by Jordan Keiser
On January 1, for no earthly reason the world started ending. As the Rules of the Universe neared their expiration date, things became deeply, terminally strange. Some people were more sensitive to the manifestations than others, some people more amenable to contradiction, some less. But everywhere you looked the End was forcing theissue. And we were ruined with not-knowing.
Would everything finally be made clear? or would the desire to bother knowing anything for sure be abandoned as a cost-benefit waste? So much had been suggested.
What of relationships: commitment and sex? Had anything been worth the trouble?
What of astrophysics? What of matter? Who would win, God or sound science? The existence of each has been posited.
Would anything, in the end, make sense? There are purported instances.
Would the human race, that age-old quest toward a functional degree of clarity, ever fully be realized? Would existence pay off?
Was there an answer? Or just more stupid questions—
I was wrong, Peterson thought, the world is absurd. The absurdity is punishing me for not believing in it.
“A Shower of Gold”
All things are wearisome.
[ one ]
WHO IS CERBERUS
1. “I have no idea,” said Jacqueline, and with a roll of blue and yellow eyes swiveled back to her conversation. “Anyway,” she said, “you just take it in, drop it off, they do it all there for you.”
“On site?” said Nadyenka.
Jacqueline nodded. “I think so.”
Jacqueline had just gotten her torso peeled. That is: flushed, drained and pressed— leeched, intoxicated, detoxified, shaved, derm-abraded, derm-restored, read koans to, administered Mongolian Throat Songs over, wrapped in kelp with deep-earth magnets and locked for long hours in a sensory deprivation apparatus. She had just retrieved it and was pleased with her investment.
“And when you get it back,” Jacqueline said, “it’s just so soft and odorless. You don’t know what intercourse is till you’ve had the torso laundered.”
Nadyenka nodded. Then frowned. The pair sat in an oxygen bar in downtown Ft. Worth. Frankly Nadyenka was offended by the idea of Jacqueline’s husband having intercourse with her, and she spat the cold, flavorless gas with distaste as she spoke.
“Is Lucas back in town, then?”
Jacqueline dragged from her cigarette reproduction, which gave a small, agreeable whirr. She was fuddled by the query. She exhaled harmless nitrates.
“Oh,” she said finally. “Oh, oh, oh. No. No, Lucas isn’t back. We have a surrogate Lucas employs when he’s on the road.”
“Yes, Jean-Baptiste, you’ve met him.”
Nadyenka continued frowning. “I’d forgot—”
Who is Cerberus?
Again the voice’s origin was indiscernible, and the women scanned for it around the peacefully burbling space. Nadyenka saw where trunks of delicate medical tubing ran unobtrusively along the café ceiling, neon statuary throbbing modernly below. No one else seemed to have heard.
Nadyenka tried to be firm. “We don’t know,” she said.
Jacqueline tapped her nicotine-delivery appliance in the spotless ashtray. Nadyenka continued frowning, taking another small bite from her croquette.
“Hey,” she said. “Have you ever tried...Aqua-Tantrism?”
“Yes,” she said. “I have.”
MacAbee was sweating badly. His maroon suit-coat mopped him, the orange acrylic dress-shirt sticking to his back.
“The Four Horsemen, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Let ’em know you’re out there, yes, thank you.”
Few audience members were paying attention. Most studied long yellow cards that contained grids. Some spread the cards out on the tables. The Leather Room was never more than about a quarter full. It was a kind of secondary Keno pit. The lank figures departing the stage wore long black dusters of a drab fabric, rough and durable-looking, like woven silk. MacAbee set down his water glass.
“Let ‘em know you’re alive and kicking, folks, yes...”
Stranger things were happening, MacAbee felt certain. His initial instinct had been not to question it, for fear that he was actually becoming insane. People in his personal life had always seemed ready to accuse him of this.
“That’s Pestilence on zither everybody, let him hear it. I can’t get enough of that stuff—”
MacAbee’s history with absurd happenings went back as far as Nanitoke, Wisconsin, his hometown on the banks of Lake Mole. At the end of his tenth-grade summer, for instance, MacAbee had burned down a small Chippewa orphanage under circumstances that were still not clear to him. The fire resulted from an ill-conceived prank that MacAbee hadn’t wanted to participate in, but did so at the behest of his girlfriend, Maggie Podhertz, who thought he was abnormal and wanted him to make friends. It was a simple mission of toothpaste and toilet paper, and after a dreamlike half-hour was coming off well. It wasn’t until the building was well-covered that MacAbee found his cohort had disappeared. A further difficulty in the days that followed was it could not be proven to anyone’s satisfaction these other boys ever existed.
Nonetheless, the orphanage was ensconced, the Madonna sporting a sea-green moustache of Colgate, and as MacAbee rounded the building, still attempting to remain covert, a spark jumped from his stiff blue corduroy slacks and set one delicate strand of tissue alight. In seconds the mummified building was on a roar. It was at this point MacAbee realized that his companions were fled. Later, when he learned there was no record at all of their existence, MacAbee was faced with the familiar, hapless dilemma: either the universe was wrong or his entire concept of it was simply wrong. It was the same when Maggie Podhertz denied ever having known MacAbee. He was almost sure she was lying, and could conceive of several plausibilities why. But if he could not be absolutely sure she was lying then there was at least a chance that all his perceptual interaction with the universe was corrupt.
“Why did you burn down the orphanage?” everyone asked, once MacAbee had been booked, his permanent record updated, his relationship with Maggie Podhertz excised from human history.
“I am philosophically confused,” said MacAbee.
“What does that mean?” they asked.
“It means I am philosophically confused,” he said. “It means I don’t know.”
Indeed, this explanation never satisfied anyone who found MacAbee abnormal.
But the paralogical episodes used to be occasional. MacAbee might go months or years without a glitch of any kind, and over that time he’d forged détente with the strangeness: if he didn’t bother the apparitions and auditory novelties, they didn’t bother him. The fact that they were there, and the fact that they were multiplying, and the fact that they were becoming indistinguishable from the regular functions of his consciousness, however, bothered him a great deal.
After the show, MacAbee decided, he would go upstairs and shoot himself.
“And now…” he said, sputtering his drink a bit. “And now…And now.” He fumbled his cards. “Oh, what a treat—” he said. “And now our multi-culti cavalcade barrels on, as we welcome that great son of Mesoamerica, His Worship, the Reverend Ubl Ac-Toatl...”
A crowd member or two looked up.
“That’s right, folks,” MacAbee said. “If I’m not mistaken the Reverend is going to help us inaugurate this wonderful holiday in the style of Central Mexican antiquity. Give him a hand people, yes. Ubl, if you would…”
Ubl Ac-Toatl quickly began setting up his act, unfolding the altar, unsheathing the long obsidian blade and so on, chatting up the audience as he did so. MacAbee went to the bar in back and ordered a double Chivas. He drank it, then he chewed the ice. Then he ordered another. The booze worked in MacAbee’s joints. It worked in his jaw. Up on stage, Ubl Ac-Toatl was calling forward an audience member.
“Give Amy a hand, folks,” Ubl was saying. “She’s all the way from Louisville.”
The crowd responded with a sleeping kind of groan.
MacAbee resolved not to shoot himself yet, not on a snap decision. He would come clean to his fiancée, Rita. He would trust her—as he had always wished and never been able to trust anyone—to accept his problem even if he could not explain it. If Rita did not rebuff or otherwise demolish him in return, then he would let her set a formal date for their espousal. Quietly MacAbee despaired at how often he promised grand reformations—and this one in particular.
Sighing, he turned back to the bar and signaled for his tab. Johansson went to the register a moment, then pivoted back to where MacAbee stood and placed a small blue frog on the marble bar top. MacAbee gaped at the sight for a moment. He felt the same deep, clothy disgust that always accompanied his inability to make sense of the universe. It crept on his esophagus.
He looked at Johansson. Johansson shrugged.
“I know,” said Johansson. “I wish I didn’t have to charge you. They changed the rules.”
“Oh,” stammered MacAbee. “No. No, no, that’s fine.”
He quickly put the frog in his pocket and turned back to face the stage.
“Some show,” said Johansson.
Ubl Ac-Toatl was placing the several viscera at different ceremonial points around the stage in various ceremonial pots ringed in crude bas-relief.
“Give Amy another hand, people. What a sport.”
Amy waved from the altar. The formless irritation in MacAbee began flexing into nausea, as it always did.
“Marry Christmas, folks,” said Ubl Ac-Toatl—
“Who is Cerberus?”
came a low voice from behind MacAbee, sounding like Johansson’s.
But MacAbee was afraid to turn around and look.
Later, as he passed down Vegas Blvd, cocktail shimmying from one side of his etched lowball glass to the other, MacAbee had cooled. For Christmas Eve, the pornographic solicitations had been curbed somewhat, but there was no other visible indication of the Nativity. There had been record highs all December and even now it was seventy-five out, brilliantly comfortable. The stream of pedestrians was oddly peaceful, bulging as it did with college students. By the time MacAbee had reached the Strip shuttle, his nerves had returned almost to normal.
He’d drunk quite a bit.
The shuttle was completing the tail end of its northward arc when MacAbee boarded. As they passed the Four Seasons he saw by the digital clock above the driver that it was now 12:05. Christ’s arrival was officially in observance.
“Merry Christmas,” MacAbee told another drunk beside him, a dusty-looking man with red hair and red whiskers and a red and black flannel with the sleeves removed. This other drunk merely nodded, though—slowly, and in a way MacAbee could not help but think spiritually profound.
At 12:25 MacAbee stepped out on Radford, his home street. As he made his way toward his townhome, MacAbee’s spirits continued to rise. He wondered for the thousandth time if he were merely the victim of an acute and debilitating performance anxiety. He thought of his fiancée, of their small life together, of all the reasons it was worth continuing, and the grimmer thoughts he had entertained felt sillier and more distant with each stride.
Over the three years of their engagement, MacAbee had provided scores of excuses for not finally marrying Rita. Fictional career prospects, the death of fictional distant relatives, a fictional cancer scare and an asymptomatic battle with E. coli. The latter of these, Dr. Kim, a Leather Room barfly and friend of MacAbee’s, had helped corroborate with fudged test results and a battery of grim pamphlets. But by the time MacAbee climbed his front steps, a kind of fondness overtook him, a heady warmth, and he set his glass on the banister with an optimistic smile. He would tell the truth.
“Alright, then,” he said, as though projecting some vague empowerment to himself and the nearby universe.
Yet even as the door began inward, MacAbee heard an unpleasant scream rising in the kitchen. A familiar wobbling sensation traversed MacAbee’s gut—his epiglottis slammed shut so violently it locked in place, as though mashed in an adamant fist. Footfalls hurried over the floorboards, shadows reeling in the half-light, and MacAbee felt his body wobble as his eyes adjusted finally and he beheld the image: Rita, his fiancée, was storming toward him with a large kitchen knife. Now the knife rose, the face a harrowed paroxysm—a roar.
It was a dejected microsecond in which MacAbee found his legs again, for he had either to re-discard the prospect of ever trusting another human being, or accept the onrushing blade. And it was with a kind of sigh, half-hearted, that he stepped back and shut the door. At roughly the same instant the deadlatch clicked home, Rita rammed the inside of the door with a yelp. MacAbee saw where his fine, Austrian-made chef’s knife shot through the microfiber exterior of the door, where the tip now protruded by half an inch. He heard Rita squirm on the floor inside, releasing an idiotic moan. He stood still for a moment, thinking.
MacAbee would have to resign his fiancée, he decided—it felt like an awful, though necessary resignation, as to a death—to the mass of incongruities his perceptual life had become. Above all he recognized Rita’s symbolic value as the last representative of sanity in his life, and the possibility that he would have to do without. He didn’t know how.
He cleared his throat. “Rita?”
In response MacAbee’s fiancée released a tortured wail, beating her head on the inside of the door, which ratcheted against the bolt.
“Alright, then,” he called.
Weak and trembling, MacAbee returned to the street, further demonic howls ringing in the house behind him. He went back to the bus stop and re-boarded. The unresponsive drunk from before sat waiting. After a moment MacAbee wept openly before him.
“Oh please,” said the drunk.
MacAbee arrived back at the Monte Carlo at 2 am. He got a cheap room and ate a vending machine brownie and brewed a pot of bathroom-counter coffee to stiffen him. Then he rented up a laptop and in the inadequate lamplight undertook a series of desperate Internet searches. With the terms “sad,” “confused,” “needy,” and “philosophical upset,” MacAbee garnered an assortment of amateur poetry forums and not-FDA-approved pharmaceutical advertisements. Next MacAbee tried “help,” “love life,” “feel better,” and finally: “Why doesn’t my heart work properly?”
In response to this final brace of terms, the search portal generated an advertisement for something called the “Life Conference.” The Life Conference was a sort of wellness convention, MacAbee discovered, occurring this weekend in Buenos Aires. Promising “Ideological Therapy,” among other psycho-remedial techniques, the Conference seemed to have been conceived with MacAbee’s particular strain of philosophical upset in mind. And a moment later he was booking a flight.
Emptying his pockets on the bed, MacAbee found the preposterous blue tree frog Johanssen the bartender had given him, wooly pocket lint stuck to the creature’s porous, rubbery exterior. The frog made a single plaint: a high, grating sound which cut the silence of MacAbee’s boxy, ill-decorated room like an alarm. MacAbee feared it was dried-out beyond saving and held it to his breast with maternal worriment as they fled downstairs. But when they reached the Monte Carlo Rain Forest Experience botanical garden, the creature took only a moment of inertia to orient itself on MacAbee’s outstretched palm before disappearing gaily, firing through the wet leaves with another chirp of thanks.
Something glorious, MacAbee felt sure—as he stood in the heady biospheric atmosphere, the young-tea smell of plant food misting his eyes—was about to happen.
MacAbee couldn’t know it, but the next morning as a crowded 747 spirited him away from the inanities of the Strip, the Four Horsemen were walking onto the main gaming floor of Caesar’s Palace, smoothing their beards and jackets. Their farewell tour had ended happily, and a much-deserved weekend of excess and self-destruction lay ahead of them. After they boggled in the wildness of the interior for a moment, stroking their haircuts and sleeves, the horsemen began to look at one another and smile.
When Nadyenka Czillicz stepped through her front door on the afternoon of December 25, the television was discharging the sexless banter of Alex Trebec.
Nadyenka arrived home each day at about 4:30. She worked for a corporate brewery where she was operations manager for a powerhouse and several gigantic boilers. Nadyenka was occupationally satisfied and should have been financially secure. And the reason she was not financially quite secure was waiting for her in the front room each afternoon when she arrived.
There before the television sat Daniel Murrain, in gym socks and boxer shorts. He held a chocolate chip cookie and a juice box. Dan had a graduate degree in Comparative Heuristics from UC Berkeley. By this point he had usually been awake an hour or two.
He raised the cookie to his mouth and folded off a bite.
Nadyenka shut the door behind her. “Hey,” she said.
Dan made no further move of recognition.
Nadyenka went in the kitchen and put a kettle on for her toddy. Then she sat and opened a Vanity Fair. There was an elegy for the MIT professor who had been eaten by a robot. There was the evolutionist suicide pact. There was the lady who had sculpted a crèche out of discarded tumors. Nadyenka remembered it was Christmas—
When the kettle whined, Nadyenka took down her Christian Brothers VS. She listened to Dan playing along with “Jeopardy” as she reentered.
“It’s Christmas, Daniel.”
Dan looked up. “Yes it is.”
His cookie was gone. The juice box sat hunched-over on the coffee table. Nadyenka’s lip twinged.
“Why is it, Dan,” she said, “that people like me put up with people like you?”
He nodded. “I’ve thought about that too,” he said.
Nadyenka sipped off her toddy and swallowed, the brandy numbing and softening slightly the tissues of her mouth.
“God hates you,” Dan said. Then he laughed, a high, abbreviated sound, like the squawk of a miserable bird, complexly joyless. Dan had tried to explain his form of agnosticism to Nadyenka once before and they agreed it was not worth repeating. “You anger Him.”
Nadyenka despised Daniel Murrain. She realized this while dancing with Lucas d’Estime, her best friend’s husband, at the d’Estime’s All Hallows Eve fête two months previous. There against Lucas, in thrall to his supple intelligence and rugged simplicity—the shadowy prow of his jaw and the unmistakable odor of white tea about him—she knew she had belonged.
“God doesn’t hate you, then?”
Dan thought again. He scratched the inner part of his leg where his mat of genital hair began.
“I guess not,” he said. “Hmm.”
Jeopardy returned. For a few minutes Nadyenka stood in the door, finishing her drink. She listened absently to the clues. Dan got almost everything correct.
“I’ve been thinking about leaving,” Nadyenka said.
“Mm hmm,” said Dan. “Leaving work?”
“No, not leaving work.”
He looked up at her, registered the comment, then back to the television.
“Well,” he said. “Alright.”
“It was going to be my New Year’s Resolution,” she said.
Dan nodded. “That’s fine,” he said. “Where are you leaving to, though? This is your place.”
Nadyenka’s head hurt.
“I’m not happy, Daniel...”
Dan nodded but did not look up.
“Welcome to my world, Nadge.”
The brandy buzzed in Nadyenka’s middle. She felt crazy—
“Who isCerberus,” said Dan from the chair.
2. Lucas d’Estime was a soldier of fortune. His wife Jacqueline believed he was a New Age theorist and healer. He was in fact a New Age theorist and healer—a neo-holist, as he described it. He was also an amateur scholar of something he called Terminus Cosmology, a school of homegrown theories regarding the End of the World. He eschewed the term “Eschatology,” preferring to approach the End from the perspective of pseudo-physics rather than pseudo-theology. Lucas knew exactly why and to what extent the world was ending. In the sense that he could float many theoretical descriptions of the event, each with its own organic complexity.
But Lucas was also a soldier of fortune—blond, with a large, angular face—of intimidating silence, slow to anger, burly in the way that makes linen clothing hang well. And when Jacqueline believed Lucas was at a conference called “Better Mind, Better Universe,” or a wellness workshop called “Nowing the Future,” etc, he may have been either of those places. Alternately he may have been out in the sub-equatorial bush, laying interdiction fire on a local warlord or presumptive head of state.
On December 28, Lucas would be arriving back from a three-day jaunt through the Argentine pampas. He’d helped destroy a small group of People’s Guards who were in possession of three French tourists there. He was accompanied in this effort by two former Navy Seals and a retired elementary school principal, whose name Lucas never learned, but whom he dubbed “Mrs. Larson” in honor of his second grade teacher. Of the four of them, Mrs. Larson was the only one to sustain injury.
They choppered out of Buenos Aires in the wee hours of December 26. The air was cool and dry, the chopper quiet as a microwave. They landed several acres of uninterrupted grass from their target. When the foursome were within a half-mile of the huts they encountered a picket, a short man with a small moustache and a mesh hat with a chinstrap. Mrs. Larson did it with remarkable speed and silence, the throat opening with a gasp, the two of them—Larson and the dead man—slipping down into the susurrant white grass like lovers. With Mrs. Larson’s paunchiness and smoking habit it always surprised Lucas how fast the man could go from inertia to top speed. Seeing it always made Lucas’ gut tense for a moment.
When the men arrived at the huts it was still dark. They made a brief reconnaissance as they circled to the rear of the compound. There were eight guards total. In a sprint they killed the three that had control of the primary structure—two outside, one within, no hesitation. Mrs. Larson took the two in front with his trench knife. This is when the beefy gentleman took a greased-black bayonet to a shallow depth in his right cheek.
Lucas caught the third guard inside, leaning against the wall, nodding off. He severed body and brain, jamming his blade in like a key between the base of his skull and his uppermost vertebrae, switching off breathing and heartbeat and a million nervous reactions.
The French tourists were in this room.
“Magnificent,” said the tourists.
The Seals, Humphreys and San Martin, rushed the barn where five other guerillas lay sleeping. Three of these Argentines burst out the front doors, where from his concealment in a wooden tumbrel Mrs. Larson strafed them as they exited. He caught all three across their faces and chests and they squirmed for a moment in the dust where they’d fallen, then became still. Mrs. Larson stood over them in the silence then, combing his moustache with a tiny black comb.
While the mercenaries awaited pickup, they wolfed down leftovers from a traditional Argentine Christmas, which they found on metal plates in the fridge.
“Good stuff—” said Lucas, sidling toward Mrs. Larson.
“Right,” said Mrs. Larson.
“These,” said Lucas, “are chorizos, of course. And these cookies are called alfajores.”
“Neat,” said Mrs. Larson.
The Seals were taking their dinner sitting across the lot on some hay bales. They played the Slap Game and laughed, like twins.
“So what’s your name, anyway?” Lucas asked.
“What the fuck, d’Estime?” said Mrs. Larson.
“Just, uh…” Lucas cleared his throat. “Guess I’m just making conversation.”
“Well, I killed half a dozen people in the last two days, d’Estime. What did you want to talk about?”
Mrs. Larson turned to glare at Lucas at this point, and the grisly, demonic-looking wound became visible in the half-darkness, like black glue emanating from pulled-open skin.
“Oh, nothing,” Lucas said. “Nothing. But business is good, then?”
Mrs. Larson consumed the last of the sweetmeat with a snort.
“Something bad is going to happen,” he said.
Lucas nodded. “Mm hmm. Like what?”
Mrs. Larson swallowed.
“To you,” he said.
“Ah,” said Lucas. “Oh.”
The next day in Buenos Aires, Lucas was keynote speaker at the New Buddhist “Life Conference.”
Whenever the world is preparing to end, a number of odd things can happen. Generally they take the form of subtle emotional renewal, unaccountably recovered memories and so on. Fatalities are not uncommon, however—usually the result of paranoid hallucinations, and occasionally paranoid verities...
MacAbee was in the crowd at this time, listening serenely. He wore a soft white poncho, a shepherd’s hat and a delicate silver chain with a flor criolla at the center. MacAbee had taken an indeterminate leave of absence from the Leather Room, speaking to his manager, Tot Maddock, by phone from the airport.
“Leaving?” said Tot.
MacAbee thought. “I don’t want to say.”
Tot sighed. MacAbee was not one of fifty more lucrative projects in Tot’s life—
“Whatever,” he said.
“Thank you, Tot.”
So MacAbee spent Christmas night in Buenos Aires in a mid-range hotel, where sitting on his bed he enjoyed several packets of dried fruit created in Cahokia, Illinois. He enjoyed the quiet. Much more than enjoyed it. He lapped the quiet. He ate it, laid face down in it and wept and slept in it. The quiet subsumed him. It fed him.
The next morning MacAbee sought out every possible location where tourists were being bilked and got in line. Now he had a bag of Chinese-made gaud, a peso per necklace, fifty centavos a bracelet. He had a small barrel of Venezuelan rum. He had a poncho and a box of Argentine caramel jam. A malingering pimp in one bodega explained how to get these items past customs.
MacAbee felt much much much much better.
…This is most significantly the result of something called Reflex Duration—a phenomenon whereby rushing planks of time are in the ever nearer future slamming against the wall of The End, and being chaotically dispersed backward in the form of Time Energy, in the form of psychological chaos, and as paradox.
It is in this context we re-imagine the apparent contradictions within our age and ourselves: For the most part, we’re pretty goddamn normal.
MacAbee felt much much better.
There was an expression Jacqueline d’Estime’s psychoanalyst and masseur Pavle Kraguj used to describe a situation in which an unspoken ultimatum had been broached.
“Putting down the duck,” he called it—a bad or incomplete translation, perhaps, from his birth language, Monégasque-Ligurian—this, the implicit final remonstrance, is still a remarkably common tactic.
Consider the letter Mme. d’Estime had received from her concubine, Jean-Baptiste D. Besoin, on the Sunday after Christmas.
Regretful to inform I must be unavailable for the seeable future.
I have injured the groin.
It is life,
Jacqueline had arranged an emergency session with Pavle Kraguj upon the note’s arrival.
“Ah—” he said, nodding. “The subtext.”
“Your kept-man has found a new keeper.”
Jacqueline nodded, under-slept, bereft.
Jean-Baptiste was a scandalous romance novelist and poet. He wrote poems for Jacqueline that were both sexually immature and crudely apocalyptic—biological descriptions in among suicidal meditations—certain passages sounding as though derived from anatomical reference works, which they were. Born in Algeria to a French pied-noir, Jean-Baptiste had spent part of his late twenties in a French sanitarium.
The languid Frenchman’s demands of Jacqueline hitherto included:
A baby tooth from her shivering peterbald kitten, whom he “worshipped”
A copy of Jacqueline’s immunization record
A dental x-ray
A small sample of pubic hair, which he kept in a locket
Jacqueline understood perfectly the threat buried in this latest missive. Jean-Baptiste had procured another patron and would change employers if Jacqueline did not give in to his latest “groinal” requirement. And the demand Jean-Baptiste had devised this time was really quite something—insensé.
“You said he wants your torso,” Pavle said.
“Yes,” she said. “Not for any gross practical reason, mind you. He does not intend to use it for anything.”
“This is understandable,” said Pavle. “He wants it for symbolic purposes. As one might give a ring.”
“Yes, as one might give an ear,” said Jacqueline. “Or employ feces in graphic art—those are his exact words.”
“Well,” Pavle said. “If he only means to keep it weekends...”
Jacqueline frowned at Pavle. But a salacious alternative was already dawning on her swart acupuncturist and interpreter of dreams.
“Or...” he said, a grin spreading over the brown, compact face. “What about Lucas?”
“Yes,” she said. “Jean-Baptiste hates Lucas.”
Pavle nodded, the pink embroidered walls and soft jazz of the therapy parlor enclosing them amniotically—
“Jean-Baptiste cannot hear Lucas’ name,” said Jacqueline, “without offering an impromptu philippic on the ills of capitalisme…”
“And sex-envy,” Pavle said, “is the great instrument.”
Jacqueline smiled, running over thoughts. “A romantic affair with Lucas d’Estime...” she said airily. “My own husband, of all things.” She looked up after a moment. “Thank you, Pavle.”
“Thank you, Jacqueline.”
The next morning Nadyenka Czillicz arrived at the d’Estime household at about eleven-thirty. She was flush and hyperventilated. In order to create this effect she held her breath for several moments in the car.
“Nadge!” said Jacqueline meeting her friend at the front door. “What a complete shock it is to see you.”
It will do here to mention that the relationship between Jacqueline and Nadyenka was only slightly more than utilitarian in nature.
“Darling,” said Jacqueline. “What’s happened, come in, sit down.”
They went quickly through the foyer. Jacqueline placed Nadyenka on the yellow Louis XIV, which was designed to provide a guest with enough support to chat comfortably, but not so comfortable that they were encouraged to stay on and become serious.
“So,” said Jacqueline. “What is it?”
“Well…” Nadyenka said, steadying herself with a breath. “At about ten this morning I got a call about some symphony tickets, that’s how it started—”
Nadyenka was not totally confident in the credibility of her account. She was totally confident in the inadequacy of Jacqueline’s attention span.
“It was a young lady,” said Nadyenka, “telling me I had forgotten to renew my season tickets for this year’s Ft. Worth Pops-Philharmonic Orchestra season.”
“Mmm,” said Jacqueline. “Oh, dear.”
“‘Well,’ I said, ‘I never had season tickets to any Ft. Worth Pops-Philharmonic season’.”
Jacqueline nodded. “She said?”
“Well, she put me on hold, pretending to talk to her sales manager, then returned, then left again, claiming she discovered a bonus seating option, then returning, leaving again, and so on.”
Jacqueline’s eyes began to gloze over.
“So what she’s doing is trying to break my will,” Nadyenka said, leaning forward. “Telling me I already have Pops-Philharmonic season tickets that I don’t have, inventing excuses to keep me listening to the Pops-Philharmonic hold music, trying to convince me that I’m crazy—”
Jacqueline nodded impassively.
“—And by the time she finishes it’s worked, because I’m terrified that I actually do have Ft. Worth Pops-Philharmonics season tickets that need renewing, and it takes every ounce of my will power not to renew them. Finally the girl lets me hang up, but not before promising to call back, and to have several of her friends call as well. By now I’m a complete mess…”
Jacqueline nodded. “Oh, my.”
“Anyway, when I call my credit card company, it turns out I do have Pops-Philharmonics season tickets—at least I paid for them. So I storm downtown and get my refund, though I feel like kind of a cheat at this point, extorting money from a needy cultural organization that had done me no intentional wrong, that had at least met my nonexistent request in good faith.”
“And no sooner than I get back to the sidewalk I realize Dan bought the season tickets, under my name, naturally, with one of my cards, so…”
“Yes, so now I’m standing downtown, crying. I’m so frazzled I can hardly breathe, and when a man comes up and asks me if I’m alright I tell him, ‘Yes,’ so he pushes me down and runs off with my purse.”
Jacqueline’s jaw dropped instinctively. She put a hand to it.
“Jesus Christ,” she said. “I mean, Jesus, Nadyenka.”
“I know.” Nadyenka wiped a dry eye. She had talked too long to sound overwrought anymore. “Anyway, this is the closest place I could think of to sit down and get my head straight.”
“Oh,” said Jacqueline. “Well—”
“Thank you for having me in, though.”
“Oh, stop it, dear—please stop.” Jacqueline rose, taking Nadyenka off the bergere and depositing her on the more favorable purple divan. “And how are you feeling now?” she said.
“Well…” Nadyenka took a breath.
On the coffee table in the d’Estime sitting room, there was a picture of Jacqueline in blue jeans posing with a shovel for Earth Day, Jacqueline as William Jennings Bryant on All Hallows Eve, Jacqueline and Lucas at an outdoor polyamory conference in Apeldoorn. There was Lucas at a book-signing. Lucas at the U.N. Lucas with a giant hunting pistol—Lucas in swim trunks.
“...Better,” Nadyenka said.
MacAbee arrived at the d’Estime household at about 1 pm. When Jacqueline opened the front door she encountered a smiling, peaked-faced gentleman in a pillowy woolen poncho. It was 87 degrees in Dallas on this December 29, and the sight inspired pity and affection at once. The man seemed to quail even as he spoke.
“Mrs....” he began. “Are you Mrs. Lucas d’Estime?”
Jacqueline’s eyes flared with a kind of glee.
“Miss Jacqueline Alphonse d’Estime-Auxvasse.”
MacAbee cringed at the words. His right eye fluttered slightly.
“I see,” he said.
“Yes, since neither Lucas, nor I for that matter, am a pre-suffrage hegemon, we decided neither of our names needed pass from history’s book, yes. Seeing how neither of us was bartered into this marriage for a cow or any other farm implement, yes…”
Jacqueline took pleasure in the speech in an unappealing fashion. Her breasts, full for her narrow frame, commanded the eye as she spoke, swaying before MacAbee like the lures of a hunting turtle. A ways behind her MacAbee saw Nadyenka pass through the hallway, clasping a steaming mug to sternum. MacAbee smelled agreeable brandy. His eyes returned to the long baton-like face.
“Is there someone else I can speak to?
Lucas arrived at the d’Estime household—his ranch-style four-bedroom in the coveted Rancho Ranchero subdivision—at about 2:30, on what remained a dazzlingly clear afternoon—Texas blue. As he crossed his ranch-style front yard Lucas noticed that there was a copy of the Dallas Daily Clarion-Dispatch waiting for him beside the stoop, a paper to which he did not subscribe. With nonchalance it went into his case.
When Lucas stepped through the front door, three people were sitting in his sitting room. Nadyenka he was only vaguely acquainted with. MacAbee he had seen in passing but could not immediately place. The third sitter was his wife Jacqueline, and as he smiled, unwitting, Jacqueline crossed the living room and French-kissed Lucas with lewd abandon, wrestling his face with her own—a cry of surprise disappearing in the advancing mouth.
Lucas dropped his case. The Clarion-Dispatch stumbled out onto the burnished foyer floor. His universe tilted.
“I am your disciple,” MacAbee explained. “That is as simple as I can put it.”
Lucas nodded, thinking. Though it was no longer in his memory, he and MacAbee apparently spoke briefly at the Life Conference. The theorist was signing MacAbee’s glossy new copies of Dining Sister Turtle Universe and You and I, We Are That First Person—
“To whom?” Lucas had said.
“‘To Rita,’ on this one,” said MacAbee.
“Who’s Rita?” Lucas said.
“A girl I know.”
“That’s wonderful,” Lucas said.
Again Lucas applied his very aristocratic signature. Then he pushed the book back to MacAbee, who seemed to be trembling.
“I need a lot of help,” MacAbee said.
“So does everybody, friend,” he said. “I know exactly how you feel...”
Lucas did not even recall the comment, but from MacAbee’s point of view there was something in the response, perhaps in the collusion of weather and rest and wholesome personal interaction—the great opening breath it all seemed—that made it a transcendent moment, one of those grandmother rising from her deathbed, reverse bungee-jump, removing a tiny amount of your thumb with a vegetable peeler sort of moments; the small things that so often spawn new religious forms. In that moment he vowed to follow Lucas until the mysteries of life became clearer. He finalized the decision after ingesting a healthy amount of the candy apple-flavored rum.
“I see,” said Lucas, when MacAbee had explained. “And how did you get my address?”
“At the Life Conference,” said MacAbee.
Lucas peered. “The Life Conference.”
“Yes, wonderful gentleman. Beard, glasses, big gut. I assumed you knew him, of course.”
“A big bandage over one side of his face, bad halitosis?”
“Yeah, right. He said he was your South American attaché.”
“Ah,” Lucas said. “Wonderful…”
Nadyenka was there having to do with a complex strong-arm robbery account and a mild bump on the head which caused her to stand very close to Lucas’ body at all times whenever they were in a room together. Jacqueline, for her part, seemed determined to rape Lucas whenever the opportunity appeared. While he was simply washing potatoes and baby squash for dinner she had attacked him from behind, her mouth and teeth suddenly against his neck and the back of his ear, the green and yellow talons taloning his ass and worming into his front pockets.
“Now,” she said chillingly.
“Yeah,” said Lucas, clearing his throat, trying to gather his focus upon the vegetable brush beneath him in the sink. “No, not now.”
“Then when you least expect it,” Jacqueline rasped, releasing his buttocks suddenly and fleeing.
It was impossible to regain personal equilibrium in this environment. Over the years, through dietary balance, Aikido, meditation upon the tenets of Mutual Arising and so on, Lucas had crafted an almost invincible calm. Now he couldn’t quiet his mind. Before dinner, Lucas snuck into the bathroom and consumed a small mustard-yellow stabilizer.
The Clarion-Dispatch contained a brief encrypted printout on tissue-thin rice paper.
In translation, it read:
Stull Kansas 12.31.xx
KC 1.2 Beautiful American FF
The date was New Years Eve, the payoff $40,000. Lucas had no knowledge of “Stull, Kansas,” but that is where his contact would await, someone called Devonwald. The event that would provide Lucas cover was a film festival in Kansas City, on January 2, called “Beautiful American.”
This was disappointing. The Ft. Worth Scientology Library held a vegetarian feast every New Year’s Eve that Lucas never missed. This year they’d even invited Lucas’ idol and moral template Howard Pujamin to speak in the final hours before midnight. But it was adequate money, and it offered Lucas an opportunity to extricate himself from his newly deranged wife, the dangerously co-dependant Russian girl, and MacAbee, his would-be acolyte and biographer.
“—How,” yowled Jacqueline, cutting off the explanation, “can you withhold wellness from another?”
Lucas frowned, confused.
“Jean-Baptiste must be free for New Years, Jacqueline. He knows he’s not allowed to skip holidays.”
Jacqueline affected wounded crying, having only experienced the phenomenon on television.
“That doesn’t even begin to be what it’s about,” she said.
Lucas nodded. “Tell me what it’s about.”
Jacqueline was crossing the living room. She removed from the mantle an eight-by-ten that pictured Lucas’ mother.
“This,” Jacqueline said.
Lucas’ roles of husband, therapist and assassin were all in conflict—The Dilemma of Male-Personhood, as his pamphlet on the subject had it.
“I understand,” Lucas heard himself say in disbelief.
Jacqueline attacked him again, and held his mouth with her own for a long moment. Stiffly Lucas allowed the violation. Over Jacqueline’s shoulder he noticed that the act made MacAbee gawky and uncomfortable. And that Nadyenka it did not.
Lucas repacked his suitcase, exchanging soiled linen pants and sea-colored Polos for clean ones, refilling his travel bottle of blackberry-juniper face wash and bathing the breastplate of his Kevlar vest, which had gotten doused with blood and a bit of stomach fluid during his morning in the pampas. As he did so, Jacqueline and Nadyenka chatted aimlessly over toddies in the d’Estime’s kitchen. In celebration of the accord, MacAbee had consumed a great deal of the Argentine jam and was now in the guest bed, napping and moaning. Lucas marveled at this predicament, unable to believe he had created it.
As Lucas applied the deep-pore cleanser to his face and neck, a large herd of black goats were passing through his side yard, driven by a squat, cudgel-faced man of Bulgarian appearance. Lucas didn’t see it. Nor had he heard of the prodigious goat massacre being organized by the Ft. Worth Church of Satan.
Down the hall from Lucas, the ladies’ burbling rose a bit.
“—Oh, yeah,” said Jacqueline. “Honey?”
Lucas dropped a bandolier in his suitcase and zipped it closed. He sighed again,