Chapter 13 – Sha La La, Man

October 29th, 2010 § 0 comments

Once Veronica began taking Paregane their lives returned to normal very quickly. It was almost as if nothing had happened. But something, of course, had happened. The world didn’t fit the explanations. It marked Felix in ways he was trying to understand and understanding eluded him.

Veronica recovered both physically and mentally. She spent her days working out at their gym, The Arcadia, a synthetic indoor rain forest with five story waterfalls and sulfur crested cockatoos flying about. Money was running short.

As Veronica’s strength grew her physical presence became almost threatening. Some force was imposing its will on the world through her body. It made Felix feel like a bug, creeping about. It was an extremely subtle eclipse of a pride he didn’t know he had. He hated himself, he hated the world. Life itself had become hateful and that was the pride that was hurt, the pride he took in being alive. A loss of vitality and its self-regard.

Felix was cornered, by her, by work, by circumstance.

For a while he fussed over Veronica at home, but not anymore. Now he spent most nights getting zonked on a slow drip of Gulag martinis stirred to frigid perfection by Peter Nguyen.

Peter poured two shots of vodka over ice rinsed in absinthe and gave it a few decisive spins with a long, twisted metal spoon. The glass shaker whitened. He dumped ice and water out of a trim martini glass, wiped the inside dry with a napkin and ran lemon zest around the rim. Then he strained the drink into the glass, and gave the zest a squeeze. A little spritz of lemon oil sprayed down on the surface. Deftly, without concentration or effort he carried the drink to Felix, seated at the end of the zinc-topped bar, back to the door.

The words for no reason at all repeated blandly in his head. He was resting on a certainty, that his constant feeling that the world was about to do something awful to him was a delusion driving him to behave in ways incomprehensible to himself. He sipped the drink. It had an evil flavor. He gave it another chance.

Felix scratched his head and looked to Peter for some sort of human interaction. Peter wore his usual uniform of maroon jacket and black t-shirt. To appear busy he messed with things that didn’t need messing with. Appearing to be busy is important. He measured out the cheerfully colored glass straws. He folded red cloth napkins. When he could no longer avoid it he opened a cheap edition of the paper (printed on flimsy, recycled hemp) next to Felix and casually read the news. From time to time he looked up to indicate he was listening.

Felix, as he did every night, was trying to figure it out.

“If my wife calls, tell her I’m not here.”

“Where should I say you went,” Peter said to the paper, without inflection.

“Say you don’t know.”

He laughed quietly. “She’ll know you’re here.”

“Not if you don’t tell her.”

They read a headline together.

MAN GUNS DOWN 3 IN MIDTOWN BAR

Peter poked his finger at the picture of three bloodied corpses laid out on the sidewalk in front of the bar. “Shit. That’s near where I live.”

“It’s not like she’ll actually call,” Felix said.

Peter turned to the business section. “She never does anymore.”

“But that’s just it. Even when she hated me it was like we were in it together, you know? She hated me cause she couldn’t get rid of me, I wouldn’t let her go, I wouldn’t let her die. We were one then, at odds, o.k., but one. Now, I don’t know.”

Peter grunted. A couple, elderly, in their mid nineties, entered carrying umbrellas, which they shook off like wet dogs. The man stood tall and predatory, gazing around at the small, wood paneled room through avian eyes over an avian beak, in search of helpless wait staff. His wife, equally avian and equally impatient stared at the water, which had pooled in the creases of his shoe.

“The host will be right with you,” Peter said, standing stiffly. “Would you like to have a seat at the bar?”

“If I wanted that, why would I stand here now?” He turned to his wife. “We might as well leave.”

“The food is good,” she reminded him. He looked at his watch.

“Slow as all get out.”

Felix shuddered and slunk between his shoulder blades. This was the future. This was what awaited him.

“Let’s have something at the bar, dear.”

He glanced angrily about. The host, a man in his fifties, a little slow of breath, and sad in the way of all people lost in jobs they neither love nor hate, came with a stack of menus. “Mr. and Mrs. Mortimer?”

“What took you so long?” Mr. Mortimer asked.

“Yes, that’s us,” Mrs. Mortimer said.

“Your table is ready.” They placed their umbrellas in the large brass stand by the door and followed the host to their table. Peter landed like a butterfly on his paper, looked at Felix’s empty glass and said, “Another?”

“Yeah, why not.”

As Peter mixed the drink Felix reflected further. “She doesn’t even have a job yet, which is fine, it takes time. But it doesn’t worry her. Nothing does. She wakes up feeling perfectly great. I mean, radiant, grand. But it’s like, I’m not in it with her.”

“Sounds like you’re out of phase.”

“That’s right–that’s just it. Out of phase.”

After another drink he slurred. “You remember what it was like. She took it right out of me. Maybe there’s just nothing left.”

“You need to recharge a bit, that’s all. Once she starts working, things’ll look up.”

Felix darkened. “I don’t know about that. I think it was work that set it off. That mess with her parents didn’t help. She shot her husband, and then herself.”

“But she was rabid.”

“So what?”

“Rabies makes a hell of a difference. Down there in Florida weird things are always happening. Too hot. Too wet.”

Felix mulled it over. He had said such things himself, to his parents, when they announced that they were moving to Louisiana.

Her parents had insisted on retiring to Florida, despite the violence and the heat. All of it was under water and Amazonian in climate and wildlife. They had lived through the tail end of things, heard first hand stories of tornados, tidal waves and hurricanes. They made their fortune in the salvage business, running crews in and out of swamps, after diesel, bank vaults, machine parts, whatever. They studied old maps and located landfills for composite plants. It was big money and they bought land (a string of islands in the Everglades) from the Seminoles. Her father liked to shoot crocodiles and her mother painted birds.

“I should go,” he said.

Peter looked up from the paper. “Well, goodnight then.”

“Thanks.” Felix signed the check, slipped off of the stool and headed out the door. The street was empty. He looked up and down it for his bike. The air was cool after rain. It felt good. Water dripped rhythmically off facades and splashed on the crushed stone pavement, glittering in streetlight. Back and forth he walked, distracted by dim movements behind black windows, or the sudden burst of noise when bar room doors opened.

On a Sunday night most people were at home in bed. Only the unemployed, the retired and drunk came out. He thought about the old man and woman barking at the waiters. Why didn’t they just get on with it? Why didn’t they die and leave something for the rest of us? They were always going to be there, getting older and older, like the Sybil at Cumae, a voice in a pile of living dust.

At last he found the bike and rode off through the drizzle. He didn’t raise his hood; he wanted to feel the rain at the back of his neck, running like a cold sweat off of his head and down his bare cheeks.

Once home, he blinked against the living room lights, dim as they were, set to dusk, and sat for a few minutes on the couch, taking off his shoes and staring at the blue mirror framed in opaque stained glass on the wall opposite. The reflection in the mirror was of the ceiling, and refracted light. Nothing really. He stared at his feet. In the bar he had felt tired, drunk, ready for bed. The contentions, worries, threats, and enticements of physical existence had receded sufficiently to release him back into the black, reassuring nothingness of sleep. But now this good rest stood off to the side. Like the mirror, it allowed oblique views but vanished at the touch of a head or look. A sleepless, sullen silence overcame him.

For all of the differences in temperament and class between his parents and her parents there were remarkable similarities. He was often struck by the fact that both had used the word freedom to justify their moving to the edge of the habitable world. Free from what? And for what? To die of some horrible disease. You would think they would want to retire in comfort, after living in such places all of their lives, working in that unbearable heat for months, his mother the only doctor around for hundreds of k. He remembered summers when he saw children lined up for shots, arriving by rowboat, which they tied up to the pontoons of the floating hospital. Certainly all four of them could have afforded what they had earned.

He had always been taught that one could have specific freedoms, but freedom as a general idea just didn’t exist, a word without a referent. There was no defense of abstract freedom. Capital could be free, or speech. Markets.

He just couldn’t understand how living where both his and her parents did constituted freedom at all. Nearly 2/3rds of people on the frontiers died of unnatural causes. Living in a bamboo and thatch shack erected on stilts in a lagoon wasn’t free at all. You were enslaved to animals, became the food of insects and bacteria and of their reproductive cycles. You served their ends at your own expense.

The only time he ever had a sense of what they might have meant was on vacation, a sort of bracketed freedom within the security of a regular life. Skiing down a mountain, hiking and sleeping out beneath the open sky. Most of that had been on the road from Thunder Bay to Vancouver. In Canada he had felt the exhilaration of a momentary freedom. And the exhilaration had a charge that persisted in his memory long after the event. If that was what they meant, then maybe he knew.

Freedom is subjective. One didn’t need to suffer pain and loss to be free. His parents, her parents, were a little nuts to destroy themselves for that.

He stumbled down the stairs and brushed his teeth. In the bedroom he got totally naked. The cool sleeping air stippled his skin. He stood, swaying by the bed and watched Veronica sleep. She was curled up in a fetal position, facing him. The light cotton blanket, grey in the near dark, rose up over her hip and dipped at her waist and rose up her shoulders, like hills at dusk. Her black hair was tucked beneath the blanket, which she gripped across her cheek. Her face was relaxed, expressionless, still, as if she were immobilized, maybe frozen, and he had to watch very carefully to see her breaths come and go.

He looked at her for a long time. She wasn’t there. Veronica was gone. This was her husk, her facsimile, a sort of place marker. The sarcophagus to which she had to return before morning, enlivened by her travels. But it wasn’t that. It was an animal in repose, virile, in its prime, resting up for its departed master. Slowly he yielded to sleep in the chair. As his neck grew cold and stiff he half awoke and crawled into bed beside her. She didn’t stir. He rested against her warm, upright body and slept.

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