Thursday, March 31, 2011
“Do you feel better?” Clare asked me. “My God, for such a seemingly robust man you do get sick an awful lot.”
“No, not sick, just accident-prone,” I said, sitting up in bed.
“I don’t think any of your calamities since coming here are an accident. You want to be in harms way, I think” she said in an astute tone.
“Why?” I wrapped my arms around her slender boy-like waist.
“Some sort of childish death-wish,” she said sternly.
“Then how come I feel so alive, so virile?” My hands roved over her body.
“That proves nothing,” she said with evident bile, “even sick men are randy. Even wounded boys can furiously desire sex. You satisfy the drive to perpetuate the species, and then with nothing to fill the void you leap over the precipice. Its animalistic --- primitive and not to your credit at all. It doesn’t show that you are robust. Just that you have animal desires that you share with slugs.”
I moved a hand to the small cleft between her legs.
“I think I have finally figured you out,” she said analytically. I momentarily stopped my groping and looked at her curiously, “you’re some sort of binary freak. There is no one Langley Vandemark, there’s two.”
“That’s not incredibly profound,” I started to pull down her short skirt, my massive digits fumbling with the tiny bird beak clasps.
“Maybe so, but it means everything to an understanding of your psychology…. one moment you are completely full of yourself, in absolute self-possession. And then something happens that deflates that expansive ego, and you are shrunken, defeated….”
The dress was off. I had her bent over a dresser. Her pale body was shimmering in the darkness.
“Langley,” she bent back and whispered huskily in my ear, “you can do a lot in this world but you can never hide from yourself.”
We copulated furiously.
When it was over, I lay spent next to her in the cold manor bedroom. Her bird hands were resting on my chest. The black clouds had finally arrived and a steady rain was pelting against the smeared, wet window. Clare turned away from me to sleep. I wrapped her nude body in a blanket. I stood up and looked out at the darkening landscape. The undulating hills were as black as coal, as black as the storm sky. In the distance, far in the moors, I heard the baying of a hound.
This was what I need, I thought to myself and then thought it again, harder, deeper than I thought possible. I peeled the layers of cognition back again and again: here it presents itself, a rough, tempestuous scene to tear myself asunder. Nothing else had worked. My body had proven to be too vigorous a vessel for my soul. It was bulging and the pressure was unbearable. It seemed destined to propel me from one nonsensical venture to another. I obviously needed a destruction cinematic in its scope to end this escapade… to clip it before someone beside myself actually was harmed.
I looked back at Clare’s sleeping form. Her rib cage rose and fell. She didn’t seem quite human, but small, detached, insignificantly reduced. How did I even become involved with this world? I took a few steps toward her and looked down. I loomed over her. Somehow, through a thousand series of minute and discrete stages, so miniscule in their shifts I never noticed it occurring I had become something essentially non-human. I had an urge to destroy the room, myself, the manor… but instead I picked up my cape from the coat rack and calmly walked out of the room…
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
When the door was closed behind Mr. Pennyworth it grew cool again in Vandemark Manor. The moist summer air was dispersed in the silent, cool hall, so dark I could barely see my hands in front of my face. The tall ceilings, blackened walls, and the sudden hush as the noise of traffic and people were sealed from the outside, made the whole proceeding seem like the closing of some especially heavy door.
I turned to race down the hall to inform Homer that we were free, but my head rudely butted a beam that I could normally easily clear. I rubbed the sore spot on my head with my palm. My shoes felt a little tighter. I knelt down and examined the old worn out loafers.
I loosened the laces, but that didn’t seem to help, so I untied them entirely. Still they pinched my feet, so I pulled the laces through. Running up the stairs in a fit of nervous tension one slid off and I stumbled to my knees. I suppose the wood had so rotted that it could no longer support my weight, for it indented the step.
When I stood up to take another step I rested my hand on the banister, the weight splintered the dowels. By the time I reached the upper landing I had left an inexplicable wake of broken wood. I became momentarily confused. In the throes of a B-monster movie style rampage I did not know where I was. I was lost in my own maze of beams, iron, car parts, broken furniture, newspaper stacked to the ceiling, bed frames, and flaying with my arms in front of me, chopping through obstacles like old faulty scissors, blinded by a will to control, I somehow was transported to the attic. I stood panting, excited, flushed…. then, in the next moment, an eerie calm descended on me, and I stood, stock still, straight, calm emotionless, like a golem that had just had the sacred words removed from under his tongue --- suddenly inert.
The attic was a wonderful place to end a rampage of this sort, since it contained not mere concrete junk, but ephemeral memories. It was the unlikely top-heavy anchor of the entire house, of my little fairy world.
I tried to stand up straight (I usually could) but hit a beam. I bent down. One of mother’s dresses, now quaintly out of fashion, hung loosely from a hanger on an old garment dolly. I took it with my hands. The fabric was not strong and easily came apart in my hands as if it had reverted to puff cotton. But it wasn’t the texture that I wanted to feel, or the sight that I wanted to satisfy, it was smell that I wanted. Gripping the dress in my paws I feverishly searched for the fragrance of peppermint.
My nose groped about the decaying garment for even the minutest patch of that wonderful distilment. Nothing but mold and dust and perhaps, and this may have been a mixing of memory and desire, the merest hint of after bath powder, sprinkled about the fragile armpits of the decaying garment.
The veil was removed from my eyes. I descended the attic stairs. I groped about in the dark. My orientation was returning. In the hall I passed the only mirror in the house that was still clean enough to provide a decent likeness.
It was a beautiful oblong, gilded affair in the Empire style, now reduced through age and neglect to a queer extended brown smudge on the wall. I stopped to look at myself. Perhaps I had not done this all-too-human exercise in three or four years. For a man that spent his time almost exclusively indoors, emerging only at night, my skin was a pleasingly uniform chestnut brown.
I pushed open Homer’s door. He was sitting at his little desk building a model of a Messerschmidth fighter. When he built models of this sort he would check with me periodically to see if he was constructing it properly. His tactile judgments were seldom wrong. It was arranging of the decals where he traditionally faltered. When I entered his room his bone white face turned toward me. His albino eyes, pink and rabbitty, were pointed in my direction but wandered aimlessly around that entire area of the door.
“Lang,” he said in his adolescent twang, “come and see if I mounted this darn engine right.”
I walked over. He seemed paler than usual, and his body slighter and squatter in the chair. He was struggling to get adjusted to his new work attitude without realizing the mechanism behind the change. I took the plane gently in my hands. My thumb and forefinger pinched two opposing holes in the fuselage and met in the hollow center.
“Ahhh shit,” I said.
“What Lang,” he asked breathlessly, “what happened?”
“I’m sorry Homer, looks like I busted it a little.”
“Awww,” he squealed, “let me see… is it fixable?” He took the plane gently in his small soft hands, as if he was examining a delicate hummingbird. He caressed the body, quickly finding the two holes.
“Lang, what were ya thinking? I can’t fix this, it’s a hole,” he whined.
“Maybe we can Gerry rig something,” I said huskily, taking the plane again. This time I snapped a wing off.
“Crap!” I said. Homer was silent. I handed him back the plane. After a moment of respectful silence, I backed away from him and said, “I’ll order you an identical one, Homer. I’m awfully sorry.
He fingered the plane all around its damaged surface. I could see the beginnings of yellow tears perched under his blank, vacant eyes, ready to flow down his sunken cheeks. When I turned to leave the room, I knocked my head against the door jamb
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
The half way point of the century, nineteen fifty, when I have been home from the war nearly five years, seemed like a good time to shut off water, gas, and electricity from our brownstone.
I had already been harassed by some of the petty officials at the companies that supplied me with the so-called necessities of life. I had become niggardly in my payments, not from a lack of funds (Vandemark money never runs out, even under the grossest mismanagement) but from a philosophical principle: from the simple premise that if I was to lose nothing more then no more should go out.
In my zeal I had forgotten that those on the outside would require a unit of money for a unit of labor or product I received, that they too had the integrity of their systems to uphold and maintain. A typical exchange with some officious official would go like this:
Opening the door, my head almost above the jamb, I would stoop to see the intruder or bend over and step into the strong daylight, quickly realizing that dozens of street eyes were watching me.
“Yes,” I said deeply, as if with a bed of gravel in my gullet.
“Mr. Vandemark? Mr. Langley Vandemark?” I nodded. “I’m Mr. Coalpepper from Consolidated Edison. I’m afraid I’m here on some very troubling business. You see…
“How much is the bill?” I asked.
“One hundred and twenty five dollars and sixty cents, sir.”
I bent down and low bridged it back into the house. Fumbling in my desk I could see Coalpepper’s mottled, greasy head scanning the dark interior of my house. Behind him several black people were craning around Coalpepper’s slim form trying to catch a glimpse. Catching the trick latch on the desk I opened the trick drawer and took out a wad of cash. I counted out the money and gathered up the odd assortment of change. When I emerged outside I handed him the wad. He was startled.
“And shut it off.” I said.
“Excuse me, Mr. Vandemark?” he whimpered.
“Shut off the electricity. I won’t be needing it anymore.” He looked up at me with awe, as if I had broken some incest taboo and had the audacity to scream it out loud in the public square. He backed away and melted into the large, still gathering crowd.
When Mr. Wasserman came to collect the water bill I dispatched him in a similar manner. I gave him his proverbial walking papers with the words “Shut the water off I won’t be needing it,” no doubt my phrase was ringing in his ears as he walked away like a secret name of God some fool had the temerity to scream at the top of his lungs on the courthouse steps. He backed away from my long shadow at the base of the steps, pad of cash in hand, and was subsumed into the street sidewalk crowd.
The most troublesome character in this ensemble cast was Mr. Pennyworth, a representative at the bank that held our mortgage. He was a man to be reckoned with. After repeated written inquiries (all strongly worded admonishments) followed by a regular schedule of verbal harassment (visits at odd hours, his minions facing my stubbornly closed door), Pennyworth arrived one stifling summer morning with two police officers and sharply folded foreclosure papers for me to sign unless I could provide the full balance of the mortgage immediately in cash or cashier’s check.
The men stood impassively in the hall. Pennyworth was a worthy opponent; the others had been mere company snivelers, flaccid lackeys, one and all. At least Pennyworth showed up with the law; he knew how to flex a taut muscle. The man knew how to exchange hit for hit. Faced with such papers (documentation has always cowed me) my bluff was called.
“What is the balance, Mr. Pennyworth?”
“Two-thousand four hundred and thirty seven dollars and seventy-two cents,” he related impassively.
I cleared a space from my desk. It was recessed in a nook of the living room so neither Pennyworth nor his charges could see my manipulations. When I emerged I handed Pennyworth the full amount in cash and change. He was momentarily stunned; his poker face showed a glimmer of surprise. He could see how I was living, the state that I was in and how my surroundings were arranged. He gave me a receipt and without further word showed himself out.
Monday, March 28, 2011
Before dinner I nosed around the kitchen to get a peek at the victuals. There was not much fresh food around, owing, of course, to wartime shortages. Much of what was there was in cans and jars, most of it of some age. McVitie’s Digestives and Walker’s Shortbread Fingers were being daintily laid out on a serving tray. There was a opened can of Batchelor’s Mush Peas and Broadland Vegetable Suet, and generous amount of Gentlemen’s Relish, and a massive jar of Norfolk Manor Mincemeat.
When we finally sat down to eat, a Welsh rarebit was served up on a slice of bread that was left too long in the broiler. It was singed and scored by flame scars. Next, a bowl of bangers and mash that was too watery on the top, and correspondingly viscous on the bottom. Then, in quick bewildering succession, Tatties and Bashed Neaps, Toads-in-the-whole, and as the avez-vous faim, a supposedly choice bit of game bird, a Barbary duck shot that morning, or I suppose more specifically, a duck breast fried.
Duck has a solid layer of fat under the skin, and consequently needs a lengthy cooking time, but the inside of the beast should be red and juicy. Fantastically, this carcass seemed to be prepared in the opposite manner, its insides were burned, while the layer of exterior fat remained pink and gamey. The pudding served for dessert had a host of mysterious suspended particles in its milky contents, and the surface layer, which I broke with a spoon, an uneven, questionable sheen.
In fact these dinner parties, when I view them from my present vantage, now seem like the dividing line between what people were like before the war and what they would be forced to transform into after the war.
And I am not talking about stage props like dress, sexual mores, aesthetic tastes or habitual inclinations. These are the mere surface fringe of the creature known as human. No, what was at stake was far more sinister. Like all clever and acute people whose basic desires go largely unsatisfied --- I am a perfect medium to sense the barely perceptible stirrings of a human sea change, and the first tugs at the strings of epoch turning --- of shape shifting toward the unknown, next avatar of homo sapien sapiens. I am much like an animal before an earthquake: for inscrutable reasons I sense the tremor, for my middle ear vibrates like a minute harp long before the side walk begins to crack.
“Quite to the contrary,” Gavin continued speaking, trying to cut his meat with one arm, for the other was in a sling, as he had been thrown from his horse in the hunt, “I do not believe that this war will bring a lasting peace. This century will be marked by almost perpetual war. Once this conflict is over we shall be butting heads against the Bolsheviks, and how do you suppose that will turn out?”
“But the Russians are our allies.” Lesley said, turning her cross eyes to Gavin.
“Oh Lesley, darling, you’re so naive. Allies and enemies are not some intrinsic state, but situational. One’s enemy today is one’s friend tomorrow, and vice-versa. One never knows what is in the cards. In fact, I’d go so far to call it my life’s philosophy: everything transforms into its opposite, eventually.”
“That maybe true in politics, old boy,” said Edmund Fitzroyce, a slight man in an RAF uniform who was at the hunt that morning, “after all England is now fighting with the United States and we came damn near close to coming in on the side of the Confederates in their Civil War for all that cotton, but human nature is entirely a different matter. People just don’t change. There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to people. The model always remains the same the world over.”
“There I would most vociferously disagree,” I chimed in, pointing a meaty finger at my fellow guests like a visually suspended accusation, “so called human nature is the most malleable of all things --- more than politics, more than that shape shifting whore known as history. In fact, I would go so far to state that there is nothing called human and nothing called nature.”
“Oh really,” Lesley said, “then what are we, if not human.”
“Langley thinks we are what we believe we are,” Clare said flatly.
“Not entirely true,” I said, “I would never make facile generalizations about what it means to be what we are. Whether we construct or own realities or it is constructed for us isn’t really the point, actually, it’s the crushing weight of reality that matters, what makes you feel alive and dead, what is empty and what is full. Its up to you to run to the side that gives you what you desire. People say ‘human nature’ and pin attributes on it as if it were a coat rack. But what the coat rack is no one really investigates. Are we only attributes? If that is so I’m deadly afraid. I’m fearful to my bones. I think if anyone decided to move the coats aside what they saw at the center would so shake them to the core they would jump off the cliffs of Dover.”
Luckily, more dreadful foodstuffs were brought in by limping and gouty servants. As I was quickly discovering, Budge Manor and Crotchford Downs, with its cool mists and perpetual cloud cover, was a breeding ground for English diseases supposedly eradicated in the last century. Gout brought the mutton; scurvy the potatoes and giblets; a mild case of consumption the overstuffed, bland dessert. My diatribe, painfully out of sync with the general flow of conversation, had down shifted the discussion to mere pleasantries about the weather. Even my impish Clare, not completely of this earth, had gripped my hand during my monologue as if to say “There, there love, don’t let everything out.”
After dinner we retired to the front hall. Although it was a chilly night I found myself bathed in hot sweat. I held a cigar in one hand and a brandy in the other and tried to control the tremors and spasms passing over my body like uncontrollable waves. I saw Gavin looking at me and politely trying to ignore my state.
“I’ve heard through some chums of mine at the BBC that some sort of decisive battle is taking place near some town in Tunisia known as El-Alamein. Its so hot down there that those lads can fry eggs atop their tanks. Can you imagine being inside one of those dreadful boxes in those conditions?” My shaking had managed to spill some cognac on the floor. Gavin looked at me with a disapproving, concerned eye.
“Langley you look horrid. Are you coming down with a chill? For heaven’s sake get yourself to bed, will you.”
“Yes, I think I will” I said, my field of vision was tunneling down a narrow funnel and then widening again and then back on the same circular path, heading down the narrow funnel once more.
“Shall I take you?” Clare asked.
“No,” I said, “I can make it myself. Stay here and enjoy myself --- yourself I mean.”
I mounted those calamitously steep stone stairs to the upper wrap around landing above the central hall. My vision was tunneling funneling in the narrow corridor. Instead of finding our bedroom door I must have slipped through one of the openings leading to the disused, crumbling sections of the house.
At first I was in a narrow corridor that resembled the hall leading to our room, but when I reached the end I was in a round, crumbling chapel. The central altarpiece was conspicuously missing, but some of the stained glass windows were still in place. Apostles hauling fish in a net, Jesus walking on a storm tossed Sea of Galilee, St. Peter being crucified upside down.
Broken pews littered the floor. I started stumbling over them, cartwheeling, end over end, as if I were drunk, and when I finally found my footing I had been transported outside the chapel into a long vaulted hallway.
I followed it; it kept crumbling until there was no roof but merely a series of blocks and stones cascading forward over a low hill. Looking back I saw the hulking black bulk of the manor. In front of me was the black sea of moors. Only the sky, a peppered gray of racing clouds, offered any contrast to the utter darkness. I looked at my large black hands. They pulsed before my disbelieving eyes.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
A fox, red and glistening with the moisture of the brown, sodden fields, scampered over the fence and across the moor. He followed the gully, hoping that the water would cast off his scent, or that the dogs would get caught in the maze of rock and sluices of swift flowing water.
I saw a wet, fearful eye, the flash of a bristled whisker and a panicked scurry, for the beast’s only chance was to reach the forest. Being the consummate Manhattanite, I had never seen a fox before. I imagined they would be crayon red, or the bright crimson of the cartoons, but in actuality it was a dusty brown.
Squeezing through the cleft in the rock I caught a glimpse of the animal’s backside, as if I were a hulking Moses and he were a canine-God. There was a boom, and a burst, and a scattering flurry of birds heavenward, and the dogs came charging, multicolored hounds of black and white, brown and yellow, baying and howling, stalking low to the ground as they followed the fox’s musky scent.
Once the hounds departed there was a moment of calm. I heard Clare emerge from between the cleft behind me. She did not have all of her clothes on yet, only her skirts and my cape which she clasped to her bare shoulders and neck. I glanced back at her.
“It seems the hunt is on,” she said.
There was a thunderous clomping of earth and the horses reared above the hill. Ten to fifteen black and brown equines foaming with sweat, and riders, wearing plush red jackets, tar black riding pants, and shinning knee high reflecting boots, shot by in a flash. Some momentarily glanced at us, but most leaned forward on their mounts, oblivious, intent on the hounds as the hounds were intent on the fox.
One of the last riders was Gavin, sitting surprisingly high on his saddle. He glanced at us, and as if to acknowledge our presence he raised his crop before disappearing behind the far side of the rock face. The hooves shook the ground, there was a rattle as the stones around us shook, then it was quiet again.
“That was unexpected,” I said.
“I’m afraid none of the Budge’s are excellent horseman. Gavin’ll probably spill and break a bone. But he fancies himself a sportsman,” Clare said, and then added, “I’ll get fully dressed.” She disappeared back into the crack.
I sat on a stone and lit a cigarette. The sky was a dull English gray, but the disk of the sun, a pasty yellow, was trying to break through the opaque sheen. The ubiquitous black rain clouds fringing the horizon had yet to produce a single drop of moisture. England, a dark smudge, a rolling plain of expansive uniformity. And these people, enveloped and smothered on an island of dreadful drafts and mists had, until recently, conquered most of the world worth conquering.
“What are you thinking of?” Clare asked.
“There is no England,” she answered, settling down on my knee, taking a drag of my cigarette.
“How can you say that? You’re staunchly English, even a Royalist!”
“There is no one England,” she snorted, “before the Norman invasion there were several, now there is the illusion that there is one. Just like England needed a Chaucer to speak one English language, England needed one government to be an England.”
I sat silently for a moment. Uncle Albert stood in front of me. He looked like a fine, average, Anglo-Dutch American from all angles. But then there were some Vandemark cousins high in the hills of the Catskills, and in broad daylight traces of their ancestry shown on them like projections from antique silhouette projection lamps.
Then my father, not much there to be concerned about except a flat nose. Homer had curly, wavy hair, but his chronic illness wiped concerns of ethnicity from his defining essence and left only sickness, which classifies a person in their entirety.
“No, there is one America.” I said.
“Hah,” she laughed, “I lived in your United States Langley. What about your Negros? What about your Indians?”
“All assimilated,” I said, smiling faintly, “especially the light skinned ones.”
“Your historic sense is totally daft, completely skewed,” she said, taking my cigarette and making it her own. I quickly lit another one. For a few moments the yellow disk of the sun burned through the clouds and we were in murky sunshine. I felt post-coital lucidity.
“We Vandemark’s are in a unique position to judge our nation’s history, my dear girl, since we are some of its oldest white residents. Marteen Van de Mark was one of the original settlers of New Amsterdam. His son, Roote Vandemark was a patentee in the nascent hamlet of New Paltz.
During the Pequot War of 1680 he served with distinction and valor and was given a patroonship on the upper Hudson River. Unfortunately, after the British took control of the region they did not recognize such a feudal structure as a patroon, so he lost it. But Roote landed on his feet. He settled in Brooklyn and started a successful import trade… all Vandemark’s in the New York area are descended from good old rusty Roote.”
The wind blew Clare’s hair across her face. She brushed it away from her eyes and gave me a satirical, wry look.
“I think that’s shit,” she said, stamping out her cigarette with her small hoof, “pure unadulterated shit. Americans don’t know who they are. They bloody mutts.”
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
I followed Clare down the ravine, which ended in a small rounded depression filled with brown water. She held my hand and led me to the lip of the moors. They stretched out before us, uniform, brown undulating hills reaching the horizon, where a darker, black brown line penciled at the horizon indicated a tree line.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Don’t be so curious, you’ll ruin it. I really think you want to destroy everything, you and that big brain atop that large body.” she smiled leeringly, “It’ll be your ruin. I have something of the prophetess in me, you know. I see things I don’t always understand. But often I see them come to pass.”
“What do you see for me?”
“I see,” she said, still leering at me penetratingly, “a smaller person next to you, or alongside of you. You control him or her, but he or she also controls you, and its an odd little war that neither side will win. What’s its called when you have a living double that haunts you?”
“A doppelganger,” I answered.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“What is this other person, this other side like?” I asked.
“I can’t see it directly, just indirectly. Its like an impression or depression where a person should be, if you get my meaning.”
“It sounds like us,” I said. “In that case, who has the smaller presence and who has the larger?”
“I should think you have the smaller presence,” she said, suddenly stopping and turning around, hugging me, her head burrowed into my chest. Her hair was blowing fiercely in the open air, covering my face. I returned her embrace. She looked up at me, her hard small face a contrast of dull and bright, ruddy reds and sickly planes of grays.
“What’s the end-point of our journey Clare? We’re halfway to Nothingham by now?”
We scampered down a hill, gaining speed near its base, and suddenly crested another small knob of a hill that contained a jumbled mass, which, as we approached it, revealed itself as a rock outcropping. It was a wall of irregular black stone, scored with deep fissures. One gash, an especially long dark crack, stretched from the rock’s base to its top and oozed with a peculiar moisture. Clare easily slipped through the crack and called to me.
“Come on Lang, its worth it.” Sucking in my chest, deflating my diaphragm, I followed her. The opening was large, but as we progressed it grew narrower. My girth expanded, filling the crack. I looked up at the thin sliver of gray sky above us to prevent from getting sick, but the perspective seemed to worsen it.
In a moment it was over. I was standing next to Clare in a circular rock enclosure. All around were broken bits of stone of different sizes: slabs, spikes, bars, strewn haphazardly as if a bomb had exploded. All that stood was the massive circular wall, three or four times higher than me, tapering off at the top in a chimney shaped bulb.
“People argue whether this is man made or natural. It could be some sort of natural formation or a Celtic fortress of some sort,” Clare said looking at the steep walls, her thin arms dangling at her sides, “What do you think?”
“Hard to say,” I said, fingering the stones. “Why would anyone build anything so hard to get into, even for defensive purposes. Maybe for storage… to hide things away in times of trouble…”
“Well,” she said, “it has its contemporary uses as well.”
She pushed me down onto a flat stone. She straddled me, curling her loose jointed arms around my neck. Her slick tongue darted in and out of my mouth, imitating the motions of copulation. I pulled her cape off and ripped her flimsy shirt open. She was still warm and flushed from sleep. Her small braless breasts sprang out. They disappeared in my hands. We struggled out of our clothes. As we joined, I held her as close as possible.
We were so close we could barely move to simulate the motions of sex. There was a struggle, as we each tried to push the other away in the embrace, and then draw the other one back; it was an inverse ratio of action and reaction… a delicious stalemate.
Finally, I pushed her away from me with all my strength. I placed an open hand on the small of her back and another hand on her gray-green stomach. She took me fully now, and met my motions with equal counter motions. Her tongue flickered in and out of her small rounded mouth. Her yellow eyes looked up at me, and then disappeared behind her dusty eyelids. Her hair was thrown back, resting behind her pointed ear tips. A low moan issued from somewhere deep in her long snake throat. She thrust her arms outward, finding handholds on nearby rocks, and seemed, for a spellbinding moment, to float above me…
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
I took Clare’s hand in mine. We arose early before the rest of the house realizing, in a way that perplexed us both, that we had never, with the exception of sleeping together, been truly alone. In war this is not an uncommon experience. War is boredom, mind numbing waiting around with hands in pockets, but war is transition as well. In wartime, unless one closed the door and bolted it, it was bound to be opened by someone who wanted in or out.
We silently slipped out the kitchen door and into the yard. A fog whose fragrance was like wet mildew wrapped the land. Over at the stables the grooms were already readying the horses for the fox hunt. Old wiry men milled about in soft caps and tweedy jackets with reins and saddles, and young boys dressed in overalls with buckets and brushes, all completely oblivious to us.
Clare and I, donned in our capes and hats, strolled past them and down a small ravine. The ravine contained a rushing stream. The water foamed and gurgled down the channel, draining into circular pools at regular intervals down the slope. Small flowering shrubs, just beginning to show their waxy buds, clung to the rock walls in dense, damp clumps. I hopped down into the ravine and finding sure footing reached out for Clare’s waist. I pulled her down to me. As she slid down over my body her lips gently brushed mine as she wrapped her arms around me. I enclosed her me, pulling my cape, over her, effectively enshrouding her.
“Its cold for April,” I said.
“The breeze is stiff is all,” she said with her peculiar accent.
“I suppose we are having a war time affair,” I said huskily into her tiny ear. She looked at me with a twinkle in her gray eyes.
“I can’t distinguish it from my other affairs. Except we are in uniform, of course,” she said. I squeezed her tighter. “Why don’t you let me go Lang and I’ll show you something quite special.”
The shift was happening. The dull pearl gray of her dancing eyes was turning a sparkling yellow, her pale pallor, flushed from the breeze, was noticeably transforming under the secret, active agent that seemed to guide her into a darker honeyed hue. It was as if, in the effort to avoid being captured in a snare, she sacrificed a limb which she knew, in more favorable climates and circumstances, she could regenerate.
She trawled along the perimeter; she peered with her penetrating glance to the other side, but had no desire to pierce the tension, to break the cycle of compulsion that was so readily viewed, so idiotically and easily halted. For I do not believe in will. I do not believe in behavior. Compulsion is my herald and my god. And when her due is not paid, a correspondingly dear price is exacted from other arenas. Compulsion does not need individuals, it demands meat. It extracts carrion.
Monday, March 21, 2011
Homer had gotten loose. He lacked a fundamental understanding of what sacrifice it takes to staunch an irreversible negative flow of energy… a drain downhill to entropy.
I loaded the tray with ointments, salves, that month’s round of special foods and vitamins, and when I opened the door of his room he was nowhere to be found. I checked under the bed. I had already sealed shut his closet. Most of the rooms had too much debris to maneuver about in, but I checked some overlooked crawl spaces and dead ends on the second floor, but he was nowhere to be found. I started turning over boxes, boards, old disused furniture.
I took out a flashlight and stabbed the dark, probing along the outer edge of the upper landing of the stairs, which by this time was a unnavigable maze of broken pieces of cars, mattresses, box springs, crates and used barrels. He was not there. After a more than cursory search of the first floor which still had, at that time, a relatively large amount of open space, I decided, to my utter disbelief, that he had somehow gotten out of the brownstone. Homer, at this juncture, was ninety five percent blind, unaware, even in a glancing sense, of how baroque and clustered his surroundings were. To me, his escape was unimaginable.
I sat on a hard wooden bench in the hall way, the bench I would take my winter boots off on when I was a boy and gripped my temples with my massive hands. A little glint of anger, diamond hard, was lodged in my mind. Above me a bulb suspended from a frayed wire swung with the counter rhythm of my swaying. My shadow swung around me in dizzying circles.
I stood up decisively and moved the debris in front of the street door, an entrance not used in three or four years. With great effort I pushed it open. Rain was pouring down. Running breathlessly around the house I looked for holes. I did not need to look long.
A piece of rotting wood had been kicked away from a rear window barrier and he had apparently slithered through the narrow aperture. Shinning the flashlight on the ground I could see drag marks leading away from the building toward the abandoned yard in the back. I found him face down in the mud. He was looking for a chink in the fence, inadequately groping his way along the perimeter. I got down on my knees and roughly turned him around.
“Ahhhhh!”he screamed, he cried, his face was seized by panic sorrow, dread, simultaneously. I felt all my defenses slide and slip and I was naked before him, in a complete fusion of empathy and then they clicked firmly in place again and my resolve was back. At first I wanted to hold him and then I wanted to slap his face. All I managed to do for that awful moment was to vigorously shake him. “Ahhhhh,” came that scream again, this time unmistakable, sorrow
“Ahhh Langley, I know that you know better, that I don’t know nothing… but its… I can’t…. It’s just…” He started a round of machine like sobbing. He seemed to be choking on the rainwater that was drenching on both of us. His small feet were kicking in the mud with spasmodic jerks.
I pulled him close to me and tried to hoist him up. He clenched his little fetal fists and was quite ineffectually hitting my chest. I gathered him up, trying to shelter him from the rain by wrapping him in a loose tarp that was clinging to the fence. I lifted him, a senseless, sobbing bundle, back to the house.
Friday, March 18, 2011
“You came here as a little girl?”
“Yes,” Clare whispered against the pillow, her tiny mouth, sweet and musty, was inches from my ear. “Daddy and Gavin’s father were both Oxford Dons.”
“What does he teach?”
“What is his specialty?”
“What kind of work did he do with it?”
“The hypostasizing temptation,” she said rather blandly.
“Hypostasizing. Making ideas into things,” she whispered.
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, it’s a complicated subject, metaphysics. Daddy studies how impossible metaphysics becomes as an area of study because the mind always makes ideas into things. The mind always conceptualizes ideas as things, it’s the only way it can think of them.” She propped herself up on one elbow and continued. “Metaphysics is concerned with aspects of reality beyond the physical. It all started with Parmenides, three generations before Aristotle. He talked about an abstract notion of Being. He was the first one to think of a philosophical abstraction. Plato takes Parmenides’ notion in a dialogue of the same name and advances it a step further: perhaps there are other abstractions besides Being: ideas, forms, mind, for instance. But somewhere along the way the ideas expressed in Plato got into the same trouble as Parmenides’ Being: ideas became things existing alongside the physical objects they were supposed to be the copies of, if you get my meaning. The ideas are the same as the individual objects they represent, just eternal and perfect.”
“I see, I think.”
“There is an absolute house, an absolute man, an absolute health. The ideas are nothing more than eternal sensibles in Plato’s dialogues, especially the later ones. Or at least, unarguably, in the hands of his successors.”
“It would seem,” I said ineptly.
“And the problem is a mistake in apprehension and philosophers fall into it again and again.”
“You have an excellent command of this topic.”
“Not really,” she nodded vigorously, “I just grew up around these ideas. They were Daddy’s life work. He showed that there are two ways to think about abstract concepts: they exist externally, in the heavens lets say, or they exist as concepts in the mind. Aristotle, in the Metaphysics, sought to re-establish ideas as abstractions in the mind, to rehabilitate Plato’s forms as abstractions, so to speak, and not as heavenly objects. But the two ways of thinking about abstractions are constantly getting confused. Even Aristotle, who sought hard to avoid Plato’s trap, confuses the two ways.”
“I’m lost again.”
“Its really simple, actually. How do we have an idea for bed, for instance. What are the ideas as an entity? Is it merely a thought in our heads, or does it exist independently? The question is really simple. The answer is hard. As an idea it is a product of the mind, as an Idea it is independent and self-subsisting. Both solutions have their own problems.
“Aristotle wanted to solve this problem in the Metaphysics but he didn’t. Daddy showed that he split the problem in two without really answering it. There are actually two metaphysics in the Metaphysics; there is one in book lamda, and one in zeta, eta and theta. The first is the metaphysics of the Unmoved Mover, the second the metaphysics of form and matter. The first is constructed on physically transcendent conceptions in the heavens, the second on abstract conceptions, ideas we have in the mind.
“But Aristotle then screws up even further. He splits up each of these metaphysics even further. There are two kinds of matter, sensible and noetic. Form also has two varieties: material and conceptual. The conceptual form continually yields up to the temptation of hypostasization.”
“Where ideas become things?” I asked.
“Yes. We have no way to adequately conceptualize ideas non-spatially. We think of everything spatially. Ideas always become things in space. They are super-things, so to speak. Daddy always said there is no such thing as an idea.”
Thursday, March 17, 2011
The old Packard sped along the country lane. Some stubborn fluffy sheep, unwilling to move out of the way, temporarily halted the car. Gavin dismounted from the driver’s seat and parted the flock in two with a large stick like a diminutive and downy Moses. We started again.
Gavin, using his intricate wartime connections, had secured a doctor’s petrol card. Stopping at a pump just outside of Crotchford Downs the gas attendant asked questions about his rheumatism.
“When does it hurt old boy, morning or evening?” Gavin asked clinically.
“Well, your doctorship, sees it hurtz all the time.”
“Mmmm…” Gavin mused, “it would be better, old boy, if it hurt at a particular time of day. Some times are better than others for pain, you know.”
“Really?” he asked.
“Well, can’t you give me sumthing from yur medical bag. Don’t ya have one?”
“Yes, of course, the bag. Where is that bloody bag. Most likely in the trunk. Hold on, old boy.”
Gavin’s slim body, tapered even further by his tight driving tweeds, slipping out of the seat, momentarily stood on the running board and then hopped off. He walked to the trunk and rummaged about for sometime. When he emerged he took the gas attended aside and gave him detailed instructions.
Driving away, Clare asked, “What did you give him?”
“Sugar pills. Harmless but extremely effective. I give them to our footman when he complains of the gout. Perhaps it works well on rheumatism as well. We shall see.”
“How’s your chest, darling?” Clare asked me.
“Oh fine, a little sore,” I answered. I peeked between the buttons of my shirt to the purple stain spreading across my chest.
“That’s the first time a Great War relic actually saved a man in this war, I’m sure. You are a creature of firsts, aren’t you? If we didn’t have a black market car with illegally procured petrol we could put you in for a medal, certainly.”
“Do you want me to look at it?” Lesley said, turning her blue cross eyed stare to me, “I had some nursing training before I chucked it because of the blood en guts’en all.”
“No, really, no fuss, please.” I felt Clare’s small hand resting on top of mine. She leaned close as the car accelerated. Trees were overhanging the road, clumps of tight green waxy buds swayed in the breeze. Grasses shook by the roadside as the car sped by. Hares sprung in front of the car and then disappeared speedily into ditches on the opposite side.
I felt my chest. I was a miracle that such a small metal case could deflect a bullet. It must have ricocheted off the car before hitting, slowing it down. I scanned the immediate area for a dent or a hole and did not find one. I sat back and felt my firm, numb, chest. “You alright darling?” Clare asked again. I smiled and nodded.
Further north the landscape changed appreciably. Gone was the early spring mist, the fresh green nubby growth, the hazy veil of sunshine.
Crotchford Downs sat moodily upon a promontory of fractured stone, lording over a rolling landscape of brown undulating moors.
The car sped up a winding stone paved road flanked on either side by roughhewn, ancient stone houses. They were squat and square and the identical brown hue as the surrounding landscape. Only the chimneys, a more modern chipping red and white brick, added a splash of color to the monochrome dwellings.
Gavin pointed the car to the Manor House and ascended the last slope of the hill. A man in dark overalls and a cap opened and closed the front gate behind us. As the gate closed and latched shut I felt as if my heart were a lute string strung too tight, as I touched it, it resounded. I thought the strange sensation was the shock of the German bullet, but it was something else. I looked up upon the bleak walls --- upon the vacant eye-like windows – upon a few rank sedges --- and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees, and thought I saw, superimposed upon this-all-to English scene, a squat brownstone on Fifth Avenue between the two houses.
There was a duality not of sight but of archetype. Budge Manor, dark, tall, Gothic, choked with rigorous dense ivy, dripping with a peculiar green-black moisture, and our house, longer and taller, cluttered, a maze, were irregular twins gazing at each other in a fun house mirror, held up for mutual inspection. The minute seed within me, the germinating tendency of growth followed by rapid decay, clicked and fastened up yet another ratchet, took a decisive step toward fulfilling its teleology.
Taking our bags out of the car I felt as if I may swoon, not from physical or emotional exhaustion but from the sheer weight of abstract possibility. The terrible knowledge assaulted me that whatever came forth from then on would be a journey not outward into the unknown of the future (which is how most of us experience time) but a return to what I knew already existed. It was as if I had been allowed to float above the limited span of my own slice of determinism for thirty-four years and view my life with a divine detachment.
But I was now steadily descending from that privileged height. I was dovetailing from the abstract to the concrete, the ideal to the real, the general to the particular --- the oppressively specific. It had the weight of a vision, but instead of peeling the layers off reality to give me a fair glimpse of my glimmering future, it merely gummed up the inevitable more. It did not explicate my future, but eradicated it.
Gavin surveyed the front of the manor. “Good God,” he said dejectedly, “even drearier than when I was here last. The country seat has deteriorated. It’s a law of thermodynamics, isn’t it old boy. Things fall apart unless you put energy into them, right’oh?”
“Sometimes they fall apart when you put energy in them, or in spite of putting energy in them,” I answered. “They just can’t handle the added load. No adequate substrate”
“How provocative,” Gavin mused as we entered the oblong entryway.
Gavin ushered us from one dark room to another, adjoining dark room. Tall Gothic ceilings caked in old tallow soot, smeared beveled glass windows looking out over pocked rock outcroppings, and staring vacantly over the moor country, undulating like a frozen brown seascape. The central hall opened into a formal dining room with a massive hearth twice my height. Above us, reaching up a staircase of stone, was an upper landing that led to bedrooms, fitting rooms and the rear, disused part of the house collapsing from decay.
“There’s more to the house, of course, its positively ancient, but we only keep up a sliver of it. The rest is in ruins of sorts. I’ll probably sell it after the war. Out with the old and in with the new, as they say,” Gavin said without a hint of sentiment. “Aristocracy means nothing now. Its brass knuckles that count.” He held up his small fist for emphasis.
The footman with psychosomatic gout limpingly showed Clare and I our room. It was a large, drafty, tastefully decorated bedroom in the neo-medieval style, with a canopied bed and on a far wall a richly depicted tapestry of St. George defeating the dragon. George had his lance drawn and was about to plunge without compunction or hesitation, the glistening point into the beast’s gilled hide. I pulled back the tapestry. Behind the wall was a drafty, dark nook.
Clare sat on the bed and tested its springiness. I stood by the window looking out over the moors. The sky was a typical English gray, but a ring of black clouds, little wisps at the horizon, poked above the ring of hills. I stood tall in the window, blocking out what little light came in; a leafless hedge, scraggly and veiny, rustled in the wind, scratching the window irregularly.
When I turned around Clare had removed her skirt and was nude from the waist down. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, just at the margin of the mattress, with the balls of her feet propped on the thin lip of exposed box spring. She was facing me. Her eyes were fixed on my broad face. I strode toward her and immediately unzipped my pants. Lifting her up, she wrapped her long legs around my waist. I grasped her light body from the bottom. She dug her long nails into my neck. She gulped greedily at me, moving up and down along my length and I placed my hands on her belly, guiding her. Her eyes had a deep yellow cast, her skin, a glistening green.
She leaned forward and sunk her teeth into my shoulder. Her brown hair flung forward into my eyes… I smelled the peppermint fragrance of her shampoo. Her musky breath was on my cheek as I pressed her crushingly close.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
While Homer disintegrated, shrank and emaciated to his marrow, I expanded. The simple and necessary observation was hard to ignore: we somehow lived and grew in an inverse ratio to each other. Even later, when the opposite state seemed to be wholly true, when I did not know where he began and I ended, there was still the problem of delineating a boundary, still the doggedly persistent inability of separating me from him.
If we were both robust and healthy perhaps our unbalanced symbiosis would never have occurred. If I grew to be a giant out of all proportion to my surroundings, then I needed a helpless Fay Ray to obligate me to reference the world. I would have simply grown so utterly out of human dimensions that I would have no longer belonged to the ranks of humanity at all. For growth and decay, diminishment and flourishing, expansiveness and decline, all exist on the same fluid slope. Never did I believe that I would ever rise above my antinomies. I could never hold both polar impulses without my own Homer, without my blind bard as a divining rod…
I thought if I cured Homer and he recuperated that this shrunken homunculus would grow to a full man and destroy this dance with opposites. I held the hope that if Homer could yet rise from the exile of physical penury that nature had imposed on him, that somehow the Vandemark line would not continue to be the withered stump it had become.
Somehow the House of Vandemark would have its heir; would receive its rightful measure in due and just proportion from country, clan and history. I did not care what this new embryo would become. As long as there was a progression to new life! If there is any torture in dualism it comes from the knowledge that it often fails to be procreative; that simple exclusive categories can be juxtaposed, conjoined, but yield nothing from their efforts, or merely a stalemate of mutually exclusive blocks… a dull thud as they collide, and then they resume their course, as if nothing happened… as if the event never occurred!
So when I inherited the House of Vandemark I decided to clear the plate. I firmly resolved to embark on a set of drastic measures to put my house in order.
The first, obvious step was Homer. Medical science had failed him repeatedly, so I had to fill the void. I had volumes of Father’s medical books to use for consultation. Since specialization, that great innovation of modern medical rigor, had failed him, perhaps pastiche would succeed. I made him sit for hours with a poultice of vitamin C and aloe over his spent eyes. He was required to eat large quantities of specific foods, while eliminating others entirely, to build up his spindly body, to give healthfulness an adequate platform to prosper.
These binge diets lasted for weeks on end, and then would cease abruptly and shift gears. First he was required to eat all protein and no fat. Then, in a dietary about face, all fat and no protein. The massive doses of vitamin C were quickly followed by a regimen of vitamin C from natural sources: navel oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines in quantities all out of proportion to any scale of normalcy. Another month, he ingested vast amounts of vitamin D; then I depleted his diet of vitamin D for the following month. Then I sat him on our roof in July, that year the sunniest July on record, incidentally, and allowed his pasty white skin, under my careful monitoring, to grow a deep amber, than a resilient bronze.
Homer tried his best to cooperate with my schemes, deferring to my superior knowledge and experience. And my brother’s body seemed to be an extremely pliable object; as a medium it responded marvelously to all manner of stimuli, oral, physical and topical (unlike my body --- which is as impermeable as stone). But it was hard on him, my poor brother, it taxed his spirit; he was always a weak little stripling, and if it were not in the name of progress I would have discontinued the regimen and let him just rest. But I felt, not without some clinical basis, that with enough trial and error, enough blind stabs into the clinical darkness, I could find the perplexing source of his blindness, and bring him from perpetual night to everlasting day.
I looked down on his wan, exhausted face, so similar to mine in every detail except bulk, and administered one more fad ointment, spoon feed him yet another vitamin mash, and a little more darkness would envelope him.
Nothing worked. And as I looked around me, and what my world had become, I realized, as a thin sliced removed from a cataract, I was totally incapable, even in such a rich world I had created, to make my way out of the confounding maze.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
A military convoy was on our right heading south to the coast. Gavin, sitting in the drivers seat, pointed out the nationalities of the different vehicles.
“There are Canadians, and these, let’s see, look like Aussies. Looks like troops from South Africa there. Those chaps are Indian, they are Sheeejs with those bloody turbans. And here are some of your chaps Langley.” I saw a blur of khaki and several low green jeeps. Clare, seated next to me in the back seat, disinterestedly turned her head to see the Americans. Lesley was seated in front with Gavin. She was wearing at a jaunty angle on her elongated head one of the pre-helmet Great War peaked caps I retrieved for her from my lair. It was a mild mid-April day. The top was down and the wind pleasant and cool, with a spring mist burning off in the brightening sun.
We were driving through a broad flatland under cultivation. Fields were bisected by crisscrossed rows of shrubs and small trees. Farms dotted the landscape --- low built indistinct and brown cottages, surrounded by a maze of stone fences with sheep and cattle safely penned. The grass was poking above the muddy wet fields.
“I don’t care what that bloody Anglo-American says, I think April is a grand month. Even in war time.”
“I agree,” chirped Lesley. I leaned forward toward them.
“Is Crotchford Downs in country like this?” I asked, the openness, the vast space!
Lesley giggled. “Not quite like this,” replied Gavin, “no, old boy. I should say a little more rocky and stony. Not much under cultivation. A trifle less sunny was well. The weather changes rather abruptly once we reach the uplands. More sheltered here, I’d say, and milder than Crotchford. What do you say Les?”
“Yes, quite.” she beamed.
We drove for sometime in silence. The car moved steadily toward a row of uneven hills at the horizon. I thought I heard a buzzing sound. The engine? But if came from above. Before any definitive spatial awareness dawned on me a low flying plane was above us, emerging from our blind spot. Smoke trailed from its propeller. I could see the black swastika on the nose and tail. It looped in the sky rather gracefully over our heads, then leveled out along the road ahead of us.
“It’s going to strafe us!” I yelled, but it was too late for Gavin to swerve. Bullets tore at the concrete in front of us, one hit Lesley’s vintage hat, and the cap flew angularly to the side of the road. Another hit my chest with a dull thud and a pop that somehow sounded delayed.
Gavin pulled the car to the side of the road. The plane, obviously disabled, disappeared behind a row of trees. Seconds later we heard a substantial crash in the distance.
“Is everyone alright? My God!” Gavin exclaimed, his eyes moving from face to face.
“I think Langley was hit,” I heard Clare say, but not very well. The world seemed to undulate between moments of crystalline clarity and smoky semi-darkness. I tried to speak but nothing came out. I saw a shimmering, wavering Gavin, as if he was composed of bright pixels, leaning over the front seat, examining my clothes.
“But I don’t see any blood, blast it where is he hit?” Finally, little bursts of air came wheezing out of my mouth. My diaphragm was working again.
“Alright… I’m alright…” I reached into my breast pocket and pulled out the metal cigarette case. There was a neat divot where the battle of the Somme had been. The little roses and thorns now circled the deep cavity. A bright iridescent bruise, like a purple heart, was swelling on my chest.
“I say, you’re lucky,” Gavin marveled.
“Damn lucky,” Clare concurred, “it’s like something out of a movie.”
I stood up on the road and twisted my torso about to check for broken ribs. I appeared to be intact. Gavin stood beside me and looked at the thin stream of smoke rising beyond the treeline.
“We should go find that plane Lang, if you’re up to it.”
Lesley and Clare drove to the nearest farmhouse to phone the Home Guard. Gavin and I hopped over the guardrail and took to the fields. Gavin produced a useless revolver out from the glove box and held it in front of him like a limp bird. Its sight was skewed to the right, and when it discharged it leaned to the left, but even with this self-correcting mechanism he could never get it to shoot straight. If we actually came across a desperate Luftwaffe pilot with an indeterminate amount of time in a POW camp his only future possible world, we would be on the losing end, done for....
Up ahead, near the crest of a small hill that was capped with bobbed red flowers we saw a piece of smoldering wreckage. It was the tail. A sunburst glimmered on the swastika. On the crest was the fuselage. It was almost intact, but gasoline was pooling everywhere, showing that it was ruptured somewhere out of view.
The propeller had cut up the muddy ground in a deep, irregular gash before coming to a halt. The pilot was about thirty feet from the fuselage. He had crawled away from the wreckage, or stumbled a few feet and then fallen face up. He had removed his helmet. Gavin carefully walked up to him and gently touched the body with his foot. He was obviously dead.
“He’s dead. Damn shame in a way, bloody good looking boy. But it serves him right, taking pot shots at us like that. Damn near killed us all. Come have a look Lang.”
I did. It was odd, he looked like a younger version of Gavin, all soft downy blond, but with a round face, puffed up with baby fat, from rich Teutonic mother’s milk, no doubt, which was now twisted obscenely in death, as if he had struggled in the final moments with that flesh and refused to give up the ghost. I bent down as if to touch him.
“Don’t touch him, old chap.” Gavin said calmly, “They’re real sticklers about that sort of thing, you know. Absolutely no souvenirs of any kind. When one of these crates falls from the sky it’s an intelligence gathering exercise. Check for chinks in the armor and all that.”
The German’s blue eyes were open. All I wanted to do was to close that blank stare, that oppressive empty gaze. Gavin and I stood quielty several feet apart waiting for the guard to turn up and secure the location. We could see them coming up the road in the distance, two small blue trucks with red lights blinking atop the roofs. I took out the Somme for a cigarette. I fingered the dimpled hole around the missing battle. All the cigarettes had disintegrated and blown away like brown lint in the stiff, English country breeze.
Monday, March 14, 2011
Down in my underground office water was cascading from an ever-widening crack in the ceiling. I kept placing Great War surplus helmets under the brown streams. Eventually I pulled out an old moth eaten trench coat, a literal coat for the trenches, and hunching over my desk, tried to conceal my papers from the circles of dripping water.
I lifted my head up to look at the ceiling. A stream of water pulsed into my eyes. When I opened them Gavin, downy and angelic in his softness, like an angel that had stepped off of Jacob’s ladder, was standing in front of me.
“Look at you, old boy, you look like you’re ready for the Ypres Salient in that get up. Now that was a show.”
I mumbled something in reply. He ignored me.
“You know, with all this Great War surplus it seems the Higher-Ups thought that bloody war would never end. I’ve heard there are warehouses of this stuff outside of town that makes what we have look like an overstuffed closet. Good God the waste. I say,” he continued, “I’m dreadfully hung over, are you?” he gripped his temples.
“It’ll be good to take a bit of a holiday. I had to pull some dreadfully long strings to secure the time off but it’ll be worth it. They’ll be some fox hunting, old boy, not something you see in Manhattan everyday, although it’s a bit out of season.”
“Where is all this water coming from, anyway? Did a pipe burst?”
“The water,” I said, pulling the trench coat’s lapels tightly around my neck.
“Oh, it’s Thames water. The river is flowing in its spring tide now, and I think technically this room is under the river. It’s a wonder everything down here isn’t water logged. Cheer up, old boy, no sense in getting glum, especially with you and Clare hitting it off. Just as I planned! I’ve secured an auto and petrol. We’ll soon be on the open road.”
Gavin left the room. More water poured down on my head. It seemed greasy, viscous, and it spilled onto some requisitions, and then piddled over to the phone in a little rivulet. I picked it up, thinking I’d dial the janitor for some buckets, but the line was dead.
I stepped out into the hall. It was drier than my office. I walked to the storage room and pushed open a door. It stunk of mud and offal, as if a parcel of some Great War redoubt had been transplanted Thames side. I kicked open a box. It contained boots. I opened another, more boots and some wool hats. Then a box of rusting bayonets. A crate with some empty cartridges. Then what looked like spades; some molding medical equipments: cotton swab wrappers with red crosses emblazoned on them, the cotton, apparently, eaten by insects; a box of gas masks that reeked of old rubber and mold.
On the floor I spied a shiny object. It was a bright metal cigarette case. Someone, some solider, had rather intricately carved the names of several battles he had participated in: Verdun, Pascidilly, the Somme, Hammel Wood. Surrounding the names was carved a snaking rose vine with spiky, glistening thorns. That he had survived all those engagements was odd indeed.
For the odds of surviving such complex, bloody engagements were astronomical. How had he done it? After each battle, how did he recover from the initial shock of combat and then, mind jarringly enough, steel himself for yet another engagement, another battle that virtually guaranteed his absolute destruction?
That was the trick, really. Every time he flung himself over the parapet and began the slow march across no man’s land behind some creeping barrage --- his death warrant was all but signed and sealed. Yet somehow, through some fortuitous celestial alignment, through the benevolent influence of the shining countenance of some unknown god, when the last shell was fired, the final machine gun silenced, this man, this indefatigable beast was left standing on a bare, brown black pock marked patch of Western Front --- alive. With each battle, with each successful cheat of death he must have wished that the inevitable would occur! Just to prove to himself that we was just flesh after all.
The brute! And I pictured, in my roving all to active mind’s eye, not some superman, but some common man from Lincoln or Cheshire or Northampton. Just a simple bloke, not much education, short of stature, perhaps weak eyes inadequately rectified by thick, circular eyeglasses, a plumber or carpenter.
There is no special mark that has sequestered him for redemption. He is either chance’s charmed plaything, or a metaphysical principle made all-too-human flesh: an incarnation of naked duality. Life or Death were his only end-points. And somehow, through a thousand million variables seen and unseen, life was always at the end of his fork. Try as he might he was never destroyed. He always lived to see another day --- whether it be gray and listless or bright and new.
I would have sold my birthright to be that achingly simple man.
I grasped the case in my hand and slipped it into my breast pocket.
Friday, March 11, 2011
“That was a good screw,” Clare said to me, her gray eyes in pale focus, looking at my face as if she were fixing on some point past me. She had propped herself upon one elbow. I could feel the soft down under her armpit resting on my shoulder. Her small conical breast was resting on my chest.
“Yes it was,” I said flatly, emptily.
“You’re good in bed,” she said.
“I suppose I am. I never really thought of it,” my voice sounded hollow, as if I were speaking from the inside of a drum.
She continued her observations, her eyes scanning me, “You’re very large, your body, I mean, is very well developed.”
“It’s a family trait. Vandemark men are expansive, well mostly,” I said. She stared down at me from close range. I closed one eye so I could focus on her face. She had an inscrutable expression; she looked like she would say something outrageous at any moment and then thought the better of it. Perhaps I was imagining the whole thing. Clare had the implacable ability to project a searing look into me that would ricochet around my hollow head never finding a perch or resting point. This is a common occurrence.
Never settled, never at equilibrium. I tried many thought experiments: I could trace the malady backward in time. I could make the problem chronological: somehow, somewhere, something had gotten lost.
Then it would simply be a task of unraveling the knot backward to that primal knot, untying it, and releasing what was lost and held and bound by time, circumstance, and that unforgiving sow Fate. But this way was fraught with danger, dead ends, slippery pit falls. How did I know I was on the right trail. What if I was tracking down a common red-herring?
Another possible world: perhaps it is a problem that creates itself anew each day? In some fantastic and inexplicable feat of regeneration it emerges de novo, fully clad and armored, fresh, each day transformed into a brilliantly off-centered facsimile, governed by its own inscrutable laws.
Or perhaps there is no problem at all and it is a mere phantasm of an overtaxed, imaginative, fizzled brain.
A bubble erupts from the source, and another scenario: perhaps my powerful need for enclosure masks the real condition to be endured: that behind my two pulsing eyes there is nothing. That the part that is missing simply never existed; the hole where a faculty supposedly held court, arranging, nurturing, and coordinating its less apt cousins, is only a chimera. The bulk conceals the hollow that never had a tenant. And try as I may, rail as I might against this despicable condition, how do we fill a void whose context may well have never existed, whose identity we would not know if we met Her on the street, whose face we would never recognize?
Clare was standing above me, dressed in her rumpled blue uniform.
“Maybe you never slept with a man as old as me?” I asked.
“What?” she asked quietly, glancing at the bed.
“Perhaps that’s why I appear so large to you. You’ve never only slept with men that are younger than me. Men get bigger as they age”
“No,” she said, brushing her hair at the mirrored dresser, “I slept with one of Daddy’s Oxford chums when I was sixteen. Gavin’s father. Don’t tell him, though, he would be mortified to know that his respectable father was an old letch that fancied pubescent girls. He must have been in his late forties.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling a twisting hand in my abdomen.
“You shouldn’t lay there like a lump Langley, you know, we have work today.”