12 January 2012

The Mosaic Sadness, Part 3

Here's an excerpt from my novel, EULOGY. This is Chapter 23. It is late Sunday afternoon on the train from Connecticut to Manhattan. We're about 2/3 of the way through the book. Earlier, Josh Bethune (does not rhyme with "buffoon", but does with "eaten") helped his father euthanize his estranged, terminally ill mother as per her wishes. The funeral's to be late Monday afternoon. He's just found out that his father-in-law, Brad, his mentor at the law firm, is retiring and moving to London. This will leave Josh exposed to some of the politics in the senior ranks at his firm. Brad and his wife Sara are also selling off a big chunk of the family farm, including all the horses except Picaro, their wedding gift to Josh and Nina. Nina, Josh's wife of ten years, is pissed. She's also indicated she may be falling out of love with Josh. Meanwhile, Josh has an emergency motion he needs to file first thing Monday morning with the court before he has to fly South again for his mother's funeral. Amidst all these on-going crises, Josh is circling around what I've been calling the Mosaic Sadness, though here it manifests specifically as a bout of Seasonal Affective Disorder to, what I hope, is comic effect:


There was, to be sure, motion. Or the sensation of motion, call it that, rocking and irregular. I felt it in the space where my spine fused with my hips, a dull ache I guarded lest it spark again into full-fledged agony. There was wind as well, though I could neither see it nor hear it, nor for that matter feel it against my face. The landscape swept by on both sides, and but for the jostling of my body and the grinding of the steel rails the illusion of its moving past like a pair of stock scenery rolls from an old movie might have been complete. My head drooped and my eyelids sagged.

Again, as so often these days, I was alone. Nina had decided not to come back with me. She felt Picaro needed a good grooming, and, I suspect, she had a few things to say about the future of Shadowstone Fields. This was not my battle—yet. Li would drive her back into the city later. Perhaps. I succumbed to the strain and rested my eyes, knowing more would be required of them this evening.

Alone? No. That wasn't quite the term for what I felt; there were others on the train, in my car, even across the aisle from me. What was it? Lonely? Not at all. Lonely implied I needed other people to be complete. No, I was not lonely, had never really felt that way. My mind didn't seem to want to work for me. Solitary? That wasn't right either, though it was closer; still, it made one think of being in prison. I sighed aloud. The woman across from me looked up from her paperback. I rolled my eyes and smiled. I wasn't even sure there was le mot juste in English for this sense I had of myself. Singular, unique? No, no: they didn't work either; too vaunted, smacking of hubris. Alienated? Too harsh, I thought, for it was a comfortable solitude, a safe one, in which I found myself. And besides, that had legal and political connotations. Oh, what was that word? It was on the tip of my tongue, yet just out of reach like the obvious solution to a tricky clue in the Sunday crossword. It wasn't a common term. It even had some technical implications; it seemed like it was a term used in mathematics and maybe in medicine and mechanics, as well. What was it? The train rounded a broad curve. I could see the engine out ahead from my side of the window. Work, brain, work! You've got work to do in the city. A moment passed and then, the aha! moment. Yes, I remembered: differential. That was the word I was looking for. My body shuddered involuntarily, and I shifted in my seat. Differential equation: motion, points in time. Differential diagnosis: ruling out everything that the symptoms did not support. Differential gear: the unequal distribution of power to the wheels of a turning vehicle. Differential: was that the word? Differential Man: Was that what I was? Who I am? Did that somehow define my life? What I was becoming? I chased this thought, this word puzzle, this line of associations downward into an abyss of sleep. A body, an identity, forming, moving through time. An arc, a curve defining my life as I shucked off everything that was different, everything that was not me. Rejecting everything I could not use. Focusing my energies where I felt the strain. Until when? And going where?

The next thing I knew came a light tapping and then a firmer shaking of my arm: "End of the line, buddy." Which was not my name. My doze had been mercifully purged of dreams. I came to slowly, not quite sure where I was and how I had gotten here, trying to piece together what had brought me to this place. A trickle of saliva pooled at the corner of my lips.

Nina and Sara and Holly had all been standing at the fence when Picaro carried me back to the paddock. "Geez, J, I can't say I remember the last time you rode him," Nina had said.

"Whoa, boy," I reined Picaro to a stop he was probably going to make anyway. "That could be because I never have."

"You've never ridden him? Seriously?"

"Seriously. I think I would know."

"Well you look like you've been riding him your whole life," Sara said. "I certainly never would have guessed." Holly squeezed through the fence and came running up. Picaro bent his head low to touch noses with the dog.

Nina and Sara had let this remain my own personal battle. I leaned forward and clapped Picaro on his broad neck. "Good boy," I said and slid my right foot over his back. The instant it touched the ground, while I was still holding onto the front edge of the saddle, he started edging away from me, bucking his hips lightly. "You go on and be that way, big fella'. You show off for the girls. But you and I will always know what happened out there." I spoke quietly into his ear. It flicked me off like a bothersome fly. I took his reins and walked him over, despite his balky protestations, and tied him to the fence. I bent down to scratch Holly behind her ears. She had barked as Nina brought out a currycomb from the barn.

I paused at the door of the train. In the belly of the station, it could have been any time of day or night. I stuck out my head, looked left and right, not yet quite oriented, unsure which was the front of train, then eased down the metal steps. A gamut of lurid theatrical posters watched me shuffle up the concrete ramp to the station. I quickened my pace, glancing at my wristwatch. It was late Sunday afternoon, and most of the food venues were closed, but I found a place where I could grab a pre-wrapped sandwich and a tepid bottle of iced tea. I ran up the marble steps two at a time to the terminal, inhaled at the high vault, made a quick calculation of the density and likely vectors of the afternoon's listless foot traffic, marked an optimal path across the floor, and shot out, half awake. I danced and dodged the light chaos of backpacks and sneakers and shopping bags and strollers.

I dashed up the escalator steps, glided past a security station where I flashed my worn ID to be scanned by the security guard who knew me all too well, jumped in and then out of the waiting elevator, where my ears popped somewhat more painfully than usual—was I coming down with something?—then sliced through the empty hallways of my firm and swept into my office. Why did I wear these shoes? I could never get a pair of loafers that fit: they squeezed the balls of my feet and slipped up and down off my narrow heels. I kicked them off and into a corner where the heel of one scuffed the wall. My big toe protruded from one of my black socks where it had ripped against the inside of the heavy boots I had worn while running down Nina's horse.

A trim packet of papers sat lonely on the corner of my desktop, as expected: the final obstacle of my weekend. Affixed to the pile, a note in bright purple ink on a yellow square of paper in Abby's open, bubbly script informed me she would be back in an hour or so after grabbing a nap and feeding her macaw, Mr. Smithers. "I hope it's OK???" it read. And there behind my chair, in my credenza, the magic drawer that could get me through.

Goddammit! It was barely five and darkness had swept across the sky outside my windows. I vowed to go to the office manager next week and demand a Southern exposure. As soon as I got this funeral thing behind me. This was when my job was most difficult. This was when it hurt the most: the onset of the short-daylight days of the long winter, the receding end of a nigh-on endless weekend, a pile of work in front of me. Most of the firm would return tomorrow morning from a 'weekend' in the sense most people understood: two days away from the office, off of work, spent restfully or in recreation or spiritual uplift with families and friends. I would be pulling myself through the morning, bedraggled and spent, trying to kick-start a week's momentum on the wave of their renewed enthusiasm.

Out my window, a lone falcon, a regular in these bleak midtown skies, hovered over the twilight roofs of the lower buildings, its wings extended, still-seeming for a second. Two. Then, folding and tucking them into its body, it plunged on a sharp, accelerating diagonal until it disappeared below the crenellated parapet of the yellow-stone building where I had seen the solitary woman packing her boxes last night. Perhaps a gimpy, louse-ridden pigeon, or an unsuspecting rat, would be shredded into a meal for its young.

My coffee-maker sucked the last drops of purified water from the reservoir through the heating coils and dribbled them across a thick cone of grounds. Bubbling and steam and the sharp aroma of dark-roasted beans: the false dream of energy. I felt the dull stiffness in my back. I sat down and bent low, my head between my knees, grabbing the insteps of my socked feet. I held them for a minute, took several deep long breaths, felt the pull on my lower back. These stretches, stopgaps really, would have to do until I could see my osteopath later in the week. After the funeral. I rose up, closed my eyes, and leaned my head against the backrest. The spinning world settled to a point just behind the bridge of my nose. Concentration. Concentration. What energy I had left I needed to bring to bear on the brief in front of me. The silence of this place, the loneliness—yes, that was the word for this—would allow for that.

Where is the light? Where is that light? The thought intruded on my meditation, came to me from nowhere, took hold and wouldn't let go. Several winters ago, at the urging of an ad in some forgotten glossy magazine, I had bought a full-spectrum lamp. Now where did I put that thing? Yes, yes. I put it in my 'Miscellaneous' file drawer last spring. Under my three-hole punch and a box of "from the desk of" memos. I took it out, saw the bulb was intact, and plugged it in. Yes. It still worked. Once again I bent over. Grasping the cuff of my left pant leg, I tucked with my thumbs and pulled it about halfway up my calf. I tucked again and pulled the fold until it was even with my knee. As the legs of my jeans were loosely cut, I then made a series of smaller folds to bring the bottom edge above my knee. This had the effect of tightening its grip on my thigh. I repeated the exercise for my right leg and pulled my socks off. They were damp and smelly. I threw them in the corner with my shoes. When I stood, the fold on my right leg slid below the crease of the back of my knee. I rolled it up tighter and higher like I had done as a boy when I wanted to wade into the stream behind my house with Amy and Jason to gig frogs or net minnows. It seemed, according to the ad, certain receptors behind our knees were sensitive to sunlight. And these in turn were keyed into our circadian clocks. The idea here was to trick these sensors into believing there were more hours of sunlight than there really were. If the theory held, I could fool my body out of its usual hibernal drowse and into a state of springlike wakefulness. I had done this regularly during the winters for several years now when I was here at the firm by myself. I could not swear it worked, but I persisted in the hope. As bad as I felt, it was worth a shot. The faux sunlight glowed warm and comforting on the backs of my knees. My toes wriggled freely. I took a small amber bottle from the drawer of my credenza, shook two small white pills into my palm, and popped them onto my tongue. I drowned the alkaline taste on the back of my tongue in a black wash of coffee. My stomach gave a reflexive, anticipatory pang.

Outside, the wind whirred low, hugging the edge of the building. I stood there, skimming the brief. What the hell was this? I flipped the pages. "Abby? God damn it!" Where was she? I reached over and banged the wall joining our offices with the heel of my palm. "Abby? Get in here!" The framed diploma on my wall rattled. My stomach clenched, my jaw tensed. My eyes narrowed to tight slits. I stalked to the door and over to Abby's office next door. My left pant leg sagged down my calf.

"God damn it," I banged open her door. "What is this shit?" Her office was empty, as I should have known it would be. Her ashtray spilled over onto the high clutter of casebooks and files atop her desk. Where the hell was she? I flung the papers to the floor at the front of her desk and stormed off down the hall. At this time on the weekends, this was my own personal race course. I made a circuit around the hallways on my floor, cursing Abby, cursing the work I would have to do to set the brief right, cursing my fate. I careened around sharp corners. I pounded random walls. Light spilled from a few open office doors. Invariably, a book was open on the desk or a jacket was draped over the office chair; associates trying to give the illusion they were still at the office. I turned off lights and slammed doors. Bedcheck. They were fooling no one. I made a mental note of the names and marched on. An empty trash can or two found itself upended.

My anger carried me downstairs. I took the steps two then three at a time. I made a circuit of that floor then went down another floor. Made another circuit. And down and around again. And again, talking to myself the whole time, thinking through what needed to be done to the brief. All the way to the bottom floor of the firm where the proofreaders and word processing pool were, finally coming to myself. I was winded but I barged around the floor in my bare feet and Huck Finn trousers. I knew I must have looked ridiculous, so I slowed up and took a quiet lap around the floor. Though I really didn't care what those people thought of me. Finally, I rounded back upstairs to my office and dropped into my chair. I could feel the blood racing through my body, pounding in my chest and wrists and temples. It was like the firm was my own private gym.

I collected my wits and took a sip of coffee, which by this time was becoming bitter. I downloaded Abby's draft from the server onto my hard drive and dug into the night's worth of revisions. After a moment, though, I stopped. Something wanted my attention. First, I smelled something faintly sulfuric but couldn't figure out what it was. Then I felt the heat from my sun lamp against my calf. Then and only then I felt the fair skin of my naked calf burning. "Yeow!" I leaped up out of my chair, banging my knee on the underside of my desk drawer, and let out a yelp. I reached down and turned the spectrum lamp off. I guessed the lesson here was not to fuck with rhythms of the body. I shoved my pantlegs down and soldiered on, shaking my head at my own idiocy.

Okay, what had to be done here? I settled back into my chair. We needed the judge to act now. Abby's mechanical brief did not convey the necessary sense of urgency. My phone chirped.


No answer. "This is Josh Bethune. Hello?"

The dial tone insulted my ear.

"Dammit." I slammed the phone down. My anger reignited in my frustration. Okay, now concentrate. The language in Abby's statement of facts needed to be spiced up. All the facts were there, all right, but I wanted the judge—or his clerk or whoever was reading this damned thing—to spit when he read the name 'Berker'. I wanted him to feel visceral disgust. Hers was bland, lifeless. Too objective. My phone chirped again. I pushed the speaker button.

"What is it?"

"Josh?" Abby's voice was timid, low.

"Ianelli. Did you just try to call me?" My voice was louder than I needed it to be.

"Um, no."

"Well, goddammit, somebody did."

"It wasn't me. I was just calling to let you know I'm on the way in. I've had a couple hours sleep."

"Don't bother," I said. A silence passed between us. She knew I was pissed. She waited for me to jump in on her. "Why don't you get some sleep and come in early? Five or five-thirty, so we can pull all the exhibits together and make some copies and get it downtown before the judge gets in." I relented, not letting my own pique destroy her confidence. I needed her.

"Okay. Thanks, Josh. I really could use some sleep."



[Critical comments welcomed.]


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

What's wrong with alienation, he typed seriously!

I'm no critical help in the literary department but I'll reread tomorrow.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

So I reread it, but I feel unqualified in the literary criticism area.

* I'm at ifthethunderdontgetya at yahoo dot com, btw.

Randal Graves said...

What's wrong with an early darkness? You southerners with your summery dispositions. Sheesh.

Now, I'm guessing that given what you've recently posted, that this is the thrust of the novel, the mofo-, contemplative- and purgative-nesse of the Mosaic Sadness?

The last chapters you posted, if I remember correctly, were pretty early on in the book. Any chance you could post a few between those and this, since it's such a big gap?

Jim H. said...

Thanks for reading and thanks for the comments, guys. I just got back to the web. I sequestered myself all weekend to finish a story I'm working on—Wisdoc and spawn were out of town.

@thunder: alienation has an interesting meaning to a legal mind (i.e., Josh), as in 'inalienable rights'. It means, essentially, to sell or transfer to another. It wasn't quite the right word for him there.

@RG: Yeah, you're on the right track. See Part 4.

You may force my hand on posting. I'm entertaining a biz plan to e-publish the entire book, along with a dozen or so short stories. It's the new paradigm—like Napster, Limewire, and now iTunes—for the 'book' world. My problem, though, will be marketing. That's the work... Thanks, man, for reading!