I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
Now when I went out through the tear in the fence it was always too bright, no matter how far I walked toward the distance, like a spider creeping desperately across the fluorescent linoleum floor. Rattle of blades and a bald eye revolving somewhere overhead … .
Already I knew, it was all starting to come down.
Again. It’s … again.
Sometimes I longed for darkness of eternal night, and not this wasted pallor of the desert.
On my break I went to the fake diner and drank a neat whisky and ate a slab of bloody meat. Tammy as always averted her eye from my plate. Then, as if she’d just suddenly remembered something—
“Did Marvin find you?”
“Find me for what?” I didn’t get it. Marvin could have found me anytime in the last three hours, since I’d been right where he knew I always was, tucked into the green felt horseshoe of my table.
Tammy’s eyes wouldn’t stick on my face. She’d been a little shifty around me for a few days; I hadn’t troubled to wonder why. She tucked up a strand of her watery red hair, glanced over at the television, which was prattling about Homeland Security, I think.
“There was somebody …” Tammy mumbled.
“What kind of somebody?”
Tammy shook her head, not looking at me. The poker games under the glass countertop played red and blue flashes across the papery skin that had begun to sag a little at the corners of her mouth. The clump of meat I had swallowed fell leaden to the bottom of my gut.
“Tammy,” I said. “I don’t know,” she said. Her head wobbling almost like she had some kind of tremor. “I didn’t really see him. I didn’t talk to him. He talked to Marvin.”
And lo, Marvin was waiting for me when I headed back toward the pit. As if he wanted to tell me something but then again he didn’t.
“What?” I said.
“Guy looking for—somebody named Mae.”
“A cop, maybe.” Marvin’s eyes were slippery as Tammy’s tonight.
“With a badge and a gun?” Look at me, Marvin.
“No.” Marvin shrugged. “It wasn’t like that.” He looked toward the door. “Just a regular suit. But the shoes. He had cop shoes.”
FBI. I knew. I’d known it was coming.
“He was looking for Mae Chorea,” Marvin said.
“It’s Chorea,” I told him. “Not Korea.” Thinking—I shouldn’t have said that. That wasn’t the name on my light bill or my lease or my job application. I’d been living under the false name for so long that it had more weight than the real one.
“I didn’t tell him anything,” Marvin said. “It’s not you, is it?” Now he looked at me, hard.
“Oh no,” I said, and forced a smile. “Not me.”
I had to go back to my table then, though I felt like somebody had dumped a bucket of spiders down the back of my neck. Wait and keep dealing, until Marvin wandered out of the pit. Then I made some excuse and closed my table. I only had a couple of marks on the stools, neither of them a regular.
Must act normal normal normal as I carried my chips to the cage to turn in. Eye in the sky boring down on the tippytop of my skull. But it didn’t matter, what did it matter? Maybe a couple of eyebrows raised as I walked out.
On the steps I felt a moment of false relief, as the pale neon colors washed over me, touch of a soft dry breeze on my face, below and beyond the darkness of the desert. That Indian was coming up the steps as I went down, the one with the black hat and all the silver and turquoise accessories. Our eyes met, held each other for a moment as we passed. He seemed to look at me with pity, with compassion, even. Why, I thought, why me? Why would he look at me that way, himself a dying avatar of his exterminated race?
And of course from the first moment Marvin spoke to me I knew—I had already known what happened, how it must have happened. Who had made it happen. Reach out and touch some one. Ping. Ping. I wanted to be near her instantly, without the least delay. But it wouldn’t be as simple as that, I realized. With all the heat about terrorism it would be the next thing to impossible—or no, impossible outright—to get a firearm onto a plane.
I found a strange car on my street when I cruised into the trailer park. Ford Taurus, looked brand-spanking new. Perhaps a rental. It was parked in my usual spot, and it looked empty when I passed it and drove on.
Lights were on in the trailer too. In a different configuration, I thought, than I had left them. But I use timers, and sometimes I change the pattern of the timers. A good deterrent, the local police tell us, next best thing to a dog.
A quarter mile outside the trailer park gate I aimed my car across the shoulder and cut the engine as it bumped over the low berm. I let it roll to a stop among the snarls of mesquite and creosote. A car passed by one way, then the other. Neither vehicle reached mine with its headlights.
They must already have my car, I thought. Make and model, tag number, distinctive dents and everything.
Trying my very best to be quiet, I didn’t get the trunk quite shut. Didn’t want to slam it. I’d have to take care of that, if ever I did get back to this car.
Then I moved back around the perimeter, keeping about 20 yards out from the wire. The steel diamonds gleamed erratically, catching stray shards of light from trailer windows or from vehicles traveling inside the park.
I moved in slow fits and starts, like an animal foraging, or that’s what I hoped. Or nothing, I hoped to appear as nothing, black smoke dissipating over the plain. I wore a black jacket, trousers, a white shirt, and a string tie. Faux formal wear for the casino. The black must leap out from the pale floor of the desert, but that’s if anyone were looking for something, and if they were they’d be looking out of a well-lit area into a dark one.
Presently I had come to the rear of my own trailer, and I could see the agent moving about inside. Yes, he’d turned on more lights than I had on timers. All of them, actually. Stomping around like he owned the place. I seemed to be able to hear his footfalls ringing the flimsy metal bell of the trailer.
Often as not they hunted in pairs. Were there two this time? I only saw one. Searching, thoroughly but discreetly. If I returned after he had left I wouldn’t find my stuff dumped all over the floor or the cushions and mattresses slashed open. No. He was leafing through every book before replacing it where it had been. By the time he was done he would have fingered all the containers in my refrigerator, fondled every item in my clothes drawers. Would he look into those albums of O-? No reason he should find them particularly of interest. That had never been reported as a crime. And yet—reach out and touch someone—there was a chance that he might know about it now.
And now he pushed open the glass sliding door and stepped out on the deck. He raised his head to sniff the air, considering. Square jaw lifting, pushing forward. He was tall, blocky, a faintly military profile. Light poplin jacket and his collar and tie undone. I was too far out and the light too dim to evaluate his shoes.
I saw his gaze begin to scan the desert. Eyes centered, he swept his whole head slowly, right to left. Then back again at the same slow rate. I was kneeling in the shadow of a stringy juniper, but he would certainly see me if I moved a hair. A flicker in his peripheral vision, to which he would return. He knew what he was doing, and so did I.
There was a fluttering in my throat. Could he see that?—no, of course not. Without moving my head I dropped my eye to the Starlite scope. It calmed me to see his image floating in that aqueous green circle, made him seem safely farther away.
Just one microscopic adjustment. Had he seen that?—or no, he was only lighting a cigarette. I think— Pphhhhttt, said the silenced rifle. I probably shouldn’t have done that, I thought. He’d gone down all at once without a whisper, like a marionette when you release the strings. When no one came to his assistance, I knew he must have been alone.
With the rifle case in the trunk of my car I had my handy set of bolt cutters, and in my purse I had a box cutter, which I’d carried there, for sentimental reasons, since the day the planes flew into the towers. I could cut myself a little with it sometimes, in dull moments and discreetly, inside my upper arm or the concavity under my hip bone.
Except for that I hadn’t packed. I had cards in my purse and a little cash. It hadn’t seemed wise to go into the trailer.
What would Pauley do? I thought confusedly, driving south on 93. Back in the day I knew how to steal cars, but 21st-century cars were too complicated. Computer chips, alarms, all that.
I stopped at a roadhouse near I-40, pulling deep into a big parking lot. Bass sounds throbbed from the windowless pillbox. Even money no one would come back soon. I broke the tip of the box cutter twice, changing plates with the car next to mine, but it didn’t matter much since I had plenty of spare blades.
It was just a day later when Pauley called. A night later, would be better to say. I’d thought it best to lay up during the daylight hours, tucking my car on the back side of a motel, where it couldn’t be seen from the highway. At dusk I started out again. I was in Oklahoma or Kansas when the phone rang; it doesn’t matter which. The same sleek black ribbon of asphalt unrolling endlessly before me in the dark.
“Mae …” Pauley’s voice prickled in my ear. I felt a hint of pleasure, like being tickled by a kitten’s whisker.
I made some sort of pleasant sound, and his voice hardened.
“What did you do?”
I didn’t answer, but wheels were starting to turn in my head. What did he know? It had hardly been twenty-four hours. Well, a dead man would have been found outside my trailer. Almost certainly an officer of the law. And I, the I that worked at the casino and lived invisibly in the trailer park, had gone missing. And what did that add up to? And how did Pauley find out so fast? Of course he was in the business of knowing things like that.
“Mae—” A tightness in his voice, getting tighter. “I thought you were just going to shoot snakes with that thing.”
“He was a prowler.” I probably shouldn’t have said that. Pauley would know that I knew better. “You know, a Peeping Tom.”
“He was fucking FBI.” The voice whined in my ear like a bee. I leaned on the gas and the car leaped forward. I was alone on the road out here and could see nothing but the two lines that defined my lane, rushing up in the cone of my headlights. So what? Was it all on the news already or did Pauley know through his special channels?
He was still there at the edge of my ear, but for a moment silent. I recalled how if I didn’t hear from Pauley in a while I tended to assume he was dead. That could easily happen in his line of work. So when I did hear from him it was like—my mind started skating. Highway hypnosis maybe. What if all the dead mortals started coming back to life? What kind of end would there be to it?
“You know that gun was hot already,” Pauley said.
Well yes. I did know that. Not that we’d ever discussed it.
“Where is that gun, Mae?” Pauley’s voice had got quiet, almost seductive. “Have you got it with you now?”
I plucked the phone away from my head and looked at the little glowing screen. I thought of throwing it out the window, but that was unnecessary—the phone wouldn’t tell him where I was or where I was going.
I thought of the smell of death on his hands. Imperceptible to others, to anyone but me. A little secret we had between us. That perception made me go with him, the first time.
“Don’t worry about the gun, Pauley,” I said. “I’m taking very good care of your gun.”
For a minute I heard only the rush of my tires and the pull of night air against a weak gasket on the driver-side window.
“I don’t know you,” Pauley said, and then his voice was gone.
I did throw the phone out the window after all, because I suddenly felt I had to repel it, like it had some kind of spy widget inside, a beacon that would draw my enemies to me. I was all alone on the highway, and I yanked the car into a bootleg turn, and fetched up on the grassy median, facing the way I had come. The phone screen still glowed on the road bed, about a hundred yards behind.
I unpacked the rifle from the trunk, sighted with my elbows propped on the car roof. That sneezing sound. With a tiny pop, the light of the phone screen disappeared. Reach out and touch that if you can.
A lone car passed on the other roadway, the suck of dark air and the headlight cone dragging away off to the west.
No, I thought, to Pauley, or whoever, or to nobody. You don’t know me.
The car seemed undamaged, despite the brusque handling. I swung it back into the road and drove on.
I want to say that maybe none of what I am about to tell is true, but only a version I prefer to dull reality, in which my kin still live their lives: the mother and father and the two children no longer small, no longer children, still here in the same place where they settled and began, or maybe elsewhere, some other indistinguishable place, imperceptibly sinking into the banality of mortal existence like meat dissolving slowly in a stew. If so, I have blotted them out of my mind with a story, as you may blot the stars with the palm of your hand.
If so, there would have been no graves, or only the graves of strangers.
On the third night, or maybe the fourth, I drove across the river north of the town, pulled over and looked back. A peaceful vista, I suppose. In the small hours of the morning the windows of the houses were dark. A few had eave lights burning, for fear of prowlers.
In the air, the heavy sour smell of paper mill pulp fermenting. Downriver, the factory sparkled and hummed, emitting a great cottony cloud of yellowish smoke, spreading, dissipating into the night sky.
Close your eyes and think of Shawnee town. But then that hadn’t ever really been exactly here.
The cemetery was there in a bend of the river, whose muddy coils twisted away to the south. It was cold here, much colder than Nevada at this time of year, and I hadn’t thought to buy real winter clothes.
I looked into the star-speckled sky, then again down into the graveyard, the gray stones like crooked rows of teeth. The chill persisted. I got back into the car, cranked up the heat, and crossed the river on another bridge, back toward the center of town. The names were what you would expect in a little town like Chillicothe. Bridge Street. Main Street. My brother’s house had been off Water Street, on a short little spine running back to the fence of a golf course that blocked the way to the river from downtown.
I idled past, then let the motor die. The house was nondescript, a little brick ranch. It appeared to be inhabited now, though for a long time afterward no one had wanted to live there. In the starlight I could make out toys scattered on the patchy lawn, a soccer ball and a multicolored plastic tricycle. In a bedroom window was the glow of a night light and one of those round stickers that lets the fire department know there is a child inside.
I read about it in the papers, and watched it replayed on TV. But I’ve forgotten most details, or else I never learned them. Suffice it to say that my brother’s life ran off its rails of quotidian cruelty, its humdrum routine of domestic abuse, to bloom into something more spectacular, complete with the mother and children held hostage, the siege and rings of police with their weapons and bullhorns, negotiators bullying or pleading on the phone. Terrell had brought in gas cans to set the place on fire, but he didn’t get a chance to light it. A swat team sharpshooter picked him off, but by then the others were already dead.
I was surprised, and not surprised, to learn that I had missed the rapture. It was as if I’d always known that he’d take everyone who mattered. All but me.
As for what went on inside, imagination fails me. What I did picture was the pyre that didn’t burn. The house and whatever world it contained collapsing to its molten core. The hide and bone and tallow crackling, and the smoke of my brother’s offering rising to the mottled sky.
But now the house was distinguished by nothing. It harbored other mortal lives.
I got back in the car and crossed the river. The cemetery was enclosed by a spear-pointed iron fence. The gates had been locked with a chain since my last visit. I broke it with the bolt cutters and went in.
The long grass crunched beneath my feet, white and brittle with glittering frost. I hadn’t been here in some time and it took me a while to find the spot. Let us suppose no sentiments were carved into the stones, only the dates and the four names. I’d dressed a way he would have liked, in a short skirt with no underwear, so I had only to stand and open my legs to piss all over his grave.
The car crept along the waterline, beside the great oily river of Babylon. In the bay, the goddess standing on her rock thrust her blunt metal torch into the sky.
Beyond, the glittering lights of the city. Packed close together, like jewels in a coffin. I saw two pillars of darkness where the towers had stood, fracturing slowly into the first light of the dawn.
Raze it. Raze it. Bring it all down.
As the sky paled and daylight grew, the black oiled surface of the river turned silver. There were waves from the wind, and a slow barge pushing through them. Wheel and scatter of gulls above the water.
The electric gleam died in the windows, and the thousands of buildings that remained turned their blind steely faces to the water and the wind. Along the opposite riverside I saw the tiny dark figures of mortals, scurrying on their errands, intent and insignificant as ants.
I reached toward the triumph of my own intention. Daughter of Babylon, who shall be destroyed, happy is she who dashes your little ones against the stones.
The ragged hum of my own engine. Within the city opposite, there was a whistle, a squeal and a clatter as a 30-story crane swung into action.
I steered the car into the sounding hollow of the tunnel, thinking bitterly, whatever is razed down is bound again to be raised up.
Madison Smartt Bell is the author of 14 works of fiction. He teaches at Goucher College. The Color of Night is forthcoming from Vintage in the spring.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation and the Thanksgiving Fund. Additional funding is provided by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, The New York State Council on the Arts, and readers like you.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.