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Therese was clean on the inside, but her mud-slapped, filthy, stinking home — with its stacks of newspapers going back as far as she was born, spoons bent and burnt, food grown hard and crusty — kept her skin dirty. The floor all shit and mud and dropped rags.
Her mother was blind to it all, only seeing the bottle, and if Therese was living a cliché, she didn't notice. Her mother ate nothing but potato chips. She liked the ones with chicken flavour, so that's what she stank of. Not of chicken but of that yellow, chemical, thirsty smell of artificial chicken.
She knew her mother loved her. Hadn't she dumped Therese but changed her mind? Baby Therese was found abandoned at the hospital, covered with dirt, a thick, sludgy layer of it. They'd never seen a young baby so filthy. A nurse scraped it off, put it into a blood vial. Therese still has this vial of dirt. The nurse wrote, 'Dirt from Baby Therese'. The handwriting was neat, the 'i' dotted with a flower.
Her mother came to get her a week later when the love affair failed. The nurse gave her the vial of dirt, saying, "You need to keep your baby clean." Therese's mother puts on a voice when she tells this story, a low, scratchy voice, making the woman sound evil. Therese wondered how many children that nurse had and what her house looked like.
This was the last boyfriend her mother ever had. It was food she loved from then on. Food she'd eat without touching, tipping it into her mouth straight from the packet.
Therese never found out what happened to her mother to make her want to be fat and why she was always filthy.
"I don't want you to know," her mother would say, though not knowing was worse, especially as Therese got older and realised some of the crap that could happen.
She was loved, though. She knew she was loved, and she was never hurt, always fed. Her mother was fine but dirty.
She did her homework at school because if she did it at home, greasy fingerprints would appear, a dark smear, a drop of something viscous. Her desk was neat, clean, her handwriting perfect, her work pristine.
She wasn't good at schoolwork but she persisted. Wanted to be the first in her family to finish high school and she would do it, next year. She wasn't smart with the school stuff. She worked hard at it but the letters mixed themselves up in her head and the teachers dismissed her because of how she looked. She didn't blame them for this; there were too many children. Too many problems. They'd dealt with her older brother and knew what a hopeless case he was, and they didn't even know how he lived now. Down there in the basement, pale from the lack of sun, and he blinked when he came up to the kitchen, blinked and snuffled at the garbage until she wanted to push him back down the stairs.
There were layers of shit down there. He didn't care. He was strong and when he was clean he was good-looking. He could be funny when he wanted to; the funniest person Therese knew. She copied his style, when she made people laugh. Took his wink, his timing, took the way he flapped his hands, held his head when he was telling a joke.
The joke was him, though. That was the stuff which made people laugh. Laughing at where she came from before they did gave her the power of it.
She knew she would escape. Get where it's clean.
"There's nowhere cleaner," her mother told her. "The world is a filthy place." She said this as she ate her chips. Sometimes she ate them sitting on the toilet.
* * *
Therese worked at the supermarket after school and on the week-ends, saving her money.
Most people were clean there but one young customer, he came in every week, she could smell the soap on him from three registers away. He was lovely. He started to come through her register every time and they talked. Up close the soap smell was good and his fingernails were white with cleanliness. He was a laugher. After every sentence, funny or not. Sometimes he brought his grandfather, a nice, white-haired old man, bent at the shoulders, clean, neat. Therese wondered what it would be like to have a neat old man like that in your life.
One Thursday afternoon, they came through her register with grapes, cherries, lychees and apricots. The old man was dressed neatly in beige pants and a collared T-shirt, the uniform of the old man everywhere. He wore a white baseball cap with a logo of the local bowling club.
"That's a lot of fruit," she said.
"Purification," the old man said. "Nothing like fruit for purification. Skin keeps it clean inside, and you know if it's rotting because it'll be soft and bruised. You can tell if it's no good to eat. And even so, when it does rot, it leaves behind pure seed."
He and the boy laughed. Therese smiled and laughed, too, although there was nothing funny. The old man laughed harder, threw his head back, roared with it until his eyes watered. The boy gently placed his hand on the man's shoulder, calming him. The old man bent to pick up the next bag of fruit from the trolley and she saw that at the back of his cap, at the buckle, there was a red, creeping stain. It looked like blood but it could have been rust. It looked like he was leaking fluid from a small hole in his skull. She saw it everywhere, all over the shop; seeping wounds, pus, fat rotten flesh pushing at skin to get out. The boy slipped a packet of gum into his pocket; the old man stole a chocolate bar.
He stood and caught her staring. Smiled. "These things happen slowly," he said. "Impurities begin to leak out. Better out than in, I say." He and the boy laughed again, so loudly people turned to look, but she didn't care. She wanted to laugh with them, laugh like that.
Therese's mother laughed a lot. Mid-sentence, she'd chuckle. If the milk was sour, she'd laugh. If kids threw eggs at the house, she'd laugh. When Therese was fourteen, her first period came, messy and painful. Her mother laughed. "It happens to all of us," she said, and directed Therese to scrabble in this cupboard and that, looking for sanitary napkins. She found a sticky, dusty packet behind some rusty tins of peas and she had to use them until she got to a shop.
"I stopped long ago, darling, when they took my insides out. You know what you did to my insides, don't you? Tore them up like a tiny Jack the Ripper." Her mother laughed at this.
There are times when the whole family fell into fits of hysterical laughter. Sugar-high laughter. This was when her aunties came over with cakes and lollies, lemonade, "Gotta feed you up", no intention of teaching good eating habits because as long as their sister was fat and dirty, they were better. Other times, the neighbourhood mothers took pity on her and invited her over for meals. They'd trick out ways to get her clean, they'd give her their kids' clothes and she loved the smell of them, the soap she could smell in there, the starch from the iron.
The old man and his grandson paid for their fruit.
"You should join us, Therese," the old man said. "Come and share the fruit with us." He trembled and she wondered if he was nervous.
His grandson nodded. "There'll be lots of people there tonight. We have a lot of friends."
Therese looked around, not sure if they were talking to her.
The old man wrote down the address on the back of his receipt. "You'll have a laugh, Therese. Life is always better with laughter."
* * *
She stopped at a clothing shop on the way home, wanting brand-new things which hadn't been touched by her mother, by her house. She chose badly, though, and regretted it once she'd showered and dressed. A pink, fluffy skirt and a tight shiny red singlet top. Brand-new, unwashed, as clean as she could want. But it all itched and the skirt was too short.
She caught two buses to a large house in the suburbs. Three storeys, it seemed to extend out the back a long way. There were lights all around it and the lawns were lush and neat.
The grandson was waiting on the front door step. His name was Daniel. "We're always adding to it," he said. "I think the original house was a tin shack."
"Bit like my mother," she said, getting in early with the jokes. "She's been expanding since she was fifteen."
He laughed, really laughed, and she was glad he got her humour.
Inside, the place was surprisingly coherent. The entrance had three or four doors off it and a large staircase rising upstairs. Four people chattered against the walls, one nibbling a crumbly pastry, making Therese feel suddenly hungry.
"Through here. We're just in time to hear him speak."
"Who?" They hadn't warned her about any speaker. Therese pushed open the heavy door and stepped inside. It was the size of a small hall and full of people. It was cold; goosebumps formed and she felt her hair prickle.
She bent to scrabble a jumper from her backpack but a hand on her shoulder stopped her.
Daniel said. "Cold is purifying."
The gaps around them filled and she couldn't move. Standing room only.
On a tall stool at the front of the room sat the grandfather. He looked different; bigger, broader. Silvery grey hair, face barely lined, clear blue eyes.
"I am Calum," he said. He smiled, broad white teeth slightly sharp. "I am the Jester. I sit before you a humble man." There was laughter. A chuckle or two. Therese was surprised but waited for more before reacting. She shivered; it was freezing in the room. Around her, others shivered, too. Even the mass of bodies didn't help, though she thought it would eventually.
He spoke on. Nonsense in a deep voice. About football and fame and pressure and what he had for lunch. Music played beneath his voice and that explained why people swayed, butt cheek to butt cheek.
They laughed. It began quietly, but when he started talking about his pyjamas, they were hysterical. They wept, they sweated, clear fluids leaking.
Therese felt embarrassed for them. A woman three rows down wet her pants and no one seemed to notice. They laughed as if they'd forgotten how and were copying what they'd seen on television. Wide mouths, noise pouring out with no mirth in it.
Someone heehawed like a donkey.
She watched them. The dirtiness of their sweat. It came out clean, but dust, there was always dust, clung to them, muddying their skin. She squeezed her eyes tight.
"Don't worry," Daniel whispered. "They'll wash and be clean for the afternoon meal."
At the thought of food, her stomach growled.
"We don't have the standard three meals. We have breakfast at dawn and then one meal between when you would normally have lunch and dinner. He says it's better to go to sleep with digested food in your stomach."
"That makes sense, it really does," Therese said. She hated the late-night, thrown-together meals at home. Leftovers of a week ago tossed with cheese, covered with melted butter and crushed potato chips and baked, all bad news and toilet stink.
She felt a hand poke in her ribs and turned, holding her side.
A middle-aged man glared at her. His face was runnelled with tear tracks; was he the donkey laugher?
"How dare you not laugh? Who do you think you are?"
"You're not laughing right now," she said.
He poked her again with his long, hairy forefinger, opened his mouth and brayed.
The woman next to her pinched her. "If you don't laugh, you don't belong."
Daniel poked her too, but sexy, sexy. He moved up the front, tugging her hand to take her with him and soon he was rolling in the aisle, hysterical.
Calum spoke, his voice loud over the laughter, but no one cared what he said. Therese listened as he talked about his childhood.
"Shivering is another hysteria," he said. "One year, when I was at high school, there was a heat wave. We stood in the courtyard, lined up, listening to speeches. We were not being respectful, we did not listen, we would fail and we would all have to work in petrol stations for life, be fat, pimply, greasy adults. We were too hot to listen.
"It was so hot the children were panting, and one girl fainted, then another. I looked at this and I felt something sharp, I smelled orange peel, but I didn't faint. I began to shiver uncontrollably.
"A friend touched me and he began to shiver as well, calling to his girlfriend, 'Cold! It's cold!' and there was no sense to it but soon every child was fainted or shivering and the principal lost his job over it and ended up tutoring maths to bored children. He no longer had parents sucking up to him, wanting favours. He had people crossing the street to avoid him.
"I did my final-year assignment on the hysteria. I took the girl who'd first fainted out a few times, seeing if there was something in both of us which made it happen. She looked close to fainting most of the time. I wondered if it was a scent, something to set people off. Was that it?
"I tried to make her faint, just by talking to her. But it made her so nervous that she giggled and couldn't stop. She couldn't even eat her chocolate mousse, kept spluttering it out. The waiter started laughing, and others. I watched it move like a wave.
"I spent years trying to find the source. The cause of it. But there is none. Not even love of God."
Therese walked close to him, until she stood at his feet, staring at him. Listening.
"Are you ready to laugh?" he said.
He opened his mouth so wide she could see down his throat, and he began to laugh. He took her face in his hands, made her look him in the eyes, and he laughed until she started and she knew this was it; she would not be able to stop.
A chuckle at first; sardonic, she thought, a sardonic chuckle. She thought she'd fake it but she didn't have to. It was like she'd lost control of her body; she shivered, her limbs weak, her gut filled with butterflies and she laughed so hard her muscles ached.
She took to laughing at a speed which was frightening. And she laughed so hard old wounds opened, and she bled, her arms, her legs, slick with blood: she made patterns on the lino with it, dark red finger painting. Therese laughed so hard a blood vessel popped in her eyes. And that became the goal. Even the Jester took to it, bleed-ing quietly. He'd score his thighs with a sharp knife and the others did it, too.
* * *
Therese tried to watch it dispassionately, tried to understand it, and looked for physical causes for the hysteria; incense, heavy breathing, drugs, alcohol, hypnosis. She saw none of this.
She saw things she didn't believe possible. She saw people collapse, not breathing, then wake with their fillings turned to gold. She saw this; mouths full of gold.
"People will do anything for money," Calum said as the numbers grew, as word got out. Only Therese listened to the words; the others laughed.
"Laugh until you sweat. Until you bleed. That is how you are purified." Daniel rolled at Calum's feet and he did bleed, from the eyes and the ears. Therese bent and gently wiped the blood away.
After each session, sometimes days-long, a cleaning crew would go through. Therese loved the meeting hall after this cleaning. Her eyes would sting from the bleach, but the smell and the shine were all she'd ever wanted.
* * *
Calum did not remind her of her grandfather, although they were of an age.
Her grandfather had walked the streets in rags held together by bodily secretions. They drove past him every day on the school bus. He knew she was aboard, would raise his hand in greeting. His teeth were rotted in his head, his gums swollen, and he no longer called out loud.
That was where she came from, that empty poverty. He was jailed thirty-five years for spitting at a cop, because he had HIV AIDS.
Calum trembled and sat stiffly. Only Therese noticed this.
"Are you all right, Jester?" she said.
"I embrace the symptoms. They will make me pure." But his stiffness and tremors lasted into meals, in the evenings, in quiet times when there was no laughter.
Therese went to a doctor and, while she was being examined, asked about her 'grandfather' and his tremors.
"It sounds like it could be Parkinson's. You need to get him to come in for tests. There are drugs to control it. We need to be careful, though. Some of the drugs can lead to compulsive, self-rewarding behaviour. Gambling, sex, shopping."
"Laughter?" she asked.
"Yeah, I'd say. Laughter releases the pleasure chemical, too."
* * *
Calum did not deny it. "It's my family's impure blood."
"And you use your drug on the people?"
"Sometimes, to help things along. Not always, though. It's themselves."
* * *
Those who laughed themselves close to death awakened with no memory. Every moment was their first.
Calum said, "This is a good thing. Clearing your mind of the past, cleaning out bad memories, will make you happy. We are safe here from the cruelties of the world."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Gate Theory"
Copyright © 2017 Kaaron Warren.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Dead Sea Fruit,
The History Thief,
The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall,
The Gate Theory,