Whoever is joyous while burning at the stake is not triumphant over pain, but over the fact that there is no pain where he expected it. A parable.
My college roommate once asked, "Do you believe in voices?"
It was four-fifteen in the morning and we were both fractured on Jim Beam and joints while cramming for finals. Like so many other bell-bottomed, pot-smoking, self-styled middle-class mystics of the 1970s, we'd read too much Gibran and Sri Chinmoy Ghose and the Avatar Meher-Baba and enjoyed nothing more than espousing our quasi-quantum rigmarole to prove how clever and enlightened we were.
"What was that again?"
"Do you believe in voices? Then where are they located? Are they physical things?"
"Wonderful. Three drinks and a couple of tokes and you go Zen on me."
He leaned back into a cloud of Hawaiian Seedless smoke and grinned. "C'mon, man, you're the brainiac majoring in physics, you gotta have some idea where I'm coming from. I mean, you ever think about this shit for too long? You ask yourself questions, right? Like...okay, here you go: Does Beethoven's Fifth Symphony cease to exist once the orchestra stops playing, or is it just some fuckin' ink trails on sheets of parchment paper in a library somewhere? Like, if you destroy the paper it's written on so no orchestra can ever play it again, does it still continue to exist?" He shuddered and reached for the bottle. "Questions, man. They'll mess with your head."
He OD'd a few years later and wound up part of the vegetable stew in some laughing academy but I still think of him the way he used to be.
I think a lot about the way things used to be.
Do you believe in voices?
Listen to my life.
I did not recognize my daughter when she came back from the dead.
It was the end of spring, I was fighting a losing battle with the sinus/ear infection that always came round this time of year, and since it was going to rain soon I decided to take a shortcut through the ersatz-park behind the Altman Museum in downtown Cedar Hill. I'd forgotten to bring my decongestants and eardrops that morning and by ten-thirty felt as if someone had drilled a hole in my skull and filled it with rubber cement. I lived only twelve minutes' walk from my crummy $5.25 an hour job, which gave me just enough time to stagger home during my lunch break, hit the drugs, scarf down a sandwich, and get back to my job.
Though I often took this shortcut I made it a point never to linger; too many memories waited there, ready to jump down my throat. Aside from the sixty or so seconds it took to sprint through the park, I hadn't spent any significant amount of time there in over five years, not since the death of my three-year-old daughter from--unbelievable as it sounds -- mononucleosis.
I was nearing the south exit when I made the first of three mistakes--I noticed the new sculpture that stood near the corner of the plat.
The second mistake immediately followed.
I stopped to look at it.
It stood about seven feet high, ten feet wide, and six feet deep. The figures were made of synthetic stone and fiberglass covered with wire mesh, colored in tones of terra-cotta and ash. There were fifty female figures in the piece. All of them were naked. Some covered their faces with their hands, some knelt, some stood, a few were lying prone as if draped over a sacrificial altar, while others clutched their stomachs or were folded in a heap. Most of them were screaming. Pain, anger, grief, confusion--all of these were brutally etched on their faces, raw and unspeakably ugly.
But none was more gut-wrenching than the face of the woman in the center. Hers was a look of sadness so total that at first it seemed like disinterest; then I saw the small crescent of tears brimming in one of her eyes and realized the permanence of her heartbreak, that here was a
genuinely good and caring woman, full of passion, understanding, and tenderness who had dreamed in her youthful loneliness of finding her soulmate and then, years later, just when she'd started to believe she would never know the love that poets and singers described, found her One Great True Love and gave her soul completely to him, bore him a child, and in the instant when her husband stood with their daughter cradled in his arms this woman believed with all her delicate heart that everything was going to be just fine.
This had been Karen's favorite spot in the city, and we'd often brought Melissa here; she loved to sit and watch the ducks and swans. Our favorite spot outside the city had been the beach at Buckeye Lake. Karen and Melissa liked to go there and look for sea shells. Of all the shells they had collected over the years, Melissa's favorites were a pair of large, perfect, shiny conch shells. Whenever we took a trip, those shells had to accompany us. Melissa bestowed more affection on those shells than most children did their pets. They had been on the table next to her hospital bed the night she died.
"It is something to see, isn't it?" came a voice.
She was sitting on a bench near the small pond where the ducks and swans lounged in the water. Something about her reminded me of my ex-wife, no big surprise--every woman reminded me of Karen in one way or another.
"Yes," I said, not wanting to look at it again but doing so anyway. "It's very...powerful."
I don't know why I made this third mistake, striking up a conversation with this young woman. I'd only wanted to get home. My head was a blister ready to burst and the thought of my medication was a sweet siren's melody.
"Are you feeling all right?"
Startled, I looked away from the sculpture. When had she come up next to me? Why was I down on one knee? And who'd lodged the icepick in my eardrum?
She helped me to my feet and guided me over to the bench. Sitting next to me, she leaned in to take a closer look at my face. "Don't take this the wrong way, but you look like hell."
"Good. I'd hate to feel this lousy and have it be just my little secret."
She laughed, patting my hand. "Great line. Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I'll bet you used to watch it all the time. You seem the type."
"Look, I appreciate your giving me a...a h-hand like this but I think I'd better get home and--"
"Shhh," she whispered, placing a finger against my lips. "'You will say nothing, I will answer not a word/And nothing will be able to shake our accord.'"
"Uh-huh. And that is...?"
"From a poem by Corbiere. 'Rhapsody of the Deaf Man.' You suddenly reminded me of it. A little bitter and angry, a little sad and distant, but also strong and mysterious and sensual in a...I don't know, a smoldering, tipsy kind of way. Does that make sense?" She shrugged. "It doesn't have to make sense to you, just to me."
I did not, repeat not, want this. I'd spent a lot of time, effort, and liver tissue in order to vanish from my old life and make myself as invisible to the world as a person could be without actually disintegrating into thin air; the last goddamn thing I needed was for someone to say, Hey, wanna be friends?
The pain and pressure came howling forward again. I winced, closing my eyes and pulling inward.
She cupped my head in her hands. "Does it hurt that much?"
"...godyeah..." I didn't have the strength to pull away.
Her hands slipped upward, covering my ears and gently tilting back my head. "Better?"
"A little." I opened my eyes. "What are you, a nurse or something?"
"Or something." She reached into the canvas bag next to her and pulled out a small portable compact disc player, along with a set of headphones that she plugged into the player, then tried to put over my ears.
"Whoa," I said. "What...what do you think you're doing?"
"Look, I can't put those on, the pressure's bad enough as it is and if--"
In a series of movements so quick and smooth they might as well have been one motion, she leaned forward, kissed me on the cheek in an intensely affectionate way, and slipped the headphones over my ears.
Listen: I was ten years old when I got my first rock album, a 1971 release from Dunhill Records, Steppenwolf Live. I played it to death but no track did I play more than the six-minute version of "Born To Be Wild" that closed side 4. (Forget the anemic studio version that FM stations play during Friday rush hour; the '71 live recording kicks ass in a way the studio version can only admire from the cheap seats.) I played that song so much the grooves in the record began to wear down and little scratches, pops, and hisses--noises I came to think of as "echofuzz"--worked their way into the music. Still, I played it, and after a while the echofuzz became part of the song for me. I'd put it there, it came from me, and so, to my mind, that made me part of the song, slamming my bad ass onto the seat of a chrome-roaring hog under heavy metal thunder.
And now I was listening to it again. This was not the clean, re-mastered CD version, this was from the record, my record, the one I'd lost fifteen, twenty years ago: there was the hiss that almost drowned out John Kay's growling vocals at one point, followed by a series of pops in the middle of an instrumental passage, then, near the end of the song, the scratches that underscored a wailing guitar run, the kind of high-pitched, squealing, uncoiling-barbed-wire run that has to be surgically removed from your brain. I was so amazed to be hearing it again after all these years that it took a few moments to realize the pressure in my ears was gone and my sinuses were clear and open, enabling me to breathe freely.
The song came to its snarling-hurricane conclusion and I removed the headphones. "Where in God's name did you find this?"
"So it did help? You really feel better?"
Most men could have swum a hundred raging rivers on the memory of the smile she offered to me, which was suddenly so much like Karen's I couldn't look.
"Why did you kiss me?"
She blushed. "I wanted to. I've wanted to for a long time, ever since..."
She handed a small photograph to me. "Since this night."
I looked at the photo. Something pulled tight in my chest, frayed apart, and snaked like tendrils of black, searing smoke into my eyes. I pressed my hand against my mouth as if I could stop the tears through sheer force of will; if I did not allow air to pass into my lungs, I would
not cry. I'd rather have had a fatal aneurysm at that moment than allow this particular memory to resurface.
"Who the fuck are you?" I said through clenched teeth.
Her face became a placid mask...except for a small crescent of tears brimming in one of her eyes. "Don't you recognize me?" She reached over and brushed the back of my hand with her fingertips.
Something like an electric shock snarled up my arm and--
--and there I was on that last night with Karen. She was crying and shaking beside me in bed, just like every night since we'd buried Melissa five weeks ago. I stared at the ceiling, feeling nothing; not for her, myself, not even, it seemed, for the loss of our little girl because all children would eventually be crushed under the weight of a future that was merciless and uncaring if not actively malignant, and when at last I looked at Karen I felt embarrassed at being human because we truly believed we could heal most forms of hurt by telling someone that we loved them, and then Karen was facing me, her eyes empty and furious at the same time: "I dreamed that when we buried Melissa, one of her arms came up out of the dirt holding a rose in its hand. You gave me a shovel and I threw down more dirt but her arm just kept coming up, and every time the rose bloomed a little more. You said, 'We can't let that happen, we can't let it bloom,' and the next time her arm came up you beat it with the shovel, then you made me beat it until it slunk down into the dirt and never came up again. We both felt so happy then, and I hated you for that! I don't want her to be dead, I want her alive so maybe we can pull ourselves out of the open grave our life has been since then--don't look at me like that, you know it's true, but you've done nothing, said nothing, you probably don't even feel anything and I can't stand it, I don't want to hate you so please, please just...touch me, even if you don't mean it..."--
--I yanked back my hand, then shoved myself off the bench and started backing away from her, still clutching the photo.
"...I don't know how you got this," I croaked, "but you have no right, damn you...you have no right to...to...ohgod I don't want to think about this..."
"You have to," she whispered, slowly rising to her feet and coming toward me.
She stopped moving and held up her hands, palms out. "I won't come any closer, I promise. I didn't mean to throw that at you so soon but I...I don't have a lot of time--and neither do you."
"Is that some kind of threat?"
She shook her head. "No. It's just that you've been trying so hard to forget and it's killing you. It will kill you. If you keep going like you have been you won't last another year." She lowered her head, folded her hands, and began tapping the tops of her thumbs together. Karen used to do the same thing whenever she felt anxious. "How many times in the last six months have you thought about suicide? How many times have you looked at your prescriptions and thought about quadrupling the doses? Christ, you have to take three different anti-depressants just to get yourself started in the morning!
"Please don't look at me like that."
"Then get to the punchline."
"Fine. If you go on living--scratch that--if you go on existing as you have been, you're going to do it. You'll miss a couple of doses and sink into one of your moods, and then you'll open the door to the cabinet underneath your sink, you'll take out that bottle of Chevas Regal you've got hidden back there--you remember that bottle, the one your AA sponsor doesn't know about?--and you'll wash down the rest of your pills with it."
I couldn't think of anything to say.
How in hell did she know about the Scotch? I hadn't even broken the seal around the cap yet. The doctors had made it clear enough--if I started drinking again, I would die. It was that simple. I had no intention of ever starting again, it was just that, for some reason, knowing
there was liquor nearby made it easier not to drink.
She wiped her eyes, then stood hugging herself. "I was allowed one day, one day from the future I never had, to see you again. I used half of that day three years ago--if you think hard enough, you'll remember seeing me. I spent hours looking for you that day. I--" She shook her head angrily, took a deep breath, and looked at her watch. "I've been waiting here since eight this morning, hoping you'd come by. Four hours and fifteen minutes gone."
She was crazy, that had to be it, and I said as much.
"Then explain the picture."
Not daring to look at it again, I held the photograph up to her face and crumpled it into a ball. "You go to hell, lady." Then I turned and walked quickly away from her.
"I can't follow you!" she cried out. "I can only--please stop! Please!" Her cheeks shone with tears. There was not one part of her that wasn't shaking. "I'm sorry, but I can't...I've got less than eight hours left."
I decided to play along with her. "Why can't you follow me?"
She held out one of her hands. In it was a small rosebud. "It's going to bloom very soon, you see, probably before the day's over, and when it blooms I'll have to... Please don't go. I can't follow you because you're going to places I never went. This park is the only place left from your past that you ever go to. Please don't leave. Please. There's so little time left and I want it to count for something. I've mi--"
"Then stay here. Look at the statue, get soaked in the rain and wait for your rose to bloom, I don't care, just leave me alone--which shouldn't be too difficult because I won't be coming back here again."
Something behind her eyes crumbled.
And that's how I left her.
There's more to the story ... go on to Part II
This story originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and was reprinted in Things Left Behind and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, 13th Edition.