|Jan/Feb 2008 Fiction|
"Time accelerates as it falls through eternity. The effect is traumatic although soothing at first." The words flowed from right to left, cerise against a ribbon of apple-green. Text and sub-text, meta-fiction. "Time is a cue-ball. It fell into a side pocket when I met him."
Nadine Carmichael ran the film through the sprockets of her mind—a pleasant image, sprockets? Never mind, the premise wasn't bad—although she couldn't recall to whom she spoke, nor why—she settled back against the sofa cushions to let the camera roll. Her lips compressed and the delicate skin around her eyes tightened as she left inner-space for a moment to gaze across the room. Some good prints adorned the far wall. The Vasarely was her special favorite.
The camera pans the far wall, hesitates, back-tracks in appreciation. Vasarely here, and gorgeous. On the floor below it, the initial impression of a museum marble vanishes, becomes slate, gray, intercepted by carpeting. The camera, resuming at eye level, moves . . . through the disorderly living-room of a New York penthouse in which a tawny-haired woman of thirty-three paces. The room is littered with empty glasses—the camera doesn't dwell—with ashtrays from which faint distillations of odor rise toward the coffered ceiling in rainbow plumes enclosing bluebirds. Plumes of no significance beyond reference to flight.
Howard, Nadine's husband, entered the room with the lithe grace of one who has suffered long hours of not-always-entertaining small talk. He was nearly sober—because these people were Nadine's friends and he didn't want to embarrass her—plenty of time for that, later. Pausing near a coffee table, he surveyed the room—which had contained too many people during the course of the evening—with distaste. He considered the party to have been a minor disaster, pointlessly bruising. They'll talk about it tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow.
A dark-haired man appears in the doorway, yawning; a dark-haired yawning man appears in the doorway, Nadine observed. She went to the window and looked down upon the street. The first light of dawn silhouetted her slender figure.
"Well," she said, to indicate awareness of his presence.
"What?" Howard said.
"I thought they'd never leave."
"Your party was something."
"I'm tired, now."
"Of everything." What had appeared to be some sort of dangerously stylish cigarette-holder in her hand is, in actuality, a brutally curved sword. It smashes down upon the camera. The screen goes black.
"What's it going to be this time? Sleeping pills or an awkward move in traffic?" he asked, effortlessly ignoring the way she delivered a karate chop to the arm of the sofa, and moving methodically about the room as he emptied ashtrays and collected empty glasses.
She lit a cigarette. She smoked too much, emptied too many glasses, neglected to stay out of the sun. The preceding scene (the man appearing in the doorway, the woman bringing the sword down upon the camera) is repeated four times, each repetition twice as fast as its predecessor.
The blackness of the last frame is allowed to glow for three seconds before dissolving into a seaside of stark, sunny wilderness. The sea is calm, pacific. The Pacific is calm.
An unkempt man walks along the shore, sand scuffing onto the tops of his feet. He is naked, with a history of clothes, buttocks lighter than back and legs. Having recently gone for a swim, he tilts his head, pounds his ear. The camera tracks him through underbrush and out onto a two-lane road. A camper sits in a clearing next to an abandoned service station. A woman sits in the camper with her feet out the window. She wears a halter and shorts, eats a carrot while reading Screen Gems.
He walks up to the camper, rests his chin on her ankle. "I know where I went wrong, Nadine."
"I should have listened to you."
Her expression changes from studied nonchalance to quiet alertness.
His gaze leaves her face and focuses on the palm tree visible through the far window of the camper. "I was too stubborn."
"I feel good, now." He manages a boyish grin; the ravages of time and alcohol reflect near-madness. "This is the life! We should have done this years ago."
"Done what?" She turns a page.
"That's done," Howard said, returning from the kitchen. "When I do things, I do them right."
"That's nice." She hadn't moved from her initial position on the sofa.
"Let's have a real party. There's half a bottle of scotch left."
"I don't feel like it."
"Let's take our clothes off and go for a walk," he said, without hope. Nevertheless, he began to efficiently remove his clothing.
Nadine seemed to be watching with the level gaze of a Nikon. "Nice," she said. "Very nice."
He smiled complacently.
"Possibly the best of his best phase."
"What is?" A cautious question.
"The Vasarely." Her gaze leads the camera to a medium-sized coin-patterned print on the opposite wall.
"Because you own it?"
"Because he is, is said to be, fine in many phases, and commands ever-increasing prices."
"I, too, am fine in many phases."
She rose from the sofa.
"Where're you going?"
"To get a drink of water."
"Bring me one." He put his shorts back on and sat down to wait. After a while he began to snore.
She did not return. Sunlight crept across the floor, up the wall opposite the window, flooding the Vasarely.
The camera closes in on the first replica of the sun in the upper-left hand corner of the print, dissolves into a brief glimpse of Stratford-on-Avon, moves on to the next dot and explodes into a scene from WWII—the famous Life Magazine cover of a gaunt, scowling, dark-haired soldier wearing a helmet.
The magazine format and helmet fade away to disclose the soldier, in civies now and slightly older but still grim-faced and emaciated, bent over a drawing board. He shields his face with his hand. Howard, half-awake now, shields his face from the sun in an identical gesture—his image fades into that of a blue disc receding into the distance with the rapidity of a soul leaving the body.
At the instant of its disappearance, the disc glows briefly and reverses direction, approaches with the speed and roar of the Limited Express. The camera spies a deer loping along ahead of the train, drops back to explore the linked spin of wheels, moves on to the interior of the club-car.
And finds Howard among the well-dressed, dark-haired men seated around a poker game. He has removed his coat and tie. The tall stack of chips in front of him trembles with the motion of the train. He clenches a cigar in his teeth, then expertly rolls it to the corner of his mouth. "Did anybody catch last night's game?"
The train, having struck the deer, comes to a jarring halt.
Viewed through a club-car window, the poker accouterments sway; the players sway in delayed response. The camera takes an overhead position as the tableau's separate parts fly outward from the center—identified by Howard's cigar which he has placed in an ashtray on the table. A plume of white smoke floats up as though impervious to the surrounding chaos and a cat leaps upon the table—eyes wild, back arched, tail lashing. A Siamese cat with blue Siamese-cat eyes.
The cat springs into the eye of the camera, falls back to land on the thick beige carpeting of the penthouse apartment.
The cat made a playful pass at Howard's bare toes under the glass-topped coffee table. Howard stirred slightly, kicked the cat, did not wake.
Unhurt, the cat streaked from the room, out the door into the hall where it clawed at the elevator door.
Nadine set a glass of water on the coffee-table and looked at Howard. "Here's your water," she whispered.
He didn't respond. She went into the bedroom and changed from her smart hostess pajamas into a pair of jeans, sneakers, and a tight sweater with holes at the elbows, but cashmere. She tied a scarf over her hair, returned to the living room and faced the Vasarely. She lifted it from the wall and slid the print from between the glass and its cardboard backing. She hung the frame back on the wall. The words FRENCH LAUNDRY were now visible on the backing.
She rolled the print into a tube and went into the hall where, as she passed, the cat looked up, scratched again at the elevator door, fell into an expectant crouch. Walk time.
The cat had been Howard's gift to Nadine on her thirtieth birthday. "A cold and sullen beast," she remarked, at that time. Howard was hurt. "I thought you were referring to me," he explained.
The camera wavers then follows the cat as it streaks into the hall to claw wildly at the elevator door. With the print rolled into a tight tube, Nadine closes the apartment door and punches the elevator's down button. The cat looks up, scratches once more.
The woman and the cat step daintily into the elevator. The woman is in rags now, skin rough, hair tied up in a scarf, pockets bulgy. Her face, amiable at first glance, begins to seethe with inner rage; her eyes flash. The cat has draped itself over her broken left shoe. When the camera returns to her face, she smiles as though none of this were true.
ALTERNATE TAKE WITH VARIATION: A shadow falls upon the cat. A woman's hand slowly turns the doorknob. Together, she and the cat step daintily out into the hall toward the bank of elevators. As the elevator door closes upon them the camera dwells upon her face as her eyes flash, her lips firm; she seems to seethe with inner rage. The cat drapes itself over her left sneaker.
The elevator opened to the ground floor, the cat dashed for the adjacent stairs—why did it bother to take the elevator down if it was going to go back up? Nadine asked herself, going out through the lobby to hail a cab.
The cab left the high-rent district, crossed the Brooklyn bridge and stopped in front of a neighborhood drugstore. As the driver opens the door for her, she places her hand on his arm and says, "Thanks, sweetheart," or perhaps she says, "Same time, tomorrow." In any event, he smiles without comment, tilts his cap and drives off.
"Welfare OK" according to a small hand-printed sign taped to the inside of the drugstore's window. Another sign reads: "Genghis Khan Now & Futile President."
Her left hand, seen as she opens the drugstore door, bears a ring on the third finger. A ring crocheted of golden thread which supports a sky-blue stone, or bead, exactly the color of the cat's eyes. But the cat is back at the apartment, she remembers, so what's with the gypsy get-up, meaning the scarf she glimpses in the glass of the door as she enters. High heels, straight black page-boy, belted trench—that's more like it.
She enters the drugstore. The counterman, attractively insouciant says, "Hi." "A coke," she replies. She places the rolled print on the counter and rests her left hand protectively upon it, gazes at it for a few seconds, then moves her coke aside and carefully unrolls the print.
Presently she began to wish she were safely back across the bridge, and then she was and she wanted to cross the street and have a cup of coffee, but she had the damned cat with her now. She had it on a leash, which it hated, and she had the Vasarely still in her hand. She sat down on the bench and the cat wound itself around her ankles. She unrolled the print and held it at arm's length. She raised it above her head and centered one of its dots upon the sun, which it obscured.
SECOND TAKE: The woman enters a drugstore and orders a coke. The print is on the counter, her hand upon it. She gazes at it for a few seconds then moves her coke aside and carefully unrolls the print. As the camera closes in on the Vasarely, its coin-shaped dots begin to flow and change color like pin-ball lights. As we zero in we see that each dot is in reality not only an historical scene of some significance, but also a gold or silver coin. The first row is composed of Kennedy half-dollars, the second of silver dollars, Denver mint; the last row, trillion dollar gold pieces—the precious metal of which they are composed has been molecularly restructured to allow sufficient density. She covers the print with a newspaper someone has left on the counter, moves away from the counter and finds herself surrounded by police, one of whom slides his hand under her sweater and extracts a jade figurine from her bra. She is escorted out the door as the counterman shouts, "Nobody paid for this coke."
"I didn't get no change," Nadine yells back. The refrain "No change, didn't get no change," is heard at intervals softly in the background until we become aware it is not a double negative and must, therefore, be positive; part of an equation in perfect balance. Or, if not that, a catchy tune by someone, for the over-all pattern of the print is now repeated in the scarf of a woman who has just entered the drugstore. She touches the scarf and asks, "Do you like it?"
Nadine leaned back against the bench and closed her eyes, the sun warm on her face. The Vasarely slipped from her hand to the grass, where it did not unroll, but began to rock back and forth with the motion of the breeze as though contemplating flight.
The cat pounced, entranced initially with the semblance of life and then entranced by the ease with which its sharp teeth pierced the paper; its eyes closed in ecstasy as it held the captured prey between its paws and dismembered it.
Nadine woke—ripped the print out of the cat's teeth, held it overhead, fluttering from her hand. The cat leapt for the print, its leash slipped from her hand and caught in the slats of the bench as he fell. The cat hung limply. When she realized its plight, she began to scream, softly. Perhaps, were she within the privacy of her home, she would have been hysterical.
Replace horror with pleasant thoughts. The screen is alive with wild flowers, California poppies. Snow-capped mountains glisten in the distance and a meandering stream runs through the valley, quick with the floods of spring, a drowned horse; no, a disowned house, sparkling rapids...
Howard sat up and rubbed his eyes as Nadine entered the room.
"You!" she screamed. She began to batter him about the face with a pillow and then with her hands.
"Now, now," he said. "everything's all right." He held her wrists with his right hand and patted the top of her head with his left.
Later, they sat at the table in the space between the windows, on wrought-iron chairs. Sunlight fell on them. Howard reached across and put his hand over Nadine's on the table top.
"Remember how we were in Pasadena? He asked. "Tell me how we were in Pasadena." There was a desperate look in his eyes as though some remembered happy time were slipping from his grasp.
Nadine stood up and stared at the Vasarely frame. She took it down and set it on the floor. She took a lipstick out of her pocket and began to draw the lost print on the wall.
"We were like this," she said. She didn't look at him. She was filling in the circles as she went along. It would take a long time to do it right.
The sun began to sink, receding from the wall, leaving her in shadow. Howard sat on the sofa, waiting.
The criminal, hair snarled, face unwashed, amuses herself by inscribing her history on the bare plastered walls of the cell, using the rubber heel of her institution-supplied slipper for the purpose. The barred windows begin to cast shadows which obscure her work. She writes Almost the End in the last remaining circle. Even as we watch the words draw knives and begin to quarrel among themselves.
"They weren't all round," Howard said at last, into the tunnel of silence between them. He finished the ham sandwich he'd made for himself. "Some of the dots were ellipses, the ones in the corners."