My earliest childhood memory is a blur of acid colors, with unanchored emotions swerving between images of terror and beauty. Some of these times survive in photographs, and even in overexposed photographs that match my recollection.
In one picture I have stacked my toys on top of my grandfather, who pretends to be asleep. I remember the episode vividly, and the joy I shared with my grandfather. Away from my memory of toys, however, the world and the people in it fall away by degrees.
It is not so much a memory of play I remember as empathy: the bright colors of toys, their textures, parts, smells, and tastes. One by one these possessions disappeared: the large ones before the smaller ones. I still own pieces of games long vanished, as well as every marble given to me. Even today, the toys I miss most are the little ones that slipped through my net: plastic dinosaurs I found in a sock drawer and my grandmother let me keep; plastic pirates that topped a birthday cake one year, and which I treasured more than my other gifts.
I remember one birthday party where I received a colorful bathtub tugboat that broke into pieces. I was so eager to play with it that I talked my cousins into leaving the celebration early. My mother scolded me once she put together the plot, and the guilt I experienced that day, like much of the guilt that sprang from my youth, was in caring more for “things” than people.
Emma’s palatial hip rose like a mound, although her silhouette was so flat against the wall he could not tell in which direction she faced. His lover would never cease being something squeezed from an eyedropper: something that, in an act of dilation, curved inexplicably on the back of his optical lens. No canvas or bed would contain her. No anxious thought would keep her, where she was not in his sight, from straying into dark woods.
Grazing her shoulder blade, Aloysius found her again wearing his old sweater. He could not say he felt the draft that chilled her on either his face or in his veins, but it was heard whistling through the keyhole and chiming in a snarl of hangers in the closet.
Soon enough a light shaft seeped into the room around the doorjamb. The wedged chair seized and the timbers groaned, yet the feeble barrier held. The light nonetheless spread like poured crepe batter across the floorboards. It caught the chair leg shadows in its tide and pushed them toward the facing wall. Each finger-like shape began to move independently. The fearful man watched these intruders glide from corner to corner and occasionally overlap, as if they communicated, until they again resumed their rigid, stationary positions. Though the odd ballet had ended, the reassembled shadows were in a different location.
Aloysius rose and crept timorously to the chair, and confirmed that it had been pushed away by the door. There was no evidence that anyone had entered the room. He ventured into the dark, unexplored house in search of the flashlight and its bearer, but the squeaky floor planks denied him stealth. Directly he came within earshot of the neighbor’s dog still scratching at the backdoor. If anyone came by this way, they were acquainted with the homeowner’s wishes in not allowing the dog inside—and who other than the fiancé would be mindful of this?
The surveyor glanced around the moonless room for clues, discerning, by outline, what could only be the most nondescript of furnishings. His hands fumbled over glass grapes in a bowl, and then over a rooster weathervane bolted to a wall, but his emotions were stunted in his fingertips, as if meeting with indecipherable Braille. He opened the cupboard where Emma earlier removed a candle and felt more candles inside. These, however, were used-up candles set in a thoughtful row. He knew from their scent what they meant: knew from their flat, oblong shapes what each in turn chronicled as a passage of time.
Starlight set off the whimpering pet through the mesh of an exterior door. Aloysius, drawn by its plea, found himself in an auxiliary room that was perhaps once a porch, yet now served as a darkroom. A sheet of rubylith was taped over a window; scores of photographs were tacked to clapboard across from it.
The camera’s subjects resembled cadavers under pond ice, but he was certain of the effect: A couple, male and female, was framed in the outline of a tenebrous keyhole. Their limbs dissolved into a blurry perimeter, giving them the appearance of protozoa. Like the candles, these pale, unmodulated bodies were getting under his skin, and Aloysius worried that he, in suppliant manner, had mirrored the movements of another.
The dog pounced harder on the door. The visitor looked over, seeing it turn off the stoop and disappear into the yard. He was leaning back on his heels when the creature reemerged seconds later for another assault; he was convinced that it was not the same dog. The animal reared with a whine before circling back into pitch. It approached the stoop a third time without touching the door, and then a fourth. With each dash by the screen it appeared larger and more menacing. The mongrel finally disappeared from view, but this was no cause for relief.
Aloysius stepped away from the fetishistic photographs to examine the strange lock on the backdoor. Fashioned from wood, it consisted of a dowel-like plunger set in a long grooved slot that ran parallel to the molding, though did not intersect the door. He thrust the moving piece tight against the baseboard where it fastened, but he could not see how it functioned as a brace.
Pressing his fingers into the screen, he tried to see into the dark yard, or what he imagined to be a boundary around a rural house. When he leaned away to discern the play of shadows, it was more like staring into a mirror’s refection than out a window—too much like soliciting a returned gaze. He could not blink his eyes—could not see himself for the wide, unblinking stare in front of him. Placing his fingers over his sockets, and then over his mouth, there was no telling if he was touching his face or the features of a terrifying mask.
“I am asleep,” he said aloud, yet did not see his mouth move. “I am asleep,” he said to the wide, unblinking stare.
Wanting to scare off what he could not reason with, Aloysius snarled and growled in a low animal way, believing the childish defense would either wake him or frighten off the dog. “Gr-r-r-r…! Gr-r-r-r…!”
He could not scream for help since the gurgle was the only sound his paralyzed larynx was capable of producing. Yet what peered back did not mimic his action, or show reaction to it. He was slow to realize that he stood nose-to-nose with something on the other side of the exterior door that was no longer a dog, yet nothing like a man…
A light switched on behind him. “Aloysius?” she called from the doorway. “Are you sleepwalking?”
He shot around to mutter, “I heard a prowler.”
“Are you sure you’re not sleepwalking?”
Nothing was at the backdoor; the photographs on the wall featured only betrothed couples standing under trellises in staged commercial portraits. “I was dreaming,” he confessed.
Emma turned through the connecting room, flipping off the light behind her. “Come to bed,” she said.
The night wanderer did not immediately follow, but lingered to compose himself. He retraced the noisy floorboards and crawled back into bed with his unshakable unease, as he would always need verbal permission to share this space with her.
Emma gave it to him with a soft complaint. “There’s a chill on my back.” She reached around to find his wrist under the cover and drew him, limb for limb, into her attitude.
The wee hours of the morning always found his defenses in disarray, with his mind scrambling to remarry his barely owned body to a barely plausible myth of the world. A hole in the elbow of Emma’s sweater accommodated several of his needful fingers, and provided contact with her goosepimply arm. Against it, and against the albescent windows, he endeavored to round her off under his touch, and to objectify with his mind’s eye what he could not objectify in any other way:
The photographs he saw were remarkable in being unremarkable; and Aloysius could not help but feel Emma’s embarrassment by them back at the darkroom door. Beyond a bed, there was nothing of this fiancé she wanted to share with him. The painter wanted to see the young woman as a misplaced valuable among such ordinariness in this rural house, but reflexively—defensively—he was notorious for window-shopping. A braver, less complicated man would simply steal the woman outright, but he habitually acted by half-measures, believing he could trick himself into commitment incrementally.
Still, he trembled on the brink of annihilation in this wilderness, for an abyss of emotion threatened to swallow him whole. What he could say with conviction, and sobriety, was that something at the center of him was wound tightly around something else. He could not say what either thing was, or whether the force involved was one of resistance or attraction. In practical parlance, this was, for him, love. As long as yesterday and tomorrow were held at arm’s length, what else could it be?
Chapter Twenty-two, Section Two/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.