Like anything, it begins with a collision. Two hours south of Portland, Oregon, in the belly of that tar-black leviathan, I-5. Spring has been quietly replaced by a heat that draws reflective mirage from the empty road ahead. Lewis and Clark loom from a 3-D painting on a roadside historical marker, the single point of interest in twenty miles. Their gaze is of hope and invention and falls upon a gas station where, this humid morning, a van and its human contents have stalled.
A young man crouches outside the station store, smoking a B&H and eying the attendant. He spits small wet drops to the left of his feet between drags and lifts his head toward the road. The attendant waves a slip of paper at the boy and the boy nods, stubs his cigarette in the pool of saliva, and follows him inside.
A minute later he is adjusting the rearview and shifting his ass in the plastic bucket seat. He considers a sandwich, a bath, and turns the key. Empty Coke cans, small collections of ash, and torn-open cigarette packs litter the unoccupied passenger seat. The boy lifts two fingers at the attendant as he pulls away but the man does not see.
Soon the highway has collected a steady stream of cars. The day has stretched into a flat heat, the sun just drawn to half-mast; he is thick in thought. When the steering fails the boy wakes from his stupor and looks wildly around. He pulls on the wheel firmly, first right, then left and curses. It won’t work. He pulls again both right and left, and sounds an awful moan, a caged moan. It’s no use. He’s moving too fast. The van glides into the right lane smoothly, clipping a Camry at the nose. He says, “Shit,” as if to rescue his heavy body from sleep, grabs back hold of the wheel, commits the frantic correction.
In a trance, other drivers have fixed on the vehicle’s swerving, they pull onto the shoulder. One man believes that he’s made eye contact with the boy: the face of horror he will never not-see again, and a collective gasp between them as the van first flips into the median sending clumps of earth and grass soaring above. Each subsequent flip incites the scream, the turning away of spectators at a circus, the spectacle and its swelled physical comedy. The van and the earth are drawn together magnetically before them, and then bounce—repulsion. They exit their vehicles and gather in a cluster, already touching, already deep in the meaning of it. They move as a unit toward the flame and the smoke, issue orders, move with cohesion.
The scene of the crash plays as Miss Eva Stark prepares for sleep. In the anxious dark of her bedroom, in the heat of the bed and her tossing, corpses parade past her lidded eyes, but his is largest. His obstructs the center, cracks in the legs and the ribs and folds over itself backward. She calls, “Charles,” to the dark of her room and, “Charles,” to that other place.
He didn’t die in the road. He was wheeled to a white room made appropriate for dying. It goes on and on like this automatically.
Eva is tired at the funeral. She does not slow for not sleeping; she quickens. Her heart speeds and her fingers won’t stop moving. The cadaver is in its box like a metal rod, cold and conductive. She joins her hand with the iron pew of his palm, a simple thing with lines and weight, while the funeral director watches from the corner, calm as a ceramic saint in his pure black rag.
Charles is bloated, at least ten pounds richer in liquid and not calm exactly, more like ever-so-slightly surprised. You’re dead, thinks Eva. Never again, she thinks, and imagines ribs exploding from the torso, moaning, rolling on the concrete, pleading for his mother or help-God, or just please. He appears as wax but is much worse than that; inside he is steel and, in one still moment, draws the last of her heat.
His family home is in a suburb of Portland, a large modern house on a trimmed lawn. People meet there after the funeral to drink among his things. His books occupy a single shelf and bear titles seemingly unrelated to one another, the library of a young man who didn’t have time enough to develop his taste. His old punk rock records lean against the foot of the bed and there is a photo of him in a white T-shirt and a Hawaiian-print tie at the airport, wearing huge plastic sunglasses and looking bored.
The objects make her a stranger. They knew him better.
Eva Stark drinks whiskey, tells a newspaperman in khaki pants that Charles was a guy who could talk the shirt off your back. Someone else tells a story about Charles double fisting forties and driving at high speeds through the hills. It is meant to be funny. Spectacular, funny stories all around. Briefly, she considers grabbing someone by the throat.
Now here comes Collier.
DOCTOR COLLIER: Is that whiskey you’re drinking?
EVA: I’m at a wake.
DOCTOR COLLIER: If you say so.
EVA: I want out of here.
DOCTOR COLLIER: I’m not much for funerals, to be honest.
EVA: Is anyone?
DOCTOR COLLIER: You’d be surprised.
EVA: I doubt it.
DOCTOR COLLIER: I could do without the hunting trophies. Just look at that poor deer, forever frozen in headlights.
EVA: His only kill.
DOCTOR COLLIER: I am fond of their kitchen. We installed a similar island recently, only mine boasts a genuine granite top.
DOCTOR COLLIER: What do you suppose that is? Formica?
EVA: Do you know why I first came to you?
DOCTOR COLLIER: You liked my yellow pages ad with the sad-eyed collie?
EVA: I’m not in the mood.
DOCTOR COLLIER: Your mother arranged it, I presume.
EVA: No. I begged.
DOCTOR COLLIER: I get my best clients that way.
EVA: Do you or don’t you?
DOCTOR COLLIER: Yes, I know why. Do you?
EVA: Things in my head.
DOCTOR COLLIER: Invisible suggestions.
EVA: I wanted you to tell me something.
DOCTOR COLLIER: Yes.
EVA: Something true.
DOCTOR COLLIER: Truth is the god that wants it.
Weeks after, she pursued Charles through the wreck, lusting after every gory detail provided in witness statements or the coroner’s report. She couldn’t sleep for weeks because of her ribs. No matter how she lay she felt at any moment they might break through as easily as a tooth. To kill the sensation she’d try to remember him as he was before. All in one piece. In his bedroom, propped on his bed by a few pillows lodged just below the shoulders, knees up, thighs resting immodestly open. In the faded black jeans without a belt, and familiar plumber’s crack hidden against the bed. The old white T-shirt, the one with the coffee stain, ridden up and revealing an inch of hairy stomach just below his belly button. Lifting his head at an angle with some effort, picking the guitar laid flat on his chest.
In the end the memory perverts. The sheet runs red or the guitar twists into a hunk of metal and cuts him.
DOCTOR COLLIER: The mind is tricky. You can’t always trust it.
EVA: You’re the shrink.
DOCTOR COLLIER: Trauma forms pathways in the brain, chemical imbalances that distort our perceptions.
EVA: What do you suggest?
DOCTOR COLLIER: When an ugly thought comes around, take a deep breath and replace it with a pleasant one. I use my vacation home on Whidbey Island.
EVA: What if your vacation home goes up suddenly in flames?
DOCTOR COLLIER: Yes. I suppose I see what you mean.
EVA: Some things can’t be ignored.
DOCTOR COLLIER: We have medications for that.
In a window display on West Burnside someone has strung up a photo of Charles in a gaudy heart-shaped frame. Some calligraphy demands that he rest in peace. Eva comes by to see him out in the open.
Outside the glass cube adults mill with plans, the fixed cycle of seasons in which he is no longer allowed to participate. Eva says, “It’s not like I don’t live in a box,” and lights a cigarette. She reads, in a neon pink frame, Local boy, 20, dies in crash, and tells herself he suffered, and scrunches up her face. She says, “Never coming back again.” Traffic inches up the hill and into the woods, where they grew together from children to adults, at the top of which, among a thousand others, he decays. And backs turn, in retreat, from the boy who flashed and began again in the dirty cradle of the earth.
That summer, Eva Stark walked around town wanting to get fucked. It was cold and automatic, having little to do with desire and much to do with a desire to be dismembered. She wanted to be torn in half.
Her walking willingness did not go unnoticed by members of the opposite sex. In bars making cool and vituperative conversation, indicating a specific need and an impatience with all conventions of courtship that may delay its being met. Her cause was injured by her bluntness and left many initially horny men with a limp one and a paternal concern for her well-being. At two a.m. she’d sulk home alone in the transitional night, twisting her face into dry sobs and unwringing it and twisting it again, the way some men stare down their flexing bicep.
She is a stranger in her house, its six rooms, everything hardwood and draft. She enters it only to sleep. Late at night, she weaves unseen through the neighborhood. All the old neighbors who’ve moved away or hidden in their houses have forgotten her, but she has not forgotten them. The old life projects from their windows as she passes. On the lawn, transparencies of their children run through sprinklers, mount and dismount their bicycles. They take one another by the hand and face her, offer waves in solidarity and solemn nods of the head as if to say, We know what you’ve lost.
After Eva’s father moved away she had the upstairs loft to herself and discovered that she could lie on her floor eight times over, wall to wall. That is to say, if she’d had any friends, and they were roughly her size, they could form a line of eight laying flat on their backs, head to toe, from one wall to the other. She tested the figure many times. Sometimes it was eight and sometimes it was nine. Out of one hundred counts, ninety-seven amounted to eight. Eight Evas, wall to wall, and a dirty backside in the end.
She hasn’t been up there in a year, opting instead for the plaid couch in the living room across from the little TV. The big TV was sold at auction along with most of the furniture. Good riddance. The little TV with the rabbit ears used to show her “He-Man” and “Gummi Bears”; its light repelled bad thoughts.
DOC COLLIER: Ever consider hiring a maid?
DOC COLLIER: I am perfectly serious. We pay just forty-five dollars a visit for Brenda. She is very thorough. I’ll give you her number.
EVA: No thanks.
DOC COLLIER: A little lonely around here.
EVA: Not any more than before.
DOC COLLIER: You seem to be running some kind of an experiment.
EVA: Probably not.
DOC COLLIER: All this empty space . . . reminds me of something. Does it remind you of something?
EVA: I’m on the edge of my seat.
DOC COLLIER: It reminds me of a certain little boy we used to discuss. What was his name? The boy from the experiment?
DOC COLLIER: Oh yes. You certainly did fret for that boy. How’s the old ankle chain? Any eyes come out of the dark recently?
DOC COLLIER: That’s progress!
She lies on her side in last night’s clothes, their sweat and smoke informing her sleep. One arm draws her knees to her chest, the other falls limp over the couch’s edge in a dead reach.
Not fucked but still drunk, and losing a mind full of things once perceived as beautiful, Eva rides a bottle off to work. Days melt together, the sun never fully sets or rises. There is a sleeping box, a working box, and a box that moves between. Every day a ten-minute walk to the train on the shortest route, crossing when possible in diagonals, same fat woman walking her same fat dogs, houses cramped in their rows. Some stinky lady riding the train until her nod wears off and a stranger who wants to talk, or eat her alive, or touch her under her clothes.
She makes fists and shifts in the hard plastic seat. Imagines the street cracked like an egg, exposing the molten yolk of the earth, against which the cars appear in their peaceful plummet small as salt crystals.
Don’t think it.
The brain is an asshole. It is an engine begging to be derailed.
Linda comes into the café with Cathy and the tall junkie guy. They’re all junkies, but he looks extra bad: jaw hung open like a hooked fish, stringy hair falling out in places, graying prematurely in others. He’s on his ankles like a sloppy stilt-walker, beginning each step at the quadricep, his leg reaching a right angle before he sets it down again. Like the sneaky walk villains use in silent movies.
Can’t really tell much on Linda but for the distended stomach. If she weren’t fifty she could pass for pregnant. And poor Cathy, who began coming to the café just a year ago, a normal, healthy woman. Fully cognizant as far as anyone could tell, holding down a job in hosiery at Nordstrom, she now mistakes coffee beans on the counter for raisins and falls asleep standing up or lights cigarettes in the middle of the dining room while waiting for her drink.
The café is next to the bus mall and one floor down from the methadone clinic, so it isn’t uncommon for junkies to become regulars. People were trading pills there until the cops started hanging out from ten a.m. to six p.m.
“Don’t you pigs ever fucking leave?” Linda complained. “Shouldn’t you go blow my tax money on something?”
“Yeah, go blow it on blow!” said the wobbly guy.
He and Linda doubled over in hysterics.
“Or, go . . . ” She sniggered, “Go blow it on a blow job!”
Overcome, Linda and Wobbles sagged into a pile on the floor. The cops cuffed them right there and dragged them through the café out the door, the two of them hooting and hollering the whole time, “Yee-Haw!” and, “Yip-yip-Yoo!”
If crazy were determined by decibels alone, Linda and Wobbles would be handsdown shithouse. But it’s Cathy who disturbs Eva most. She’d lost her mind in less than a year. That meant that anyone could. Eva fears that she will be sucked from her body into Cathy’s if eye contact is maintained. That she’ll be prisoner in that body but retain her own mind. Like a fish in a draining plastic baggie. The possibility keeps her awake some nights.
COLLIER: Is this the one where you get sucked into the body of a stray dog?
EVA: It never actually happens. I worry that it will.
COLLIER: That’s preposterous.
COLLIER: What’s the other one then?
EVA: Crazy people . . . and the big fish with the whiskers stuck in a tiny tank at some bourgeois, sushi hell hole.
COLLIER: Do you know what all of this reminds me of?
EVA: I can guess.
COLLIER: Caspar and the ankle chain.
Caspar And The Ankle Chain
Anton Phelps, a psychologist specializing in early childhood development, explored themes of abandonment and neglect using his own son as subject. His hope was to create a controlled environment that excluded systems of reward.
COLLIER: No gifts. No verbal reinforcements.
EVA: No touch affirmation.
COLLIER: That the boy would develop unencumbered by social expectations . . .
EVA: Perhaps the true, unpolluted nature of man would become evident through his boy!
COLLIER: That’s the spirit. Business must have been slow when it hit the press. Donahue did a story I remember. By the end of the program the whole audience hated us. As one woman with very large bangs put it, “Psychologists are psychotics!”
EVA: Mr. Babcock taught a unit on the Phelps’s study in seventh grade. That’s when it started.
COLLIER: Thank you, Mr. Babcock.
EVA: The boy exhibited symptoms of schizophrenia by the end of his third year.
COLLIER: Phelps concluded that the desire to be among other humans was one of the core traits of our kind, to the extent that, when denied the resources to meet that need. . . .
EVA: A subject will hallucinate or willfully invent companions in order to meet it.
COLLIER: Take it away, my dear.
Effects of the experiment included: heart arhythmia, bouts of anxiety, night terrors, acts of self-mutilation, and a nearly fatal cardiac arrest at age seven, treated at Saint Vincent’s Hospital. The hospital alerted Child Protective Services, who removed the boy from his home.
He had been kept in the cellar, leg locked to the radiator. Skin covered in sores, loss of sensation in the feet, and a heart too animate for its valves. On days when he was to be left completely alone, Phelps on his way to a mysterious clinic, the heart would nearly clear its cave. After the crunch of the lock, the withdrawal of the doctor’s many keys, when his steps had shrunk to silence and the whirr of the car engine gone off into space, eyes came out of the dark. From the far back corner of the cellar they came, eyes unblinking and not locked in a face. When the women came and took a saw to his chain, a great buzzing filled the darkness. One of the ladies wept while the other looked like she could bite through metal. Neither noticed the eyes swarming in the corner. Caspar would have turned from them too if not for the blinding light in the open door. A piece of the world he would soon inhabit, had longed to enter, but could not yet painlessly face.
COLLIER: So they say.
With warm hands they lifted him easily into the outside air and without knowing it, took all those eyes with him. They swarmed right out of the cellar with their little unblinking lights, trailed like streamers behind him, more benign by daylight, friendly even. When he was so alone, awake in some stranger’s house, they’d come to him like a mother. Haloing the heads of his foster parents or stuck among the popcorn in his ceiling like stars.
COLLIER: Careful there.
Caspar began with a man and his vision. Three million years of human history beneath the doctor’s heel. Lucky for us, the old stories hide underground where the heel can’t reach, and it’s only a matter of time before they find a way out.
The end of the same day lives in a bar. A neat whiskey and an Oly stubby for starters. Not alone, playing footsie with a barstool, spine hooked into a drink like a scythe, scanning the room to pin a sap sad enough to talk. Eva Stark is pretty for now. Black dye hides her mousy brown roots. Black pencil distracts predators from the pale exposure of her eyes. An old, blue dress hangs loose on the doll body, ever titless.
There are four or five others who can be counted on for a drink at least two nights a week. All in their twenties, all with big plans and big college graduate words to back those plans. They remind her that these are her young days, that she might well settle down. They remind her to have fun while she can, but every time Eva makes it to the bathroom to scrutinize the mirror (considering putting her head through it, derailing the engine), it becomes painfully evident that no one is having any fun anymore.
COLLIER: I’ll say, that is some red lipstick.
EVA: It goes.
COLLIER: Having fun tonight?
COLLIER: It’s called defenestration.
EVA: Lay it on me.
COLLIER: The throwing of a person or thing out of a window.
EVA: What’s it called when the person you’re throwing is you? Or just your head? And actually, it’s not throwing so much as it’s forcing or putting through.
COLLIER: I’ll work on it.
EVA: Good. I’d like to give it a name.
Portland is an alcoholic. The bars outnumber the trees. Bars with icy names like Heaven or Aurora. Bars that feel like hospital rooms, on spaceships, gusting through the cold cosmos at drunken speeds. Everyone’s a drunk. It’s what no one likes to talk about. Even the local alternative weekly, with its sad attempts at investigative journalism, has avoided the subject but for an annual ten-page color spread addressing the five Ws of drinking. In Eva’s case the Why is amorphous and the rest is unimportant, especially the Who. If no company comes there are points of fixation to bridge the ugly depth between drunk and unconscious. More recently she has chosen to fixate on Charles. He’s on the bed with the hunk of metal.
Collier suggested that when she feels overwhelmed by fixation she should name it and write it a letter. She’s written thousands. Letters to No Life After Death, to Cancer, to Going Shithouse.
Since you ran off and wed that blue-eyeshadow-wearing cunt I have had difficulty conjuring your memory without nausea.
Before he left them, and before her mother eschewed religon in favor of Dr. Collier’s drugs, they had a pastor. Eva’s episodes led the family to him. “A violation of God’s law has caused this,” he counseled. “Try reading the Bible at night for comfort. Avoid Job and Revelations.” But as soon as they’d begun the Bible ritual Eva’s head filled up with the sentence, I love Satan.
“No, I don’t,” she’d say.
I love Satan.
“No, no, no, I love God, I love Jesus, Jesus is my savior, God is my father. . . .”
“I love Satan.”
As an adult, she can’t think of it except when drunk for fear of manifesting an attack. Given enough focus (especially focus backed by dread or, she supposes, even love, though it has not been her experience), anything can come forth from the void. Tumors, paralysis, Satan himself. It’s also possible to manifest unconditional love, or money, or probably walking on water if the nasty voice weren’t so strong. Always pushing her intent clean out of her head.
EVA: It’s not my fault I’m this way, you know?
COLLIER: I know.
EVA: If we were Indians, I’d be your fucking shaman.
COLLIER: The Lipan Apaches believed that people with mental retardation were touched by the gods.
EVA: Who says they aren’t?
COLLIER: Not me. Sometimes inclusion requires deification.
EVA: Just because civilized people label something defective doesn’t make it so.
COLLIER: Of course.
Caspar doesn’t drink and Caspar doesn’t dwell. If there is a hungry mouth he puts something beautiful in it. If things get desperate, he uproots his hair or cuts out a square of his arm. Every leaf, every grass blade seems to lift in chorus with his passingï£§Do that for which you are made! It’s summertime. People like to go swimming and walk together and not just stew around inside among the negatively charged ions and microorganisms. It makes sense that Caspar should also. If he were one of his own dead, he would be angry to find a shimmering flesh-man in the middle of a limited and mortal paradise, whining and generally unappreciative of his life. It wouldn’t be a nice gesture at all.
But for what was I made? he wonders aloud. A scrap of sound caught by a pair of passing ladies, their arms evenly weighted by department store shopping bags. Who draw into themselves upon hearing him speak, not commenting to one another until he is certainly out of earshot. One of the ladies murmurs that it’s a shame. “It is a shame that such a fine-looking young man has lost his mind.” How much he resembles her brother, Bernard, she thinks; Bernard having been tall and black-haired in his youth and who now lies collecting bedsores at the state hospital, demented. Caspar believes that Bernard has replaced a piece of his mind with something more useful: the ability to converse with those who will call for him on the opposite shore of a dark water.
The quiet look between the ladies, its mild fear and its remembrance of Bernard, does not wound Caspar. Their tendency to elide the certainty of their own demise is childlike and sweet. In his heart he wishes their lines well and continues on along the water and over bridges, falling in love with everyone. His head hung out on his neck like a paddle ball, sporting a sideways grin. Rubber-armed and rubber-legged, waving to nothing in particular. God and Earth and all of Caspar’s dead know he is good.
All over the city people unwrap their cocoons and meet one another in the flesh. In the park on the river they share blankets. They look at one another and speak with intensity, but poor Caspar is alone. He wants to court a young woman and has made days of viewing romantic films at the cineplex and reading modern poets in order to learn how to speak effectively to her. The movies suggest that he could not attempt conversation without first maintaining a kind of wardrobe. Caspar has decided to base his costume on something the girl at the coffee shop might find appealing. And had the good luck of having spotted her one day entering a used-clothing store on the street where he busks with his violin.
The girl in the dressing room suggested a pair of old jeans that in Caspar’s opinion were far too tight, a worn black T-shirt, and some starred sneakers. He accepted her advice and thanked her for her time.
She tried it a few times before, Eva’s mother. First time by sucking on the end of the revolver her husband had left for protection. After five minutes of tearful slobbering she removed the barrel from her mouth, deciding it too ugly a method. Eva found her asleep in the cleaning closet wearing her blue flannel jammies with a gun in her hand. The next day Eva’s mother drove over the hill into the suburbs where her husband lived with his new wife and unloaded six bullets into their shiny, black Ford Cobra.
“You can keep it, asshole!” she yelled and chucked the empty gun at the car.
Collier said her unhealthy actions symbolized a healthy desire to move on from the divorce.
Eva was staying with her father the second time it happened. She’d moved in with him her sophomore year of high school to be closer to Charles and to dodge the city school where she maintained her whispered family epithet, “Stark staring crazy.” Her mother, Violet, had been spending more and more time on the couch. With the TV on or off, a book in hand or none, she just lay there. And was not happy to learn of the move but understood her own limitations as a parent at that time. In her father’s home, Eva learned to enter with ease, and without fear of a screaming woman or worse, silence.
EVA: You should have known better.
COLLIER: Me? I assumed that she was taking her medication as prescribed.
EVA: I shouldn’t have left her.
COLLIER: You must keep in mind, Eva . . . you’re not the only one in the world who’s lost something.
EVA: Nobody else acts like they have.
COLLIER: Get used to it.
EVA: I hate the goddamned beach now. I can’t go near it without throwing up.
COLLIER: You might try the San Juan Islands. Last summer the family vacationed on Whidbey. It was marvelous.
That year, in the last week of August, they found her. The old couple who owned the Little Bee Motel at Seaside discovered her passed out on the floor of one of their rooms in a pool of vomit, using her own arm for a pillow. The empty pill bottle sat obvious as a stage prop in the center of the table. The fan sliced its dull revolution overhead. An EMT told Eva that it was lucky her mother had rolled on her side, otherwise she would have asphyxiated.
Luck is dangerous that way. Anyone who’s lucky knows the third time’s the charm.
At the café the circus is in full effect. Linda continues to exclaim that she’s nobody’s patsy, picking the skin from her fingertips and chewing her nails as Cathy works the child lock on her lighter.
Dear Linda and Cathy,
Please refrain from infecting me with your sickness.
A gangly scenester guy in too-big Chuck Taylors comes in, apparently unaffected by the drug-induced theatrics surrounding. His eyes are large and buggy. The skin shrunken handsomely around their sockets. He’s got The Sun Also Rises in his left hand and stands at the counter a long while, lost in choices, before finally ordering at a barely audible level, a cappuccino.
Eva is irritated. It is not just the fumbling introverts that bother her. She maintains an equal disdain for customers who muck up the process with too many words. She doses the Portafilter and tamps. There is always some sad jerk who will stand at the counter long after his allotted time has expired, prattling on about his favorite new band, movie, etc. She pours the milk into the pitcher and steams. Doesn’t matter how long the line behind him is, it could be wrapped around the block and he’d still find it entirely appropriate to ask her if she likes music. What the hell kind of a question is that? Nope. Don’t like music. But if you want to hang out some time in vacuous silence, I guess that’d be cool.
The gangly stranger reminds Eva of an alien, only with good bone structure and clear skin. Like an alien come to earth masquerading as an attractive man. Her hand considers reaching to pull at his skin mask but decides against it. She sets his drink in front of him and asks, “Hemingway, huh?”
The alien looks to her, at the left side of her neck.
“Hmm . . .” he says, turning his book over in his hands as if it had miraculously appeared from thin air. Looks at the book and then to Eva, from deep in the sockets of those unblinking eyes.
EVA: Does everyone have to have some fucking affectation?
COLLIER: Why so hostile?
EVA: All I’m saying is that I wish people would just be normal.
COLLIER: I bet you do.
EVA: Fuck you, Doc.
COLLIER: Eva Stark. If you cannot control your anger I will terminate this arrangement.
EVA: I’m sorry. God, I just need some rest.
COLLIER: You might consider a yoga class. My wife’s demeanor has improved greatly since she’s taken it up. She has us on an ayurvedic diet that is just wonderful. I have so much more energy.
EVA: I’ll consider it.
Eva counts only one meeting with insoluble rapture. On the beach when she was seventeen. Under the stars, dumb with awe but loved in total, it seemed by virtue of her breath and pulse alone. She was with her boy there, who kissed with the kind of seriousness that aches. Who shot her full of stars, their magnets still in her cells on hot nights as she climbs the hill to his headstone. He who remains as strange as any man, even in death.
COLLIER: Not the beach.
EVA: Let me have it.
They’d gone for a friend’s birthday, somebody’s uncle had a house. Most everyone was on acid, but Eva and Charles had abstained. Maybe one of them had to work the next day. There was a bonfire between two large dunes that everyone sat around, drinking and talking too loud. It made her nervous, not just the prospect of cops but the way it didn’t fit. Too much yelling. She couldn’t stand it. The louder they spoke the stiffer her jaw, the heavier the pressure in her ears, and soon it felt like a million fists had drawn back inside her body. She fantasized running them off with a flaming stick but could not summon the nerve and so escaped down the dune toward the water.
Charles followed, carrying his calm as he ran.
EVA: He kissed me.
EVA: I didn’t know he wanted to.
COLLIER: It’s all very romantic, the sand and the moon and all that.
But the nerve of that night died in the root, run off by the prospect of empathy. The deep common matter of which men are made. Eva can no longer speak to them. Cannot possibly survive the crush of their hopes. Their vulnerabilities.
COLLIER: It’s not all that bad, really.
Take the alien guy in her periphery, with his big shoes and his tight jeans and a fist in his throat. She’d like to put a pillow to his face.
COLLIER: Say, did you know that the fates spin three threads into the cord of destiny?
EVA: Do tell.
COLLIER: Thought, will, and action.
Eva, hot-faced and head-bowed, grabs a bleach rag and wipes the counter in fervent circles. She tucks her face into her shoulder to block the alien’s stare.
COLLIER: Do you ever have the sensation that somehow your cord’s been cut?
EVA: What do you mean?
COLLIER: Do you love Satan, Eva?
EVA: What the fuck is this?
At table six, Cathy lights a cigarette and kisses Linda on the cheek. Eva waddles toward them, as if on the deck of a ship. Landless gray rolling on all sides.
COLLIER: Would you like me to show you hell? It’s wonderful sort of cocktail party.
EVA: I’m not listening.
COLLIER: The fates wear miniskirts and leg warmers. They snort halos from their reflections.
EVA: Shut up.
COLLIER: One of them carries a razor blade. She’ll cut the cord for no reason whatsoever.
EVA: That’s not true.
COLLIER: Oh yes. I’m afraid there’s just no meaning in it.
Linda prances around Cathy’s chair, clapping her hands, begging for a cigarette. Mid-revolution she crashes into Eva, pulling them both to the floor. For a moment, their eyes meet in silence.
COLLIER: Look at this woman. Her life is for nothing. When her liver kaputs or some boyfriend shoots her, that will be for nothing, too.
Eva pulls herself to her feet, shaking. Plucks the cigarette from Cathy’s hand and pokes it into her own mouth.
“Hey,” Cathy protests, “that’s my cigarette.”
COLLIER: The line is fraying.
COLLIER: At any moment it will snap.
COLLIER: And you’ll be yourself forever.
Charles had a problem with his mind. He’d get stuck in the husk of it. Had you met the two of them together, Charles and Eva, when they were seventeen smoking in front of Pizza Hut or shoulder-tapping at 7-Eleven, you would never have guessed they shared even one uniting characteristic. Charles was self-contained and quiet. He possessed an indiscriminate calm, whether ordering chicken nuggets, discovering he’d misplaced his weed, or being told that he was loved. Even when he laughed he rarely gave in to the kind of explosive, piss-yourself cackling that teenagers do. Instead, a tiny smile would take place at the corners of his mouth, and a reserved little chuckle from deep in his body would shake his shoulders, drawn toward his chest.
Eva was a loudmouth. Fond of inciting fights, talking shit to Jynco punks and flipping off cops, only to step out of the line of fire when hell broke loose; she claimed that free verbalization was integral to her therapy. She often warned Charles that if he could not express himself properly she would have to help him do so, and she spent a large portion of their time together rooting for loose threads to tug at. When angered, she maintained the sense of being outside of her body, would watch her physical face contort and sound out frenzied complaints from a satellite of calm. While she was somewhere at her root removed, Charles was still of the body and a storm inside.
New Year’s Eve 1998, at the cabin on Mt. Hood (the whole extended family locked in with him, hostaged by the snow and the dark), he busted his husk. Spent the night pacing the upstairs bedroom after a frustrating conversation with an uncle on the realities of child exploitation. Eva caught a scrap of it through the door. Apparently his uncle would not accept that the institution of compulsory education is, in essence, the American equivalent of Nazi concentration camps. An only slightly flawed analogy, she’d thought at the time.
After two hours of their back and forth, his poor uncle grew weary. He could smell the roast reaching completion in the kitchen below and hear the bottles uncorking. Despite Charles’s accusations of defeat, the uncle excused himself with a sad sigh. Eva, hidden behind the door at his exit, returned to her vantage just in time to witness Charles hit one of the cedar beams with his fist and collapse.
He sat in the center of the room, hugging his knees and rocking, emitting low groans wrung from his stomach. And then, as suddenly as it had begun, the sobbing ceased. He stood up and looked at his feet for a long time.
COLLIER: Did you go to him then?
EVA: Something stopped me.
COLLIER: The fragrance of danger.
He hauled off and punched the cedar beam. It didn’t make much noise, but you could tell the impact had traveled into his shoulder because he stood rubbing it for a minute. Then he hauled off and punched the beam again and again and again.
His mother called for him to come down to eat, but he didn’t hear, or perhaps, heard perfectly well and that was what moved him to the window. Eva grew sick then, when he went to the window and drew back his bloody nub.
EVA: I could have stopped him.
COLLIER: But you didn’t.
The shatter, the crisp ring of glass popping, the thousand irreconcilable mirrors. His blood and a commotion below, drawn by the heat of him upstairs, where he stood screaming in the open window, “You’re all rapists!”
COLLIER: We’re not done yet.
EVA: I can’t.
COLLIER: Then to the beach.
EVA: I don’t want to.
COLLIER: Nonsense. It is a perfect evening. You’ve just made love beneath a ceiling of stars. What are you thinking about?
After his climax, his release and rolling off of her, she began to pick ever so gently at him. The questions presented themselves innocently enough, “What are you thinking about?” or “You don’t regret it, do you?” But inside they were screaming. What have you done with me?
He lay with his hands folded unnaturally on his chest, eyeing the dark sky. And then, suddenly, grabbed his T-shirt with a start and took off down the beach away from where she reeled, partially undressed and nauseated.
COLLIER: How did you feel then?
EVA: Like shit. Obviously.
She’d tugged on her clothes and pursued his darkening body, hysterically, first at a jog and then at an all-out run. She planned to tell him something, but once she’d caught up, before the first words came tumbling to the mouth, he grabbed her with hate in his face and threw her to the sand. You fucking bitch.
EVA: It was wrong
COLLIER: I don’t know.
EVA: It was all fucked up.
COLLIER: It was the plain fact of two people acting. Actions are actions. People are neither good nor evil.
EVA: They are claustrophobic and cruel, always walking into some dark expanse without you.
COLLIER: We agree then.
A Story About How To Die
The trees have relinquished their green, their abundance, in a sudden pivot toward conservation. The sap of all living things retracts, putrefying fruits, pulsing in the stalks. The proof of death burns or bleeds red, ignites from the edge of each shrinking vein and makes paper of skin. There is the sentiment of fists beating the interior of a locked trunk, help-cries pickled in carbon dioxide. The tidal flailings of all God’s creatures broken on the shorelines of their pride. Pride quiets them. They burn and unloose from the life-branch, join a composting tumult. The decaying season and its blunt assertion of ends will not be avoided, by any of them. They burn gorgeously.
Caspar loves all of it. He picks tragedy and miracle apart with his hands. He peels its sections from stem until his fingers stain red and orange and a man comes from the house saying, “Get off my goddamned lawn!”
His feet, each with its own mind, burst first up then out. They perform a strange little song and dance in tandem. The street is neither flat nor stationary beneath him. Rather, he climbs, foot-over-foot, as the earth lifts its many helpful hands to meet him. All the way to the river.
O the romance of the river. Standing at Waterfront Park, in a backpack, stroking the metal girder, gauging your courage. The odor of concealed deeds. The violent forcing apart of legs. The sacked body, just cold, tumbling unattended down the bank. Or the mutter of a certain section, knowing it will never be met again. The comfort of its repetition. The heartbreak of its repetition. The words spoken aloud there, never to be retrieved. A story about how to die.
There are stories about how to live, but they hid underground. Long before the heavy lattice of city streets, the amnesia-inducing speed, the fires rushed under a banner of progress that made corpses of the people who lived here first. Gutted, shot full of holes, left to rot under the eye of the weeping sun. The civilized world arrived burning, and the old world ran, skin in flames, leaving tracks of flesh and charred black blood on the surface of the land that they loved. Through their torn skin the stories evacuated, got underground. Sometimes, folks who live under bridges tend to absorb some of them. They speak in codes not immediately accessible to house-dwellers. Most people wouldn’t guess, while making their morning commute, that the stinky lady on the train, riding her nod off, held within her body a story to make sense of their gaping holes.
A Visit to Doctor Collier
“Well—” he smiles “—come on in.”
A girl, not much older than Eva, sits behind Mrs. Parr’s desk, bent over some papers with a pen in her hand. Her hair is slicked back in a tight, blonde ponytail. She wears a turquoise-blue pant suit that causes her to resemble a kind of severe, Aryan amphibian. “Hello!” she says brightly, clicking her pen.
“Mrs. Parr retired in the spring. Sarah here is her granddaughter. She’s just completed her MSW at Columbia.”
Dr. Collier smiles lovingly at Sarah, and Sarah reciprocates. Neither of them speak. Eva turns for the door.
“Now, wait a second,” says Collier, grabbing her arm. “Let’s just go in my office for a chat.” He wraps his arm around her shoulder and leads her down the hall. “You remember my office, don’t you?”
The carpet’s the same blue and yellow diamonds that overlap, the walls are a muted green. There’s a new hanging, a waterfall in a mossy wood and underneath, in cursive letters, the word Inspiration.
“So, catch me up. What’s new?” Collier swivels in his chair. His face is large, unavoidable. “How’s the house?”
“It’s fine, I’ve decided to stay.”
“My uncle has been handling the financials.”
Collier looks to the picture of the waterfall, probably relieved that his children are normal and well-adjusted. In the photo on his desk, taken last summer in the San Juan Islands, they wear khaki shorts and polo shirts. The children share his smug smile and pug nose. It’s their uniform. One big khaki family.
“I shouldn’t have come.”
“Don’t be silly.” He swivels. “You’re family here, you know that.”
He folds his hands together and makes sincere his eyes. It’s a power some people have, they sort of wet their eyeballs and fill them with questioning. “Now tell me, what’s been on your mind?”
“I would like to know if you think that we are bound to inherit our parents’ flaws, you know, sins of the father?”
Collier swivels toward Inspiration and sighs, “What else?”
“Or is there any hope? Like those genius kids born in trailer courts . . . or at least some kind of free will clause or something?”
“Though you refuse to form a complete sentence, I think I understand your question, Eva Stark.”
He strokes his beard. Buttoned down. Stench of money. The outfit looks like it’s been heisted off an L.L. Bean mannequin.
“It’s up to each person to know themselves,” he continues, “to know their limits. Of course we have free will, but like all beings on this planet we also have inherited limitations that must be taken into account.”
“I am fucked.”
Eva shakes her head at the blue-diamond carpet.
“Look at me, will you?”
“You know what I live with.”
“I can’t spend the rest of our lives insisting that it wasn’t your fault, Eva. If you want to have any kind of life you are going to have to let it go.”
“I haven’t been taking my pills,” she sniffs. “They keep me awake all night. I can’t feel anything when I take them.”
“All right, relax a little.”
“I swear to God, you could drive a nail into my hand and I wouldn’t even flinch. I wouldn’t.”
Eva looks at her hands, guilty. Fix it now.
“I stopped drinking coffee.”
“That’s good.” He swivels. “And are you drinking?”
He means liquor.
“Eva, I don’t have to tell you—”
“No. You don’t.”
“You know where that goes for you.”
“Yes, I know. Thank you very much, doctor.”
Collier leans back in his chair, sighs at the ceiling. Eva wonders how many times he is going to do that; lean back and sigh. She imagines him doing it many times in a row, over and over, breaking a sweat.
“What’s so funny?”
“I talk to you sometimes, in my head.”
He straightens, “And who do you talk to in real life?”
“I haven’t seen anyone since the funerals. Not counting bars.”
“Why is that?”
“Guess I’m not really the first person you think to call when you want to have a good time.”
He frowns, “I have something new for you to try. It’s a young med at this point, so mum’s the word.”
Eva shakes her head. “No more drugs, please.”
“Just try this one for me. It works well for a lot of people. I think it’s worth a shot.” Collier smiles and folds his hands. “We’re gonna get it this time, I can feel it.”
The pharmacist gives Eva two mysterious bottles of pills. The bottles promise equanimity but once taken produce the feeling of impending doom that follows her directly to her door.
For the first two hours she does not lift her head from the pillow. Her skull is a granite paperweight. She lies in fever, swearing and hallucinating, bagpipes in the pillow. Each time she jumps from bed paranoid, pacing its edge and frisking the couch where the bagpipes are hidden, all sound is sucked out, leaving her with the terrible sensation of suffocating. The only way to breathe is to lie down and hear the bagpipes again. Eva Stark goes on like this for hours, jumping up and lying down. In the bathroom she opens bottles and begins swallowing. One of them will help her sleep.
EVA: I don’t feel so hot.
COLLIER: You’re having an allergic reaction. I suggest that you go to an emergency room immediately.
EVA: I’m going to call 911.
COLLIER: Good. Don’t get slippery, dear. You must punch only three numbers.
EVA: I really can’t afford this.
COLLIER: I think it’s important.
EVA: How can I tell if I’m dying?
COLLIER: Not sure. Dry mouth, conversations with dead relatives, big bright light. That’s what I hear anyway.
When he first appears he is all blue. Hung in the fig tree outside her living room window in a sort of cherub’s repose, calm and stiff. He wears his burial clothes, a Ramones T-shirt and a white denim jacket. Almost four months have passed since they last met outside the pine box. She presses her hand to the pane and opens the window.
“I know you,” she whispers, remembering the cedar beam and the long look he gave his feet.
Charles’s mouth is slow opening as if to speak, and she waits with great anticipation to recieve his message. Eva leans out, gripping the sill, offers her face to the aperture.
His eyes roll white, the deep of his mouth widening steadily and still unspeaking. It opens, unnaturally large. The jaw unhooks from the head.
This evening, they move together down her street, Charles a few feet ahead, driven. Eva likes his direction, splitting the space like a comet she is tail to, the motion is effortless. On empty Sixth Street, the windows dark and noiseless. Past Fifth and Fourth toward the quiet pilgrimage of the Willamette, heard now contacting its shores. He moves ahead, his transit confident, and she follows.
Streetlights cast their shafts in pink, and even the shadows, slain beside their buildings, pulse red under their black. He takes the side street that dives below the bridge, the route of an appled worm. A neon billboard above flashes strange codes, troublesome numerologies. There is something to tell Charles, but the street is quick becoming a dark bowl and swallows him. In an instant, he is irretrievable.
Eva follows, down the steep concrete, under the bridge, and begins to float; a sea of warm saline rushes to meet her. And then a touch of light, neither kind nor assaultive, swims to her pupil. And then another, small scrap of light, and another. Slowly, the landscape undresses. Broken bottles sprout in the dirt, railroad ties rot in piles. And a figure, some fifty feet beyond, sways into focus. She squints, dizzy and over-warm. The man floats toward her, on saline it seems as if no steps are taken. The warm water feeling of pain pills begins to swell and he is on her, no more than a foot away. Her eyes darken, her knees begin to give. The body, autumnal, struggles to draw its cells to its center.
“Hello,” she calls from deep water, extending her hand to him in the dark.
“Hello,” says Caspar, taking it.