Manís flesh begins in the bellies of stars and ends in the bellies of worms, yet he abides in his body barely cognizant of its true nature. It is mostly an occasional dream to him, one glimpsed in mirrors, or in the eyes of others. The space he envisions it to occupy is illusionary, though never impersonal.
When I was a boy, I contracted strep throat and scarlet fever simultaneously. I remember two things: the face of my teacher when I returned to school, alive, and the hallucinations I experienced with my brain fever.
These hallucinations presented themselves as monstrous heads. They were massive, statue-like, and blisteringly close, yet still separate enough from the world to throw off shadows. When I recovered days later, I continued to sense their stares from my walls. I knew I had not invented seeing them, only tripped over their hiding place.
De Chirico, the Italian painter and precursor to Surrealism, understood there was no real distinction between the labyrinth and the Minotaur. As he wrote in a poem: “One must find the demon in everything.” The inanimate world depicted in his paintings is a prison, yet by freezing its infinitesimal seconds under his brush, he uncovered, in the etching light of a cloudless sky, the sublime monsters that stare out at us from every nook and cranny.
God created space in the mind of Lucifer and his minions so, in casting them down from Heaven, they imagined themselves to be separate from a God Who was, in truth, everywhere. Space then is the dream of fallen angels, whose presence in our minds is but a deep cave of sorrowful remembrance. ~Omar
Emma lived in an efficiency apartment in a cake white three-story house with Italianate eaves. Being on a small hill intensified its Victorian verticality. The photographer dashed up steep cement steps to take shelter from the storm under its large three-sided porch, while Aloysius removed the pumpkin from the back of his car. He soon joined her and noted, among the weathered clapboards, a place marking the removal of a rusty mailbox.
The wet cargo was placed in a wooden chair on entering the dwelling, and the hostess set about finding a towel for their rain-soaked heads; Aloysius used the occasion to scrutinize his surroundings.
The abode was a group of small rooms, although the high ceiling afforded a sense of spaciousness. Shawls of celadon and red azo draped cat-scratched upholstery, while kitschy knick-knacks hid worn tabletop finishes. One item, particularly, detracted from the bohemian décor: an oversized dollhouse held back from childhood.
Inquisitive, the visitor strolled over to inspect a number of personal photographs pinned to a bulletin board. All were of school-age friends, except one. This remaining snapshot was of Seth Bowles and the graduate student on a school outing. Though there was nothing personal about the picture, Aloysius wondered if tacking it up was subterfuge to put people off the trail (if not entirely off the idea) the two shared a degree of intimacy.
Standing next to the dollhouse, he knelt and peeked into one of its window, late detecting the presence of a spider among the plastic furniture. Emma was abruptly on top of him, rubbing his scalp with the same towel used on her own head. The scent of perfume in its folds was chloroform.
“Would you care for tea?” she asked.
Aloysius contemplated the evolving situation. “I’ve taken up your whole day.”
“You’re not leaving, are you? After what happened?” Emma disappeared into a small kitchen. Her voice rang out resolutely over the ping of silverware. “You’re sleeping on my couch tonight! No ifs, ands, or buts!”
He smiled at his indispensability.
She presently returned to the room with two cups of jasmine tea, and the two sipped the brew reflectively on the couch under a lighter rain. The interlude was telling: Both still needed time to find earth.
Mere minutes lapsed before a reinvigorated Emma clapped her cup in her saucer and turned to the pumpkin dripping in the chair. She slipped into a prim apron and spread newspapers over a dining table. Brandishing a kitchen knife, her assault on the rind was unflinching; Aloysius was taken aback to see her resolve.
A clicking sound arose at his shoulder. He looked edgewise across a tea table to where an answering machine silently recorded a message. “Your phone machine didn’t ring,” he observed.
“No,” said Emma. “The ringer’s turned off. I lost the instruction manual and don’t know how to turn it back on.” (She would not laugh to savor his response.) “Actually,” she continued less sarcastically, “I get so many calls, it’s annoying. I own a cell phone, but keep it turned off most of the time. I would be hard-pressed to locate it.”
Aloysius looked again at the machine. It showed sixteen recorded messages. “You must be popular.”
“Very popular,” she answered coyly. “But I managed to pencil you in today, didn’t I?”
He knew she was joking, but suspected she was only half-joking.
The entertainment director gestured him toward the table, and the guest sheepishly obeyed.
Emma began pulling gooey entrails out of the pumpkin, and with gentle persuasion of her hands encouraged his to do the same. Must, stirred by rain in the vintage dress, mingled with fragrance and faint perspiration on her skin, leaving him swimming in deep waters. The sensual aspect of the undertaking overloaded his senses. Before toppling onto the table, he wisely withdrew to a chair and averted his eyes with a curious, wounded expression.
“Are you okay, Aloysius?”
The man would not be drawn out so easily. “Are you the only person living on this side of the house?” he inquired.
“Why do you ask that?”
“A mailbox is missing outside.”
“I assume I have neighbors,” she speculated. “I hear footsteps occasionally, but it is a noisy old house.”
“Haven’t you run into people on the porch?”
“No.” She added, “But then I spend more time in my studio than here.”
His attention strayed, first to the answering machine and then to the bulletin board where Sethís picture was pinned.
Emma gathered up the pulp-soaked newspapers, pausing in their removal to assess his changed mood. “You look tired.”
“I’m not sleeping well,” he confessed.
“Why don’t you go in the bathroom and wash your hands while I finish up? It’s straight through my bedroom.”
The prospect of washing the stickiness from his hands gladdened him.
Lightning etched the outline of a queen-size bed against a window, as well as the fluffy crowns of plush toys along a dark baseboard; he paused to add these puzzle pieces to the dollhouse in the front room. A mannequin’s hand poked out from beneath the bed skirt: undoubtedly a dummy used to model the resident’s many dresses.
Pleasant smells guided him to the switch plate in the bathroom. He seized the opportunity to study crucial details of the boudoir, and was struck by how little he was able to penetrate domesticity beyond its pastel heliotrope façade. Passion fruit bar soap and quilted toilet paper were exotic to him. The medicine cabinet held similar alchemist schemes, including vials of unfathomable purpose. Little creative capital was spared for his own décor and toilette; and because he had never shared a house with a woman, he could scarcely imagine how such a thing should work.
Finishing at the tap, he probed an opal-handled hairbrush on the commode lid with the attentiveness of an archeologist unearthing a relic. A sleek, grey vibrator, half buried in the lilac sprigs of a potpourri basket, was slower getting under his spade. His eyes dropped to the wastebasket in the manner of an ostrich seeking a hole to cover its head, and there he was rewarded with a piece of lipstick-blotted tissue paper. Never able to account for his impulses, Aloysius picked it up as something deserving of a Ziploc bag and placed it in his trouser pocket.
After a few more splashes, he turned to the door and stumbled over something of keener interest. A stack of unsorted photographs lay on top of a wicker clothes hamper. One, particularly, attracted him: a strip of black and white headshots of Emma taken in a photo booth. It was the sort of thing of which adventure-seeking teenagers availed themselves at shopping malls. In this instance the graduate student was alone, posed, and of serious expression. In context of the group pictures from the front room, these pictures were unexpected, and made him think, in a reversal of roles, that she was the imposter.
Her beauty was so perfectly captured in these examples that Aloysius, without hesitation or pang of conscience, slipped the narrow strip into his pants pocket with the tissue. The personal effects of women made him reckless in a rare way, for objects—regardless whether in giving, receiving, or taking them—were conduits for his frankest feelings.
Returning to the front room, the guest found the homemaker wearing a long face, which contrasted dramatically with the jack-o-lanternís newly carved grin. She bemoaned a state of affairs. “I thought I had candles for the lantern, but I donít.”
He glanced out the window, past the dripping overhang of the porch. “I have candles at my house.” Fetching his jacket off the back of the chair, he explained, “I live around the corner. I will be no more than ten minutes.”
“Are you sure?”
He was already at the door. “Maybe five.”
Pulling up to Spyglass Darkly House, the tenant was at a loss to explain what he saw. He got out of his car and marched up to a walnut tree blackened from the daylong precipitation; Jacques hung by a noose from its lowest branch; his crimson-stained eyes showed no reaction to the plops of rain.
“What are you doing?” barked Aloysius.
The little man, practiced at his craft, merely creaked in response.
The livid painter looked around for the assistant with the camcorder. He did not want to encourage his intruder’s theatrics by making a scene, so turned huffing to the footpath and backdoor. Grabbing two candles left on the stairs, he spun around to catch a dark figure darting below him; lightning put Jacques at the bottom step. The trespasser still donned his noose, with the rest of the damp, leafy rope looped over his shoulder. Aloysius rushed down to pass him, and smelled the whiskey cologne stronger than he had outside.
Jacques scratched on his little plot of shadow, and drearily determined, “Men are mirrors. Pretty women hold them up to either be flattered by what they see, or to wallow in their true ugliness as it suits them. It’s a calculation: To make you pay dearly for it if you care, or to give it away if you don’t. Either way, your heart breaks if you give a shit. You and I are alike in that regard.”
Aloysius dropped the candles into his coat pocket. “You and I have nothing in common.”
“Are you so blind…? They fuck their way up the food chain, even if the next rung on the ladder is only inches out of the muck. Do you know where you stand in all that?”
“Iím leaving now,” the painter announced coolly. “Leave the way you came.”
With the directive, he stepped briskly out the backdoor before the sodden dwarf turned over more stones.
The idyllic landscape had gone off-color through the windshield. Jack-o-lanterns, in various progressive stages of pyorrhea, poked out from porches on either side of the glistening street. The scene was reminiscent of a Charles Burchfield’s painting, where puddles of bluish-brown watercolor were blown over paper of the roughest tooth.
Reentering Emma’s apartment, she was not in the front room, although her low voice was detected from the hallway. The guest crept back more stealthily than he supposed to find her sitting on the edge of her dark bed. Seeing him lurking outside her door, she wrapped up the hushed conversation.
“You found your cell phone,” he commented.
“Neighbors invited me to a party. I was calling to tell them I couldn’t make it.”
Beaded rain felt like spurs on his skin. “But you don’t know your neighbors.”
“Colleagues is a better description than neighbors.”
“You shouldn’t change your plans on my account.”
“Nonsense,” she rustled. “Did you bring them?”
The candles were fished out of his linty pockets and handed over.
Emma sniffed the vanilla-scented wax and returned to the front room. One of the candles was lit and set inside the jack-o-lantern and, intended or not, a romantic mood enveloped the apartment. She defused the impression, pointing out a pillow and blanket on the back of the sofa before ducking again behind her nook.
“Those are for you.”
The “penciled in” man strolled up to the couch to survey the sleeping arrangement, noting the message tally on the phone machine had mushrooned to twenty-seven. He was reminded of his favorite Thoreau quote: “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”
The hostess reappeared with more tea. “This is chamomile and honey,” she told him brightly. “It will help you sleep.”
He took the hot cup graciously, but did not relish filling up on fluids so close to bed.
Emma stepped up to a small TV set and picked up a videocassette box lying on top of it. “I have a video for us to watch,” came her faint proclamation. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers?”
“A scary movie? I would have thought after what happened…”
“You will protect me,” she announced, nudging the movie into a VCR with middling resolve. With remote in hand, she circled the coffee table, dropped to the couch, and patted her lap. “Here.”
He was thrown by the innocent invitation.
She was insistent. “You can rest your head until you feel sleepy.”
“What if I fall asleep?”
“Iíll turn off the TV and go to bed, if I get scared.”
A diffident Aloysius sat beside her on a cushion. He looked over the flower-strewn trap with suspicion; there was another pat. Cautiously he surrendered sense to the still-damp bouquet, although his neck resembled a crane to spare the young woman the full weight of an uncommitted head. Emma, having none of it, used her thumb and forefinger to release the tension like a latch. Her fingers burrowed under a tuff of hair to unearth a clotted, boyish daydream. He was unenthusiastic about yielding to her act of tenderness—unenthusiastic about yielding to a furtive woman with twenty-seven messages on her answering machine.
The remote control sat untouched while thrumming raindrops removed any need for talk. Aloysius felt his cheek being pushed deeper into the blue dress, even though the bones buried in this sudden sky were sturdy enough to keep his vertigo at bay. With the last of his fitful defenses gone, his mind relinquished possession of his body and melded with the dark stage of the television screen.
Chapter Seventeen, Section Two/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.