“Where are the children.”
“Grown. Or dead.”
Shannon and Lenore stand in the neighborhood of his repeated dreams: the same solemn, darkest blue of an early late night sky, same corner house sunken low like a slab of clay, same streetlamp throwing its summery light on the intersection where is no lobbed football, no exhilarated children, no car in the driveway hiding mischievous men. She takes his hand. They walk up the inclining street, blending in with baths of pavement greys under alternating streetlights.
“I thought you had to stay in my place,” he murmurs.
“Open your eyes.” She sits before him on the wooden floor of his apartment—butcher block table behind, piano to the left, littlest body outline beneath. She opens her own eyes to greet his.
Eyes close; back on the street she turns to him, releasing his hand. “The times you chased me, in this world, what did you want.”
He blinks. “I don’t know.”
“To catch me?”
“I don’t know.”
“To capture me.”
“To fool me.”
“To feed me.”
“To, say it.”
“To what me.”
“To what me.”
“Me, to what me.”
“TO BE YOU.”
She relaxes, faces up the street again, taking his hand, they walk on.
Murmuring more, “So I have heard you laugh before. Before the house. What’s in the house.”
“The swamping room.”
Night holding them close together is easing its tension into dawn, into daylight, showing the neighborhood faintly fluxing in shape, settling in as another part of town, a wealthy road of brownstones. She stops before a banistered firebrick staircase. In the window is a face that is suppose to know him.
He stares unblinking. “I don’t want to know the story anymore.”
She stares unblinking. “That doesn’t matter. It knows you. It knows where you are and has found you there.” Releasing his hand once more, “It’s time to gather.”
He opens his eyes to meet hers before him on the wooden floor of his apartment—butcher block table behind, piano to the left, littlest body outline beneath. She opens her own eyes to greet his.
“The traces, threads pulling on you, through you. These are many, many.”
“Reaching what, to where.”
“And absence. Sometimes ringing with words.”
“What do you want to know.”
“There were…” His face drops, wincing, as if holding back a sneeze. Holding, holding it. “But I’ve forgotten now.” Eyes open on the street.
In the window is a face that’s supposed to know him.
A man opens, boyish, not quite middle-aged, not by far. What a many cornered face. The man wears a white linen tunic fragrant with cedar and sandalwood cologne. His lumber-stacked straight frame looks like a tree draped in fresh laundry.
“You’ve been standing in the street for nearly ten minutes. Ring the bell already before a car hits you.”
Shannon ascends the stairs attentively, reaching Roger, and pushes a white button-sized dome beside the door frame. A courteous, toneless pattern of notes sag in the air.
Inside the apartment is immaculate with ivory hues—carpeting, walls, upholstery; furniture pieces made wholly of or lined with cherry wood. Or maybe walnut, or maple, or oak; he wonders if he’s trying to name the wood or describe the man.
Leading Shannon in, Roger stops at the bay window beside head-sized slates of gilded glass, flashing light. Two people together like this might sit on the leather Chesterwood sofa, at the window ledge, even lean against the wall. These thoughts occur to them but not the impulse. As if in a congregation, a circle, a crowd dictating their bearings; they stand across from each other at a distance.
“I had to contact a few people to find out if you’d be at the brunch. I guess that means I crashed it.” Almost smiling, “But you crushed it.”
“Roger. What is the swamping room.”
Roger’s eyes grow to flying-saucer-round. “Is this a trick question.”
Shannon blinks. “No.”
Roger’s eyes flutter about the room like a disoriented bird seeking an open window; it lands on the lowest bookshelf neatly stuffed with notebooks shedding their spines. He crouches to withdraw one and then another and then another, then stands flipping pages back and forth. “I transcribed all the sermons you gave in your office. Or anytime you opened your mouth.”
“I was a man of faith,” Shannon, surprised.
“Hardly,” eyes rolling, then brightening, folding down a page. “You were proliferating with us interns. I had turned on my voice recorder hidden in my sleeve—you disliked when I brought it out in casual conversation.” He sits on the coiled back of a chaise lounge chair. “But somehow it was never casual with you, even when it was.” Closing the notebook on his finger, “As if fate were always in the balance; in our pauses and our looks, the very words chosen; about the world, the weather, the goddamn sun.”
Shannon waits, unperplexed.
Opening his notes, Roger inhales. “‘Every mind has an underworld into which no daylight can shine. Where artifacts are collected.’”
“‘Echo chambers. For our ecstasies and longing, our pain and horror, for almost-truths, even the true.’”
“And what is the true.”
“‘Moments when the mind stops, when it gallops; when it flips over and falls out and has to watch itself gasping on the pavement.’”
“‘The daylight-mind arranges these artifacts into a narrative it can live with. And what it can’t live with is condemned to the swamping room.’”
He swallows. “And what happens there.”
“‘What cannot happen.’”
“‘It’s where what cannot be draws breath. Where what cannot have been endures. Where what cannot be seen glistens. Where the unbelievable has physical existence. Where the impossible is impossible still. Where all the elephants lie down.’ ” Roger’s mouth winks a quick sneer, “ ‘Sometimes we’d like to smuggle in a baseball bat.’”
Roger smirks in recollection. “Your responses now, word for word, have been the same ones we had back then.” He reads on.
“‘But you can’t access it alone, the swamping room. It takes another witness.’”
“It takes them.”
“Yes. ‘Expressing itself in them, to live on.’”
“Like a malady.”
“‘Like a melody.’”
“You tolerated all that babble.”
“And you cared for it.”
Stepping forward, “What was it like to work for me.”
Stepping back, “Inspirational.”
“And to know me personally.”
Roger’s lips loosens and eyes dilate, “You were often rushed, greedy, but tender in the afterglow,” and shudders with abrupt scorn, nostrils flaring, “But you’re a shell of that man now—the walking undead of your former self.” His voice is muffled in the activity of his twitching chin and twisting mouth, “I thought I could tell you, tell you all of it. The whole terrifying tale I’ve painfully pieced together. But it can’t be me. I’m sorry.”
Shannon’s face is opening, Roger’s tightening, “The cowards will say ‘Shannon Wolf has no witness.’ But it’s worse than that.” A watery light skids down his cheek, “You have a witness. And you’ll never find her.”
Seconds pass, perhaps minutes, most likely—
“SAY SOMETHING!” Roger bellows.
“You’ve been brave tonight,” reaching to touch his shoulder.
Cuffing it away, “You nauseate me!”
Roger grabs Shannon’s shirt color with both fists, punching his eyes into Shannon’s—into one eye, then the other, and Shannon takes it, and takes it. Overcome, he slumps into Shannon, grieving aloud in gulps and apologies. Shannon anchors him until both men stop bending, holds him close, though he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want disaster; he wears no tie; Roger’s face is the tie. He strokes his head, and knows he will never see this man again.
There are trees a grown man can climb when there is no face near enough nor strong enough to bear his blinding urgency; boughs that can carry his heavy rest without groan. Several limbs up, Shannon crouches barefoot like a gorilla expecting an incident, a coincidence, a danger. Perhaps a herd of elephants. Rising smoke from his cigarette pillows under the large up-turned hand of a leaf, cloaking it, moving on like water.
All the language of the afternoon, the nonsense, compelling him, convicting him, makes him aware he hasn’t any teeth—the kind needed to latch on and agitate the account; organize what’s shaken out into a memory that is more than the event of having heard it spoken. It is only noise now; the landfill he walked past days ago—the crowding-in sound of unbendable material, screeching into a solid cube of surplus.
It wouldn’t help to scream, himself. That would be redundant, not precise enough. His legs prickle him back to the tree; he stretches them out, throwing balance, and smacks his head on a bulging bough. The screeching landfill noises in his head pop and skip like a record; a moment of order. So he faces the tree in agreement and beats his forehead against it over and over, the order simplifying, simplifying. Until the blood brims his eyebrows, until the noises are dumb and listening, until the pain is in the chord of A flat major.
Jim lifts his mother from the piano bench, Lenore remaining on the other side. A younger man cheerfully enters the apartment with a buoyancy that burdens everyone with embarrassment. He’s in gym attire and gym physique with no radiance of labor, no trails of sweat.
“Can I help you, Jim!” out of breath with enthusiasm. He takes one side of the buckling woman, gripping her sharp-edged elbows and rounded shoulders.
“Shannon, this is Dale.”
Dale grins big.
Shannon stares. “Do I know Dale.”
Jim hesitates, looks away, “Dale is new.”
Shannon nods, “Hello, Dale.”
The procession continues its short walk to the door.
“Jim, do you remember Roger Pearce.”
Everything but his mouth smiling, “You can leave now, Dale,” Shannon says.
Jim gestures, Dale walks his mother out the door.
Now alone, “Yes, I remember Roger Pearce,” Jim mumbles, hands in pockets, gaze on floor.
“He was at your brunch soiree.”
“So he was.”
“He and I had a chat today.”
Jim stares stupid.
“He said I’m the walking undead of my former self. That’s a term I haven’t heard yet, ‘former self.’ What does he mean, Jim.”
“Better ask him.”
“He wept in my arms.”
“There’s your answer.”
“That isn’t an answer, it’s a burial.”
“WELL LOOK AROUND!” Jim, sweeping his arm across the field of body outlines.
“Not good enough.”
“We aren’t doing this now,” heading to the open door.
“YES, WE ARE,” slamming it.
Jim’s face drops, wincing, as if holding back a sneeze. Holding, holding it. “Sit down, Shannon.”
At the table, with hands on his knees, Jim looks paralyzed, as if he has lost all memory and motor skills, all ability to speak or comprehend language. He’s silent for so long Shannon wonders if he’s lost time again and Jim has already spoken.
“Four years ago you were found beaten unconscious in your neighbor’s bathroom beside his dead body and his dying child’s. Both were naked. You, in a three piece suit. Everyone’s blood was on everybody.
“You were a trial lawyer building a legacy—your sparkling charism and poetic rhetoric made even admirable men want to live their lives over. We were partners in a firm, Schäfer and Wolf. An athlete and accomplished musician, you threw dinner parties that carried on into scandalous hours. A constant gardener, writing a book “Go to Hell: Nine Vegan Recipes Inspired By Dante’s Inferno”; a renaissance man, you were unstoppable.
“Our firm took your case, risking professional ruin. We argued the degree of your injuries rendered you incompetent to stand trial, for indeed, when you had awoken from your coma you had lost almost everything—your memory and motor skills, your ability to speak or comprehend language. We tried pleading involuntary manslaughter but your journals, plotting the event, were read as having intent with malice. And you, now incompetent, who could show no remorse, were sentenced: voluntary manslaughter, ten years in prison.
“We made a plea agreement to six years in a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane where you received state of the art recovery care. During your stay, leadership changed hands, methods modified, and the institute collapsed under lawsuits due to unorthodox practices that got tragically out of control. You had served three years, then transferred to low-security rehabilitation, then released on parole to a halfway house with outpatient care. The last three months you’ve been allowed to live here, alone. But society has rules for you joining it again. And you’ve been breaking them.”
Seconds pass, perhaps minutes, most likely seconds.
Smacking the table for attention, “SHANNON.” Then strikes him, “SHANNON, COME BACK.”
Shannon faces him, “You have dreaded this night for years, haven’t you, Jim.”
Jim stares back, eyes pooling with watery light.
If Shannon is both the light’s reflection and the depth it doesn’t reach, he should not move to touch Jim who would recoil.
“Jim, what happened. In that house.”
“Nobody knows. Not forensics, not judge and jury, not even you.”
“Why was I there.”
“It was a rescue mission. You were there to save the child.”
Jim stares, “It was I who found you.”
“My own rescue mission: I was there to save you.” His lower lip tremors. He swallows, “What can be known is in the police report and court transcripts.”
“Can I read them.”
“I can arrange it. But Shannon,” gently, “there will be photographs…”
Seconds pass, perhaps minutes, most likely—
“SHANNON” Jim snaps his fingers. Shannon blinks.
“I suggest you go at this backwards. Find a patient with whom you served time at the asylum. I can locate one, have you talk.”
“Next week you meet again with your parole officer. I’ll take you.”
Dropping to a whisper, “Shannon.”
He looks up.
“You shouldn’t be alone tonight.”
He holds his gaze; he won’t look at the chalk outlines.
“I’ll be alright. I have to be.”
“Can we meet tomorrow?”
Jim stands—he won’t look at the chalk outlines, he won’t. Hand on the doorknob, head bowed,
“I wish I could say the worst suffering is over.” He won’t look at the chalk outlines, he won’t.
“But I don’t think so.” Steps out the door.
The start of Jim’s engine, though quiet, is a blast like a shotgun, exploding Shannon’s chest propeller into lung dust. He should be collapsing from the explosion but his forearms are on the table, palms down, his posture paralyzed into a forklift, brain idling in blackout. Minutes pass, perhaps hours, most likely—COME BACK commands the one emergency fuse still burning in the back of his power outage. There is always one last fuse, thinks another. Unless there isn’t, thinks a third. And one by one they relight, the ones that can. Until he is aware of the child breathing on the piano bench. Breathing. Breathing. Whom he cannot look at; who cannot look elsewhere but at him. Her face serene… without malice, without remorse.
Kat Mandeville graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, is finishing her PhD in Philosophy & Critical Thought at the European Graduate School. She’s published two books of poetry, with various poems published in various journals. She lives in New York City.