Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
My friend Benjamin Prang has returned to India. I have stopped work on the novel. I can’t think clearly about Jack Rice. He’s in Africa, hanging out with Kanga tribesmen and the Catholic Relief Services. Jack writes every morning for an hour at a table under a small camphor tree behind a tool shed in the CRS compound outside Iola. Above the low canvas mountains the vast dawn tears the sky open. He writes: My mother never touched me. She said I was ugly. I was ugly and I was to blame. She could not stop talking to me. She followed me around the house talking to me, telling me I was ugly, as all men are ugly, ugly forked dangling ogres, bastards, liars and killers of beauty. She said I was too thin, too small, that I ate too little and ate the wrong things, that I was too sickly. She said she would tie me to a tree and leave me. She took me to the woods with her and made me stand in the shadow while she lay on the ground weeping. She made me dry her tears with a handkerchief. She told me I was crippled—I was not—that I would die young, that no woman would love me. My mother with eyes the color of smoky steel told me. I have spent my life walking out on people, my son included—
Outside the compound children are dying. They are dying of stupid diseases, of over-population, of drought, of neglect and forgetfulness. Mothers wander away and don’t come back. Mothers get into conversation with a neighbor and forget they are mothers. Children sent on errands disappear into a ten-million-year-old past and are eaten by lions. Children forget the way home. Children, picturing armies and vast battles, become sick with irreversible diseases and fall to their knees panting alongside the road where their bodies are discovered the next day, or never. Children are hit by joyriding soldiers in commandeered relief trucks that never stop. Children have accidents, they cut themselves with knives, fall down embankments, smother in dirt slides, sink into quicksand, are bitten by scorpions and bushmasters, strangled by bad men, shoved off cliffs, sliced up, punched senseless, they scrape their tender bodies on trees, don’t look where they are going and catch fence posts in the face, they trip and are stabbed in the throat by ex-policemen become ruthless highwaymen, they are going blind and losing their hearing, they stumble around naked rotting with AIDS, they can’t talk, they are weak and unable to appear for diagnostic services, they drop their atropine, their mefloquine, their aspirin, their snug opiates in the red powdery dirt, they waste away beside the road, stand alone on the savanna swaying incognito and anonymous like the dry grasses.
I’m stunned by everything including my dope fiend wife, and the city balled into a fist, and the work I must do, and my sister locked up for murder, and my mother dead of strangulation & my father of a gunshot. I can’t move. My agent is leaving the business to have a baby. She is entranced by her own body. She calls and in the middle of conversation falls silent. I was confused by this at first, but now I realize she has drifted off into a carnal reverie, some deliquescent effusion of hormones has entered her being, some spiritual awakening is taking place vis-à-vis reproduction, God is humming in her belly and she has slipped away, dreamy and autonomous, into another world.
You’d better hurry on that book, she says, but I don’t think she knows what she means.
And Maria, my cousin Maria, is going to Italy, to Bellagio, where she will live a few months on Rockefeller money beside a lake. She wants to write some stories. Why don’t you come too? she says. The last time I was at Bellagio, she says, a historian slipped on a patch of polished marble and fell screaming into a quarry. There was a woman who each night dreamed she gave birth to small blue kings—I had a red boat as shiny as patent leather and a tiny silver motor—Come, she says, come live with the rich who love us like their wall-eyed children.
Everyone I know is leaving town, and each is being very breezy about it.
My junkie wife, a genius in her own right, midwife of novels and celebrity memoirs, of the sarcastic mouth-poison of rock stars and ill-mannered creeps with money, a woman who can draw from the nastiest and most inarticulate numskull paragraphs such beauty and balance that Marcel Proust himself would applaud, sits on the toilet working a hypodermic into the vein behind her ankle. The vein is blue under scarlet scabby skin. The needle does not go cleanly in; she rotates it like a plunger, careful not to hit bone, hits. When she jabs it into the bone she cries out. Real tears come into her eyes, not the tears of her normal stupendously self-absorbed grief. She knows this, yet in a moment of frustration, of rage so true and pure I think this must be what resides at the center of our beings, she stabs at herself and breaks the needle off in her ankle.
“Ah Christ Jesus,” she shrieks and throws herself to the floor. “Aye, aye,” she cries in a voice from Hell’s bony backyard. She rolls on the floor kicking. The spike protrudes from her ankle, she bleeds. I go to her, unable just now to practice the tough love I have been taught—let them lie in it, is the gist— kneel and pull her across my body so I can reach over her waist, down to her ankle and immobilize her legs. “You fuck,” she cries, “Save me.”
“Be still,” I shout and at this moment I want to hit her. I want not just to hit her, but to smash her, to burst her skull open and stomp her brains. Yet I hold her down, pin her in my lap and reach for the needle. She spasms, kicks upward and the needle jabs into my forehead. A chill wave shoots up behind my eye and ripples through brow, occipital ridges, and fontanel. It’s not drugs on the spike, but the spike has gone into the bone of my skull. I throw her off me. My left eye is losing vision. “Fuck, you’ve lobotomized me, you goddamn bitch.”
I slug her in the face.
She kicks me, catching me in the mouth with her one remaining shoe, cracking a front tooth. My mouth fills with blood.
We fight, rolling on the white tile. Bottles crash down on us, towels unhorse themselves from racks, swirl about our heads, enwrapping us as in a grimly steaming Turkish experience. There’s blood everywhere.
I kick her away from me and crab backwards. I’m dizzy and I think I am dying. Through a blue mist that is turning red I see her, crouched in the corner by the toilet. She is scooping water from the toilet and throwing it at me, bailing or trying to drown me I’m not sure. “Rae,” I cry, “Rae.” But she keeps on until there is no more water. Then she grips her ankle and begins to moan.
My head clears, my vision focuses. My mouth begins, with a low jungle pulse, to throb.
I look up at the lacy gray pattern of water soakage on the ceiling, a feature that came with the apartment, and it is for a moment as if I am in Africa myself, in a back room in a ghost town south of Khartoum, a place I was actually in once, during the wandering days in my youth. A boy with money, but without direction or purpose, a wastrel youth, fey, easily fooled, no snoop or sporting character, a boy in the wrong place but without the simple insight to see this. I remember one afternoon, drunk on palm wine, I lay on my back in a toilet just off a courtyard watching a trio of soldiers rape a young woman. I remember this. I saw what was happening, even as drunk as I was I knew what was going on, I heard the cries that became moans, the doggish whimpering, but I did nothing about it. I lay there listening, watching, not missing a thing, as if I liked it. The soldiers paid me no attention until the end when one of them, a young man no older than me, crossed the room and prodded me, asking if I wanted some. I pretended I was passed out. I was too scared to do anything else. After they were gone, after I got to my feet, after I glanced at the woman in passing to see if she was still alive, I ran away. Outside the wind blew through the acacia trees, a wind headed north; I headed that way, too. Running and later on the bus and in the airplane I thought how I could still move, how like the wind I could rush through the world from place to place, leaving behind what was mired, what was, like the girl in the bar, fixed. I could see her face, see the pain and the fear and the shock that life had become this and I could smell the odor of rotted bananas and the odor of venereal blood and hear the grunts of the soldiers, and now I knew in my body what sorrow was, and I knew my own cowardice for what it was, but I also knew, and it is the truth, I knew before the plane passed beyond African air space that I would be able to live with what I had seen, with what I had done. It’s this as much as any other part of it, when I think of it now, causes me sorrow.
I was born on April 5, he writes, at 5:00 in the morning in New York City, on a windy day. My mother who had never been awake before at that hour, my mother the reticent novelist, the careful planner and the inventor of souls, told me I was ugly. She told me in that moment when I was carried in and set into her arms—”You were surprisingly light, lighter than a chicken,” she told me—said, “You are too ugly to live, little boy,” and set me down on the bed. From that moment she did not touch me.
Benjamin Prang has returned to Calcutta to oversee the disposition of his family’s ancestral land in West Bengal. He has been gone two weeks, entering the monsoon season in his riverside city and traveling up river, up the Ganges—”The Ganga,” he says—to his home village of Vasara, a tiny farming community where his father owned large tracts of bottom land where they grow wheat and barley. His siblings have asked him to return to handle the sale of these lands. They are unable, he says, to do this themselves. Real life paralyzes them, he says. They are dreamers and gazers, religious adepts and brooders, mopers and apostles on the Hindu nod, he says laughing. They have dreamed themselves into a crisis.
Jack Rice spins in an indelible privacy—unseen even by me—broken only by the soft continuous sound of words scratched onto a page.
He writes: It’s not that there’s too little love, it’s that there’s too much. I fall in love again and again. I want no love except that in which I am wholly dominant or wholly submissive. Every time I try to love, I begin, slowly, like a fascist creeping along the highway, to take over. My spirit is strong—stronger than the beloved’s. I must have life, even at the expense of another’s life. Always at the expense of another’s life. Each lover holds, like a peach in her lap, the whirling core of life. It is this—it’s this I have to get hold of. I have to take it. Like a treasure found shining under a bush, I have to throw her down and take it from her. Afterwards who cares. Who could care?
He writes: I am a one family serial killer.
The cawing of a crow near midnight, followed, from the park, by the sound of sobbing. There’s a full, buttery moon above the NYU library. Crows don’t make noise at night. A hunched figure, small, caped like a Mandarin, crosses the park, perhaps the sobber, or some killer unraveling in frustration and regret.
Benjamin sends letters and calls. His calls come through late at night, they wake me; it is strangely affecting to hear his voice. Immediately I begin to chatter. I tell him Rae is getting worse. She has sores on her legs and now has lost the euphoria which was such a happy—for her—component of the drug. “She sleeps all the time,” I tell him.
“Yes,” he says, “I’ve seen that.”
“How is it,” I ask him “that you know so much about heroin?”
“I knew someone,” he says.
Like Jack Rice, he is very private. He probably means—does he mean?—a lover, but if he does it is a man I have never met, never heard of. Maybe Rae knows this person. She probably does. I have been following Rae around for months now, and I have seen her often with Benjamin Prang, but I have never seen her with someone who—I don’t know. What do I know? Maybe the junkie on Avenue A, the man who wore a short blue jacket and swayed like a reed was the man of whom Benjamin Prang speaks. Yes, of course he would know. Benjamin Prang is like me: he doesn’t actually take heroin himself, but he follows it. He’s a fan. Or perhaps he knows nothing at all.
He calls, waking me at 3:00, or waking me early in the sub winter dawn light to say, “I have visited the Office of Mortality to search for my father’s records, but they’re not there. The records have been removed—or they never existed. No one can tell me, or no one is willing to tell me. I think maybe there has been some kind of retroactive holiness expungement. Maybe as toward the end of his life my father—as he did—became more holy and ethereal (he prayed and meditated in a ghat house on the banks of the Ganga), maybe he became more … airy, maybe this airiness is retroactive and all traces of him in life are being—maybe they’re being erased. Maybe he was never here.”
“Who did you cremate?”
“An impostor? Maybe a stand-in?”
“Rent a corpse?”
“A dream dad.”
“Everything I know about India,” I say, “I learned from Satyajit Ray movies.”
He’s silent a moment. I hear a low weighty rattling on the line, as if far away from here, somewhere in mid ocean, chains are being moved.
“India mystifies me,” he says. “No wonder these people want to escape life. I take a taxi into town, accompanied by a man running beside us who has only one eye, whose eye apparently has been recently removed because there is a vicious red wound starting in the socket that runs like a little ditch across his cheek and into his bare shoulder—I take a taxi accompanied by this man, who is also carrying the corpse of an infant, and by screaming children on the backs of motor scooters driven by what look like Roman Catholic priests, except they are wearing floral party hats, and by women waving huge colored silk sheets into the breeze and screaming at the top of their lungs in a language that sounds like gutter talk, I take a taxi into town where at the office of Indian Records and Rumors, a place in which a man could disappear like a misplaced conjury into the dust accumulated in drifts under the desks, though it has been as they say modernized and is linked by satellite, by computer and telephone to actual cities all over the globe, a place where behind a figured silk screen upon which Krishna is deflowering beauty itself a man sits digging maggots out of his foot with a table fork—I discover that my father never existed. All right I say to that, all fucking right.”
He chuckles, more to himself than to me.
“Actually it is very satisfying. Complete futility—I believe I could come to love it. It is like the impossibility of writing a poem. The country is a poem. This plethoric madhouse, tussle and bulletin board smeared with blood, spices and excrement. Nothing works properly. Turn a spigot and from it gushes not water but huge heartbreaking sighs. Men walk about in ash suits. Movie stars ride by in vast white limousines tossing flower petals out the windows. The mayor squats shitting in the street.”
“Sure, like Giuliani.”
“Of course. But the mist off the river is the color of smashed rubies. The boats are painted with the figures of dancing tigers. You turn a corner and step back ten thousand years into a past in which a naked child stirring a pot of mash looks at you with complete understanding. The congestion, the glut of the culture, the way it’s crammed into and into itself—into the ten thousand years of its history which is also its present and future—is so tight that even without a father—with an absence, a nothing in fact—I can’t fall out. In such a culture I don’t even need to have a father. Elsewhere, in refugee camps, in malls, in orphanages on shady riverbanks, lost children wonder about their fathers. They scan the boulevards looking for the peculiar jut of a chin, the crisp black hair, the button nose—for the missing father who when found will lift them onto the conveyor of life and make them real—”
“My father is not lost. He cannot be lost—it’s impossible. According to the Office of Meticulous Obstruction, he never entered the list of souls. He is not vanished but unconceived.
Yet because this is a democracy, they assure me this doesn’t matter. I will be treated like any other prodigal.”
“Whose son?” the poet writes and stares at the riverbank where wild dogs are eating a housecat.
Benjamin goes on talking. The poet—Jack Rice, my character—who killed his own son—listens in. I watch the dawn creep like cigar smoke across the terrace. Rae, beside me, teases out a breath. Tomorrow, Benjamin says, he is traveling by train to his home town. “This ember at the end of the night,” he says. “Where we never existed.”
The poet writes: I know myself completely. Like a lover I have revealed everything to myself, like someone I can’t resist, who asks me questions in the night, like the nurse, the Irishwoman I followed home from the bar and made love to who said, Are you being grandiose?—I have told everything, and in congregate and elevation of tone it is remarkable, the remarkable history of a truly ugly character, a man who has created worlds and married and killed and snatched from the world what the world gave to itself and to the world, to strangers, taken what was living and placed it in the sea, drowned it and gone down with it into the water, into the bay of New York City alongside the trade route between Staten Island and Manhattan, in sight of Brooklyn spires, eliminated from ex-distance this child whose love was unendurable, impossible to understand or accept—I couldn’t receive it—snatched him from his mother and from life to sink with him, to drown us both, the unendurable unable to endure, as my mother once said, and so with me into the sea and not come up put this ugliness away from the world bury it in the muck of the bottom—
like my mother I became the monster in my own child’s dreams—
It’s just dawn. I get up, leave Rae sleeping, go into my workroom and sit down at my desk. I take up the pages I’ve worked on most recently and read about Africa. It’s a stubby, misshapen, localized, ragged Africa, a place in which everything that can go wrong is going wrong. Beyond the dry riverbed, beyond the willows with their dry leafy crowns, I can’t see much.
I lean back in the ornate chair I bought last year from ABC, a chair fit for a king, and think about this scene. My last novel made no money. My editor has informed me, as gently as he could, that if this novel doesn’t sell the publisher will have to drop me. My editor, a polite, depressed man affecting a distressed ineffectual heartiness, blames circumstances—not lack of virtue or skill—blames “the climate,” for this, but I know he too has begun to think my novels don’t sell because they are simply not very good anymore. They’ve lost something. He suggested, ever so gently, that I might like to try my hand at fact writing. He suggested this in the form of a project: to take over a book a young man from my home territory was writing, a book about the killings of manatees in the St. John’s River. Not the ordinary boat propeller killings, but a series of “murders,” in which a man sought out, stalked the manatees and hacked them with a machete. These manatees, though they can get a little rough if you come too close on a bad day or threaten their cubs, are on the whole constantly gentle creatures. They are like big, river-going bovines lumbering about the underwater floral world. This man, a boy really, was caught red-handed, gutting a 400-pound manatee cow he’d pulled up onto the bank. The manatee was with child and the boy had this calf out on the bank and was in the act of stabbing its already dead body when the deputies caught him. They’d staked out the riverside after reports of dead manatees and some kid responsible began to get back to them. The writer, an Esquire staffer from Florida, has gotten sick and can’t go on with the project. My editor suggested I go down there and check this situation out. There’s a good book in this, he said gently. He himself is a manatee, a gentle portly creature wallowing forlornly and constantly behind his tiny desk, nudging his novelists and fact writers to better work. He happily gorges on the flowers of their creation.
“Do you mean me?” I asked him.
Rae is a ghostwriter. She has never had ambitions to be anything else. None she expressed to me. She loves to go in behind the scenes of someone else’s novel or memoir and get to the heart of things. I’ve always liked to make things up.
I go out onto the terrace. A cold mist envelopes Washington Square, obscuring it. In the big trees the last leaves are being checked off, as fall, the distracted collection agent, the ruddy, disheveled Visigoth king, closes accounts. I have always liked getting up early. Even as a child I liked to wake early to the whispery silences and gray unsorted expectancies of dawn. On our river in Florida often there was fog, a mist that crept into the yard. Sometimes I would go out into it. And sometimes, out in the dawn mist, I would meet my mother coming in off the river. I know she was meeting her lover. I know she was risking everything in her life to do this, to slip from her bedroom into the wild wood to meet this man. I remember sitting on the bench that girdled the big water oak watching her come up the lawn. The grass was lion colored. My mother’s skin was sunburned. She was wet under her clothes, but her clothes were dry. Behind her across the river the 400-year-old cypress trees lift their spindly tops up out of the mist. My mother walked slowly up the long low slope holding herself comfortably in her arms. Her face shone. There was an air of contentment, of ease, of a casual feathery peace about her. I saw this in her body as she walked and in her face. When she noticed me, at first, before she happily grinned, she didn’t recognize me. She came up and kissed me and I could smell the clean grassy smell of the river on her skin. She reached past me and scuffed her palm flat along the tree bark.
“What are you doing, Mama?”
“Do this,” she said rubbing her hand fast on the bark.
I rubbed my hand flat against the tree trunk. The skin throbbed.
“Do you feel it?”
“The heart of things. Don’t you feel it glowing, feel it beating?”
She held her hand close to my face almost but not quite touching me. There was warmth, a slight tingling sensation. Then she pressed her hand against my cheek. The skin of her palm was rough and hard and hot. “Do you feel it? That feeling … from the center?”
She smiled at me, smiled right through me, right through my father and my sister and me, through all of us.
In the park the tops of the big oaks float in the mist. I hold my poet, hold Jack Rice, the sonless father, tenderly in my hands, in Africa, a child buoyed in a basin of warm water. He sits at his desk looking out at the dawn. Sometime I will think my way back past his parents and his grandparents, all the way back to the rough starts where his people began. He sits at his desk looking out at dawn filling the dry riverbed.
Nothing we believed in was true, nothing we said about ourselves was a fact. We are not who we said we were, our lives are not our own, our hopes were false, nothing we have done was true, we are not the people we said we were. We have never believed our own thoughts, we have no faith, we are not dependable or capable of shouldering loads. We are without purpose and meaning, without resolution and capacity for empathy or affection. We are shiftless and derelict, we have betrayed everything we were supposed to stick by, we have used up our resources and our promises, we never meant to do anything of merit or purchase, we are useless and unable to mend our ways. We are gross and tormented, without scope or design. We do not look to the future. Our past is meaningless, our present a scummy margin spat into by the diseased. We are wisps and crumbs, rotted hanks of dead fur in the grass. Our lives are ugly and without highlights. We chose nothing, refused nothing, made nothing. We are entirely of our time. You can spit on us, humiliate us, break us into pieces, stomp us, shoot us in the face, gut us, turn our corpses inside out and drive over us in trucks, you are right to do this, you are just and there is no need for mercy, you can take from us the last powdery thought, the right of existence or means, you, who know us so well, you whose lives we underlie and fertilize, you whose suspirations exhale us into the infinite night are entirely free to do this.
I get up, go in and look at Rae. She is drowned in sleep, deep under the water. Her ankles, which stick out from the bottom of the covers, are purple, leopard spotted with bruises and needle pricks. After a while in the bathroom we simply stopped. I say softly, but out loud, “What happens after everything has stopped happening?” This was once my poet’s question; now it is mine. “What then, Rae?”
Nothing left to do but go on until you can’t.
—Charlie Smith is the author of Cheap Ticket to Heaven, Chimney Rock (both Henry Holt/Owl Books), a recent book of poems, Before and After (W.W. Norton), and seven other books of fiction and poetry. Excerpts from Park Diary (Black Berries) also appeared in Paris Review (#143). Charlie Smith lives in New York City.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
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