Out of the Past

by Luc Sante

1

Two women have started to walk around the perimeter of a swimming pool. They are wearing one-piece bathing suits, darkened with dampness in certain places. One is still wearing her bathing cap, which is white and molded with rubber petals, while the other is in the act of taking hers off, shaking her hair out as she does so. Nearby, in a field, the field next to the swimming pool lot, in fact, a small airplane has landed. It taxis to a spot very near the chain-link fence around the pool, and stops as a window closes in an adjoining house. A man who looks like a professional golfer gets out and walks over to the fence, keeping his gaze fixed on the two women who have likewise stopped in their walk to look at him, or perhaps his plane. The second of the women, has, by this time, removed her cap, rolling it into the roll of her towel. The man removes his white cap, disclosing a completely bald pate. He asks the women a question, which results in some incomprehension, and a contest of gesticulations between the two parties ensues. An intact clay pigeon lands almost at the feet of the aviator. Some heat lightning manifests itself. The man finally returns to his plane and attempts to take off, but the plane is dead.

They lazed around the swimming pool nearly all day, drinking malicious little mixed drinks that came in cans. Some of them wore sunglasses, others had on hats, a few had neither. One tall woman looked at a magazine in some kind of fantasy chair that raised her feet and knees way above the rest of her body. A guy strenuously trying to keep his belly sucked in hung around below the lifeguard’s chair.

Two women very lazily waved to us from poolside. They were leaning back on their elbows with their hair over their shoulders drooping away. One sat on a balance between her buttocks and her heels, while the other sat further up, kicking a little in the water. They stopped waving and looked to the right, because one of their guys was coming up on the high dive.

The hovercraft makes a small motion of “cooling down” before deciding to come to rest in front of the protected landing dock. After a moment the hatchway opens. Nothing extraordinary gets off for the first 20 heads, and then two women, one taller, one shorter, both wearing hats. They’re trading funny information. The crowns of their hats keep drooping toward one another. The smaller one has a kerchief tied around her head under the hat. After a certain wait, the two women head directly for the nearest cab, escorted by a porter bearing their two suitcases. The car races down an empty outlying boulevard lined with palms. The landscaping ends 10 yards from the trees on both sides, abutting in front of mud and metal bidonvilles extending out for maybe miles. Some of the shacks incorporate well-known brand names into their exterior facades; one gigantic shelter looks like a church in the shape of a plane’s aft section. If the women are at all alert, they will realize they are being followed, or think they are being chased. The shacks become buildings, a single concentrated mass. The boulevard ends at a roundpoint, the two cars follow it, and at the angle they form away from one another on the circle, the taller woman’s face looks out her window at the second taxi.

You walked once around the swimming pool. You took off your bathing cap and shook out your hair, then picked up a styrofoam cup from a card table and almost poured its contents down your throat before you looked straight ahead and, in accordance with what you saw, dropped the cup very slowly, finger to finger, out of your hand and down the poolside cement.

2

As long as “they” were paying for it, I thought I might as well enjoy the circumstances. I felt my shoulder blades sink an inch or so into the leathery but unbelievably pliant synthetic that covered the contour seat, while the seat itself readjusted its dimensions to cup my posture. Countering the effects of traveling in nothing, the secondary surface beyond the window gave out with what became, to my eyes at least, a kind of placebo landscape, or just a signal that registered as “soothing.” I found a cocktail sitting on the little dentist’s table at exactly arm’s length. From hidden speakers came some viscous tonal arrangement, not exactly music and not quite subliminal message. My attention wandered.

There was a remarkable slow movement she did with her hands, circling halves of what would have been her face, like trying to mold one out of ectoplasm. The ruined girlie look she wore was completely the effect of the thin cream plastic mask that sat over. Pulling away, a robe would leave imprints on newly grafted skin, so strange to be someone so lifelike but too early. First movies became longer and longer, and then movies loved her back. It was the beginning of a new dream which was real life, or the manifestation of an old one at its cusp. She imagined they took her in a white car to a room in a club and the touch was given to her. Then she threw off the red cape and sang:

There's no use walking in just a shirt
When baby's got on her animal feet.
And there's no point to a lot of business
When what you mean is nobody's empty chair.

Then they pulled on the cords attached to her legs and she became bigger and bigger.

She had fallen asleep on her French day bed in the beige room with the big windows. She had fallen asleep with the remote control for the TV still in her right hand, unconscious before she could press the button to turn the set off. She slept on her back, with her hands raised to her breasts, but turned away from them. Her impossibly blonde hair was pulled back, black-lined eyes and straight mouth forming a trapezoid around her nostrils. A very sudden thunderhead had come in and the rain was falling in sheets through her open window, darkening her beige rugs. She was in stupid dreamland. She rustled and clicked off the television, then lazed back into her supine pose, tossing off the coverings to reveal her completely shaved body, odalisquing a bit to prickle up the nerves on the face of her skin. One arm crooked to turn on the radio, and something came out:

It’s winter and you’re sleepy so sleepy.
A girl once told me, "I can’t get up.
Even when I feel so bad and postured,
Things like afternoon won’t draw me awake."
And cars and things go by empty like,
Like a street on television, you stand at
Your window and follow them out of sight.

All the light was sucked out of the room, and from the corner came this smoky glow, like nylon stockings generating light. It took just so much from our blood, I think, because we began to feel a little anemic, like in rarefied air. I don’t know. I was on a train and it was carrying me like a shovel. I felt like a false foot. I felt my shoulder blades sink an inch or so into the leathery but unbelievably pliant synthetic that covered the contour seat, and the seat itself readjusted its dimensions to cup my posture. Well, I thought, as long as “they” were paying for it, I might as well enjoy the circumstances.

3

At night the old songs come back, bounced off a comet, insinuating through the interior of a car we’ve parked on a hill. Fields of dots lie above and below us, so we’re not sure which one is sky. Things go away from us and come back transparent, and how are we to prove they were ever anything else? We watch the calendar pages shuffle like cards performing speculation; any given card is the present moment. The deck is picked up by a gust of wind and spatters like brains.

Once you thought that things could be pulled off so sweetly. You would sit in your bedroom lighting Pall Malls without smoking them, watching for yourself on television. When a game show came on you’d look at your polaroids. Even so, things happened that should have constituted warning. It’s like this: you start coughing and coughing. Or: you notice something curious out a rear-view mirror, and something even stranger in the houses by the lake. All over the city lights are going on, so it’s not the lake itself, which is to say that it’s contained in your body, and not the body of night. But then you’d readjust the fall of broadcloth between your shoulder blades and feel like your hand inside a hand on the master ship. You weren’t one of the sleepyheads. You would lie supine on the mattress at night, twisting the bed sheets around you like cheese mold and feeling like never before. Not to be asleep, that was the whole point of it.

Now you wake up and realize that you’d imagined the continuation of the film in a dream. On the actual screen a single frame is burning in the projector from the center out. The audience gropes around, rubbing eyes, looking for coats. Once outside, they dissolve into the crowd. One or two people stand arguing with the box-office attendant. Across the street from them a gigantic mouth blows smoke rings up above the square, and further down the block people are clustered around a man with a dummy. The time doesn’t make sense on the bulb display overhead. One man seems aware of this and stares back and forth to his wrist. On higher stories people in shirtsleeves sit at telephones, eating large, dripping sandwiches. Further up, a woman is looking for something that might be pinned to a wall, and somewhere else a man is sleeping on a table. Higher than this, the dots above converge with the dots below, and which one is sky doesn’t matter. The old songs come back from somewhere out of the past, and we know something is missing.

 

Tags:
Short stories
Fiction
BOMB 11
Winter 1985
The cover of BOMB 11
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