8-4 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

8.4 (Fall 2008)

 

short story

prae-202

courtesy of artrenewal.org

 

Laestrygonia

J. S. Moseby

     I can understand why the poets write of muses.  Some authors work from notepads and snapshots, like the beat reporters of yesteryear.  Most do nowadays, I suppose.  But not I.  Nothing gets me started on a story like a dream.  It’s only a starting point, the dream… but it is a start in the middle.  A primary reference, a fountainhead, a sun emanating radiance.  I fill in around the dream’s vision to make the rest of the story.  And it’s true that I try to fill in as plausibly, as factually, as possible: I try to erase the dream’s edges, so that my readers will never suspect anything but a notepad and some snapshots.  Even the beat reporter, though—if you think about it—had to bring some preconceived notion of his story to the scene.  He had to be able to class some things instantly as not worthy of note.  The cameraman, too: he had to see a certain master-picture in his mind before he snapped the first shot.

That’s what my dreams do for me.  I like to think of the modus operandi as logical in its way.  If you dream about something, it must be nagging at you for some reason; and if it’s nagging at you, it must conceal a truth which you chose to overlook—or could not face—in your waking hours.  It must reveal or simplify in a way that your mind resisted when you were preoccupied with reaching respectable, presentable conclusions.  And so your mind missed the deeper truth… and now the dream is trying to resurrect that truth.

I will tell you the dream I had late last night, early this morning… and then I will try to explain (to myself perhaps more than you) why it cannot become a story—why, in spite of its reaching toward at least half a dozen poignant stories, it at last falls short of each.  And reaches beyond each, too, telling too much truth even its fragmentary manner.  Because I am already worried about what storyless-ness means for truth—about the possibility that I may never write another story again.  Maybe no one can any more.  Maybe we inhabit a post-narrative world.  I don’t know, I’m not sure: that’s why I have to write this all down as if it were going to grow into a purposeful narrative.  I have to figure out just how dead our living space has become.

There was a man wearing gray clothes in a gray place at a gray time between night and day.  (And I must actually have been dreaming at about the dawn hour.)  Because of the uncertain light, the man may have been wearing something genuinely gray like an old sweatsuit, or perhaps his togs would have shed more color in full light.  I never dream in black and white, so the grayness of the scene and all in it is surely to be stressed.  The place was rather like a strip-mall, with lots of empty tarmac round about—acres of it, since no place of business would open for hours yet.  All that acreage would have been gray even in broad daylight, we must suppose.  Naturally, too, the low buildings—single-story every one, acre after acre, jutting or receding in angular swerves to make horseshoes and demoralized stoas—would have had little enough color to offer even under strong lamplight.  But there were none of those tall phosphorescent lights humming or sputtering periodically along the empty parking spaces or the more distant streets.  Maybe they had automatically shut off, since dawn was beginning to silver the environs.  Or maybe they didn’t exist.

I will call the gray man Moseby.  This is not in deference to a literary convention, or because I otherwise wish to disguise the sensation that this man was myself.  If that were so, of course, I would call him Hancock or Schuster.  What I want to suggest is exactly the sensation of being distant from myself—of knowing that I was an agent in this scene and that the gray man’s hands and feet were specifically those which answered to my will—but sensing impossibly, as well, that I could view the gray man entirely in his sweatsuit or silver jeans and pullover as he could never have viewed himself.

Moseby was not alone.  He was aware of other presences from the beginning.  Three or four dark vehicles were clustered in one of the strip-mall’s horseshoes.  The dimmest of lights—a mere pallid glow—was shed by the broad front window of a shop or office at the horseshoe’s base; and around this glow, the bipedal shades of humans seemed to gather like some sluggish species of night forager in search of warmth.  Bodies leaned against the thin steel posts of the colonnade, their heads bent together as if in conversation.  But Moseby could hear nothing of what they said, nor even an indistinct drone of voices.     He was neither drawn to these small groups nor frightened by them.  As he watched himself linger in their vicinity, however, he inferred that he was waiting for the same event as they were.  It would be a long wait, if the event was the opening of the dimly lit store front.

He saw himself fritter away the time by wandering to one of the horseshoe’s tips, where there was a blank wall unencumbered by any colonnade’s overhang, and starting to bounce a ball off the brick face.  By its sound, hollow and mellow, it would have been a tennis ball.  He could follow its hops, just barely, in the silver gloom.  Flip-pop-hop-catch.  Flip-pop-hop-catch.  Once limbered up, he began to throw easily with both hands, left to right to left to right.  He dropped his arms down and threw from unusual angles—sidearm, underhand, left sidearm, right underhand—always with grace and accuracy.  He noticed that the heart inside this Moseby figure was wonderfully placated by the game.  The marionette which was himself moved with the amazing agility of a finely crafted mechanism—of a professional acrobat, an itinerant circus performer.  Somewhere beneath the silver-gray clothes was a steady cinder of small joy.

Two or three child-shades appeared noiselessly beside him, behind him, allowing him room to play.  He somehow felt rather than saw them, for he was intent upon the ball (though the ball itself was best seen in the penumbra by glancing slightly away from it).  Their small bodies seemed to absorb some of the ball’s echo or to muffle some of the cosmic yawn that dawn expelled from the sky.  Perhaps he heard tongues become unpasted from their teeth as invisible faces smiled, almost laughed, almost uttered something not quite a word.  He slowed his pace a little, began to throw more deliberately.  And he began to say things.

He told the boys about different pitches.  He said that the ball moved away from a batter if you threw from the side he batted on.  He said that it moved farther away faster if you threw sidearm.  He said that the underhand pitch was the only one that rose, and that most hitters had never seen it before.  It would start at their feet and end up at their eyes, and they would swing for it at the belt because they had never seen anything rise that way.

Moseby heard himself say these things in another language at some point.  At some point, he simply noticed that he had not been speaking his mother language for a while.  He heard himself grope a little: “arriba abajo… la pelota comienza en la tierra y se lleva a los ojos… imposible a … a golpear.”  He was aware that man-shades—two or three—were drifting over to listen and to watch with their boy-shades.  But he never removed his skewed gaze from tracking the ball.  The conversation remained one-way, and blind.

There was a glide in the dream where there would have been a coupling in real life—a series of sharp clanks and catches working out a transition.  In the dream, Moseby was simply talking to the man-shades as the boys threw the ball against the brick and then chased it, unable to interrupt its passage through them.  Moseby tried to string words together as smoothly as he had kept the tennis ball bouncing, but they came clumsily now that his attention focused upon them fully.  “My son… mi hijito… look, this is his picture.  Su foto.  Ah, you can’t see it in the dark, not yet.  Not quite.  Ya no se ve bien, mas… keep it.  Tengalo, por favor.  And show it around, show it to others.  I have many copies.  Muestrelo a todo el mundo.  He muchas muchissimas copias.”

The tennis ball had stopped bouncing.  Moseby could hear the panting children pressing him closely, could feel their hot breath pluck from his fingers the paper that no one could really see.

“This… this boy of mine,” he began, straightening himself in an odd way that drew the children yet closer though it lifted his chin higher above them, “you may have heard of him, if you like ballgames.  You have a TV?  A radio?  He was a great player—a great pitcher!    Un lanzador celebre!”

He told them facts, statistics.  Many he did not know how to express in their tongue, but the quality of the numbers could be heard in his tone.  He could hear it himself very clearly, as he listened to the man Moseby speak, not even really listening to his words.  There was a solemnity in his voice, something between anger and laughter—the anger of charging an enemy and the laughter of overpowering him.  It was the tone that gives posthumous medals of honor.  There was almost enough room between the cry to charge and the cry of victory for a hot tear to slip through; but it did not quite slip through, the tear.  It seeped into the voice, fanning out in all directions like a star.  It made the voice deep and rich.

Moseby could see no one now, not even the shady silhouettes of anyone at his side.  He saw his son, saw him in full color—freckled, uniform of blue penstripes—standing high on a pedestal, a mound.  He saw him beaming from a superior height down upon his father.  He saw a boy, too, beaming up at his dad, his papa, with delighted wonder, piping, “I did it!”—because the boy’s up-turned gaze was in the man’s down-turned stare of Olympian triumph, of manly strength taken into full possession.  But only a father would have noticed that the look down also looked up.

“My son!  I taught him… not everything, but all the things that made him special.  The others… sus otros maestros… they taught him things I never knew.  But I taught him things that only he could do, that only I knew he could do.  Because I was his father.  I had seen him from the cradle… this high, un chiquito.  And his hands, his wrists, were mine.  Sus manos, mis propias manos.  Su sangre, mi sangre.  He was blood of my blood.  They couldn’t know him as I did.  Only I.”

Moseby knew that the man-shades had followed his words, for he could sense their height grow with his own, their chins rise as his rose higher.  He did not even look their way—he could see only the freckled young man in the rakishly tilted cap.  But he could feel the new height in all of them.  A finger prodded his shoulder warmly, and a hoarse voice uttered like a benediction, “Su papá!”

“I never forced him to it—he loved the game, and he loved the work it made for him.  Fuerza, no… era su decisión a él.  But I opened doors for him that were never opened for me, I showed him ways to go that I couldn’t go, because I found them too late.  Para mí, demasiado tarde… para él, no.  I gave him the chance I never had… and I was happy, happy that I had failed so that I could show him how to succeed.  You understand?  Mi muerte, su vida.”

A child’s voice asked a question that Moseby did not quite grasp.  Yet the questioning tone was unmistakable, and only one thing could have been asked.  “What happened?  Pobre desgraciadoSu ojo derecho… perdido.  He lost an eye, right here… an accident.  Un accidente.  Perhaps it was a… un castigo de Dios.  Maybe he had grown… too proud, too big, too high.  Way up here, much pride.  Orgullo.  And when he came down so far, so quickly, he couldn’t bear to be seen.  He hid from those who loved him—his fortune, his friends, his family.  Su familia… abandonado.  Most of all, he hid from his father, who loved him more than anyone.  For your father loves you more than anyone, muchachitos.  He knows you longer than anyone, and your blood is his blood.  But the father was the one person who would not let him go.  Always I have been a little bit late, too late… siempre un poquito tarde.  But I know he is in this city.  I am very close now, at last.  Estoy muy próximo.  Soon I will find him.  He comes to places like this for work… quiere un trabajo diario de esta suerte.  One of you will see him, and you will call the number on the photo—el número telefónico—and you will lead me to him.  Because you are fathers.  Nosotros padres intendemos lo que es… ser padre.  We know.”

     And Moseby knew that they knew.  Whether it was their height that rose yet more with his, or the warmth of their shadows that also rose, or the silence that grew damp and round like a great bubble in the wide ocean… they were all padres de familia  now.  He could see them now as never before.  The tears—the one great steady sheet of a tear—that rolled through his unblinking eyes and bathed his face gave him new sight, washed his rich, unsobbing voice so that he needed no strange words to speak straight to the foreign shades.  He could see their pairs of eyes, also unblinking, fixed about his shoulders, full of knowing.  The darkness had been washed away.  It was a moment when men are proud in their grief, proud of how a man bears grief.  Orgullo bueno….

But a man will also break from too much manhood—which is not bad, simply unendurable.  So if a man is to go on living (and nothing requires him to do so: sometimes his manhood requires him not to do so), he must share his other tears, his boyish tears, from time to time with a woman.  Maybe this is why there was no seam in the dream between Moseby’s speech in the circle of men and the sobs that escaped him where he and the woman crouched together.  In a story—a “real life” story—the author would have to explain the woman’s sudden appearance by arduous and roundabout means that would seem neither arduous nor roundabout: means that would supply what are called circumstances, that would satisfy what is called plausibility.  The woman would be a journalist, a reporter for a local TV station.  She would have come to the almost-empty parking lot at almost-dawn because there had been rumors of how trabajadores were molested at the local employment office—or were molesting others, or were selling drugs, or were accused of driving away clients of other business.  The story-teller would figure this out and explain it so that nothing could seem more natural than for a woman to appear in the gray space at a gray hour.  But the dream probably brought her in without a seam’s showing anywhere so that Moseby could cry real tears from closed eyes, tears that poured between the fingers of the hands he pressed over his face.

In the back of her station wagon (tailgate open, floorboards strewn with camera and raincoat and water jug and gray boxes bristling black cords), he told her more of the story, or the same story in another way.  He named the cities he had visited and described the human flotsam he had questioned.  He added how he had rented his house after his wife’s death (for the mother’s nerves vibrated to splinters after the son’s vanishing), how he lived much of the time out of his own car, how he drew money from his account when needed.  He grew quieter as he talked about the near misses, as if he were a hunter who sensed the prey’s nearing.  He dropped his hands and opened his wet eyes.  The sun was nearing the sky from some quarter.

“I can do a story,” said the woman.  “Will it help, do you think?  How could it hurt?  You’ll have to be on camera.”

It was then that Moseby noticed how old the woman was growing—or how hard, perhaps, she was fighting age.  He had noticed already, in the silver-gray swirl outside her station wagon, that she was beautiful.  Her long silver hair must have been fair, and the bent crevices of her eye sockets must have been almond-shaped.  She bore a name that was part of his language and part of theirs, the shade-people: he knew it instantly letter by letter in the dream, though it would evade him instantly when the dream’s vapors cleared.  She had been nationally celebrated, like his son: nation-wide carriers had broadcast her sultry image.  And then age had come creeping.  The image’s sultriness acquired a kind of longing, of lamentation.  As it grew more poignant, it grew more disturbing.  She was beautiful still; but she assumed a new, horrid beauty of the blossom just past its prime, deeper in color than ever yet creased and sinking in upon its soul.  And the patrons of televised images did not want to see such beauty.  It was fearful to them, reminding them of all they sought the screen to flee.

She did not tell Moseby any of this, yet it was written like a message in the coming dawn.  Her lips seemed to have grown fuller than the heyday of her image, but in doing so only revealed deeper lines around and within themselves.  Her fair hair hung down farther and more freely, but in doing so only made more transparent the bid to veil crumpling skin above a high cheek bone.  A dress that had once dipped very far to spy upon two smooth breasts could not dip far enough now to distract the onlooking eye from a crinkled neck.  She was like a suppliant, seductive in her loosened robes and ribbons yet framed and distanced by gestures of anguish.  She was like a tragedian whose great role would not leave her: the reporter had become Andromache, and her own life’s story ruined every catastrophe she tried to broadcast by upstaging it.

“Your son would not see the story, not if he was sleeping in bus stations.  But others would.  Someone would.”

She offered him hope—she opened his eyes upon hope as she slipped a hand around his still broad and agile shoulders.  The thought flickered through Moseby’s mind that he was not quite an old man, after all—that something might still await him between the two options of finding his son and dying in the attempt.  She was younger than he, no doubt, though she had aged faster, as women do through a certain tunnel of time in the middle years.  Especially women who give all for career—their sleep, their diet… their child-bearing ability.  She was talking now about the child she never had: she who had sent a tremor of youth through his marrow was confiding her tragic plunge into age’s pit.  Once—only once—she had dared to grow a child within her… but the fruit would not ripen.  There was the father who wanted out of the adventure, and the urgent assignment abroad that had to be accepted, and the lost sleep and extra coffee and… and she had drunk too much for years.  Too much gin, too much vodka.  She had stopped the drinking cold once she knew that she was carrying a child, but… but the effects of those years of too many Martinis at receptions, too many Scotches alone in her apartment, did not stop cold.

Her hand slipped away from behind Moseby to cover her own face, as he had done just lately.  Two hands with long fingers pressed straight up to the hairline, and the long fair hair almost draping them as she leaned forward.  No rings on the fingers, or none that mattered… and chasing the fingers, infecting them from end to end of their beautiful slender length—creasing knuckles and radiating from folds—wrinkles that appeared even in first dawn’s shadows from this distance of mere inches.  Blue veins, as well, that threatened to rupture the paper-thin skin molded too close to the bone.  She said beneath her hands (her lips flashing moistly, even in the shadows—even through their wrinkles) that she wanted nothing more now than to have a child, that she would give the most golden hour of her career for a child, that he at least had had a child to lose and maybe find again… but that it was probably too late for her.  Now that her mind (she said) had reached the destination of wanting a child more than anything in the world, her body had left on an earlier bus.  Un poquito tarde.  And she dropped her hands in a flash of teeth that might have been the sincerest of smiles, since the long hair descended over her forehead to conceal whatever the eyes held of tears.  Only hair and teeth, so young and fair in such a deepening pit of age….

Moseby slipped his hand around to her far shoulder and held her tight.  “You will help me find my son,” he said.  “Together, we will find him.”  And he could find nothing else to say.

She made him lay his head down in her lap, upon her sterile womb, and cheat the sleepless night by grabbing an hour away from dawn’s very edge.  She said she knew that he didn’t sleep, that she could tell the signs.  She would watch the office to see what happened as the day’s light spread and its people left their homes.  She was used to watching long hours, she said: she would let him know if someone like his son appeared.

As Moseby slipped into a swoon, his dream ended.

But the author did not, could not wake up on the dream’s far side.  The possibilities, of course, were generous—almost dizzying as such things go.  Did the beautiful but withering reporter and Moseby fall in love?  Did they forge a twilight bond as that day broke, she never to have a child and he never to find his, yet both now clinging to some particle of new life?  Or did she, rather, produce a child at her eleventh hour?  Or did he find his?  Or was there a happy ending all around, a grown child found and a new child conceived?

But would the new child have Downs Syndrome due to the mother’s age?  Would the Prodigal Son return with a drug habit or a terminal disease?

Should the author mix and match among all these various joys and tragedies?  Does some of one make some of the other more tolerable, more palatable… more realistic?  Is that reality?  Do the joys and tragedies even out—is it a fifty-fifty proposition over the long haul, like betting even on a roll of the dice?  Or does the author, knowing full well that the rank and file of readers prefers happy endings, season his giddy optimism with disasters that always fall just short of claiming the central characters?  Manzoni took that approach in I Promessi Sposi: all minor or wicked characters died of the Black Plague, all major or benign characters did not (excepting one whose death was “beautiful”), statistical reality was satisfied, and the lovers finally got to start their family.

The most important thing, from the artist’s point of view (if he and the author have different views), is not to betray the dream’s truth.  Which of these combinations, then, would have been the dream’s truth?  Could Moseby have fallen in love with the woman?  Of course.  Moseby has always fallen easily for fallen women: for women who have suffered greatly—for Mary Magdalenes.  He knows, therefore, that happy endings do not breed in their vicinity.  Perhaps if God Incarnate should slip His arm around their shoulders… but not a man of ordinary stamp, like a Moseby.  Whatever makes them fall—another drinking binge, another orgy of self-hatred, a panic at the prospect of losing freedom—is sure to make them upset the cart again.  Most of the time.  Is the rare triumph of self-transcendence worth a story?  Would that be because it is statistically almost defensible, or because it is statistically a wonder of the world?

Would Moseby, at least, find his son eventually?  That outcome seems to demand little of the story gods.  People fall off wagons all the time, but seldom off the face of the earth.  Informational technology, surveillance cameras, perhaps a cash reward… the implausible eventuality would indeed be if the son were never found.  The happy-man-and-woman ending requires a change of soul: the happy-father ending requires only a little honest work in the Missing Persons Division.  For a woman will not take on a man if being yoked chafes on spiritual sores—but a father will gleefully take on his son, sores and all, and kneel every day to wash and bandage the son’s most putrid wounds.

What narrative, however, would this latter chain of events present as true?  Is the dream’s truth that a father’s love conquers all?  Perhaps it does… but the dream itself, in that case, petered out with shockingly little resistance before crowning its truth.  Fathers may seek their lost sons until they find them… but the dream seemed to be more about fathers and seeking, less about sons and finding.

Why else were the shades of the trabajadores such a haunting presence?  Naturally, to write about migrant Latin workers today would be instantly political.  They would either be sympathetic figures, as in Moseby’s dream—and this would at once shout half a dozen slogans from a megaphone; or they would be menacing or treacherous, calling forth different slogans from the same megaphone.  Moseby might as easily have had his throat slit by the shadowy figures as shared his paternal pride with them—not that the same figures would have shown around his son’s photo and, on a whim, pulled a blade and severed his windpipe.  But one cannot know, in the dark.  It is another roll of the dice: even, they find your son… odd, they slit your throat.  Or is it seventy-thirty?  And does the author go with the seventy or the thirty?  Which makes him more of a propagandist?  How much of a long shot was the beautiful-alcoholic-reforms option—and at what point was it, too, propaganda?

The Spanish bothers me most of all, perhaps.  I have had dreams before where a Moseby figure speaks a foreign language.  I don’t know what that means… but, waking, I am very amenable to the idea that it reveals a secret attraction.  I like the word orgullo.  I like even more the laconic kind of formula reflected in mi sangre, su sangre.  There is a manliness in these sonorous words, and their tight syntax serves a man’s taste for getting to the point.  Perhaps manliness itself, so much under fire lately, must meet in small groups at wee hours these days to prosecute its business—a drifter, a nomad, an exile.  Not looking for sympathy, for handouts, for a special report to raise public awareness… just trying to breathe a full breath freely, even if it must find a deserted lot just before dawn to do so.

But now I am allegorizing, and I don’t really believe that dreams are allegories.  The truth within them is a central pulse, not a pair of intricately parallel skeletons.  It was good that the men in the shadows understood Moseby… but they did so, I think, because they had suffered, and not because they were men, and not because they spoke Spanish.  The woman, too, understood him; and if she would not have made him a good wife, statistically speaking, neither would the men in the shadows have become his best friends.

But all knew suffering.  I dreamed in images of suffering, and I can at last point only to that.  It is not so very small a thing, after all—that people from different countries, of different genders, from very different pasts, carrying different words on their tongues, can read the heart one of another at a moment of immeasurable grief.  That seems a very likely moral to the tale.

A moral is not a story, however, any more than is a sermon.  This is what worries me most about my dream, and leaves me fearing that my dreams may indeed never give me another story again.  There are too many tongues among us now, too many genders (or nuances of gender), too many ways of life.  Too much means nothing at all, no generality, no pattern.  The parking lot is empty because it is too full by day: the poet’s light has grown so dusky that he cannot even see the white-lined parking spaces.  The stores are sealed shut and lightless, because by day a million people drift in and out of every one on a million searches, few of which reach any solid goal.  The wind blows, and a couple of spirits occasionally scud across the tarmac like cheap plastic bags discarded once their purchase has been removed.  We meet, but in too little context—carrying too much context, each of us, that has nothing to do with anyone else’s.  And so we have only our suffering to share, and not a destination from which we have borne it or toward which we struggle in hope of setting it down.  Maybe, from all this suffering and all these false diagnoses of how to cure it—laws to pass, villains to punish, wealth to redistribute—we will some day begin to reconstruct a new model of life, or to rediscover an old one.  Maybe the father’s love for his son is where that begins (and, yes, the mother’s grief at being coaxed away from her age-old sacrifice, as well—for mi muerte, su vida is also a mother’s creed).

But for now, I see too many paths for a story.  I cannot find a path that seems more than just any other path.  The wind dies down for a moment, the plastic sacks stop blowing through acres of tarmac, and a horizon begins to silver somewhere that can only be the East.  But the sun will not show its face.  The author waits and waits… but the sunrise, if it comes in such chaos, can only be an accident.

 

John Singleton Moseby, living in semi-retirement and teaching part-time in the Atlanta area, is a frequent contributor of short stories to this journal.