Read Duplex Online

Authors: Kathryn Davis

Duplex (7 page)

“It’s a nice musical,” Miss Vicks said, looking around. She had seen the show on Broadway, though whether it had been the original cast she couldn’t remember. The only thing she could remember was that it had heralded a revival of the kilt as a popular item of apparel for women. The sorcerer’s red taillights reached the far end of the street and he turned right without bothering to put on his turn signal. He was headed up the avenue, Miss Vicks knew, going home to Mary. He was tall, his arms long. He had thin tapered fingers like a surgeon, and he was going to slip them under Mary’s skirt, gently, delicately.

“Nice?” said the photographer, hitching the horse to a telephone pole and beginning to erect his tripod. “What’s nice about a place that disappears if you leave it? Who would want to live someplace where all it takes is one selfish person leaving home to make everyone vanish as if they never existed?” He seemed to be talking about the musical, but he was thinking about a story his mother used to tell him at bedtime. In the story the same thing happened. Afterward something that looked like smoke hung above the place, but it was really earth vapor, all that was left of the village once it sank into the ground.

“Have your picture taken on a real live cowpony!” the photographer called to the girls, but by now they were already past number 37 and out of earshot.

“Isn’t it a little late for that?” said Miss Vicks.

“For some people, yes,” he said.

“I mean isn’t it too dark?”

“The night shots are the best,” he explained, training the camera first on the horse, then on Miss Vicks. “They’re the most atmospheric.”

The horse craned its neck to stare at her. Its coat was dapple gray, its eyes blue. She could see the soft pink nostrils expand and contract, like something you’d want to stick your finger in. Maybe she was thinking this way because of the way she’d just been thinking about Mary and the sorcerer. The horse’s skin really did look like velvet. “Go ahead. Climb on,” the photographer said. “Give it a try.”

Miss Vicks shook her head.

“I can tell you’re dying to,” he said.

“It’s been years,” she said, arising from the glider.

The horse slowly closed its eyes and opened them again, even slower, making it seem like the eyes that had been there before had been replaced with newer, better eyes. Miss Vicks put her foot in the stirrup and swung herself into the saddle.

“Look at me,” the photographer said. “No need to smile.” He focused the lens and as he began to shoot, Miss Vicks followed his instructions. She rarely smiled with her mouth, in any case. Then he walked over and gave the horse a pat on the rump. “Watch yourself,” he said. “Between now and tomorrow lies a long, long night.”

“Tomorrow?” said Miss Vicks. Already the horse was starting down the street toward the vacant lot, in the opposite direction of where the sorcerer had been headed. “I don’t understand,” she said.

“Tomorrow!” the photographer said. “You will understand tomorrow what that word means.”

The girls stopped their singing long enough to stare. At some point they’d all been in Miss Vicks’s classroom, but none of them had ever seen their teacher do anything like this before and they were embarrassed for her.

Disabled List

HAT IS IT LIKE TO LIVE WITHOUT A SOUL? THE robots gave this a lot of thought, it being their condition. Roy told Eddie that sometimes Cindy cried herself to sleep. How could she cry? How could she sleep, for that matter? Often what you don’t have breaks your heart. The thing about souls is that with just the one exception, every one has one. The gaping hole gets passed around, like the missing chair in musical chairs. Eddie had been a good person to begin with; the material part of his body including his brain cells and his memory couldn’t forget that fact, even while the cold black wind of soullessness kept blowing through the empty space inside. Besides, baseball is a soulful game and at some point, despite how rich and famous he’d become, Eddie decided he’d had enough.

There had been a great tent of blue sky above the ballpark, there had been a field of green turf beneath his feet. Walter Woodard and Mary had just entered the owner’s box. “I want it back,” Eddie said, at the exact moment the batter connected with the ball, sending it high into the outfield. “Look!” Mary exclaimed, to which Walter replied, “We’ll see about that.”

BY NOW MARY HAD GROWN USED TO HEARING HER HUSBAND converse with people who weren’t there. Still, she couldn’t help but wonder who was to blame when Eddie collided with a teammate as they both came flying toward the same ball, crash-landing in front of the Alka-Seltzer sign.

It was midseason; the game had gone into extra innings. Midges clouded the stadium lights; the fans, in a body, held their breath. Of course Eddie had the ball, he always had the ball. The teammate should never have been there in the first place. A tie game and without Eddie’s game-ending play the Rockets wouldn’t have stood a chance; as it was, they ended up winning. The other player broke four ribs and had been back in the outfield for a while now—he wasn’t anywhere near as popular as Eddie had been, but the accident happened long enough ago that Eddie’s fans had all but forgotten him.

If the planets are in alignment sometimes what they do is crash into one another, Eddie’s physical therapist explained. When that happens, she told him, you can’t always see the damage.

She was standing at the foot of the bed, vigorously rubbing his feet with witch hazel, her yellow hair in a heavy braid that draped over one shoulder. When he’d asked her if that was why he was on the disabled list, she’d laughed. “Yes,” she said, “I suppose you could say that.” She seemed to find most of Eddie’s questions hilarious.

For a while after the collision he had been nowhere, in the same place he’d been when he was a boy on the street and got taken away, a place that wasn’t a place, without shape or color or dimension, but—for all that—so beautiful that for the rest of his life the memory of it could make him cry. It was like he saw nothing and then, very small and very far away at first, an avenue of trees and at its foot a triangle of grass with a small pool in the center, its water catching fire in the moonlight. There was a moon overhead, a gold-horned moon—there were fireflies, there were mosquitoes. A girl in a crown of stars was coming toward him, but before she could see who he was he slipped through his curtains of flesh.

Later he was tired; someone put him to bed. When he opened his eyes he saw a door and an arched window and a woman’s head on the pillow beside him. Their brains weren’t fully formed yet. He had been on his way somewhere; the gates to the city were barred but when he sounded his horn he’d been allowed to enter. To be brave and strong, he knew, was the most wonderful thing of all.

Something happened. The sky was deep black like at midnight but with a sun in it. The bladed leaves of the plants, the twigs of the sycamores, the tree trunks, and the whole world radiated from where he lay curled on his side looking out the arched window, everything just beginning to settle back into stillness after a period of terrible agitation, as if for a while nothing had remained itself but had spun into shining bits and the bits themselves had gotten mixed together, so that whoever he was lying there had pieces mixed into him of trees and plants and sky.

He was pretty sure he’d never before seen the woman who was lying beside him, but when she moved closer there was something about the temperature of her skin that felt familiar.

“I didn’t think you were awake,” he said.

“I’m not,” she replied, and they both laughed.

Laughing, he could feel the gate of his jaw move, reminding him that he was living in a body. An image arose in his brain that made no sense, a field lit from above and the sky farther away than usual, pasted across the top of impossibly high palings. People were screaming with excitement and there was a falling star coming at him, falling right toward him through the black night sky. He was supposed to catch it. It was his job to catch it and he didn’t.

Instead it got trapped behind one of the room’s many woven tapestries and the sound it made trying to escape kept him from falling back asleep. The room was round in shape, the walls built of stone. The tapestries quivered; he was aware of his tongue in his mouth, how heavy it was, and there was a taste like honey at the back of it.

“Eddie!” a woman’s voice said. “Enough is enough. You have to wake up now!”

The physical therapist wore a uniform like a nurse would wear, though she also had on black fishnet stockings and high-heeled shoes; temptingly, as if it were whiskey, she unscrewed the cap from a bottle of smelling salts and waved it in his face.

Immediately he felt over excited and enormously uncertain, exactly the way he had the time everyone went to play hide-and-seek in the Woodard Estate and no one came to find him. He was still in his hiding place under a lilac bush when a group of girls walked past on their way home. “There’s someone in there,” Mary said, but when she pulled back the creeper and saw it was Eddie sitting there crying, she told the other girls she’d been imagining things.

Before he got taken away, he’d been a nervous boy. He had trouble sleeping unless his mother read to him. There was the pestering sound of branches on his bedroom window, there were eyes suspended in the rose trellis. At first getting up to pee was more than he could handle, but the physical therapist had a urinal. When he was a boy sometimes he wet the bed.

Now it was the therapist who was reading to him. “Your biography,” she said, jokingly. She flashed him a quick look at the book, which did in fact have his name on the cover. A fairy told a boy that the piece of fabric she cut from the hem of her skirt and gave him as a special present could be stretched to any size imaginable, but that he should never stretch it unless he knew what he wanted to make with it, because if he just started doing it for the fun of it, it would go on stretching and stretching forever. Of course like all fairies she was counting on the fact that the boy would disobey her.

“What kind of a special present is that?” Eddie asked.

“This is not just any world,” his therapist told him. “Haven’t you been listening? It’s thy world. It’s my world. Don’t you remember?” She opened the book to show him a picture of someone dressed in a pale green cloak with a crown of lightning bugs in her hair, sitting in a blue boat being rowed into a dark grotto by a boy wearing a red cap. “I’ve been with you ever since that day, Eddie,” the therapist said, and she tapped him on the chest in the place where the pocket would be if he were wearing a shirt.

“That’s very kind of you,” Eddie said.

“It’s my job,” the therapist told him. “Kindness has nothing to do with it.”

He had been a boy when he was here before, that much was clear. When he came back his mother and father were sitting at the card table in the living room, playing canasta the way they did every night.

“Are you thirsty?” his mother had asked. “There’s some lemonade in the fridge.”

“I’m going to meld,” his father had said, like someone preparing to do something shameful.

Eddie fell asleep and when he woke he was lying in the same bed. The bed was unusually large, or maybe it seemed that way because there was no one else in it with him. For some reason he could see the wall hangings better than he had earlier. They stretched from near the roof all the way to the floor and showed scenes of events from the Great Division—the Descent of the Aquanauts, the Rain of Beads, Space Drift, the Seven Dormant Birds of Winter. The arched window, covered by a curtain, was no longer visible. To Eddie it felt like being inside a tent; he had no idea whether it was day or night, though he thought he could hear chirping sounds, wheels creaking, a voice raised giving directions.

After a while his therapist reappeared to take his temperature. While he was lying there with the thermometer in his mouth she ran her hand through his hair, smoothing it off his forehead but without looking at what she was doing, moving her lips and staring into space like a typist. When he asked her how he was doing she told him he was doing fine. When he asked her when he could go back to playing baseball she laughed.

“Am I going to have to tickle you to get you to laugh, too?” she asked.

“I didn’t think I was being funny,” Eddie said.

“Well, you were,” she said. “You rascal.”

Sometimes she pulled aside the tapestry that showed the Rain of Beads to reveal the console in the wall behind it. The images on all the tapestries were disturbing, but Eddie thought the Rain of Beads was the worst. It was as if you were lying on your back on the ground looking up at the sky at the exact moment the rain began to fall, the weaver having created the illusion of a three-dimensional pyramid of many-colored drops, the bigger drops forming the base of the pyramid, which was coming right at you, and behind them increasingly smaller drops, rising to the very tip of the pyramid, which was also the silver base of the scow.

The therapist would activate the console so Eddie could watch the Rockets. He would lie there and look at the picture—mostly he loved it when the camera showed the ballpark from above, touchingly small and brightly lit, carpeted in bright green grass his teammates jumped around on like fleas. When the camera shifted to show them closer up, swinging at the ball or diving to catch a line drive into center, he was less interested. It was unclear whether his therapist wanted to lift or lower his spirits when she did this—her motives remained a mystery to Eddie, as did her program of physical therapy, which consisted of rubbing first his feet and then his calves and then his thighs and when he was fully aroused, taking him into her mouth.

It seemed like it was always sunny in the ballpark, the stands completely filled with happy cheering fans. The Rockets had adopted a new way of wearing their hair, with razor-straight side parts and triangle-shaped sideburns. Occasionally the picture on the console would switch to show the box where the team owner sat with his wife and their little girl, who had ended up being quite cute despite the way she started out. The owner’s wife looked exactly like Mary, only older.

Mary—Eddie knew this because the therapist had made fun of him the first time he mentioned the resemblance. Mary wore a paisley scarf and sunglasses; sometimes she was eating a hot dog, sometimes she was drinking a beer. The little girl seemed unable to sit still. Once Eddie saw the team owner yank the little girl’s arm hard, making her cry out. Then the picture switched back to the field, where one of Eddie’s old teammates was stealing second, and by the time it returned to the box, Mary and the little girl were gone.

But that had been another lifetime, the therapist reminded Eddie whenever he grew melancholy. Another lifetime and not even the same ecosystem.

He had no idea how long he’d been on the disabled list—the DL, as they referred to it. Usually if someone was on the DL long enough it was as if he’d died. At some point Eddie noticed the Rockets stopped having his number printed in commemoration on their sleeves. He had been number 24, in honor of the house where he grew up.

One day he woke to find a large white dog on the bed beside him. It lay facing the foot of the bed, its forepaws extended in front of it sphinx fashion, its mouth open, panting. When Eddie made a move to sit up the dog let out a low musical growl, not exactly threatening but not encouraging either. He could feel the warmth of its body against his own through the sheets; when he moved to get closer it craned its head around and looked him in the eye, meaningfully, the way an animal does when it wants a person to do something.

Eventually the dog jumped from the bed, nudged the door open with its nose, and disappeared. Eddie could hear its toenails clicking down a flight of steps. It wasn’t a real dog—he knew that. It was very old, maybe even a thousand, older than a breastplate of hammered bronze or a virus. With the door open Eddie could see the inside of the stairwell, which was made of stone like his room and had a tall thin window in it showing a slit of cloudy sky. Cautiously he lowered himself to the floor—the bed was quite high, the floor also made of stone.

The stairwell was chilly, the window without a pane. Eddie walked over to it and looked out. He hadn’t left the room since he first arrived; everything he needed, including food and a slop bucket, was brought in while he slept and removed while he slept. “You are barking up the wrong tree,” his therapist informed him tersely the first time he tried thanking her. “I am your physical therapist.” She seemed to be implying that any other activity was far beneath her.

I must be inside the water tower, he thought. Growing up, he had only seen it from the outside, its front door sealed with concrete and weeds sticking through the windows. Eddie and the other boys liked to climb to the crenellated top of the tower where they got a good view of the neighborhood, including into the community center where they could watch the girls getting undressed for their ballet lesson. Mary usually tried to hide herself behind a locker, but she wasn’t always successful. The boys stopped climbing after one of them fell and cracked his skull in two.

Now the stairwell window gave an unbroken view of a wide plain dotted with barbed gray-green shrubs, the earth’s curve at the horizon so faint it was almost invisible but undeniably
a queenly entourage of clouds in procession above it. Otherwise all he could see were the barbed gray-green shrubs and, if he leaned out the window, a large haystack. The community center must be behind me, Eddie thought, but there wasn’t a window on that side of the room.

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