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Authors: Michael Marano

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Stories From the Plague Years (25 page)

BOOK: Stories From the Plague Years
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We enter. On the couch before us is an amorphous mass, the color and texture of which is immediate in the tactile memory of my hands.

“I couldn’t figure out why she wanted you to have this ratty thing,” Nell says, picking up her grandmother’s fur coat. Trying a feeble joke, she says, “You’re not going to wear it, are you?”

“No,” I say, and the word is more coughed than spoken. I can’t bear the thought of touching the coat, even as Nell holds it out to me. Nell, with her otherworldly grace, steps toward me and I nearly step back. She hands it to me and I feel I could tear it as if it were paper. The sensation, the remembered feeling of holding Marie’s hand under the silk lining, trembles in my blood.

“We . . . had . . . with the coat . . .” Nell eyes never leave mine. I see in her the frailty behind her strength that will lead her to run broken glass along her wrist. I want to reach through the time separating us from that moment and snatch away the bottle before it can rip her.

“You don’t have to tell me,” she says, and takes back the coat. She rests it on the chair that Marie and I had salvaged when the college kids down the street had moved and had dumped it on the curbside. Nell walks to the battered desk where Marie’s ancient and paint-smeared laptop sits. Nell picks up a stack of disks and hands them to me. Some bear multicoloured thumb and fingerprints in oil-based paint.

“Marie didn’t want you to know how she worked. She was almost kind of . . . superstitious about it. She said you always figured things out with just a few hints. She called you ‘Sherlock’, sometimes. As a joke. Behind your back. She didn’t want you to know that she took digital snaps of people when they weren’t looking. She hated doing portraits from sittings. She didn’t want you to know, because then you’d be self-conscious around her and her portrait of you would come out wrong.”

I hold the disks as if fanning cards. Nell says, “These are the shots she took of everyone she did portraits of. I think they’re all your friends. And hers. She said you had a real big heart. That you’re sentimental. I think she wanted to print them out for you, but she never got around to it.” Nell shrugs. “I’d do it, but I don’t know how to work her printer, and I can’t find the manual to save my life.”

“I don’t own a computer,” I blurt, looking at the discs. More in control, I say, “But I can take them to a print shop, I think.” I run my thumb along the oil-based mark of Marie’s thumb on a disc of bright orange, remembering the feel of the flecks she preserved on her nails.

“Marie said you were a real technophobe,” she says with a half-smile.

“There’s another thing. I don’t know if you’ll want it. She never really said that she wanted you to have it, but I think you should at least see it.” Nell leads me to the gutted walk-in closet that is—that
had been
—Marie’s studio. We tip the electric fans in the doorway that had been her ventilation system to one side. A
awaits me in there. I feel his presence, almost in the way I feel the presence in this city of the one relation in this world that is of
, yet not truly of my blood . . . despite the blood we shared.

On the easel Marie’s uncle had made from scrap wood is an unfinished canvas, a photo of which must have called to me from the album of incomplete works at the showing. The face of the man in the half-done portrait is the face I have not seen for days in the mirror. I recognize myself in the way that I had recognized Janet and Tom and Paul, refracted through Marie’s eyes, illuminated by her light.

“She couldn’t finish it,” says Nell. “She kept trying to catch you in just the right moment, to take a digital snap that’d be just right. She took a lot of snaps of you while you weren’t looking. She said it was easy, because you were always distracted. But she could never find a way to complete you. Do you want it? The art dealer wasn’t sure he could sell it, because it’s the only unfinished portrait. Will you take it?”

“I don’t know.”

I lean out the closet doorway, almost knocking over one of the fans. I grip the glass doorknob; it creaks. I let go, and am next aware that Nell’s hands are strong. They are like the hands of a nurse used to heaving the sick and the dying from bed to gurney. Her strong hands lift me to my feet and guide me to the sofa. Discreetly, she leaves me to sob there, laid out as I sense that she has repeatedly sobbed in the same spot while she deals with her sister’s unfinished affairs . . . her unfinished life.

After a period of time I can’t measure, after I have sat up, she walks to the sofa and says, “It’s okay.” She gestures to her own dry eyes, “I have nothing left. If you can still cry, I kind of envy it. If you still got grief to let go, let it go.” She pulls matches from her purse set on the floor by the sofa and lights a candle that rests in a holder by Marie’s laptop. “It’s okay,” she says, then shuts off the lights, leaving me in dim comfort. After a moment, I hear the refrigerator door opening and the cracking of a beer can in the kitchen. Nell returns, holding the can in one hand and a bottle of non-alcoholic beer in the other. “You don’t drink, right?” she asks.

“No,” I say, as I sit up a little straighter.

With her strong hands, she twists off the bottle cap, which seems to fly off. There’s hardly any sound as the cap is released, so fast does she remove it. I take the beer and sip. It’s flat, but very cold. I only realize it is flat as I take a second sip. I look to the amber glow of the candle. I drink again, and I
. I know that this is the candle Marie used to melt the smack that killed her. Time slows, and I feel what I at first think is the ghost of the numbness Marie felt as she began to die. In the flame, in the flow of wax, I see who sold her the smack and why, and I realize I am partly culpable in her murder, that I led her killers to her. I realize, without the use of my sight, that
who have tampered with what Marie pushed into her veins have tampered with what I have taken past my lips. I look to Nell and stand. I won’t make it to the door. Dumbly, moving like the drunk I once was, I turn to the window, the very window that Marie looked out to greet her sister below, the very window from which I had seen Marie’s light shine forth. I see in reality the unfinished cityscape Marie had painted, thinking I might open the window and cry out to someone who might care.

In the dim-lit glass, my reflection changes. The smooth expanse that has covered my face fades and my features return to my sight for the first time in days. In my sight,
have disfigured myself in the mirror before, knowing of ugliness in my future I could not bear to see. Yet the new, smooth and featureless face, that I now realize was not new at all, was no mere self-disfigurement, but
. . . inevitability. A future I no longer see, because it is a future that is now arriving.

I turn back to Nell and speak meaningless syllables as the doped beer she has been given to offer me falls to the floor on which Marie died. My sight fades and returns. Nell stands in the doorway, cradling the phone in her hand. As I black out, I see that
, in their past and present split selves, will soon come through the door to claim their prize.

The fur coat is on me, draped like a quilt. Nell does not know that the people she helps, the people who have hunted me, have killed her sister with uncut dope . . . much stronger than anything Marie, or any user in this city, could withstand.

The place I’ve been taken to, the place I have been returned to across the gulf of my life, reeks of stale curry and incense. My life away from this spot, to
, has been mere
. The
now ends. I am on the floor. Nell holds my cinder block-skinned hand under the coat and through the reek of the place, I smell that she has anointed herself with the lotion and the conditioner her sister had used. Against my will, the sensation of the coat and the scents that Nell wears summon the memory of Marie that is more than memory, that I realize has been haunting me with greater force than any mere memory possibly could.
mill about, their grotesque treads making the floorboards creak as they light candles around the room.

What Nell had been given to slip me in the beer still addles my brain, though not nearly as much as does the sudden full and terrible restoration of my sight. So blind I have been, I did not know that I was blinded. I could not see my own future. I could not see this trap, because the mere envisioning of it in a future relative to the present I have just quit had snuffed my sight to the future I could have otherwise seen. Inevitability . . . the lesson of the Scottish king.

I am prone on the very spot where I was born. It is the very spot that has tied me to this city full of the desperate and the wounded—this city full of those incomplete souls whom I could not leave once I knew them and loved them as my kind. I could not leave this city, even after I had left
who have lived in this house as a commune for decades, who have been held together as a clan by their quest to reclaim me . . . the lump of flesh that came stifled and silent into their world, and that now draws shallow breaths upon the very spot where it had nearly suffocated at birth, the very spot on which I had been born sheathed in skin that is not my own.

Nell sees me draw breath like a grounded fish, sees me trying to speak and to warn and to plead. There is pity in her eyes, and beyond her eyes, which in this candlelight seem as brown as those of her sister, there is the terrible beauty of rage. The rage half-expresses itself in the play of candle-shadows on her face. The shadows are like a portrait of her splintered fury and sorrow. Her pitying face is silent. The amber glow makes this unspeaking face look like that of a North German Madonna. The anger-shadows scream, distorted as a face painted by Munch. They bellow and they wail. And dimly, as if from underwater, I hear the amber-shadows speak what the pitying face of Nell does not.
and all its mercy partly fall away.

I try to squeeze Nell’s hand, to let her feel just slightly what I feel, the way her sister always could. My grip is weak; my hand has less strength than does a dying kitten.

The man who had accosted me on the street looms between Nell and me. He grunts as he leans his saggy bulk forward and runs his acrid, food-greased hand over my face. Up close, I see that he has the ugly ogre’s teeth of one who has sucked his thumb into late childhood.

“It’s good you got a shave this afternoon,” he says smiling, as his younger self smiles with teeth less yellow, that are lit by the sunlight that had once streamed through the window behind Nell that is now painted black. “We don’t want to damage anything important,” he says.

They said you knew what Marie would do . . .
” It is Nell’s fury that speaks. The words are nearly muffled, but are so loud to the faculty through which I have never truly heard before, it tears at my mind. I long for the sweet deafness I am losing.

“You brought this on yourself,” says the man, happy now that I must hear his prattle. “Not sharing has made you incomplete. It made you cling to incomplete people that you used to feel complete. You’re wounded. That’s why you use the wounded. It’s time to heal. Time to grow.” Two layers of ogre’s teeth speak at once, out of sync, looking as if they will crack against each other.

And you didn’t stop her, you shit!
” Nell screams at me without breath, with the airlessness I will soon know.

The man’s two faces are joined by a third. The space where his two faces now squat takes a face from the past, spectral—that of the untrained, self-appointed midwife who cut the bloody tether between my mother and me, when the commune this place had been had taken in my mother during the ninth month of her carrying me. And after the self-appointed midwife had cut the tether, she had raised the steak knife to my throat and face and peeled away my bloodless relation, the amniotic skin that through the ages has been a blessing to others.

They told me
,” bellows the shadow of Nell as her nails cut my already skinned palm. “
They told me you could see her ghost if you wanted to. You could let me say good-bye to her, but that you wouldn’t!

The silence of the pitying face of Nell gives greater volume to the part of her that so wordlessly shouts. That of Marie which has haunted me stirs. It hears its sister’s voice. It cries out in my mind, and I wish to comfort it.

More of
stand around me, looking down.
. . . the ones from whom my mother fled. The ones who have harassed me from the moment
were aware of my still living in this city and of my inability to leave.
who have harassed me from the moment they could steal part of my sight, just enough to know what I saw while they hunted me.
who were able to partly steal my sight through the thing they have owned over these many years, the thing that had belonged to me before I had owned anything on this Earth.

You owe me. You owe Marie. You owe us our good-bye.

Against my will, the memory of holding Marie’s hand, the scents of her hair and skin as worn by her sister, pulls Marie close. I call her as would a medium, as would a spiritualist. She is caught here in this place. The trace of Marie that has haunted me has been caught here,
in the home of those who murdered her, bound by the needle that killed her, that hangs from the ceiling above me like a reliquary on black thread spun from strands of hair stolen from her brush. The dangling syringe glints as it did in the sun, when I saw it as a phantom buried in Marie’s arm. It is now not lit by the sun, but by an imprisoned light that should no longer be in this shitty world.

I speak the words, “
killed her,” yet make a sound no more understandable than a death rattle.

is brought forth . . . the vessel I have always been aware of, because of its decades-long housing of part of my awareness. That of me that
have owned is passed from one hand to another in a circle around me. I do not know with which sight I see the caul I was born with floating in its preserving brine. I do not know if it swims in the brine with true physicality, languidly flapping as would a manta ray.

BOOK: Stories From the Plague Years
12.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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