Authors: Mark Nykanen
To my mother, Veronica Coyne Nykanen,
who told us many dark and funny stories
The trumpets were huge, impossibly long, and their sound carried down the mountains and across the valley and shook my belly till it felt as hollow as the thin air itself.
The trumpets rose over Bhaktapur, Katmandu’s sooty sister city. I heard their squall as I walked to the rear of the foundry, passing the crude furnace and a plume of blackened brick where the flames had once licked their shadows.
My guide led me down a corridor with a ceiling so low that I had to duck. His skin was as dark and shiny as a hard brown nut, and his nails looked to be claws, grown to grotesque lengths, curling back on themselves as the nails of the dead are said to grow in the secrecy of the grave. He was a Hindu in a country to which Tibetans had fled, bringing their lighter skin and godless God. A Hindu who worshipped all manner of beings.
Our way was lit by a single bulb, as unadorned as the sun, and as hard on the eyes. The corridor’s mud walls appeared as stark and brittle as all the other elements in this difficult land.
I heard a scratching sound and watched where I stepped. Then my guide spoke his ragged English, “No ladies. No ladies,” though none accompanied us. I had come to Nepal alone, trekking first in the mountains with their strange monasteries, chants, and songs, and now in the final days of my trip I had found my way to this foundry.
“No ladies,” he repeated, and now he sniggered, and I sensed the insincerity at once, laughter freighted with another meaning entirely; in this case its dark opposite, for he led me from the tight corridor into a cavernous room filled with the undraped female form, shelves shiny with these polished bronze figures perched in a vast variety of positions. It was a bold, blazing array. And then on the wall directly to my left, rising several feet above my head, I saw bronze women that looked as ravenous as the hungry heathens in a medieval mosaic, predators eying not the meat but the soul, their feet splayed, their sex brazenly pried open.
Bizarre? Yes, absolutely so, but appealing. I could not deny this, not even then, not even when I knew that denial was most important, and that to turn away was critical. But I could not pull back because I saw that the bronzes looked as real as life itself, and that even to glance at them was to understand the terrible turbulence that lies beneath the sleeping skin.
If one of them had moved, had taken a step to embrace me, I would have been no more surprised than a cat when the shadows in the corner come to life and scurry toward a crumb. That was how I felt standing there, no more significant than a bit of flour and fat, salt and sugar: the crumb awaiting discovery.
I was like the man who sees an unsettling sex act for the first time, who witnesses its rude depredations in a dive in Bangkok, or in a window along one of Amsterdam’s narrow, infamous streets. Or who happens across a whole new world on the Internet, a strange, shifting carnal alliance that changes him in an instant, that forces him to fix on the act he has just seen for the first time, and who finds—deliriously, dangerously—that he must have it again and again and again. I had discovered the new fire that burns up all the others, that leaves nothing but ashes in its wake.
This was the knowledge that had lain in wait through all the years. It had sought me out with a suddenness that was shocking, that forced me to say with a breath I could hardly bear, “I was this, but now I am that.” This was the knowledge that had proved most disturbing of all because it gave the lie to all that I had been, to all that I thought I was. I saw in that searing moment that kindness and decency and even the barest sense of propriety can slip away in a blink and leave us not as we would choose, but as we have been chosen.
WALK MY NEWEST BEST
friend along the northern edge of the subdivision, pause while she pees, and brush past the tall trees that crowd both sides of a wildly overgrown dirt road. It might have been formed by the cement and lumber trucks that hauled their loads up here more than forty years ago. I’m guessing the age of these homes, but I’ve gotten quite good at this, and base my estimates on the size of the trees and shrubs, and the style of construction. This is pure sixties ranch. Some of them have add-ons, second floors and new facades, and an architectural flourish or two; but you can’t really disguise them, and in my view they’d be far more appealing with the integrity of the original vision, however flawed. You certainly cannot hide the age; subdivisions, like people, show definite signs of decay. This one, however, is in its prime, old enough for each home to have had half a dozen or more owners. Lots of families. That’s important to me.
The dirt road is about a quarter of a mile in length, a dumping ground for all the dogs around here. Just about every neighborhood has a poop alley. That’s why I’d “adopted” her, to fit in as smoothly as one of these poplars or maples. If someone had seen me walking back here by myself, it would have been, Who’s the guy hanging out in the woods? But with a dog I’m as natural as a breeze passing through.
She’s a cutie, too, a Border collie. Black and gray and white, like the pups she left behind in the shelter. All of them had a date today with the needle. She’s the kind of dog people melt over. Her life with me will be brief, no more than a few hours, and then I will release her from all future obligations. She should consider herself lucky, and if I were of the mind to bother with such banalities, that’s precisely what I would call her.
We actually share similar physical characteristics—the gray hair and sharp features, middle age—as well as an outwardly friendly, even fawning manner; and as I walk toward the house I recall how often dogs and their owners really do resemble each other.
I watched them move in on Monday, and by this morning, garbage day, they already had their flattened cartons all stacked up for recycling. I admire their fastidiousness and resolve to get settled, appreciate far more than they can realize how a neatly arranged home suits my purposes far better than a haphazard arrangement of belongings, any one of which can be pried loose in violent protest. I imagine too, their art already building up neat rectangles of shadowed paint. Sometimes I respect their selections, but this is rare. There’s no accounting for taste, and for the most part I don’t see much of it, not in homes such as these, or on the walls of the wealthy either. It’s usually crap. Will it match the couch, the carpet, Aunt Emma’s crocheted cushions? These are the questions they ask, the criteria they use. It would be sad if it wasn’t such a crime.
We come to a paved road where a metal post blocks cars from entering poop alley. I’m parked down the street, a van that rarely raises curiosity in a neighborhood like this. It’s a windowless Ford Econoline, the kind florists and plumbers and carpet installers arrive in, though I once read that an FBI profiler called them the serial killer’s preferred vehicle.
Just before we step on the pavement, she squats to relieve herself again. I appreciate her discretion, and feed her a biscuit to keep her interest keen.
The house I’ve been watching since Monday has two stories, two shades of gray, the darker on the ground floor. White trim throughout. A brick walkway cuts across a lawn as neat as a fairway. The green almost glimmers in the afternoon sun.
They’ve managed to hang curtains on the first floor, which I applaud—it’s certainly to my advantage—though the day of the move I noticed that the interior stairway spilled right down to the front door. Bad Feng Shui, all that energy pouring out into the street. It bodes ill for anyone living there. I doubt they know this, but they will, and shortly too.
“They” are the Vandersons. Four of them: a husband; wife; teenage daughter no more than fourteen with skin so perfect you’d want to touch it, stroke it, never let it go; and a son, perhaps nine or ten, who looked annoying even from a distance, preadolescent testosterone all balled up and ready to binge. No dog. That’s very important.
dogs get in the way; even the small ones can set off an alarm. Cats, on the other hand, can be amusing in their treachery. After I’ve finished with a family, I’ve had them rub up against my leg as if to say, Thanks, Buster, I never really liked them all that much anyway. But even the cats cannot remain unclaimed, not if they’re part of the household, although I have delighted in dispatching a family’s canary or parakeet to their eager jaws. I’m not above satisfying the long frustrated desires of felines, and I’ve learned a thing or two by watching them hunt and eat these birds. Parakeets, for instance, fight the hardest, and canaries sometimes die of fright. After they’ve been cornered, or swatted to the floor, I’ve seen them stare into a cat’s mouth and literally drop dead.
People are pretty much the same, they have all different levels of fear, but the wonder of it is that the families I meet usually share a common degree of kindness, and I’ve never failed to make them feel it when it counts the most for me. I’m guessing the Vandersons won’t be any different; they appear as normal as fence posts.
They moved here from Pennsylvania. Harrisburg, to be precise. Public records are extraordinarily revealing. I always use them. I simply don’t want a family that’s moved from one side of town to the other, or from two streets over. Better they’ve made the big move, far from those who know them or might miss them in an hour, an evening, or on the day that follows. Give me a day and I’m gone for good. And so are they. Never … to … return.
I feed her a final biscuit, a blessing of sorts to her good-natured self. She wolfs it down and wags her tail. If she misses her pups, it’s news to me. Together we stroll up the front steps. “Easy now,” I tell her, and ring the bell. I listen carefully to make sure it works. It’s not a good idea to stand around any longer than you have to. You never know who’s watching. This one chimes melodically.
The door swings open. It’s the boy. He promptly scrunches up his skinny face and stares at me before gazing at the dog. She wags her tail and tries to lure his interest—she’s doing her job admirably—but the kid doesn’t take the bait.
want?” he says as if he’s known me long enough to loathe me.
“I wonder,” I say as I lean my head in the door just enough to glance around, “is your mom or dad home?”
“Mom,” he bleats. “Mom!”
He turns as a bustle from the kitchen grows louder. She’s even kinder looking than I thought from a distance. But her voice—“Yes … can I help you?”—is so hesitant, so … suspicious.
Usually they’re trusting, what with all the new neighbors stopping by, greeting them, welcoming them. What is this? An unfriendly neighborhood? Hasn’t anyone come by with a bottle of wine, or a tray of cookies? I’ve waited a few days for all of that to pass. By now I should be nothing more than a new face. And then I remember: they’re from Back East.