out of the ashes

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Marvin has been given his walking papers by Governor Richard Harris...


Marvin left the mansion through the front door. He stopped on the stone landing beneath the portico, next to a tall, sculpted urn overflowing with ivy, myrtle, and white daisies. He peered down at it and then plucked a single bloom. He laced the stem through the buttonhole of his lapel, adjusted it twice, and then went on. Walking down the steps he thought of grits, seeing them pulverized and pasty in a blue ceramic bowl. Saw her smile at him across Jonathon’s head.
Maribeth had defied her father and gone to his room close to tears after Marvin walked out of the study. Moments later, after she’d knocked and entered, she helped him with the impossible task of selecting the few volumes he could carry. 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 that he’d explored for hours—at normal speed. Four texts on genetics.
“Put them in here,” Maribeth 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.
He began to search the closet for those pieces of clothing left over from the fire, intending to change into them and leave dressed the way he had arrived two weeks ago.
“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, they prepared to say their goodbyes.
"Take care of yourself, Marvin. You promised."
"I will."
“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.”
“Will you continue your research somehow?”
His answer had frightened her.
“I’m not sure.”

Twilight. Peaceful, so peaceful that Marvin could hear the heels of his shoes tapping on the concrete as he turned west onto the broad 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, and 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.

Yes, it had all been 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.
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 at either end—the stately elms and cottonwoods he remembered climbing many times, with bare, tangled branches that seemed to shiver under a cloak of snow. There were green and dappled-white firs, too, that looked quite warm. The playground itself was deeply covered in snow, except where the children played; shoveled roughly 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 thread bare and spotted with stains. He wanted to go inside and play.
A man stood 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, and he sensed that if he bolted an iron hand was set to grab him anyway. He peered up fearfully 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 it was 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, then 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 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 her instincts thrust her body into motion. She bolted through the thick cloud toward the doors and disappeared in the 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 bastard.” 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 putrefied 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.
Amy. Amy.
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 Melvin 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—given to him by Maribeth. 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 world. His aspirations.
The watch was gone, and his wrists bore tender marks, as though he’d chewed it off. He rolled onto his side with effort, as the tangle of his jacket acted like an anchor beneath him. He forced his hand to his rear trouser pocket, feeling for the wallet. It wasn’t there.
"What the fuck happened?"
His pink pack and his life were gone, as well. Perhaps dropped somewhere 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 blank spot 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, but he was thirsty. Marvin steadied himself, thinking against his will about the nightmare and the little girl and little boy trapped inside it, and then he stumbled down the street cursing the day he was born.

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