B.D. Fischer (fiction)

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Slowly But Thoroughly (a manuscript excerpt)

The heat of my hand around the tumbler accelerates the melting of the ice in my after-dinner Scotch.  Condensating droplets roll down the glass like all those tears Maria cried all those years ago, although I never once saw her lachrymose, no matter how gloomy the story she was telling.  This I admired about her.  It seems to have gotten noticeably darker in my study since I sat down after dinner, which I suppose has mostly to do with the increasing earliness of the setting sun.  I still hear the TV, a low sound that seems at once both more real than I know it to be and farther away, but no people.  The clinks and low talk of family women clearing a dinner table have passed away and the house seems preternaturally quiet, as though it were the middle of the night, and for a few reeling moments I am lost in the chronos, stumbling through the minotaur’s maze back to the present.  Is it time for bed already, or just after?  Will I exit my study to a family alive with narrative possibilities, or has the pantomime of sleep descended?  The nighttime neither covers nor reveals but is involved in what we know.  Hand on the doorknob, contemplative, afraid, I stop dead again and listen closely, as an ornithologist to the call of the raresong bobolink.  Laughter and gunshots.  Pierced by an imaginary fear of eternal pitch blackness across the threshold, in full knowledge of the multiple unrealities of the both the subjects and objects of my apprehension, I feel that I know that it cannot be much past 8pm.  The memory is so much more compressed than its retelling … and yet what shocks me about Maria’s story is how like the edge of a circle it marks both a beginning and an ending, how much of it I’ve forgotten, a routine surprise which is a weary confirmation of facts already, unfortunately, all too familiar.  And so is it not also possible that I have lost track of this evening’s time as I have of so many things over the course of a ragged life that seems at times the only moving thing, a lonely chaos in a placid world, that Trina has put Christopher and the others to bed, bathed them, read to them, tousled their hair and told them to be good and to go to sleep and sits now up in her bed with her back against the headboard, her pretty hair pulled back to keep it out of her eyes, reading probably a mystery/thriller in which an alcoholic cop with a dead tragic wife tracks a pedophile with a murderous penchant for redheads, or else a faux history in which romance blooms across the sectional lines of the North/South War, or a book designed to do the one thing it cannot, which is help us help ourselves, by its own conative nature?  She wears a nightgown so thick with fabric and lining that it thwarts my upward reaches, an issue I have addressed with her on multiple occasions, while Gizmo tosses and turns her way through another disastrous night.  We spackle the holes in our stories with ourselves, for that is all we have, until like Theseus the substitution is complete and we do not know what we are left with.  The one thing or the other.  An indecipherable cause.  Indisputably and essentially memory is subject to forces not so much biological or even psychological in nature as mathematical, logical, a priori.  In the finite spaces of our minds, each new experience renders every other smaller parts of the whole, changing their natures, until what starts as a single rocky outcrop jutting into the ocean is transformed by the relentless waves of memory into a beach, spread out but infinitesimal, innumerable, broken down.  They say that in theory, with enough time and a counting machine of sufficient accuracy, you could say with certainty exactly how many grains of sand dot the shores of the Southern State coastline, but they are out of their minds.  We are tabula rasa enough.  The full moon on the horizon far exceeds the moon of the bright night sky, at least in our perception.  But then what else is there.  As a young man, sharing the regular bed of a willing woman for the first time, unbelieving of the good fortune that put Maria so regularly naked within my purview, I worried almost exclusively about waking from the dream and somehow jinxing what I perceived then as my good fortune but would come over the course of years to understand was my birthright.  I wondered, too, at this other life, an apple on a plate, the first in my experience to grant me a lengthy, firsthand, low-distance look at its particulars.  The first at least that was neither a child’s nor my unreliable parents’.  The Old Masters take these ordinary objects and imbue them with a light at once utterly strange and determinedly familiar.  Penned now in a bigger, stranger field, I attempted to graze, but in my unaccustomed state each new detail was another spin at a crooked carnival on a broken merry-go-round accelerating quickly out of control, the central pin threatening to come unmoored and send us all rolling through the countryside, crushing small children and causing damage to homes unlikely to be covered by insurance.  The unsteadiness at times caused mild shortness of breath and a spinning in the head that certain diagnostically naive psychiatrists may have termed panic attacks.  But I knew, fortunately, that it was just the shock of such overwhelming, although not definitive–necessary but not sufficient–evidence of the existence of another mind.  And so my feelings were completely appropriate.  My readings and studies during this time focused almost exclusively on the limits of the imagination–I still remember my dear friend Paul Kittredge-Poitier making to me his famous case that the imagination is under ferocious attack by contemporary society, a near endless and total debasement, and asking me one evening over drinks a question that to this day chills me to my core, for I do not know the answer, “What is schizophrenia but a horrifying state where What’s In Here doesn’t match up with What’s Out There?”–and I brushed up against them when I learned this fact:  It turns out that the barriers to long-distance space travel are so immense that we are almost certainly doomed to live out our forever days on this dump of a rock:  Owing to certain physical laws, every fleck of cosmic dust in the path of a vessel approaching the speed of light strikes the hull with the force of a thousand nuclear bombs.  This theoretical obstacle is so great as to forestall investigation into what are surely the enormous technical problems of simple thrust and acceleration.  No one is even working on the mechanics of it; on Day One, we Give Up.  And I was as unsure then as now whether this asymptotic fact signals decline or accomplishment, whether our cognizance of this simple flaw in our science fiction, which even I can grasp, is itself a triumph, or a paradigmatic rift in the capacity of our collective imagination to link up what’s in here with what’s out there.  Similarly, as I listened to Maria spin out her stories over time (a process not dissimilar to an undercranked film of Egyptian slaves building the pyramids) I was seized by a creeping nameless dread that while I knew her stories, knowledge of the woman herself would remain forever just beyond my grasp.  Gradually, the paralyzing possibility dawned that the stories are all there is to know, and the woman herself does not even exist.  A shroud wrapped around empty air, so to speak.  Maria’s stories came not just in those most revealing minutes after I’d been perched on top of her attempting to obtain the endless stay-and-remain equilibrium of a fragility so unbearable as to be impossible, an attempt that nevertheless wipes the mind clean like nothing else we do, clearing the way for insights otherwise out of reach, but also in her sideways remarks, off-hand, casual, at dinner, playing together with Maureen in the park, a glimpse of her through a cracked door as she bent down over the sink, hair pulled back to reveal an irresistible neck, for her evening ablutions, at times quite oblique and not even verbal, linguistic, unconscious revealing shifts of her eyebrows and tilts of her head that sent her black curls, so different from poor Gizmo, whose hair unfortunately betrays her Aryan heritage, swaying.  The dense dense array of symbols and allusion, often to herself.  They call these now “microexpressions,” and contemporary television makes a drama of their study.  How much of the story I learned from Maria and how much I gleaned from her unconscious.  Jung said that the greatest sin is to be unconscious, at least according to my friend Paul P-K, who is in position to know these things.  In those days, I could not have conceived of a single detail of Maria’s story ever leaving me.  But, in retrospect even she on occasion adopted the faraway stare of recollection and dismay as the details went just a little soft in her mind.  Confusion and remembrance.  Did the horrible Gertz clinch her knees in the crook of his elbows, or was he steadied on his palms as though doing a pushup?  Had his partner hit her more than once, or merely held her down, after the initial blow?  Was their path eased more by her blood, or the natural involuntary productions of the evolutionary act?  For at a certain point all ceases to hurt.  These details, as Maria became aware, are nowhere else to be found, if we cannot find them.  No matter how marvelous or constitutive or cataclysmic the memorialized experience this process cannot be stopped, and with heroic effort only barely arrested.  Neither creation nor destruction but simple loss.

But no.  It is still early evening.  In this instance only my fears prove unfounded, and with this realization I grow conscious of just how fast my heart had been beating.  Venturing further out of my study and into the hallway, moving slowly and with an animal awareness of the potential danger of the unseen, three fingers of one hand trail along the wall should I need to pull back and regroup.  What our patriots in the military call a “strategic retreat.”  Swirling what is left of my Scotch and mostly melted ice in my crystal tumbler I throw it back in one motion, slurping in air as though it were a premier cru, and take stock of the general situation.  Finding it all systems go, I hitch up my pants, and crunch gently on the just two remaining slivers of ice, thinking how Gizmo could no more stand ice in her mouth than most of us could snakes crawling over our naked bodies.  She would scream and scream and scream.  I know this because, doubting the veracity of her fear statements, I’ve run tests.  Which I regretted, naturally, once the results were confirmed, but her avowals were just so extreme.  I’m thinking I ought to go refresh my Scotch at the wet bar, and maybe give that crack a little closer inspection, but the TV is just as loud as it has ever been and draws me to it like the moon draws in the tide.  Trina, my beautiful Trina, must have commandeered it, bringing Christopher up to her lap to stroke his hair while he sucks his thumb and she watches what tonight I believe is a medical melodrama in which the doctors alternate their waking hours between tragic errors, miraculous insight, and ridiculous heartbreaking rapport with their doomed patients, and their sleeping ones between unsuspecting spouses, electrifying affairs, and indisputable violations of Title VII.  I hear what must be a car commercial, the unmistakable first notes of widespread youth, the fighting in the fields.  In my mind’s eye as I hew to the path of the wafting noise like a hound on the trail of a squirrel a dark sedan whirls its way up a suspiciously well-lit mountain road, taking the curves at a dangerously constant speed, the headlights cutting the air like discernibility, its engine seemingly powered by foreign spring waters of esoteric origin.  As I arrive at the entrance to the living room, the music lowers and the voice of a famous actor, still best known after all these years for his various renderings of Damaged Young Man, as well as a personal life that on more than one occasion crossed the line from tabloid to police blotter, intones over the panoptic scene:  “Drive it down the middle?  Only if you have to.”  I cough my anger into a fisted hand.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hi,” Trina says.  Christopher waves at me, blanket in his hand and thumb in his mouth.  Neither take their eyes off the TV.  Now a woman walking through a shopping mall is staring straight at the camera, and talking.

“What are you guys doing?”  When they don’t answer, I say, “Trina?”

“What?  I’m sorry.  We’re watching TV.  It’s a really good episode.  Isn’t it, Christopher?”

Attempting to don a plaintive dismay, sensing that it might be inappropriate to manifest my burgeoning fissile rage, I say, “It’s a commercial.”

Yeah, but still …

“I want to talk to you,” in any case I continue, “about Thanksgiving.  About Jack and Catherine.  And possibly Amanda.”

“OK.”

“I want to make sure we’re prepared, really at this point more preparing to prepare, it’s too early truly to prepare, but we need to be getting into position to get into position.  Menu-wise, you remember that Catherine is allergic to cranberries, as is her bitch of a daughter.  Do you remember her name by the way?  But that does not mean we won’t have cranberry sauce.  Far from it, and homemade at that.  I won’t stand for anything less.  Remember:  sack of cranberries, cup of water, cup of sugar.  That’s it.  You may need to double or possibly even triple the recipe, given our numbers or potential numbers this year.  Better yet, start with half a cup of sugar, and add as much of the other half as you need, to taste.  This is because you can’t take the sugar out.  You know that from experience.  We don’t want a repeat of two years ago.  I won’t stand for it.  Boil the water and the sugar, and then pour in the cranberries.  Let it simmer.  That’s fucking it.  No fancy recipes, no goddam jellied cranberry sauce out of a can with the ridges carved around the cylindrical surface.  We don’t fuck with the cranberry sauce, not in this family, certainly not because Catherine’s fucking allergic to them.  We’ve spent enough of our lives catering to her pathologies.  Why this family can’t just get on the train of good old fashioned American ingenuity, success, and hard work is beyond me.  That’s how our parents raised us, you know, and I want Christopher and the others exposed to those same values at every opportunity.  But that’s no surprise to you, I know.  We’ve already discussed this at significant length, probably ad nauseam, as far as you’re concerned.  But it’s not the kind of thing you can mention too often.  That’s how important it is, and I take the same approach at work, by the way.  Jack will want a little Beaujolais Nouveau, preferably Beaujolais Villages”–more strictly speaking my preference than his–“so we’d better get several bottles.  Jack and I have a tendency to do a little drinking when we’re together, but we’ll see how he is with that new wife of his.  I’m not sure of her name, either, so you might look into that, too.  If you could get all that information together and binder it up in a report and have it to me at least eight days before they arrive, that would be great.  We’ll see just how much he’s changed, though, and who’s in charge.  Better get at least one bottle for every two people, although Mom and Catherine of course won’t drink.  Mom can’t because of her meds, Catherine because of her history.  I’m not going to have anyone make a scene.  Make that one bottle per person, just to be safe.  Include the kids in your count.  There’s no reason they can’t enjoy just a civilized sip.  If Amanda decides to attend we’ll need to make sure the blades on the food processor are fully sharpened; my understanding is that her jaw muscles aren’t quite what they used to be, and that her chewing capacity has suffered accordingly.  I still need you or Gizmo but probably you to call over to Greenbriar and coordinate the medicalities.  CC me on all correspondence and keep me in the communicative loop at all times.  I don’t know what all the implications are, but there will be plenty of logistics, options to sort through, decision trees to map out and navigate …”

“I’m sorry, sweetie, could we talk about this later?”  She indicated the TV with an elbow, still holding the considerable Christopher.  “It’s back on.”

My heart nearly stopped with fury.

“Later?  OK.  Sure.  We’ll talk about it later?”

She nodded, looking at the TV.

“I’ll talk to you later then.”

Later.  I haven’t seen Amanda in close to ten years.  None of us have, so unbearable was the despoilment of the most beautiful among us.  It’s taken a decade to blunt the trauma to the point where we could even consider inviting her for a family holiday.  Plus scaring the kids, you know.  Such a hideous and improbable deformity.  That is my understanding, at least.  But Thanksgiving is barely three weeks away, and I still don’t know whether she’s coming.  Some kind of deal over whether Dad will pay for the ticket or stand for once on principle.  Even an ugly person can get a job, he says, which there is absolutely no denying.  It’s been so long for Mom I don’t even know if she remembers that she has a youngest daughter.  And we’re getting to the point where I need to know how big a fucking turkey to get.  Or, rather, to have Gizmo or Trina get, preferably Trina.  You don’t want to fuck with the size of the turkey.  You want to make sure everyone’s got enough goddam leftovers.  The key is the stuffing.  And the gravy.  I’ll make sure Trina or Gizmo possibly Gizmo buy enough of those disposable plastic containers for everyone to take home plenty of goddam leftovers.  Mom and Dad will be the envy of that Greenbriar minority that can still consume solid food without explosive and/or extremely painful and in some cases life-threatening bowel movements.  I’m thinking Jack and Catherine and their families will have enough goddam turkey sandwiches to sell them on the fucking plane.  They can take orders:  wet or dry; ketchup or gravy or cranberry; mashed potatoes?

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by B.D. Fischer

Return to Issue 49