“Oddly beautiful and impossible to look away from” (Los Angeles Times), the stories in The Fat Artist are suffused with fear and desire, introducing us to a company of indelible characters reeling with love, jealousy, megalomania, and despair.
In prose alternately stark, lush and hallucinatory, occasionally nightmarish and often absurd,
the voices in Benjamin Hale’s The Fat Artist and Other Stories speak from the margins: a dominatrix whose longtime client, a US congressman, drops dead during a tryst in a hotel room; an addict in precarious recovery who lands a job driving a truck full of live squid; a heartbroken performance artist who attempts to eat himself to death as a work of art. From underground radicals hiding in Morocco to an aging hippy in Colorado in the summer before 9/11 to a young drag queen in New York at the cusp of the AIDS crisis, these stories rove freely across time and place, carried by haunting, peculiar narratives that form the vast tapestry of American life.
“A steadily growing…talent” (Kirkus Reviews), Hale’s prize-winning fiction abounds with a love of language and a wild joy for storytelling, earning accolades from writers such as novelist Jonathan Ames, who compared discovering his work to watching Mickey Mantle play ball for the first time; Washington Post critic Ron Charles, who declared him “fully evolved as a writer,” and bestselling author Jodi Picoult, who simply called him “brilliant.” Pairing absurdity with philosophical musings on the unnerving intersections between life and death, art and ridicule, consumption and creation, “the audacious imagination evident in Hale’s acclaimed debut, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, shines again in this…provocative collection that takes a unique view of the human condition” (Booklist).
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Benjamin Hale is the author of the short story collection The Fat Artist and Other Stories and the novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared, among other places, in Conjunctions, Harper’s, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Dissent, and has been anthologized in Best American Science and Nature Writing. Originally from Colorado, he is a senior editor of Conjunctions, currently teaches at Bard College, and lives in a small town in New York’s Hudson Valley.
Read an Excerpt
Fat Artist and Other Stories
When they became outlaws they gave themselves new names. He chose Miles Braintree: the first part after Miles Davis, the second after Braintree, the T’s southernmost stop on the Red Line. She chose Odelia Zion: Zion for the Promised Land, and the baby name book said Odelia means “praise God,” but mostly she just liked the sound of it. Hamlet’s Ophelia but not quite. Lives of the Saints tells of the murdered virgin Odilia, patron saint of the blind. Can be shortened to Delia, Ode, O. A martyr, a lyric, a letter.
• • •
Miles had had his disagreements with SDS, split the organization before it crumbled, and formed the Obscure Reference Collective with a handful of other radicals disgruntled with the direction the movement was taking. The bloodhounds were sniffing from day one, ORC’s plot to firebomb the New York Stock Exchange was botched by inside treachery, and the remaining true believers went into hiding. Odelia followed Miles to Paris, where they stayed for a few months, and then to Tangier. Money wasn’t a problem. Miles had money.
• • •
In Tangier they spent two years sitting on woven mats in cafés, eating roasted dates and drinking coffee as thick as motor oil, smoking kief from hookah hoses, sometimes holing up in their second-story two-room flat for two, three, four days at a stretch without putting on clothes, drinking wine, smoking, tripping, making love, friends sometimes dropping by to join in, the daily rising and setting of the sun as inconsequential and amusing and unreal as a TV show.
They burned incense and lit candles at night, and the days were bright blue, blinding bright, their flat acrid with the smoke of goat meat crackling below their unglassed windows. Bare-footed brown legs pattered in dirt streets and in blue alleyways resonant with voices squabbling in Arabic and French. The streets were a jumble of North African and Western clothes: It wasn’t uncommon to see a man wearing a keffiyeh and a double-breasted pinstripe suit. The call to prayer echoed across the city at dawn. That’s why they’d come here, in part; to do the William Burroughs thing, do the Paul Bowles thing. The sunlight was sharp and harsh and made every shadow look as if it were painted on with ink. They took hashish and heroin and acid and opium and other, more exotic drugs, the names of which Miles told Odelia and Odelia forgot. Miles learned to fish for octopus: You dive down in the shallows, stick your arm under a rock, and let the octopus wrap itself around your fist, then you swim to the surface and beat it against a rock till it lets go, which also tenderizes the meat; then hang the octopus to dry on a clothesline. Dead tentacles dangling from strings. For a while they had a pet monkey, but it got sick and died. Miles and Odelia were married in a ceremony conducted in a language neither of them understood, officiated by a poet from Rhode Island in a turban with half his face painted red. Odelia gave birth to a boy they named Abraxas, after a Gnostic deity mentioned in a Hermann Hesse novel, who simultaneously embodies all eternal cosmic dualisms: life and death, male and female, good and evil. But soon they began to itch with paranoia. Strangers were following Odelia in the streets. A tall man in a gray suit and a gray hat showed up everywhere she went. Letters from friends in the States arrived with pages missing, the seals of the envelopes broken and taped back together. Miles thought he could hear the ghostly-faint feedback signal of a wiretap whenever he picked up the phone, so one night he ripped it out of the wall and threw it in the fire. It melted and stank, and then they had no phone.
• • •
Miles contacted a guy he knew in Lisbon who hooked them up with some artfully forged Canadian passports, and that August, Miles, Odelia, and their girlfriend, Tessa Doyle, sold or abandoned everything they owned except for what fit in suitcases, and they traveled, the three of them and the baby, under blandly fake names they had trained themselves to answer to, by boat from Tangier to Algeciras and by train from Algeciras to Madrid to Paris, where they would board Pan American World Airways Flight 503, with a brief layover in Miami, to Mexico City, where a contingent of former ORC were hiding and could offer asylum.
It worried the hell out of Odelia to set foot on American soil, even for a forty-five minute layover.
Miles said: “Relax, O, we’re gonna be in International. We won’t even leave the tarmac. Trust me. It’ll just be flip flip flip, stamp stamp stamp, enjoy your flight.”
• • •
They conscientiously dressed down for travel. No hippie freak shit, no saris, no serapes, no leather knee-high boots with frilled tops. Just normal drab white people in vacation clothes, nothing to see here, folks.
Miles wore cowboy boots and a yellow-and-blue Hawaiian shirt with parrots on it tucked into his tight stonewashed jeans. He’d shaved the Zappa mustache he used to have, the one he wore in the old mug shot that was on all the wanted posters, and sported a pair of yellow-tinted shooting glasses that turned his eyes as pink as a white rabbit’s. Sheer vanity kept him from shaving his furry sideburns or cutting the blond hair that hung down to his jaw. Odelia pinned her hair up and wore no makeup, minimal jewelry, and a frumpy blue dress with white polka dots that buttoned down the middle so she could breastfeed Abraxas. Tessa had her long brown hair down and wore jeans and a blouse, but had a decorative bindi stuck like a little red-and-gold teardrop on her Ajna chakra, right over her third eye. Tessa Doyle was nineteen years old. Her parents probably assumed she was still in Cuba cutting sugarcane with the comrades, and had no idea she’d been sharing a bed with Miles and Odelia in North Africa for eight months.
Odelia said: “Please take off the bindi. It makes you look like Linda Kasabian. People will think we’re a cult.”
“Don’t freak out about it,” said Miles. “She’s cool. She won’t get us in trouble.”
Tessa kept it on. Miles rubbed Odelia’s knee and thigh with his hand. The hand felt firm and heavy on her leg. His hands were wide and strong. He gave each a kiss, first one and then the other. He took away his hand.
The plane began to accelerate up the tarmac and Odelia’s stomach tightened. Odelia sat in the window seat with four-month-old Abraxas asleep in her lap, Tessa sat in the aisle, and Miles sat between them. An eight-hour flight from Paris to Miami, and then the layover, and then another five to Mexico City, to Tenochtitlán, where the Aztecs cut out hearts and burned them still-beating on the altar, and rolled the bodies down the steps of the pyramid, and the smoke of burnt blood swirled in the blazing New World sun. Peyote, mystery rituals. Blood running down pyramid steps. An eagle perched on a cactus with a rattlesnake thrashing in its mouth. Worship of birds, worship of snakes, worship of the sun, worship of water, worship of human blood, and worship of death. Mexico City.
The plane tipped its beak skyward, Odelia felt the wheels push off the screaming runway, and now there was nothing beneath them. Fluid sloshed around in her gut as gravity’s familiar tug was suddenly waving up and down, and they were climbing, traveling along axes both vertical and horizontal, midmorning Paris rapidly expanding in scale below them, the twelve grand avenues spidering outward from the Arc de Triomphe, the tiled rooftops, the sidewalk cafés where Odelia imagined people were smoking cigarettes and eating dainty little desserts and discussing philosophy, second by second growing smaller and smaller and less real.
As the plane climbed steeper and higher Abraxas woke up and started crying. The pressure throbbing in his head. Odelia held him to her chest and rocked him as he struggled. His pink monkey face was contorted in a grimace. She kissed the top of his head.
How confused, how exhausted he must be. They had already been traveling by boat and bus and train for days and were ragged and dirty and tired before they even got on the plane. Sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, she thought-projected to the baby.
“Nnn nik ik eeaaah,” said Abraxas.
“Hey, kiddo,” said Miles. “Be cool.”
Abraxas quit crying and flopped his head into the nook of Odelia’s body where her neck met her shoulder. His tiny hand fingered the edge of her dress.
“It hurts him,” Odelia said to Miles, whispering. “The pressure.”
“Poor baby,” said Tessa, talking across Miles’s lap. “He doesn’t know how to pop his ears.”
“God, I hope he’s not gonna cry the whole flight,” said Odelia.
“No shit,” said Miles. “Eight hours, Jesus. He’ll be all right. Won’t you?”
Miles reached over and tugged on a plump pink foot, which almost set Abraxas crying again. He uttered a couple of starting-up noises—“uk! uk!”—that could have been the prelude to a shrieking fit. Odelia saved it by kissing the top of his head and blowing on him with her lips brushing his skin. A trick she’d discovered by accident. She didn’t know why it worked, but it usually did. She would kiss the top of his head and blow on his skin and say, intoning it again and again like an incantation:
“I will keep you from harm. I will keep you from harm. I will keep you from harm.”
His head was downy and soft and he smelled good, sweet—he smelled new. The incantation worked. He slumped back into a zonked-out daze.
Miles produced three chocolate candy bars from the luggage under his seat, wrapped in a plastic bag and wrapped again in foil. He offered one to Odelia.
“No thanks. Not right now.”
“Suit yourself. It’s here when you want it.”
He gently put the candy bar in her lap. Miles smiled. Miles smiled his billion-kilowatt smile, a jester’s grin that could have hovered disembodied in midair, a sly smile full of fun and sex and mischief. God, how Odelia loved it. She liked to imagine what Miles must have been like as a child. She hoped he’d been a neighborhood menace, running through gardens, shooting bottle rockets at beehives. Life was a cartoon to him—Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, explosions and music and silly sound effects and a surreal plasticity to time and space. She loved it. She loved him.
Miles and Tessa ate their candy bars. They were giggling. The chocolate muddied their teeth. The soporific purr of the jet engines put Odelia to sleep. She and the baby fell asleep together almost as a single entity melting into the corner, Paris vanishing beneath them, behind them.
• • •
The baby’s squirming woke her up.
He cried a little—“uk! uk! eh!”—meaning I’m hungry. She unbuttoned the top three buttons of her dress and Abraxas groped frantically for her breast.
A middle-aged woman walking up the aisle slowed her gait as she passed their seats. She was wearing purple and had pearl earrings, and her brown hair was piled on top of her head like a loaf of bread. She cast a look of revulsion at Odelia.
Miles turned to her and said: “Whatcha lookin at, honey? It’s nature.”
The woman didn’t answer and clipped away up the aisle.
“How long was I asleep?” said Odelia.
“I dunno. A while.”
She blinked and smeared the ivory mucus from the corners of her eyes. The air in the cabin had become denser and mustier with cigarette smoke.
Odelia squished Abraxas to her chest. The nipple inflated into his mouth and he pulled at it with his gums, his tiny wrinkled hands hugging her breast. He latched onto her nipple. She felt the milk surge through her glands and into his mouth. One eye peeled open languidly and peeked up at her. His eyes were the same green-gold as Miles’s eyes. To feed a creature who came from your body with your own bodily fluid: Odelia pondered this, its philosophical profundity, while she took the candy bar in her lap and picked back the foil with her fingernails. She was onto a deep truth. She was searching her mind for the next step in the thought, in the way you search over and over for a lost object in the place where it should be but isn’t. She thought about the things she’d been reading lately: The Golden Bough, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and the Seven Sermons to the Dead. She had a feeling that things were coming together in her head; that this jigsaw puzzle of interconnected ideas was almost in place. She was thinking about magic and religion and love and birth and sex and death and eternal returns and the circles of myth. She looked out the window and ate the candy bar and fed her son.
Five miles below them lay the Atlantic Ocean: blue-black and vast, its crashing waves diminished to ripples. She could see the shadow of the plane on the surface of the water, and a beaming circle of light. She thought about all the animals swimming in the ocean below them. Eels and stingrays and giant squid and fish with bioluminescent lamps dangling from their heads so they may see in the dark, who live near the bottom where we cannot go because the pressure would crush us. And whales—blue whales, these animals a hundred feet long each that glide under the surface of the water like massive phantoms and speak to one another in low haunting songs across fathoms and fathoms.
The word fathom would always make her think of Miles. He had been an actor in college, where they met, before they dropped out to join the revolution. He had always played spirits, sprites, tricksters, the lords of misrule. He had played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Ariel in The Tempest. She looked out the window at the sea below, thinking of mystery and whalesong and deep beautiful darkness, and thought, Full fathom five thy father lies . . . but could not remember the rest. Without looking away from the sea, the plane’s shadow, its iridescent halo, her forehead resting on the windowpane that was warm from the sun, she said softly, knowing if she gave him the first line Miles would finish it:
“Full fathom five thy father lies—”
Miles immediately answered: “Of his bones are coral made, those are pearls that were his eyes: nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange.”
She looked at Miles and smiled. Here we are in the sky, moving westbound fast enough to chase the sun over the curvature of the earth, and the sea is full of mysterious creatures and I am feeding my child with the milk of my own body. She was in love with the beauty and mystery of life on Earth.
“Miles,” she said. “I love you.”
She reached out her face to kiss him. Miles kissed her back. His lips felt sticky and strange. She pulled back and looked at him. His grin was crazily stretched across his face like a rubber mask. He put his wide, strong hand on her shoulder and tried to massage it a little, but the angle was awkward and his skin felt wet and bloodless, and his touch, although it was meant to be comforting, felt all wrong, like when you see a little kid petting a cat backward. His pupils were dilated.
“Oh,” said Odelia. “Did you take something?”
Miles nodded and his eyebrows did a Groucho Marx up-and-down, up-and-down, and the grin stretched a little wider, the rubber mask of his face threatening to snap.
“So did Tessa,” he said. “Eight-fucking-hour flight, figured might as well. You know you just did too, right?”
• • •
Tessa was doodling with a red crayon in the Moleskine notebook she’d picked up at the duty-free shop in the Aéroport de Paris-Orly, drawing roses with yonic envelopes of petals and clumsy childish houses with curlicues of smoke coiling from the chimneys that twisted into labyrinthine designs, became fans of peacock feathers with human eyes and the segmented vasculatures of dragonfly wings.
Odelia was still nursing Abraxas. She switched breasts after he sucked the heartside one dry. No noticeable effect yet.
“I guess I assumed you knew,” said Miles.
“Assumed. How would I? I thought it was just a fucking candy bar.”
“Relax,” said Miles. “Nothing is just what it is. Everything is always something else. There is no just, only everything being something else.”
He repeated this a few times, more to himself now it seemed than to her, codifying it into a mantra, trying the revelation on for size, seeing if it made any sense. When he was done he turned to her again and said: “I’m sorry. What’s done is done, O. The only thing to do now is just relax and let it flow. Like Heraclitus: Everything flows. Don’t fight it, baby. Don’t fight it.”
Odelia knew he was right about that. It only goes bad when you try to fight it. She tried to relax: breathing deeply, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Miles and Tessa had a significant head start on her. She’d been asleep, though she didn’t know for how long. And they didn’t know either.
Miles got out of his seat and starting walking up and down the aisle.
A stewardess rolled up with a cart. Her hair was bound in a drum-tight bun, her hips snug in a militaristic uniform with brass buttons flashing all over it.
“Steak or fish?” said the stewardess.
She startled Tessa, who was hunched over her drawings in the Moleskine.
“What?” said Tessa.
“Steak or fish?”
The stewardess bent closer to her and articulated, her mouth opening and closing histrionically around the shape of each word:
Tessa turned away from her and shot Odelia a look of wild-eyed animal panic.
“She’s asking what you want to eat,” said Odelia.
“I don’t want anything,” said Tessa to the stewardess.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes yes I’m sure I don’t want anything I don’t want anything.”
The stewardess turned to Odelia.
“Steak or fish?”
“Fish, please. And also white wine.”
Tessa smacked her notebook shut, crossed her legs, and tried to look natural. From the seat-pocket she slid a pamphlet with colorful cartoons detailing emergency evacuation procedures and pretended to read it. Odelia unlocked the plastic table in the seat back and unfolded it out in front of her. The stewardess reached across the seats to hand her a tray with a rectangular tin, napkin, fork, and knife on it, then unscrewed a small wine bottle, filled a wineglass half full, and handed these to Odelia. Tessa’s eyes followed the transferences of these objects with suspicion and a weak glimmer of hatred.
Abraxas was fine. He’d quit feeding. He wasn’t asleep, but in a blissful daze: placid, smiley, making his gurgly prelinguistic baby noises.
She drank half the wine. It wasn’t good. It had an unpleasantly piquant tang. She peeled back the rim of the rectangular tin container and removed the damp paper lid. Inside was a hot slimy fish dinner nestled in steamed carrots and broccoli. She picked at it with the fork, ate about half of it before she stopped because ingesting the food was making her mildly nauseated. She drank the rest of the wine and felt better. She gave the half-eaten meal on the tray back to the stewardess when she squeaked past them again with the cart.
The edges of things were beginning to get hazy. Everything was growing a thin coating of blue-gray fungus, like time-lapse footage of a mold culture growing in a Petri dish. There was a jellyfish throbbing in her stomach. Her pulse quickened and she began to feel acutely conscious of her internal organs.
She daydreamed that she was sculpting her body, molding flesh onto her skeleton like in the vision of Ezekiel, and when she was done building her body in this way she would kiss herself and breathe life into her lungs, get the heart thumping. She catalogued the systems of the body: skeletal, muscular, nervous, respiratory, circulatory, digestive, reproductive. She imagined the inside of her body, pictured herself swimming through the conduits of blood in a microscopic submarine, like in Fantastic Voyage. The cilia of her lungs wave around aimlessly and the spongy walls heave in and out. Billions of little wiggling fingers line the inner walls of her intestines; pulpy bits of that fish entrée come tunneling through, and the wiggling fingers grab them and pick them apart, absorb them into the walls, transferring nourishment to the blood, and the blood revitalizing the brain, and the brain converting matter into electricity and redistributing it to the rest of the body. My body is like a utopian civilization, Odelia begins to think. We all work together for the good of all. She expands on the analogy: The cardiovascular system is to the body as resource distribution is to the state, and
digestive : body :: agricultural : state
skeletal/muscular : body :: industrial : state
reproductive : body :: cultural : state
nervous : body :: political : state
Everything fits so beautifully together. All elements work integrally toward the health and benefit of the whole. She reasons that if this is possible in the naturally occurring system of a single human body then it should also be possible in human society. Look at me: I am a utopia.
Miles comes back and sits down. He’s done pacing up and down the aisle. Odelia burns to tell him about this idea.
“I am a utopia,” she says.
“I am a utopia.”
“I am a utopia.”
It doesn’t occur to her that she should have to add anything else to communicate the thought.
“Hot damn,” says Miles.
Miles’s tongue slithers in and out of his mouth twice to wet his lips. He’s waving his fingers. All of his fingers appear to undulate at slightly different wavelengths, like the tubular fingers of those medusoid creatures that lie along the ocean floor and ensnare passing fish who stray too close and absorb them into themselves. Or is she thinking of her intestines?
“Nervous body, political state,” she explains.
“Me no understand,” says Miles in a silly Mexican accent.
“Look. If everything in the human body communicates and works together, then there’s no reason why many human bodies at the same time can’t communicate and work together for the benefit of all. We all just have to think of ourselves as a single body with no individual conflicting motives. We have to all think of ourselves as parts of a single biological entity. Everybody will work just as much as everybody else and there’s no need for money, no sexual jealousy . . .”
Odelia spools out her dying sentence with her fingers circling in the air.
“Oh,” says Miles. “Then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.”
“Then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.”
“She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes in shape no bigger than an agate-stone on the forefinger of an alderman, drawn with a team of little atomies athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep—”
“Okay, stop,” says Odelia. “Not now.”
Miles is quiet. He turns away from her.
A little later he gets up and leaves. So does Tessa. They both leave their seats and disappear up the aisle. Miles’s yellow-and-blue Hawaiian shirt smears a wake of color in the air as he goes.
Odelia begins to see patterns on surfaces. Kaleidoscopes projected onto everything. Like a net of lace woven out of semitranslucent metallic fiber, a spiderweb mapped onto everything. Aztec stuff: the snake god, the rain god, the war god, the sun god with a mane of flames and spirals for eyes and a lolling tongue. Coyolxauhqui, whose severed head is the moon; Quetzalcoatl, the psychopomp; Tepeyollotl, the god of earthquakes, echoes, and jaguars.
The godheads slide down the concave walls of the airplane cabin and continue across the floor. Outside the window the clouds have begun to organize and form shapes, dendriform fractal sets with tendrils sprouting tendrils, curling out into infinity.
The pattern of the fabric on the backs of the seats, ugly blue-gray with orange and brown horizontal stripes and orange flecks sprinkled all over it—this pattern is only painted on. Freshly applied to the backs of the economy-class seats with wet paint, and it’s dripping. The flecks of orange dribble into the blue and the colors ooze and slide down the back of the seat.
Odelia remembers to breathe, sucks in a gulp of air, shakes her head and blinks twice. The image resets itself back to normal. Then it starts dripping again.
She has to keep her fingers occupied. Her tongue thrashes in her mouth like a wounded snake. Fingers moving and muscles tensing and relaxing.
Then Abraxas begins to scream.
This is actually what reminds Odelia that he is there.
She has been holding him. Has she been holding him correctly? One hand scooped under the butt and the other supporting the back, cradling him at two points to comfortably distribute his weight, to ease the circulation of cosmic energy through his little meridians, keep his bloodflow harmonious with gravity. She holds Abraxas to her chest and sways him back and forth.
He squirms in her arms like a giant earthworm. He struggles with her, smooth white fat arms and legs pumping crazily.
Now she’s trying to fight it. Now she’s trying not to try to fight it and that makes it worse. She feels her heartbeat quicken and hears blood battering in her brain and she’s sweating.
“Please,” she says, whispering, unclear whether she’s saying this to Abraxas or to herself. “Please stop it. Please please please please please stop it.”
He doesn’t stop it, nor does the (6aR,9R)-N,N-diethyl-7-methyl-4,6,6a,7,8,9-hexahydroindolo-[4,3-fg]quinoline-9-carboxamide that is in her brain. She sees interlocking hexagons in a chemistry textbook, valence bonds, Lewis dots. Honeycombs of hexagons latching onto the synapses, redirecting the rush of electricity like train-yard switches.
The other passengers turn their heads and filch brief looks in her direction. Maybe the men give her looks of irritation and maybe some of the women even give her looks of sympathy, but Odelia interprets every look as an indignant look, a look of condemnation. People who had been sleeping have woken up. They roll their eyes and dephlegm their throats with wet, guttural coughs. Some people stare. Other people try not to look at her.
The baby continues to thrash, he continues to cry, and not just dry wailing but full-on crying, tears running and everything, and he continues to scream.
He chokes on himself for a moment, sputters, stops, spits up. The grainy white splatter of her breast milk turned to puke slides down his chin and onto Odelia’s dress. She holds him close and fumps a hand on his back. When he recovers he sucks in a deep breath and starts screaming again.
Miles and Tessa come back and sit down. Their breathing is heavy, their cheeks inflamed. Miles’s yellow-and-blue Hawaiian shirt is untucked.
Miles drags his hands through his long hair and shakes it out like a wet dog drying off. He looks bewilderedly at Odelia. Abraxas screams. The baby’s face is red and afraid.
“Hey, kiddo,” he says, pinching a foot. “Cootchie cootchie motherfuckin’ coo, little man.”
Odelia looks at him.
“Whatsa matter?” says Miles.
“Miles. I don’t know what to do. He won’t stop screaming. He won’t stop screaming.”
“It’s cool, it’s cool, it’s cool,” says Miles. “He’s fine. Relax. Relax. Relax.”
His big hand lands on her knee and slides up her leg and squeezes the inside of her thigh. As Abraxas screams and thump thump thumps against her chest Miles leans over and kisses the side of her forehead. She feels the spit from his lips cooling on her temple.
Odelia looks into Abraxas’s face. Abraxas opens his eyes. He opens his beautiful green-gold Miles’s-eyes eyes. His pupils are dilated.
• • •
Odelia thinks of the milk, surging out of her body and into his mouth. From body to body, life to life. She thinks of threads, she thinks of wire-thin nerves spooling from the tips of her nipples into the tiny mouth, latched, gumming, draining her, swallowing her electric currents. She eats, she drinks, he drinks her. Everything that goes into her goes in some way into him. When he was in her womb, a cable of flesh connected them. They’re still almost one body, their hearts still pump together in perfect syncopation, one continuum of flesh.
• • •
“O god,” she says.
“O god o god o god.”
“O god o god o god o god o god.”
Miles grabs her face with the palm of his hand and twists her head until her eyes meet his and squeezes her cheeks hard until her lips pucker. He locks eyes with her and leans in until his face is an inch away from hers and every time he pronounces the letter F she feels a hot blast of his breath on her face as he hisses:
“Please fucking get the fuck a hold of yourself and tell me what the fuck is fucking wrong with you.”
Odelia points at the baby.
“He got it from the milk.”
A look of some concern manifests on Miles’s face. He releases the hand on her face.
“Lemme see his eyes.”
“No. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. You’ll scare him.”
She clutches Abraxas and blinks several times rapidly, trying to will down the throbbing in her stomach and her chest and her brain. Tears well under her cheekbones. She tries to dam them back. Her vision blurs.
“Come on. Let me see.”
Miles pries open one of Abraxas’s eyes with a thumb and forefinger and the baby recoils and howls louder.
“Look, let’s relax. It’ll be okay. All we can do right now is fucking, you know, is just ride it out. Odelia, listen to me. Relax. It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right. Okay? Don’t worry, baby. Everything will turn out all right.”
“Okay,” she whispers, so softly she almost can’t hear herself. “Okay okay okay okay okay okay okay okay okay . . .”
Holding the screaming baby, rocking back and forth in her seat, she has accidentally hypnotized herself with the sound of her own speech.
The people around them whisper to one another. The world is a whisper chamber, hissing with all their secrets. The thrumming of the turbines, the peep of the wheels under the stewardess’s cart, the conversations of the other passengers: Every noise becomes amplified, sharpened but not demystified, demonized to a conspiratorial whisper.
She looks out the window and sees bubble clusters sprouting, and realizes the plane is plunging underwater, fathom by fathom, into the ocean, swallowed in the maelstrom like a turd in a toilet, the massive shadows of whales gliding past, pressure pounding in her lungs, nitrogen gas frothing in her blood.
No, we’re still in the air. We’re in an airplane in the air, dipping and weaving through the jet stream, miracles of Newtonian mechanics keeping us strung to our vector like a bead along a wire by the thrust of stirred flame and the shape of the wings.
Look at what the human race can do!—lift us up and deliver us from one continent to another in a matter of hours, the hands of engineers animating inanimate matter, by the magic of math liberating stupid shivering primitives like us from the constrictions of time and space.
Odelia squeezes her eyes shut tight and then loosens them. The light bleeding through her eyelids makes geometric patterns, chessboards and diamonds that flicker and flash in the darkness. She sees a woman three stories tall, a huge hill of flesh. She has long black hair made of iron cables and three faces. Each of her three mouths is chewing on a pig, and the blood runs down her three faces and down her body. Her body is covered with breasts that wrap around her torso in seven rows, and a jet of blood hisses from the tip of each nipple. The blood runs down her body into a lake of boiling blood on fire that she is standing in. The lake is full of impurities and abominations, expectorate and effluvia. All the blood and piss and sweat and come and shit and puke and tears that have ever come out of anyone’s body are in the lake.
• • •
She opens her eyes and looks at the thing in her lap. It won’t stop screaming. For the moment she’s not exactly sure what this thing is but she knows she must hold it. It will be bad if she lets go. Her hands are cold and slick.
The man in the seat in front of her turns around to look.
A mouth, a nose, and an eyeball appear in the sliver of space between the seats. The eyeball is a tender glistening globe, a prick of black rimmed in a band of blue. It is looking at her.
“Hey,” the mouth says. “You going to change that kid’s die purr or what?”
What? What the fuck is a die purr?
The mouth, the nose, and the eye disappear.
The moment the face parts go away she smells the perfect smell of shit. She wonders how long it has smelled like that without her noticing. This screaming thing is my child. It is my son. This screaming thing is my son and I have to make it stop smelling like shit.
Odelia turns to Miles. He and Tessa are conversing closely. She’s whispering. Her hand is on his knee.
“I have—” she says.
Miles turns to look at her. Tiny bugs are crawling around all over his face.
Tiny bugs are crawling around all over Miles’s face. She closes her eyes.
“I have to change the diaper,” Odelia says. Yes: That was a complete, coherent sentence. Good. She opens her eyes.
Miles looks at her. His face is as blank as a blank sheet of paper rolled in a typewriter in front of someone with a blank mind.
“Diaper. I have to change the diaper.”
The world is receding into focus. Keep it there. Control it. Don’t relax. Control it.
Miles scrunches himself sideways and Tessa folds her legs against her chest in her seat with her wrists wrapped around her ankles. Odelia squeezes past them with the screaming infant in her arms. Standing in the aisle, she asks Miles to hand her the bag underneath her seat.
“The what?” says Miles, looking at her as if she’s speaking in another language.
“My bag,” she says. “The bag under the seat.”
Abraxas writhes. He’s screaming in an almost non-baby way, screaming as if his insides are on fire. Screaming in the way she imagines the human sacrifice screamed when the Aztec priest cut a slash below the rib cage, reached under the ribs up to his elbow, groping the organs, feeling for the one that beat.
She thinks that Abraxas is thinking this: Make it stop, make it stop, make it stop, make it stop. He needs to be comforted and she cannot comfort him. He doesn’t know what is happening. The bond between mother and child has been cut, and he is alone inside his own brain.
“Oh—” says Miles, finally decoding the message.
He reaches under the seat and hands her the bag with diapers and talcum powder in it.
• • •
Odelia walks down the aisle of the airplane, picking her steps like she’s walking on a sheet of oiled glass. She hears decontextualized segments of people’s conversations in passing, their voices hushed and accusatory, murmuring with judgment.
Orange spots appear and disappear on the carpet and the ceiling. They appear in her peripheral vision but disappear if she looks directly at them.
Inside the cramped lavatory, even with the door thumped shut and locked, she can still hear the nasty sibilance of damning whispers. The toilet and sink are made of stainless steel. So is the floor. The lighting is the color of an egg yolk. The room pitches and wobbles. She has to grasp the corner of the sink to keep her balance. She lays Abraxas on the steel floor, her hand protecting his head. He’s hard to hold, he’s squirming all over. He won’t keep still. Streaks of orange rust are draining down the walls. She peels his diaper off. It’s damp and heavy with urine and squashed pea-green shit. His skin is wrinkled from the moisture. His tiny tube of a penis. She wipes him off quickly. It’s a cloth diaper, but she dumps it in the toilet anyway and flushes. The hatch roars open and sucks it down to wherever it goes. She dashes him with a puff of talcum powder and wraps him up with a fresh diaper, careful not to prick him with the safety pin. He’s still screaming. Her hands are trembling. She feels so weak she might faint. She has to bend over the toilet bowl. Her stomach makes a fist and releases it. Her hands are clammy and white, gripped around the rim of the steel toilet. She leans her head over the bowl. Nothing comes out. Her hands shake. Somebody knocks on the door. She doesn’t answer. There’s another, angrier knock.
The baby is still screaming. She picks him up and holds him and opens the door.
• • •
Once, Odelia and Miles went hiking in the mountains outlying Tangier. Well, more than once, many times. But this once, this once, it was a blazing afternoon, the sky so bright it was almost white, the air salty, the pale green line of the sea visible from the mountains. Miles had been reading an Alan Watts book titled The Joyous Cosmology. They were walking and talking about the sublime harmony of the natural world. Miles told her that this was the joyous cosmology.
There was Miles, sun-browned and bare-chested in the sand-colored mountains of Morocco, stretching his lean arms out heroically, as if welcoming the embrace of the universe. The sky, the sea, the land. What a beautiful place. What a beautiful day.
“Look around you! Look! It’s the joyous cosmology!”
They made love right there in the sand under the open sky in the middle of the day. His sweat smelled like truffles. She licked it off his neck.
She asked him to recite the Queen Mab speech for her. She lay smiling on the sand with their clothes bunched under her head for a pillow and felt the sun’s heat on her bare stomach and watched Miles’s lean, dirty, darkly tanned naked body twisting in the desert as he began, “Oh, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you . . .”—and he rocked and tumbled through the speech, shouting it at the mountains. When he came to its end, he ran to a different place and assumed a different voice, and said Romeo’s line:
“Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk’st of nothing.”
Then he ran back to Mercutio’s place and answered Romeo’s interruption:
“True, I talk of dreams, which are the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy.”
They put their clothes back on and continued hiking. They met a shepherd who was switching his flock along the trail: the dust cloud, the flies, the racket of wooden bells knocking at their necks and desultory bleating. They offered to smoke their hashish with him and he greedily accepted. They sat with him under a creaking desert palm tree and smoked the hashish. There weren’t six words of language common between them, but they seemed to understand each other well enough. His brown skin was withered, weather-beaten to the texture of a crumpled brown paper sack. He had so few teeth she could count them, and his tongue was black. He got up to go.
They kept walking. A little while later they saw a stray sheep. The sheep was bashing its head against a rock. Over and over. There was a skinny boy who looked about ten years old sitting nearby on a log, watching. He was doodling in the dirt with a stick. They could tell by his face that he was the shepherd’s son. The sheep kept bashing its head into the rock, over and over. Blood ran down the side of the rock and curdled in the sand. A shard of the sheep’s skull had cracked open, like a little door, and a string of brains dangled out of the sheep’s head.
The boy saw Miles and Odelia, and he pointed at the sheep, shrugged his shoulders.
That was before they met Tessa, and before she came to live with them, before the man in the gray suit and the gray hat started following Odelia everywhere she went, before Miles ripped the phone out of the wall and threw it in the fire, and before Abraxas was born.
• • •
The woman in purple was standing outside the lavatory door, with her pearl earrings and her brown hair piled on top of her head like a loaf of bread. She put her hand on Odelia’s arm. Odelia flinched at her touch. The woman said:
“Oh dear. Did you have the fish?”
• • •
Abraxas screamed for the remaining duration of the flight. The airplane dove into Miami-Dade, and as it roared down the runway, Odelia turned to Miles and told him she had to take Abraxas to a hospital.
“He’ll be fine, he’ll be fine,” said Miles. “You can take him to a doctor in Mexico if you want. But he’ll be fine. We can’t lose you. You’re never gonna be able to get back to us.”
“I’m not taking him to a Mexican hospital,” said Odelia. “I want to be in America. I want to be in a place where people understand what I’m saying.”
“You won’t be safer. You’ll get caught. They’ll figure you out.”
“I’m scared to death. Miles, I’m scared to death.”
• • •
Abraxas wasn’t screaming anymore. He was too tired to scream. He’d settled into a persistent tearful whimper. She held him, she tried to make him understand that she was there and that she loved him, but she knew that inside himself he was completely alone.
She kissed the top of his head, blew her warm breath on his skin, and said, incanting it, again and again: “I will keep you from harm. I will keep you from harm. I will keep you from harm.”
Even though she knew he couldn’t understand her, she felt like she was telling a lie.
• • •
It was light out when they descended the airstair onto the tarmac, roughly the same time here in Miami as when they’d boarded the plane in Paris. The air was oozing with humidity. Odelia left Miles and Tessa at the connecting plane. They didn’t kiss good-bye. They didn’t even hug. They just sort of stood there and looked at each other. Odelia was crying. Miles gave her some money. A hundred dollars. She had nothing else with her except for Abraxas. Miles and Tessa got on the plane to Mexico.
• • •
The sky was pink, the air jungly with moisture. The heat was sickening. A row of thick-trunked palm trees skirted the runway and the leaves of their brittle fronds clicked together in a slight breeze that did nothing more refreshing than blow the heat around. The tarmac was chaotic with crisscrossing streams of traffic, pedestrian and vehicular. Men in blue jumpsuits and caps walked around with bright orange batons and drove baggage trains that scuttled like grumbling, beeping caterpillars across the concrete, and all the passengers who had just deplaned from the international flights funneled into the doors of the airport in a blizzard of languages, snapping at their children and grunting miserably under the weight of their luggage. Odelia joined the crush and was carried by the crowd through the doors. With her fingers Odelia smeared tears out of her eyes, which she was sure were bloodshot and swollen-lidded from crying. Inside the airport the crowd tapered into a line that was corralled into a maze of switchbacks cordoned off with red ropes looping through rows of metal stands that looked like silver chess pawns. The floor of the large room was covered with thin gray carpet. Outside the maze of ropes men in green-and-brown military fatigues stood by with German shepherds on leashes. Several of the men in fatigues were sitting in a circle of folding chairs, drinking bottles of Coke and smoking cigarettes and watching a TV that was bolted to the wall in the corner of the ceiling. A lazily revolving metal ceiling fan whipped the rising smoke into a rapidly vanishing eddy. They were watching the commentators bicker back and forth about McGovern dumping Thomas Eagleton from the Democratic ticket. Eagleton had frail nerves. He’d undergone electroshock therapy and had troubles with drinking.
Men and women in crisp airport uniforms trawled along the line, distributing stubby pencils and customs declaration forms.
Odelia had no plan and nowhere to go. There was the question of how she was going to make it through customs, which was coming closer and closer as she shuffled toward the front of the line. There was the question of money, or rather the question of having almost no money. She thought about how she might be able to get back to her parents in Troy, New York. Maybe she could take a train or a bus. It was August 1972. She was twenty-four years old and she hadn’t seen or spoken to her parents in four years. She wanted to see her parents. They did not know they had a grandson. She was going to change her son’s name. A smiling young woman in a blue airport uniform handed her a customs declaration form and a stubby pencil.
“Welcome to the United States,” she chirped, and moved up the line.
The baby whimpered and looked up at her, exhausted, his eyelashes caked with dried tears. Emily looked at the rectangle of starchy white paper the woman had given her. It was a hieroglyphic scramble of small print and dotted lines and boxes. Was she carrying any meats, animals, or animal products? Disease agents, cell cultures, or snails? Awkwardly balancing the baby against her shoulder with her arm and holding the form, she began to try to fill it in with the stubby pencil.
She had no legitimate identification with her. Passport, driver’s license—all of that was gone, and she could not remember if they had been lost or deliberately destroyed. She only had her forged Canadian passport. Her baby did not have a social security number, and she could not even remember hers past the first three digits. She was afraid she was going to cry again. She looked around her for someone to ask for help. The people in front of her were speaking in French and the people behind her were speaking in a language she could not even guess at. Instead of filling in the customs form, she turned the card over and with the stubby pencil wrote on the back:
MY NAME IS EMILY BARROW.
I AM AN AMERICAN.
I AM A WANTED CRIMINAL.
MY CHILD IS SICK.
I AM TURNING MYSELF IN.
I WILL TELL YOU ANYTHING I KNOW
PLEASE HELP ME.
She underlined the last sentence. When she made it to the front of the line she was made to stand and wait until one of the customs officers’ desks opened up. When there was a place for her the uniformed man at the head of the line unhooked a red rope from a stand and allowed her to pass through.
A thin, bored-looking bald man with glasses and a white mustache sitting at one of the high desks beckoned to her. He wore a black suit with a red-and-blue-striped tie and silver cuff links on his wrists. Emily stood in front of the desk and waited for him to speak. He was scratching at something on his desk with a fountain pen. Without looking up from the desk, the man held out a hand for her customs form and passport, and said:
“Do you have anything to declare?”
“Yes,” she said, and handed him the card.