7-3 fiction

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

7.3 (Summer 2007)

 

fiction

goya

Still Life

Fiona MacAlister  

     Only for the last generation or so of human history had the drunken sensation come available of watching reality as though you were watching a staged show.  Only two or three generations earlier had the sensation been known of watching screened images as if they were reality—and that must have been epochal enough, even earth-shattering.  But now humanity had entered a phase of anti-matter, of black-hole full-reverse.  Of inside-out meltdown.  The earth was no longer being shattered, but rewound into a little box, a tight little spool.  You were not transporting the most exotic or feverish experiences ever witnessed to your hearthside: you were reducing the most sublime, electric perceptions a human being could ever register—of a sort that most people would never register, and that most who had would never live through—to some mildly interesting footage on the evening news.

Take that wall cloud: it was definitely a wall cloud.  Phillip had seen its like before on television documentaries.  Blue-black or charcoal gray… the daylight filtering eerily between the cloud-line’s horizon-long belly and the suburb’s real horizon, pricked by timid chimneys and telephone poles, was just enough to give the smoky billows different hues here and there… yeah, that was a wall cloud, all right.  And when a tail started to drill its way, probing and hesitant but always advancing, into the crack of pale sunset separating heaven and earth, Phillip knew its motions before it made them.  He had always been kind of a weather-buff—might have majored in meteorology if he were any good at math—and the next few moments looked pretty much like what he remembered from a dozen, two dozen, three dozen hand-cam videos of evolving tornados aired on Nova and The Science Channel.

This impression deeply troubled him—more than the funnel itself.  No, that wasn’t it: what bothered him was the very possibility that he couldn’t receive impressions of the funnel itself—that he was perhaps being insulated from a once-in-a-lifetime encounter by a high-tech upbringing.  And the encounter might prove fatal.  Here he sat, before the second-story picture window of a bourgeois castle in a very up-scale subdivision, not even running for the basement with the rest of them (except for the stunning woman in the next chair)… and he could not so much as decide if the great empty calm inside him were a magnificent indifference to life—to death itself—or, instead, a stupid fouling of sensory lines.  Did he know what he was seeing, and just didn’t care… or did he not know what he was seeing, or not know that he was seeing it “live”—not live from the reporter, but live beside the camera which might end up parting his skull?  How much was his strange “courage” worth?  As stupidity, it wouldn’t be worth anything.  And then he thought, as the black tail continued to grow and weave and grow, of bystanders interviewed after a mall or campus killing spree (“I heard the shots, but… I thought someone was making a movie.  It was all like something on TV.”)

Yet if this exhilarating courage were just… stupidity….  Phillip felt the familiar twinge of conscience, though his wondrous contempt for life was too thick to be penetrated by the sinuous, pitchy drill two or three miles away (now apparently nearing power-line level).  Jan had sent him off to retrieve Sonya (yes, Sonya—that was the name… sonorous and Russian, it fit her perfectly) as he had lounged over his wine glass while warning sirens wailed and thirty or forty guests had dashed screaming for the basement.  Sonya was his responsibility.  To set his own life at naught was one thing: it was undoubtedly what Father Mike and the rest of this crowd would have styled a sin, but it was also—perhaps (if he truly understood the reality of what was happening)—an indication that he possessed a bit of manhood, after all.  To allow this extraordinary young woman (not too young—probably a year or two older than he, maybe more) to risk her life, however, was to pay for his high-risk self-respect with an incredibly vain indifference to others.  Would Sonya be the collateral damage of his heroic ecstasy?  Could he afford to stick his head in the lion’s mouth this way when another head was deeper in the monstrous jaws than his?

He had been stealing peeks at her long before, even as the satanic tail had begun to drop and wag.  Aware that his study went absolutely ignored, he fixed upon her.  He could not really detect the vacant azure of her pupils which posed such a breathtaking contrast with her raven-dark, flowing hair.  (The very first sight of the contrast had indeed blocked his windpipe, as if a star had appeared at noon :  how could black brooding interbreed with blue daydreaming?)  What struck him now was the perfection of her jaw, her chin—a happy, unpressured partnership, this, of a perfect line and a perfect curve—which allowed her complex lips to write their mystery in an ample frame.  They were so red, those lips, against her pale cheeks (or did her pale cheeks enhance their dark blood?), so full and yet so free of the least quiver.  The bottom one protruded (strength of character? determination? thoughtfulness?), while the top one opened its broad, slowly curving wings from the nostrils instead of rapidly dipping into the corners (a hint of the Semitic… irony?  sensuality?).  Her nose, faintly aquiline, also suggested the Eastern Mediterranean —not the Urals or the Baltic.  He had seen more beautiful women, he supposed: he had never seen a more captivating one, he announced to himself with finality.

Glancing back through the picture window (it was the twister now which merely merited quick peeks), he was startled to see the tail boring the ground (startled mostly, perhaps, because the face he had been reading had never signaled the decisive change with twitch or tremble).  Dirt and clumps of debris—clots that might have been pianos or motor cycles or washing machines from this distance—formed a messy bowl around the black lathe’s axle.

Phillip spun back toward her chair: she had to have noticed such an abrupt movement.  He was going to ask, “Are you sure you don’t want to go down…”—but the jaw, if anything, had relaxed.  The lips seemed almost about to part, and the lashes over her eyes had bloomed sufficiently to leave the right pupil’s azure distinctly visible.  A kind of longing had crept into all her features.

So he settled back, puzzled and resigned.  They watched the show together, silently, both of them holding a wine glass (he realized at some point) though neither of them quite so cavalier as to take a sip.  After all, people might be dying.  Even though they might die in another minute or two, if the wicked tail decided to plow a furrow up their block, they had at least chosen their fate, or were at least willing to take what fate dished out.  But the spinning, widening bowl might hold people who wanted their lives back… children, even.  Some of the dark clots might be, not dogs or cats or laundry or lawn chairs, but small bodies.

“Please God, there are no children,” he whispered spontaneously.

A subtly corporal noise (one of those muffled effects of some bubble in the plumbing) reached him through the silence—for the sirens had stopped, their wires probably snapped, and the atmospheric whirlpool itself had not yet cast a ripple on their shore.  He peeked across his shoulder again just in time to see her throat working.  The determined jaw had tightened: the lower lip had been muscularly disciplined to thrust rather than blossom.

God, how he wished he could have that whisper back!  The lost child… what was it Jan had been murmuring (in a much louder whisper) to Councilman Flaherty’s trophy-wife in the kitchen while they sliced more hors-d’oeuvres (mistaking him for a piece of furniture, of course)?  Something about a child with leukemia… “And when she didn’t make it, Roger fell to pieces.  I know it’s wrong to judge, but what kind of man would walk out at a time like that?  And now she’s all alone, she’s lost everything….”

A light flickered across her aquiline nose, her bloodless cheeks.  Phillip looked back out the window.  No thunder followed.  And then it happened again: another power line.  The drill was making its own lightning up and down the neighborhood.  He could see loosed cables whipping through the air like rubber bands that had snapped on some child’s toy.  A child… to lose your child.  He who had never even had a wife, who had never even slept with a woman… he understood, though, what it must mean to lose your child.  How he had looked forward to having children as a teenager, a good Catholic boy—children were all part of his virtuous dreams about the perfect woman.  (He had often noticed that an aversion to children indeed made a woman unattractive to him—a major cause of the prostitute’s repugnance.)  And then to be released into… into the whirlwind.  In a way, everything had been taken from him, too.  He thought about that as a muted crack reached them belatedly through the double-thick picture-window, a telephone pole having been upended before their eyes a couple of seconds earlier.  Himself as a widower, as a man whose children had died….  Now the plate glass registered a dusting of particles that had traveled a mile or two almost as quickly, it seemed, as the crackle: a swarm of invisible insects appeared to be pelting the pane.  Karen should have been his wife, and Lena might have been… but no, he had always just been kidding himself.  They had wanted more action, and he was good for nothing but the seminary.  But maybe even that was a self-indulgent illusion.  The luxuriant foliage of a neighboring tree—just beyond Jan’s stockade fence—exploded into frantic back-and-forth motion, as if applauding his instant of enlightenment.  Why ascribe the lowest motives to Karen?  Maybe she just wanted a man who knew where he was going in life?  Who could blame her?  Some of the leaves—and even small branches rich with leaves—spiraled over the fence and came right at them.  Their smacks upon the glass were like little slaps in the face.

Phillip leapt up and strode toward the window, discarding his wine glass somewhere or other.  If he could do nothing else with his miserable existence, maybe he could come between her and a limb or a garden tool.

“It’s incredible,” he may have said, or maybe only mused as a car skimmed along the street on its roof smoother than a kid on a slip-and-slide.  The street was not theirs, but he could see a full two or three blocks of it just up the mild slope.  The vehicle flipped and was lost to sight behind a house, less than a mile away.  Perhaps not even half a mile.

“It’s really incredible,” he said out loud, very quietly.

There was no more wall cloud now—only the great black pillar, spinning like heaven inside-out, upside-down: like water draining out of a tub seen from far below, from the moldy, unclean places beneath the house… like water draining without a drain, or observed through a transparent drain.  Dirty, smutty water from heaven… or the effluvium of hell in an inside-out mockery of heaven.  Foul, perverse, twisted… and so very, very high up.  The bowl of dust and splinters and glass shards and socks and gas cans and rose bushes and sandboxes was so high and dense now that the funnel had no earth-bound foot, but was only visible beyond the squalid, festive haze, Like Kilimanjaro or Everest beyond immense foothills of steamy ice.  Something long, lean, and gnarled—a mini-funnel—a tree trunk, maybe—changed hands in the square-dance and outsized the real funnel in a split second before his vision could delineate it.  He was dead, for sure.

He had stood beside a firing artillery piece once as a child during a Fourth of July celebration.  The impact was more like that noise than any other he knew—less noise than dry ignition of all the senses.  Yet even as his knees were still wobbling, something between his ears was busy digging a different sound out of the sensory rubble.  A scream—a squeal, a purely reflexive vocal wince.  So she had a voice, after all.  And the first conscious thought Phillip held up for examination, still facing the spider-webbed but somehow intact window, was that maybe, for just an instant, she had feared for him.  Or was it that he would have died without a flinch… or wasn’t it really the same thought?  That he could stare death in the eye, and that a desirable woman could be moved by it.  That he might possess… nobility.  Nobility…

Just like that, the filthy bowl of chaos had moved on.  They heard a strange rattle outside, probably from where the cars had been massed up and down the curb; but it reassuringly trailed off, an aural set of footprints indicating the twister’s departure.

A heavy rain began to lash, then abated, then resumed.  The squalls came in rapid succession, turning the shattered though unfallen glass into an impenetrable silver sheet at their height.  During moments of lull, troughs between these airborne waves, he noticed that the stockade fence was gone, though the neighboring tree still stood (if far less luxuriantly bushed out).  A swing-set rested on its side—a pair of toppled A’s—just beyond the tree: an oddity which struck him as doubly odd only when he recollected that there had been no swing-set, upright or otherwise, in the neighboring back yard just minutes earlier.

He looked back at her for the first time since standing up.  Her throat was working again, but her complicated, lurid lips remained sealed in some kind of struggle; and both azure eyes now bored straight past him with alarming vacancy.  They were like the missing stockade fence: something was supposed to be there beneath her lovely broad brow… and instead, empty sky.

Phillip kept trying to shape a first word.  If he could get out the first one, the rest would follow.  He could say, “It’s over now,” or, “Looks like we made it,” or… but at last he simply lowered his gaze and started to amble about the room.  He was surprised to find his hands shoved into his pockets, as if he had rounded the chairs and found that huge tree trunk—the instrument of his near-annihilation—sprawled dripping on the carpet.

There was complete silence after the last squall sizzled over the windows.  Outside thickly lay the silence of a cemetery… and inside, the silence of terrorized refugees hiding from the police.  Of course, they could not know in the basement that the storm had passed.

A kettle of hot water had been simmering away in the kitchen.  Steam was still wreathing sluggishly from the spout, though the burner lights were out, the refrigerator was not humming, and the hands of the rooster-clock above the range were as still as tombstones.  He knew where Jan kept the tea bags.

“I’m making us a cup of tea,” he tossed over his shoulder, reassured by his soft voice’s composure.  “A nice cup of tea,” he murmured to himself, nonsensically.

She seemed not to have moved, five minutes later; she seemed as frozen as the kitchen clock’s hands.  He thought vaguely, without real expectation of success, over some jocular comment which would point out the comparison (“Did your power go off, too?”) as he deposited his makeshift tray on a coffee table.  He thought, with equal despondency, about small talk (“What an end for a fundraiser, huh?  Trying to build a shelter for battered women, and half the neighborhood goes down just out the window.  Good thing it was just before rush hour, huh?  Good thing people weren’t home…”).  Then he thought, without any intent whatever of speaking, about those who would have been home.  Almost ready to hand her a cup—his fingers had just closed on the saucer—he felt something travel from his hair roots into his spine, finding its way thence into the pit of his stomach.

“I should be outside,” he said—to no one, to himself.  “There may be someone trapped.”

It was like his whole life, that half an hour of wandering up and down slick gray pavements under a slate-gray sky.  No jacket, no rope or toolbox, no flashlight, no cell phone… no specific destination in mind, a million haunting images of maimed children which bore no apparent resemblance to anything he could see or hear… unprepared, over-excited, ill-focused.  Inept.  Incompetent. But full of good intentions.  Should he approach a house whose bedroom wall had caved in and knock on the door?  Should he clamber to the gaping chasm and peek in?  Should he scream, “Is everybody okay in there?” and take silence for an affirmative?  He could soon hear the sirens of distant emergency vehicles.  What would he say when they arrived?  “Do you live here?”  “No, I… but I’m not a looter, I’m just trying to help.”  “But how do you come to be here?”  “I… the diocese is raising money, and I… over there.  Mrs. Marconi’s.  They all went to the basement, but I…”  “Are you National Guard?”  “No.”  “A doctor?”  “No.”  “A priest?”  “No.  Definitely not a priest.  Definitely never anything like that again.”  “Then what are you doing out here?  Can I see some i. d.?”

The best he could do was comfort a wet, trembling dog as he saw strobe lights descend upon an adjoining block.  No children pinned beneath roof beams, no hysterical mothers shouting, “My baby’s somewhere in there!”  Just a terrified, very wet spaniel.  And he couldn’t even figure out what to do with that.  If he walked back to Jan’s with it, some child might be up all night wailing, “Where’s Toto?”  But when he set the creature down and shooed it away gently (which he did three times), it followed him with abject devotion, and its huge black eyes were irresistible.  Birds of a feather….

Dusk had settled heavily by the time he got back to Jan’s.  A few cars passed him while he walked along the resplendent asphalt, their tires sprinkling his pants as he veered into the gutter and as their headlights, in the same reflex, veered testily away.  To think that he had left the most… the most fascinating woman he had ever met, and one who quite possibly needed his comfort at some level, to go cuddle this damp mutt….

Somebody from this neighborhood—some Good Samaritan solid citizen—would be sure to appear in the evening news’s feature story, dismissing his heroism with stammers before the camera after having rescued three housewives, five toddlers, and a baby from precarious wreckage.  And he would have done no more than what Phillip was fully willing and able to do, and would probably have done it in the house with the caved-in bedroom wall.  The difference between him and Phillip, in other words, would be that he had known how to make an entrance.  That simple.

Jan’s house was black at the windows, like all the surrounding residences, but flashlights traveled up and down her driveway as if escorting Halloween trick-or-treaters.  Car doors continued to slam: it was apparent that most of the vehicles had not, after all, been whisked through the pinball machine.  Phillip could distinguish the stockade fence’s intact length—a rigid boardwalk—on the lawn, for the low clouds curiously lightened the dusk by reflecting the city shimmer from undamaged districts.  He could even make out several of the departing guests.  There was a laugh or two, oddly resonant with plaintive, quailing farewells (for fear and relief still worked the group in equal measures: Phillip calculated that the guests had probably crept from the basement just five or ten minutes earlier).  And, naturally, all of the voices were female.  Other than Father Mike and the ancient Colonel Manwaring, he had been the only man at the “affair”.  It hadn’t been the sort of gathering that real men, busily paying bills or aggressively enjoying a day off, would attend.

As the crowd thinned, he in fact picked out Father Mike’s nasal baritone more and more frequently.  Of course, the priest would be among the last to leave—and with a heavy sigh, Phillip suddenly realized that his blind hope of finding her still here had collided with the certainly of meeting the Father if he hung around.  It wasn’t worth the gamble.  A stupid pipe-dream against a lead-pipe cinch—the usual exchange-rate in his adventures.  Why set himself up for this?  And as he ran his eyes over the silver-black bulges almost close enough overhead to jump up and touch, he was astounded at how distant a memory the tornado had become.

“Phillip, is that you?”

Too late.  The beam of a flashlight ran up his pants and shirt as if frisking him, then stopped insolently in his face.  He was immensely irritated that the priest left it there, surely sensing some kind of advantage.

“Phillip, where the hell have you been?  What’s that you’ve got in your arms?  Look, I need to have the notes before I can get out of here.”

He yearned with all his heart and soul to growl, “Get that damn thing out of my face!”  What he said was, “You had them.  I gave them to you after the steering committee met.”

“But you’re supposed to be managing the publicity, remember?”

But you wanted to see them, Father.

“Is that a dog?  What are you doing with a dog?  Well, just tell me where you left them… or do you know?”

“They were probably left in the study.”

“Well, I’ll see if I can find them.  I have a flashlight.  We’ve got to have the minutes, Phillip.  There’s a certain way things have to be done, whatever world you choose to live in.  You can’t just be wandering off in a crisis and…”

“And picking up stray dogs.”

“What?  Well, come along and help me find them, will you?”

Phillip lowered the spaniel gingerly onto the grass.  “You keep them, Father.  This isn’t my kind of work.”

“What?”

“I said I need to go.”

“Well, call me later.  Call me tonight.”

The beacon held him caught in its cone just long enough for Jan to train her guns on him.

“Oh, Phillip!  I’ve been looking everywhere for you!  My God, wasn’t it horrible?  I’ve got to get the insurance adjuster out here.  There’s a tree in the yard that wasn’t even ours, and the top of the chimney landed on Mrs. Pendleton’s car… dear God!  Dear God… but we’re all safe and sound, that’s what counts.  It’s a miracle.  It’s just a miracle, you know.”

Shorn of its theological blooms, he had heard the same thing in the seminary.  Good luck was a miracle, bad luck was a special test of strength.  If a mother had lost her infant two blocks over, God was strengthening her soul.

“Phillip, will you please take Sonya home?  Mrs. Pendleton brought her—they live almost on the same street… and besides, Sonya—don’t repeat this, of course—but she’s on some kind of anti-depressant and isn’t supposed to drive.  And now Peggy’s car… I may have to take her home myself, unless I can find Teresa.  I guess I could take Sonya home, for that matter…”

“I’ll take her.  I’ll be happy to take her.”

“That’s a great help, dear.  Because I wouldn’t take Peggy until later—not until Paul gets home.  And I wouldn’t ask you to take her and Sonya both, you know, because your car… does it have a back seat?”

On their way across town, Phillip ventured no further conversation after asking, “Did you drink that cup of tea?” and glimpsing her vacant stare in the white stripe shed by a streetlamp.  She was not entirely mute, but she supplemented the instructions Jan had given him with no more than, “Turn here,” and, a moment later, “On the left… next to the corner.”  He had tried to understand from the first, and he continued to try (often with a liberal dose of self-mortification).  She had lost her child and her marriage… she was on medication… she had just witnessed a deadly tornado… she wasn’t ready to get friendly with a man again… when she was ready, she would find a man who didn’t spend his afternoons scribbling notes at women’s “events” and his life puzzling over how to make an entrance.  He didn’t blame her.

Of course, there could be no question of his going inside.  Among other things, he had grown painfully aware of the spaniel’s ghost emanating from his shirt as he slowly dried out.  He hadn’t even told her about the dog—he hadn’t even tendered a burlesque version of his rescue mission which would be at once amusing, true, and susceptible to interpretation as the humility of the brave.  He was just a 27-year-old guy without visible means of support (less than ever now that he had apparently decided to throw away the charitable post of “publicity director”) and with very visible canine hair all over his collar.

Yet when she turned to him under the porch light after unlocking her door, her azure gaze did not seem quite so vacant.  “Thank you,” she said.  “Thanks for everything.”

Everything… so she had noticed!  Dog hairs and all, he steadied himself.

“I… I wish I could see you again sometime.  I can’t think of anything I’d like better.”

She didn’t smile, but neither did she retract her vista of blue skies from him.  Rather, her eyes faintly intensified and darkened, as if she were reading instructions that weren’t quite clear.

“Let me write down my number for you.”

As he neared his apartment, Phillip noticed that the Hadley Street Bridge was lit back up, as well as the neighborhood beyond it.  Things had returned to normal.  Chaos had dropped out of the sky like a warhead that had bounced off a munitions truck… but people were already hopping over the gashes left by the explosion.  He, too.  A woman who had not said two dozen words to him, and who quite possibly had been doped up almost beyond functional awareness… a woman with a “history” whose trauma he couldn’t really pretend to understand… a woman as full of obscure needs as that quavering spaniel.  Damaged goods, a bottomless pool, a loose cannon, a ticking time-bomb—a little mountain of clichés for things to stay away from.  And he was already rehearsing grand speeches to her in his mind, baring and bandaging her deep wounds, letting her cry away into his shoulder, offering her new life, proposing a new future… in his wild imagination, he was behaving like an adolescent all over again.  What good was experience—even a stare-down with a tornado?  A silly fool, he decided, is a silly fool until you knock the life out of him.

 

Fiona MacAlister teaches college writing and devotes herself to rearing her children.  Several of her short stories appeared previously in Praesidium 2.3 (Summer 2002).  She resides in the Denver area.