There Are
No Shadows
In Our Sun









To Michael Grasso

In memoriam Christopher Coe

The cold was so intense it felt like a presence. It suffused the air with a haunting: wherever the eyes turned, they met other, invisible eyes. The skin was brushed by another skin. Steps were preceded by other steps. It was painful. It was disquieting. One felt observed. One felt out of place. The world had become a place out of place. It had unconditionally surrendered to the cold, which occupied it like a foreboding, unintelligible presence.
He felt out of place, when he stepped out into the street. His skin shrank. His lungs bristled. His mouth filled up with the taste of copper and old ice-cubes — thousands of old ice-cubes, tinkling in the container of the street. Then he realized he had forgotten his gloves. He also had forgotten his scarf. Dr. Freud would have had something to say about that. Dr. Freud had something to say about everything according to Ann. But Dr. Freud could not change the fact it was Friday night. At long last. Even Ann could not change that. And he was not going to go back to the office to fetch them. Not he. Not on a Friday night. No sir.
He headed toward the subway, along with dozens of others whom he knew as well as he knew himself: they too had longed for Friday night. When he was younger, he used to pity them, the people who longed for Friday night. Then he grew older and joined their ranks. They did not scorn him for his former contempt, his affectation of superiority. They pushed him to get into the subway car. They pushed him to get out of the subway car. They slammed doors in his face or stole the cab he had hailed or stepped on his toes and looked mean and rash and vicious. But he would do the same to them. So they were even. They avoided his gaze the way he avoided theirs. They avoided any hint of physical or psychological contact: they were too busy concentrating on the coming Friday, and the one after that, and the one after. And so was he.
They also, maybe especially, avoided the gaze of younger people, in whose eyes one could see bright sparkles of contempt gleaming. He avoided it as well. He remembered how it felt, to have your eyes so bright it made other people look down. He wondered whether they did too. He wondered whether they realized they were, in spite of all their common efforts, all connected that way. Through remembrance and avoidance. Part of a big family. Part of the largest family of the country: the Friday tribe.
Soon, they would all celebrate Christmas together. Shop windows, on the way to or from the subway, urged them to do so. Rejoice, Make Merry. The magazines in the newsstands said the same. TV did, too.
Christmas Eve is a big date for the Friday tribe. It will turn a regular weekday into an extra Friday. So it is announced all over. Clamored in loud-speakers. Marked by large glittering ornaments hung on cables across the streets.
When he left the subway at West Fourth, thirty minutes later, the cold hit him again in the face, in the legs, in the chest with relentless blows. It was a good puncher. It did not leave you time to catch your breath. It kept on pummeling. Right, left, all over. It seemed to say: “Go home. It is too cold in the streets for you. It is too cold for humankind in this world. Go away. Make way for winter. Make way for His Majesty the Emperor of Ice.” Why had he forgotten his gloves and his scarf? Ann would have said, had they still been on speaking terms, that it had to do with his childhood. With his unresponsiveness toward his emotions. You are a Libra, she would have said. Libras live on repressed anger. They are so busy striking compromises with everyone, even themselves, that they forget to be angry. So they live a shitty life.
He did live a shitty life. But he knew people who were Scorpios, or Leos, people who did not even know their signs and yet lived the same shitty life. His idea was that his shitty life also had to do with his shitty job. And with his shitty divorce. He had said as much to Ann. One day, he had even ventured to talk about Laura, and the divorce, and the kid he had never seen. She had looked at him with cold, triumphant eyes. “What did I tell you?” she had sneered. “Your attitude is typical of a Libra. You had a kid, and you gave him up forever, just because you were up your nose into your dirty diplomatic tricks. Instead of using your emotions, trusting your emotions, you tried to compromise, to reason, I suppose. No wonder you lost it all.” He had told her to go fuck herself. Since then, they were not on speaking terms.
God, it was cold! But, who cared, it was Friday night. He waited for the light to change. Somebody ran into him and ran off. He turned around. The youngster was already far away, dashing through the crowd on his clattering skate-board, his eyes radiant with contempt. Where were the cops, when you needed them? Things like that ought to be illegal. He checked himself: his was a typical Friday tribesman's attitude. He shrugged his shoulders. So what? He belonged to them. They were his real, his only, his last family.
He crossed the street. Since it was Friday night, he would first go for a drink somewhere. But where? He wanted a quiet bar, with wood paneling, a massive mahogany counter, nice copper-lamps, low, English-style tables, and hushed, urbane conversations around a bowl of pleasantly salted, fresh nuts, and no TV or spicy chicken wings. There, he would pull out the book he carried in his pocket, order a Martini straight up, light up a cigarette, look around and comfortably sink into the padded chair to read a few chapters, while the night grew darker, deeper, behind the heavy drawn curtains. Each Friday night he would put up the same silly act solely for his benefit. He would pretend to be looking for a place he would really like. Every week, the same mindless comedy. “Who do you think you are fooling?” said Laura in the back of his head. “You know you'll end up in the same joint on Bleecker Street.” He didn't listen. One never knew. Maybe tonight he would find his ideal bar. Maybe he had never looked hard enough, or not in the right places. Nice things may happen. Even to Libras.
His divorce had been his undoing. It had broken him in two and had not left him enough energy to pick up the pieces. In a way, he knew it, he did not yet even realize the divorce had been pronounced. Three years after Laura's disappearance, a part of him still lived on Laura's time, still looked forward to seeing Laura after the office, to planning on Monday with Laura the festivities for the next Friday. A part of him still loved her so much it was embarrassing. A part of him was dead and did not know it, and the other part, like the good Libra it was, did not know how to announce it. He chuckled. Sure, he resented her, too, and most of the time, didn't even think about her. But beneath the indifference, the fire still smoldered, though inwardly as it were. There was not much left to be consumed, so it just devoured itself endlessly. It would soon die. Everything did, no matter what. Even the cold which pounded him with stony fists would go away one day. That was what people like Ann, or the beautifully impatient Laura, could not, would not understand: the wheel turned, no matter what. One thing was replaced by another, equally inadequate perhaps, but, at least for a while, coated with the pleasant gloss of novelty. Wallace Stevens had had it right. “The earth, for us, is flat and bare”. The earth is flat and bare. So there.
A group of loud-mouthed NYU students passed him by, the tails of their shirts grotesquely flapping on their denimed butts. Did he regret his youth, his campus days? He sometimes tried to, but was never very successful. There had been nothing worth regretting then. Loud-mouthing and untucked shirts, that pretty much summed it up. Of all that which his life had been, (the earth is flat and bare) it was the kid he missed the most. Laura had left when she was five months pregnant, he did not even know whether with a boy or a girl. He had decided for a boy. He had even given him a name. David. The Psalmist. The Singing King. The one so enthralled by the ways of the Creation that his throat endlessly swelled with songs of praise. He would probably never set his eyes on David — he had not done the right things at the right time, he had tried to temporize for too long, thinking, then, that he was doing the best for the three of them. And maybe he had done the right thing, after all. At least the boy would not end up torn between two feuding parents. But he would never set his eyes on him.
David. A shepherd's name. A name to call on thyme-covered hills, among bleating sheep, under a sun more radiant than love.
He looked up. Even the nights were disappointing now. They just belonged to the landscape. They were just Friday nights. No sense of mystery, of infinity deepened them. They did not connect you with the crushing, indifferent grandeur of the world as it is and as it goes on, away from human interpretations. They just hung over the city like some props made out of cheap fabric, where stars — when there were stars — were mere rents revealing the spotlights behind.
He had reached the corner of Bleecker and La Guardia. It was getting too cold to continue homeward without first getting some warmth. Why had he forgotten his gloves and his scarf, for God's sake? Of course, he had not seen any bar worth entering either. He had not really looked, to tell the truth. The same old story. Like every other Friday night, the same old story. Like his entire life: the same old story, over and over.
So, to keep up with the tradition, he stopped, pivoted on his heels, and, without paying attention to the beggar who had opened the door for him, stepped into the same bar where he had been going the past three years.
“God bless you”, said the beggar. “God bless you and a Merry Christmas too!”
The earth is flat and bare, I tell you.


* * * * * * *
He left the bar, an hour later, in the same mood he had entered it. A mildly sour one. Drinking rarely seemed to lift his spirits. It just made the misery less perceptible, more hazy, turned it into some sort of vague necessity you did not have to focus on. Another part of life, like divorces and jobs and crushed hopes. Like tipped over glasses and empty packs of cigarettes at 1 am. Another anecdote among thousands of like anecdotes.
The cold was waiting for him. It punched him in the stomach, then braced his legs and gagged his mouth. Then it leaped to his face and tried to lacerate it. It got hold of his ears and squeezed them till they felt like they had been ripped off. “Go away,” it repeated, “go away. There is no room here for any of you. The world belongs to me.”
So he headed for home. What else was there? Pick up a girl? He did not feel like it. He had met one, two nights ago, and gone to bed with her. The vague cousin of a vague friend. From Ohio. She said she would call, when she had left the morning after. She had not, of course. Who does? If, by mistake or by miracle they do, you leave your answering machine on. Because you are too stupid. Sometimes because they are too stupid. People of little faith.
Then what? TV? The landlord had probably forgotten, in spite of his repeated phone-calls, to fix the radiators, so he would be freezing in front of the tube. And it was Friday night, remember? If you don't have cable, on Friday nights you're in for nothing, save, perhaps, a musical on PBS, around 11 pm. He was not in the mood for Fred Astaire.
Then what? Why couldn't he just go home, fix something to eat and read, wrapped in blankets? Why was he always tempted by that which was not there, or not attainable, or not for him?
- Would a good soul help me cross the street?
He had reached Broadway and was wondering whether he would go to the Blue Willow for a last one, when he heard the moaning request.
- Would a good soul help me cross the street?
The Friday evening crowd was swirling around the wheel-chair like rushing water bumping onto an obstacle. Wavelets of faces, ripples of bodies just surrounded it, then went their way again — the smooth, continuous way of a crowd composed of careless, relieved individuals savoring the first sip of Friday's leisure. People laughed. People hurried right and left, north and south. People carried Christmas packages, or boom-boxes, or sleepy children, or brightly colored backpacks. People stopped to check the wares of Peruvian women selling heavy sweaters, of Chinese men selling sun-glasses and fluffy head-bands, of Pakistani families selling audio or video cassettes. In their midst, the wheel-chair looked like a raft precariously anchored in rapids. Nobody paid any attention to it. It stood there the way the scaffolding stood around the Blue Willow: another piece of urban furniture. It would eventually go away. Everything, eventually, went away.
- Would a good soul help me cross the street?
Instead of pushing the doors to the Blue Willow, he clasped his hands around the wheel-chair's handles and pushed it across the street, back where he was coming from. It did not cost him much. It would make him feel good afterward. Too bad he had forgotten his gloves: the metal burned his palms and fingers like ice. The passenger moaned languidly:
- God bless your soul, kind sir. God bless your soul.
They reached the sidewalk. He did not like being blessed. Actually, he rather resented people's habit of dragging God around all the time. Not that it offended his own belief: he did not believe in God — or in anything, for that matter, except that, for him at least, the earth was flat and bare. But even so, it depreciated what God stood for, to invoke his name in vain, time in, time out, for the most trivial occurrences.
He steadied the wheel-chair on the pavement and let go of the handles. He leaned over a bit, ready to say good-bye. From the bundle of plastic-sheets, rags and ropes which the passenger had wrapped himself with rose the most revolting stench of old, cold sweat and vomit, of half digested alcohol and stale tobacco. He felt nauseous. Maybe there were germs on the handles, or lice? He cursed himself for having forgotten his gloves.
- Would you mind wheeling me up a block or two? I'm so tired.
At first, he was taken aback. His charitable inclinations were being crudely presumed upon. He did not like it. Give them a finger, they'll rip off the arm. But he was not supposed to like it. That was beyond the point. His help was requested. Nothing more. And wasn't it almost Christmas Eve, especially for invalids, for beggars?
He gripped again the handles. The sensation of burning returned to his palms. He was not afraid of germs or vermin anymore. It was too cold for them. “It's too cold out here for anyone,” hissed the cold. “Its too cold for any living creature. The rule of winter has arrived.” He started pushing the wheel-chair. Whiffs of the horrible smell would jump at him, then vanish almost immediately, leaving him uncertain whether he had actually smelled it. He wondered whether he was wheeling a man or a woman. The lethargic voice had been sexless. It had just betrayed age and weariness. Or was it just drunkenness? Or was it just a decoy to attract compassion? He had not been able to see anything of the face. Not even a nose or the glint of an eye. Black? White? He did not know. Even the hands were wrapped in folded garbage bags, tied with what seemed to be Christmas tinsel. The volutes of the passenger's breath dissolved quickly in the sharp air, like dreamy dragons, as soon as they left the shadow of the hood. He sneezed.
- God bless you, said the passenger absent-mindedly
- God bless you, echoed an anonymous voice in the crowd.
The cold weighed on his shoulders like the lead apron they make you wear when they X-ray your teeth in a dentist's office. It was ill-adjusted and heavy. It trammeled his already uneasy walk. But, since he had accepted the job, he might as well do it with a light heart. It would not last long. And, afterward, he would feel even better than he had originally expected. He would feel warm inside and proud and pleased with himself. It would be like having drunk a moral Martini. He would have disconnected himself for a short while from the Friday tribe. For a while, he would have gotten back a taste of his younger years, when the earth was round and rich.
And David would have been pleased with him, too. Children did not understand poverty or sickness or destitution. They did not see how people could lack what appeared so normal to them: a warm bed and Saturday cartoons and toys, and food neatly piled on the shelves of the fridge and the pantry. At least, he chose to think so now. Another day, he would remember that children too were cruel and vicious beings, that they knew ways to inflict suffering which adults did not want to hear about. But not on a Friday night. Not when he was performing a good deed, the reason for which escaped him.
Three blocks was it? Or four already? He looked across the street. There was the Pottery Barn outlet. Its windows shone with a profusion of gold. The display was arranged in such a way as to suggest that gold was pouring from some invisible corner of the unseen altitude, maybe a coffer from the Arabian Nights, or some celestial piggy bank — gold plates, and gold napkins, and gold kitchenware, and gold vases, and gold candles in their gold candlesticks, and gold wrapping paper, and gold notebooks, and gold everything cascading down onto a world of plenty. It was sickening. Especially to somebody who was wheeling a homeless, melancholy invalid, it was sickening. The greedy 80's, as the glossy magazines which had tirelessly extolled the decade were now busy calling it, were not over. They were never over for some. Never.
The cold bit his shoulders and his legs like a famished hound gnawing furiously at a meatless bone. Why had he forgotten his gloves and his scarf? What was wrong with him anyway? The other day, it was his wallet he had forgotten in the lavatory of the office. Of all places. And of all things. He could not have lost his wedding band, of course. No. He could not even take it off his finger.
He stopped pushing the wheel-chair. He had done his duty: six blocks at least. It was time to say good-bye for good. Good-bye, and Merry Christmas. Of course, he realized now he would have to leave a handful of coins, maybe a buck or two, in the passenger's lap. He had gone too far, in both senses of the term, to avoid that part of their tacit contract. He tried to remember how much loose change he had in his back pants pocket and whether he had used all his singles at the bar.
- Could you wheel me up one or two more blocks, please? It is so cold for my poor hands.
His anger flared. Now that was really pushing it a bit far. Who did the guy think he was? A sucker, obviously. Well, even suckers have their pride, Christmas time or not. Then he thought again, and thought about David again. David would have said: “Come on Dad. It's Friday night. One or two more blocks, what's the difference for you? But it will mean so much for the poor man.” He smiled. He had never imagined David calling him Dad. He wondered whether indeed his son would have grown up such a marvelous, warm-hearted, compassionate creature, had he lived with his father. Probably not. How could he know? Laura had disappeared right after the divorce. Her parents said they did not know exactly where she had gone. They lied, of course. But it was their right, maybe even their duty. A friend of Laura had told him she was somewhere in Southern Europe. Italy maybe. Sicily. The French Riviera. Spain. Greece. Places he had always wanted to visit, first when he was young, then with Laura. Places he did not dare to go to, now that he could, because he was afraid he might run into Laura and their child. Lands of fragrant apricots and shiny lemons, leaving in the palms a thin, soapy film one did not want to wash away. Lands cut out of the driest rocks, and displayed as the bluest hills, under a sky as pure as water. There, houses were passed on from generation to generation, along with their beautiful groves of pine-trees — houses atop hills scented with silex and thyme, houses with terraces enclosed by terracotta balustrades, and light, white curtains flapping at noon, even without a breeze; houses clustered in small, dusty, sleepy hamlets where the bells of pinkish churches, built with stones from ancient temples to Venus or to Mars, rang not so much to mark the time of the day as to carve forever on the mind the absolute stillness of the sun-glorified landscape. He could not have offered that to David. With his job as a commercial translator, he could have barely managed to afford a house in a sinking middle-class suburb, with a brownish lawn looking like the neighbor's brownish lawn, and a green garage door against which to throw old tennis balls, and garbage bins in the backyard, somewhere on Washington Street, or Atlantic Avenue, or Wild Oaks Drive, in the constant humming and babbling of TV.
He waited for the light to change, then pushed the wheel-chair across. He weighed down on the handles of the chair to avoid bumping into the sidewalk.
- Hey, easy man, snapped the passenger angrily.
He was so surprised he did not react. He forgot what he had just resolved. Instead, he concentrated on the cold of his hands and of his neck. It felt like they were both immersed in a bath of raging embers, which skinned them and fleshed them, leaving the bones painfully exposed to the frigid, relentless blaze.
He kept on pushing.
In the land of the lemons, cicadas, hidden on tree branches, sounded like drops of oil frying the day to a crisp gold. In the land of the lemons, maybe the earth was not as flat, or as bare.
* * * * * * *
He lifted up his head to peek at the street sign, and saw nothing through the hurried lashes of the snow. When did it start snowing? He did not remember that it even began snowing. He squinted his eyes, and managed to read the sign. 35th Street. His heart sunk.
- I'm hungry.
The sound of the voice startled him. He stopped pushing. He cupped his hands in front of his mouth and blew on them. Snow flakes dissolved as they landed on his cheeks, on his lips. He inadvertently licked a few and shivered. They tasted so metallic. It was as if his tongue had touched the handles of the wheel-chair. The mere thought repulsed him. Who was hungry? He was. He tried to remember how he could have gotten that far without realizing it. Almost thirty five blocks, in complete oblivion.
- I'm hungry.
The voice had risen again, morose and assertive and plaintive. His anger came back at once. It felt nice: it was hot. It was burning. It melted away the gangue of heavy cold which encrusted his head, his limbs, his chest. It was comfortable, like coming home after a long absence, when you untie your tie and take off your shoes. Who had ever pretended he did not know anger, or only repressed it? Not every kind of anger required be acted upon or even taken into consideration. That was the point of anger. That was knowing what anger was about. Right now, he was angry, he enjoyed it, and was about to express it as forcefully as was in his power.
- I'm hungry.
The voice rose for a third time, more mournful and more solemn than before. It did not even seem to belong to the passenger anymore, but to spring from the street itself, from the pavement, from the swaying lamp post near which they had stopped, from the lobby of the building they stood next to — the drab, soulless room, crucified to its maroonish walls and its cracked linoleum floor by the unflinching glare of the large, white sphere of a lamp. It came from above and beneath, from the clouds against which the lights of the city banged their beams, looking for an exit from their own lifelessness, and from the stars above the clouds, the chaotic constellations nailed at random to the black wall of space, unable to make sense of their haphazard configuration; from the tunnels below, the subway stations where people went out of their ways to avoid looking at one another, and from the sewers where blind rats fought over indistinct debris, the conduits where phone wires carried endless ringing of phones no one answered, or to which machines were answering, or to which people were answering, only to hear a computer's carefully composed voice; from the block around them, the ominously tall buildings plunged in darkness, save for the insomniac, red pupil of the emergency exits signs and the fluorescent lights of stairways and empty halls, and from the neighboring skyscrapers, where tiny silhouettes moved to and fro in tiny boxes, caught, like insects in amber, in the oily glow of the lamps near their meals, near their beds, near the minuscule emplacements of their minuscule actions; from the crowds they had left behind and from the crowds they were heading toward, the Friday tribes and the bridge and tunnels herds, the nocturnal tribes and the 8pm to 4am shift populace, the children thirsting after quick, jolting, repeated pleasures and the foundlings of endless recessions. It came from all the throats which ever moaned, from all the beings which ever experienced pain and loss and bewilderment. It boomed from the bottom of his own heart and rang the universe with its dejected intonation. It had his father's voice, and his mother's, and Laura's, and Ann's, the voice of his grandfather as he had been dying, years ago, lost in the anonymity of a hospital neatly tucked in bed, lost in the aftermath of a war death had waged inside his body, before forgetting to claim its spoils, and the voice of the girl from Ohio, as she had left the room, blowing him kisses with manicured hands; the voice of friends long forgotten and of friends never met, of friends betrayed and of double-crossing strangers. It said nothing, it meant nothing, and yet it conveyed more than could be tolerated, or accepted, or understood. It had started reverberating at the beginning of time, and the end of time would not make it cease. It was its own Alpha and Omega. It surrounded him and whispered: “I'm hungry. I'm hungry. I'm hungry.” It did not matter what it experienced hunger for, be it food, or fame, or money, or a house, or a companion, or a moment of appeasement. It was the call of need, of want. It was the murmur of the essential void at the heart of any human being, to which, as they were trapped in it, the gales of winter gave a voice. It said again:
- I'm hungry.
His shoulders dropped. The cold almost knocked him down. Snow filled up his eyes, leaped down his neck, bit him hard. He grabbed again the handles of the wheel-chair and pushed the passenger to the corner, where a Korean grocery store propped against the night and the empty street glowing pyramids of apples, thick-skinned oranges and pink papered onions. He parked the chair below the jutting canopy, near the entrance. He leaned forward and muttered:
- I'll only be a minute.
He rushed into the store. His teeth were clattering. His back was drenched. Why had he forgotten his gloves and his scarf? He was going to catch his death.
The floor had been washed a few minutes ago. It glistened and smelled of pine-tree scented detergent. Or was it lime? He could never tell. Yet it reminded him of Sunday afternoons, when he was a kid, when his mother would scrub the kitchen floor not because it needed it, but in order not to hate her husband and her children and her entire life more than she already did. It was slippery and flat and bare. The store was empty, save for a girl in her late twenties at the counter, who looked cold, composed and bored. The contents of the salad bar tins had been taken away and the tins glistened like laboratory containers, before an operation, waiting for tissues removed, fragments of bones, bloody utensils. The fluorescent lights hummed. Christmas garlands lined the shelves, and ran along the walls, under the ceiling. Here and there, as he pushed the door open, brightly colored glass balls tinkled, which spelled out HAPPY NEW YEAR in frosty signs. Boxes of red and white mint candy canes had been set up by the cash register, under cardboard panels which read, in glittering letters: “Free For You, Valued Customers ! ! ! Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Thank You For Your Patronage.”
He ordered a large cup of lentil soup and two roast-beef sandwiches. He piled up in his arms all he could grab: several packs of cookies, two containers of fruit juice, a few bags of dried fruit. How are you hungry? What do you long for, when you are hungry? For bread, because it is symbolic? Or for protein, in a scientific fashion? Or for comfort food, for overly sweet junk, for candy remembered from childhood, brightly packaged in noisy tinfoil and hard-to-tear plastic? Would you rather have something extravagant and useless, to taunt adversity — or something that would hold to your body for hours, sitting in your stomach like a cat asleep? He had never been hungry, that is: really hungry. It was a utterly novel experience for him — a disquieting one, which made him feel out of place and gauche. It changed the way you considered food. It made it, all of a sudden, important — obscenely important: it was almost shameful to be hungry when they were so many food-stores everywhere, so many restaurants. It restored meaning to the simple shape of an apple. It made everything in the store look both enticing and dangerous.
He asked for a carton of cigarettes.
As he was searching for his wallet in his pocket, he looked up at the concave mirror nailed above the cash register and shuddered. From under the passenger's wrappings, hands were busy darting in and out, snatching all they could, hiding their loot in what seemed to be thousands of folds, crevices, and pockets. He stared at the girl. She had not seen anything. He smiled. She smiled.
- Do you want a mint candy?
He thanked her and said no. She said:
- On the house. Really.
He said no again. He mumbled something about his dentist. She insisted:
- Coffee then? On the house.
He smiled more broadly. He could not refuse. He said that he would pay. She smiled more broadly. She said she would not accept. She asked:
- And for your friend, coffee too?
He nodded. Coffee too. With lots of sugar. He wondered whether she liked children. He wondered whether he could live with her, in Italy, or in Greece, whether she too would be impatient in the long run, and frustrated, frustrated enough to scream; whether she too would cry for not having accomplished what she had set her heart to, when she was younger, when she looked forward to moving to the Big Apple, when a glamorous life seemed no more difficult to obtain than a free gift from the Home Shopping Network; whether she would scream just because he would not be able to, even though he too wanted to. He wondered how David would look, with almond-shaped eyes. He wondered whether he had ever really loved Laura for what she was, for what she had offered him.
She put everything he had bought neatly in a plastic bag. She smiled.
- Merry Christmas, she said with a buoyant voice as he left the store. Then she regained her former composure and the look of boredom fell again upon her face.
There were tulip petals, on the passenger's lap. Dozens of tulip petals, orange, vermilion, pink, dark purple, like small Chinese cups of exquisite making. It looked incongruous but it was delightful. It had something of a magical quality to it. Like an unexpected image in the dry prose of a commercial contract. Like a bird song in the subway.
He hung the bag on one of the handles. His hands met again with the burning metal.
He leaned forward. He asked:
- Where to, Your Lordship?
A wrapped hand rose from the smelly bundle and slapped him hard on the cheek. Why had he forgotten his scarf?
* * * * * * *
He had had to stop, at the passenger's imperious request. He had had to go around the wheel-chair and kneel to the ground and help the passenger, who was complaining about a limpness in his, or her, hands, which prevented him (or her?) from bringing the cup of coffee to his lips. Then he had had to feed the passenger, spoonful after spoonful, with soup. The passenger had yelled that the coffee was too cold, that the soup was too hot, that he hated lentils, that nobody even cared enough to ask him what he really liked, that snowflakes were getting in his eyes, melting among the lentils and flavoring them with a bitter taste of old ice-cubes. He had protested in a crescendo voice that he was being wheeled around with no more respect than if he were a sack of potatoes, that he had not once, not once, been offered a cigarette; that he did not deserve to be treated that way, or anyway, by anyone, least of all by this one. He had screamed that he would not tolerate anymore abuse, that things would have to change, and to change fast, and to change now.
Then the passenger had poured the soup on his helper's head and laughed with a booming laughter and lit up a cigarette and bit into an apple he had stolen earlier, spitting out the seeds with a whistling noise between his invisible lips.
He had wiped off the lentils with his sleeves and cleaned his hair and head with a clump of snow he had gathered off the hood of a car in his frozen hands. He had fought back the tears of pain and humiliation which were swelling at the corners of his eyes. He had managed not to say a thing. Not one single thing. Neither a scream nor a whisper. Neither a yes nor a no. In the end, it would change. It would go away. The wheel would turn. It always turned. Such was it function. Such was its destiny.
Again he had grabbed the handles and started pushing the chair again, under the snow, along the deserted avenue, where the suffused light of the night was turning blue — a pale, clear, iridescent blue, which seemed to emanate from the ground and hover over it like a ghost, like a spouse unable to give up its dead spouse. He had to go on. He had to carry on. He had to see the whole thing through. Should he let go now, it would mean nothing. It would just have been a pitiful anecdote, one which he would not be able to remember with a vague grin, in years to come, but rather with a grimace of shame and pain because it would be an incomplete memory, just another anecdote, among the thousands of similar anecdotes with which his life was already replete. It would be a betrayal, an abject, shameful, unforgivable, hollow treason.
So he had to keep on going. That was the only salvation left to him. It was an occasion to make up for all that had gone wrong so far — for his stupidly wasted studies and for his meaningless job, for the divorce, and for the argentine laughter of Laura, when she had left, when she had opened the door, turned around and said with a calm hissing tone: “You pathetic piece a shit,” and stepped out, and quietly closed the door behind her, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed so much, so wholeheartedly that she had started coughing; and for Ann's narrow-mindedness, for the new office he had been promised from year to year, one with a window, one with a drawer with a lock, but which he had never obtained; and for the landlord who had still not fixed the radiator, for the bar he had not found and the girl who had not called; for the son he would never see or the daughter he would never hug. He had to go on, to keep on going to ensure that, in the end, a meaning of sorts would emerge from this chaos, would cast a long expected light over it all, giving its anarchic outline a clear-cut shape, a geography, a texture, an orientation. He had to go on to ensure that to be alive was indeed, in the end, in spite of appearances to the contrary, to be alive, to be breathing and acting and feeling, to be responsive and responsible, and not just to exist as a spurious mannequin aimlessly mimicking the teeming motions of decay. He had to go on to make sure that the thyme-covered hills did exist, that they did smell intensely of thyme — of dry rocks and ocher earth and pine gum; of blooming laurels and of myrrh-trees and of bitter berries; to make sure that cicadas sung in tune, hid at the forks of sun-beaten limbs and shed their pellucid chrysalises and endlessly sung in unison with the glory of noon; that the sun hung eternally like a globe of untouched radiant gold on a sky of untouched, radiating lapis; to make sure that infants would turn into little boys, and little boys into bigger boys and bigger boys into sun-tanned shepherds, their lips stained with blackberry juice, their calves scratched by thorny bushes, as they shouted their names to the stillness of the hills and to the sun, counting their sheep on their fingers, carrying new-born lambs in their arms. So much depended upon him, upon his carrying on, upon his not forfeiting his duty...
He had pushed the wheel-chair under the snow, feeling the cold getting nearer every instant, more personal, as if it had become palpable, as if the presence he had sensed earlier this afternoon, leaving this office, was slowly congealing into a shape, on the verge of obtaining a face, a body. Its punches, while so numerous they felt like sleet, had lost nothing of their precision or their thrust. The eyes, the lips, the cheeks, the neck, the fingers, the stomach, the legs — they explored each part of his flesh with an ever unsatisfied curiosity coupled with an almost amorous ardor. He was exhausted. He breathed rapidly, never able, it seemed, to get enough air in his lungs. Yet the little he managed to swallow hurt like molten lead. It felt harsh, thin and alien. It abraded his tongue. It was flavored by whiffs from the quart of cheap gin the passenger had extracted from under his wrappings and was busy gulping down, with loud gurgles and prolonged sighs of satisfaction. There would be no end to his present misery. He suspected as much. He accepted as much. No end for him. No end for anyone presently caught in the throes and tangles of misery. It would go on for such people, as he was himself going on, as the cold was going on, forever on this flat and bare earth. But maybe for others it would make a difference. For babies unborn and babies too young to remember, things might change, might follow another direction, take on another signification. It was worth trying. There was nothing else to try anyway. It was only at the end of the road that you could know where you had arrived, that you could say you had traveled and that indeed, the earth was flat, and bare, that you could lay down your burden and declare that you could not go on anymore.
Who was this torturer of his? Why did he allow him to inflict such deep, such inmost, such incurable wounds? A never before tapped flow of humiliation, of mindless self-sacrifice now demanded to come forth out of his heart, like a torrent of lava, of ashes and of spume gushing violently from a volcano, burning everything on its way, digging a bottomless trench into the scorched earth. Questions echoed from one end of his mind to the other, banging against his skull, as frenzied and barbed as wasps in August and as impossible to swat. He knew they could not be answered, that they had no answer. They were rhetorical. They were noisy words, without meaning, for they did not know what they said. His present action had nothing Christian to it. He did not believe in charity. He did not think you should to unto others what you would have liked them to do you. He hated good deeds. They smacked of Boy-Scouttness, of the Salvation Army. They looked like Mother Teresa: wrinkled, weak, inefficient. They were placebos. The endemic homelessness of thousands of New Yorkers irritated him more than it concerned him. It was yet another ugly strain in the life of the big city. He did not care much for invalids either. Sickness made him sick. He abhorred the very thought of death. He did was he was doing because he did not know what he was doing.
Maybe things would have been different in the land of the lemons? Maybe there, under a sky as pure as a prayer, among olive trees and cypresses, the goodness of one's heart bloomed like a poppy proudly hoisting up its crimson banner? Or maybe things would have naturally carried a meaning — would have been simple things, full things, standing in their thingness the way trees stood in forests, embracing the earth with their roots, supporting the sky with their branches? Maybe, had David lived with him, he would not have hardened himself so? His son would have acted as a constant reminder, a continual judge and witness for the world's misery. He would have clung to his father's sleeve, and would have said with a serious little voice: “Dad, why don't we cook something for the guy under the porch and bring him a blanket to keep him warm? Dad, why don't we send money to the Red Cross, to the New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, to the Fund for the Relief of the Kurdish people, of the Iraqi people, of the Bengali people, of the people from the Horn of Africa, of Ethiopia, of Cambodia, of Armenia, to the Tamils, to the Timorese, to the Sudanese, to the children of Rio de Janeiro and the Nordeste, to the little girls of India, to the kids of Soweto?” It was better after all for his son that he had remained with his mother. She was aggressively selfish. Or maybe just aggressively ignorant. She would teach David to be so. It would spare him the fruitlessness of empathic suffering. It would save him from seeing his father look embarrassed, pretending he had not heard.
The snow made their progression more and more difficult. It stuck to the wheels, and to the soles of his shoes. Under its coating, the pavement had begun to freeze and was getting slippery. Yet he managed to push the wheel-chair, block after block, in an almost uninterrupted fashion. When the light was red, he took his hands off the handles for a few seconds and blew on them, thinking of his scarf and of his gloves. He could see them in the office, the scarf on the rack, next to an old umbrella, the gloves on his desk, like withering flowers. Both were a gift from Laura. Maybe that was why he had forgotten them. Maybe somebody would steal them tonight. Maybe he would buy new ones, and begin a new life? His hands stung and itched. They felt as if the skin of the palms had been removed. He had seen a movie, years ago, in which a bishop, on the parvis of a cathedral, desecrated a rebellious priest's palms by ripping off their skin with large metal brushes, so that he could not bless anyone anymore. It had seemed so barbaric at the time, so cruelly gratuitous. How could have man ever believed so much, or so little, in his Creator? How could he arrogate to himself the right to forget that faith was symbolic? Now, however, it just felt like it was part of an undecipherable, yet necessary ritual, which somewhat involved everything else. Life was about symbols. Life was a symbol, though of what, he could not yet say. It thrived on signs and on constant shuffling of signs. But nowadays the signs were empty. They were just pieces of paper, shredded, devalued symbols, conventions, mere commodities to be traded for other signs which in turn became values generating more signs in an endless cascade of dwindling significance. Where had he read such convoluted ideas? And why were they now coming back to his mind? Or was he actually thinking them? So many things happened so differently tonight... Briefly, he thought about the book he had read earlier, Flaubert's Three Tales. How he now envied their characters, basking in something like faith the way he was surrounded by the cold, drowning under a blizzard. Could it be possible that he was after that which would give an end to his own story — some sort of personal apocalypse, an inescapable, binding revelation? Could it be that he secretly sought out his own miseries only because they would, in the end, provide him with the warm certitude of order, of marvelous necessity?
He was going crazy. Drunk with cold, obviously. Intoxicated with humiliation.
He bit his fingers hard to restore a seeming of blood circulation. The pain brought tears to his eyes though, bizarrely, it also brought him a queer sensation of comfort. As if pain constituted a beginning of an answer. As if something lay in pain he needed to discover and to explore. The suffering reverberated throughout his freezing body with a golden glow, an incandescent comet-like trail of phosphorous dust. He spent what seemed to him a watchful eternity marveling at its beauty, at its useless yet consoling splendor. An infinite tremor ran through his whole being. He was indeed going crazy. But first he had to finish this job.
When they passed by it, on the other side of the avenue, Saint Patrick's cathedral looked just like any other building, a tall monument squatting under the snow, defending the dark emptiness of its heart against the assaults of the cold. The passenger was cursing then, with so foul a language he felt soiled inside at having to listen to the repugnant flow of words and sentences — soiled and desperate. Desperate and drunk with despair. Desperate and drunk with elation.
* * * * * * *
They entered the Park by the Sixth Avenue entrance. He felt as if he was wheeling a king back to his palace through a secret doorway after some grandiose occasion, a golden jubilee, a magnificent victory over eternal foes, a coronation. The green and silver liveried valets, the bejeweled women with ostrich feather fans, the ambassadors, the gabby Secretaries of State, the requisite anarchists hiding their crudely crafted bombs under their satin cloaks, the wigged dignitaries — they had been fooled. They were still waiting for His Majesty somewhere in another wing of the citadel, under the crystal chandelier of the ballroom. They were whispering in each other's ears and sipping locally grown champagne. They were getting impatient and bored and tired. The musicians kept their bows ready over their violins' strings for the national anthem. The petits fours were turning stale on the tables. The scentless flowers were withering.
But it had been their Sovereign's pleasure to play a trick on them and to withdraw unbeknownst to them all, to freely roam through his palace alone, room after room, from the library to the Chamber of the Cabinet, from the Rococo gallery to the Trophy Room, along empty hallways and deserted corridors. The furniture was sheathed in crisp, white fabric. The candles had been blown out. No lamps were burning in the bronze sconces. The clocks had been stopped. All the noises were hushed to a mere sigh by the thick carpets on the floors. Reflections in the tall, beveled mirrors stood perfectly still like images from a book of hours. Save for the invalid Monarch and his confidant, this part of the chβteau was empty.
How the whole scene would have enchanted David. It was magical and mesmerizing. It looked as if the world had been made anew, as if it had been redesigned, given an entirely new function and made anew with fewer, sturdier yet sheerer materials — with glass, and ice, and scintillations, with black lines and white stretches, with things furry, and things so smooth they lost all dimension and volume, with things bright and things untouched by any light. The snow fall was subsiding and the wind had almost died. The air was filled with a powdery taste of frost and seemed to dance within its own lacy stillness. Even the silence was different, rang differently. It was not so much an absence of sound as a gathering of all sounds into one single, almost inaudible, vibration — that, maybe, of an invisible finger running around an invisible crystal bowl or that, maybe, of an invisible choir singing an imperceptible carol. All that ever had been had given up being, had accepted being transubstantiated into its own abstraction — not so much its obligatory details, its mandatory colors, its unavoidable grain as its idea, its essential, yet fleeting, concept. All had turned into a distinctive tremulation of the light of winter, from the darkest black to the thinnest, brightest blue, in palpitating hues which filled up the atmosphere with delicate, circular motions.
Even the cold had been somewhat subdued. Its presence was still heavy, but it had toned down its oppressiveness. It felt like somebody's palm on the shoulder, maybe an overly concerned friend, maybe a mere stranger offering his help after you had tripped over an obdurate obstacle. It still bit you in the eyes, it still braced your legs and gagged your mouth, but there was something playful to it, almost gentle.
The path they were following went uphill, then downhill. The chair weighed more and more. He could barely feel his hands. They seemed to belong to another body, far away from his, hardly responsive to his commands. Even his thoughts evaded him, taking on such a slowness of succession they appeared like snapshots, black-and-white outlines of ideas in the making, or like panes of glasses hit in slow motion by invisible projectiles which fractured them in thousands of directions, creating exquisitely crafted patterns of dew-sprinkled cob-web like splinters. The elation he had experienced earlier was leaving him and leaving him empty. The beauty of the snow-covered Park oppressed him. He was feeling out of place, out of tune almost with vehemence, as if the cold had started hissing again in his ears, enjoining him to go away, to clear the ground, to disappear. A sense of absolute helplessness overcame him. He had felt the same at times with Laura. She had been so ideal. She had been so excruciatingly all that which he had dreamed of, when he had thought about falling in love, about marrying — and he knew he had been, for one, so inadequate, so ineffectual. He had stood for years in awe of her, convinced that, whatever he tried, he would never be able to give her the equivalent of that which she tossed so negligently at his feet without seeing the value it had for him. There had been nights — the most achingly beautiful nights of their marriage — when he had not wanted to sleep just to look at her, to fasten his eyes to the little bit of her own eyes which he could see through the slit of her closed eyelids, under the long wimples of her disheveled hair which glimmered like nigrescent stars fallen from an unknown sky into his bed; just to feel her warm skin against his bare arm, next to his chest, under his slow breathing, and to listen to his heart heaving and burning and trembling under the impalpable weight of the love he felt for her. She too had loved him. He had always known it, in spite of himself. To know it, to feel it, pertained to what and who he was. She too had been rent asunder by their common, irretrievable failure. As he had done, she had forced herself to tear open her own chest in order to cut off with her hands the passion which invisibly chained them together. Wherever she was, he could almost physically sense it, she too was still devastated — like a willow stricken by a thunderbolt, which hides the charred wound of its hollowed trunk under the cataract of its weeping branches.
But love was not the answer. Love was not enough. Love was nothing. It came and bloomed and burned and was overturned. What it held, it necessarily let go of. What constituted it, it could not, by definition, keep. It resembled snow on the ground: it reflected light; it changed the appearance of everything; it bestowed magic upon the most trivial detail and made out of it something perfect and essential, something no one could have invented, or imagined, or willed, yet something no one could live without — then it melted, and the ground drunk it avidly. It came and bloomed and burned — but it was the only element on the wheel which did not turn with the wheel, which did not go away, which could not be replaced. It remained where it had taken root and burned more, burned deeper, like a biblical bush in a barren landscape, till the hole it had thus dug was so deep it swallowed everything.
Would the love he felt for David evolve the same way? Would there be in its place, one day, some day, when he would accept that he would indeed never see his son, an ever-growing crater slowly gulping down his entire life, smothering it under cold ashes and vitrified rocks? Or would the pain ease off with the passing of time? Or should he keep love alive, always dancing and radiant and burning not matter what, even if it implied loving unresponsive shadows, tattered ghosts, mute imaginations; even if it meant feeding it with all he had and all he was, like the crazed French inventor of clay glazes who had burned even his furniture, even the floors and the beams of his house to create beautiful, empty vessels? The earth is flat. The earth is bare. How much more bare, and how much more flat must we make it to ease, to forget, to abdicate the choking pain of exile and of destitution which is our lot?
Tears filled his eyes, forcing him to look at the world through their irregular prisms. Dashes of blue, of emerald, of scarlet, of saffron seemed to radiate from all over around him, turning the scrawny silhouettes of trees into vacillating fireworks, making the snow-covered lawns look like widths of damasked velvet scattered about in the Forty Thieves' grotto. It was as if he had suddenly stepped into a Persian miniature, or an icon, into a flat, but resplendent, world where everything served a purpose, reflected an idea, opened onto the infinity of another, more vibrant universe; where everything existed as a sign of an ineffable reality. The air had turned into a golden substance. Shadows of objects had taken on the deepest, richest blue — the indigo of dreams, the purple of meditations. On the path he was following ran streaks of turquoise and opal. The wheel-chair was a pearl studded throne where sat, under a surplice of silver threads and a mantel of almost liquid rubies, the benevolent Patriarch of Golconda. He shivered. He certainly had a fever: all these trembling lights in front of his eyes, these aqueous jewels were a mere illusion, a inane distortion of reality to which he gave in for some cowardly sensation of comfort. The earth was flat. The earth was bare. The earth was dark. The earth was cold. The earth was neither hell nor paradise. It was here and now. It was covered with snow and it was slippery. It was the see of winter, the way it had been, so long ago, the altar of honey-sticking summer. It was meaninglessly hurling through space. It was made of rocks and of water. The rocks were your bread. The water was your wine. Your life was the only mass you would ever attend. So there. Yes sir.
He let go a second of the handles to wipe off the tears. He had stopped on a wooden bridge, artfully arching over a frozen pond. To his left, towers carved their tombstone-like shapes on the obstructed, pearly sky. To his right, on the slope of a low hill, row after row of emaciated bushes, covered in frost, silvery, glittering, looked like tumbleweeds in a Steuben Glass display, or like hooded, unkempt peasants fleeing the plague, rushing towards a miracle. At his feet, frozen waters garnered the diffuse glimmer of the night as if it were some precious, sacred essence, too costly to be allowed to trickle down on the world in rivulets of pale light. He was exhausted. He wanted to give up — to let go and collapse on the wooden slats of the bridge. Last summer, from the very same place where he stood, he had spotted a white egret under the trees' and the bushes' fuzzy swaying shade. It had remained for the longest time at the limit between the spongy ground and the murky water on bluish, elongated legs, its crest gently flapping in the wind, and it had seemed oblivious of the mud which lapped at its feet. It did not know the earth was flat or bare. For it, the earth was round and soft, a place of profusion and of numerous scents, of crunchy insects and warm, friendly winds. It concealed dangers behind clouds and treats in the dark folds of the dirt. It was whole and welcoming. It was full and indivisible. It was the necessary sum of reality.
In the land of the lemons, there were pink flamingos, weren't there? There were wild bulls, black as firewood soot, the white of their eyes injected with filaments of bright blood, and wild horses neighing among reeds. There were lynxes in the underbrush — supple, subtle animals, the furry tufts of their ears always moving, their eyes a mobile onyx — and blue falcons. There were bombyxes, bears, and ibexes, and animals without names, animals as sleek and as impalpable at the moonlight, as ferocious as the noonday sun, as inhuman as men. There were animals which haunted you in your dreams and animals which carried you to the netherworld. There were animals which brought your prayers to God and animals astride which the Devil rode.
In the Park, too, there were animals. He could sense them all around him. All around him, he had caught glimpses of their movements more fluid than shadows, of their eyes which shot flashes from across the fields like fireflies, under the bushes. Maybe somebody had opened the gates of the Zoo and freed its prisoners? They surrounded him. He knew it. He was tired. They knew it. White wolves, and silver foxes, snow rabbits and snow bantams, and polar bears, and albino manatees, their circles closing in on him, their dances and their frolicking getting nearer every second, until they would finally leave the shade and surround him from all over, moving in on him in silence.
He was so tired. Where would his mindless odyssey end? Or would it even end?
He wiped off his tears. In his chest too lived an animal: his heart was leaping between his lungs like a panicked bird or a terrified raccoon. It was frantically looking for an exit. Maybe it too heard the call? Maybe it wanted to join the other animals, the swift travelers of the night, the furry, silent spirits of the fields? Maybe it would rip his chest open and fall to the ground? Maybe it was right now clawing its way out through the muscles, and the bones, thinking that it could put an end to its, and his, misery? He rubbed his eyes. They burned as if they had been sanded. He opened his eyes again. They burned even more. The ice in the air spurred them relentlessly. He screamed.
The wheel-chair, precariously stopped on a wooden slat, had set itself in motion. It did not go very fast. It gently rolled, with a gentle rumbling. When it reached the road, it gathered a little speed. Almost nothing of a speed. A mere sigh of a push. A whiff of acceleration. The road curved. It did not — and went, ever so gently, straight to a tree trunk, which it hit, with a whisper, and against which it came to a noiseless halt, which a short, muted, avalanche of snow quickly cloaked.
* * * * * * *
He was kneeling in the snow, by the wheel-chair and he was crying. Tears were running down his cheeks freely. They burned. But he did not feel them. They froze at the curve of his lips, but he did not feel them. They fell to the snow, where they dug tiny holes, but he did not see them. His shoulders were convulsively shaking under his sobs, yet not a sound issued from his throat. He cried in silence. He cried with all his heart, with all his body, with all the pain that filled his life, and would fill his life — yet he cried in silence.
When he had rushed after the wheel-chair, it had been as if in slow-motion. He had been acutely aware of the sudden distortion of time. Each action of his muscles in his legs, in his back, in his shoulder — he could have described it to the last fiber, to the weakest nervous impulse as it made its way from his brain back again down his spine, from his spine all the way to each of the thousand of microscopic endings of his body. He had seen the myriad of crushed snowflakes which took flight under the soles of his shoes, how they first rose upward in disorder, like children after school, like a swarm of almost invisible insects in a late summer dusk, then how they hesitated in mid-air, suspended between the sky and the ground, uncertain, playful, filled with hope, before gently reversing their course, giving in again to the earth's intractable gravity, falling downward with reluctance, taking advantage of the flimsiest breath of air to fly up again. He had seen their innumerable shadows on the snow-covered ground where two parallel stripes ran their double course, the crushed, yet still delicate, pattern of their shapes, the intricate way in which each particle of ice was connected to each other as each tried to retain in its heart a drop of light, a speck of the transparent blueness to the night. He had experienced every molecule of air as it had dashed down his lungs and he had been able, for the first time, to smell the real smell of the cold — the mixture of cold things and of warmer things, of things metallic and of things without smell which mingled with the fragrance of the wet, chilled earth and the blunt odor of the frozen, dirty water, of the decaying bark of the naked trees and the rum-like scent from the piles of dead leaves at their feet.
Finally, he had reached the wheel chair. He had thrown himself to the ground, instinctively readying himself for a torrent of insults, or for a slap, or for a blow. But nothing had come.
He had looked up and smiled.
But nothing had come.
He had frantically cleared the snow which had fallen into the passenger's lap, stuttering incoherent apologies. But nothing had come.
Then he had noticed the limp hands, on each side of the wheel-chair. In the left one, a cigarette was slowly burning out, its ashes trembling at the tip like a cluster of moths on the last day of spring. In the right, gin was gurgling out from a new bottle, splashing the snow, turning it into translucent mud. No breath was rising from under the hood.
So he was crying. What else was there to do? What else was there ever to do? Run in circles, like a madman, tearing out his hair, tearing off his clothes, screaming insanities? Kneel and pray to the empty, dark, icy Friday night? Call for help till his voice broke? Whomever he had been, the passenger was dead. It did not matter what he had died of — cardiac arrest when the chair had hit the tree, an overdose of some drug he had taken earlier, the cold, the solitude, old age. He had died of misery. Destitution had killed him. Poverty had swallowed him up in one single gulp. Whatever the cause, he had died. Maybe he had seen an animal and died of fright? Maybe his heart had finally managed to escape and join the other creatures, the dancing rabbits, the furtive wolves, the playful bears? Maybe he had lost his way in his own meanness and forgotten to breathe while trying to think of a new way to inflict pain?
So he was crying because he had failed and because he had imagined failure could be, would be, this time at least, this time at last, avoided — because he had done all that was in his power, and it had not sufficed; because he had presumed that he could do all that was possible and that it would mean something, that it would be enough. But it never was. Nothing ever was. Nothing ever could be. That was the rule. That was the destiny.
So he was crying because he was in pain as he had never been before, a pain so vast it was terrorizing, so immeasurable it contained the universe and yet demanded more space, more immensity to take the full measure of itself, a pain so shattering nothing existed, or had ever existed, which could have provided it with a material to smash. It was a pain without limit and without end, a cosmic wave of suffering darkness which rolled down from its own impossibility and splashed aimlessly against it. And yet he cried because it was not painful enough, because, in spite of its infinity, of its bottomlessness, it was shallow and insufficient and incomplete. The way love never attained fullness, never became whole, never was entirely love, pain felt the same. It hesitated on the verge of itself. It ebbed and waned on its own shores. It trembled at its base, and vacillated and tottered like a spinning top losing momentum — and it left the heart empty, the mind craving and crying for a fuller, more satiating, staggering emotion.
So he was crying over all he knew, all the was, all he had and all he had lost. He cried over the beautiful Laura, trapped in the perfection of her love, unable to reach out for him as he had been unable to reach out for her, unable to accept and to face together the insignificance of everyday life, the grotesque chores of attachment after passion has abated; he cried for the girl from Ohio, who had cursed another name when she was asleep, and for Ann, who was so afraid to love, so afraid of being loved she had turned herself into a bitter-hearted, overweight astrologer for imagined twin souls; he cried for his mother, who had thought she could go on with hatred alone, a hatred so refined, so purified, so keen it glowed around her like a saint's halo, but had gradually driven from her the people whom she needed to hate; he cried for David, who would think himself forthright enough to carry the torch his father had so miserably dropped in the snow, who would think that love meant something, or indifference meant something, that action, or inaction, led you out of your misery; for David, whose eyes would soon glow with a radiant, bright, warm contempt for the ones who had gone before him, for the ones who were going around him, and who, too, would meet his undoing tonight, or tomorrow, or the year after next; for David who would see his hopes loom over his life like Mount Taiwan over a Ch'An monk, beaming in the ethereal light of marvelous promises, and who then would see them gradually turn into caricatures of themselves, to dusty ghosts, to the rotting, dissatisfying remembrances of things unaccomplished; for David who would end the way his father was coming to an end tonight, neither here nor there, neither near nor far, but on the very same spot of the very same earth, his throat lacerated by sobs, his mind hungering for a fuller, more complete, more fervid emotion, for a feeling that could be for the mind and the heart what the sun was for the earth — a source of light and of shadows, a sculptor of details and of textures, a propounder of volumes and of differences — before beginning to look around for a flat and bare place to lay down and wait for an unmerciful death; and, above all, he cried for the passenger next to him, for this anonymous companion who had tried to teach him something he had not suspected, or understood the meaning of, for the old man or old woman or the young creature who had kept concentrating on his own selfish ends, on his own narrow urges and desires, on his expectations and his refusals but who, in doing so, had allowed another to catch a glimpse of a second reality, of the same reality finally basked in the rich, profuse, fragrant light of justification — but who had, no more than anyone before or after him, been able to forge and to give up the keys opening the door which lead to this light, for he had died remembering that there was no door separating these realities, that there was no other light than that of the sun which gleamed dimly, one day at a time, above a flat and bare earth.
His head fell into the passenger's lap, then slid and banged against the tree trunk. It banged another time against it, and yet another time. Soon, it started hitting it with a mechanical regularity, with even thuds which the snow gently received in its muteness, and hushed, and sheathed in silence. There was nothing else to do. The only thing you could do, if you felt so inclined, was to mark, with a regular thump, the monotonous passage of time, the coalescing of instants into seconds, of minutes into centuries, like little balls of quick silver running their haphazard courses across the threadbare carpet of time. You could cry, if you knew how. You could mark time by counting your tears. You could pray, if there was a God for you, marking time with each bead of your rosary. But you could not escape the clanging noise of its passing, the wringing nausea which such a spectacle provoked.
Above his head, as it beat on the tree, icicles gently quivered and tinkled. A beam of light coming from nowhere grazed their tips and seemed to vibrate along with their uncertain melody. Some looked like sections of vines, some like tails for glass animals on a Diamond Lane shelf. Some were shaped like daggers, some like capsized towers. One was bluish, two others had almost no color. One was enormous, almost as large at the branch it hung from. It had been formed by the drippings from a puddle, gathered there since last November, at the fork of two heavy limbs. It had taken a long while, to collect, then to fashion, such a mass of ice, neither too ponderous to break free from its branch and crash to the ground, nor too light to perform the duty it had been assigned since the beginning of time. It had not melted totally during the slight warm up which had followed the week's last chill. A large chunk of it had remained in place, shielded from the sun by a clump of tenacious leaves and by the shadow of a cornice on a nearby building on Central Park West. It was massive but not without grace, ominous yet unthreatening. It looked like an ornament for the robe of Oberon, or like a pointed leaf from Prospero's island. It bade its time, as it had been told — until its time arrived.
Now the time had come indeed. Left to its own devices, the soul which was writhing in the throes of despair at the foot of the tree from which hung the instrument of its eternal redemption, would be lost forever. It would forsake what was good in it, and become blinded by what was unsatisfactory in it. It would not find the strength to curse, or to rise against its Creator — for such strength and such conviction are rare in this world. It would merely weaken more and more, until it was unable to distinguish itself from the objects which surrounded it, from the frozen water next to it, or the metal of the wheel chair which burned the tip of its fingers, from the drenched fabric of its clothing, and from the feverish imaginations it entertained. It had to be helped. It had to be given a light push in the right direction. After all, it had done was what expected of it — not too much of it, barely enough perhaps, but not so little either that it did not deserve a reward.
As the Father and the Son, seated on their thrones of glory, adored by the seraphs and the powers, the cherubs and the archangels, a merciful smile on their half parted lips, were looking benignly down on the Creation which tinkled, gleamed and shivered in the majestic folds of their azure cloaks, the Dove, hovering in the millions of unwavering rays streaming out of the crowns of their heads, opened his divine wings and imperceptibly touched the base of the icicle. It quivered. It pulsated. Thousands of fluttering lights began flaring in its translucent trunk, myriads of pellucid rainbows throbbed in circular motions within its walls. Soon, it was glowing like the first moon of April over new wheat, like a cloudless sky over thyme-covered hills. Its radiance increased. It shone like the sun of July. The whole universe did not have a star, or a comet, or any celestial body which could rival the radiance which emanated from it. No human language comprised enough words, and precise enough terms, to speak of its colors and of the fusing and separating of its colors, as they mingled into one, single, absolute hue of sheer brilliance, only to cleave again into millions of droplets of precious shades and tints. It reduced sorrow and grief to shafts of its own brightness. It scintillated like tears of gratitude in a friend's eyes. It burned like the fire of love over an adolescent heart.
The man had stopped crying. He had stopped banging his head on the trunk of the tree. A trickle of blood mixed with pulpy tree bark was quickly coagulating on his forehead. Snow melted on his cheeks, in his hands, on his back, sprinkling them with constellations of quickly dissolving beads. He looked puzzled. He cast a quick circular glance around him, as if he was expecting some unseen assailant to jump upon him at any moment from behind — a white wolf, a snow owl, a polar bear. Then he listened intently to the sounds of the night, the drip-dropping of icy water at the tip of faraway branches, the muffled crackling of ice over the pond, the taffeta-like rustle of the snow as it caved in under its own weight. A smile came to play on his chapped lips. His eyes brightened. Without standing up, he slowly opened his arms to an invisible newcomer. His lips trembled. A lump of snow fell from his head. He shouted “David?” as if in disbelief. He repeated “David?”, his voice breaking from overjoy. Then he screamed “David!” as he tensed his legs to jump up.
At that very moment, he noticed the snow around him, how it shone, how it seemed to let through, coming from below and not from above, the reverberating marvel of an aurora borealis. He heard a crack above his head. He stopped for a fraction of a second and, for a fraction of a second, as if to look up at the sky, as if to ask the stars for a confirmation of what he was seeing and hearing, he lifted his head upward — as had been hoped, from the beginning of time, he would do. Then, as had been planned from the beginning of time, as the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit smiled compassionately over the world they had created and were willing at every second of its existence, as they stood in the brilliance of their own, irretrievable grace, surrounded and encased by the effulgence of their commiseration and their deathless love, the Father's and the Son's fingers raised to forgive and grant and bless, the Dove's wings extended and fluttering to protect and welcome, the icicle left the branch and, with a slightly hissing sound, plunged straight toward his heart, where it entered almost effortlessly.



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