Saturday, October 31, 2015

Steel Dog-49

From Another World

Quentin was breathing hard and didn’t know why.  A dream?  He was lying on his mattress, looking for shards from a nightmare.  But nothing was there.  Awake, adrenaline-infused, he remained stretched out flat, dragging his hands across his face, rubbing dry eyes while gradually realizing that the telephone was singing.

The world made sense; he was awake for a reason.

An invisible syrup had filled the room.  Every motion required effort.  Putting feet to the floor and standing were long-term projects.  His galloping breath plainly wasn’t feeding muscles.  Buying time, he told the phone, “In a minute.”

The machine answered with silence.

Wrong number.

Quentin collapsed on the sofa.  What was the time?  The old diver’s watch offered an impossible answer.  Ten minutes before three in the morning.  But which morning?  Thursday insisted that it was the answer, except it was lying.  The week had reached Friday, and he couldn’t seem to recall four minutes from his last four days of life.

Quentin sat back, ready for sleep on the hard sofa.

The phone sang again.

Surprise made him jump.  His left hand grabbed the receiver and held tight, and he breathed deeply twice before lifting the receiver to his ear and mouth.  Electricity greeted him.  Long cables of copper whispered at him, and then a voice shouted, male and excited enough to sound angry.

One word sounded obscene.

Quentin assumed insults, which was why he told the hapless caller, “Fuck you, it’s late, don’t bother me.”

He hung up.

Then nervousness took hold, chewing at his belly, and there wasn’t any surprise when the telephone again broke into its little melody.

This time, he intended to ignore the caller.

Stubbornness failed him.

Into the same crackling current, he said nothing.  Then too quietly to be heard, he said, “Yes.”

“I am sorry,” said a thickly accented voice.  “My Latin.  Poor.”

“Who are you?”

“Uncle.  Her uncle.”

“Whose uncle?”

“Farah, uncle of.”

“Okay.”

“I want to speak to Farah.”

Anger surged.  “It’s the middle of the night here.”

“She’s not with you?”  The voice was caked with bright despair.

“She's not here right now.”

“Find her.  Right away, have her call uncle in Shiraz.”

“Okay. I will.”

A pause.  Then the man asked, “Can I trust you, sir?”

“I’m Farah’s husband,” Quentin said.  “Of course you can trust me.”

Steel Dog-48

Everything Happens

“It’s late.”

“Is it?”

Vinnie consulted her watch.  “Maybe not that late.  You’re right.”

“I can leave.”

She dropped onto the sofa.  “Not now, you can’t.”

A novice student, male but with a girlish face, stood in the kitchen doorway.  It seemed like a safe distance, keeping tabs on Vinnie’s conversation with this hairy, distinctly older man.

“Is that the famous boyfriend?” Quentin asked.

She glanced over her shoulder, then looked back again.  “Do you want to meet him?”

“After you change his diapers.”

Vinnie smiled but didn’t laugh.  She refused to laugh, crossing her legs, saying, “You don’t normally visit this late.  Is there a reason?”

Quentin nodded.  “I saw your mother.”

“So?”

“I was wondering if you’ve seen her yourself.”

Vinnie shook her head.  “We haven’t talked.  Not for weeks, thank God.”

“All right then,” Quentin said.

She looked at the boyfriend.  “Make tea.”

“What kind?”  He had a high voice, a bird’s voice.

“The hot kind.”

Quentin was working with what he would say next.

Vinnie looked at him.  “You’re growing weirder, Quentin. And I didn't think that was possible.”

The barb made honesty more likely.  But not assured, no.

“So why are you here?  Why care about my old bitch mother?”

There were a thousand ways to tell what he knew, and as many ways to say nothing.

But then Vinnie laughed at last.  She laughed and leaned back, uncrossing her legs.  “I know what you’re doing.  Right now, you’re hoping that three of us might do something.”

“No,” Quentin said.

“Yes.”

Once mentioned, the idea had its own vivid life.

The nameless boyfriend returned, various bags of tea in hand.  Looking at the farthest wall, he asked, “What kind do you want?”

“Why aren’t you in the army?” Quentin asked.

“My father,” the boy said.  “He was a Hero.”

Quentin pretended to listen, but he was thinking of everything else.

“So what do I do about the tea?” the boy asked.

Vinnie looked back and forth at the two men, smiling, and meanwhile everything had always always always been possible.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Steel Dog-47

An Odd Old Notion

“Time is the universe’s great lie.”

Where did he find that idea?  Inside an obscure physics journal hiding on a low library shelf, wasn’t it?  Eyes closed, Quentin saw black words riding yellowed paper, and he felt the binding in one hand and the hard chair under his ass, and that exceptionally clear memory brought the slippery notion that he had read this article last year or maybe the year before.  Or never.  Time was nothing.  That was the author’s chief point.  Unless there were multiple authors.  Quentin’s head didn’t offer help on that score.  But he remembered reading how the universe was a multitude of vivid realities.  Every reality was inevitable.  To the smallest limits of size and the greatest boundaries of space, every potential arrangement of atoms and energy lay outside time, invincible and perfect.  Time was a seduction.  Time was that sweet voice promising that every moment was important, that each mind and the foolish places between the minds came at the tail end of a million critical events.

Quentin flinched.

He was asleep, and in a neighboring reality, he couldn’t have been more awake.  And cold.  The air was chilled and damp, inside the car and out.  It wasn’t quite eleven o’clock, which wasn’t late.  But sex had relaxed him.  Solitude relaxed him.  His most recent drive was twenty minutes ago, and it lasted a full block before he turned around, parking in the darkness between street lamps.  Except there wasn’t any drive, and there wasn’t any sex before the drive.  The musky scent on his fingers belonged to nobody.  Nobody had been seduced, and even Time Herself was beginning to lose Her hold.

He laughed, sniffing his hand.

Drive away, one impulse said.

Stay, another insisted.

A minimum of ambient light revealed the blueness of the house standing at the end of the block.  Yet the dog in the yard seemed exceptionally bright, that good steel proud of its shine and its indifference to the last dregs of winter.

A car approached from behind.

Quentin scrunched low and for no good reason held his breath.

The newcomer parked in front of the steel dog.  A sporty, low-slung vehicle.  Quentin assumed the driver was a stranger, probably a male stranger.  But the headlights silhouetted feminine hair, and with a genius for misunderstanding, he knew that a midget would now climb out.

But no, the driver was tall and only probably a woman.  Nothing was certain.  At a distance, through the veil of assumptions and idiocy, he saw a masculine lady of unlikely size.  But of course Barbara Stains have would have a driver.  Quentin decided.  The driver was sent to collect the precious Persian girl from inside the blue house, or this was someone else looking for someone else and the visitor had nothing to do with Farah or with Quentin.  The latter story survived until two women emerged together, one wearing clothes that just thirty minutes ago were in a tidy heap on a dusty floor.  The older woman was carrying her lover’s hand, coaxing her arm and the rest of her to hurry, to escape the chill, and then they were inside the sports car and gone, and Quentin didn’t just understand, but it was as if everything had always been obvious to him.

Steel Dog-46

The Heart of a Young Girl

“It was difficult for you.  I know.  A great deal to ask, particularly from someone in your position.  And I am thankful.  Very thankful.”  The tips of her fingers found his arm, and with considerable feeling, she said, “You’re my hero, Quentin Maurus.  My savior.”

The hero wasn’t going to visit her apartment.  Not tonight.  But then Farah opened the car door and climbed outside.

He and the headlights stared straight ahead.

She bent down.  A gruff voice promised, “Tea.”  Then she left, walking slowly toward the blue house.

It was impossible not to catch Farah.  She took his hand, the grip just firm enough to be felt.  He said nothing.  Silence was the most natural part of this beautiful world.  She was energetic and radiant, touching his shoulder while putting her mouth near his ear.  “The first couple to make love in space.  Don’t you envy them?  I do.”  Then from some unbearable joy came the words:  “It would feel so wonderful, climaxing in free fall.”

Quentin would say good night at the door.

But the apartment door was open and she was inside, unconcerned that her husband remained in the hallway.  Like the older sister responsible for feeding the family, she set to work, filling a pot with water and setting it on the stove, and while the water heated, she started calling out the types of teas in the inventory.

He drifted inside.

She looked at him and winked.  “Shut the door, darling.”

The latch tripped, but he didn’t lock the bolt.

She noticed.  It was a marvel, the woman’s capacity to absorb every detail in her surroundings.  She glanced at the locks and winked again, never mentioning that he should sit but showing him how much he was welcome.  She was perched on the edge of her sofa, one hand waiting to grab his hand when he finally joined her.  She smiled at him and then smiled at the far wall.  The water hissed.  Quentin walked slowly in one circle and began another, looking at the dust gathered on every surface.  Then he saw the dusty picture of her parents and the roses exactly where it always was, and he realized that nobody had lived inside this room for months.

“Yes,” Farah said suddenly.

He gave her his eyes.

“We should do something special tonight,” she said.  “Something remarkable.”

Quentin stopped walking, watching as she unbuttoned her shirt, breasts and bra pushing into view.

“Your wife is in a mood,” she claimed, little fingers kept working at buttons.  When the shirt was open, she reached behind her back, undoing the bra, cups resting on her heavy breasts.  “The wife will do whatever the husband demands.  At least for tonight, yes.”

“Anything?”

“Possibly.”  Farah winked and peeled away the bra.  Thick makeup had done its best to obscure the scar across her sternum.  The fat nipples were blacker than he remembered.  She breathed deeply when she wasn’t talking.  When she wasn’t telling him, “I have a friend.  You saw her today, in fact.  A Korean girl.  Very pretty, very adaptable.  What do you say, Quentin?  The three of us together, celebrating this good evening?”

He sat beside her on the sofa.

She gave him one hand and a fine warm smile, and Quentin stared at her chest and the bra.  Then with the authority of a true husband, he let his fingertips play where they wanted, reaching past the nearer breast, stroking that slick cool scar riding the battered sternum.

“How?” he asked.

She didn’t respond.

“That’s what I want.  Tell me--”

“I know what you're asking,” she interrupted.  She didn’t want to sound sharp, but she wouldn’t let herself feel self-conscious either.  That’s what he took from her uncomfortable tone.  Reaching up, she used both hands to coax his hand to retreat.  Putting his fingers against her panties seemed like a worthy distraction, far less personal than touching the scar.  Only then did she say, “I had some heart trouble.  When I was a girl, almost ten years ago.”

“I guessed as much.”

But Farah didn’t want his surmises, particularly if they were correct.  Truth belonged to her, nobody else, and her instinctive first reaction was to spread uncertainty, creating an environment where lies thrived.

“What did you guess?” she asked.

“Persian medicine is the best in the world, I’ve heard.”

“It is,” she said.

“Your heart was sick, and you were close to death.  But your father and mother bought a healthy young heart, another girl’s heart, and the finest surgeons in the world sliced that girl open while she was alive, and they hacked into your chest, tearing out the sick piece of you and putting in the healthy red muscle while that girl on the other table died.”

He touched the scar again, feeling the quick beat.

She said, “Yes,” to the story.  To the hand.  Or maybe it was a general, “Yes,” meant for much more.  She was still smiling when she added, “Or perhaps one of my valves was broken and the surgeons replaced it with a pig’s valve.  Maybe that’s the story.”

“Well, that sounds reasonable,” he allowed.

“Except I like yours better,” said Farah, grabbing her left breast and half-standing, turning towards him, shoving that salty black nipple past lips and teeth.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Steel Dog--45

The Food of Angels

Dessert was white and soft as a pillow with patches of dark brown crust clinging to the exterior.  A serrated blade had cut the wedge, and a much sharper knife had carved up a ripe peach that formed a ring around the cake.  The cake’s whiteness clung to Quentin’s teeth, and he ate slowly, waiting for flavors beside the slight appealing sweetness.  But the crust was the prize, firm and brown and sweeter and full of subtleties. He tasted the warm oven where this was baked.  He ate slowly and carefully, the men around him finishing first, falling into quiet conversation.  Quentin still hadn’t finished when he looked across the temple, hunting for a certain face, and it wasn’t there.  She was absent at the beginning of dessert and she was still missing, as was her daughter and the loyal, miserable husband.

Noticing Quentin’s gaze, his Persian friend leaned close, and with a voice a little too loud to be private said, “Accusations were made.”

Quentin looked at the last smiling slice of the peach.

“Spying on the √©migr√© community.  A serious, serious matter.”

Quentin sighed.  “Maryam?”

“And your wife,” he said, touching the hand holding Quentin’s fork.  “They accused each other, and a verdict has been rendered.”

Farah was still camped with her friends.  By all appearances, their world was full of reasons for laughter.

“This is not about you, Mr. Maurus.”

Quentin dropped the fork and sat back.

The Persian rose and left.

Quentin looked at Levi, and the little man smiled.  Pity and irony inhabited his gaze, and he dipped his head, whispering, “Always remember.  Whatever she claims and regardless of what she believes, she is a Persian wife.”

“Which means what?”

“You own everything but her soul,” Levi said.

Steel Dog-44

About Geese

She found him watching the river, and after an uncomfortable pause, she asked, “How long have you been here?”

“Fifteen minutes,” Quentin guessed.

Farah leaned against the rail, and when it sagged, she leaned back.  Hands lay on the splintered, paint-stripped board.  She waited for him to say more.  Then she gave up waiting.  With authority, she said, “The river is lovely.”

Silence felt right.  He gave her silence.

“Do people use it?”  She moved closer, halving the gap.  “Is it good for boating and fishing?”

He turned back to the twisting brown water and the sandy foam.

“The Arvand Rud,” she said.  “It’s where the Euphrates and Tigris join.  It’s lovely too.  My father would take me—“

“Shut up.”

Farah stopped talking.

He looked at her.  This time, she kept her eyes focused on his river.

Quentin’s arms had crossed themselves.  He couldn’t remember that motion.  Putting his feet apart, he breathed, working to clear a head that refused to clear, and then he began to talk, both of them listening to the steady slow voice.

“I was twelve,” he said.  “Or eleven, and my father got me up long before dawn and drove us to a blind beside this river, downstream from here, minutes before the waterfowl season began.

“I liked that kind of hunting,” he continued.  “Walking fields was work.  But sitting in a blind, doing nothing, gave me the chance to watch the world.  I could talk to my father, if I wanted.  We probably talked, except I don’t remember what about.  He shot a pair of geese.  One ivory, one blue-clay.  I remember that because he told me—I’m sure that’s the day—he told me that those birds used to be uncommon.  When he was a boy, people believed they were two species of geese that flew together.  A lot of birds do that.  Ivories and blue-clays resembled one another, but the plumage was so different.  Experts saw variations in their bones and habits and calls.  So each had its own scientific name, and everybody was happy.”

She nodded, waiting guardedly.

“Anyway, the experts were wrong.  The bird books were wrong.  The trouble was that nobody actually knew where the geese bred.  Not until after the World’s War. Then somebody took the trouble to find the breeding grounds on the tundra.  Nothing beyond but pack ice and snow bears.  And sure enough, when somebody bothered to watch the geese, it was obvious.  An ivory and blue-clay would nest together and lay eggs and celebrate both color phases of the goslings being born.  And like my dad said, 'That proves one big thing.  If you study anything close enough, there’s no end to the ways to make any two things seem different.'”

Quentin paused.  If he didn’t know better, he would believe that Farah was fascinated by the reminiscence.  She smiled and dipped her head while keeping her eyes on him, and then she started to talk and he interrupted her.

“Now you know more about my father than I know about yours," he said.

Farah hesitated, wondering what she could possibly say.

Quentin liked the caution, the confusion.  This seemed like the perfect moment for a question—some combination of words and bluster that would shake loose one useful truth.  But then a man inside the temple cried out.  Loudly, insistently, a great voice sang its favorite note—and Farah grabbed his hand, smiling as if saved.

“Dessert is served.  Yes?  Come with me, my husband.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Steel Dog-43

In the River

Sitting with Farah was a Korean beauty with thick black hair flowing over young shoulders, just enough meat riding the bones to lend strength to every part of her.  The gorgeous woman was talking, and Farah was listening carefully.  Nobody else sat near them, and neither woman looked at Quentin.  Farah smiled, offering one word and a quick laugh, and her friend spoke, and suddenly there were no smiles.  They weren’t speaking, each staring at the same empty portion of the table.  Quentin wanted to interrupt.  Ignorant of propriety and hoping to break taboos, he walked across the temple, staring at two women that he didn’t know.  Neither seemed to notice.  Then the one he hadn’t married lifted her gaze, knowing where he was all along, and with the most minimal shake of the head, she warned him to go elsewhere.

A bucket filled with tired cement had been used to prop open one of the temple’s back doors.  Beyond stood a massive platform and the ancient machinery once used to load and unload river barges.  Two signs warned him not to walk farther.  But other men stood on the platform.  Every stranger watched him even when he looked at them, and some smiled and others used empty eyes, and he nodded at nobody in particular, stopping at the brink of the river.

The river had its own sound, massive and steady and pleasant.  Quentin listened to the water and birds and studied an island of brown foam hugging the bank, and inside a little eddy, behind the next arm of riprap, rested a gray swollen mass that looked human at first, and when he looked again, still human.

The quick heartbeat was a pleasure, a blessing.  The body was a large, long-rotted catfish.  Quentin smiled, uncertain why, and then a man behind him cleared his throat.

Joseph Whitehawk stood with his hands together and feet apart, watching him as if some puzzle were inscribed on his face.

Quentin said, “Hello.”

“Your first Kurosh,” Joseph said.

“Yes.”

“How do you find it?”

The man hadn’t asked the question.  The words came from him, but they were nothing but convenient reflex, a series of proven sounds.

“It has been,” Quentin began.  “Surprising.”

That earned a silent nod.

Aiming for polite chatter:  “How many Kuroshes you seen?”

“Eight.”

Quentin nodded as well, conversational skills exhausted.

Joseph approached.  He wanted Quentin’s eyes, and when their gazes meshed, he said, “It isn’t fair, you know.”

“What isn’t?”

“Nothing is,” the man assured.  “Nature demands, and the even hand is the mistake.”

Quentin did nothing but listen.

“I sound foolish.”  Lakota men were stoic and strong and would sooner cut off their limbs than show weakness to another man.  But Joseph was beginning to cry, repeating the word, “Foolish,” while wiping at his sorry wet eyes.  “You don’t know.  I can tell.  I thought you’d have realized by now…I hoped maybe I could ask for your help…”

“Help with what?”

“Exactly,” he said.  And with a cold envious voice, he told me, “Keep your ignorance, Mr. Maurus.  As long as possible, fight for it.”

Quentin leaned against a wobbly rail.

Then Joseph saw the dead fish, and another thought came to him.  A sad, morbid little laugh underscored the bleak mood.  “If you understand what’s happening,” he began.  Two fingers pointed at the river.  “Listen to me.  Listen.  If you ever learn what’s really going on, you’ll envy our brother floating over there.”