankee sponge his face. He feels as if his men aren’t there. He’s being touched by bird’s wings. He wants at McGraw, needs to hit. It hurts to breathe, he doesn’t know how much lung he’s got in him, but something in him says that he’s taken the worst. That Blindman’s not going to hit any harder than he’s hit but that Burke’s still got it, still could heave a load. He murmurs a lifters’ song: Still lift the barrel still lift the barrel still lift the barrel, Hey!/Twelve kittens in the kitchen and another on the way. His lips, swollen, blubber. He rinses his mouth with Old Tom, rises before the thirty, and is at the scratch before Blindman stands.
By now the crowd is thundering, pressing up against the rope, throwing punches at the Padders, curses flying. Again Burke rushes. McGraw catches his wrist this time, turns with the force and throws him, coming down with his knee in Burke’s gut. Muscularmouth fills with bile, pants go wet. He hears hissing and a cry of foul, but McGraw, snorting through his broken nose, doesn’t care, he cradles Burke’s head, whispers something rasped into his ear, kicks Muscular in the flanks as he’s standing up. Again, Foul! but this is coming from the crowds, closer, and Burke sees a man breach the outer ring, hurling ugly curses at the Scot, followed by another and another, and Burke, up on his knees, thinks, Here we go, and he isn’t even standing when the punches start flying.
Pandemonium in the ring: the two fighters join forces to restore order.
A gasman hits a liveryman hits a brewer hits a baker. Two swells pound each other as if to send each to his maker. An ostler lands a muzzler while his best man lands a quaker.
The Padders overwhelmed, the ropes broken, the crowd implodes into the ring. They don’t seem to be after the pugilists but one another, though Muscular, spinning, can’t seem to make heads or tails of what’s happening. There’s a mob come down cursing the Scot. There are canes swinging and stones thrown and someone heaving a rope, and the air’s filled with curses, all kinds of animal and things that are going to be done and a liberal use of the Monosyllable.
Then Muscular and Blindman have joined the Padders, pounding to clear the ring, because both are hungry for the fight. Blindman is red-faced and breathing heavy. Rested, Muscular feels the strength in him returning.
By the time the riot is cleared, a dozen men have been carried off. Then the ropes are restaked, the colors returned. A quiet settles, but the judge is still shouting, threatening to end the fight unless order is completely restored.
But what has become of Muscular’s eyes?
Time has played Blindman’s ally: by now, Muscular can barely see, both of his eyes are weeping, swollen shut, crusting over. With the stage reclaimed and the Padders back at the ropes, the boxers repair to their seconds. In the corner, Cairn runs his thumbs over Muscular’s lids. You’re out, he says. You’re out or I cut them, and Jacob just nods. Cairn pushes his head back, grabs the lancet, grabs his face, and the relief is immediate. His face streams with the claret, his cheeks feel as if he is crying.
Back to the scratch, and McGraw is fighting dirty, but the judge lets it fly. He’s angry, thinks Burke, he knows it shouldn’t have gone on this long. It was supposed to be easy, done. Face contorted, McGraw rushes, gets a hand on Muscular’s neck, drives him into the rope. Muscular down. Cairn calls Foul! but Burke’s back to the scratch.
Now it’s Burke who leads. Forward now, and Blindman back. Fists up and McGraw circles, spits, coughs, scratches the ground. Blindman back, Burke forward, watching, waiting, watching, and then he sees it, sees his channel in. Not now, but two moves from now, like a game of checkers. Feels the warmth in his arms, feels joys, thinks, This is glorious. Feints high and McGraw goes high and then Jacob Burke is inside. Left to the jaw, left, and Blindman ducks. Straight into Burke’s right and rising.
Jacob Burke knows then that the fight is over. Hears it, something slacken. Something soft, something broken in the jaw or in the face, something creaking in the temple. He’s worked shipbreaking at times, and there’s a feeling when a sledgehammer comes against a beam and nothing breaks, but you know the next time you swing it’s going to give. The fight’s over. Blindman is standing, but Burke has only to wait and Blindman will fall. An expression comes over Blindman’s face, a puzzled expression, like he’s hearing a song he’s never heard before.
At which point Burke has a very complicated thought.
Jacob Burke’s thought takes the form of a memory.
In his childhood on the docks, like all boys, Jacob and his friends spent days in games of earnest battle, clashing sticks and throwing stones long into the dark, chasing and fighting and raising hell. They played by the universal rules of cruelty and chivalry and thrill, thrill to strike and throw and be thrown at, and throwing and chasing one day Jacob and three friends had cornered an enemy knight and were taunting him before delivering the coup de grâce, which in such a situation, with such easy prey, typically consisted of touching him with the stone or tossing it lightly, as the boy was trapped against a wall and had no way to escape. But that afternoon the boy, who was a bit younger than the rest, went scared on them and started to cry, and, surrounding him, the others began to laugh and throw, and then the boy was crying louder, which only made the others laugh louder and throw harder, and then the boy was slobbering for his mother, and they all went grabbing more stones and throwing, and Burke reached down and felt his fist close around a stone he knew was too big for that game, but the crying had removed from him any restraint, and, laughing, he took hard aim at the head of the boy and he threw.
Watching from the crowds, amidst the cheers and curses, there’s not a soul that day at Dead Rabbit Heath that knows what Jacob Burke knows, that the fight is already over. For Blindman’s standing and Blindman’s fists are still up, and if he’s slack in the lip no one can see from what Muscular Jacob Burke has done to his face. They’ll know, in breaths they’ll know and for years they’ll talk about it, but in this half-second between Muscular’s knowing and the crowd’s knowing, it’s as if Muscular has been left alone with a knowledge and an omnipotence only God should have.
There is a moment when a lifter takes a load and heaves it onto his shoulder, when the massive weight, the sack or the crate or the barrel at the top of its heave, becomes briefly weightless, and the lifter, no matter how tired he may be, poised between his action and the consequences of his action, feels both an incredible lightness and the power of the weight at the same time. It is as if he is master of the weight, not struggling below it, and Jacob Burke has learned over the years to seek this joy, cling to this joy, knows secretly that in the misery of everything else, there is one moment when he is king.
Maybe he thinks this or maybe he feels it in the movement of his arms, for now there is no difference between thinking and feeling and hitting.
Blindman’s fists are down and Muscular comes in on his man. He is feeling for the break, the hole, the soft, searching again for that seam, hitting, hitting, that half-second gone, and now there’s no turning back, hitting, knowing that when he’d told himself he hit so he wouldn’t be hit he was lying, because beneath it, the reason he hit was that there was joy in hurting, real joy in the simplicity and the freedom and the astounding number of answers in a single movement of his arms. Later he’ll have pity, but not now, now there is no pity, not because he is cruel but because there is no more Ben McGraw. For Muscular is alone, mind clear of all but such joy and beauty as he moves in, striking his man, searching, knowing there is only one way that he wants this to end, only one ecstatic way for it to end, only one, and hitting he thinks, Blindman I’m hitting Blindman I’m hitting Cairn I am hitting Cairn I’m hitting Cav I’m killing Cairn I’m hitting Cav I’m hitting Blindman I’m hitting Cav, and then feeling the soft thinks, I’m in the break thinks in the crown thinks in the line thinks into McGraw thinks there is a line into McGraw into the soft into McGraw into the crown of Ben McGraw into the temple of McGraw the broken temple of McGraw
The broken temple of McGraw.
thinks there is no such thing as a fast man only a slow world
thinks break break
*This story is taken from: The Piano Tuner © by Daniel Philippe Mason, 2002.