- Fiction, Reading, Writing

From The Nothing on Which the Fire Depends, by Micheline Aharonian Marcom

 

There are the intransigent others on the highway the mind makes like stones on a wire, like birds, who have dragged themselves helter-skelter to the side of this procession, down the long dark hallway, with their questions, their demands, some sorrows, recounting.

 

His two children smile in the photograph. The father says Smile for Mommy because Mommy is staying at a hotel because Mommy doesn’t love Daddy any longer. Say goodbye to Mommy. And he takes their photograph with the two children smiling.

With a wire for the wireless communications which move around the earth like the weather and the cloud formations. And around each child Daddy wrapped the cord of her four- of his two-year-old neck to say goodbye to Mommy in this manner. Good-bye Children. Good-bye Mommy. Mommy finds the girl and boy and the wires for the wireless communication around their broken necks in the living room of her old home. Daddy has put his body down beside the children nearer to their quiet throats. Daddy has vomited yellow bile. Daddy said to Mommy the week before: you don’t love me anymore Mommy whynot. (And if you don’t love me any longer, you cannot have the boy and the girl you love any longer). Good-bye Mommy, the children say in the last photograph with their waving good-byeing hands. The photograph is left by Daddy for Mommy on the coffee table in the living room of their old house where she found their bodies.

 

The man in the tower in the tall city eight years after the tallest buildings of that city are brought down in a conflagration. He is twenty-one and takes the elevator with the tourists to the observation deck of the now third tallest skyscraper and he climbs over the fence forbidden to climb (keep off the barrier) to arrive to the outside edge. King Kong once dangled a blonde from this tower in a movie and as the boy is falling from the observation deck there is no monster to rescue him and he hits the pavement in front of the bank on West 34th Street. A lone samaritan approaches the crushed corpse and places his black opened umbrella upon it to protect the passersby from seeing it broken-down and ruptured because the other pedestrians had scattered wildly at the sound the man’s body made when it struck the pavement and exploded, cranial bone and leg bones, his one hundred and seventy pounds of flesh. And the black shield placed gently over the ruined and smashed body at the entrance to the bank by the samaritan shielded the trauma.

 

The dead man has a strange and foreign-sounding name (for this country). He had despair on his brow like a millstone round his neck, he said, from the observation deck of the tower. He climbed many things to arrive at the height of the building and then fall from it. He had been a good student in a prestigious elite American university. He was a scholar. He lies now at the portal of the bank (the new temple for the gods of this age) and the black umbrella covers his smacked-open skull and cracked through face bones but not his white tennis shoes which flew off from the body upon impact. They lie white and rubber-bottomed on the crime scene—disparate and separated from him at an angle. Their twisted white rubbery soles, the dirty canvas tops on the dirty city street and the black umbrella shielding the man several yards away but the samaritan remembers only the suicide’s cheap scattered tennis shoes for weeks afterwards, he says to the newspaperman, and not the ruined face of the boy.

 

Hello. Hello again, twenty years, perhaps? And nine more before that to the time when we walked along Ivy Lane hand in hand as girls. You haven’t thought of me very often in the intervening years; we have not remained in touch. But lately, you said, I’ve been on your mind. I haven’t seen Lori in over twenty years, what happened to Lori? saying to your mother on the telephone: she’s been on my mind. Remember I was with you the night your sister was raped? We were babysitting at the Goldstein’s house together spending the night there with their children. We used to steal from the Goldsteins. We used to rifle through Mrs. Goldstein’s makeup boxes and put small blue eyeshadow kits into our pockets thinking how she wouldn’t miss it because she had dozens of small plastic kits filled with blue brown and purple eye shadows. We ate all of their snack foods and drank all of their sodas; we emptied their larder of crackers potato chips candy cookies and sodas. We slept together in their bed the night that your sister was raped (the Goldsteins went out of town for the night, I can’t recall where any longer, and asked us to spend the night with the children) and their bed smelled of their secretions but we had not yet experienced what we smelled and so although we recognized their body odors, we did not yet think about the Goldsteins’ coitus in specific sexual pictures, although we did, inevitably, feel what we didn’t yet know, and reveled in the dirty Goldstein semen vaginal mucus covered bed sheets together. We stole the dollar bills and quarters they left lying around their house in piles, stuffed them into our empty lying blue jeans’ pockets.

You’d like to stop this now. Perhaps take a break, masturbate, notlisten, sleep, because this one too close to the bone: you begin to sense why it is I’m on your mind. No one leaves a message on your answering machine. The message is even quieter and below ears. Listen. You could listen with notears. Look for me. Use the world wide web of invisible communication to find me in the ether. Can you remember my last name? No? Call your sister. She’s crazy, but she has a memory like an elephant. She’ll tell you my last name. You’ll ask it of her late at night while you are on the phone with your mother saying to her that Lori has been on your mind lately and your sister arrives at ten p.m. to your mother’s because she has nowhere to sleep tonight, her boyfriend has locked her out of their motel room again and (she has lost her job again, this one selling facial creams in front of big hotels to passersby in Las Vegas) she is saying Mom Mom I’m hungry is there anything to eat; Mom Mom I’m hungry what should I eat? And you to her: do you remember our neighbors up the street from us at the Ivy Lane house? Do you remember Lori, she’s been on my mind lately, what was her last name? And she’ll say Bases and suddenly in my last name I return to you more fully: your best friend in junior high school, my thin pale brown freckled thighs, the curly red-brown hair and blue eyes and how my skin burned so easily in the Los Angeles summer sunshine and never browned to the tan all of the girls in the neighborhood desired. We spent our summers on each other’s sofas and beds and in each other’s backyards and that season of your sister’s rape, babysitting the Goldstein’s children up the street (and stealing their change, her eyeshadow kits, eating their food, lying in the come-soaked bed sheets). And we built forts made of old pieces of wood and bedsheets in the hill behind my house; and we opened cans of chili con carne to eat with bright yellow cheddar cheese and saltine crackers; and we walked for miles to go to the movie theaters and the shopping malls; and we ate fast food hamburgers if we found or stole or earned enough money babysitting; and we stole lip gloss and face cream from the supermarket; held each other’s airy hands; and thought about boys we’d kiss with our sacred pink tongues for the first time and our glossy pink sticky lips. We did this and that together and the this-ing and the that-ing of those years distilled now in your memory into bowls of canned chili con carne and yellow cheese and the affection we wanted from boys (but not their cocks or semen, not yet) and a fort we built on the hillside from old wood from the garage and my old white bedsheets to house some of our summer afternoons, the stolen quarters, the dirty Goldstein bedsheets, my pale freckled thigh skin, and greasy hamburgers and french fries inside red paper boxes. On my mind, you tell your mother and sister: I’ve been thinking about Lori for weeks, perhaps months. Before Mariam died and the old yellow dog and the others, months before, my name coming in and out of your mind intermittently, the pale freckled skin on my thighs and my girl mask from childhood, my feet, which were long and pale and funny-looking, and you said I had feet like a duck; my bright curly red-brown hair and our summers together when we roamed the neighborhood, built our tenuous forts on the hillside behind my house, walked to the shopping mall the movie theater and stole what we could and on your mind, but I have been dead for ten years. I too stand at attention with my bright banner waving it furiously above my head, you the half-blind lumbering giant and your attention I am seeking, your listening, its attunement toward the shadow’s shadow.

Like this:

On a Thursday. I am in my apartment. See the red plaid pajama pants; the black tee shirt I wear. It is early evening, six o’clock, and I am not working tonight and I am watching the news on television. Tonight on the news no one has died in my town of Steamboat, Colorado and I am lying in a reclining chair and the evening news is filled with the small stories (of outrage, of lower and higher taxes, of a city official and his adulterous lover) and the loud talking heads talk loudly about each three-minute television story—taxes, the city official, the rising and lowering of crime.

 

He rings the doorbell and I rise. I say who is it because I am not expecting anyone, my boyfriend John is at work. He says, It’s Thom. What are you doing here? I say, because he lives in Denver and he has driven hundreds of miles to arrive to Steamboat to see me. Kymberly and I are getting married, as you know, and I know you don’t think I’m good for her, but I’m hoping you’ll give me a second chance, he says, I’m a good guy, I’ll be good to your friend. Please let me in, I just want to talk with you, he says. Yah sure, I say and I open the door. He carries a brown paper shopping bag and inside it a stun gun, a knife, condoms and lubricant, none of which I can see. He says you got any beer? I don’t have any, I say, sorry. I am back in my chair. Mind if I look in your fridge for something to drink? No, I say, looking again at the television screen, the newscaster swinging his head from side to side with the story he recounts of the old mayor’s new girlfriend and the details of their weekend tryst at a hotel.

 

The newscaster is saying, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Thom has come up behind me and he has the knife in his right hand (I can’t see it, see only the swinging head of the newscaster in front of me) and from over my head brings the knife down and stabs me in the chest. Who the fuck you think you are bitch telling Kymberly not to marry me? He begins the stabbing and my terrors from childhood (do you remember how as a girl on Ivy Lane I was always afraid of strangers, of bad people, of scary movies, of the night (do you remember how we used to roam the streets late at night in the neighborhood when our mothers had gone out, and how I was always timid, afraid, perhaps intuiting in some fashion this night which lay in wait for me seventeen years later) returned. He is cutting and stabbing and I am screaming and jump out of the reclining chair and the remote control for the television flies off of my lap and underneath the coffee table and the batteries fly out of it onto the floor and roll away and I run toward my bedroom thinking that I can lock myself in my bedroom and protect myself from Thom and from there call the police and my blood is running down my black tee shirt and onto my red plaid pajama pants’ covered thighs and bare feet and onto the floor in small patches. He is behind me and stabbing into my back as I move and so I turn because the knife is going into my back and he is cutting me saying that I am bitch and that I am ruining his life and that he will fuck me too after this and I turn to him and put up my left hand to stop the knife and I catch the blade with my left hand and I cannot, as your sister did so many years ago, break the knife into two pieces: it is too large and you remember I am a skinny woman and I am not very strong, and afraid, and my strength does not rise up in an upswell, the gash in my left hand is deep to the bone and bleeding I put up my right forearm and he cuts my arm deeply. So I have fallen. I never liked those movies we watched when we were growing up in which young girls are brutally stabbed with a knife just as Thomas Lee Johnson is killing me now, and I never wanted to watch them, you and I always chose the romances when we went to the cinema, and he shoves the knife into my heart three times and the pain of it is immense, this steel blade inside of my lonely heart and this vile man whom I hardly know, the boyfriend of a girl I worked with at a restaurant a year ago in Denver, is my killer tonight, and the pain of that also because I am dying on the floor of my apartment and he is screaming invectives and Mom and my sister and brothers live only two miles away and are sitting now in their living rooms watching the news (and the newscaster is on to the next story saying Ladies and Gentlemen this is a tragedy . . .) and I am dying without them, by myself, and there is so much pain when he puts the knife into my heart in this manner, but there is not any longer any fear, for some reason I am no longer afraid (of scary movies of strangers of the night) because I do it for the first time in my life, I take off the mask, you remember it was with me all of my adolescence, a costume which I had not chosen but which had somehow chosen me, and it has finally lifted up off of me off of my face and the raiment of fear and trepidation has gone from me and I only wish that I could see Mom again and she see me also, and I would tell her how much I love her, how I love her the most of all, and my two younger brothers and my older sister, and how there is a wide thing between us in our blood that binds us, and my blood is on the apartment carpeting red in the electrically lighted room; the newscaster swinging his head speaking his Ladies and Gentlemen . . . and I can see into my bedroom with the door ajar with the queen-sized bed, its blue cover and blue pillows, the wooden headboard and white dresser that I was unable to reach in time to save my life, they look life safety and sleep, and although I could not save myself I have done something of which I am proud and it is this: that in the last moment of living while dying, at the moment of going in, and when I go in at the very end, the last, peacefully, you should know it, you could tell my mother it: calmly, unnervous and unafraid for the first time (without the black mask any longer of Anxiety, it no longer upon me) because born into that costume’s requirement and strictures. And I can see him at the last, Thomas Lee Johnson, the rage in him: he wears its appearance, I see its demon apparatus: the red horns coming from his forehead, the red eyes the wide red lips and the black gash of his mouth, and he is as bound to his fate as I was to mine. And he then takes my head, the heart pumping blood out of me onto the red plaid pajama pants my black tee shirt and the carpeting and skin, and this demon who I knew would find me one day (Mom had moved us from Los Angeles in 1985 to a small rural town in Colorado to guard us from the dark influences of that metropolis, the drugs and gangs and bad people) has found me and lifting my head with the left hand slices my neck as if I am a goat for his sacrifice with his right and I watch him do it from this distance because I have died already and so I can see the mask Thomas has donned, his own tragedy upon him, its black-toothed grimace, its red horned and red eyed, his passion his suffering, the blood-lust and blood-letting and he wants all of it out of me. Then he is cutting my thighs open and my calves and cutting me all up to see or find what it is that harrows him: my bones’ invisible mystery darkly imbedded. And there is this debt now that he will pay, the blood debt, and paying the debts in a queue of ancestors from before him, the blood ties we have now, I his martyr.

John returns home in five hours. He still today cannot remove this picture of me from his mind: the hacked open body and the blood on so many things, the invisible blood which the body once held seeable and red everywhere. But Mother’s suffering is the worst, her grief upon hearing the news and her grief which sits upon her still like the black shawl Americans don’t wear to have the heft and visual cue for their sorrows, my mother keeps it and keeps it invisibly, because, in part, to guard her pain is to keep some of me, she thinks, and she has now kept it ten years, but I would like her to take off this black veil: can you tell her it from me? When you are next in Los Angeles please visit my mother, she has returned to the house on Ivy Lane, she is living there again in the cul-de-sac near where we built our childhood summer forts out of white sheets and old wood, she couldn’t bear to remain in the small town in Colorado any longer, and please tell her it, say this, say: Lori is at peace. Lori is okay. Say: Mom, I love you and I want you to leave off this black shroud and to find for yourself some happiness once more.

When they found Thomas Lee Johnson and they put him on trial for first degree murder and they eventually put him into jail for life, I wondered if he would eventually arrive at the parade of the unresolved and unredeemed dead, his rage his banner, fear an other’s, loneliness, betrayal, sorrow, suffering and heartbreak: we waving them furiously so that you can hear us and do you listen, do you?

 

Note: This fiction is part of Big Other Folio: Micheline Aharonian Marcom.

 

Micheline Aharonian Marcom is the author of seven novels, including a trilogy of books about the Armenian genocide and its aftermath in the 20th century. She has received fellowships and awards from the Lannan Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, and the US Artists’ Foundation. Her first novel, Three Apples Fell From Heaven, was a New York Times Notable Book and Runner-Up for the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction. Her second novel, The Daydreaming Boy, won the PEN/USA Award for Fiction. In 2008, Marcom taught in Beirut, Lebanon on a Fulbright Fellowship. Marcom splits her time between Northern California and Charlottesville, Virginia, where she is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.

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