Tag team Fiction with Brian Hall

This story is a collaboration with Brian Hall (author of two great books: The Saskiad and I should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company). Here's how it works: I wrote the opening, then he wrote the second section, I the third and he finished it. It's been an odd and entertaining process to work on--to see what elements of the voice and character catch and what new ones develop. It'll be published here sometime soon.

Le Morte D'Ina

Mr. Dagalah had come to believe that if past moments were like the present moment, and if the body of people was as craven and ignorant, as self-absorbed, as desperate for shallow comfort and insipid satisfactions in those presents as in his, then, he felt, the judgments of time held little of value. He felt they would ingrain the same flat sentimentality—or worse, pretentious overreaching—in the same way they venerated the raw greed of tyrants as national heroes.

And yet he held out hope that there were minds churning away at the fringes of society, enraged, as he was, starving for the confrontation of their spirits with the brutal, divine world so profuse behind the charades of striving that swirled around him.

For a time, he had only his rage and his disappointment—the sense that a great invisible war was being waged, and lost—that the forces of flesh, of darkness, were united and conspiring in their appetites—and he, and those like him, was struggling in isolation to keep from being consumed. He fought with unwavering ferocity; his weapons were disdain, sarcasm, a deliberate and vocal neglect, and a concentrated attention of his spirit that, he felt, must surely be devastating to his enemies.

When his anger found a focus at last, a sense of enduring righteousness settled over him and calmed him with its certainty and clarity; the world fell into place with an obviousness that was both startling and beautiful. He started with bookstores first, separating the independents from the chains and then the independents: first those with good poetry or philosophy sections, then those that refused to pander with shelves of florid, womany books; then those that offered untranslated works in foreign languages, especially Scandanavian tongues and those with non-Western alphabets. He often imagined, as he browsed their shelves without comprehension, that he was the only one in the store corrupt enough to speak English well and that brought him a glow of warmth that lasted for a long time.

But he soon exhausted those stores as well—discovering, to his dismay, that even they had only a bare skimming of the past year or two or five of titles and seemed as much in thrall to the times as the huge chains, only less effective. He turned to libraries, in the same descending cascade of obscurity until he forsook those as well—seeing them at the end as filters that held the dross and let slip the gold.

He threw himself, finally, into a quest for lost and possibly nonexistent books that he found in the review sections of failed magazines or in the rejection letters of bankrupt publishers. He haunted auctions, bidding on closed lots of correspondence; he bribed the garbage collectors to save him the boxes that smelled like old men; he took a job at a nursing home, to place himself in the path of remaindered lives as they passed into senility. He did not read books at all anymore—he was far too busy sifting through the detritus of generations two or three removed from his own. That was as close, he felt, as the tracery of authentic thought was likely to be before it was submerged entirely under the tides of barbarism.

The profound arrogance of her husband did not trouble Mrs. Dagalah.

__________________________________________________________________

Née Stavropaulos, she had married him, pregnant, at seventeen—he was the first and only man she had dated—to escape a violent father and a mother whose strategy of vegetable survival was to seek shade, cling, evacuate toxins in the form of inconvenient facts, and feed on fantasy. The view that had been (how to put it?) forcefully impressed on Ina Stavropaulos from infancy was that the world was perilous, people were helpless in the face of their own lunacy, and every quiet moment was a precarious crack in time.

Her first date with Mr. Dagalah was at a courtship-worthy Italian restaurant not far from the apartment house in Queens she’d grown up in and he’d moved into the month before. He monologued from the buffalo mozzarella clear through to the tiramisu. Which suited her just fine—she let it wash over her in fragments of meaningless rhythm and sea-shell whisper: “in classified ads any intelligent observer may discern”; “not insignificant that neolithic burial rituals made little allowance for”; “ninety-nine, no, ninety-nine point nine nine percent.”

It was at the first moment (there were several) he got angry that she determined to marry him. She had no idea what he was talking about. All she noticed was his hands, which were beautifully, hieroglyphically not fisted, not whiteknuckled. They flew up like horrified birds, palms opening in disbelieving wonder.

That night in bed, she repeated, as was her habit, a phrase like a staff to prop open a sheltering crack in time: “ninety-nine, no, ninety-nine point nine nine percent.”

As a child, she had escaped into library books: formulaic mysteries, middle-school adventure yarns serial-numbered in three digits. But their tidy, implausible narratives eventually reminded her too much of her mother’s version of how the door broke yesterday. At fifteen, squashed in a hot subway car on her way to a babysitting job, Ina found herself facing a poem in clattering motion, and a line stood out: “This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge.” She lulled herself with that liturgical scrap all evening, while caring for the three-year-old whose bold-eyed, infinitely assuming security made her tremble with fury.

In the years since, she’d adopted a score or so chants, most often from poems. She didn’t read the poems, she trolled them, waiting for the Ouija-like irruption of words from the beyond. One of her favorites came from the same poet who’d written the line on the subway (she couldn’t recall his name): “Yuck-a, yuck-a, yuck-a, yuck-a rage.” There it was: her deepest sense of existence, captured in a throbbing temple, a ticking bomb, of a line.

Now she’d been married three years, and her husband filled their two-room apartment to the ceiling with stacks of mildewed magazines, boxes of strangers’ letters. He monologued and reddened, his hands also rising toward the ceiling, and she let it wash over her. Home from her car-dealer’s secretarial job, she cooked and cleaned and submitted in all things decisional and sexual—her husband was a stern traditionalist in those matters.

Where had he come from, friendless and family-less, to occupy the room down the hall from the apartment where she’d lived her entire, imprisoned, pea-pod life? Was his name Indian? Turkish? She hadn’t pried. She would never pry.
Mrs. Dagalah lay in the dark next to sleeping, sighing, strict, bird-handed Mr. Dagalah and said, of necessity, “Yuck-a, yuck-a, yuck-a, yuck-a rage.”

But what about the child? The child she was carrying when she married?

Oh, that—that had been a page from her mother’s survival manual. The inconvenient fact ignored had been her history of highly irregular periods; the fantasy she fed Mr. Dagalah was the miscarriage a month after.

___________________________________________________________________________________________


The time of names began one evening entirely like the others—he talking through his food, she soothed behind a mask of engagement by the relentlessness of his energies, like she was an alpine flower and he her fierce and tiny sun.
Until he fell silent. And then:

“Elodie.”

“Ina, it’s Ina dear.”

“Elodie,” he repeated. He did not know where the name had come from—what moldering envelope or Victorian magazine or old man’s disappearing memory. And he did not know what it meant—if it was a question or a plea, a statement of purpose, a demand. He said:

“Selwyn.” Mr. Dagalah did not explain, which would have been useless anyway. His hands were still. The names were real, digestible, whole. He said:

“Marguerite.”

She thought yuck-a, yuck-a, yuck-a…. She said:

“Phyllida.” And she laughed, a clear, bright peal, and he laughed—a sound so strange and wondrous that she laughed again to hear it.

“Remony,” he said.

“Christabel,” she replied. A few more came in bursts, with pauses as they searched for new veins. He: Felix. Cassandra. Bronwyn. She: Amala. Flannery. Imogene. They fell silent. She cleared and washed while he sorted through his piles of paper, the smell of mildew rising.

In bed, in the darkness, he was solicitous, gentle, as if she was new. She did not return to her liturgies, but let the cascade of names wash over her.

And so another night, and another. Aubrey. Miranda. Henry. Lohdi. Clementine. Robert. Hieronymous. Caroline. Willa. The names took on a shape, like a field, possibility, urgency. Isadora. Eleanor. Antoine. Bashir. Sadeek. She hunted in the loan applications, and he in the letters. It became a litany, call and response, invocation and supplication. Harper. Paul. Colette. Saskia. Tamar. Ophelia. He said nothing that was not a name. She would remember this as the happiest time in her life.

The names hinted and teased, excited and soothed. They gradually took on purpose and direction, became distinct, bounded, connected to their two rooms, to their three years of marriage, to the nursing home and the car dealership. Perdita. Samuel. Ruth. Molly. Lysander. They became question, denial, refutation, and, finally, recrimination.

His hands sat at the edge of the table, fingers curling imperceptibly inward, shot through with twitchings and jerkings, risings and subsidings. They were there, he and her, asea, with no clear sense of how they had arrived and how they might move on from here, where they might go. Mr. Dagalah recalled that sailors on the Black Sea steered by lowering large rocks to known depths and waiting to see which way the currents pulled them.

The spring was hot and thick, heavy rains rising off the asphalt, the sun bleary and indistinct. A silent day became days; a week became two and the silence that was a burden became a comfort, and then a condition of time passing, like gravity, both fundamental and absurd. Mr. Dagalah became aware that there were feelings he would not feel again. The weakness of his own memory startled him, and he vowed to cultivate it. He returned to his lost books with renewed energy, his stacks of crumbling paper, his ferocious pursuit of the shadows that lay beneath insignificant men.

And again on an evening entirely like the others, he began to speak without preamble, torrents spilling down the familiar, forgotten channels. He noted the obvious errors of grammar and style from the front page of the paper; he detailed the sorry state of writing, the absence of editing, the curricular flaws in the instruction of middle school students, the forsaken hours lost to inefficient bus routes. He was just beginning to redden when Ina lifted her hand.

“Arthur,” she said. It was his name and yet not his name.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Mr. Dagalah stopped speaking. He blinked.

Didn’t he remember? “Arthur,” she urged again. This was entirely new for her, this attempt to alter the course of a conversation (or of anything in the wide world). But she had actually been happy, for a brief time, and the experience had changed her. Her will had grown tiny threadlike roots in that loam.

Mr. Dagalah shook his head, astonished. That period was over. Surely his wife, this woman, though hardly intelligent, must see it was out of the question to go back.

She closed her eyes. Arthur. This was also new for her: trying to resurrect a moment, rather than bury it.

It had been a hot spring night, in the time of names. The bathtub in the kitchen was sweating, the chairs sticky. He had announced his stern need, “Tamburlaine,” and laid her out on the narrow bed. She signalled her submission, eyes cast down, “Teresa.” She lay still, as she always had done, only placing hand or mouth on certain predictable spots when directed. But her habit of lapsing into half-consciousness at these times, a kind of sleepwalking (yuck-a, yuck-a, yuck-a), had lately waned. He had been murmuring endearments—Cleopatra, Uma, Gwyneth—and these names (together with the uncharacteristic gentleness he had shown from the day the naming began) had served to call her partially from the deep. Once or twice she had found herself near the surface, and the light glinting above her—not experienced, but half-recognized—was pleasure.

On this night (which, across the table from her increasingly agitated husband, eyes closed, she tried to relive), he had been stroking her hair while she performed a certain task. He had said, “Guinevere.”

Up until that moment, she had been thinking, John. But Guinevere brought to mind a white horse, and emerald meadows, and wild flowers in thick hair. And her husband was stroking her own hair quite—one might almost say, if Ina were sure what the word meant—lovingly. She thought of the Round Table, and the knights’ pledge, “All for one, and one for all,” and perhaps inevitably, of the sword in the stone. So she paused, murmured “Arthur,” then resumed.

And she thought: Arthur slipped the sword out of the stone. But who had put it there? And hadn’t some hand come out of a lake and thrown the sword to Arthur? And did that mean he’d shoved the sword into the stone himself, so he could slip it out later? No, that wasn’t right. He’d come from somewhere far off. No one knew who he was, and all the knights couldn’t pull out the sword, but he did.

Just as Mr. Dagalah had come from who-knew-where, familyless, and magically pulled Ina out of her granite tomb. Which made her the sword, rather than Guinevere. But Guinevere was kind of him (she of the unlovely, coarse hair; and why was it called Excalibur? it made her think—perhaps inevitably, at this moment—of bullets rather than a sword) and he was stroking her hair so gratefully. And she thought Lancelot, Galahad. But really, the first name was the best—her husband was burdened, kinglike; saddened with the responsibilities of saving her and the rest of the world. As she lifted her head to look at him, his muscles slackened, lying back sweating like a painting she’d seen (Christ Entombed? the Dying Gaul?) suddenly she broke the surface, and the light played about her, the tiny young roots of her will sipped moisture, a seed leaf opened. She astonished both of them by throwing herself on him, clasping him in shockingly strong arms. She fiercely repeated, Arthur.

Horrified, Mr. Dagalah shook her off. The next day, at his stern command, the silence began.

And now this—his monologues again. Could she let them wash over her as before, sink back into her dim deep? Yes, she supposed she could. But it had to be admitted—she wanted the surface. “Arthur,” she said again, and opened her eyes, just as Mr. Dagalah, leaning across the table, punched her.

Which brings us to this closing crack in time: she is in the bathroom, six feet by four. Mr. Dagalah is pounding on the locked door. The hinges are moaning yuck-a, yuck-a, yuck-a. The window is too small to jump out of, the toilet water too shallow to drown herself in.

Was it Arthur who disappeared, sunk in an enchanted sleep in a cave, never to return?

Or was that Merlin?

 

Previous Selections:

The 22nd March

For Melanie and Peter