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Authors: Michael Marano

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Stories From the Plague Years (5 page)

BOOK: Stories From the Plague Years
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words were now like stones, cast tentatively into the wind and shadow I breathed. Like stones, they tested depth. If he hadn’t read
The Comedy
, he couldn’t understand Dante’s
hard and shadowed words
, the graven letters over the Gate to Hell that had made metaphor tangible the moment Dante and Virgil passed through the Gate into the unreality of the Afterlife. If he’d not read
The Comedy
, I couldn’t in good conscience further damage the day-lit world he occupied. Even while my own faint echo of those
hard and shadowed words
inflected the play we enacted, he wouldn’t understand. I couldn’t be an adequate guide to this Underworld. I’m no Virgil. He seemed the sort who’d done drama club in college. I threw him the tether of another myth.

—You’ve read
? I asked.

—Yes. I’ve read

—One of your favourites?

As if a little embarrassed by my insight, he half-smiled as he said, —Yes.

—I borrowed from the myth of
, too.

A certain relief touched his face. Wind and shadow became more dense, now that Doctor Johansson chose to follow my voice into their realm.

—There’s nothing in the reports about poisoned wine.


I smiled at his small goading, so unlike anything
his mythic
counterpart, the Profiler-Clinician, would be expected to do. I liked that he could surprise me. The atmosphere in the room steadied. It clicked, the way a log shifts and settles in a fireplace. I felt less alone under my hail-burdened sky.

—Though poisoned wine’s a lovely idea, in the right context. I killed Evan with poison poured in his ear. I took a page from Claudius, because Evan tried to kill me to get a woman he coveted. I killed Evan the way Claudius killed the king. Evan was so good at pouring poison in people’s ears, he deserved a squirt of his own piss, on that count.

Evan, the All-American boy. He looked like a skinny farm kid, fresh as wind-blown Iowa corn, even though he’d grown up in Chicago.

I fell for his farm-boy charm, his goofy smile, and his bullshit “aw-shucks” demeanour. He was my age, but I still wanted to treat him like a kid brother. He seemed John-Boy Walton come to life—the Four-H kid ideal, stepped forward in the flesh, with the residue of the imaginary clinging to him like droplets. The kind of kid so many of us felt we
have been, based on what TV had so helpfully instructed us of the world. Evan’s clothes were ten years out of date, down to his canvas sneakers with deftly crafted holes where his big toes poked through, furthering the impression that he was a wholesome rerun made real.

He told me a wonderful story the second time we met about his Uncle Nicholas, a simple man of the soil who bought a TV in the late fifties against the wishes of the leader of the local Brethren. Later, when his uncle was trapped in a bad marriage, the Brethren blamed his sorry state on the ideas the TV had put in his head.

Evan, figment of my own TV-fed imagination, told the story so well. But one year later I found out how much better the story could be told by Garrison Keillor when I chanced on a repeat of
A Prairie Home Companion
one night while studying.

—Who was this woman Evan wanted so badly?

Those were his words. His meaning was,
Who was your Ophelia?

—Karen. She was a friend. We weren’t lovers. She needed someone to look after her, and I needed to feel needed and worthwhile. We had a dysfunctional friendship, if there is such a thing. I forced her, with her permission, into the delicate flower role. She cast me as her protector from all the ills of the world. With my permission. We clung to each other in a way that dehumanized us both. The roles we needed each other to play were so important to our senses of self we made objects of each other.

The Moment.

The Moment that froze me so my bones felt they’d crack, that scoured my eyes as I saw in a brutal mirror how vain and stupid I’d been, how I’d derided myself into a darkness blind to my place in the world.

I met Karen in a teacher certification program. I thought I could salvage my exile from graduate school by transferring credits to another school . . . and perhaps do some good by teaching America’s youth. I was, of course, an idiot to think that.

Yet the program was good for me. I was among recent college grads, happy in their part-time jobs and night classes. Around them, I felt young as I was, free from the diatribes, the strained professionalism of seminars and the academic hoop-jumping that had so filthed the last school I’d been to.

The Moment came as I sat in Karen’s apartment, drinking bad wine and talking of our friendship. We spoke of our friendship often, a way to make it more real than the plaything it was. Our relationship matched the décor of her place, which was cobbled from goods unearthed at thrift stores, giving the place the illusion of lived-in comfort and durability. Karen sat on the threadbare couch that had been clawed by a now long-dead cat, near the beaten case holding the violin she’d not played since sixth grade. On the carpet by her bare feet were wax drippings from a prior late night of earnest talks we’d had by candlelight. Beside the wax was a Lord Dunsany paperback from the ‘70s, a reed-like bookmark of sandalwood poking between its pages.

“I’m really glad we found each other,” I said.

And I’d meant it.

“I’m really glad, too,” she said with a smile. Her cream complexion glowed in the soft reflected red of her flannel shirt. “But if I hadn’t found you, I know God would send someone else to take care of me.”

And in that Moment, I knew that my friendship was just commodity.

That I was capable of profound self-delusion, that maybe all the friendships I’d ever known had been hollow charade.

How many other roles I’d played were just delusion? To what extent had I only lived for the sake of others? What life did I have of my own?

—If you and Karen were just friends, why did Evan have to steal her from you?

His words had the quality of being spoken near a lake of white-capped water. The wind and shadow that cloaked my perceptions and the hail-burdened sky all changed his voice. If this was due to how he spoke or how I heard him, I can’t say.

—Because I was there. Evan saw me as Karen’s protector. That was the mantle I’d taken, sure. But he saw me as a bad protector. A Svengali. Or maybe he coveted my role as protector, or wanted to become a Svengali himself. Karen and I moved ourselves like ritualized puppets. Like the ones in Indonesian shadow plays. We were afraid of who we might really be and made ourselves into tropes. Evan didn’t want just a lover, but someone to make him feel more than the skinny goofball he was. Karen the
could be that for him. So Evan vilified me. Or he made the trope I was into a villain. He convinced Karen, her family, her friends,
we knew that I was a monster, a control freak playing mind games with poor Karen. He was so good at twisting half-truths that within weeks I was alienated and adrift. That cut me, because I’d felt safe for the first time since Molino booted me. And I lost a friendship that could’ve become a thing to treasure. All because Evan looked on Karen as a trophy to be snatched from me.

I moved away from Karen after the Moment, terrified of what she wanted me to be and what I needed her to be. She could have become a permanent emotional crutch for me, and I’d become at once best friend, brother and father to her. So I dropped the trope I’d been, freeing her and me from the role I played.

I tried not to hurt her as I put distance between us, giving her the standard excuses of needing space, more time to study and all the rubbish so convincing in a life full of youth-tainted melodramatic rubbish. Karen wasn’t stupid, and saw there was more to my absence than what I’d said.

There was a lesser moment that inflected the legacy of
Moment. It happened while Karen spoke through my ancient answering machine. Her voice sounded lost through the static as I watched the cassette spindles turn. “You there, Dean?” The sigh she exhaled into the receiver made a deeper whisper of itself under the cotton-wool sounds of the dust-furred speaker. “Call me. Please?” The
of her hanging up made a sharp echo in the vestibule of my one-room apartment.

I had faith things would work out. That in a month or so, she and I would pass through the crucible better friends than we’d been. In the meantime, I had fun with my newly rediscovered youth: drinking with friends from the program, going to live music shows. I savoured those ember-moments of my early twenties, eager to have a rich life despite Molino’s dismissal. These were times of playful debates about serious topics, conducted late at night over cheese fries and coffee in the student union.

Then Evan chose to strike.

. “Strike” implies the honest swiftness of a cobra. More like a boa, Evan dropped and slowly squeezed. I found out what lies he’d used to entrap and degrade me, when I’d wished him no harm, and held him no malice.

“Dean never thought of you as just a friend, Karen. You know that, don’t you? If you heard the ways he talked about you, you’d know. . . .

“Maybe Dean isn’t spending time with you because your relationship wasn’t going the way he wanted it to. . . .

“Look. We know Dean is a dishonest person. Was he honest with you about his feelings for you? How do you really know he’s not angry with you? You know what kind of a temper he has. . . .

There was sudden belligerence between Karen and me I couldn’t fathom. A resentment that filled me with a heavy guilt that I’d dismissed her unfairly, without explanation. The melancholy of her echoed sigh in my vestibule metastasized in my thoughts.

Rejection withers the soul. I’d choked on it when I was young and had been banished from the love of my parents. I’d choked on it as I backed away from my parents’ table, my dinner half-finished, as they told me with silent stares I wasn’t welcome in their sight while they ate. Hungry, I’d spend hours in my room, staring at patterns in the cracked paint of the ceiling, wondering why I was so wretched that my parents shut me out of their lives. Karen deserved better. But I wasn’t certain how to explain myself to her. I went to Evan for advice. Who else could I turn to, but the most unspoiled farm boy I’d ever known?

Evan was more Iago than Claudius. I realize that now, though I’m no tragic figure great as Othello. Evan was a scrawny little man who had to conquer me, a
, so he could feel a great and tawny lion. I confided with him over beer what had been happening. He seemed aware I was out of sorts, a good and smiling pal to talk to while the chips were down. God. When I think of the triumph he must’ve felt while we talked in that dark bar . . . triumph over a guy who wasn’t his enemy. Now that he’s dead, I can stand to remember that night clearly. While he lived, whenever I thought of his good buddy advice, the memory warped to a bank of fog-grey, and a roar of shame crowded my hearing. Only details like the glint in his eyes would resolve into tangible recollection. Even so small a crumb of memory as that twisted my guts with fury at my own stupidity and his shit-soaked guile.

“Dean,” he said, shaking his head and smiling after a manly gulp of the Lite Beer he was so fond of. He looked around at the pub that was “our place,” even though generations of college kids had claimed it as “their” place before us, as would generations yet to come. He breathed in the “authenticity” of the pub, generated by the Manchester United soccer paraphernalia on the walls and the “vintage” Guinness ads from the ‘40s and ‘50s that bore copyright notices from just the year before. “It’s obvious what you’ve got to do,” he said. “You’ve got to be honest with Karen. Tell her why you’re in the state you’re in. Sure, things’re rough. But you’re friends. Nothing can change that.”

changed that. Oh, how I wanted to make my friendship with Karen a healthy thing, not a waltz of mutual dependence. I sipped the poisoned cup of his advice, spoke to Karen. It was a meeting he’d been grooming her for with sensitive-guy pep talks. It was a meeting he’d lured me to with a happy-go-lucky turn of voice and a wink.

Karen admitted me to her apartment, backing from the door as I entered, eyes wide and fearful.

An hour after my arrival, we were screaming at each other.

An hour after that, it seemed impossible we’d speak to each other again.

When I got home, I shoved aside my shirts and coats and tested the heavy dowel in my closet, to see if it would support the strain of my belt looped around my neck.

—Evan couldn’t spread such vicious rumours about you without slipping up. There must have been things he said that people knew weren’t true.

The lake-echoed, wind-tossed quality of his voice may not have come from how he spoke, or how I heard him . . . the
may have changed his words. The thought that our silver-eyed audience could so intrude frightened me for reasons I can’t name.

—After a while, not everyone believed him, especially after he remade Karen into what his ego needed her to be. He wrote me into a tool with which he could rewrite Karen. Karen was hollowed. She used to have such a sureness about her place in the world, thanks to her good Lutheran upbringing, but Evan manipulates people so skillfully, he . . .

BOOK: Stories From the Plague Years
4.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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