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Authors: Michael Marano

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Stories From the Plague Years (8 page)

BOOK: Stories From the Plague Years
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Arterial spray painted the windshield; steam from his sundered throat filled the car with summer-moist humidity. I nearly retched with the sweet-copper stink of blood and the booze on his breath. Yet I felt a strength, a satisfaction that I at last had power over him, as I’d once gained power through violence as a kid so long ago. Keene made noises like a pig makes as the butcher’s knife slides. I thought he tried to speak, then realized what bubbled from his sauna-warm throat was laughter. This pleased me. Irony unshared can be flat and lifeless.

In a few moments, the flow of steam from his split double-chins stopped. But I thought I still heard laughter, like the soft giggle of a child.

I took his billfold, careful to rip the buttons of his coat as I groped into his suit jacket. I took his watch, careful to mark its passing with scratches on his wrist. I broke his ring finger, where his thick gold wedding band was. I don’t know why he wore it. He did nothing but call his ex-wife a cunt.

Then I got out of there. I took off the thin vinyl jacket, like a raincoat, that I wore over my parka. I’d bought the jacket at a hardware store out of town . . . it was what some companies require workers to wear when they spray pesticides. Keene’s blood had dribbled off it in streaks. I let it drop to the ground, then took a plastic garbage bag from under my coat and wrapped it.

I rubbed out my prints in the snow, invisible to the ice-caked security cameras mounted on the lampposts, invisible to any who might see me, blending into shadow as a wilderness-hardened killer, the kind invoked in banal myth-novels by the short-hand “crazy vet” or “rogue agent”—a creature forged of cultural guilt for the betrayal of ex-soldiers. The power of that figure didn’t let my cancer-riddled body know thirst in the cold, dry air, didn’t allow me to shiver, or feel weak. I threw the bag in a trash can by a Burger King, took a bus home.

No one gave me a second glance.

—Did you think Keene’s death was funny?

Doctor Johansson’s voice took a clarity from inside the patch of light that seemed to have become still within the bank of cloud-dark shade.

—No, Doctor. I don’t think death is funny.

Doctor Johansson set down his pipe, leaned back, hands behind his head. It was a position I’d have taken myself, if it weren’t for my shackled arms and legs; the metal links were silver-shiny against the orange jump-suit I wore. The jumpsuit had no belts, buckles, laces. Silly precaution. I wouldn’t hurt anybody. Yet, like the hunter’s costume I wore the night Keene died, my vestments had iconic value I welcomed, despite my aching shoulders. The metal chair the links looped through was very uncomfortable, too. Yet if this throne were meant to accompany the ceremonial robes I wore, so be it.

—And you were able to forgive Keene?

—There’s something tragic about a drunk. Maybe that’s why so many clowns look like tramps. Keene never looked so pathetic as he did when he bled.

—How did this allow you to forgive yourself?

—I realized I pitied this boozer whose life had turned to shit. And that’s why I took his abuse. On some level, I knew he couldn’t help it.

—But you don’t regret killing him.

—If I hadn’t killed him, I wouldn’t have this insight, and he wouldn’t be at peace. Forgiveness is part of the Justice I sought. Justice comes from art, and art works on many levels. The forgiveness of the deaths, for the victims and for me, is just one level of this art.

—Art is subjective. So is Justice. And in this context, so is forgiveness. If each of those you kill can’t understand what you’ve done, then your service to Justice is one-sided.

I admired his lifting my rhetoric, to throw it back to me. I’d like to see what a linguist would think of the transcript of this day’s session, because it seemed that Doctor Johansson was, consciously or not, stealing my speech patterns. Did I pick up his? As part of the fabled
degree absolute
, from the days when psychology was less science than it was medicine show? Since I’d taken my cold steel throne today, the Second Act of our play had shifted from interaction like fencing to something like shadow boxing. On our stage defined by our reflections, his voice was itself a mirror . . . which would be a great tool if the point of our sessions were therapeutic.

—Forgiveness can be undertaken by one person without the knowledge or participation of the one being forgiven. Death, Justice, art and forgiveness . . . they’re facets of the same thing.

—And how did you . . . realize that? How did you come to that notion?

The shadowed and wind-swept reality trespassing on my nerves tore. A clarity pealed through my hearing and my sight, taking the light of mundane spectra. In an act of contrition, to myself, to him, to the Justice to which I’d devoted myself, I offered him the truth I wasn’t certain I wished to offer.

—It was Catherine who taught me. Forgiving her was especially sweet.

—Because you loved her?

—I love her now.

—What about when she was alive?

—I loved her. Maybe. But I didn’t know it at the time.

—If there was love between you, how did she hurt you to the point you needed to kill her?

—Catherine hated herself. Everyone near her suffered for it, because she had to alienate herself to prove she wasn’t worthy of human company. She wounded me so many times, I couldn’t see the pain she was in.

—Could she see the pain you suffered?

—She saw that very well.

Dinner with Catherine is ritual. The place mats, wine glasses, napkins all must be laid out perfectly. The meal must be eaten slowly, while the classical music station plays in the background. Catherine never comes to my place. All must be done in her domain, lined as it is by shelves of the self-help books, biographies and novels that nurture the traumas and scars she uses to define herself. I’m comfortable in this place of ritual. Because as with my parents, I don’t understand what rules I’m to follow, nor am I permitted to be certain. Catherine, I think, doesn’t understand the rules she lays down either, and uncertainty shared is doubly comforting.

A sip of wine, the glass held daintily in her long narrow hands. Faint lipstick traces on the rim of the glass. Candlelight touches the prints of her fingertips above the stem.

“Claire told me I should sort out my relationships.”

Claire is Catherine’s psychologist.

“What did she say?”

Catherine never speaks directly about herself. All must be channelled through the divine authority of Claire. Catherine’s sessions with Claire are a purchased commodity, brought forth to be admired along with the pinewood-themed décor of her home. I think of her expensive coffee and espresso set, and how she called me on the day it was delivered and told me to come witness her unpacking it.

“Claire said I have to refocus how I stand in relation to the important people in my life. I have to see myself in a stronger position in relation to my father, and my mother. And she said I should sort out my feelings about Steve.”

Steve is her ex-boyfriend who used to treat her like shit. He thinks himself a writer, and his way to be a writer is to drink a lot and pretend to be Hemingway. He grew a beard and left town some months ago to rent a cabin in Maine and finish the Great Novel he’s been working on for five years. As far as I can tell, the man’s gotten nothing but form rejections. Like the meal we’ve just eaten, Catherine has taken Steve into herself. Like all she ingests, she regurgitates him from time to time, so her forced definition of her earthly existence can be maintained.

“What else did she say?”

“We didn’t talk about much else.”

“I see.”

“We didn’t talk about you.”


“Do you want to watch TV tonight?”


“Are you upset at me?”


“I just sense a lot of bad vibes from you.”

“Had a bad day.”

This is one of her favourite tactics. Belittling me indirectly, making me not important enough to discuss, a nonentity, our relationship only worth mentioning as a thing not worth mentioning to her shrink. I see this now with hindsight. At the time I didn’t know why I was suddenly so upset, and why I found being upset comforting as wrapping myself in a treasured old quilt.

“Well, what happened today that was so bad?”


No words, as Schumann plays behind us a moment. She speaks again, touching the stem of her glass.

“Dean, you really hurt me when you exclude me from your life.”

“I’m sorry.”

—Why didn’t you break up with her?

Clarity made our stage a world made of glass. The
hard and shadowed words
, that defined our journey into the realm where the poetry of Justice is sharp enough to cut the flesh of ghosts, folded themselves into the hidden sheen of that glass.

—I gave her all the power in the relationship. I let her own me. I had nothing . . . no real job, not in school. I needed someone to show myself that I could have something, a relationship, anything. But the relationship belonged to her.

I felt naked now that the
hard and shadowed words
slept, or had perhaps bowed in reverence to Catherine, the Beatrice of my descent into the realm those words so cruelly defined.

—What did Catherine get from the relationship?

—She had a victim.

A great fluster as Catherine gets her coat, checks her brittle, protein-starved hair that, like her body, won’t bow to her magazine-ad-defined will. I wait on the limbo of her couch, jacket on my lap like a sick and needy cat. The ferns by the window she’s just watered cry droplets to the hardwood floor.

“Don’t,” she says.


“Don’t rush me.”

“I’m not.” I leaf through
. It occurs to me, against my wishes, that Catherine’s apartment is a figment out of old catalogues. Once upon a decade, a photograph of this place would have shilled an offer for a Windham Hill CD, free with the purchase of the coffee table. I am sadly unhandsome enough to fit the retro-yuppie tableau in which I’m placed, sadly under-dressed, and my jaw not nearly square enough. It’s twenty minutes until the movie starts. Catherine didn’t start getting ready until five minutes ago, complaining from the bathroom that she can’t get her blush right. Though she is beholden to her impossible standards, our departure time is hers to own, and I’m a squatter within it.

“I wish you’d stop breathing down my neck,” she says from the closet, amid the click of cedar hangers.

“I’m trying not to,” I say as I skim an article on flirting and office politics. She sighs loudly. A woman of infinite patience, she, to tolerate an ill-shod fool like me. She reminds me of this. Often. With rolls of her eyes and expulsions of breath from her aerobics-toned lungs. I open my mouth, but say nothing, a sliver of my awareness touching the memory of a great black-armoured ant, its fierce jaws opening and clamping in silent protest, as it died under circumstances its hundred-million years of adapted perfection couldn’t understand.

We enter the revival house late, but don’t miss the beginning of
. We come in during the old Warner Brothers cartoon. It’s one I’ve loved since I was a kid, in which Bugs Bunny has to return a lost penguin to Antarctica. I laugh out loud, as does the entire audience. Except for Catherine. She gives me looks, as if my braying embarrasses her at a refined garden party. When the cartoon ends, everyone in the theatre applauds. As does Catherine.

During the movie, she becomes a little girl, swept away by the story. She talks out loud, pointing at the screen, remarking how beautiful Ingrid Bergman was, loudly as if we were in her living room, watching one of the shows about dashing professionals she loves so much that feature the kind of handsome, rich lawyers and doctors she knows it’s her WASP birthright and duty to marry.

As she chatters,
embarrassed. Eyes drift to us in the cataract-grey reflected from the screen. I ask her to be quiet, once, twice, three times, giving whispered voice to the silent stares thrown toward us. At each request, she looks at me as if I’ve slapped her for no reason. The world narrows, changed by the fiction on the screen, moving couples around us to lean together, to rest heads on each other’s shoulders, to place arms around each other. During a romantic scene in which Bogart and Bergman drink champagne as Nazis march on Paris, Catherine takes my hand, a gesture of empathy, I pray, with the doomed and phantom-coloured lovers on the screen. She squeezes my hand tighter as the music swells and the scene bleeds to that drenched train station where Bogart becomes a man forever exiled from his own heart. And Catherine squeezes my hand tighter. And tighter.

And tighter still as the scene shifts from Paris to Morocco, her nails biting between my knuckles. I’m being punished. But this can’t be . . . Catherine is a mature woman . . . she reminds me of this. At every opportunity. She wouldn’t vent anger at me this way. Not even subconsciously. No. By telling her to be quiet, I’ve stifled her cathexis, her empathy with the characters on the screen. The only outlet for her is to grip my hand. I’m in the sweet homeland of knowing pain for an unfathomable transgression, yet deny myself the comfort of homecoming, of acknowledging the punishment. I nest the pain beside others I’ve collected. To squeeze her hand back in retaliation would be the basest of immaturities. To ask her to stop would be petty and ridiculous. And it would let her know she’s hurting me. That’s something I can never let her know, for reasons I can’t understand myself.

The movie ends and our hands part, slick from the oily sweat of our palms. She snatches her coat and is up the aisle before I get my jacket on.

Outside the theatre, she maintains her lead, looking over her shoulder, encouraging me to hurry with that expectant gaze of hers, to be by her side as a real lover should. I slip on my jacket and jog next to her.

“So what did you think of the movie?” There’s an edge in her voice, as if she asks how a difficult meeting went. She knows
is one of my favourites. It was my idea we come tonight. What she truly asks is: “
What did you think of seeing a favourite movie with me?

BOOK: Stories From the Plague Years
6.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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