(an excerpt from “Zero”)
Later that night she cut a huge pumpkin out of the garden and cooked some pumpkin soup. I’d never seen anyone make pumpkin soup before, not from an actual pumpkin, and she whipped it up with no fuss at all, like somebody sitting on a park bench tying their shoelaces together, and there it was, a steaming tureen of pale orange soup on the table.
“You’re a genius,” I said.
“Oh, everyone is.”
“No, not everyone. Imagine a world full of geniuses! Where would we be?”
You could have seen her eyes from fifty feet away in the darkness.
She said, “Ah, the world would be as shitty as it is now–or worse. Genius does not confer one iota of wisdom in matters of goodness or morality.”
“No, I guess not, I guess not.”
“Our greatest brains gave us the A-bomb. Now we’re saddled with thousands of the wretched things. We’ve got enough firepower to split the planet from pole to pole at the flip of a switch somewhere, and every stupid whacko and his little brother is scheming to get his hands on one so he can show us what he knows about God. Now tell me, how smart is that? And who gave us this terrible capability?”
“You are a genius,” I said.
“And you are incorrigible, baby. Now sit down and eat your hot soup. You’ve lost quite a lot of blood.”
“Only because you sucked it out of my neck!”
“Sorry if I hurt you a little.” She placed her hand on mine. “I wouldn’t want to hurt you, but it’s, well, it’s a foible of mine. There’s just something about you that makes me want to–you know–sample you.”
“You’re a regular little vampire,” I said, fingering my bandage.
She laughed, but I could see she was uncomfortable discussing this topic at the dinner table, so I dropped it. If there was one thing I understood, it was not wanting to speak about something with another human being for no reason you could explain, not even to yourself.
I thought of the bandage she’d worn on her neck the night I met her.
To change the subject, I said, “You know what? I’ve often wondered why people don’t laugh when I tell a joke.”
Without a moment’s hesitation she said, “Because you know the soul of sadness, baby. You know it by its truest name.”
The words floated out of her mouth, one by one, like small white moths. I don’t even think she had her eyes open.
She said, “You ever notice how the more people you see in the street the lonelier that makes you feel?”
“All the time, all the time.”
“That’s because you know sadness. You know its first name, its last name and its personal telephone number. No one will laugh at your jokes, Zero, out of fear you’re telling them the God’s honest truth. Which can be kind of a downer, actually.” She waited a moment, then said, “I’m not a hundred percent positive on this, but I think it’s got something to do with death.”
“Death? Nobody laughs at my jokes because of death?”
“Death and dying. The whole shebang. You’re too much of a hardcore realist for some people, baby, and the truth hurts.”
“That’s probably it,” I said, but I didn’t say anything more. This was the sort of talk that had a tendency to frighten me. Besides, I knew I wasn’t funny.
We sat at the long dining room table surrounded by empty chairs, spooning hot soup into our mouths. At some point the lights went out, and moonlight glimmered in the windows like the hair of a sleeping baby. In the darkness my stomach felt full and heavy.
“Can you see, Zero?”
“Yeah, I’ve got pretty good night vision.”
“Sometimes the power goes out. I should have mentioned it before.”
“It’s no big deal. You got candles, right?”
“I’ve had electricians in, but nobody knows what’s going on. It’s an old house, the oldest on the street, I think.”
Her voice lapped at my face in tiny waves. I saw her eyes full of moonlight and the spoon shining in her hand.
“Sometimes I feel like the house is dreaming me, Zero. Ever had that feeling? Like we’re a little dream its having about itself, about its childhood?”
“Hm, I’ve never thought of a house in those terms.”
“Yes, I suppose it is a little unorthodox.”
“I mean, can you talk about a house’s childhood?”
“Probably not, probably not.”
“Because I don’t know if I even understand what that means.”
“I guess I mean I feel a little less substantial sitting here in the darkness,” she said. She laughed sadly. “That’s all.”
“I don’t mind the dark–I mean, as long as it’s not cold.”
“It’s not cold, no. We have that.”
“And we have each other’s company,” I said.
“Yes, that’s right, we have each other. You’ve always had this way of remembering what’s really important, baby. I value that.”
We sat there a while without saying anything. It felt good not to talk. It was good to have someone you could sit with in the dark without feeling as though you had to think up something to say every five seconds.
Finally I asked, “What if the lights don’t come back on?”
“Oh, they will. Don’t you worry. Either that or the sun will rise in the morning.”
“The sun will rise in the morning,” I repeated.
“Another bold assumption of mine, sure–but what can you do? Sometimes you’ve gotta take things on faith.”
She made her sad laugh again.
“No. I mean, the way you said that–the sun will rise in the morning. It makes it sound like a once in a lifetime event.”
“Everything is a once in a lifetime event, Zero. Haven’t you learned that yet? Nothing happens twice. It’s impossible. A big hole would open up someplace and we’d all get sucked through it on our way to God knows where. Now finish your soup before it gets cold. You’ve lost too much blood to be eating a bowl of cold soup.”
At some point we went up to the watchtower. Or the lookout tower. Whatever it was called. A set of stairs curled through the darkness, and then you were standing in a room made of windows, and the windows shone with the icy smoothness of black tombstones.
Standing in the center of the watchtower made me feel like a blind eyeball.
“This is where we had our first kiss,” she said.
We stood there holding hands, feeling young again for a brief moment.
“I always liked it up here,” I said, for lack of anything else to say. I didn’t want to spoil the mood by calling the past into question. Look too hard at a memory and it shifts into something else.
“Hey, you ever regret your decision not to have kids?” I asked after a moment. The subject of kids had been on my mind.
“Children sadden me, Zero. You know that. I can’t bear looking at them. They’re so little.”
She scratched her forehead as if trying to coax her thoughts along. “I mean, they’re so little it’s painful to look at them. And they don’t have the slightest inkling of what planet they’re stranded on. But they will, they will. And they will learn it the hard way, like everybody else.”
I feared she was quoting me, throwing my own terrible words in my face.
“Call me a weakling,” she said, “but I don’t think I could bear witnessing something like that happen to my own flesh and blood.”
“I like kids,” I said.
“I know you do, baby. That’s because you’re sweet-natured. You’re kind. You have a big heart. I, on the other hand, am a witch.”
“It is true. You just fail to see it. You overlook my foibles and flaws because–oh, I don’t know.” She ran her fingers through her hair as if it required appeasement. Then she said, “I guess you can still see the innocent kid in me.”
“There’s an innocent kid in you?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.”
She squeezed my hand. “Sometimes you’re a little slow on the uptake, but that’s OK. I can live with that. You’re handsome, kind and good. That counts for a lot in my book. Everything really.”
She popped up on her tiptoes and gave me a peck on the cheek.
“I like kids, but I would make the worst father in the history of mankind,” I posited.
“That bad, eh?” She chuckled as if she were secretly musing on something else.
“I’d be worse than Hitler.”
“I don’t think he ever bothered having children, baby. He was too caught up in other matters.”
“Well then, I’d be worse than–I don’t know who. All of them! Lot from the Bible who impregnated his own daughters in a stone cave. His own daughters! I’d be worse. My kids would shun me.”
“Oh, you sell yourself short. From where I’m standing you have all the qualities of a stellar parent.”
“You’re very patient.”
“If I were a father I’d mess it up somehow. I know it in advance. And I mean bad. My mistakes would just happen, just fly out of me like demons. I’d have no choice in the matter. My own children would disown me as a werewolf.”
“The way you worry and fret about what might have been. My own children! You talk as if this has all already taken place.”
“Sometimes I feel like I’ve lived my life a thousand times.”
“Well, you probably have, you probably have.”
She gripped my arm with both hands like she thought I might leap out the window.
“Listen, no matter how many times you’ve been around the block–cosmically speaking, I mean–I still love you, Zero, but–and I hate to keep telling you this–I am unfit for motherhood, and that’s a fact. Look it up! I bet it says so on my birth certificate, stamped right there in big red letters like something out of the former Soviet Union. Unfit for Motherhood!”
“Ah, cut the dramatics. It’s written all over your goddamn face you’d make a wonderful mother.”
“Children depress me, Zero.”
“Women love children, right?”
“I’m serious! They make life look so cheap and frail because they don’t even know they’re going to die. What a burden. You know it, but they don’t, and that turns you into the bearer of a terrible secret. An accomplice. Then it’s almost as if you are responsible for the whole thing somehow by not telling them. It’s like a form of betrayal. You trick them into thinking everything is fine and cozy in creation, then they grow up and see just what you’ve kept hidden from them–the wormy realities, the pointlessness, the meathooks. And they hate you for it. You’re blameless, of course, but that only makes it worse. Not to mention that they won’t get around to finally understanding you until you kick the bucket and it doesn’t matter anymore because now they’re off pulling the same old stunts with their own doomed offspring, full to the neck with the same blind fear.”
She smacked her hands together and said, “God, I can’t deal with such innocence!”
“What about babies?”
“Oh, I could take ‘em or leave ‘em.”
While we chatted like this we moved from window to window, walking in tiny circles at the top of the house as if we were winding a giant invisible clock. At each window we paused for a moment and stared through our reflections which stared right back at us from where they stood in mid-air, floating out there in the night. The darkness was like a painting of darkness. It was so thick you could have spread it on toast and eaten it for breakfast. A few stars shimmered like fireflies licking raindrops off the glass.
“Don’t think me negative, baby, but I find children depressing. The awful innocence in their eyes, their bossy little voices. The tiny clothes they wear. Their tiny shoes and growing heads. Their half-formed faces. Their trust in you. I tell you, I’ll walk a mile out of my way in order to skirt an active playground.”
“Black has a little son,” I said.
“Black’s a dad?”
“I saw him once. The kid, I mean. I came around a corner one day, totally unawares–as per usual–and there was Black with some kid in tow. Looked just like him. Dark, decent-looking. A future lady-killer. Even wore a miniature leather jacket.”
“Chip off the old block, eh?”
“I don’t think they saw me, and I never said anything to Black about it. He doesn’t know I know his secret. Also, they were holding ice-cream cones.”
“I bet the kid had strawberry, right? For some reason they all like strawberry when you’d think it would be chocolate. Kids, I mean, not black people.”
“Actually, I’m making that up about the ice cream. I don’t know why I said that.”
“Isn’t it obvious, man? You wanted them to be happy. That’s all. You wanted to show me happy people, a father and his little son, something good for me to believe in. That’s sweet.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Sometimes I just make shit up is all. Always have. I can’t help myself.”
“We all do it, baby, we all do it. Don’t beat yourself over the head about it. You get through the day by whatever means you have. Reality’s cold. Nothing warm or fuzzy about it. Even Marie Antoinette got her head chopped off in the end. That’s why I can never have children.”
I felt the moon getting ready to rise over the treetops and flood our small tower with silver light. My heart wanted to rise and meet it, to lift my body into the air.
I held my lover’s hand.
If there were a bell in that tower I might have reached out and rung it several times.
Photo by Duckfarm on flickr