*This is a short story I wrote a very long time ago. Warning: some bad language and sexuality throughout. Enjoy!
“I, of the savage kingdom, will guide you to glory!” The sound of a Big Easy traffic jam punctures the steady scream of her words, a few of the syllables slipping out into the never-was. “ ‘Court not death by your erring way of life, nor draw to yourselves destruction by the works of your hands! Because into a soul that plots evil, wisdom enters not, nor dwells she in a body under debt of sin!’”
The hint of Russian singsong gives her away. I know her voice better than I know my own. They say that, no matter how early one is separated from one’s mother, the mind is imprinted with the sound of her voice and conditioned to hear it again; and while decades might pass without hearing it, the lost child could still detect the mother’s voice out of a tapestry of hundreds. Because it was the first sound, the first pitch and tone and coo to ever have existed. It was the sound on which all other sounds were based.
I’m sitting on the bench across the street, watching her, the only one watching her. Ilyena Tracy, still the magician; the way she moves her hands, pushing the air away with them, drawing people inward while keeping me confounded on this frayed bench, wondering how this could’ve happened.
Some small moments are nothing, they don’t snowball into the rest of your life. But some of them, they’re gods, they own you.
I imagine that, at one point, she lured crowds on the corner with her flailing Fascist body movements, jerks of her arms and a twist of her neck that mimicked cerebral palsy or spiritual ecstasy. Whenever she bellows the word “sinners,” her face sinks downward toward her neck, and small bubbles collect at the corners of her mouth.
I can’t stomach the battery-acid taste of the coffee anymore, and I hold the cup close to my face as if I’ve paused mid-sip, just to feel the steam siphoning through the lid. I tear confetti-sized pieces from the letter that Rita slipped into my pocket the last time I saw her. I’m waiting for my shift in telemarketing purgatory to start, in which I try to ignore the chorus of ringing, chatter, staplers, scribbling, and gnashing of teeth, and push our patented stain erasing formula.
This is my ritual: sit on the bench, mesmerized, my heart a rabid dog begging for the bullet. At work, I empty the letter-confetti from my pocket and forsake the names on the list, instead calling Rita, wanting to tell her, wanting for her to tell me what to do. For the past week I’ve only gotten her machine and her husband. I hang up, playing with the idea of asking her husband what he would do: he seems like the type that would know, with his voice calm and British asking me who’s there, who is this; talking quietly as if he’s in a glass room and he doesn’t want the walls to crash down on him. At this point, I’m usually lectured by my telepathic boss, always privy to when I’m not being productive.
Yes, I know I have a job to do, sir. Yes, I know that I’m not doing it.
Then, I study my reflection in the computer screen, trying to find a feature my mother would be sure to recognize, though so many have changed. A narrow nose broken in one of several foster homes. Glasses are no longer there to hide greenish eyes that bear the constant squint of non-trust, having been replaced by contacts.
The dimpled chin is the only thing that’s stayed the same. Is that enough to remember a son? Should I buy a pair of glasses?
I start writing a letter to my mother that I plan to slip in her Bible when she’s distracted by the Rapture. I mull over trivialities, whether or not my signature will exhibit my shaking hand. After work, I stand beside the bench, pinching my thigh in hopes of triggering a muscle spasm that might force me into my first step to her. I pay the cab fare in sweat-dampened singles, always pausing, everyday choosing inertia. On the ride home, I make the resolution that I’ll approach her tomorrow. I’ll get it over with tomorrow.
I sleep, impervious to the fact that I am a liar.
I should’ve had her figured when I was six years old and realized, seemingly for the first time, that she had really, truly, actually named me Balthazar. After kindergarten giggles and with no middle name to fall back on, I told everyone to call me by my last name, Tracy—a fragmented version of the original Tratzinsky, cleaved in half somewhere on the Atlantic. For ten years we lived like gypsies. We stayed with her friends, friends of her friends, occasionally having to squat in an abandoned warehouse. I knew better than to complain. I had no voice. I was her baggage, her immigrant suitcase.
She preached differently, back then, gracefully performing tricks of prestidigitation, making things disappear—wallets, mostly. Every incredulous question of “How?” was answered with “Magic!” A firm believer that the world might end in twenty-five years, she called America a “savage kingdom,” place with too many machines and too many brands of detergent, place where people too easily loosened their grip on time.
She talked to me sometimes about Omsk, her home, about how she was the statue of fear to all the other women. In her youth, she was a breathy scandal of a girl, running around with nomads, traveling sideshow acts, literary fugitives and Trotskyites who had escaped the purges and lived in paranoid old age. Her very footsteps caused neighborhood elders to gasp and cross themselves: her tracks, they swore, were hooved.
She had a laugh that unsettled concrete, a devil-may-care that made onlookers think that if the devil did care about anything on this lonely dull planet, it was her. His Persephone. His awful queen.
I craved her stories, her Omsk, her random switches between English, Yiddish, Russian, as if she had three tongues housed by one mouth. I felt that the stories I heard at school were lackluster in comparison, always about little brothers or missing puppies. Never in those skinny illustrated books were there stories of black markets, or missile crises, or gypsy circuses where the Conjurer carried the Lone Torso on his back.
When I couldn’t sleep she’d wave me over to her. “Bad dream, boytchik? Here, take mine. I’ve dreamt this one before,” she’d say, putting her hand on my forehead and describing her bargained reverie to me so well that I saw it all for myself, could’ve dreamed of nothing else. And when I had horrible fevers, she used to remove my dingy glasses and place her hands against my eyes, applying the slightest pressure, invoking cold with her tiny palms. She would whisper to me, her breath in a flustered hurry, a mother’s hysteria, her words leading me to Siberia.
She had bad spells, too. Anxious days when she’d look at me as if wishing I might disappear. She would watch me intently as I ate her pungent food. And then she’d abruptly stop me from eating and scrub the food off of my plate like dead skin.
For ten years this is how we lived. On the fourth night of that year, she ushered me to sleep, her palms over my eyes as she kissed my forehead. I woke the next morning alone, a note on my pillow. “I’m sorry. I’ve stopped paying for this mistake of mine. I have to set you down, Balthazar, I can carry you no longer on my back.”
I cannot claim uniqueness in abandonment: the history of the act stretches back to the Alpha, to the foundation. Think of the Jews sold out by former friends, sniffed out of their hiding places and ritualistically unpersoned. Think of leftovers, discarded ideals, uncompleted revolutions, the Rosenberg’s, Charles Foster Kane. Think of Abraham’s son, Isaac, who feigned dignity under the knife when all he wanted was for his father to say “You are more to me than God. Run from here and live forever.”
Or a man quietly in love with a sadist, wanting to tell her that he didn’t mind how she wounded him, just as long as she would stay.
Think of a ten year-old boy in a warehouse left suddenly, irreversibly alone; a boy discovered two days later, hungry and dirty, by one of his mother’s Bohemian cab-driver friends, who dropped him off at the nearest police station without a “goodbye” or a “good luck.” A boy who will never know why.
After that day came too many homes, and never enough time in them to get comfortable. Fourteen placements in eight years, the same life lesson from all the pseudo-fathers: go to school, get a job, get a wife, get a house. Obtain more possessions than those smudgy glasses and the clothes on your back. Possessions are reality. Possessions are identity. I was whittled to fit this new consumer’s world, where living in a warehouse is generally frowned upon, sleight-of-hand is only a profession in Caesar’s Palace, and dreams are non-transferable.
Before the day she left, we had been each other’s world, a cult of two. It sutures, that kind of companionship. Without it, you have a hard time figuring out where the wound starts and where it ends.
I’m fifteen minutes late for work. The boss told me yesterday that if I continue to be late and unproductive, I’m out. Still, I can’t stand up from this bench, opting instead to stare at her. “…For touch is the most demystifying of all senses, unlike sight, which is the most magical.” I tell myself that this explains everything that I am incapable of.
She slaps her hand against her ragged leather-bound Bible to emphasize a point, closing her eyes and chanting western prayers. I try to fathom a holy man skillful enough to have converted her from unstated paganism, a believer so pure and apotheosized that wherever he walked the blind cried “Messiah” and corpses sprung from their graves, coughing up dirt.
But preachers of this faith, they’re a realm away from the things my mother used to believe in. A woman like her would’ve been impenetrable to brainwashing. My best theories on her radical change involve lobotomies and Doppelgangers, or the rootless guilt she’d passed on to me.
I want her to know about my nightmare where in a room, exquisite red, we face each other, and she laughs at me, the sound bouncing from wall to wall. “In the old days, you know what they did to spineless boys like you when they were babies? The villagers saw one weakness, one defect and you were fed to the pigs.” She places her hands over my face, and when she pulls them away my eyes are viscous spider-eggs.
When I was young, I’d never had a bad dream. I’d pretended just so that I could steal hers. So she would tell me her sole parable one more time.
“I tell you story, boytchik, just this last time; the short version because I’m too tired for more. In village not too far from Omsk, the gypsy circus came once a year bringing always the sound of drums, and people would stop from their working so they could go to see it. It was a wonderful spectacle, a lady with two heads, a man with a face that has grown on his stomach with real eyes that blinked, a man with red fists that sprout from his shoulder-blades. And of course magicians and dare-devils and cannibals and fire-breathers and people with tremendous talents. One woman, she could fit herself in a shoebox. It’s true.
“The Conjurer was called this because he could beckon the dead and make them visible to all, he could make those that have vanished reappear, but he could never go to cemeteries because with all the dead begging from him his attention, he would never leave. He was quiet man, pale and thin and dressed always in black cloak and black felt-hat like peasants used to wear. And the Lone Torso, he was named because he was born without legs, but this was not an appropriate name since he still had arms that he could walk around on. He was a very gentle person, and the two became comrades.
“During all the travels, the Lone Torso was harnessed on the back of the Conjurer so that they could talk all the way, and so that the Lone Torso didn’t hurt his hands. They walked this way so often that they became fused together by their backs, from the cold. They wanted to fix it, but the medicine man said that their spines were no longer their own, and to become separate one would have to do without. This was just not possible, so they got used to the idea, and remained comrades, walking everywhere together.
“But then one day they were stranded from the group, and the Conjurer died. The Lone Torso had to haul both of their bodies with his arms. Nobody imagined he could make it, they underestimated his strength. His hands grew blistered from the road but still he pushed onward. Doing for his friend what his friend had done for him for so long…”
At this point in the story, I usually fell asleep; she so expanded on details unexplored in the previous telling that I never got to know what happened, how it ended. That was just like her. So I made up my own endings. Back then, I liked to believe that the Lone Torso absorbed the Conjurer into his body, assuaged the pain without ever losing his comrade. As a teenager, I hoped that the Torso found a carpenter who sawed the cadaver from his back, and he was then able to move without the crippling weight of his abandoner.
Now I imagine the most realistic of endings: the Lone Torso, arms shaking, giving in and falling to embrace the windswept earth for the final time, breathing the dust until his lungs were crushed and it was done.
A pack of teenagers gathers near her corner, laughing and elbowing each other. The kids are dressed all in big black clothes, fishnet gloves, spiked collars. Goth kids, convinced that they took the class on suffering, have befriended the beast in their sixteen years of existence. I was like that when I was their age.
A fat kid with blisters of acne along his jaw is the one to move toward her. I lean forward, a vigilant watchdog, one hand still pulling at the shredded corners of Rita’s letter. I swallow cigarette smoke, watching my mother crossing him with her unbendable arm.
Would she do the same if I walked up to her, baptize me, bless me?
The kid’s shirt says “I’m not prejudiced, I hate everybody!” and I picture the forty other kids wearing the same shirt all over the city, thinking that absent words alone can generate your own statement, your middle finger to a world that is indifferent to middle fingers. He’s smirking at her, getting too close. He glances back at his friends for encouragement, their black-lined eyes glittering with laughter. His breath, it must stink of pot and sugar. Gripping the edge of the bench-seat, my chewed fingernails aching, I whisper “Please” in my head over and over, but I have no idea what it is I’m asking for.
“Hail Satan!” the kid says, raising his fist in the air.
She spouts psalms about the heretics and the nonbelievers. He laughs an obscenely girlish laugh, and slaps the Bible out of her hand. I stand, a reflex, my thumb twitching. I have that post-invasive-surgery feeling that I’ve read about, the mysterious and besetting ache of the violated body.
I imagine the Goth kid shoving her, her head cracking against the curb, the garnet trickle on the pavement; all the pain I’d let her go through just to be her savior, so that I could pick her up from the ground like Simon. I would quietly tell her in a flood of syllables that I can help her, she needs help, I’m sorry and I forgive, goodbye and goodbye, that I can carry her no longer on my back, that still, I push onward.
I picture her shaking off my help, pointing her finger at me and screaming wildly, seeing past my skin straight to the muddy heart.
But the kid backs away, laughing with his friends. “Go back to Germany, you old cunt!” he shouts.
Still standing, I seem to be having trouble producing saliva. This kid, this nothing, had the guts to approach her. Having no idea who she is, that’s how he managed it: because he didn’t know that this is a woman who had somehow broken out of an inescapable country. A woman who could paint a beautiful world for you, and trick you into becoming Atlas.
This is important. This is the catalyst. This is the prologue spewed by her God, who has stopped concerning Himself with linearity.
I was with Rita the night my car pulled its disappearing act. She’d called me at work, set up the usual time and place. Her name wasn’t really Rita, I just called her that because she was a meter-maid. I’d seen the grin on her face when she scribbled the violation and the cost in her little leather booklet, bearing down so hard on her pen that the indentation left sort-of words on five carbon copies. She was a parking ticket sadist.
Rita often voiced how she wished our year-long arrangement was legitimate, so she could tell the story of how we met to strangers. It was a hot August day, a brownout. Due to the jadedness I’d gained in telemarketing purgatory, I visited the Woodward, Wight, and Co. warehouse that used to be home to me. But it looked the same, the glass and concrete and slats of light. There was no magic to be found, only half-empty cans of beer and heroin spoons. I smoked a cigarette, singeing the edges of the letter my mother left on my pillow with the lighter, naively thinking this was my moment of release.
When I left the warehouse I saw Rita leaning against my car, gripping her ticket book and staring at the meter. Waiting for the time to run up. She watched so tensely, hunched forward, like one of those students in art school scrutinizing a nude model.
I saw her right then: a woman who served the great god of Time, she would never let a moment circle the drain. Her every word meaningful when so many of mine, vague and unheard, were milled under the slightest wind. Life, to her, was too short for a job you hated, regrets, procrastination, one lover. Sleep was an unnecessary diversion. The world might end in five years.
Underneath her glacial civil servant surface lay a closet-genius; a concert pianist by fifteen, enrolled at Lafayette by sixteen, where she studied everything indiscriminately. She knew two other languages, spoke them fluently. And then she suddenly dropped it all for this mediocrity, renouncing all her frightening potential. She never told me why.
Rita had been married to some insurance salesman for two years; I had the slightest feeling this career she gave him was a calumny or a metaphor of some sort, she said it like it was a private joke. She liked to fuck with her wedding ring on. She constantly smelled of lemony wood polish, her hands forever smudged with ink. She looked like Grace Kelly’s evil twin, only brunette and with dark gray eyes. Her favorite phrase was “As I do to you, so do I to me.” Her status as proud atheist was challenged nightly when she called out to Jesus during sex; I’d never heard his name sound so sweet, so full, than the way it sounded in her voice.
She became docile before sleep, self-exposing, expressing thoughts so eloquently I couldn’t tell the difference between her words and the memorized quotes of long-dead lyricists. I told her about the Conjurer, the story without an ending. She confided in me her dreams of escaping the human zoo, becoming a recluse or a migrant or both, shedding her skin, her marriage, her vices.
Yet another prone to flight. My life filled with Houdini’s.
Rita picked the worst places on Old Gentilly to meet, places with neon signs boasting color-TVs that never worked; places with heart-shaped beds in which we were the tender arrows digging ever deep, pushing toward an exit-wound. She said that, statistically speaking, men who cheat on their wives go all out in lavish hotels, expensive restaurants, maxing out credit cards on lingerie for their mistresses. Women, on the other hand, tend to do the opposite. Slumming it. Loving the fuck even more for its taste of dirt.
Afterwards, I lay on top of her, doling out puffs of cigarette, holding it just far enough so that she had to strain her neck to take a drag. Maraschino light came in from the window, it pulled all her thorns out. She strove for the cigarette, breathed it in, held it between her dry lips.
I knew that what she felt for me was amusement, at most. Our connection could best be described as a volute, an exchange of power that coiled downward until we were both left without. It was a shocking thing to discover: that she was what I’d been looking for, the romanticized destroyer.
I put my hands over her eyes, feeling the moth-like flutter of her eyelashes.
“You should leave him. Leave the city with me.” I took my hands away from her eyes, feeling the burn of her incredulous stare.
She paused, then slowly, intentionally blew smoke in my face. She so expertly recovered all her thorns, I had to smile.
“Let’s not get poetic or anything.” A typical rejection, it meant she was far from sleep. “You say it, but you’d never leave.”
“You don’t think I could leave? Why not?”
“Unfinished business, maybe; or a talent for misery. Something you’re attached to. All the same, it’s a dreadful city, Tracy. It suits you.”
“Why haven’t you left?”
“It suits me, too. Besides, Phillip’s going places with his life.”
“I’m going places.”
“Phillip’s going good places.”
I stared at her for a second, waiting for the sting to dull before I got up to leave. I couldn’t stand the stink of the room, like Pinesol and gunpowder, the grimy red neon turning everything into doomsday. And the sounds of our temporary neighbors. All the pilgrims in other rooms screaming for that brusque high, that scavenging cock, all the pilgrims curled up in bed dreaming up Mecca.
The dusty spider legs in dresser drawers clinging to Gideon’s Bible. Motels, motels, never any home.
She talked while I got dressed, gripping the complimentary motel pen tight in her fist as she smiled. “Come on, Tracy, come lay back down, don’t throw a hissy.”
“I’m not. I’ve just gotta go,” I said, pulling on one boot, then the other. She lit a cigarette and waved the match until it curled up, bent its head, a gray shamed child.
I opened the motel room door. Lo and behold. All the energy spilled out of my body at once. A man with a black coat and a satchel on his back was strolling through the white lines of the parking-space where my car once waited.
And the new concrete world established its strictest law to me: don’t get attached to anything, son, if you gained it you’ll lose it someday. Just you wait.
“What are you standing there for? Is this a pivotal moment where you make some life-changing decision?” Rita asked with a nasty little laugh.
“No. My car’s gone.” I looked back at her, numb. She furrowed her brows and waited for the “Just kidding,” but it didn’t come.
The next day I took the streetcar to work for the first time ever, the taste of Rita a film on the roof of my mouth. Across from me a woman bounced her lemur-eyed baby on her knee. The old man beside me waved at the baby, made silly faces.
After reaching my stop in Downtown, I walked along the pavement on a stretch of O’Keefe I’d never walked before, brushing past workers and businessmen who seldom looked up. Someone was whistling. Everyone chatted on their cell phones. And somewhere in that latticework, a familiar voice. A phrase I’d only heard her use. “America, the savage kingdom…”
Realization fell down my spine, like a body crashing through water, the slow sink once the surface was breached. My brain a knot of electricity, I told myself to run, but it seemed to take whole minutes for my legs to receive the message. Then, once I was moving, there was no clarity of thought, just jumbled noise in my head, sounds without source or meaning. Animal sounds, industrial drones, the chant of “Please.” Hope and hell and motion. I drafted new endings for the parable: the Conjurer suddenly waking from a skein of beautiful dreams, the Lone Torso relieved of his bleak loneliness. Carried, defined, once more. The weight fading in the descending night.
My limbs were pushing through the crowd without any real instruction, pushing me against the current. And then the sea parted and I saw her, in a black frock, surrounded by candles, a great nuclear fallout come down on this city. Every incredulous question of “How?” now answered with “Jesus!”
She was across the street, on her knees, her hands pressed together in shouted prayer. She looked so old, nothing like how I remembered her. She had the face of a shrinking rose, dry and curled around the edges. Slender, bird-like shoulders. Eyes like a jack-o-lantern’s, scooped out and empty. Her silvery hair butchered. This was not her, this woman with her eyes blinking at the sun. My mother knelt for no one.
How little I knew her, how much of myself that had been lost in the transition, new weight that I couldn’t take. The Lone Torso, lugging the Conjurer and a cross on top of that.
Drained. My breath a ragged joke, my throat like stretched leather. Wanting nothing more than to fucking scream, I sat on a bench. I haven’t gone farther than that.
I’m an hour late for work. I smoke a cigarette on the bench, not caring what time I show up. The new world has collapsed. I can’t sit through that purgatory anymore, selling a product that erases stains, all the while wishing I could take long harsh swigs of it to cleanse or to kill, if there is any difference.
I feel the corners of Rita’s note in my pocket rubbing against my leg. I pull it out of my pocket, resisting the urge to tear a piece away, and unfold the surviving paper. After my week of picking at it like a scab, all that’s left are the last few lines: “Goodbye is for funerals, yet I have thought it every time I saw you. What you fail to realize is that there is not one of us without a corpse on our backs, and only the weakest of us need some third party to remove it. The strong can be their own carpenters, they are the ones who push unremittingly and let it decompose and turn to dust, as all things do. For your sake, I hope that it does. P.S. Sorry about your car.”
Because the god of Time can be vengeful. Because I’m tired, my own weight is enough. Because the world is in a constant state of ending, I flick my cigarette out toward the street and stand on quietly shivering knees. I suck in a deep, lightheaded breath, relaxing my clenched jaw like an animal letting go. I brush past strangers. Her voice grows closer. My head feels staticky, like I’m dreaming a dream I stole from her.
My feet are warmed by the vicinity of her candles of all the futile saints. She shouts after discreet prostitutes a corner away. “‘Depart from her, my people, so as not to take part in her sins and receive a share in her plagues’—”
She glances at me for a second, her eyes squinting until they’re beady and hawkish. I half expect her to single me out as supreme Blasphemer, Beelzebub, Judas. But her eyes, the master copy of my own, stare with the faint recognition usually reserved for strangers who frequent the same grocery store, who offer that pleasant, noncommittal smile and don’t say a word, and keep pushing their carts down the aisle.
She turns away from me, shouting her verses. “‘Depart from her…For her sins are piled up to the sky and God remembers her crimes.’”
There is only one ending: the Torso does not stop crawling. He pushes onward, alone, toward some unknowable dot at the belt of the horizon. As he crawls, the Conjurer is slowly erased, picked up by the wind, disseminated like seeds. The corpse breaks down, back to the elements, to the dirt of it all, and a stain of gray atoms that will trail the Torso wherever he goes marks the long passage to Omega. This is how she would have told it. This is what she would have wanted me to know.
She pauses in the middle of a verse, some further slander against Babylon. I can see the twitch in the back of her neck as she finally realizes, as the weight settles. She is silent and stiffened. Her fingers tighten around the Bible’s throat, as she grabs at a deep and stuttered inhale with her mouth open. I see her slowly start to turn her head.
She will not turn around before I do. She will not follow as I walk away.