With apologies to T.C. Boyle
In the light from the only good lamp in the room, my widower sits on his end of our green couch, reading Proust. I used to read it, too — I’d sit in the dark, scanning for the sexy bits, making Proust go fast. But my widower’s on his thirteenth rereading now. And in the shadows of the long room, I’m with him, watching everything he does. If I’d known back in 1984 that I’d still be here, I mightn’t have bothered to die. Might just have volunteered him for that bother instead. Then I’d be flesh with a book in its lap in the light.
He’s sixty, my widower. Already too old to die in his finest raiment — as I did, at a peachy twenty-nine. However, his hair’s still black. He hasn’t any new hobbies — just more of what he’s always liked: Proust and booze. The TV’s still on, too, barely audible. Over a thirsty sip from a tumbler of wine he shoots it a glance every now and then, though he doesn’t want diverting; if he could, he’d watch a show about a dark-haired man on a green couch who drinks and reads Proust. There’re no women in his life — I was the last — and no boys. Absolutely no boys, he swore. And he wasn’t lying. I know that now, for I’m inside his head when I choose, wedged into Broca’s area, or strung along those sub-cortical ganglia that are the seat of desire. I’ve found him out: he doesn’t much like it with anyone, and he never did. The page turns, the soft yellow musty page. To him, it’s the rustle of black silk.
I want there to be a knock at the door. It’s almost Valentine’s Day, and I’ve been here watching him drink alone for more than twenty years. Mightn’t he welcome some hard-luck straggler from the Reagan era, an old friend whom I died too young to meet? Robert! Yes, Robert would be interesting. Fleeing London, where he owes oodles in all the best clubs, he’d be needing a bed for the night. Robert’s smashing — a male Princess Diana, wayward and blond, with shiny eyes and an aura of doom.
Or, Barbara! She’s pretty interesting, too. A lunchtime hostess at a local bar and grille, Barbara has plans for my widower. What a lot of money he must have, to be lunching bibulously every day right under her nose. Shouldn’t he buy a house for her and her mildly retarded daughter? There’s one that would do nicely — Barbara buses by it on her way to work. It has a third floor apartment, and she’d let my widower sack out up there. He’d be like Mrs. Rochester, only quiet.
Oh, I’m antsy, and all set to make more of his life than he does, since I lack a personal fate. Or, have already dealt myself one. This world and the world beyond are too alike for my liking, my widower that heavier element around which I orbit still. I sought only the extinction that knows not of itself, yet I continue in this limbo of limitless insight into precisely those conditions that were fatal to me. Look — he shifts in his seat, crosses now his right leg over his left; he’ll do it back the other way in another twenty minutes. Meanwhile, Proust has him by the short and curlies.
Albertine, Marcel the narrator’s shut-in, endlessly rearranges her few possessions, and Marcel’s wretched that her pass-times are those of a common criminal in lock-up when he would greatly prefer that she take in some improving reading. Well, she can’t. Settling down to read makes her eyes water; she yawns, lists, and falls deeply asleep. Ah, Marcel won’t have it. Though he’d look far to find a woman worse suited to him, he’ll do anything to keep this one awake. That’s love — a trial to the soul, an assault on taste and judgment. And my widower on his thirteenth rereading can still spare a tear for Marcel, on the cross for a woman so unworthy. There’s the tear. He lifts his chin, lest it trickle onto the page, and he looks at me without knowing it. I contrive sometimes to be right in his line of sight. I dangle in front of the tube, transparently, fatelessly, a jellyfish caught in a building wave on a surfers’ beach. I am that unworthy girl. My widower and Marcel are one. He’s got it perfectly worked out. He lowers his eyes, and reads on.
I’d like to see something more happen to him — for him, that is. Though I daren’t let myself hope for much, I’ve got hold of the idea that if his life became eventful I could leave. Just get the hell out of Dodge. And go where? I don’t know; all I seem to know is more and more about the life I exited. Useless knowledge, if I can’t cook something up with it.
Come to that, I sure could use a spectral omelette. Why not whoosh into the kitchen? It’s just as I left it, but someone’s done the dishes. And I won’t dirty them — I can’t. I’ll just go through the motions, like a TV chef whose assistant forgot literally everything, who beats the air with a wire whisk and chats an omelette into being with her wrists. Horrid, what’s in there — brown-edged deli turkey, a few mushy cherry tomatoes. Watching my widower beaver away at Proust should irk me more than anything, but, actually, I hate it most when I’m in the kitchen, astrally racketing, and he plows right through me to graze from the fridge. That’s dinner, and parting me to get it should at least raise gooseflesh on his seeking arms.
A noise! A cheerful noise! I’m perfectly sure it’s the doorbell. My widower hears it, too. Without knowing it, he wants company, so he hears the bell, sometimes, when it isn’t really ringing. I hear him hearing it, and hear also that it doesn’t ring. This time, however, it’s ringing. And he’s making for the door, book in hand, his forefinger marking the page. Maybe it’s only the people downstairs asking him to keep an eye on the place while they take a weekend away. I ought to drift out and have a look-see. I’ve been wanting a visitor, too. God, how I’ve been wanting one.
The scent of gardenias — and a few other things — enters the flat through the crack in the door that he opens as wide as the chain allows. Moth balls. . . freshly risen croissants fragrant with Normandy butter. My widower has a most discerning nose, and I’m folded like a condom into those deep cortical wrinkles that sort smells. Ah! Could it be the ginger-and-garbage scent of raccoons chowing down on the avocados in the garden? It’s coonskin, all right, but washed in corn meal and sewn into a fur. And a live rodent pong: long rats, of a size to be stewed with Aztec spices and gobbled up in Mexico for potency — we’ve been reading about that, too — long rats confined in a cage. I hear their scaly feet scrambling furiously in the wood shavings.
He flicks on the dim porch light and meets a pair of feverish eyes. Wound around the neck and chin of his caller, a white silk scarf sets off rouged lips. From the narrow shoulders hangs an ankle-length raccoon coat, redolent of mothballs and pinned, in the old way permissible for men, with a gardenia. One white finger curls under the criss-crossed string of a patissier’s cardboard box. The other hand closes around the padded leather strap of the cage, which twists and jerks. The shoulders rise in a gentle Gallic shrug, as if to say, I’d offer my hand, but as you see, I come bearing gifts. It’s Marcel! Better than Robert, better than Barbara — it’s Marcel!
My widower is loathe to shut the door — even for the time it takes to drop the chain and open it wide — on what could easily be a wet-brained fantasy, but is not. Whose black hair is blacker? — he’s vainly wondering, as he regards Marcel’s lustreless brush, black as coal dust, and notices too the darkened lashes of the pained eyes. It’s time for me to perform some astral karate — I’ve waited long enough — and I snap the chain.
Hah! I’m good with metal that’s been under a strain. I could liberate the rats, too, but I think I won’t. I’ll bide my time. The shiny toe of Marcel’s dancing pump, a flat grosgrain bow at its vamp, rests on the door step. Under the red silk stocking, his instep is blue with the poorly oxygenated blood veins of the heart patient. Perhaps he’ll allow my widower to adore his naked foot — foot, not feet, for Marcel would never remove both shoes — later in the evening. It’s very late now, or Marcel would not be here.
And he is here, slinking ahead of my widower, his long fur swaying as he lowers the croissant box and the cage to the coffee table. The scent of Normandy butter never brought a maddened rat any relief, I think; that’s the secret of the exquisite adjacence of the two parcels. Inside the apartment, fit always for no more than one person, we are now three. My widower thinks to dowse the tube, but Marcel, seated on my shadowy end of the green couch, leans into it, pale face glowing.
O widower! — who if not you deserves a visit from Marcel? Your finger still marks your place in The Captive, and you know you should be reading it in French, but have drunk away the knack. Broca’s area, seat of cognition and language, is flooded clean of French now; a thin layer of ammonia, corrosive to lucidity, separates your shrunken gray matter from its casing. And you’ve years to go, till the ammonia’s as thick as ground fog, your brain stem an unsheathed serpent blind inside your spacious skull. In time, in time.
I flutter over to the ficus; I’ve nothing to do with this. Although it might have been nice of me to rustle up some cafe au lait for Marcel. That’s all he drinks, widower. He’s got that ethereal look, but he’s flesh, all right, weighing down the green cushion that used to be mine. And he’s warm enough to shrug out of that fur.
Surprise! He’s wearing a satin Hawaiian shirt, and you’re one of the few ever to see his smooth elbows and small white biceps. They’re like a girl’s, a fourteen year-old girl’s, the lawn tennis biceps of a Breton princess. After another greedy sip, your fingers itch to pluck at his shell buttons — but the shirt? It’s dull, to be Hawaiian, and lacking in palmy vignettes. Swelling his thin chest, Marcel leans from my shadowy corner into your cone of light, and pulls the shirt tight by its tails. Behold! The tactful rosy dawn at Combray, the gray-blue storm of the true Ar-Mor, the dun wall in Delft with its ochreous patch an epiphanial yellow in the precise northern sun. It’s Marcel, widower, leaning into your light, wearing all the hues of his world, and you do know better than to touch him.
Again, I’m thinking of food — have we really nothing to offer him? How pungent the air with pineapple and truffles — that salad of his fiercest longings, lurid yellow and black on glass plates among the gleaming glass knife-rests of Tante Leonie’s table. I suppose I could cobble it up — you’d want it dressed in walnut oil with ciboulettes, we used to talk of it often — but it’s already a real presence in the apartment, not some olfactory hallucination of yours. I’m guessing it’s the odor of Marcel himself in a state of arousal, for he’s clamped his kohl-rimmed eyes on the cage of rats. Noisy in there. Butter! They want butter!
Ah! Wait! Just who is our guest? Not Marcel the narrator — there’s been a change! Wistful, smooth-elbowed Marcel is gone, and it’s Proust himself beside you now, rocking with the acute discomfort of genius, eyes ablaze with a million involuntary memories. Proust! Whose seclusion exceeded your own, who looked, when he did go out, like death in life — like last year’s gardenia, a wag of a duchess remarked — yet whose posthumous density and freshness is that of tropical fruit.
And you’ve cottoned to it! Gone from your face is that look imploring recognition from Marcel, a bemused being like yourself, mourning the unworthy creature who fled him. Ah, yes — now you’re in awe. You should be. Monsieur Proust of the rats is here, avid frequenter of certain rather specialized brothels. Oh, he craved nothing carnal there, just to sit after hours in a well-appointed room while an unshockable demi-mondaine with lavish body odor treated rats in a cage to stimulus. To pain. Torture, to be exact. A reliable Parisian spotted him at it, and told another, who also told. In fact he was often sighted there, until he desisted, and occupied subsequent nights with writing. That padded strap on the jiggling cage, so easy on uncalloused hands: I expect he totes it around eternity with him — that, the croissant box, and the gardenia his saintly attributes. Ah! He’s about to enlighten us.
Eez not true what zey say. We both hear the words. Though the rouged lips don’t move, the sound of his voice is low and clear and we recognize it. Calm, non-insistent, he might be speaking with gentle regret of the weather, with no more regard for the squealing rats than if they were thunderheads gathering over a picnic in the Bois he didn’t care to attend. I nevair wanted zem in pain. Only to watch zem struggle for what zey could not have in a chamber from which zey could not escape. Voila la condition humaine.
The scent of pineapple and truffles mingles with the feral stink of the cage, the very odor of Proustian exertion. For it’s not easy forcing sound through that fine-meshed barrier between worlds — I know — and Proust snuggles down into his fur, flinging a blue-veined wrist across his lashy shut lids. Surrounding the cage are wood shavings like confetti on the coffee table — a little something to jog your memory in the morning.
Say, widower. Now that Proust’s regrouping, what if you slid the string from the croissant box and fed the frantic rats a few buttery pills of still-warm dough? Come on, be a man! Look at their wet noses poking through the bars of the cage, look at their tongues. They could struggle successfully for some of what they wanted if you rolled it up really small. There’s your deli turkey, too. They wouldn’t sneer at the brown edges. Oh — widower?
No soap. My widower’s busy with the gorgeous prize of those who make it to the thirteenth rereading, and I won’t say it’s the pleasantest thing I ever saw.
I return my attention to the rats. What a sturdy cage. Iron bars, Inquisition hinges, the heart-shaped padlock anything but a breeze. Like the strap, the eight outside corners are padded, which mutes the sound of jiggling on a hard surface such as the coffee table, but I’ll bet the padding’s there to protect the Proustian thigh from jabs and bruises as he knocks about eternity with the cage. I’m getting an idea I like, but in all decency, I should wait until my widower and Proust make it off the green couch and over to the dining table. Eventually, they’ll stop for a snack — let them figure out what’s good to eat apres. There’ll be just time for them to clamber atop the table when I snap that padlock. Then, something shall finally have happened here, and I’ll pull right out — yes, I’ll pull right out — meeting extinction head-on like a train.
This story was posted with kind permission of Tima Smith, editor of Per Se, an anthology of fiction by students of the late Arthur Edelstein. For a closer look at Per Se, go to Amazon. To find out about the Arthur Edelstein Literary Fund, which awards a competition prize of $1000 annually to a writer of fiction, go to The Writing Site, and click on “contests.”