out of the ashes

Monday, December 28, 2009

Marvin--short story

So there's a competition. Deadline Jan. 2. Cherilyn urged me to enter. God, I struggled with coming up with ANYTHING! But...I did it. A redo, kind of, that will stand on its own. I'm excited.
It's probably just me, but italics don't post for some reason. Imagine the internals and words of emphasis :)

5,200 words

Patrick Sean Lee

He left Boettcher Mansion through the front door and stopped on the greystone landing beneath the columned portico, next to a tall, sculpted urn overflowing with ivy, myrtle, and white daisies. Peering down at it, the man reached over and plucked a single bloom from the foliage, laced the stem through the buttonhole of his lapel, adjusted it carefully, and then continued on. Descending the steps, he thought of her smiling at him across the tufted white plain of his bed in the basement last evening. He thought, too, of the inevitability of failure, of corruption, of his personal singularity as he surveyed the speck of Marvin Fuster’s collapsing universe beckoning beyond the weathered steps.
The sky was mottled and torn with the tailings of black clouds that were visible beyond the portico. A late afternoon storm had just passed, leaving the city sparkling and cleansed as it tumbled eastward onto the plains. A brilliant stab of lightning far away carrying enough energy to power the engine of the city for a month, or awaken a sewn together corpse. He caught it, deciphered its strength instantaneously. The physics of the lightning was well understood; he knew it better than anyone.
He was sixty-six, recently an indigent, more recently, incomprehensibly, inconceivably, a genius. One day ignorant and dying of alcoholic poisoning, the next Hawking times infinity with the constitution of a yearling. Whether by the finger of God, an un-remembered blow to the head, or simply the dream of the young woman inside, he didn’t know. Nor was it important, really—at least not anymore. He’d been unmasked by a conclave of red-cloaked butchers and his own wide-eyed guilelessness.

Maribeth had defied her father and gone to his room close to tears after Marvin left the inquisition in the study with an acid warning never to return. Moments later, after she’d knocked and entered, she helped him with the impossible task of selecting the few volumes he could carry back out onto the streets he had come from empty handed. A small book of poetry written by a woman from California, a novel by Garcia Marquez. Webster’s Medical Dictionary. A copy of De Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince—a favorite he’d explored for hours—at normal reading speed.
Four texts on genetics.
“Put them in here,” she had said, handing him one of her backpacks.
“It’s PINK.”
“Well...yes. I have a chartreuse one. Or a lemon-yellow one, if you’d prefer.”
“Don’t you have a black one?”
“I’m sorry.”
They stuffed the books in.
After this he began to search the closet for those pieces of clothing he’d stolen just hours before she’d found him and taken him home with her in great secrecy. He intended to change into them and leave dressed the way he had arrived two weeks ago. Two weeks. In two more weeks Maribeth Harris would begin her first year of studies at the University of Denver.
“I gave them to the Goodwill,” she’d said.
“But why? They were perfectly good. Brand new,” he replied.
“They smelled of smoke, and they marked the old Marvin.”
“Oh. Just as well then, I suppose.”
“Yes. Here, take this shirt. That navy blue sweater there. The beige pants by your right hand.”
When it was all said and done; when she’d dressed him decently and made sure he had both shoes and socks on, that his thin, gray hair was brushed back off his forehead, they prepared to say their goodbyes.
“Where will you go?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Back to your old dock? Oh, please say you won’t!”
“No,” he’d replied with a sad smile. “You mustn’t worry about that. You, my dear child, lifted me out of the ashes. I won’t go back. I’ll find someplace, don’t worry.”
“I’ll sneak you back in after he calms down.”
“Will you continue your research somehow?”
His answer had frightened her because she knew quite well that he was in love with her.
“I’m not sure.”

Twilight. The sun slipped behind the front range of the Rocky Mountains ten miles to the west sending rose and ruby across the sky. Peaceful, even against the intermittent claps of thunder and the flashes of lightning, so peaceful that Marvin could hear the heels of his shoes tapping on the concrete as he turned west onto the broad, wet sidewalk along Eighth Avenue. He walked thirty feet and then turned to take a final look at his Camelot. The curtains of the pediment-crowned French doors above the portico were drawn open, just slightly. Maribeth’s face was there, the side of her head holding the folds of material on the right, creating the illusion of a cascading veil. He turned, squinted, smiled up at her. With the fingers of her left hand she waved a tiny goodbye. He raised his hand to wave back, but by the time it reached chest height the curtains had already begun to fall closed. He lowered the hand, turned, and continued on in a state of absolute melancholy.
Indeed, he wondered, where would he go? Not back to the dock beneath which he’d lived like a rat for years.
Please say you won’t…
The blocks fell away behind him. He was headed north, away from the Capitol Hill neighborhood in the direction of the old industrial district automatically, without thinking, like a bird setting off south in flight in late autumn. He stopped inside the Civic Center Park a mile away from the mansion and rested on one of the stone benches near the Greek amphitheater. The laces of his shoes had been drawn too tight, and so he laid the heavy pack down beside him, bent over, and loosened them. He laughed.
As smart as I’ve gotten, my feet still hurt when I walk too far. My stomach still growls when I get hungry.
Failure still hurts as much as ever…
No, I won’t. It’s just a tiny backwash. I’ll succeed and go back to her.
I don’t need it. I promised.
He glanced at the frontline of skyscrapers, across the park on the other side of Fifteenth Street a hundred paces away.
I’m hungry, though. Very hungry.
Marvin reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. A present from Maribeth; one of so many. Inside, five twenty-dollar bills lay ready and waiting to be spent on any necessity or whim. He counted the bills twice. As he fingered them he shifted his eyes to the left, then the right—an old habit of fear, revisiting. He was alone in the park.

“Are you okay?”
Marvin lay on his side, curled up in a ball beside the bench. His left arm was moving slowly, as though it possessed a detached life of its own, up and down across the shadows on the cement. On hearing the sound of the voice he rolled over and looked up. She knelt at his shoeless feet. The midmorning sun directly behind her head seemed to be resting between the opening in the boughs of an elm, and its light threw a corona of gold outward, like a halo. He was certain he had died, and that this creature was an angel stretching forth her hand to help him home. How he had gotten there he had no idea, or when, or from where he had come. His head ached. Of course, the discomfort of dying.
“You’re soaking wet,” she said, touching his forehead. “You’re bleeding, too. My God, what happened?”
“Are you an angel?”
He made an effort to sit up, but it was impossible. The weight of an ocean seemed to lie on his chest. “I’m dead, right?”
She laughed with measured relief. “No, not unless the dead can talk. Do you know where you are?”
She moved from his feet the length his body, closer to his face, as she spoke, and Marvin could plainly see that she really was an angel. Her hair was deep auburn silk, not unlike pictures he had seen of these beings sent from the throne of God, longer, though, rendered in more vibrant colors. She pushed it back behind her delicate ears as she drew closer yet, to inspect the wound. Marvin moved his head a quarter turn, because the gash was nearer the temple than the center of his face. The faint smell of sweet perfume hit him when his nose passed the palm of her hand, as though she held a bouquet of flowers. The ocean covering his chest roared upward over his head.
“It’s not too bad. Not deep.” Maribeth said finally. She leaned back and studied him for a moment to see if he would convulse suddenly, or utter another unintelligible remark. When he did neither, when his eyes opened, she offered him her hands. He took hold of them. They felt delicate and satiny inside his, and after she pulled him with surprising ease to a sitting position he held on much longer than he knew he should, but not longer than he would have liked. The blood inside him rushed upward into his face. Marvin felt as though it would explode through his cheeks, and out of the tips of his ears, and he felt secretly ashamed because he realized she must see his heart hammering like a heated piston inside his chest.
“Where am I?” he asked almost out of breath.
“You’re in the park. Just lie still, I’m going to call an ambulance. You’re probably going to need…”
“No! I mean, don’t! I’ll be okay.” He glanced around as his head began to clear, taking his bearings, reconstructing the last hour. A couple sat sixty feet away beneath a tree, unaware or uncaring of his presence. Here and there others ambled along the paths winding through the colorful beds of flowers, in and out of the half mile-square park sitting in the skirts of the city.
“Just help me up onto this bench here.”
Maribeth leaned into his body wrapping both arms around him at his sunken chest. He was emaciated. Hollow. With only a little effort she managed to raise him to his feet and then onto the bench.
“Why are you so wet?” she asked.
“It’s a long story. If you aren’t an angel…you aren’t are you?”
Maribeth laughed, which made her face even smoother, the ivory of her skin finer. She answered him. “Maybe.”
“Either way,” he said, hesitating. “I am…can I trust you?” Marvin brought his spindly fingers to her arms again and gazed with apprehension and astonishment into her eyes.
“Yes. Tell me.”
“I’m nuts, I guess, and I’m scared out of my skin. I…see things! I’ve had this dream that’s always there when I wake up. Always, as if I’m still asleep when I’m not. And there are numbers I don’t understand that pop up in front of me, like…like patterns, or fields of colors spread out across a plain that stretches to a horizon a million miles away. An endless plain! Jesus Christ. And yet…” He snapped his head to the right and looked south, thinking he would see billows of smoke from the building two blocks away. The blue stretched unbroken.
“I started a fire. I didn’t mean to…well, yes I did.
“The goddam’ fire sprinklers! I’d forgotten all about them, but that was a good thing in the end, I suppose. Do you know how much goddam water comes out of one of those heads? Jesus, I nearly drowned before I made it out the back door. But I got the clothes.” He dropped his wild eyes to the suit jacket, to his trousers, to his bare and withered feet. “I got them.”
“Why? Why did you steal a suit of clothes?”
“Books! I needed the clothes to steal books…”
Thus began Marvin’s explanation, perfectly rational to a madman, of how the dream had cropped up many months ago, and how it had worked its way from a dot in his head into that plain extending all the way to heaven. Driving him, if for no other reason than its intensity. A young woman, always the same. A path winding up to the top of a hill in a mythical landscape. At the top of the hill, a tree with a house high up in its branches where he found himself over and over, night after night, sitting beside her. And always they were youthful. And never would she allow herself to be kissed, though he wished to with every fiber in his being.
“But, why do you think she wouldn’t let you kiss her?” Maribeth interrupted.
“Because even though we were young…oh my God, she is beautiful…though we were young, I was still this old carcass you see sitting here! That is what she said to me. ‘You are old and ugly, Marvin Fuster.’ Old and ugly. But how do I tell you the next part?” He gauged the look on her face to see if she suspected he was crazy. She merely stared at him with a look of bemusement.
“I woke up yesterday. I hadn’t had a drop to drink in two days. Two whole days, I swear it. I saw it all. Everything laid out in front of me like a rug, with all the patterns and colors perfectly situated, like I’d woven it myself. I understood what this whole thing is all about, although I don’t know who put it there, if anyone even did, or exactly why. Those numbers! I got to thinking maybe I did bang my head in a drunken stupor, or wandered into a cloud of some kind of radioactive dust that made my…I can read…Jesus Christ…I can read at the speed of lightning. And I understand it all. I never went to school for Christ’s sake! And…oh, you’re never going to believe this. I have to reverse my age! That’s why I need the books! I have to go find her…or maybe she has to find me.”
“You might just be crazy, sir,” she laughed. “But I’m going to help you.”

The circulation in his feet had returned to normal, and so he grabbed the pink backpack filled with his latest life and walked off toward upper downtown to search for a decent restaurant.
He found one with no blinking neon signs or tawdry decorated windows, with a name he liked. French. La Mer. He pulled the heavy oak door outward and entered, tucking the end of his shirt collar back under the fabric of the lapel, beneath the daisy. The hostess greeted him and showed him to a table under the long front window, and when he had seated himself she placed the menu on the linen tablecloth beside his plate. She was young, very tall—almost attractive, and she smiled when he laid the backpack on the floor next to his chair.
“It’s my daughter’s,” he explained.
“It’s very pretty. Can I get you a drink from the bar while you’re deciding what to order?” she asked.
“No, thank you.”
She turned and began to walk back to the front desk, chuckling very low.
The girl returned. Marvin flipped the thickly padded menu over to the back and glanced down the list of beverages.
“Bring me a glass of wine. This one,” he said lifting the menu and pointing to an expensive Beaujolais Nouveau listed halfway down. She took note, then left with a smile.
After all you’ve been through, you deserve a drink with dinner, Marvin. And you will have one.

The morning came with fire. Marvin awoke to the cacophony of earthmovers and dynamite. Giants shouting with barreled voices overhead. Demons dancing on his body, nailing spikes into his forehead; his temples exploding, a thirst unparalleled in the bitter annals of souls wandering the Sahara for days without water. He was freezing cold and boiling hot all at once. Someone had rolled him up, tied him in a knot, and then flung him into a pit. A pit. He opened his eyes with great difficulty, forcing the lids upward. The shadowy world surrounding him spun, stopped, spun again. He recognized the brick wall a few feet away, mixed with the dock joists bolted into the massive ledger. Floor planks running over them, and the faint flickering shadows of the giants and earthmovers filtering through the cracks. He was home.
He wondered, had it all been a dream? The girl, the mansion on the hill, the sudden brilliance? All that merely a wonderful interlude from this life he knew so intimately? He closed his eyes and covered his face with shaking hands, trying to force the hell of another hangover away—but he knew better. The only way to relieve the pain was to have another drink. He groped along the rim of the pit with a sweeping motion of his right hand and found the bottle. He couldn’t sit up, and so he hastily unscrewed the cap and let it fall away. He laid the bottle sideways on his chest, found his mouth with the knurled lip, and then tipped it up. Not whiskey. Wine. A good wine, too, he thought, because it was smooth. But then gasoline would have tasted smooth in that moment of parched agony. He drank until the last of it was gone. Yes, it had all been just a fabulous dream, but now he was awake, back to the real world, and before the hour was out he would feel better.
Weighed down by the crushing noises above him and the pounding in his head, unable to think clearly, but unable to drag himself up over the precipice edge of the pit, Marvin closed his eyes. The half-liter of alcohol soon enough sedated him, and he fell back into a deep, troubled sleep.

Maribeth cocked an ear suddenly and walked to the CD player Marvin had placed on a small table at the end of his desk. Two banjos, a guitar and fiddle were mixing it up at a furious pace. It seemed to her that someone on that recording was howling.
“Really, Marvin, you need to refine your taste in music. I don’t want to make you feel bad, but this stuff is horrible! It’s meant for people who wear no socks or shoes and have teeth missing.” She picked up the CD cover, inspected it cursorily, and then returned it to its place atop the player.
Marvin ran his tongue across his teeth. All present and accounted for, even the wisdom teeth.
“You can turn it off if you like.”
Maribeth did so.
“You know, I was thinking about music just a moment ago, as a matter of fact. My dear mother, God rest her soul, loved the Broadway tunes. Once, when I was very young we took the streetcar from Globeville downtown so that she could buy some new LP record that had been released. I don’t remember what it was. The records then were a little different than the CD discs of today, kiddo. Ten inches in diameter, and thick!” He made a circle with his thumbs and middle fingers and placed it in front of his face.
“It was a wonderful time; a gorgeous day late in June, I think. That would have been…let me see…in the late thirties.” He got up and walked to the closet, talking over his shoulder. “She bought me a stick of licorice, and then we walked around looking in the store windows on Sixteenth Street on our way to the music shop. The Great Depression was over and all those stores were filled with goods and shoppers. I remember stopping at the window of a toy store. The little yellow and red trucks were lined up inside the display window in a sand pit the owners had made. All of it arranged to look like a building site. I can still see it. Gosh, how I wanted one of those big dump trucks. Or a steam shovel. We had no grass in our backyard, just dirt and weeds. I could have built a whole city back there. Away from him.”
Marvin glanced at the hangers bearing Richard’s cast off clothes and several shirts and pairs of pants Maribeth had bought for him. He selected a black, short sleeve shirt and a pair of black trousers, then closed the door and laid them on the bed.
“Of course we couldn’t afford the three dollars for a toy truck. That was a fortune then. Mother and I left the city empty handed. She didn’t come right out and say it, but since she didn’t have the money to buy me a shiny new truck, she wasn’t going to buy herself a record.”
He stopped and looked at Maribeth who stood in front of his desk on the far side of the bed, watching him, a sad expression lining her face. The lightweight turtleneck she wore framed her neck in such a way that her entire face seemed statuesque, classic. Her hair was parted in the middle, and the right side of it fell across her shoulder.
“Have you ever not had enough of everything, Maribeth? Did your father ever beat you or your mother in a drunken rage? Have you ever heard Trish crying out, and heard the sounds of your father’s fists hitting her through the door of your bedroom? Do you know what terror is? That’s how I grew up. Unable to help her, wanting to create an imaginary city in hell. Wanting to see him die every night when he stumbled in the front door and fell into my city. See him expand in flames with terror and agony in his eyes.” Marvin dropped his gaze to the clothes, away from the memories that haunted him.
“I’m so sorry, Marvin. No one…no child should ever, ever have to live through that.” She said nothing else. Neither was looking at the other; Marvin at the clothing on his bed, Maribeth at her hands and crimson fingernails. The silence quickly became uncomfortable. Marvin heaved a sigh, and then began unbuttoning his shirt as though he was late for a very important engagement.
“Guess I’d better get into my cat burglar outfit. Turn around,” he said almost cheerily.
Outside, at the corner of the hall and the poolroom, Robert, the head servant, looked furtively into the bedroom through the half opened door. Maribeth had disappeared somewhere inside. Though he could not hear the conversation, he saw Marvin smile after a few moments, and then begin to take off his shirt and pants. Robert’s eyes narrowed and his fingers tightened into a fist. And then he saw Marvin walk to the door and push it closed.

There were children laughing and shrieking on a playground outside a tall school building with darkened windows puncturing the red brick fa├žade, and a high sloping roof with dormers. There were trees bordering it—the stately elms and cottonwoods he remembered climbing many times, with bare, tangled branches that seemed to shiver under a thin cloak of snow, and there were green and dappled-white firs, too, that looked quite warm. The schoolyard itself was deeply covered in snow, except where the children played; shoveled roughly there into mounds in a wide circle outside the doors, and beaten down beneath the swings and gleaming steel slides and ladder-like monkey bars. He could see his fingers hanging through the links of a fence so high that the top rail vanished in the lead-gray air, and he watched the children running, screaming, throwing snow. The coat he wore had short arms, and the ends stopping well above his thin wrists were threadbare and spotted with stains. He wanted to go inside and play.
A man stopped beside him, towering over him, and the child grasping the links of the fence immediately felt his presence, feared him instinctively, but there was nowhere to run. No gate leading into the schoolyard as far as he could see in either direction, and he sensed that if he bolted an iron hand was set to grab him anyway. He peered up with dread into the face. White puffs of hot breath came in even bursts out of a mouth that dragged down the lined and sunken cheeks. He had no nose, this man—or if he did the child saw only two bullet dots set between vicious, glowing eyes. He glared at the children on the other side of the fence, and even though his body covered in a cloak as ragged as his own touched him, the child knew the man’s attention was focused like a hawk’s on the carefree quarry protected by the fence.
A young girl with long, raven hair looked up and noticed the child standing at the fence. She left her swing and the anthill of other boys and girls and walked with tiny steps in his direction until she reached the ridge of dirty snow where she stopped. A smile had graced her pretty face until, he could not help but notice, her eyes shifted upward to the figure standing beside him, and then a look of fear greater, even, than his own descended over her. She turned and ran back toward the other children. He watched her. The man watched her, too. The playground was empty, suddenly, and dead quiet, and sheets of white had begun to fall that made it almost impossible to make out the building in the background. She stopped when she saw that she was alone, like a terrified roe finding itself surrounded by wolves in a blizzard. Her legs, covered with white stockings, jerked left, then right, then left again. Finally adrenaline and instinct thrust her body into motion. She bolted through the thick cloud toward the doors and disappeared in the dense mist.
The man stood motionless, glaring. Now his steaming breaths came in deeper, closer bursts, and he grinned, but the boy had no idea why at first.
A moment passed.
He felt the vise of the man’s fingers on his shoulder, and finally heard a low voice that perfectly suited the face.
“Stay put you little fuck.” And then he moved away, down along the fence to an opening that hadn’t been there seconds earlier. He stepped though.
The young girl reappeared, and the boy could see the terror more clearly, now, with every step she took. Steps that faltered and wound up leading her back to where she had started. She froze. The man walked steadily through the drifts of snow as if the ground was dry until he reached the plowed walkway a dozen feet from the little girl. He glanced back at the boy, whose fingers tightened on the links, and then he turned and approached the trembling girl. The boy screamed. He recognized the girl! He knew her—the clear memory of a house built high in a tree. A thatched-roof porch and a bamboo railing. Her hand in his as they sat cross-legged and threw twigs and fallen seeds through the wide gaps of the rail. Her laughter.
He knew the man, too, and he knew that the little girl would soon die.
And so, unable to help her, unable to stop the river course of the dream, unable to bear seeing her death at his father’s hands, he woke.
It was dark and silent beneath the dock, and his stomach churned when he cried the name. He shook. His head ached again and he raised himself like a spring released when his belly convulsed. Marvin wretched a putrid stream of bile over the edge of the pit that splattered in the dirt. He groaned and waited with his eyes closed, and then wretched again. Two more empty knots of spasm, a rush of cold sweat on his forehead, and then it was over. He fell back and looked upward into blackness.
Maritbeth. Maribeth.
He lay trembling, a physical reaction to the poison still flowing in his veins, certainly, but the coldness, the helplessness, the brutality of his childhood ran like an arctic wave over the comparative mildness of his body’s rejection of the alcohol. His thoughts ran backward sixty years, dots and broken snapshots. The side gate of his home hanging on a single bent and rusted hinge, splintered slats of gray, discolored wood. Empty bottles and smashed cans. Everywhere an unkempt wildness and a silent anger that ran through the nettles and overgrowth of weeds. His mother weeping again, inside the house, this time not from a beating at Jack Fuster’s hands. Something else that maybe had been worse. He saw himself standing on his tiptoes peeking through the kitchen window, raised open two inches. One hand covering the sobs coming from her mouth, her eyes closed tightly and her head shaking back and forth. Her other hand half-covering the newspaper with headlines in bold, black script. The only words discernable…YOUNG GIRL.
What? What was it? Marvin shook the dead memory away.
And now, wondering at the hour, he lifted his left arm and pulled at the sleeve of the jacket to expose the wristwatch Maribeth had given him. Yes, of course. Maribeth. She had been real. The mansion had been real. Robert, and Richard and Trish, the dogs. His chair in the gazebo, the lemonade and cookies, his room and comfortable bed. His fine and promising new existence. His aspirations.
The watch was gone, and his wrists bore tender marks, as though he’d chewed it off. He rolled onto his side and forced his hand to his rear trouser pocket, feeling for the wallet. It wasn’t there.
What the fuck happened?
His pink pack and the life inside it were gone, as well. Perhaps dropped somewhere along the way before he found his way back to the solitude of his pit. More likely stolen along with the wallet and the watch in some dark and dangerous alley. Whatever, wherever, it was all a dismal smear in his head. A feeling of self-loathing overwhelmed him.
He crawled out of his pit and left the underside of the dock once more. He was broke, disgusted by the reality of what he was, had always been, and would forever be, and he was thirsty. Marvin steadied himself, thinking against his will about the nightmare and the little girl and boy trapped inside it, and then he stumbled down the street cursing the day he was born. He needed another drink. The numbers and patterned fields of colors stretching toward infinity faded, drawn like a curtain into blackness by the hand of a beautiful young woman.

Marvin Quenton Fuster imagined genes dancing energetically in a ballroom the size of the planet, all of them dressed the same in their spiral gowns, and flung close together in a maddened waltz. He grabbed at one with an almost imperceptible, aged look about her, a slight variation in the color of her hair, eyes that had beheld the passing of time. She slipped away into the crowd the moment his hands came into contact with her, leaving him holding pieces of shadow that dripped from his wrinkled fingertips.

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