It begins like this, she said. A man walks down the street from the door of
the house that he has just opened, and after a trip of seven subway stops,
bracketed by descent and resurfacing, glances at the mailbox on the corner and
crosses the intersection. A car comes to a stop. He has rolled up and over the
windshield and tumbled down into the same fractured spider-web just as the horn
blast dies out. Everything is more real for a moment; people will comment on
this as they speak of it to their loved ones over dinner. Everything came to a
stop: noise, movements, respiration. Yes, it begins like this.
The day before last there was no man and little way to invent him. This
intersection of vectors was still so far in the future that no one could imagine
it. She could not foresee it any more than the weather that would be deposited
on them in forty-eight hours, a Zen garden of isobars folding toward them from
the west, all as vague as a midweek midday meal. A faint hunger was building.
She was in the office when the man invented himself, showered and found socks
that most closely matched his pants. She was aware of him—soaped and partially
dressed, looking for something in the refrigerator—and felt hunger as she held
the lid on the photocopier down and saw the attenuated flash.
Coffee, instant. Crystals that look like a sort of stone but have no odor,
not in the jar or the cup. Not in the pouring in between. Another powder for the
changing of the color. He likes the powder. He could be bigger, spreading and
filling the sky somewhere but feels that maybe this is him, condensed in his
jar. The rain starts.
He did not think that is was going to rain. These things surprise him. Rain,
the noise that the toilet makes, dark nights. He cannot shake this bewilderment
and it makes him feel he is becoming prematurely addled and that living alone
does not agree with him. He had planned to be unpacked by this time but
cardboard boxes line the wall. He could use a television. He would drink coffee
but needs water.
She spoke to her mother before she left. Sleepy eyed goodbye and a salad
tumbling in a plastic bowl. I am imagining this, she thought, her mother’s
look and the look of the hallway, always the same, never the same. I have been
here before, all of it like a moment ago when her mother handed her the
vegetables, I am imagining none of this, nothing could be more real. Wet inside,
the vegetables thump against the plastic.
He brings order to whatever he has managed to cobble together, pencils, a
notebook with lists written on the last pages, a calculator that is thicker than
any model made today, an antique calculator but not so old that the paper tape
hisses out of it. Into a corner, he moves and straightens objects—his
collection. He has a briefcase similar to Mr. Efferdahl’s—No, Derek,
he says, call me Derek—calf leather that is wrinkled where the surfaces
meet. Her eyes narrow, close with each cycle of the copier-account key, format,
letter size, number, no collate, toner— it begins like this, he walks.
Clouds like smoke, a diffusion of smoke and rain out of the air,
transubstantiation and the body of our Lord, Jesus, his body and blood. A world
awaits the calf-leather case at the end of his hand, even Mr. Efferdahl wants
his case and why shouldn’t he? He wants his vegetables and pencils. But he
keeps walking, maintains a good stride and passes others in the street, unaware.
She starts again, breakfast, shower, breakfast shower, it begins from the
inside not from outside. She has had breakfast and removed her brown turtle-neck
sweater from the closet. She has had nothing for breakfast, over and over again.
Hold on. Is this it? Mother, looking through her purse, disapproving or
loving, but still the same look on her face. How could I ever know you? She
turns the purse upside down and stars fall from it, a shower that makes her lose
her breath. Mother. Mother, mother. The hormones make you sick in the morning
and when you throw up it’s your pills in the vomit. It’s the hormones that
make you sick, she would say.
Cold water and then air that stings, it fills your head, running against the
inside of the skull. Breathe through your nose. Try to sit down. Hold on.
And then the impact. Denial, then the impact. The man had put down the
umbrella and taken his jacket instead. He will be carrying too many things, the
subway demands a free hand, one at least. He puts his jacket on, a windbreaker
with a sound waterproof hood. With this he will not need an umbrella.
A trickle of blood. Its taste. Metallic, odd. She smells toner at the same
time her mother tells her that her sweater is fit for the garbage. It is a
phrase she overuses; one among many: beyond the pale, Bob’s your uncle. These
were her father’s phrases too, once they were only his and then they were only
hers. Her father tells her to mind her p’s and q’s and she is
wondering how he is saying this to her and why he smells of toner. He hasn’t
aged a second, she thinks; maybe dying does that to you. Maybe toner does this
The door closes and he feels the rain for the first time, cool on his neck
and so he lowers his head. A ground wet but without puddles. The body and the
blood of our lord Jesus Christ. I like it and she says it’s fit for the
garbage. I like it and I’ll wear it. Does he like it? How should I know? A
woman knows. Leave me alone. Simply say the word and I shall be healed.
What kind of name is Efferdahl? Her mother asks, she screams. It is a
Beads of glass. A novena of a windshield, dimpled and glittering in grey
light. Why have I forsaken you? Body and blood. At eight weeks the neural tube
forms and from that cells move out along a kind of scaffolding to form the
brain. All the pictures, an atlas of harelips and spina bifida, gifts of the
medications, saving one brain, spoiling another. Risks, the doctor said, are
always balanced by benefits. It is your decision, letter or legal, a shuddering.
He closes his eyes once he has a seat on the subway. He feels the train gain
and lose momentum. Each door snapping shut, the mouth of a larger animal, the
end of a breath. He is not a large man, smaller than her father or even
Efferdahl, but heavy enough that his cheeks and his midsection jiggle as the
train moves. He undoes the zipper to his jacket and pulls at the collar of her
sweater. His eyes open and he wonders if he has packed his lunch. He touches the
She sees him through the glass that separates the subway cars. His eyes open
and he reaches for a case but she does not know why. He has his lunch.
Vegetables and in a tupperware bowel, indistinct inside except for the carrots.
You can see the carrots.
She knew, it wasn’t the sweater fit for the garbage. Words, does he know?
He could be everybody, she thinks, anybody who makes this more than my
situation. His first name is Derek. Well, at least that much you know. Does
he know your state? Fine word. It is a beautiful name.
It is in a dream perhaps, that she sees Derek Efferdahl in his office,
drinking coffee and smiling at his open window, her mother’s voice filling up
the office space, falling from the sprinkler system, embarrassing her,
corrugating papers, soaking the carpets. Droplets now on the glass of the copier
through which she looks to see him eat his carrots because he has found his
carrots. An arm wipes the globules away. Flash.
She smelled it on her hands, from the subway to the revolving doors and then
in the elevator where it rose in her chest and was then exuded in a musky sweat
that smelled like him. A feeling rising, like his hand on her thigh that time at
the hotel, his hands on her waist and then under her sweater. The car windows
fogged except where her hand print was, love, love. Call me Derek. A faint
nausea that she was having now, Mother knew by the look on her face and the lack
of sleep, but she tried to hide it and played the radio but saw it all, the
pills of Tegretol in the bowl, floating, not yet dissolved except for their
smooth surfaces. What are these? He said that night at the hotel. These are the
biggest birth control pills I’ve ever seen, he said, laughing, and then they
looked for his glasses.
She loses him on the subway platform, a crowd of commuters separating them,
her mother’s voice raining through the station, think of the bigger sin,
she says, now in front of her, sitting with Sister Eveline in the kiosk
dispensing Lotto to those in line. Her mother has a microphone, taps it to make
sure that it works and the air in the station reverberates. Venal and mortal,
there is a difference, Justine, Sister Eveline echoes, Remember the
He is gone now, the platform cleared and the train gone. Completely empty
except for the artificial wind and the toner smell. A second more, a second
more. How many had there been? She laughed, she would said Sister Eveline,
with her cousin, they were terrors. There hadn’t been many but she did
not know which way to fudge the numbers so she told him the truth, after which
he was silent and they lay in the dark. But I waited patiently for the lord,
and he inclined to me and heard my cry.
Outside the sky is a shade of blue that she has never seen and she stops and
listens to the world spin, its quiet grind, its pull. Listen to me, her
mother said, a visage of studied charity, you cannot carry this child.
She held the sweater to her face, she knew it would be the toner, but it was
him. You cannot put a child through this, the light like the sun behind, wiping
the glass clean of the spray that glistened like sapphires in the blue sky.
Mind your father, Justine. Eyes that disappeared or became other eyes but
were familiar, had that feeling of sadness and expectation. Justine. Something
growing, billowing inside her, a feeling of warmth and an absolute certainty
that it would be okay, everything would be okay, she would see to that. He
pulled me out of a pit and out of miry clay. Sister Eveline crosses the
street. Hold on, one hand trying to grip the collating tray, the ceiling
illuminated as the search light passes. The warmth, the warmth. The beautiful
certainty of love of the Blessed Virgin and his name. I cannot do it. And
then the smell, acrid and infusing. Unmistakable .
How could you tell me to do this? How could you tell me to do anything?
This is the place. This is how it begins. He walks across the street still
wet from the morning, his hood up although the sky is blue. She would give
anything to see his eyes, to see if he had the eyes of her father or Efferdahl
or maybe her eyes. She sees how it is going to be. It is all known to her and
she cannot for a moment bear it. She has to stop it. She wants to say something
but can only hear the grinding sound, the spinning. In this moment the world is
oddly open, split wide and holding no secrets. She is omniscient now, the
blue-robed Virgin and not the girl with the affliction, she is more than the
affliction. She has perfect vision; the cars follow their paths as though they
were on tracks, pieces of a game. She stops the bus that will obscure his vision
but he keeps walking and she turns the yellow light prematurely red but the
traffic continues and spirals and all she can do is reach out for him, to touch
that jacket sleeve and prevent his path but when she reaches him, when she
thinks she has the jacket in her grasp all the she can hear is the noise. He is
gone and she is alone, standing on the pavement, flat on the surface of the
moving world. Supernovas of buckling glass and the impact, the spinning of it
all: the car dissolves, the grille becomes a different shuddering machine with a
paper tongue lapping the tray and before the feeling overcomes her she feels the
desperate need to explain herself, to say that she can experience things of such
beauty, that for a moment purpose and circumstance are all one splendid
sensation and she feels such sadness that no one else knows this and she will
forget. She tries to open her mouth but nothing happens and before losing
consciousness she sees the lights flooding the room, illuminating all.