« Melissa Barrett | Contents | Jason Schwartz »

Emily Anderson

Crooked

 

          When the secret police feared retribution for killing the son of the important man (the man whose brother had been held for ransom by the Separatists and whose first wife’s brother was the ex-president, peacefully though shamefully removed from office) none of them could agree what to do next, because everyone agreed that the kid had really had it coming to him.

         He was only fifteen but already an irremediable asshole.  “And if the man is reasonable,” said the short policeman’s lover, the woman who always walked as if on tiptoes, “he’ll be glad to be rid of him.”

         “You should come with me.”

         “No.”

         So the short policeman took one of his shoes from the pile he was hastily sorting and smashed her bathroom mirror.   He bloodied his fingers plucking a dagger of glass from the bright cobweb he’d created.  “Then use this to defend yourself when they come for you in your sleep with semiautomatics.”

         “I can’t believe anyone would want that kid alive.”  She sat on his open suitcase to keep him from packing his boxer briefs; he had scooped them into his arms.  They were quickly absorbing the blood from his hand.  “And the weather here is so nice.”

         The country’s consistently agreeable weather was one reason the citizens gave for their nation’s consistently corrupt and intermittently violent pattern of politics.  “Let the English be civilized, complain then apologize,” was a popular campaign slogan used by four of the country’s eight major political parties through three consecutive elections.  Who, the citizens asked, would book a flight to England, gray and bewigged, despite its reputation for tranquility?

         Here, the word for “night” is the same as the word for “rain”;  this is the favorite fact of tourists.

         The woman who walks as if on tiptoes refused to kiss her policeman goodbye.  Her true love, she said, was the sky.

         But as soon as her policeman left, the ghost of the boy bludgeoned to death drunk outside of a nightspot popular with only the very young and the very old began to haunt her dreams so that she woke up late every morning, exhausted, eyes weary as if she’d kept some sandpaper vigil. “That little dead asshole,” she moaned.  She didn’t mind the dreams so much as oversleeping and missing her sky’s most celestial moments, the four or five auroral minutes when she felt she might shimmer into it and take the place of the night, or the rain.   

         “I’m going to the mountains,” the policeman had told her, shoving her aside, scattering his underwear to the floor.   He left them; they were stained with blood and the kind you can buy cheaply almost anywhere in the world these days.

         “But it’s cold in the mountains.”

         “I want you to be able to picture what it is like where I am, and imagine how I am feeling at any moment, but not be able to specify an exact location even under the extreme forms of torture to which you are likely to be subjected.  And there are mountains all over the world.”

         “When you’re gone, I refuse to think of you.”

         Months later, she will receive a post card from Disney World with the words throwing you off.  But while the policeman’s postcard works its way through the city in the pink satchels attached to postal mopeds,  the woman who walks as if on tiptoes sleeps relentlessly.  

         She dreams only scenes she’s witnessed in waking life.  While she sleeps, the assassinated asshole again disrupts everyone’s commute.  Feigning clumsiness, he empties his entire American-style to-go Fanta into the lap of a pregnant woman on the metro.  He screams for a doctor, insisting that the pregnant woman’s water has broken. 

         The idiom: “night falls on her thighs.”

         When the woman shyly refuses medical assistance, he seizes the straps of her flower-print jumper and slams her up against the darkened subway windows, beyond which flash glowing breakfast-bar ads.  “Oh my god, she wants her baby to be born retarded on the metro floor!” he squeals, pawing at her damp jumper.

         All of his friends laugh, but, aware of the asshole’s political significance, the woman who walks as if on tiptoes does nothing—just as no one did anything in life.  In her dream, she sees the asshole’s face, his reflection on the blackened windows.  In life, she saw only her own Small-Pak of Kleenex resting in her lap, and her own fingers, massaging the red plastic wrapping as she wondered if she dared offer a tissue to the wet woman.   

 

         Once she had tried to teach the policeman English, a language she knew better than him.   Say I am a policeman and you are under arrest.  He looked into the distance and shook his head.  She said, Come on. Like they do in films. Try it, she said, what a beautiful sunset.  I’m shy, he said, turning a beautiful pink. 

 

         The dream she has most frequently is the most boring one.  If she weren’t so bored, she might wake up to climb out of her window and stand on the roof and watch the moon turn into paper and vanish.   Instead, she watches the asshole flinging his change onto the floor in front of the bus driver.  “Ha, you dropped it,” he says, laughing.  The bus driver’s lips turn thin and white in the long rectangle of the rearview mirror.

 

         “That’s just the kind of blue I like,” she told the policeman on one of their first mornings together.  They were coming back very late from a party at a nightspot frequented by those too young to yet be called old.  They were both a little drunk, and had kissed each other in public for the first time.  “I’m a policeman,” he told her.  “No kidding,” she said.  “No, really,” he said.  “The secret police.”  Though they weren’t secret anymore; they were the official special police force, colloquially known by their secret name, so she said, “Shh,” and kissed him.  Pulling away she said, “Look at the sky.”

 

         In the supermarket dream, the asshole gropes an elderly woman who walks as if limping in order to clutch closed her heavy purse—the zipper is broken.  The asshole gropes her so that is she, not he, who reels heedless through the curving aisle, overturning a pyramid of canned cinnamon-peaches and upsetting the contents of her purse.  Her lipstick, coins and bottles of pills roll among the rolling peach-cans.  The woman who walks as if on tiptoes is wearing a very short denim miniskirt.  She can’t bend down to help without exposing herself.   Helpless, she dares only to toe a bottle of Lipitor closer to the grasping septuagenarian.

         Her pointed toe is perfect as a ballerina’s.

 

         On waking, she places the dagger of mirror in her bed. It is the only way, she thinks, to preserve a portion of the first light that enters her room while she sleeps and dreams her obnoxious dreams.  She looks into the mirror, trying to see the sky in her skin.  The words sound almost alike. 

            The word for asshole in their language is best translated turds-for-hands. 

         Her friend, the woman who admires President Barack Obama, does not know why she puts up with it, says: “Barack Obama would not tolerate an asshole like that for a fricking minute.” 

         The woman who seems to walk on tiptoes drinks her entire cup of coffee, thick with grounds, as is the custom here. 

         She drinks very slowly, deciding if she is angry enough to bring up the fact that only two months ago at a nightspot popular with nearly everyone, the woman who admires Barack Obama spent the early-morning hours sitting on the lap of and doing lines of coke with the Conservative party leader.  Later she admitted that submission to a powerful man made her feel like a truly beautiful woman, the type one sees on the covers of magazines sold at an international airport.

         The woman thought about how the sky stands at nine o’clock in the morning, the blue pausing to rest as if on an escalator, setting down its shopping bags so they might ascend along with it.  The sky if it were anything would be a kindness, so she finishes her coffee and says only,  “I don’t love the policeman anymore.”

         A caveat: the woman who admires Barack Obama always does this: responds to a personal confession, such as about a problem with a recurring dream, by implying that it is the result of your own personal weakness.  Now she says, “Well, that’s no surprise.”

 

         On account of the breeze, today’s noon-blue is coffee-thick.  It stirs the woman’s longing for that thin morning sky, a longing which has become her hatred for the dead asshole of her dreams.  Every night the woman is lulled to sleep by the warm drizzle or driven into nightclubs by it, but there is no escaping him.  She finds him in her sleep where she found him in life, perched in a magnolia tree, peering into an endodontist’s open window, crushing the waxy white flowers in his hands and mimicking the painful machinery of root canals.  His drill imitation is dead-on.  He laughs to see the patients shudder in anticipation, their eyes closed, the doctor’s back turned.

         Looking at the ruined blossoms in his hands, the woman notices the green paint that marks his long, flat fingers.  This suggests to her waking self that he’s the same asshole who painted the green Whoresign above the doorways of innocent girls, girls he wanted to like—

         Waking late again, she decides it’s is time to talk to her friend with the sheep: the country’s chief pride lies in the pastoral, so city ordinances regarding livestock are seldom enforced. “Can you try to kill him again, in your dream?” asks her friend, twisting his pale whiskers between his fingers.

         “I’m only a witness, in the dreams.”

         She looks down into the courtyard of the apartment building he inherited, where his brown sheep graze from their waving prairie-troughs.

         “Have you looked in a mirror?”

         “Do you think that would help?”

         “Well, your face is dirty.  And you haven’t even asked me how I am.”

         “Sorry.” The sheep-cheese on the cheese-plate smells nothing like the sheep below. 

         “A dream’s a dream.”

         “And a sheep’s a sheep.”  She lines up her uneaten cheeserinds without looking at him, but lets him kiss her cheek when she leaves.  “Thanks, I feel better,” she says. 

         But she is not better.  She is much, much worse because all night she dreams of the asshole’s face, just his face, moving slowly, as if one of them is drowning.  And in the morning the mark for whore—and tourists eager to exchange money should be wary, as this mark is distinguishable only by its green color from the symbol for the local currency—has appeared over the doorway to her apartment building.  

         She tries to tell herself that, after all, she has many enemies.  The secret police, for instance.

         It’s probably not the dead asshole.

         She might not even be the whore indicated: the woman across the hall wears green bedslippers to the market, and there’s a girl downstairs with a scar running down the back of one of her legs so she looks as if she’s always wearing a single, seamed stocking. 

         The green mark could be for one them, but still, she puts her sliver of mirror in her purse and, walking as if on tiptoes, scurries through her neighborhood, past the little boys playing trailer-races in front of the dry-cleaner- and-dyer’s, past a small girl jumping on an abandoned half-size mattress, past the Small-Pak Kleenex-saleswomen who cry out to her outside the metro stop.  She ignores them.  She will take the bus to the city’s famous cliff’s-edge park, where the sky falls one hundred meters and meets halfway the tongue of a fountain memorializing first an infant prince, slain in hiding in a sea-cove six centuries ago, then the asshole’s step-uncle.  It is a good place to go on a date.

 

         Squatting in her thin sandals on the warm bricks along the promenade, she sticks her arms and legs and face through the wrought iron bars of the guardrail and leans out into the ten o’clock sky.  She points her toes out into the Mary’s-mantle blue, the sea-lapping blue, then works them down into the rich green ivy moving in the invisible air over the cliff.

         No one drowns or suicides up.  Impossible to die moving upward or outward into air.  She has forgotten her hat and the morning sun on the back of her neck is like the encouraging hand of a teacher or a coach.

         She considers the green Whoresign painted over her door.  The sky’s blue changes and changes.  She says, “You are the only one I can trust.”   

         The cliff itself is the Second National Bank Building, thirty stories tall.   It’s said the windows admit hummingbirds feeding on the honeysuckle and chain of hearts lacing through the ivy.  The city was once perfectly level, but the past 500 years of artillery fire, levelings, excavations, reconstructions, memorializations, etc have inspired today’s generation of ambitious urban planners.  Night or rain will come, they say, but so will we: in a human interest story for the leading centrist publication, the asshole’s father told how one especially bold hummingbird dipped its beak to take a sip from a cup of coffee right off his desk!  Of course, he said, it was laced with a little of the country’s famous cinnamon-peach liqueur: “They love sweets.” 

         At noon the sun empties its strong, full self onto her crown, drools into her ears so she thinks of the dead king in Hamlet.  Was his name Hamlet, too? It’s an especially warm day, though, of course, it will be breezy and perfectly comfortable by two o’clock.  The hot sky’s grown gauze-white and more like a ghost than ever. She might let her sandals fall 100 meters down into the doubly dedicated memorial fountain.  Its tall white jet is invisible in this whitened sky.  “The one thing our country lacked was a mountain,” the asshole’s father said, from his lofty new perch, as workers on scaffolding strung ivy across his windows, “so put us in one, we told the city architects!”    

         In films love’s under your nose, the secret policeman hiding in the air ducts of the Second National Bank, I’m going to the mountains I’m throwing you off: so she turns to look when a man behind her says, “I hear the sunset views are really incredible.”

         He’s a man with a sty and a camera.  He looks like he is winking at her, or at the sky.  

         “Do you want me to take a picture of you somewhere?” she says, in English, looking behind him for a woman fanning herself with the torn-off cover of her guidebook or another man with a frame backpack and a hand-carved walking stick.

         “Do you want to take a drink,” he says, in her language.

         “I’m not a prostitute.”  She could still let her sandals fall, imagine a splash, a bright splash, here we say klish,  into the very beginning of the sky, where it is still invisible.

         He laughs.  “Then you buy the drinks.”  He seems like he’s winking.  It’s his sty.

         She tells the man who is getting ready to wink about the ghost in her dreams, but only after the waiter extinguishes their watermelon cocktails and the rain begins. While the man with the sty knows more about her country than most tourists, he doesn’t seem to understand the political significance of her haunting.  All he says is,

         “There is lots things in my country I don’t do anything about either.  Lots of total how you say, a turd in the hand, ugh, such as this man Brian.”

         “We can speak English.”

         “No, I want to practice your language.  This fellow?  Brian, he is a hands for turds, is that right?”

         “Close enough.  But you don’t dream of him every night.”

         “Well he’s still alive—”

          “I just want to get rid of it, because—because of the sky.”

         “The sky?”

         Suddenly she is jealous and knows she’s had too many cocktails.  She puts her hands over her ears, indicating she will say nothing more.  The sky is something few guidebooks mention, yet it is truly one of the country’s most remarkable achievements.  Of the 75,000 works of art destroyed in the riots at the National Museum, over 30,000 were paintings in which the sky—not the lush green and gently rolling landscape—figured most prominently, and this despite royal/dictatorial portrait commissions, high cost of blue during past periods, etc. 

         Clearly the sky does not need another lover, especially not a winking foreigner.

         “The sky?” he says.

         “It needs to stop because—because I don’t like him.  Let me see your photographs.”

         As they wink through his digital camera, bent over the little café table, the place fills with locals shaking water from their bright nylon night-hats, and he touches her thigh.  “You get up very early,” she observes.

         “How can you tell?”

         “By the light.”  She taps the glowing screen on his camera with her fingernail.

         She keeps a close hold on him as they fall asleep.  “I love the sound of the rain on the roofs,” he says.  “That’s one of my favorite things about your country.  Falling asleep to the sound of the night.”

         “Wake me when you get up.”

         During all that rain she dreams she is walking, up very early, when the sky is at its perfect and most pale blue: a robin’s egg is beginning, and its song, too.  The dark wet edges of the buildings steer into the new light as if they were quiet ships.  Somehow, she is slightly taller than normal.  She tiptoes until the tips of her toes begin to lift off the cobblestones.  Her heels, too, rise and she floats, her shoulders the height of the doorways.  She laughs at the cool currents of air moving along the bottoms of her bare feet.  

         She stops laughing when she hears her own voice echoing against the silent buildings; yet the echo persists long after she closes her mouth.  Her laughter twists and frays and becomes the asshole’s braying laughter, low and high at once.  Here he is, the asshole, careening around the corner, lipstick or something like it all around his mouth. 

         Turds for hands, she whispers, and he stops and looks at her.  He looks behind him, beckons with his wide red-stained chin.  How have his friends arrived on their mopeds so silently? “You’re fricking tall.  Why do you walk like that?” he says, and the friends and the mopeds burst into noisy life and race toward her.  She falls to her feet as they surround her.  The buildings shake as the mopeds veer and scatter.  The heat from their small, screaming engines hangs in the air even after they have gone. A window opens in a building and someone yells, “Shut up!”

         When she wakes, she flexes her foot; it’s cramping.  She nudges the man with the sty.  “What time is it?” he says, in English.

         “It’s nearly eleven.”

         “Shit,” he says, in English.  “I had tickets at the Palace for ten.”

         “I told you there was an oversleeping ghost.”

         “God I’m hungover.”

         “But this time, I was floating.  I wasn’t floating in real life, the time he spoke to me.”

         “What’s ‘floating,’” he says again in English. 

         “What, you don’t remember my language anymore?”

         “I said I was hungover.”

         “I was floating, then and I wasn’t.  I sounded like me—and then I sounded like him—I don’t know.  I need to get out of here.”

         “You’re talking too fast,” he says, and tries to kiss her.

         She complains about the tourist in her bed to her friend who’s had it up to here with the high season.  Sitting in a glass box in an airport booth typing complaints into a logscreen while nodding gives her sciatica and a red streak down the side of her face:  “Oh God,” she moans, “the high season.”

         And “high season” hangs in the air mixing with the smoke from the burnt seeds smashed into the heated stones at the exotic ethnic restaurant in the fed-up friend’s newly chic immigrant neighborhood. 

         “It must be awful,” says the woman who walks as if on tiptoes.  Her friend’s streak twitches like a thirsty clock.  “But maybe it would help if I came and visited you sometimes at the airport.”

         “Are you saying,” says the fed-up friend, “you intend to exercise your ‘duty’?”  She speaks English when she wants to appear sly. 

         “Maybe.”  The woman in love with the sky rubs broken seeds into the hot rock with her fingertip.  “This isn’t very satisfying.”  It doesn’t seem friendly or politically savvy to confess a desire to approach the sky, to transcend a dream or a ghost, by making frequent trips to the airport, even if it is the only solution she can imagine. She looks at the bubbles in her cold drink, gritty with cinnamon.  “What country is this from, anyway?” 

         “I don’t think you should have any reservations.  I’m glad you thought of me.  You’re talking to exactly the right person, and you’re exactly the person who could pull it off.”  The English idiom “pull it off” has its parallel in their “lift off.”

         “Really?” The hot stone wobbles on its wicker mat beneath the pressure of her fingers.

         “Of course.  You’re quiet, prompt.  You have friends with taste and a little capital in reserve.”   The friend with the streak slurps the dregs of her cinnamon drink through a wide straw.  “Just show up with an empty bag and load it up with duty-free liquor and cigarettes and perfume and jewelry and furs.  Sell them to your friends; I hear people are making quite a profit on gray market Swarovski crystals this year.  Figurines particularly, and ruminants especially.  And no one would blame you.  I can see why you’d want to do it.   How much is your widow’s pension?”

         “Excuse me?”

         “Your widow’s pension? From the secret police?”

         “Why would I have a widow’s pension from the secret police?”

         The streak pales.  The steak arrives.   The waiter takes away the stones.  “This is better,” says the woman who’s had it up to here.  She says it very gently.  “Much, much better.”  She cuts all of the meat into tiny chunks with her quick knife and divides the bleeding pieces between their two plates. 

         “I just need a little gray money,” says the woman, instead of “exorcism” or “the sky.” 

         “Of course you do.  And now is the perfect time.  The high season.  I can book you a standby ticket to a popular destination—New York, Paris, Tokyo—and the odds are it will take you weeks to fly.  That’s bags and bags full of Chanel and cigars.”

         “Weeks?”

         “Sometimes. I’ve known Germans who were stuck here a month because they missed their flight and everything was oversold until September.  They slept in the terminal and lived out of their huge German backpacks.  Went barefoot everywhere. That’s the high season.”

         “What if I do fly?”

         “Simply sell your seat to someone else.  Someone who really wants to go wherever it is you’re going.”  It is impossible not to admire the woman’s adroitness with her silverware; her knife and fork flash like flexing mirrors as she divides and reassembles her meal, skewering chunks of meat with her fork, dressing each chunk with a curl of onion, a sliver of red pepper, and a precise dab of orange sauce before bringing the fork to her mouth. 

         “But what if there is no one else—what if I have to fly?”

         “It won’t happen.”

         “It could.” 

         “You’re not eating anything.”

         “It could.” 

         The woman pauses, her tines stilled on her plate.  “It could.”

         “So there’s a risk.”

         “Yes.  A risk of getting caught by the secret police with a bag full of crystal sheep and foxfur. A risk of getting stuck in Sydney or Toronto for the duration of the high season.  But it won’t happen.”

         “But it might.”

         “It might.”

 

         When the woman who is planning an affair with the sky takes the metro for her mid-morning flight, no one harasses her; that asshole’s been bludgeoned to death.  The train is full and she covers the zipper of her purse with her hand, clenches the muscles of her legs to keep herself afloat as the train dives deep in the hot, dark underground.

         She waves to her friend with the red crimp in her face who sits in her high season box.  The floor is polished and reflects the sky where the roof has been carefully cut open, skylit as if to say, “this is no longer a dictator’s airport.”

         She stands on the moving walkway, reading the series of posters along the wall.  They seem to move while she stands still, waiting, her hand on her purse, protecting her passport, her standby boarding pass.

         The first poster depicts five raccoons, their tails coiled cozily around one another.  We found a family of raccoons.  The poster slides away.  Wanting to live is only natural.  A passing backpack knocks her into the glass side of the walkway.  But their teeth were a danger to wiring systems of the planes.  A plane explodes in midair across the poster’s pale sky.  We found them, we rescued them, we rescued you. The raccoons are wearing baby clothes and golf caps and she is lifted into the air as the poster parade yields to runway light. 

         The woman who trips over her toes does so in the windows, in the yellow reflector sky, framed by the vast complex that is Terminal 4.

         “Take my hand!” An American in an I Climbed Mt. Everest T shirt pulls her to her feet at the end of the moving walkway.  Her passport bag has a double-zip, but his English could be a disguise; the woman confirming her zippers, groping for her passport with her hands, feels only the lightness which is suspense.  She doesn’t know the man’s identity, nor if he has stolen hers.   The man vanishes into many other men.  She has no country, no name, no rights until she finds her passport, recognizes its shape through the inner pocket of her purse. 

         The gate agent wears an illicit red ribbon around her neck, beneath the collar of her standard turquoise button-over.  “Robespierre,” says the woman, standing on tiptoes to see over the high counter to the horizon beyond the gate; but because she has slid her standby boarding pass across the counter, the agent has heard only, “Standby list?” and replies, “You’ll have to wait till everyone has boarded.”

         The woman who should be buying cartons of cigarettes looks out at her gently rolling, lush land through the airport’s woozy windows.  The word for “airport” in their language is currently “airport.”  But centuries ago, when the celebrated mystic designed the blimp prototype to aerially douse his enemies in hot oil, he imagined a “sky-pasture” with celestial shepherd’s crooks for retrieving errant craft. Even through the age of the Child-Aviators, the airports were still called “sky-folds.”  A place for growing the sky, a place for growing close to it. 

         Then English invaded despite political choke-holds.   They began to sell tourist guides and pocket translators at the airport.  A false friend with English, “choke” is an ancient word whose complex history and diverse usage suggests an onomatopoeic origin:  “Hear it choke,” they say, as the knife moves through the thousand honeyed leaves of wedding pastry.  For luck on exams, students string chokes around their necks, and the brother or sister of a child that refused to be born is affectionately referred to as “a choke.”  In his religious writings, the mystic after whom this airport is named obscured the descriptions of his spiritual revelations by overlaying the word “choke”; it is only recently, through advanced technology, that we have been able to uncover these visions, which he wrote in Latin.  (Interestingly, he also uses the word “choke” to describe the dark periods of doubt and drink into which he regularly, and notoriously, plunged.)   It was the Christian monastics who came somewhat later who gave to “choke” the sense that perhaps most confuses English speakers.   “Choke” also describes the empty half-loop of the divine shepherd’s crook; it is the empty thing eager to perform a rescue or a retrieval of an invisible and invisibly tormented soul.

         During the high season, they pump oxygen into the terminal to keep everyone fresh.  Her head feels lighter.  Untethered, loose on her neck.  She hangs around the counter in suspense. 

         Their word for suspense is choker.  As in, “the film gripped me with choker.  It was too much. I had to leave the theater.”

         She is tired after all this dreaming.  And hungry.  She droops.  “You’re first on the standby list,” says the gate agent with the ribbon.  “You can go sit down.” 

         She nods no, leans against the counter to level her eyes with the horizon.

         “You’re first on the standby list,” the gate agent tells a grateful Japanese man.  “You and your family can go sit down.”

          “I prefer standing,” she says, though no one was speaking to her.  Using the counter for balance, she stretches to stand as tall as she can, calves straining, toes en pointe like a ballerina’s. 

         She might fly.  She might.

         She braces her hands on the counter and pushes herself higher to see over the white curve of a taxiing Airbus 380.  Her sandals slip off her feet and land on the shining floor with a soft choke.   English climbs up around her ears as she pushes herself higher, kicking her pointed feet.  One American offers another a crunchy buttery.  A second American says I was so drunk last night, I don’t remember anything.  The third American is British.  Their voices run along the soles of her feet, along her tipped toes, as she hovers over the counter, waiting to know if she will go into the sky.

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