Authors: Michael Marano
Tags: #Speculative Fiction
“. . . And the Damage Done” © 2012 by Michael Marano
All rights reserved.
Published by ChiZine Publications
This short story was originally published in
Stories from the Plague Years
by Michael Marano, first published in print form in 2012, and in an ePub edition in 2012, by ChiZine Publications.
Stories from the Plague Years
was originally published as a limited edition hardback by Cemetery Dance Publications.
Original ePub edition (in
Stories from the Plague Years
) October 2012 ISBN: 9781927469224.
This ePub edition December 2012 ISBN: 978-1-927469-65-1.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
I see them, and they know I see them. That is why they want to break me: because I see. The theatre of stealth they enact is just that—theatre . . . designed to exhaust me, so that I forfeit my vision. I should stand from the cigarette-scarred table, walk away from their performance. But my friend is dying, and I’d sooner die than leave her.
Marie smiles at me with lips turning the color of lead. She sips coffee with a mouth that should soon go into rictus, and I ache to kiss her mouth and say a true good-bye.
“So, I’m doing better,” she says. That she means it twists a flat blade in my heart. She runs her thumb along her cup while her eyes film, as if skins peeled from eggshells are pressed upon her irises. She has always met my eyes with her stone-deep gaze, and that is one reason I’ve always loved her. I should take the hand that has left her cup and now rests on the table beside a profession of love knife-etched into the wood years ago. But I’m afraid of what I’d feel under her skin, that the feeling would brim my vision, that I would flinch at the touch of loose skin sliding over bone.
who press their sight on me like sweat-slick fingertips would know that such vulnerability would clench my spine and make themselves yet more visible to me. My hand is bound to where it rests, as I am bound to this city of my hijacked birth.
Instead of taking her hand, I meet Marie’s eyes, now gone the white-blue of watered milk. I smile back. The skin of her shoulders, of which she has always been vain, is as-yet unblemished, still snow-smooth and firm. Her tattoos seem transparent as stained glass. Both her hands, which have cupped my face while I grieved, now rest on the table. I hate that I have pinched out, even partly, the light that had come from her smile. Once, while awaiting a bus across from her apartment, I saw Marie’s sister walk to the building’s front door with the grace that only one who has studied dance as a child has and press the ringer. Marie leaned out her window and waved before buzzing in her sister. From above, Marie’s smile had banished the gloom that clung to that shitty place more surely than did the dying paint on the chipped brick buildings. Her light challenged the sky, and, as if in shame, the sky rallied and for a few heartbeats seemed able to house choirs of seraphim, to become a sky like that over Sinai in a Bible painting.
I take her hands and redeem what I can of her light.
lean out of the faceless banks of the innocent, forcing themselves into my vision the way that stones in spring press themselves out of thawing soil; a remembered pain runs under my jaw from ear to ear and over my brow, and I feel the parting of skin that is not mine being cut like kid leather.
I should leave this city. But I am tied here by the only relation I have on this Earth, who despite the womb we shared is not, nor will ever be, a relation of blood.
filths the space I share with my friend, setting down his newspaper and grinning as if Marie and I are lovers through whom he lives vicariously. In a more civilized time, one who lived in a port city such as I would have never encountered those to whom he is joined, for they would have been far-flung sailors afraid to drown. They who watch, and who do nothing else, are not sailors who dread scalding brine in their lungs; they bear the corruption unique to those whose hands will never know a callus.
. I do not
. Such deafness can be a mercy. For the creak of the brittle leather that Marie’s hands feel like would be much more than I could bear. “Do you remember . . .” I say. “Do you remember how cold it was, the last time we held hands?”
“It was freezing,” she says, and I reach as would a drowning man for the sensations of that fog-chilled San Francisco night. Her death-gloved hands grip mine tighter. “Why?”
“It was kind of nice,” I say. “I liked holding your hands, then. Staying warm, the way we did, even though your Granny brought the wrath of the PC police down on us.”
“It was nice.” She smiles a bit wider, showing the capped tooth that crystal meth had cracked, and turns her filmed eyes, now flecked with dust, upward an instant as she touches the January night that we, in the corner of a bar near the Bay, had huddled beneath the heirloom that was her grandmother’s fur coat as if it were a quilt. The bar had no heat, and in back, near the old rotary pay phone, you could see your breath in air touched with sea smoke. Less well than my breath, I could see the beautiful array of ha’penny nails, less solid than sun-blindness, that would one day protrude from the bar’s blackened timbers. Under the fur coat, against the rich, silk lining, Marie and I held hands as we pressed our temples together. I could smell the sandalwood-like conditioner she used, and the ugly ghost of rubbing alcohol in the left sleeve of the coat.
The mercy of that memory, of blood flowing to our fingers, of silk and the warmth of that unethical yet wonderfully thick coat, dispels the feeling of her un-living skin against mine. Her hands dawn with smoothness. I feel the flecks of paint beaded on her nails. She never scrubs off the flecks or dissolves them with thinner, always wanting to leave a reminder of the pallets she uses. Marie senses an echo of what I sense. Gooseflesh dews her skin, giving new texture to the indigo fan of peacock feathers painted into the milk of her right shoulder and to the cloud-whiskered face of Old Man East Wind tattooed on her left shoulder.
Despite the chill that writes itself on her skin and the tomb-color of her lips, her inner light that I had partly snuffed is rekindled, and it feels again as if angels might grace the sky. And sitting behind Marie, one of
, in a taunt, removes a pair of shades from his jacket and puts them on. He then raises the ever-present newspaper to his face, and, as always, it is turned to tight columns of stock listings in print so fine as to make the paper seem a field of grey.
Later, in the sun, I kiss Marie and say only half my good-bye. “Farewell” is a word that bleeds from two wounds. She can’t know what I see. I bleed alone. I can’t change what will come. I have tried to help others less dear to me. But the lessons of inevitability that most learn from a play about a Scottish king, I have learned through sifting the ash of failure.
“You’ll come to the showing?” she asks, running her hand from my shoulder to my wrist. “I’d really like you to be there. I’ll be pretty scared.”
“I’ll be there,” I say, and deny myself the luxury of letting my knees fall from under me, the luxury of screaming my grief at the mockingly bright sky knowing that she will not be at the showing. Her bus charges around the corner a few blocks distant. She must meet it at the stop. I embrace her. We are in a neighbourhood in which Spanish mingles with English. I whisper as a prayer by her ear what in Spanish is most often just a phrase: “
Go with God.
She walks away, the circle of her twenty-nine years closing, her white skin graced by the sunlight that cloaks itself across her shoulders, that makes the peacock feathers and the face of the East Wind translucent in her flesh, that dances radiance off of the fog-dense glass syringe embedded in her arm below tightly knotted rubber tubing. Whimpers rise behind my throat as I watch her meet her bus, as I know with the certainty of each breath I draw that I will miss her each moment of each day for the rest of my life . . . as I know that in death, she will never be far from me, that she will loiter and brush against me in the way half-remembered dreams do upon my waking. One of
stands at the bus stop that Marie has marked with her absence, and pantomimes the pressing of a syringe into the crook of his left arm.
It took me days to remember there are such things as barbers. Drunk with grief, I walk into the shop and into the past that pools there like blood under a bruise.
I sit in the cracked leather chair as the old man sets a hot towel on my face. I will not go to Marie’s showing, that has since its announcement become her wake, looking like the drunkard she saved me from becoming. “Ever since the AIDS came,” the barber says, as he had the first time I had come here and the day after that, “the Health Department makes us wear doctors’ gloves.” He scrapes my face with a latex-sheathed hand that, in the corner of my sight, is free of the glove and of liver spots. I breathe slowly as the razor touches my skin where a blade less fine and wielded in a drug-addled grip had made its enduring mark on me. The past displaces the present in my awareness as a stone displaces water in a dish. Behind me, in the mirror, men the color of twilight sit in suits with broad lapels and wait for their turns in the chair that had come and gone decades ago. They are like the men who had courted my mother, who told her they could give her “a better life” and lift her to respectability. I smell colognes no longer manufactured, and the ghost-scent of saddle soap. The cracked leather at my back feels whole and smooth.
As the barber finishes the task I cannot do myself, he pulls away the bib and fully leans me forward in the chair. “How’s it look?” he asks, as I see what I can of myself in the mirror and as the glimpses and scents of the past wink out.
“Great,” I say . . . though the truth would be, “
I don’t know.
” I’m thankful that I do not breathe, in the way that I just breathed the air of the past, the smooth featureless suffocation reflected back at me.
On the street where the barbershop rots, a wind comes off the Bay, cold. It touches the rawness of my freshly shaved face, and all of me feels the need to tremble.
You’re greedy. And selfish. Because you’re not whole.
Imagine the beast that hid under your bed, the branch-clawed thing that cast moon-shadows on your window stepping from childhood fear and walking beside you on a street littered with the wrappers of takeout meals.
I look to the man walking beside me, to one of
who have hounded me since childhood. He draws my attention with the same revulsion and fascination a hornet does when it lands on my arm. I see the
of him; the man’s younger self walks like a grey shadow within the man’s present self. Like all of
, the one who accosts me is a pale, slovenly old shit, paunchy from knowing the world from what he can grasp and consume. The man reeks of his own past.
And you’re cruel
,” he adds. I see past his worn denim jacket, his dashiki straining to cover his gut, and his kente head wear and glimpse the young man he had been when this city and what he understood to be the world had been indisputably his. I taste his hatred of me mingled with his stink.
The man’s shadowy, younger self wears a fringed jacket of suede and a wide-brimmed hat. It looks as if the man’s older self has eaten his younger self, as if his own youth were yet another thing to be taken in to nourish him. A rose-coloured newspaper is tucked under the man’s arm; his younger self carries the
in the same way.
In the late afternoon, I step into twilight, into the dusk that made up the flesh of the men I glimpsed from the past. It is the dusk in which I am deaf—the wordless non-present in which past and future blur and bleed. I find safety there, as the old bastard spews forth his prattle. I walk miles to where I will take the bus that will bring me to the Waterfront where Marie’s showing and remembrance will be. In my chosen deafness, the words of the man’s present self, designed to erode my will, are dim as words heard through a thick stone wall; the words of his past self are purely silent. I don’t know why he . . . why
. . . now forsake their program of stealth and city-hidden harassment.
* * *
In a twilight I have made, I walk, with a monster from my childhood shuffling beside me, until Civic Center, the rotten heart of this city to which I am shackled, looms ahead. The knotted trees before City Hall take afternoon shadows, and the row of portable toilets for the city’s human detritus are packed close like a sea-wall containing the destitute who mill in the park nearby. The man beside me, who has spoken to me, his quarry, is too winded from walking to say anything. I step from my twilight. I see his goal ahead, the bus stop that is my destination, and the collision of fury and dread that has no name in any language I know cracks frost along my spine. At the bus stop is what looks like the mass of grey necrotic tissue I once pressed out of my wrist into a basin of scalding salt water when, uninsured, I had been bitten by a brown recluse spider. The mass waves as did the tendrils of dead flesh that had been part of me.
The mass is many of
, expectant and hungry as they await me at the stop. Their ghost-fleshed, younger selves that had first hunted me when I was a child mill within their softer, older bodies. In their translucency, their younger selves overlap. It is as if the film that infection coats on the lenses of my eyes has been given the form of living people.
They await me. Knowing this is the way I have chosen to go to the Waterfront. Knowing that this is the way I have chosen to honour my friend whom they knew, from the diluted sight they have stolen from me, would die. They wish to ambush me in a group . . . the way they used to while I still drank to the excess to which they’d driven me.
I turn and cross against the light, ducking SUVs and mini-vans. The faces of children in one vehicle look away from the DVD they watch in the back seat to gaze at the man inches away from their careening window.
Once across, I look back to the crowd of stalkers. Their ghost-bodies seem agitated, like river grass whipped in a current.
I walk quickly along alleys, ways impassable to cars and cabs in which they may try to follow. I take steep hills, knowing that they would not follow or keep up.
Alone, at the top of a hill, I let out my rage that they would so trespass on my pilgrimage to Marie’s wake. She stirs again within me; the part of her that loiters in my heart and brushes against my thoughts has been soiled by
proximity. I lean against a wall of cinder block and, swearing, strike it with my palm as would one frenzied by angel dust.