Fiction - Dropping Balm, The Absinthe Literary Review
 

Cat’s-Eye For Orpheus
a short story by S. E. Rindell
 
 

Closed windows, closed curtains, closed eyes. This is no way to take a vacation. But it has been like this for him all week. He knows people, has friends even, who would think this sort of sloth a disgrace, a sign of poor ambassadorship. He can hear the voices scolding him: How on earth can you expect to demonstrate a healthy curiosity for another country’s culture if you don’t at least bother to get yourself out of bed at a decent hour and don a damn snorkel mask? At least make the effort.

He opens his eyes to the ceiling; there is an immediate crackling in his head. It is as if sound instead of light comes flooding in past his open lids. Outside an unfamiliar bird is twittering, cackling—recalling for him the interior of several seedy pet shops he once took delight in visiting as a child. He rolls over on his cot, kicks a leg out from under the sheet. He can already feel the heat of the afternoon, the thickness of it brooding in his ramshackle room. The air all around him is soupy, a stagnant broth into which his respiration makes little stir. Somehow a startling number of sand granules have made their way into his sheets during the course of this night; he cannot imagine how. As he inhales and exhales, he can feel the grains rolling against his legs, under his back, in between the tight folds of his skin. The cackling bird is closer now, perhaps it is not alone; there seems to be more than one. A light scuffling of birds’ feet is heard upon the roof, and between the rafters sand shakes down like salt from a shaker. His eyelids react, squeezing shut. He drapes the back of a hand over his closed eyes then holds a thick, damp lungful of air in his chest and waits.

If he waits long enough, Sylvan-the-Frenchie will come along. If he waits long enough, someone will force him to stand up and do something.

But it is not so. Eventually he arrives at the point of turning blue, his heartbeat throbbing in the stretched skin of his cheeks. He expels the air in his lungs suddenly, loudly, like a mini-explosion. It makes him feel better to hear the sound, to think he might be capable of holding anything to the point of bursting. An obscene resilience, an unflinching stamina–such things are key. He does not wish to be coddled. Not at a crucial time like this. He knows that his friends back home–the small handful he has left–do not grasp this. They have deemed it best to pet him, to fawn over him, to encourage him to comfort and indulge himself. They wanted him to thrive, this much was flattering, but they had their ways of wishing it on him. He was required to be fattened, drugged, and soporific to the point of a comfortable conformity. Hadn’t they shown him this, with their recommendations of pills and prescriptions, with all their ridiculous pamphlets adorned with glossy photos of middle-aged couples playing shuffleboard and Bocce ball aboard an identical handful of atrociously-decorated Mediterranean cruise ships?

Go to Italy, they had said, over and over, Go to Italy; you will fall in love!

They had plied him with their own stories, stories of midnight gondola rides, terraced vineyards, Renaissance masterpieces, Florentine steak, grilled octopus, rosemary-sprinkled foccacia and delicately whipped zabaglione. Everyone falls in love with Italy, they said, you cannot help but fall in love. He had to admit, it was somewhat tempting, this dashing and romantic carnivale of plush consumption they dangled before him.

In the end he did not choose Italy. He could not reconcile himself to the legerity of Italy. There were moments, whole stretches and lengths of life during which time might work like a rubber band, he knew this to be true. This was the principle that allowed for the gross discrepancy: it had not been as long for him as it had been for those around him. His body had indeed turned forty, but the rest of him had arrested all development long ago. The truth of his original affliction had changed to some degree–this was to be expected. It shed a few of its skins perhaps, but nevertheless the core of it remained with him; it took over and drove his choices, even still. He was not seeking a place to fall in love; he was seeking a place to fall out of love. Falling. As if acquiescence alone were enough. The phrase used to describe it was so carelessly constructed. It made it sound as if falling out of love could be haphazardly accomplished, a gesture not unlike throwing a casual glance over one’s shoulder. A thoughtless action, coolly executed, devoid of love or malice.

And so, in the sway of this hard, indifferent logic, he had arrived. Here. A place where the temperature made your blood run in tepid rivulets, and languidly so, barely concealing itself beneath the shallow surface of your skin. A place where tourists stayed in bungalows that hovered on rickety stilts over the jewel-toned sea. A place where, for fifteen francs, a native man could be sent climbing up the trunk of a palm for the retrieval of a coconut, the soles of his feet leathery, his toes muscled and sinewy like fingers. It was a lush and tropical place, and with the biting clip and nasal twang of  colonial French being spoken all around him he could close his eyes and it was almost Tahiti–but for the scent of it. The scent of this place could never be denied. It filled his nostrils, dirtied his lungs and drugged him, all in one fell swoop. The scent confirmed for him what was needed: it was not Tahiti. He had picked it because it was beautiful but also because it was beautifully-cruel, cruelly-beautiful—a place where the rich tourists and poor locals stood divided, their differences opened wide like a hungry gaping mouth, or perhaps not hungry but yawning cold under the hot tropical sun, a giant abyss, jack-hammered into a jagged state of permanence. The rich Europeans who flocked to the resorts knew the exact volume of this giant vacant abyss, and the locals knew it also with an even greater precision. It had been long agreed upon: nobody could be bothered to take pains to ignore it. It took great effort to ignore something like that, and only the Peace Corps volunteers that drifted in and out from time to time seemed to make the attempt to muster such an effort, smiling their sloppy smiles all about town, dressed in loose kaftans and Birkenstocks, spreading English with the sort of infective speed usually reserved for false rumors, then one day disappearing like a fine mist drying away after a steaming hot rain.

He thinks of the place from which he had come: an all-American town built upon the confluence of two rivers, one cold and quick to kill, one thick and slow. But that was nothing special; weren’t there many towns like this? It could be anywhere. It could be anywhere and it could be nowhere, a place buried far beneath ground, and by this token it seems a mystery why he should feel so obligated, so drawn, so required to make his return. He attributes the nagging sensation to the fact that he bears the weight of the usual expectations placed upon him, that he has willingly volunteered for his dutiful share of responsibilities.

Back in the States he keeps a job. They have let him go for now. They have generously given him time off to take this planned vacation of his. Eventually, when the end of the month draws to its conclusion, he will be expected to return. He might even be expected to return with a nice, darkly bronzed tan—one he hasn’t made the slightest effort to acquire. But then, maybe they wouldn’t expect it. No one had asked him any questions about where he was going. His office wasn’t really like that.

Suddenly, there is a heavy rapping at his door, the vibration of it causing the whole hut to shake like a portable outhouse. Without making a sound, he shifts in his cot and pulls the dirty linen sheet over his head. He can feel the grains of sand sticking to the beads of perspiration forming at his forehead and temples.

“Ah-lloh! Osk-hair! Osk-hair!”

“Take a hike, Sylvan. I mean it today.”

“Oh! Osk-hair! Zat ees not a nice sing to say to me. You sink I don’ know wha’ chew mean! You are lucky I am steel your friend.”

Oscar lies perfectly still, as if the Frenchman outside his tin door might be dissuaded from pouncing in pursuit, if only by the lack of sound within. He has seen this trick performed by wild beasts on the Discovery Channel—the smaller, weaker animals lying breathless and still while a lioness passes them over. The trick was to not agitate the senses, to not egg-on the predator. Suddenly the pounding comes again, the rattle of it overcoming the thin quivering walls of the hut with a renewed force. Lions are one thing, he decides, Frenchmen another.

“Oh, come on lemme een, Osk-hair. Don’ make me breek down zees door; you know ees no problem for me eef I do. Me, I like to do eet.”

Oscar ponders this proposal for a minute, does a quick computation to calculate the loss of his deposit. He pulls the sheet off his head and heaves a sigh.

“Fine, Sylvan. You win. Let me put on some pants.”

~

With no alternatives, they do what they have done every day since Oscar’s arrival: they climb into Sylvan’s beat-up Citroën, and with four bald tires spinning recklessly over the unpaved road, they head into town. The dirt road kicks up only a little as they drive along, a benefit provided by the heavy hand of humidity. This is more of a gift than can be measured. The ocean-view ride is much more pleasant without a mouthful of chalky dirt.

The car is less a vehicle than a moving crate, the top of it having been soldered off long ago, leaving the inside ruthlessly exposed to the elements. The seats have rotted down to moldy lumps of rubber foam, the carpet has been pulled up to expose the irregular grooves of the metal frame beneath.

In town Sylvan pulls the car up just outside the café. Over the past month, Oscar has learned that this little local café is Sylvan’s favorite place to haunt. Part bawdy bar, part expatriate coffeehouse, Sylvan attends daily, perhaps looking for familiar faces, wistfully seeking some other loose body—preferably a French one. When Sylvan cannot console himself with the discovery of a suddenly-arrived old buddy or schoolmate from Lyon, he settles for a secondary familiarity, the kind born among strangers who have trod the same circles together for more than the duration of a day. During these times, Sylvan hunkers down with the “regulars,” the long-term tourists who have already worn a familiar grove into the dusty crossroads of the town. As Oscar enters the café with Sylvan today, he realizes quite unexpectedly that he has become such a person himself.

Jean, the barman, looks up as the two men enter.

“Eeh, alors, les vieux garçons! Ça va bien, je suis sûr?”

“Oui, ça va, Jean.”

Without inquiring about their order, Jean pours equal quantities of brandy and water into two tumblers. Oscar already understands how this works. He had learned within his first week here, Jean was not the sort of barman who took orders but rather doled out drinks to his customers according to his own superior knowledge of what was fit to be drunk and by whom. It is one of his habits he likes to impose on the clientele: the rum is served with a patronizing smile to day-tripping tourists, the brandy and whiskey served with an approving grunt to his more routine customers.

Together, Sylvan and Oscar take their glasses and choose a table, settling down on a couple of crates stacked to form a makeshift booth by the window. Oscar takes a sip and notes that the fine al’eau has a sharper edge this time; Jean has taken it considerably easy on the water, and Oscar understands this to be an honest compliment of sorts.

In the opposite corner, on another set of crates stacked closer to the bar, a girl sits, drinking nothing and regarding Sylvan and Oscar with her blatant, hollow gaze. Oscar has already come to recognize this gaze as well as the girl who is now aiming it in his direction. Oscar stares at the gold arm-bracelet she wears twined about in sharp metallic swirls, pushed high on her skinny bicep. In the absence of direct company, she slumps at her perch, her arms and legs jutting away from her body awkwardly, loosely encircling the table in front of her. The girl is angular, long-limbed; the sheen of her skin competes with the gold bracelet by way of contrast—its charm, its smooth continuity, the dark glistening black of coffee. She spends a routine amount of time in the café, making Jean nervous. Oscar has only been in town for the past few weeks but already he has become privy to the silent understanding that this girl is different somehow, not liked, not trusted as one of their own. There have been times he has overheard her making conversation with some of the other tourists, he knows she speaks French and German, as well as nearly immaculate English. Oscar speculates that in the English tongue she probably calls herself a native, despite the pains he and a handful of others have taken to refer to the indigenous population of the village as locals. This girl, he decides, would know the difference, and would doggedly insist on using the politically incorrect label anyway. She would do this and not explain to them their own foolishness: it was one thing to change a word, and another to change a meaning.

Today, Oscar feels something new washing over him, he feels more tangible somehow, as if his body temperature is several degrees cooler than the air surrounding him, making him more solid, more dense. He boldly returns the girl’s open stare. With an absent-minded hand she picks up a few loose sugar packets left behind by the morning’s earlier, coffee-drinking tourists. Tearing the pouches open with satisfying rips, one by one she dumps the contents out on the tabletop before her. Oscar watches as she licks a finger and dips it into the loose grains of sugar. With her saliva-dampened index, she chases down every granule. His vision is unusually acute, as if freshly sharpened; even with the glare of the afternoon sun bouncing off the table’s surface, he can see that the sugar is the brown, thick-grained variety that is usually labeled “natural.” All the while the girl dips up the grains with her fingertips, her eyes remain steadfast and indifferent, pointed unblinking in his direction.

~

There exists a wide variety of ways in which one might mourn the dead, and Oscar knows them all. He knows them because it was his job. Is his job. Will be his job once again when he finally returns. And because of his job, he has seen it all: open caskets and closed, rosary beads ticking off to a humming choir of reciting voices, shiny urns of gray dust turned out upon grassy meadows, men and women kissing the velvet hems of sacred scrolls, the burning of sweetish incense and even a few offerings that violated the city health ordinances.

Back in the States his working schedule had often varied, the timetable of funerals he was obligated to attend generally gleaned from the obituaries, or else from the logs kept by the local hospital morgues. Not a lot of people knew about those – hospitals were required to release the names of their dead; it was a matter of public record. Sometimes the logs also specified the cause of death and gave the list of names slated to be given public burials courtesy of the city, all of which was very helpful to know. Oscar was never required by his company to trouble himself with the pauper’s funerals; it was expected that there would be no one in attendance.

So this was his job. He woke up in the morning, camouflaged his body with a black suit and set out to attend the funeral of a perfect stranger. At the funeral Oscar stood by, attentive, an anonymous figure seamlessly recessed in the backdrop of mourners until the service had reached a final conclusion, at which time Oscar rose and hurried across the room in order to stand in front of the main exit like a boulder. Once in place, he fixed himself solidly against the shuffling current of people as they streamed toward the bright daylight of the open doors. There he would remain and perform the one duty that was required of him. He handed out business cards—only the cards he passed out were square-shaped instead of rectangular, and they contained a short but poignant speech outlining the virtue of giving donations to cause-worthy societies, in lieu of wasting one’s money on flowers. There was a phone number to call at the bottom, and on occasion the people who accepted Oscar’s cards phoned the number up and consequently got Oscar’s boss Benny on the other end of the line, somber-toned and businesslike, willing to accept any and all proposed donations and channel them into the desired organization: cancer societies, lupus foundations, kidney research groups. Benny knew all the organizations, and he knew how to prepare the necessary forms for a tax write-off. He could give advice on which research campaign was on the verge of a breakthrough and which had produced a new wonder drug. For a fifteen percent commission, Benny was willing to offer his expertise to anyone earnestly interested in making what he called “a real difference” in the world.

Oscar did none of this. In fact, Oscar cannot recall having ever uttered a word to the people whose hands accepted his outstretched business card. There was a slight irony to his occupational silence, considering that every formal discipline in which Oscar had been educated required the exact opposite. Instead of silence, he had been trained in sound—music, to be precise. He had been trained in music just as she had. She had shown great promise until the time of her death; he’d shown only slightly less promise until that same time.

Her name was Elenya, a Russian name, imported for her by a Russian immigrant mother and father. She played the cello and also sang a hauntingly lovely soprano. In her first year at the conservatory, she was selected and singled out among all her more senior classmates to perform the part of Mimi in La Bohème and managed to gain a defiant degree of recognition while singing an otherwise trite and over-performed role. She did these things, and then one day she didn’t.

The Russian thing–the potential “culture clash,” as people often dubbed it–never bothered him. Her parents as well as her background were never as odd or foreign as she imagined them to be. But he remembers using it against her once, cruelly. It was towards the end of it, when he’d grown angry with her, finally, for dying. He couldn’t understand how she’d tested positive, and how, as the six-month marks ticked by again and again, he tested clean time and time again. He’d wanted to attack her, destroy her, slander the whole of her ethnicity, her culture. He told her that he had suspected all along, that he had known what sorts of dishonest acts she was capable of performing behind his back. Everyone knew about the mail-order brides, he’d said, everyone knew about the whorehouses and the slave trade in the Baltics and the women who sold themselves on the internet. She was Russian, and she was dying; he’d concluded for her that she was dying because she was Russian. He’d preached. He’d declared that her infidelity had claimed its consequences. Telling her this, spitting the words into her face had made him sick with himself. Literally. He had felt sickened and later was forced to abscond to the bathroom in a quiet flurry, making it to the toilet just in time. Other times he was a different sort of monster, the kind that wore a disguise of chivalric armor. He’d pleaded with her to tell him the story of how it must’ve happened, the sinister and aggressive man that must have preyed upon her while his back was momentarily turned. This was how it must have happened; he was certain of it. This was what obliged him to extend his forgiveness, which he, with dedication,  pretended to proffer forth to her warmly.

Whatever the truth was, she took it to her grave without apology.

After her death, he found himself consumed; he became obsessed with it – not her death so much as her dying and the nearly seven years she’d taken to do it. He hadn’t been there for that last part. He found himself thinking about the stages of her death, wondering how it must have been—the IV bags, the meticulous, clinical counting of treasured white blood cells otherwise taken for granted, the coughs and sneezes and the ominous foreboding they left in their wake. He wishes he wouldn’t think so much about it sometimes. He realizes that at some point he became what his own family might have termed “a dark character,” dismissing him as a tragic figure and hinting that his grief had grossly transformed itself into melodrama. He hates them for thinking about him like this; he hates them for making him think about himself in such a way. He wants to harden himself to it. He thinks he might have found a way. He knows that his recent occupational choices are not likely a great coincidence. Not that any of the funerals he attends have anything in common with Elenya’s funeral, or her death. None of them are even remotely personal to Oscar; none succeed in moving him to empathize with the sense of loss inspired by the unknown deceased. But Oscar knows that there is quite possibly something else he has been hoping to get out of his job. He senses his own expectations, the weight of them like gravity. There is something he has sought at every one of those funerals, something he cannot quite put his finger on. It is as if whatever it is stands just at the back of him, out of his line of vision by a hair’s breadth. He hands out his deck of cards, the stack dwindling as he places them into the open palms of mourners, the figure of each mourner moving past him, out and into the daylight, receding from the corners of his eyes like distorted reflections caught in the curve of a spoon. He knows all too well what this means. He has felt the slow transformation happening over the years; in many ways Oscar has now become his job. He finds there is a small comfort in the simplicity of it. His body is now a single hand, empty and outstretched.

~

The light is different here, he has decided. The sun sets in the wrong direction, casting shadows and silhouettes he cannot read, cryptic shapes on the ground as he walks away from the café. Somewhere Sylvan is making blasphemous love to a temporary goddess. Oscar searches his mind, wonders where they might go to do this. Did all those colonial relics still exist, lurking somewhere in the dark corners of the village? Ill-reputed rooms rented by the hour and such? He cannot imagine it. Nowadays the foreigners probably took what was more openly available–shamelessly crouching over in thin clusters of palm trees, screwing against cement walls in the open streets of the town; nothing was ever done anymore that required the trappings and gestures of privacy.

As he wanders his mind becomes conscious of a new spatial geometry forming about him. The streets in the village form a functional equation, all of them eventually emptying onto a dirty strip of white-sand beach. Oscar finds himself unintentionally headed to this place, as though the ground is sloping and he is too tired to resist its contours, staggering a little even though he is not drunk. He is on the verge of his fourth week in this new and exotic location, but it is only now that he finds himself off-kilter, affected by the changes of time and temperature. Soon the sun will have set, and the distorted angles of light will have gone with it. This will be better, he decides.

Once on the beach, he draws up to a backward-leaning palm and plunks himself down. He sits on the beach facing the water and drawing out pointless games of tic-tac-toe in the sand with a stick of driftwood. Pointless because he is playing against himself; there can be no outcome other than the cat’s-eye matches he draws up time and time again. The repeated stalemate makes him think of the time he tried to play a game of chess with himself as counter foe. The game dragged on for what seemed an eternity and wasn’t very interesting. He’d realized, somewhere along the way, that in order to have an interesting game of chess you have to look into the future, you have to plot out four or five wishful moves and hold your breath at each turn, hoping your opponent won’t catch onto your plans. The effect of it was spoiled when he’d played the game as his own adversary. It simply wasn’t interesting to look down a long corridor of your own plans and know that you would inevitably thwart them all.

She was Russian and somehow he had developed an expectation that she must have been born knowing how to play chess. Like in the movies. Russians always went around playing chess in the movies. But he could never induce her to play a game against him. She said she didn’t know how. How? he’d once asked; did she mean she didn’t know the rules, that she didn’t know how the pieces were supposed to move? She had looked thoughtful for a moment then replied, No, it wasn’t that. It was that she didn’t know how to win.

He shakes away the evidence of his last game, tosses the stick of driftwood like a boomerang back into the ocean. Even with the sound of the waves lapping on the beach, his ears feel empty. It’s because the waves are so gentle here, he thinks. They don’t crash, they don’t crescendo; they lap. Like an army of kittens at a bowl of milk. The white noise of a benign backdrop.

He thinks again of Sylvan and the girl from the café; he realizes that tomorrow he will be given all the details of their encounter, whether he solicits them or not. Together they will insinuate how much the girl must have liked it, and it will become an insider’s joke, a renewed brotherhood. How odd it is to consider the extent to which Oscar has come to foster this odd affection for Sylvan, how deeply he has come to depend upon the Frenchman to provide him a sense of unfailing constancy.

He considers waiting longer, perhaps making his way back to the café and resting in the open seats of the Citroën until Sylvan returns.

But he already knows he will not do this tonight. Tonight he will walk instead, along the sandy strip of moonlit beach, all the way back to his rusty tin hut. The light of the moon will comfort him with its gentle, entrancing meekness, guiding him as he makes his descent along the strand. He trusts this because it is a move he already knows how to make, the only strategy he knows.

 

© 2004 S.E. Rindell

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