My short story Valley of the Kings is now live on Beacon Quarterly’s blog! It’s about occultism in the Los Angeles suburbs. Thank you very much to the Beacon team and especially to brilliant editor Kailla Coomes.
Photo: self-portrait in high school
All names have been changed
When I was sixteen I baptised my friend Wendy. Jessica Falco had committed suicide over Christmas break and Wendy had started seeing things. This would be the year 2006.
In life Jessica Falco had been thick-bodied and sad. She wore clothes that made her look and feel like a wallet—false suspenders and studded straps and big black pockets. She had black hair in the shadow-puppet shapes of aughts updos. In the summer before high school I went around with her and her boyfriend and Ashley Scicli and Ashley’s boyfriend. We walked through town and we crossed the tracks and crossed the tracks back. I look at myself crossing the tracks in my pink polo and my long pearls: I look at myself because later that day I got an email that said “I saw you crossing the tracks with some kids from the other school”. It was from a friend I was trying to duck. I pictured myself as she must have seen me from the passenger side of a car. I didn’t reply to say that it was Ashley and Jessica she had seen me with, girls she knew as well as I did.
On the day that I was wearing my pink polo we went to the roof of the parking garage to walk around some more. Jessica got up on the little concrete wall at the edge of the roof and said to her boyfriend “If I jumped, would you jump too?” She was facing him. She had her silly hands open. Like most of the girls our teachers considered dangerous, Jessica had dim eyes that opened and closed like a Betsey Clark baby. She had a shy boyish way. The idea was that she was a thug or something. I think of Kathleen Myers whose twin I had classes with. The twin was your typical Illinois prig, wearing the Illinois expression, which is a sneery quick blink as if she was trying to see something she didn’t like through smoke. Kathleen on the other hand was gentle. She had a lip ring. (Now, it is true that at some point she stabbed her twin in the leg with a pair of scissors, like Boo Radley—but you couldn’t have blamed her.) She grazed over the sidewalk toward me after school one day. She said to me that she had been suspended because a teacher thought she was masturbating at lunch. She was wearing big plaid sleep pants. “I had my hands in my pockets,” she said. She was trying to impress me a little bit and she was also ashamed.
I was irritated by Jessica Falco’s dramatic pose. Her boyfriend said yes he would jump too. The hair on his head was like a chicken on her breast as he hugged her. Maybe I told them to get down and maybe I didn’t. I don’t like heights.
Jessica hanged herself over Christmas break and Wendy started seeing things. She would open the door to her bedroom and a shadow would race out of sight like the aliens in Signs. One time there was a dark figure sitting on her bed with its knees drawn up to its chest. I remember picturing this. We were walking in a circle around the track during gym. We were outside, so I guess that means it was spring. Wendy was asking me what she should do about it. I enjoyed being treated like an expert. I said I thought I should baptize her. At my house Wendy sat in the white chair in my computer room and I stood over her with a Duralex Picardie tumbler full of water. I insisted that this would get rid of the shadow people. She agreed as if I was trying to trick her. As I baptized her she looked to the side and tucked her mouth into her cheeks like a child with a secret.
For a few years after, whenever I went into the city I would compulsively check the crowds for Jessica. We weren’t especially close. She was Ashley Scicli’s friend and that’s why I walked around with her. I don’t think we ever got together again after that summer. Sometimes these days I google her and I read her obituary and I read her name in the RIP section beneath the Grin N Barrett column of the bulletin at Mary Queen.
She went to see the man. She went to the hotel. He regarded her dress with delight. “You look poppish!” he said. Their first languages were not the same; in her mind she cycled through meanings: “puffy”, “like a puppy”, “like a doll”. He said, “Like a 60s pop singer!”
After a while they lay side by side and they spoke. He had a way of rising up from inside his talk with clear honesty, a bewildering habit because it came at strange times in a sentence and because his honesty was so naked, considered but without self-pity. In this respect he spoke like a man who had been in AA, but as far as she knew he had never been an addict. Maybe this was a French characteristic and maybe it was normal there.
Today she told him that she didn’t trust him. She said it wasn’t that she thought he was deceitful. She said that she didn’t trust his opinion of her. They were talking in the dim gray of the room with the blinds drawn. It was on the first floor. He had that toothpaste smell of male sex. With care because their first languages were not the same he told her some things. She was surprised. She was surprised to be surprised, because she leaned idly on her natural empathy. She had an outsized ability to predict others’ lines of thought. She was not right as ubiquitously as she had come to expect.
The man filled a glass of water and she drank it; he filled the glass again and he drank it. When she was fifteen she went to Jamba Juice with the other students in the play. She was not well-liked in the little drama club. She was very afraid when she was with them. She was in a daze of fear. Among the students there was a boy for whom she had a big desire. He was tall. He had wide lips on top of the flat line of his mouth: this gave him a look of self-contained irony, like a Victorian woman. He noticed things. The boy was cruel to her—as far as she could tell beyond the haze of her fear. He was cruel probably because he was long and old and about to go to college, and because he thought her abstraction was funny. At some point he had seen something of her body, which was exceptionally slender and good back then. She understood in a sort of mythological way that he was interested in her sexually. She understood also that he found her repulsive.
In Jamba Juice the boy looked at her and they spoke. Pointedly he asked if he could try her drink and she said all right and he took her cup. He sucked on her orange straw. There was a moment of silence amongst the drama students: then one lifted her lip in disgust and said “Sick.”
In the hotel the woman and the man were happy together. She said to him to come on her breasts. The warmth of come, its sort of warmth, was very strange. It was most like breath from the nose in winter. Maybe like a horse’s breath. They washed up.
When she opened the door she saw rain: water bouncing from the ground like the balls and stems of crocusses. Light in the water. For an instant, slower than time, she was astonished and didn’t know what she was looking at.
She said goodbye at the door. There was a man noticing her in the parkinglot. As she moved toward the tree across the street the man from the parking lot came to her: he said, “If I gave you my business card, would you be interested?”
“No, no, no,” she said, and she was not offended or suprised. “That’s my boyfriend.” She meant that the man she had left in the hotel room was not a john.
She stood beneath the little green tree getting rain on her head, which she liked. She was waiting for a taxi. She was confused. She was confused the way you are confused when you discover that your destination is on a different street than the one you’d pictured. You are not lost and not afraid of becoming lost, but your human mind which desires custom hesitates to put aside the idea it had built and decided on. She had told a lie: he was not her boyfriend. She had told the truth: she was not a prostitute. She was surprised at the lie and at the truth.
I am very grateful to the publications who have shared my work this year: the Arcade Materials project, Meat for Tea, Beacon Quarterly, and Salt Hill Journal (not pictured). May 2020 bring me into new work and new friendships. May we all serve our art well.
Music: “I Am Not Zen”, Ambulance
Here is a section from a light novel I wrote in college and never intended to publish. The novel is a ghost story about a man called Joachim (“Kim”), invited to the countryside where he grew up for a reunion by his childhood friends.
Inside the grocery they filled a cart with plant-based foods. Kim washed a leaf under the mister and ate it as he ambled. He was considering a final stop. The happiness of the day recommended it to him, but the deep chime in his heart had suggested it: he wanted to see his old house. He measured: could he bring Benjamin there, in good charity? He could return later on his own. He wanted Benjamin to see it. He wanted to go now. Kim paused to admire the shelves of shrink-wrapped Richard’s Cajun Foods, the red banner of his childhood. In that same instant, the lettuce turned flat in his mouth and his body stiffened.
Kim had a fear which came on him periodically. He had gone to a doctor for it when he was twenty-two, after years of having wondered whether he was afflicted with some kind of mild epilepsy; the doctor walked him to all sorts of specialists, and when Kim was 25 he repeated the process with even more elaborate investigation, but no one had ever found a somatic explanation for Kim’s fear. Somebody called it a panic attack.
It was unlike a panic attack. Kim would stand in line at the burrito place, or lift the nozzle at the gas station, and a tip of cold would touch his heart. The fear was coming on, inevitably. He would lean against his car or fold his arms. The cold would widen over his heart and then withdraw, and then Kim would be beset by a vibration inside his body. It was the kind of vibration one walks away with after an hour in the cab of a semi. As it grew it would emit the opposite of a noise, busier than static and rising in volume and width. And inside this aura there was a soft and lively dread. It wasn’t a panic of the shape and confusion of the anti-noise—it was a definite dread, enclosed with Kim, jumping like a paramecium. Kim was himself a paramecium. Kim understood himself to be a half-dome drop of slime or mercury on a field of other drops. Kim’s body was a temporary tree his spore stood up in. In the future, Kim was a mold in a slick sheath, a single cell in silence beside a billion silent others.
Then the anti-noise would cut off and the fear would be over like a light turned off. The sensations of Kim’s ordinary world would rise toward him like birds toward a shaken feeder, and for an instant Kim would be surprised at the nature of sensation, that it faced him and that he faced it, and that he was not a single body on a grid expressing an infinitely unique broadcast which would cross with no other, forever. An instant later, even the memory of the fear seemed insane. The fear lasted between fifteen and thirty seconds—Benjamin had timed it. It came every couple of months.
Benjamin’s cart rattled to Kim’s side from a distance away. “I guess nobody’s going to want liquor,” said Benjamin. “But I thought it’d be polite to get something anyhow.” There were bottles of wine tucked beside the carrots.
I have some ghost stories to tell you until Halloween. This one is about colonial America.
John made the arrangement in quiet and not long ago. Christmas came like his wife’s cold toes in the night and with irritation he moved from it. All the winter passed under the shape of his project.
In February the men sat in council. They determined the hour of Susannah’s hanging and chose a burial place. Matthew wanted Susannah’s head shorn. Matthew should not have been admitted to the room. There were women minding the door outside and the women let Matthew in, because they were virgins and didn’t know about him. Twice Matthew took the conversation; the others did not respond. Matthew mistook them and he made a third attempt to speak. Hope-in-Christ stood (smartly, because he was embarrassed to do it) and drew Matthew away. In the twilight on the yard the two men must have felt that they were in a room with a closed door, but they were plainly seen through the window. John watched. Hope grew exercised, and actually reddened above his blonde beard. His mouth was moving. Matthew’s posture wrinkled.
Matthew worked indoors on the day of the hanging. Susannah was executed decently and buried apart. Consolation at church: don’t pray for mortal sinners. They are nearer Christ’s heart than you can measure. Rely on His mercy and mind your own insufficiency in this matter.
John had made his arrangement in November. He said to the men that he was going out alone to pray and that he would be gone until night. They looked at him but with discipline they looked away. This was the fear of the man alone. They felt it as keenly for one another as for themselves, and for one another’s sake they dared to allow it. Heretics would plug the silence with priests. Young and strong in Massachusetts, they labored to be still, and to hear like Abraham.
John went out into the bare woods alone in November. John was not frightened by solitude. He was different to his neighbors. John regarded the immediate world as an opened door. Beyond the door there was a land whose inhabitants were amiable and inquisitive, lifting their noses. They were molded for service. John walked a long way to the woods, to a clearing where he would not be seen. He made a sign on the earth. The air was cold and dry, and the littlest, highest branches of the trees seemed to make a smoke with one another. John put his hand into the world of God as into a warm pool.
John offered Susannah because she was unpopular and her husband was dead and so were her daughters. John was patient. After Epiphany he went to William, his friend, and told a story. William put his elbows on the table and he put his face in his hands. When William opened his hands a long time later his palms were red and wet as if he’d sweated around the handle of an axe.
John’s wife Deborah did not know John’s part in the trial and hanging. The evening of the execution she said that the house smelled of mice. Deborah suffered from a shortness of breath and when she was under sentimental strain she became outlandishly afraid that she was bound for an attack. She said that the house smelled of mice but she said it with fear and not accusation, so John supposed that she was only upset at the witch and the sight of the hanging, and not that she had guessed his responsibility.
Deborah kept on about the mice. John woke one night to see her in her chair. Dim, soft, high. He heard a whispering. He thought she was praying and then understood that she was trying to breathe. Half-asleep the thought came to him of his mother beside his bed when he was a boy. He slept and the thought came to him of Susannah hanging. The shape of her body was a comfort, like the shape of his mother. The thought in his head was a snowpea in its green case.
When some days had passed after the execution, John made a request. He tested his servants like a floor. Carrying wood home in the evening he stepped lightly and then he jogged. John threw the wood down and ran along the bare strip of land at the end of the town. The wood passing from his hands was like the dropping of chains. John ran faster than a man and faster than a buck. His heart was lazy as one asleep. When he came to rest he looked back at the town, far. John was glad and he ran home again.
Deborah sickened. John tried to keep the house for two but soon it exhausted him. William and Sarah visited. Sarah brought a meal: it stank. John could not eat it and did not try. William ate and spoke at the same time, and grew merrier as he spoke. He drew his eyes between John’s plate and John’s face like a pulley. Sarah smiled queerly at the tabletop. William told about a remark by his youngest daughter and then explained why it was funny. William leaned toward Sarah and bit by bit he desired an anecdote out of her. She had to be cajoled at every pause.
When William rose at the end of the night he tangled the feet of his chair in a linen on the floor. The linen was on the floor because it was soiled. William nearly fell from the chair, and looking right and left at the floor as he tried to stand he was like a silly man in a sinking rowboat. Sarah rose with two hands on her husband’s forearm. She glanced at John as she stood. Her short fierce eyelashes pulled her eyes back as soon as they landed.
The women talked apart and William waited with John outside the door in the black night. William said that Deborah might stay at his home where there were women to nurse her until she was well, and meanwhile John might take some ease. Sarah had her arms around Deborah’s neck and their faces were so near that John thought they would kiss like lovers. John said that Deborah would breathe better when the snow was dried up.
Mid-March John thought he would go out. He meant to run along the edge of town as he had done before but he was distracted by Isaac’s brown horse, straying. The horse’s neck was long like a stocking and its mouth went after its feet, along the graying snow. John thought about the horse and walked as he thought. He walked at a shallow angle through the woods. His ideas seemed to extend beyond his stride, and even marveling at the slowness of his rising and dropping leg he outlasted his own step. John was surprised when he came to the river. A running man could not have arrived to that spot so swiftly.
There was a man at the water, bending. The sight sickened John with the special nausea of bewilderment—thus when he was a boy and his eldest brother’s arm broke at the shoulder, weird as a cured hock, hanging. The pose of the man at the water made a shape which John could not understand. In another moment the man stood. It was brown Solomon, the savage. He had been washing his hands.
Solomon looked at John before speaking. Solomon dried his hands with a cloth from his breast, folded the cloth and returned it to his bosom. At last he called out. John, are you well, he said. John turned toward the deeper forest. John, you are not well, said the savage.
In the night in the forest John looked at the whorls of a stump. John was weeping. He took a breath and his tears chuckled in his neck like a chicken. From the spaces in the stump came a long face, bearded and opened-mouthed, sorrowing. The face was like a wet skirt. It flapped and said Ohhh.
John tore himself away, but only in a half-circle, pivoting. The moon was out and he could see well enough. He undressed. He wept like a child, shoulders hopping. There was something like clothing in the boughs of a wild raisin. “I don’t wish to,” said John as he drew the garments on. “I don’t wish to.” The material was wet and cold. He fumbled at the ties of the piece for his face. Clumsy, he knotted his own hair into its thongs. The matter was stuffy at his nose.
John squatted in pain. At length he stood although the pain had not lessened. He put his foot forward, with such difficulty and so heavily that it sounded like a great branch falling. He wobbled there, splay-legged, until he caused himself to step his other foot beside it. In this way he went on. His walk made a terrific noise, but he was otherwise hushed. You would not have known it was a man if you had heard that slow struggle. Maybe you would have thought it was a dog pulling a doe’s thigh.
Two Sicilian scenes
Bedrest drawings 5