In the kitchen slurping cereal from plastic bowls shaped like Viking helmets, Shannon leans against the unused stove top, the little girl scoops with a spoon half the size of her head, her sprig ankles wrapping chair legs like creeper plants.
“I know what you are,” he says mid-bite, milk dripping. “You’re a memory I chased decades ago; an apparition, a compensation—you’re not real.”
She ladles milk back and forth. “I’m not real. But I am true.”
He snorts, she looks up.
“Or maybe I’m a necessary lie.”
“What’s the difference.”
She stirs, “One says, Look at me. The other says, Look away.”
Putting down his bowl, “Well I’m looking right at you.”
She glares back, “So look away.”
He doesn’t. “Are you here to chaperone me.”
She considers, “No. I may not have your best interest in mind.”
They stare. She slurps.
“‘If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come.’”
“Who said that.”
“I don’t know.”
“Lenore is my right name.”
“Quoth the raven,” he whispers.
He waits. “Lenore. Got it. After breakfast, Lenore, I like a morning walk. Join me if it suits you.”
“It isn’t morning, it’s midnight.”
Over the sink he reaches to pull at window blinds. The backyard is a bijou of shadows.
“Join me anyway,” filling his bowl with tap water.
“I can’t. I can’t leave the house.”
He turns, “Why not.”
“Because I’m a secret.”
He blinks, “You’re a secret.”
“I’m a secret.” They both blink. They both wait.
“But if I’m the only one who can see you”—
“I’m still. A secret.” They leer longer.
He turns, “Can you read.”
“Yes,” joining him in the main room. It’s tall bookcase is empty and they stare at it as if the emptiness is in error, to be remedied with a moment or two of patience. There is, however, a book of music on the piano.
“Can you read music.”
“I can read whatever you can read.”
He opens the book of Chopin’s Nocturnes to Opus 27 number 2 in D Flat. She sits, closing the book, hovers her hands over the keys in suspense. His eyes close. He imagines her fingers sinking down the keys and they do. She plays with elastic ease the quiet crisis of the piece, stretching it thin, relaxing it back, her one hand mumbling steady under-notes, other hand spry, brightening bolder ones. He stays to the wall listening, but the melody subdues him to the floor. On his back envisioning stars through the ceiling, he trembles as the nocturne trembles, and trundles on and Lenore lies down beside him. Together they imagine-off the entire roof, sky cold and immediate, flickering its lanterns into their open mouths.
He frowns. “There are parts of me that will never light up again.”
She does not roll her hand to touch his. They listen tranquilized as the nocturne lifts their weight into firmament; sky tracing them in among its celestial beings and beasts, until Chopin tiptoes off the piano into breath, leaving their bodies somewhere, surrounded by stars.
Shannon pauses in the dairy aisle of a nearby grocery store trying to discern what happens next. Go for the obvious. And selects strawberry-chocolate milk, fried cheese curds, honey butter, rice pudding, a carton of eggs, hefts it all into a shopping cart and notes a young couple further down the aisle scowling. Possibly at his orange windbreaker pants and pastel flannel button-up with “Sugar Mama” arched in red and green gemstones across the back, all buttons missing but the top one, his belly less hollow than before, though still shrunken enough to make the couple nervous. “An outfit like that could bring down property values,” they might be saying. “He couldn’t possibly be a Pieces.” Or, “Even Versace wouldn’t dare.” Most likely they are saying nothing at all, exchanging only looks, abruptly holding hands, straightening their posture, reviewing the items in their cart—which thankfully are none of his.
Shannon studies them back. Then takes out an egg from the carton, nimbly tosses it over the tile toward them like a bowling ball. It veers to the side, hits a shelf. They all watch it crack and ooze a dazzling marigold orange.
“DAMMIT,” he chides aloud, “I’M OFF MY GAME.”
And plucks out another egg.
Lenore at the apartment’s front window sits in sunlight, glass skewing her face into resemblance of an oncoming headlight. She’d like that, he thinks, I bet she would, and forgets to tell her. Instead he lumbers in with a boisterous greeting, unloads the groceries to the counter, into the fridge, then swings open the front door to smoke cross-legged in its frame. Lenore hasn’t looked up.
“Where’d you get the books.” Three or four are piled beside her in the sun.
“You got them. At the library.”
“I did,” lifts an eyebrow.
“You did,” turns a page.
“You know what I do,” taking a drag.
“I don’t know what I do.”
“This is often the case with most people,” and reads to him a poem from John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, I Am a Little World Made Cunningly.
He takes a final drag, flicks the butt across the yard.
“You can’t be more than seven years old, yet you speak like an adult, why is that.”
“Because you need me to,” flips a page.
Nettled, he rubs his head with both hands, “I have a piano student coming by soon. So if you could, you know,” his hands frothing air.
“Be a secret,” she says, watching the shadow of her own hand on the page.
“Welcome,” Shannon opens the front door, escorts Jim’s neighbor to the piano. She is lithe and vibrant and over-earnest, encased in a floral bodice blooming into an opened umbrella skirt.
“Thank you, Mr. Wolf,” she says, “I’m Heather,” putting her wicker satchel at the foot of his bed, which Lenore has made. Badly. “I remember you’re playing from Jim’s last dinner party. I’ll be leaving for college in the fall and I hope to brush-up my piano skills before I leave.” The formality in her speech does not disguise the sly suggestion in her voice this is not the plan at all.
She sits comfortably, fanning out her petticoat into crunchy dunes slopping over the bench’s ends.
“Shall I begin with scales?”
Shannon nods in agreement.
Her fingers slither up the keys, she draws-in breath enough for a cake covered with lit candles, and leans the chords methodically, arching herself with each resonant press. Lenore approaches demurely, circling—hands clasped behind, eyes downcast like a humorless instructor listening for talent. And shimmies onto the bench beside Heather, hands courteously to lap, and tips in to sniff Heather’s petals. Shannon, too, can smell the lavender and cobalt blue Hydrangeas of the taffeta print.
Heather quickens into melody, Vivaldi’s Spring—notes dappling about the somber room like a cool brisk rain. And now he can smell the warm black soil between her Hydrangeas, can feel his hands gurgle deep into the grub and touch hot oxygen ruffling out. Hands to his nose, he can smell the mulch of rotting branches and compost; varnishes his face with the thermal mud, epoxies his arms and chest with gritty earth gumbo. Decomposing leaves clot like membrane on his neck and mouth. He stands, a swamp scarecrow waist deep in a kettle pond, sendimental sewage thrombosising his feet further and further into the waterhole’s suction.
He looks around—the woods are bouncing sun nimbly from leaf to limb to total light. He bends back into the pond and floats like a lily-pad. In the water pressure encasing his ears there is Lenore’s voice reading Donne, Pour new seas in mine eyes, so that I might drown my world… his face is covered over by the lake’s face. Or wash it, if it must be drown’d no more, he bursts up, flopping back again, smashing the water with awkward desperate flaps like a bird washing up in oil sludge. The mud is heavy like a harness. With surface water he rinses his arms and face, his torso, and there under the smears are the Hydrangeas, in sooty blue storm clouds slick on his stomach.
He’s wearing the dress. Her dress.
Floral dunes on the piano bench. Reaching down into the muck, he pulls up the skirt, the closed umbrella skirt.
He’s wearing the dress.
And lunges for the embankment, trips on her hem while crawling up the ridge. The dress barely fits him and he can barely tear it off. He thinks of burying it, here, beneath the rocky clay. And scrambles to the dirt path, taffeta still in-hand. He thinks of dumping it, here, in the public trash bin. But grabs a balled-up grocery bag instead and crams the dress inside. Then walks. An hour or more. Back to his neighborhood, the apartment, front door slamming behind. The bagged dress at his back, Lenore tabled, they look at each other in mild alarm.
“Where’s the girl,” he pants.
“The girl who was here,” points to the bench, “Right here, playing.”
“The girl in flowers.”
“Heather, where is she.”
“With Jim. He fetched her.”
“How do you know.”
“We watched her go.”
“HOW DO YOU KNOW.”
“Call her,” pointing to his cell phone atop the piano.
Patting down his mud-stuck pockets, “Why don’t I have my phone.”
“You didn’t want to be found.”
He touches buttons for her name, makes the call.
“Hello? Mr. Wolf?” voice shining.
He ends the call.
Lenore grunts, “That’s not her dress.”
The crisping bundle betrays him, dropping to his heels.
She looks at it grimly, mutters, “It’s not what you think.”
“So why. Why would I think it.”
She looks away. “It isn’t noon. It’s midnight.”
Bathroom cabinet shuts, dress left to calcify in the sink. Wearing only damp trousers he sits in the tub’s far end.
Above it the moon shines through a moth grey veil the shade of bone on an X-ray screen. Why would I know that. And lights a cigarette.
Lenore sits on the toilet lid, “What are you doing.”
Shivering, he takes a drag, “I don’t know,” blows it out. Again. Then again. “You know things I don’t,” he wants confirmed.
She modifies, “I know things because of you,” swishing her legs.
“Do I know things because of you.”
“Yes,” legs stop. She holds her breath. “What do you want to know.”
“There were…” takes another drag, “But I’ve forgotten now.”
“Pervert, she heckles, “Monster.”
He ashes in the tub, not looking up, “What do perverts do.”
“There’s no statute of limitations.”
And the words, these specific words, propel the turbine in his chest to breakneck speed. His fist beats against it, to knock it loose.
“That won’t help.”
“What will,” cringing.
Her singing voice is young, very young—timidly touching air, straining to draw out a note, a word, sometimes off key, and is the clearest sound he can remember. Though with a hint of sorrow, is matter-of-fact, without vibrato, haunted with a knowledge all other voices lack. And will lack from now on.
As she sings she carefully climbs into the tub to sit across from him. A solemn boat forgotten at sea; an outlet in the middle of a shared private wilderness.
on a wire,
Like a drunk
in a midnight choir,
I have tried
in my way
to be free.
Drawing up her knees,
“Like a worm
on a hook,
Like a knight
from some old-fashioned book,
I have saved
all my ribbons
With cigarette burning down between his fingers, he draws up his own knees and tries not to wonder what unspeakable need in him has conjured her, made her this way—so slight and secretive and lonesome.
“Oooh like a baby stillborn,
Like a beast with his horns,
I have torn everyone
who reached out for me.
“But I swear
by this song
And by all
I have done wrong
I will make
up to thee.”
And suddenly the scene is too forsaken for him to accept. The moonlight on his skeletal chest, the tousled, neglected child with a lullaby in his bathtub, the bigness of her words bending the smallness of her voice, the stench of open earth with no flowers to be seen. Where is the shower curtain. The danger he might reach out to hold her, to make her stop, is compressing him like an aluminum can under a merciless boot—he almost lurches forward as if to vomit or cry out—his blood vessels all breaking at once, his mind like a flashbulb, finally popping, he collapses back to the tiled wall. Black crossroads of mildew embosses his face. He stares hypnotized at this inexplicable creature. Summoned by its rightful name. Neither demon nor angel saint. But with a will of its own, choosing him. How could he. How could he possibly know until here, right here. That whatever has made her so cunningly, is easily now unmaking him. Without malice, without remorse.
Thomas and Shannon sit in the afternoon sun in full tuxedos on Jim’s front stoop licking vanilla ice-cream cones covered in sprinkles. Shannon’s bow tie is undone, still looped about his neck. Thomas has sprinkles stuck to his cummerbund, bleeding specks of color into its white canvas.
“You know what it is about you, Shannon.”
If the man had not continued Shannon would not have noticed. Tipping up his face, squinting into the sun, Lenore. She’d like ice-cream. I bet she would. The folds of Thomas’ aged face pull back into fine and finer creases, his nose settled in amid the high thread count of his lived in skin.
“You’re like a recording device,” Thomas continues. “You sit there without coyness, flattery, or complaint. I feel like I could tell you anything.”
Shannon faces him, “The kind of things you might… tell a piano,” he proposes.
Thomas smirks, “Perhaps. If I played.”
Shannon licks the ice-cream. Licks it again.
Thomas laughs, shakes his head. “And the tape just keeps on rolling, doesn’t it.”
Brunch guests’ costly shoes clack the stone steps, passing the two men, a dozen voices fluttering various departures above their heads. A young woman dressed in a field of sunflowers squeezes Shannon’s shoulder with her lace-gloved hand, wicker satchel in the other.
“Mr. Wolf, I loved your playing this afternoon. You’ll have everyone ringing your bell for lessons,” a teasing wink.
I don’t have a bell.
Jim descends behind her, polished cufflinks glistering like direct light. “Now where did you lads find such a great idea.”
Shannon looks to Thomas who holds up a finger, signaling for silence. In the distance a sparkling solitary tune plays, distinct to weary tramp ice-cream trucks.
Jim laughs. “Next time we shall have an ice-cream bar at brunch.”
“King me.” Night shadows yawn across the butcher block table, the slant of streetlight neatly cutting up the shadows into repeating frames, piling them unto the square board where Shannon fastens a checker atop Lenore’s triumphant black one. She takes the last bite of ice-cream from her Viking helmet, waggles her feet under her chair. Crickets coo through the open windows. He thinks, Ice-cream trucks… are noon-day crickets. And slides a red checker down the board.
To Lenore, “What else does a bird on a wire sing.”
She considers. Then holds up her bowl like a challis and swallows down the warm pool of cream, wipes her mouth with a sticky hand, grandly places the bowl upside-down upon her tangled hair and sings with a voice more confident than before, still willowy.
‘“I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel. You were talkin so brave and so sweet. Giving me head on the unmade bed while the limousine waited in the street…”’
He stares widely.
Sitting up on her knees, bowl listing to one side, ‘“I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel. You were famous, your heart was a legend…”’
Taken by surprise with recall, Shannon sings on, ‘“…You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception.”’
She raises her gooey mitt as if in pledge.
He sings, ‘“And clenching your fist for the one’s like us who are oppressed by the figures of beauty, you fixed yourself, you said—”’
‘“—Well, never mind. We are ugly but we have the music.”’ She straightens her helmet.
He slouches back. ‘“And then you got away, didn’t you baby, you just turned your back on the crowd. You got away, I never once heard you say—”’
‘“I need you.”’
He leans in, ‘“I don’t need you”’
She leans in, ‘“I need you”’
‘“I don’t need you”’
She sinks back, ‘“And all of that… jiving around.”’
She slides a black checker from one shadow to another, sighing, “Next time, Chess.”
He lifts his empty bowl, turns it over on his own head. “Agreed.” And slides over a red checker. “King me.”
The public library’s lights have an undertone of pale seasick green; mint ice cream on its way back up. It’s minutes before closing—the tired, oblong voice in the tele-speaker has said as much several times. Shannon has been here all afternoon, a stack of books up to his chin, crowned with a plastic bag of chess pieces. He now stands at a CD rack studying a song list of Leonard Cohen. Each title reads like an omen: “Is This What You Wanted”, “Why Don’t You Try”, “There Is a War”, “I Tried to Leave You”, “A Singer Must Die”, “Take This Longing”.
A man, the other side of the aisle, flips through records and EPs, glancing up at Shannon between the swish of a record landing in timber. Carelessly groomed in a meticulous way—two days of stubble and waxed eyebrows, clothes untidy but clean—he’s amused, and slinks over to Shannon, who looks up. “I’m Rob,” he says, looking at Shannon’s mouth, “And you should hear that man on vinyl.”
Up the porch steps early morning Shannon bounds in blinding canary yellow—T-shirt with silver sequins blinking “Prima”, buoyant sweatpants and beech flip-flops, several sizes too large like islands strapped to his feet. Onto the butcher block table he pours a brown paper bag of library goods—poetry, plays, music books, CDs, chess pieces—like legendary treasure, overflowing the table.
Lenore watches from her perch at the window. She hasn’t seen him since yesterday.
Flatly, “You’re in different clothes.”
Even flatter, “And you aren’t.”
From the table he gathers the goods, lines them up on the top shelf where Lenore cannot possibly reach, even standing on the bench.
“Why,” she asks darkly.
“It’s an experiment.”
“I read one of these books walking here this morning. Which one,” he challenges.
She turns her head away as if in defiance, to square the sun full on her face, “He spat in my mouth and gave me visions of the future. Zeus did, to Cassandra.”
He pulls down the correct book, amused.
“Do you see the future,” she asks.
She looks to him, “I see what you can’t see.”
Closing the book, “Show me.”
Like a released slingshot, he turns, book in hand, and chucks it at the opposite corner of the room, smacking its plastic-wrapped against the wall. They watch it slide to the ground. A rather large spider on the wall remains, stunned but alive.
She fades her gaze out the window, “A neurologist once told you arachnophobia is a fear of being in one’s own skin. The spider with its eight legs touching the human body in so many places at once.”
He scoops up the spider, lets it crawl out the window, saying “I don’t dislike them.”
He watches the spider, she looks at the table. “Are those chess pieces.”
Well into the game, both look as though it’s mind control that will move the pieces—unblinking scrutiny caged behind fingers cramped around their craniums like fossilized spiders holding up their faces, now sinking lower and lower to the board.
He moves a piece, “Would you want a doll.”
She moves a piece, “What would I do with a doll.”
“I don’t know.” He moves a piece.
“Maybe you want a doll.” She moves a piece.
“What would I do with a doll.” He moves again.
“What does anyone do with a doll.” She moves.
They study the board.
“What about crayons.” He moves, “Or paint.”
“Aren’t you afraid of what I would draw.” She moves.
Lenore is once again attempting to make the bed, unfurling the top sheet like a wild sail of navy blue, only to have it furl back as a reservoir of waves beneath her hands. She has tried this from several angles around the bed. Shannon, standing hands on waist at the window watches her jerky figure’s reflection in the dusty glass, the night hanging like another solid blue sheet on the other side. He can hear her usual calm tightening emphatic sighs.
“I want to hear you laugh,” he says suddenly, gently. In the glass he can see her flinch, drop the sheet to the floor. She looks caught. He turns to catch her caught.
Her “Why” is almost a gasp.
He turns back to the window, unable to say it to her face, a face so startled and for the first time afraid.
To her reflection, “Today I heard children laughing in the street. And I wanted. I wanted that for you.”
Her shoulders twitch as though something is crawling between them. She shifts, shifts again, now frowning. “Do you know anything funny.”
He looks around the room, to the kitchen, out its window; opens the closet, ogles under the bed. Then sits down on the piano bench.
Tucked in bed, bolstered up against the headboard, Shannon writes and erases in a book of Leonard Cohen sheet music, transcribing them from guitar to piano. He wears a pair of found reading glasses—lenses thick, doubling the size of his eyes; notes paddling around on the page while he mutters the melody, marks, remarks, erases, hums, shakes his head, begins again. At the foot of the bed is Lenore in a wood chair soldiering through John Berryman’s poetry book “Dream Songs.” She is reading aloud. Very aloud. He glares at her; she too is swimming around in his glasses like a fish in a bowl.
“When do you sleep.”
“I don’t sleep.”
“But you eat.”
She turns the page.
“Do you also”—
She amplifies over him.
“Maybe you should sleep.”
She pulls down her book, “Why would I do that.”
“Because. I want my dreams back.”
Like a released slingshot, she leaps at him so quickly with her hands now at his throat tipping back his head, he has no time to protest, to make a noise, before a crystal ball of her saliva is lowering down like a spider into his mouth.
The sound of her voice reading aloud wakes him. He’s still bolstered, music book in hand, Lenore is still reading aloud at the end of the bed. She stops to looks up.
“I WANT MY DREAMS BACK,” he demands, taking off the glasses, folding them up to the side, to show how reasonable he’s being.
“Why. Is something missing.”
He frowns, set off-course. “Yes.” And pads down the comforter about him, gets from the bed, a slow-moving panic stiffening his arms. “I can’t see it.”
“Take away what you can see.”
He pulls off his t-shirt, drops his pants, tears off each sock, pulls down his skivvies, punts them away, stands bare before the mirror.
“Eyes closed,” she prompts.
A moment later, “The watch,” he mumbles, clasping his wrist. Eyes open, “The watch, where is the watch.”
“What is the watch.”
He rubbernecks, scraping every surface of the room with eyes, sharpened to see the small shape, calling to it with an empty open mouth. “I don’t, I don’t know. WHERE IS THE WATCH.”
“What is the watch”
“I DON’T KNOW.”
He searches. Between, under, atop the few items on the nightstand, on the shelves, in the kitchen cupboards, the closet, knocking over the bat—Thatcher’s bat. “WHERE IS IT.”
“What is it.”
In every limb of his body is rush hour traffic jamming at his chest where the motor wheel is spinning at a speed that will kill him, he’s sure of it, he’s going to combust. His torso contracting until his knees buckle, he falls to the floor, coughing out drool, body cramping again and again, tears from the pressure jetting from his eyes. He roars, is almost barking in pain. Brain hissing steam like a radiator, his numb arms hold tightly his whole howling form.
Lenore steps near, stands over his naked shaking frame.
“What is happening to me!” he croaks.
“Something beautiful,” she says without admiration or pity. “Now get up.”
And he does.
At dawn Jim arrives and Shannon wears only a dressing gown. Tied in front, hanging to mid-thigh, not made of anything impressive—cashmere or silk—but terrycloth and second-hand, the color of well-chewed bubble gum. And the tie is slipping.
Jim is also in a dressing gown—linen pajama’s beneath; button-up and draw-string, all pin-striped, scornfully coordinated. His Mercedes trunk is opened wide. Shannon would like to curl up inside that hatch, ride around for hours. How to ask it. Jim rattles a small cardboard box between them. Several watches scratch around inside, the watches are multiples. Jim pulls out one, hands it to Shannon, “How long have you been without it.”
“A day. More. I’m not sure,” strapping it on.
“Has anything. Come back to you.”
“From where.” Shannon is earnest. Jim is exhausted.
“Never mind,” Jim sighs, hand on Shannon’s shoulder, tossing box into trunk, slamming it. Another sigh, “I know.”
Shannon glowers, “What do you know.”
“What do you know.”
Jim stands stupid.
“You know I don’t know. What don’t I know.”
Jim circles to the driver’s door.
“WHAT DON’T I KNOW, JIM.”
“You know… you really ought to find a more sizable gown, that’s what.”
Mercedes drives away. Shannon stands, robe opening completely. Uneven burn lines fractured across his body. Like that nude descending a staircase.
Now inside, Shannon thrashes through the nearly empty wall closet to pull out a red vinyl poncho, wrenching it over his head with vigor, throwing up the hood for emphasis. Squirms his feet to fit on the yellow flip flops. Lenore stands before him, timid, waiting.
He leans over to shove his face in hers, eyes snarling.
“Trust your anger,” she whispers, “Follow it.”
He blinks. Then leans his forehead closer, her’s, then closer, until she stumbles back. He stands, satisfied. Puts on black sunglasses, stomps out the backdoor.
Marching down the sidewalk, it seems to him all that is important to know is hiding, only to be called forth in the dark, by some special bidding, a language—no, an encounter, an impact. Shutting his fists, he spins as if the unknown were right behind him. “SHOW YOURSELF!” he thunders. A beige sedan drives toward him in the street, at twenty-five, thirty miles an hour. With expert timing and no hesitation, he steps out in front of the oncoming car.
In his robe, poncho off, swaddling petunias and dirt, Shannon stands in the front door of his apartment, weary tramp ice-cream crickets cooing behind him announcing his return.
Hanging from one hand are two small cans of paint, from the other a small CD boombox, freckled with layers of dried paint.
His knees are torn open and packed-in with earth, shins a melting fresco of blood and soil. His forehead is lopsided with swelling, a stain of blood forming like a lake off the side of his hairline; chin missing skin and nose split across the bridge, blood dried beneath it and on his lips, between his teeth. He smiles, holding up the gifts.
Below him on the floor is a life-size likeness of himself in bandaids. And the chalk body outlines are back, all of them the littlest body. In the midst of them, Lenore, lying on her back, hands as a cot for her head, stares poker-faced at the ceiling.
He lowers the loot, “What do you see tonight.”
Flatly, “The ceiling.”
Even flatter, “We can fix that.”
Through the boombox on the piano bench, Leonard Cohen tells why A Singer Must Die in tender tuneful laments while Lenore and Shannon sweep about their arms, their paint-soaked hands and bare feet in pistachio green and olive drab, marking, remarking the limits of the shower curtain, laid flat as a canvas. Their bodies circle around and around as tiny sleepy tornados, then swerve and drift more.
She murmurs, “I’m forever-ing in here bumping into walls then moving through them rolling on the shiny floor no trace of me.” He stops, nauseated, and repeats under his shallow breath, “the taste the first time I threw-up and couldn’t swallow and had to wash the shiny shiny floor no trace of me.” To quell his biliousness, he collapses along the rim of the shower curtain, pinching the edge. He turns over and over, until he’s spooled into a tight tube, head and neck out, feet kicking.
He sits—is precariously propped—upon the reading chair’s seat, when he asks—to see if it matters, if it makes any sense—to have a head, a body, a front and a back.
She slaps him. Hard. For a seven year old.
With her other hand on the other side she caresses his cheek.
“To experience pleasure and pain,” he says dryly, unimpressed.
“To experience somebody else’s. Is to experience somebody; someone.”
He frowns. “What if the pain is bigger than my body is.” His eyes follow her’s over the burial ground of silhouettes. “Oh god,” blurting out the mathematics, “Is that why you’re here?” She won’t look up. “Is that why you don’t laugh?” She won’t look up. “NO!” writhing in his restraints.
As he struggles she walks to the kitchen, returns with a butcher knife drooping from her hand like a doll, and stands tranquil, as if awaiting instructions; they stare at each other thinking of all the unthinkable possibilities. And the thinking feels like a caress.
She slashes the curtain down one side, the other, up the bottom to his knees; arms and legs can bend now; points to the piano. “Play it.”
Beside each other on the bench, his hands poised and delayed on the white lake surface of the keys. The bottom three notes she presses—one, two, three. And it begins, Prokofiev’s “Suggestion Diabolique,”what he can remember of it—a ferocious tantrum boiling on the keys that springs up into sharper prancing, leaps into midair, stomps on thunder, bounds off to sprint at terrifying speed.
But now the piece is tripping over itself, tangling, rolling into something unprepared, something that snags like a claw down a curtain, the piece falling so far and so fast she covers her mouth with both hands not to beg him to stop, clenching shut her eyes not to see the piano.
Finally the piece catches on something in the dark and swings by its neck, slowing as it loses air, the swings echoing in the distance they have fallen, and in the boundless-below.
From there the piece digs sideways, face first, sucking down shadows until the dark loosens and collapses around one repeating note in F sharp, the F scattering flecks of light, flecks that shred the piece into a dozen hearts beating at odds, hurtling toward one pulse that will not hold before it spills over into laughter, into lavender, into relief.
In reverential shock he slowly removes his hands, as if not to disturb the air, the very liminal space they could be passing through. Watching the impossible, he thrived; watching it begin, she had drawn back, but now they both stare in idiotic wonder—ear-splitting red is glazed in fingerprints across the entire keyboard; sepia smudges drying on the keys’ curled lips.
They inspect his hands for injury—there are many. Palms, knuckles, backside—cuts and missing skin, but all marks are scabbing over with no fresh glinting dew.
“You made it bleed,” she whispers with dread, and does not rest her head on his shoulder.
His hands now hidden, “How do we make it stop.”
“We don’t,” bowing her head.
“Because it wants everything.” Bowing his.
He sits up, breaking through thin skin of a sleep with no underside. The wood chair is empty and the room dark. Above he can vaguely see the paint-marinated shower curtain hung flat along the ceiling as a tapestry of a busy, lathering sky.
Trying to slide himself up the pillow, he can barely move his torso without an accordion of pain squeezing into one stabbing throb in his chest. And it makes him wonder—if there isn’t a way to open up his chest like window shutters and reach in, jerk it out. He lifts the sheet to see bruises and claw marks haloing his lower ribs. Maybe he’s already tried.
He can remember the animal cry of the car’s breaks and the driver’s face through the windshield when his own face punched into it—a Goya portrait. When the driver incoherent with questions and curses had helped him to stand, Shannon had silenced him with two words. “Car keys,” hand outstretched.
Two small paint cans rolled back and forth in the passenger footwell, a sandy boombox in the front seat, glasses and sunglasses in the burst-opened glovebox.
It hadn’t surprised him then, the driver’s willingness to forfeit his keys at mere suggestion he do so. The man had seemed grateful. Perhaps it was stolen.
His head feels like a kicked-in soccer ball, his mouth rusty, still tasting of the watering can. He reaches for a pack of smokes on the nightstand. They are gone and his hand is shaking. A match strikes across the room, in the front door frame a flame and Lenore close in on a cigarette. Her first inhale is long and savored with the measure of a consummate smoker. Her stem of a wrist shakes out the flame, drops the match. Another full drag flows out her elfin nose and he can see her eyes get lost down an ally on the other side of town, eyes glowing with a danger she sees there. And a sadness. No. More than sadness. Devastation. Can a child’s face show such comprehension and still remain a child’s. The spread of nicotine in his body smoothes the shaking. And she turns to watch him, her face solemn again, completely child. Blowing out smoke through her nose like a baby dragon, “I can touch your soul now if you want.” And before there is an answer, he is asleep.
“Field Commander Cohen he was our most important spy…” Sunday late afternoon brunch at the grand piano, with patched paint like camouflage molting off his skin, collar unbuttoned and raised, blazer sleeves rolled and no bow tie, Shannon sings playing barefoot an arrangement of Leonard Cohen, his voice low, melodious, crackling like the paint on his neck, flaking behind his ears.
“…Wounded in the line of duty, parachuting acid into diplomatic cocktail parties….”
The guests are listening only because their eyes can’t seem to stay on him. Something like car wax, something that coats over time and keeps out weather is slipping their stares off him onto the polished lacquer of the piano, onto their own bare shoulders just as polished, onto the strenuous whites of each other’s athletic eyes.
“…Leave it all and like a man,
Come back to nothing special,
Such as waiting rooms and ticket lines,
Silver bullet suicides,
And messianic ocean tides,
And racial roller-coaster rides
And other forms of boredom advertised as poetry.”
It isn’t his lack of couture that seems uncivil; that could be forgiven if there wasn’t so much blood. Dried trails of it down his ankles, wrist bone nearly skinless with an aura of angry red around exposed cartilage; forehead blackened with clots, and his hands. What starving beast has feasted upon those hands.
“I know you need your sleep now,
I know your life’s been hard.
But many men are falling,
Where you promised to stand guard.”
Only one person is wholly facing him. A muscular young man with a tree trunk face, hard angles with soundless staying-power, a face that can be climbed. Oak strength is everywhere in him but his eyes. They are misplaced, wrong-headed; defenseless, openly suffering, unable to look away from Shannon.
“Ah, lover come and lie with me, if my lover is who you are,
And be your sweetest self awhile until I ask for more, my child.
Then let the other selves be wrong, yeah, let them manifest and come
Till every taste is on the tongue,”
Jim sharply sits beside Shannon with a slice of cake on a plate. Holding it up, “Shannon, have some cake!”
Shannon smacks it to the floor, passionately clutching Jim’s face, kissing him full on the mouth. Jim pushes back, pulls him to stand, “Let’s get some air,” leads him to the kitchen.
“Can we have the room.” Brunch folk apologetically disassemble.
Shannon is growling under running water at the sink faucet, soaking his head. Jim yanks down the faucet handle like a driving clutch, throws a towel over Shannon’s head.
“You missed your doctor’s appointment,” Jim begins.
“My what,” rubbing himself dry.
“Shannon, this isn’t negotiable.”
“It’s my fault,” Jim sighs, tossing his hand, “I’ll drive you next week myself.” Then points to Shannon’s wrist. “Where’s your watch.”
“It clashes with my feet.”
“GODDAMMIT SHANNON,” lowering his voice, “This isn’t a joke, it’s the goddamn law!”
The incomprehension in Shannon’s face is extraordinary to Jim. It’s mesmerizing.
“If you want to stay living on your own there are rules. Look, tomorrow is my mother’s piano lesson—”
“Not a good idea,” Shannon interrupts.
“And you canceled on the twins too, I hear.”
“You were doing so well, Shannon. What’s happening to you?”
Jim could spit. “I’m driving you home.”
“I know my way.” Towel drops in sink on his way to the patio doors.
Whistling Beethoven’s Fifth, barefoot, past twilight, Shannon—taking his time like a bachelor on holiday at the beach shore— untucked, facing the wind, faintly grinning, without pain or fear or guilt. Unaware of the man following him a block behind. Who is also seeing Shannon on a beach, leaning on wind, face in stars.
Walking up his porch steps, Shannon hears first the soft rhythmic clicking of the bike spokes. The voice turns him.
“I didn’t appreciate your playing at the party. It was gruesome.” The carved man of oak from brunch is walking a bike, stops at the porch stoop to make it clear to Shannon.
“You look awful.”
Shannon’s face illuminates in the fire of his lighter. He takes a long and savored drag. Squints, waits.
The man continues. “They’ve been hiding you.”
The man cannot stop himself now. “They’re ashamed of you. But mostly they’re ashamed of themselves. Because they failed you.”
“I’m Roger Pearce. I was once your intern. Back when the city sung your name and wanted you sainted. Now we want you forgotten.” Shannon takes another drag, a hard, hasty drag. Even from here he can see the man’s eyes brimming with watery light. “You taught me truth at all costs. You gave your life to know. If you want to know what you got for it…” he holds out a business card, Shannon doesn’t move to reach it. Laying it on the bottom step, “…Talk to me.” He walks on, bicycle beside him like a small obedient pony. Shannon doesn’t finish the cigarette, flings it to the street, a new coldness in his chest, an electrical storm flashing in his forehead.
Shannon inside can barely close the door before Lenore tumbles into him, unable to breathe well enough for words, her body so convulsive with panic, it tears from its own silhouette again and again, multiplier her like an image in a flip-book.
“I’m not a secret anymore!” she wheezes. The comprehension in her face is extraordinary to him. Mesmerizing.
“What. Why?” Trying to block her body in it’s tumbling.
“SOMEBODY KNOWS ABOUT ME!”
He looks over his shoulder at the window then back to her.
“Who knows about you.”
“SHANNON! SHANNON KNOWS ABOUT ME!”
Squatting to grip her shoulders, “TALK SENSE TO ME, LENORE!”
“The swamping room!” she gasps.
“Ask him what happens in the swamping room!”
“What happens in the swamping room?”
“EVERYTHING! IT WANTS EVERYTHING!” Throwing her head back, wailing inconsolably, “HE’S GOING TO GIVE AWAY THE STORY.”
Kat Mandeville graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, is finishing her PhD in Philosophy & Critical Thought at the European Graduate School, and with Atropos Press has published her Master’s Thesis, Seduction into Life, Revelation with Strangers: Could Ettinger’s Matrixial Borderspace Answer Badiou’s Call for a New Philosophical Tradition? She’s published two books of poetry, with various poems published in various journals. She lives in New York City.