First Published in the Widener Review, #11, 1997
Madison Smartt Bell
I had been lost for a long time before I found you, my brother. I had been a stranger in more cities than one. I stood out on the fire-escape beyond the kitchen door, my shoe soles braced against the strips of rusting iron, suspended above the courtyard of the council housing, a long triangle truncated at the top. The buildings raised their walls of cherry-red sandblasted brick, an age of soot just lately scrubbed away from them. Into the broken triangle sunlight had fallen from the southern sky; the light was hard and flinty sharp. A boy in shorts and a torn jersey came into the court, bouncing a striped ball against the pavement with the butt of his palm. Beside him walked a girl just half a head taller, wheeling a green bicycle. I saw that one of her socks had fallen down.... Their heads were turned away from the light, intent upon the paving stones, and they moved with an odd reluctance, into the arched shadows of a doorway.
Then it was very still. A slight dampness in the air made a prism to freeze the weird white autumn sunlight. It would have magnified the slightest sound, bell-like, but there was no sound. Only a single wild goose shot up from the Thames so near beyond the council wall, abruptly as if fired from a cannon. It passed so near above my head that I heard its wings slap against the weighted air, but it did not call.
In the lift, descending: Madame Krepakian, her old-world frailty, hat secured with a murderous pin, the Harrod's shopping bag. Around her flowed a vague scent of talcum powder gone stale in the crevices under her clothes. She composed the tissue-paper wrinkles of her face so as to annihilate my presence from her mind. Madame Krepakian despised me, though she was a foreigner herself-- she'd lived in London only fifty years. It was as well, for I despised myself; we were in agreement on that point.
Below, Fulham Road was full of the idle rich, going among the purveyors of one luxury or another. The shops were much like this one in particular: a vast echoing polished space, upheld by glossy marble columns, receded behind plate glass, and somewhere near the center a fist-sized ring of spotlight picked out a man's dress shirt, which was the single article made visible for sale. It was strange to see you on this street, my brother, and all the women scattered from you like starlings on the lawn. Not that you had offered them any threat. But you moved with the authority of Hannibal crossing the Alps with his elephants. What processed ahead of you was a shopping cart, battered and sprung from years of abandon, piled high with the usual rag and bone I then supposed, and strung with enormous plastic jerry cans, along with some smaller items I could not identify. You were massive, overpowering, thick through the body like a hogshead. Your skin was hot earth brown, your hair cut close and flecked with white, what of it showed from under the cloth tied over your head. Your face was fierce, but abstracted too, and you did not see me any more than Madame Krepakian had seen me on the lift. I was nothing to you. I thought you probably had not seen any of the people who fled from your path. There was a smell of rotten meat as you passed by, and I felt something of your power. I looked back over my shoulder to see you push your cart into the scaffoldings where they were endlessly, endlessly cleaning the old brick-- but only for a moment.
I took the tube to Shepherd's Bush, climbed out and began walking across the common. The grass was ragged and tattered like the felt on some ill-used old pool table, and peppered with dog dung here and there. The clinic was just a block beyond the common's narrow end. I was late, but that was of no consequence. They would still be waiting, they were always waiting, they would wait out the reaches of eternity....
A few heads turned when I came in, eyes sweeping over me incuriously, then returning to the walls, the floor. The chairs were lurid primary-colored plastic, dulled now with deeply engrained dirt. From a high corner of the room a television lectured them all about something in a loud, plummy voice; although the picture was sharp and bright, no one seemed to be attending. I went behind the high pale counter and slipped on a white coat, then entered the narrow hallway that led to the examining rooms. Inside my own, above the table, a circular fluorescent tube glowered down with a scarcely audible hum that still unconsciously set my teeth on edge. I put on skin-tight rubber gloves and sponged away what looked a blood spot from the chipped formica by the sink, then washed my gloved hands with a great deal of brownish liquid soap. There came an uncertain knock at the door, and the first one came in, and then another and another.
You turned from the Fulham Road into Elystan Street, and pushed your cart down past two restaurants, a pub and the fishmonger. A restaurateur standing in his doorway wrinkled his nose at you when you went by, but you did not notice him. You crossed the street to the little sweetshop, meaning to buy a bit of chocolate. You had some slug-heavy pound coins tied in a rag to the cord of your belt, along with lesser change, but they gave you no time to show your money. The woman who ran the postal window shouted at you and drove you out.
"Rubbish," she called, flailing a broom. Two other old ladies flanked her in the doorway: her regular patrons stopped in for a stamp and a chat. You snarled back at her from the curbstone, then began pushing your cart away. The fishmonger seemed to be laughing in his stall.
In front of a cheap and flashy clothing store on King's Road, one of a trio of skinheads crashed into you deliberately, then drew back, challenging you to respond. You smiled down on him, very slowly, heavy lips drawing back from large square slightly yellowed teeth, and spread your hand enough to show how it might embrace the shaven head and crush it like the egg it looked. You were angry then, angry enough, but the skinheads backed away from you, swallowing the insults they had meant to say.
So you turned off the King's Road, and pushed your cart through the narrow Chelsea streets. You were still muttering about the skinheads, so that you thought it best to keep clear of the crowded main streets for a time. Passing along Cale Street you found a pair of brogans in a dust bin, sound enough to be added to the rising mound in your cart. In the small garden behind Saint Luke's you sat down on a bench to rest a moment; it was quiet, and there the dregs of your anger leached away. The gardeners had timed the bulbs so that the patterns of the flowers changed from week to week, and you stared at the concentric rings of floral colors, remembering the island where you were young: bougainvillea twining along the cracked masonry of the churchyard wall, and a hummingbird hovering over the tongue of a bell-shaped bloom.... The breeze shivered the jerrycans strung to your cart, making a hollow strumming sound. The wind was chill, though not yet bitter; it would be winter soon enough.
With the fall descending, the sun's arc grew lower daily, a mean curve pushed up through the southern horizon like an old wheel rim protruding out of mud. It could not push itself into the center of the sky. But most days there was blue-white fog or a cold rain. The walls of my examining room sweated glossily, and there was a nauseating smell of drains. The waiting room was always full, like the wineskins at the wedding blessed by Christ. One by one they'd trickle through my room. The success of the remedies I could offer was inversely proportional to the seriousness of the complaint... but everything that came my way was by definition superficial.
Afflictions of the skin. Acne, red and pustulent, or rising like white lichen on black skin. Boils, eczema, scaling rashes, moles that were rarely cancerous. Many came with herpes and were distraught to learn it; I saw in their wounded staring eyes the thought that no one would ever love them now, and yet there were so many! I was lucky, having no worse news to tell. I could recognize the purple flowering of Kaposi's from the doorway now, so that I'd simply wave them down the hall to Doctor Althorp, where they'd learn their doom. Sometimes I would hear groans and weeping from that chamber, though Doctor Althorp was a kindhearted woman, full of pity, and broke the news as sweetly as she could. Besides, it was no news at all, my brother, since all of us are mortal, even you.
Being hungry that day, you picked through the rubbish bins behind the Soho restaurants. There was much good food abandoned from the luncheons of the well-to-do, and you assembled in an aluminum pan a passable salad, just slightly wilted, orts of meat and strands of noodle and some curried rice, this latter overlaid with brown sticky fish soup that might now be interpreted as a sauce. Late afternoon, it was growing dark. The pubs had opened and the close mazy streets of Soho were filling up with people coming from their work. You walked, balancing the tin of food in one hand and pushing the cart with the other. It was raining fitfully, and you had tied a blue plastic bag over your head to keep it dry.
You stopped in a doorway on Montagu Street and sat down on the step to eat. No one came to annoy you there; you were unmolested. There was no fork, and you ate neatly with your right hand as if no other way had been imagined, licking your fingers from time to time with a surprising catlike daintiness. Through the wheels of your cart you stared, street level. A woman's white stockinged ankles flicked by, hastening with a clatter of heels for some engagement. A man's black wingtips, each step definitive, the gait of a citizen who owns a quality umbrella.... The wandering, stumbling, slope-heeled shoes were mine. I was just coming from the French Bar, where Doctor Althorp, in the kindness of her heart, had arranged for me to meet a youngish woman, also quite recently divorced.
We had not clicked. Properly speaking we had not even met. She was there before the appointed time, sitting on the narrow bench against the wall, reading or pretending to read the yellowed Gaullist proclamation between the bar and doorway, and sipping gingerly at a half of cider. On her knee was spread the book we had agreed on as a sign of recognition: James, What Maisie Knew. She was pretty, and though she sat with patient composure, her anxiety to please radiated from her in waves like the blood-sign that draws sharks from the bottom of the ocean.
I couldn't do it. Outside the place I discovered that I'd lost a screw from my glasses. The left temple had come loose, and without it the glasses wouldn't balance on my nose. So I stumbled along the drizzling streets, scanning the ground for something to jury-rig them; a pin or a paperclip or even a bit of toothpick might have done. I went along holding the broken pieces in either hand, now and then fitting them together as they were meant to go, though I had no means to secure them. Of course I could not see anything very well because of the glasses being broken and the mist that kept boiling in my eyes.
You saw my difficulty then, my brother, and brought me over to your cart with a word or a gesture... it must have been the later, for I don't think I heard you speak. The jerry cans were gone today, and the upper bars of the cart were laced with smaller things: a string of beads, a plastic dolly with one leg missing, dangling upside down, the looped filament of fine copper wire you disengaged and gave to me.
I took it gladly and at once repaired my glasses, threading the wire through the screw holes and wrapping it around the joint. There was more than I needed and I snapped off the remainder and offered it back to you. I put my glasses on and saw you plain. Mutely, you waved the wire away; it was mine to keep. I thought to give you money then, but I saw from your face how that was wrong, while I was still fumbling in my pocket. I was abashed at that mistake, and I went on my way. It wasn't until I turned the corner that I remembered I hadn't really thanked you. Of course I might have gone back, but the weather was foul, and I did not.
At "home," my flat was dry and snug and miserable. There was at any rate no creeping damp, no drains. It was a sublet maisonette, two floors, far and away more space than I could possibly require. Hallways led to empty rooms, and I wandered them sometimes, thumbing the edges of papers from the letterbox: a toneless scrawl from my children in America, or new directives from the lawyers. I had destroyed myself in the usual way-- I had destroyed my family. I had come here to start again, but this was a world of endings. This was the old world; it was too black with age. No one could ever scrape the whole of it clean, and still beyond the block of flats the hammering of the sandblasters kept on and on interminably. In the washed-out light of dawn or dusk, the rain-swept court of the council houses seemed to have no outlet.
Going to or from my door one day I met a blind man with a long tape-swaddled cane, fumbling his way into the Fulham Road, and not at a light or zebra crossing but randomly in the middle of the block. He seemed a most incompetent blind man. A black taxicab bore down on him lasciviously. When I spoke to him it proved that he was lost and going in the wrong direction. I took his arm and began to lead him toward South Kensington tube stop, where he said he'd meant to go. In a moment we had entered one of the omnipresent scaffoldings, which stretched for half the block. Whenever I tried to steer him away from one stanchion I infallibly slammed him into another, and over and over it was repeated, while he grunted from the shocks. When at last we'd blundered through, he shook me off and started for the tube stop on his own (still headed in the wrong direction).
Most of my efforts to help others in those days were of a like utility. At the clinic, the fluorescent tubes strained out a stark refrigerated light, scooping hollows in the patient's faces, carving them backward toward the bone. One day they would slough off their skins, be truly naked of that burden.... The light from under Doctor Althorp's door was like a thin red line of blood.
Then you were walking down Villiers Street, the steep decline beside Charing Cross Station. It was still raining, or raining again, a colder rain with the taste of sleet. For the comfort of your feet in warmer weather you'd cut gills in that pair of brogans found on Cale Street, but now they were little use against the wet. You scouted along the underpass opposite the station, but it was too damp and the few dry spaces were already taken, sullen blanket-bundled legs retracting into each niche as your cart wheeled by. In the station proper, the floor was full of pigeons, their underfeathers whitely fluttering from beneath their sober grey coats, as they murmured over leavings of crisps and sandwich bread. That pale vibrating movement recalled for you the sight of maggots feeding on the body of a cow.... A policeman regarded you sternly from his post beside the newsagent; it was not possible for you to linger in the station.
You went down to the Victoria Embankment, then climbed again to the bridge, grunting as you wrestled the cart around the awkward turns of the stair. You had the narrow catwalk almost to yourself. There was the dome of St. Paul's to your right, and on the far side of the gray fog-smoking river, the brown hulk of the National Theater complex crouched on its concrete pylons. A train howled across the bridge, then it was gone, and the river, swollen by the rain, purled away into the dark.
Doctor Althorp in her goodness invited me to attend the theater with her husband and herself. It was Shakespeare, or something drawn from Kafka, I forget. In the half-light of the upper seats, I mostly looked at the round compassionate curve of Doctor Althorp's cheek, while on the stage below us Lear raved on the heath, or someone wriggled his arms and hissed, pretending to be a beetle. I had the mad notion of taking her hand covertly in the dim, but of course I knew her charity would not extend so far.
"Lovely, wasn't it?" she murmured as we left.
"Yes, exquisite," said her husband. And they went on discussing the merits of the actor, while I nodded and agreed. Many of the folk around us were dressed in evening clothes, and we were going down an escalator, toward one of those wide senseless open spaces among the stilts that raised the theater in the air. At the foot of the escalator was a moil, like a riptide, where the theatergoers were engulfed by an equal throng of the unhouseled people who lived in the cardboard shantytown beneath the theater. Doctor Althorp and her husband seemed oblivious to the scrum, as were most others, but I saw you there, my brother, just where the riptide looked most turbulent.
A ragged man with a long white beard was sipping a styrofoam cup of coffee and smiling benignly on a lean old lady in black lace and pearls, red holes in the gums where his teeth should have been. All around were similar encounters, like some odd leveling social mixer. Evidently some party of the homeless had just been fed. It all went peaceably enough, as the theatergoers sorted themselves out and through the others, making for the river bank, the tube stations and the busses. But around you there was some disturbance, and I slipped away from the Althorps, to see what might be the matter.
Already you were pushing your cart away, and at a breakneck pace for those close quarters. A woman who'd been jostled shrieked, and some of the other homeless men were harrying your heels and shouting. I did not know what the trouble was, some dispute over the food, or territory. Then you were clear of the theater crowd, but others rose up from the long receding row of cardboard shanties and began to shout at you. The line of zigzag houses stretched all the way to the horizon, where the yellow underbelly of the theater crushed down like the ceiling of a cave. You stopped and turned, raising your hands and roaring without words, like Moses come down from the mountain, I thought then, or a bear who turns on the hounds at the last. I went back the way I'd come.
"Where had you got to?" Doctor Althorp's husband said. "It looked as if you meant to follow that odd fellow...."
"I wanted to speak to him," I began to say, but that sounded too ridiculous, and I changed it midway through. "I wanted to give him something." Beneath their expressions of remote concern I fell silent, feeling an utter fool.
What an inconsequential thing a skin is, and yet so necessary! On my right forearm a fat mole enriched itself with deepening shades of brown, grew taller, sprouted a single hair. One day I interrupted the agon of the clinic, locked my door and examined it more closely. Flecks of more concentrated melanin floated through the lighter browns; had I been able to stir that color up and spread it over me, I would have been clothed in the most impermeable black.
I sterilized the area, then gave myself a shot of lidocaine. It was a little awkward managing with my left hand, and the job was not so neat as I'd otherwise have done it. There was a mass of fatty tissue below the surface, like an iceberg (no surprise), and it went deep enough to need a subcutaneous stitch once I'd got it out. Then I closed the surface wound, on a tight line brought together like a pair of bitten lips. I sealed the mole in a sample jar to send out to the lab for biopsy (though I knew well enough that those results would prove benign).
Seeing the uneven stitches in my arm, Doctor Althorp honored my achievement with a little shriek.
"But anyone else would have done it for you," she said. "I would have done myself."
"You're not a surgeon," I said, which might have been a cruel thing to say. "It's only a mole, after all," I said, and smiled at her in my best approximation of how she'd smile at me. "It's not essential."
Your cart began to empty as winter tightened down, more and more rags removed to wrap around your body, under the loose robe of rough cloth that was your outer garment, a kind of colorless dashiki. The wind went whistling down King's Road, from Sloane Square to the Putney Bridge. It was very cold for London, too cold even for rain. Opposite Pelham Crescent, the doorway to my block of flats was deeply recessed between tall slabs of greenish marble, backed with a door of polished oak and brass. The space was deep enough that you could pull your cart inside it. You rested, breathing through your mouth, hands flattened against the wall. The wind was broken altogether. Against your open palm, the marble was smooth and cold as fresh spring water.
You were dozing when I passed you there, sleeping on your feet like a horse. I might have spoken to you as I went in, but I did not like to wake you. The close rank smell of you was warm between the slabs of marble, and little wraiths of steam filtered out between your parted, greying lips. I took out my keys, careful not to jingle them, turned the cylinders of the lock and went in.
When I next went out you had gone away, but when I returned you were back again. You had a piece of cardboard to sit on, against the griping cold of the doorstep. On your knees was a tinfoil plate with a few scraps of something you pushed around with your thumb, distastefully, it seemed to me. I saw how the skin of your hands was thick and chafed and whitening like limestone. You looked at me, eyes dark under the heavy brows. There was no question, no uncertainty, nor yet any challenge. It was just a look.
In the kitchen of my maisonette, I made a sandwich to take down to you. I remember that sandwich very well: duck liver paté spread on a soft white roll, and I believe I put some mustard on it. But then I thought, It won't stop with a sandwich, will it? Before it's done, I'd be required to give up all I own.
I put the sandwich in the refrigerator. It stayed there till it turned to stone. I had no appetite to eat it; I was surfeited.
You wheeled your cart through the ragtag market stalls at Shepherd's Bush. At one of these you sold a bundle of children's clothes, at another some scraps of copper pipe. At an Indian stand, you bought a packet of sweetened fennel seeds and began to chew them, savoring the small anis explosions. The wind died and freshened again. A bright clear day, but very cold, and the people held their clothes wrapped tightly with their hands and ducked their heads as they walked along the market's central way. A fennel seed got stuck between your teeth and you worked at it with a long hard fingernail. At one stall was a tiny cane mill that pressed syrup for some kind of special sweet, and children stood around to watch it work. You stopped for a moment to see the screws press on the cane, clear syrup running down the spout, and mangled sticks emerging at the other end. Up above the roofs, the crows were calling, and at the next stall a string of gaudy ties shivered soundlessly in the wind.
You furnished our entryway with more cardboard, ragged blankets, rolls of rag. In cold dark center of the night you lay bundled in these materials, remembering that odd toy-like cane press.... then you were walking through the coconut grove by the shore, a machete dangling from your hand, and all the palm leaves danced together in the breeze, like those ties at Shepherd's Bush, but they made a sound like rain. On the green surface of the marble, whorled patterns turned like spiral galaxies. That morning, you looked at them for a long time. At the market, you traded for a box of oil pastels.
You were sitting on the doorsill when I came back from the clinic. Shoes tossed aside, you trimmed your long thick toenails with a pair of wire-cutting pliers. A string of shells hung from the cart and made a slight chiming sound as the wind blew. Also there was something else tied there, by hamstrung ankles as it looked, about the size of a human infant, but unidentifiable because it had been skinned. The stench from the carcass was really very strong. Left of the door, the marble had been thoroughly drawn over in two colors, red and blue, strange curling characters that looked like Arabic, though they were not....
In the lift, descending, I listened to the clank of the chains above the cage. Through the open diamonds of the gate, I watched the walls of the shaft slip by, then the space of the ground floor foyer came into view. The oak door opened inward and Madame Krepakian came stumbling in, while beyond her you sat facing the street, mute and indifferent to whomever might have passed.
Madame Krepakian was apparently in some distress. A strand of her iron-colored hair had uncurled from the spike of her hairpin; she was breathless and a little flushed.
"O!" she said. "That awful tramp! The stench of him!" These were more words than she'd addressed to me that last six months. Startled, I looked down into her Harrod's bag, but there was nothing, only a package of soda biscuits.
"One can't get through," she said. "That dreadful corpse he's keeping there, what is it? Do you know, he frightens me!"
Madame Krepakian entered the lift and began to rise. Through the broad diamond mesh I saw her eyes were on me, sharp as the point of her hat pin. She began to disappear into the ceiling, her hat, her head, her emaciated bosom, her skirt so properly hemmed calflength, her sternly laced-up high black shoes.
It was evident she expected me to do something. "Sir!" I said, on going out. "Sir! Can you hear me, sir?! Do you think you could clear off some of this cardboard? Make a path for us at least? You know? --the people can't get through!"
I ate my supper at a pub and then returned. When I re-entered, you had disappeared entirely. Cardboard, rags, the cart itself, everything had been removed. Only the blue and red hieroglyphs on the marble were still there, and I stared at them for a long time, until the marble deepened, opened into a vortex that drew me further in, and I saw what you'd drawn were no private runes, but the map of your zig-zag dreams, meant to guide you down through time, and home again. The zig-zag lines went swimming through the marble, and I wanted to dive in as I might dive into a gray-green ocean, but I could not follow you; you had already gone. I thought I would never see you again, my brother. I wanted to call you back, invite you into my oversized flat, share my food and shelter with you entirely, though I know now that you would not have come. That doorway was the only place you meant to be.
We both know that time moves backward, my brother; we are both embarked on the long journey toward our origins. Therefore I have come to the island, at last. I have walked down the row of zig-zag houses, following the schoolchildren in their green uniforms and the chickens that walk ahead of me in the street, to the place where the bay turns toward the headland. I have gone into the bar that faces the ocean, and bought cups of cask rum from cinderblock shack, and sat on the concrete terrace to drink them, looking out over the thin strip of sand to the water.
That day it was very still. A torn chainlink fence raised on two-by-fours divided me from the water. The shadow of twin mountains on the headland cast a deeper blue across that smooth still surface. On the bay, a lone white sailboat stood at anchor. Four brown chicks came walking lazily across the slab, turning their heads for something to peck, but the wide warm grainy concrete was all bare. The rum was thick, like a clear oil, and the air was thick and and hot. Beyond the ragged diamonds of the fence, a small spotted dog rolled on her back to scratch herself against the sand, exposing grey-black dugs fat and heavy with milk. A lean man came sculling across the quiet blue water on a broken windboard, bent low to whatever it was he used for oars. My eye followed him and I saw you then, my brother. You came from the headland, with a cutlass in your right hand and a green coconut in your left. You were in your prime of youth, your chest was silky, glossy with sweat, and your arms and legs were carelessly strong. As you passed along the strand before the place where I was sitting, you cut the stem from the coconut with the cutlass and raised it to your lips and drank the milk and threw it down. Then you passed by, walking toward the river crossing and the town.
I saw how it was then, my brother, that we have destroyed the world. It is all our own unmaking. The place in which we might have met has been undone. I watched your back receding through the ripped links of the fence and wished that I might reach you, and knew I never could.
But a new day is coming for us, my brother. We will meet once again in our great age. We will be older than dinosaurs then, and our skins will be rougher than the stones. We will meet by the river where the women wash the clothes, and there we will both come out of our skins like snakes. I will put on the garment that you have laid down, my brother, and you will do the same with the one that I have shed. Then, truly, I will live your life, and you will live mine.