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Post Road Magazine #31

Circumstance

Theodore Dawes

Godfrey knew to expect nothing—he'd suffered enough exemplary lessons. Nevertheless, he rode the Manhattan train with hope, as if he carried, in an Igloo cooler secured with transparent tape, a liver he acquired for his own transplant surgery. He wore a windowpane tweed sport coat, new and trimly altered, with lapels as narrow as his knuckle, and he'd soaked his chest, neck, and crotch with an old-fashioned cologne that smelled of pine boughs and hay bales. This Monica, he thought, might get drunk enough to fuck him: the dating app graded their compatibility at eighty-six percent, and in her uploaded photos she appeared sufficiently overweight to be approached without terror. She might even get drunk enough to fuck him without a condom: he could hope. He did hope. A pregnancy would drive her to him, clinging as if to an overturned hull after a wreck on gray, violent seas. He would bear her across the frigid water, to the stony, desolate shore on which she'd be obliged homestead. Monica's last name was something-or-other freighted with pointless syllables and hawking sounds, the last name of a diner princess, an auto body heiress, the kind of last name that paid inexplicable cash for Audis and tacky mansions in outer boroughs—perhaps her parents squatted on piles of dinars or rupees or Yap wheels that their exotic customs would oblige them to share. Godfrey patted his sparse new mustache, bits of which kept flaring up like twisted bristles on a brush head. Yes, Monica's large-gutted father would lift his splattered apron and distribute handfuls of the flawless rubies he cached amidst his belly's canopy of black hairs. This dowry could carry them to someplace leafy—Westchester or Greenwich, Godfrey figured—where lilacs bloomed in the English-style gardens, where dwarflike Hondurans drove constant lawnmowers, where pitchers of iced tea were cut with whiskey and consumed with dignity before noon. His pretty children were quiet and amusing, his pretty mistress pliant and amusing. He took an interest in wainscoting and similar decorative features, perhaps wrote a pamphlet or small book about it, Great Moldings of the Hudson Valley, sold on spinning tree racks by the cash registers at farm stands and antique shops from Nyack to Rhinebeck. He smelled the churned earth, fizzy and organic, after a thunderstorm passed. In autumn he wore hairy sweaters against the ice-flecked wind, against its freight of decay, and feared nothing. Into this mild paradise he had died a little, little by little, for several days.

As his train, an express, passed platforms, Godfrey's fancy mounted. Filigrees corkscrewed into his eyeballs and coarse red bricks scraped streamers of transparent skin from his forearms. They imposed themselves, elbowed him, until he shivered. "God spare me from outrageous nonsense," he said aloud. He pressed his forehead against the greased subway pole. His chest ached. He took a prescription vial from his pocket and chewed a blue pill. It would be fine. It wouldn't be fine. Either way.

#

Annika, his therapist, had advised against dating. She thought employment a superior distraction, if he wanted one, or charitable volunteering. Godfrey found it difficult to take her seriously. Parodically short-haired and Semitic, she kept on her desk studio portraits of her four Savannah cats, and through all the humid summer still wore a leather coat with a hem at her knees. What wisdom could such a punchline impart? Nevertheless, Godfrey liked her. She maintained her office on a leafy block near Prospect Park, on the first floor of a sandstone row house. She kept ashtrays out, a gesture Godfrey so appreciated that he didn't bother smoking. And she conveyed a convincing impression that their conversations would produce, in time, a useful result. "Don't forget, sex is a trigger, too," she told him. "As much as liquor. More than liquor. Look at the spring."

"Oh, the spring, the spring. How many months must pass before we forget about the spring?"

"It's only August, Godfrey. It's only three months."

"Three. A number. Merely a mere number. Anyway. Is liquor a trigger? Is anything, identifiably?" Godfrey sprawled across a leather loveseat that was as soft and vulgar as an obese aunt's embrace. His brogues stamped the cushions with white dust. When not covering his eyes with his forearm he stared up at a framed poster of a twisting, penile horse by Delacroix. The beast shivered at his attention; it sweated. "I'm civilized, now. I tipple nightly, but only tipple. I feel quite controlled."

"You shouldn't 'tipple' at all," Annika said. "Come on."

"Well, I do, and it's grand—I'm grand, I should say. No problems."

"You're better. But you're only better."

He raised himself up on his elbows and, turning his head toward Annika, gathered the muscles of his face into a noble pose: sucked, pinched, pouted. He resembled a Roman bust, and with his delineated, attractive chin he indicated the paths of constellations. "Destiny thrusts itself upon its chosen," he said, "whether or not they wish to assume its obligations."

"Hmm," Annika said. She recorded Godfrey's remark with a soft pencil. Its lead hissed across her legal pad like a broom through a bed of decorative pebbles. Someone somewhere prepared a laurel wreath.

"I shall not disappoint. I won't allow it."

Annika sighed. She rubbed beneath her glasses. "How are we doing with the meds?"

"We're taking them." Some of them. Godfrey had most recently removed clozapine from his rotation, as it left him—he enjoyed repeating this to himself—like a tapped maple, rooted and drooling. Other pills he skipped off and on, as their aesthetics struck him, as they offended him—the capsules of brittle yellow cellulose troubled him most, and tablets with more than four sides. He maintained, he felt, a viscosity of mind that meant his instinctive patterns of medicating worked, or meant that none of the pills he swallowed, the fistfuls of pebbles and lugnuts, had an effect in the first place. Either case qualified as victory—over whom? Oh, it hardly mattered. "They're something."

"Look, do you think this is going to be a productive thing for you?"

"Productive. Productive?" Annika displayed sometimes a dreadful obsession with productivity, an almost Victorian approach, Godfrey thought. "Productive," he whispered. All afflictions mental, moral, and spiritual cured by the unceasing application of vigorous labor. Cured by the turning of great steel wheels to vent steam valves, by feeding one's fingers to tacking machines, all in some vast unventilated workhouse where rats run over your feet and flakes of lead paint drop like pollen into your thermos. Stunted children in burlap tunics drive pigeons from swinging rafters and haul in harnessed teams wheelbarrows full of slag. Their dormitories stink of fish oil burned for heat and light, and their blankets, stitched from the hides of euthanized horses, seem to flicker beneath halos of fleas, mites, and like biting things. Labor's hideous innards are displayed, dissected and pinned: the crime that sustains. Godfrey donned canvas coveralls. He tugged the plastic brim of his paint-splattered cap. He counted his fingers and finished at seven: three stubs remained, scaly and pink, resembling cooked prawns. Mop buckets sloshed and stank, their bleach and mildew eroding his lungs. His tubercles creaked. "My gracious," he sighed.

"Godfrey?"

"Yes," he said. "Yes, I think it's just the thing."

"Is this—have you met this girl—or boy, I don't know—already?"

"No." Godfrey cleared his throat. "Girl, for Christ's sake."

"Sorry. So?"

"I initiated a correspondence online with a few candidates. Perhaps I should have mentioned it last session." He affected, or attempted to affect, a bashful mien: averted eyes, mild smile, coy nibbling of his lower lip. Annika appreciated these little efforts. "I likely could have: your reaction has been milder than I anticipated. The candidate on whom I settled is a fetching creature, or fetching enough. She fetches me, more or less. I have her photo on my phone: care to see?"

"That's not necessary, Godfrey." Annika bit her lip, revealing gray front teeth. "So you're confident this is a right decision? A healthful decision?"

"Yes. It should be. Why not?"

Annika scratched her blotter with the blunt glazed nail of her little finger. "All right. I'm nervous, but I can't tell you what to do."

Godfrey twitched and wished his mustache was so full and luxuriant that he could twist its tips and tug it down over his smile; what an emptied-out life it is when these gestures are unavailable. Poor Annika's obvious attraction—an essential thing, like a bird working the magnetite in its beak—had overwhelmed her training, the jealous darling. Were she fifteen years younger; were she to propose something explicitly. She stood above him, she stood atop her desk, her rayon slacks removed, flung in fact; they dangled from the potted rubber tree that dustily survived beside the window. She made a victory 'V' with her fingers and pried open her lathed, discreet labia. Godfrey got underneath, planted fervent kisses without and within, then, muttering romantic epithets in gutter Italian, donned her like a comic hat. Annika emptied her lungs, a stomped bellows, then laughed a laugh like fingers running on the rims of water glasses. Her legs flapped like unclasped chinstraps. How perfect. Godfrey dashed about the office with her balanced atop him, leaping like a stag, evading the slapsticks of whistle-blowing harlequins, the batons of policemen alerted by nosy upstairs harridans, the butterfly nets of social workers. An upended vase distributed limp daffodils and stinking brown water. Navajo pottery tipped and smashed on the floor, no less artistic in pieces than whole. Their audience laughed, clapped, whistled, hurled roses and lace garters and sacks of gold ducats.

"Godfrey?" Annika snapped her fingers, then rapped on her desktop as if serving a warrant. "Jesus. Godfrey."

"You're so valuable to me," Godfrey said. "But no. No, you can't."

#

He met Monica at an awful bar a few blocks above Union Square. Electronic music vibrated like flatulence and the expensive beer tasted like thick water. All fell apart before he could grasp at anything—he should have known. Monica sat with her fists balled atop the table and the corners of her lips twisted as if suspended from wires. She'd quickly stopped asking questions and there was something frantic about the way her eyebrows shifted, like rats digging through a tunnel block. He finished his second drink while she still nursed her first. His volubility ascended, hers curdled. Still, Godfrey liked something about the strain he read on her dark and avian face. Her constant blush reminded him of sand used to cover the blood at an accident scene. She might have been chewing her cheek. It all flooded Godfrey's brain, tapped a workingman's sweat on his brow, shook his extremities as if electrodes had been applied. He blabbed.

"It's just so distant," he told her, almost shouting to achieve a volume audible above the background throb. "It's such a long ride. Not that I minded so much today. It's easy to sit, of course, I always prefer sitting to the alternatives, and at least I looked forward to an amusing destination. Was that an odd way to phrase it? Did it come across as condescending? It's difficult to judge your own tone, you know. I need to take great care, greater care. But daily, the ride, it doesn't thrill me. No. I'm way out there, you know, in the ass-end of Brooklyn. Right in its intestine. Inhabiting my own stinking fissure. It's terrible, but it's also terribly cheap. My liquid assets are presently modest and my circumstance requires caution. But at that it's terrible."

"Terrible," Monica said.

"It is terrible. And it's tiny and dark and incubating centipedes and silverfish. And this strange crystalline mold—I guess it's mold—that's appeared in the bathroom. It's consuming the drywall above the tub. A great slime-edged hole. It's ridiculous, like I live in a Jacob Riis photo. I think it's being farmed by my landlord—he lets himself in when I'm not home. I know it. I see stuff knocked around, rifled. He's this old Hasid, looks like a prophet or a forest hermit. You know. He always has old food, crusts of stuff, mustards, flakes and oils and whatever, worked into his beard. He resembles those terriers with stained faces. He's trying to trick me into breaking my lease, I'm quite sure. So he can pass my apartment to some Israeli cousin. It's happened before. But I'm prepared: I know how to work it. He won't get me." Godfrey gulped from his vile pint. His throat felt raw and inflated, like a mating frigate bird's.

"Oh," Monica said. "You've come up for air. Amazing."

"What?" Godfrey made a vague gesture with his fingers in the air before his face, warding off evil. He observed for the fifth or ninth time on Monica's left shoulder a mole that any passionate surgeon would have lustful dreams of twisting off, a plump ripe fruit dangling. They should have been lined up with scalpels and lances. "All right. I see your point. You may have one, approximately."

"Are you always just about this much fun?" Her brown lips winked like a cloaca.

"Yes, just about." He sighed and ate an ice cube he took from Monica's empty highball glass. Its cranberry residue felt filthy on his tongue, like he'd licked a penny. Monica stared at his pinched fingers. "I'm not ant-Semitic, by the way," Godfrey said. "If that's what's bothering you. I see how you might misconstrue. I meant only to offer a fun anecdote. It felt fun, didn't it? It was fun. But nothing negative. No. I have a great affinity for those people. I love delicatessens and Joseph Roth, jars of pickles and arid climates. And I'm frightened of Arabs: a dreadful culture, don't you think? Though I enjoy their cuisine. I admit that. A halal street cart is a lovely resource, though I try not to eat from them—I don't trust the sanitation. Where do they piss? Jars, or what? Coffee cans? Do they wash their hands? They don't. They can't. But never mind that."

"Never mind that," Monica echoed.

"Never mind it." He felt a fizzing in his nose, and caught scents of ozone and torched wiring. "Actually, my maternal grandfather may have been born Jewish. It's unclear, of course—war orphan—but it's plausible. He emerged from some Ural hamlet, some rustic Slavic pock on the horrid east. You can imagine them wearing pointed caps and wading through goat shit. I suppose you can see it in my eyes—the blood, that is. I've always thought of them as steppe eyes. Windy, inscrutable. Tartars, I imagine, wandered through, and did the things that Tartars do. My lenses are perhaps too thick to tell—are they?"

"Sure," Monica said. "No."

"Yes. They obscure that east in me, I think. They anonymize my face, for sure. Which I can't say I mind; I hate to draw attention. But look, there are documents, but nobody in my family has ever had the leisure to requisition all of them. Or the interest. My grandfather drank a bit and when drinking couldn't control his hands, so—you know. There were those who suffered, and those forced to hear of suffering, over and over. I suppose that's sapped our motivation."

"Well, Godfrey—"

"Well? All right, then, if you like a story; he came over in—" Monica raised up her hands, then slapped them on the table. Godfrey looked at her fingers as if they'd dropped from the sky, shat by a seagull as it passed overhead. "The problem? There's a problem?"

"Oh my god, shut up," Monica sighed. "I'm sorry, but shut up, please."

"Ah," Godfrey said. He pressed his hand to his breast but found that he'd neglected to arrange a handkerchief. He soaked a cocktail napkin with sweat. "Is this what happens now?"

"It sure is." Monica offered a single sharp wave and turned her head as if dismissing a beggar child. She ran a hand through her oiled hair. "I don't want to be cruel, but it's always one of you. Always one like you. And I can't stand it."

"I don't know what you're saying." Clapping his hand to his face, he felt, admiring, the construction of his own bones, their reassuring elegance. "Or rather I do, but it's arrived unexpectedly. Like a killer in one's doorway. Wasn't it all all right? Is it my hair? You object to my hair? It's thin, I admit this, I'm bursting with frank admissions tonight, Monica, but that's a sign of virility, I've read. Really, it looks thinner than it is—it's so pale. You see?"

"It's not your hair."

"Then there could hardly seem to be a problem," Godfrey said. "Unless you've misrepresented, terribly, your store of good sense and good will and good humor."

Monica generated in her throat and expelled from her mouth a vibration like an animal's warning growl. "You want to know? You don't stop talking, and it's nonsense. I can't waste my time," she said.

"Yes? And what have you said? I'm verbose, certainly, okay. But what have you said? How else were the gaps—the dreadful gaps—to be filled? And were you to attempt to fill them, how empty, spiritually, would they have remained? Like trying to shovel a hole full with vapor, I should think. Yes, helium vapor, shoveled. Just that efficient."

"What? What are you even saying? Jesus. I won't waste my time. You're—" She shook her head. "Just never mind, never mind. I'm a magnet. And I don't have time."

"Okay, then." Godfrey pointed at Monica, wagging his finger as he spoke. "Vapid. Shallow. Fat. Fuck you." He folded his arms. "You go now."

Monica's blush, never gone, darkened and spread, a vat of wine upended, a bus compacted and its organic contents decanted. "Fuck you." She took up her purse, its long strap whipping, and, standing, kicked her chair, which listed and clattered. "Fuck you," she added. This varied emphasis seemed meant to communicate anger of some particular degree or specialized type: oh well. She attempted to spin on her heel, as one does, but her shoes weren't built for it, no, her torso outpaced her legs and she almost fell, catching herself on the edge of a neighboring table, which rocked, sloshing drinks. The table's occupants—a man wearing a blue shirt with white French cuffs and gold bands on his pinkies, accompanied by a woman whose makeup made it look like he'd punched her—seemed ready to leap up in disgust, in righteous rage, abandoning their tab. Monica walked away with her fridge-wide shoulders hoisted and stiff.

Godfrey watched her merge into the crowd of standees. Her distracting ass resembled a lathed globe secured in a sleeve of taut cotton; how nice a thing, any little thing, with her might have been after all. He felt a stab in his kidney, or so. She'd shown some vim at the end: a shame she'd otherwise been so awful. "Well," he remarked to her vacated chair, "what a bitch."

#

In late May, after a half-hearted attempt to kill himself with pills, Godfrey spent a fortnight in the country at Wheatfields, a private institution spread across several hilltop acres overlooking the Connecticut River. Though his attendance had been, in the end, compulsory—certain trusts on which he relied were controlled, still, by his father, who insisted—the time spent had at first seemed of value; really, a delight. He tramped each day along tamed paths of soft pine needles, watching fawns browse and pressing his fingers into patches of spongy moss. He hurled branches, plastic disks, and rubber dolls across the neon lawns for Miss Piggy, the institution's ever-moist therapeutic Newfoundland, to fetch. He swam in the long, pale-tiled pool until his burning eyes were as red as an albino's and a crust of mosquitos had formed above him. On the fourth day his roommate hanged himself with shoelaces from the radiator in the gent's, and Godfrey thereafter enjoyed private accommodation.

Still. The poetic memoir on which he hoped to get a good start fell apart, or away, or whatever, as his energy dissipated. He couldn't remember upon whom he meant to pour, from the cauldrons stationed atop his tall ramparts, verses of molten blame, let alone arrange them metrically. The volumes of Landor and Ludlum he'd brought along remained unread, still packed; he struggled to get through the copies of US Weekly and Men's Health that littered the dayroom like crushed Styrofoam on interstate shoulders. While there were women about—most of the day was coeducational—they seemed so frail and useless: unwashed sweatshirts and hair, bruised cheekbones, taped-up wrists, hesitant congested whines. They couldn't bear his pursuit, he couldn't bear the pursuing, and even had he found someone to want, and she possessed the structural integrity to bear the weight of him, his penis had been withered by the pills they served in paper cups on his meal trays—it was a salted slug, a phantom limb, newsprint suspended in water; he held it up to the light, tweezed, and saw a translucent sliver of bad sashimi, quivering and mercury-toxic. Horrors, he thought: horrid. Essential humors had been vacuumed from his ducts and veins. Most aggravatingly, Wheatfields proved unable to provide dry cleaning, and the launderers on hand—the custodial staff, doubling—were not talented: unacceptable creases embedded themselves in his collars, which also began to curl at their points, lint streaked, whites went beige. When Godfrey presented his list of concerns—on personal letterhead, in his excellent calligraphy—he was prescribed a new regime of spansules that pummeled him into helpless sleep for three hours in the afternoons. These impossible people. He felt as if they piled stones atop him to extract a confession of witchcraft.

Genius was the problem: its rootlessness in the world. It was a four-dimensional object adrift in three-dimensional convention. The whole could never be observed; its face always appeared mutilated. A fearful monstrosity, like a hydrocephalic child or a calf with five legs. Only the most practiced—no: the most gifted—could conceive of the whole that existed on the lee side of their perception, and even they shrank when confronted with its non-abstracted fact. They feared it: they could not reconcile it with their blunted experience: so they struck, claws extended, venom sacs pulsing, at the intruder. Hence the bound albums of prescriptions. The ambulance rides in the company of police sergeants. The shivering nurses with their hypodermic poniards. The newsstand clerks who think he's stealing pornography. The waiters who rub their genitals on his silverware. The residents of adjacent apartments who listen to him masturbate. The women who look at him and laugh on the train, at the post office, in the pharmacy. The stray cats who, rolling and lolling on the sidewalk, provoke him into fits of weeping. The idle sewer workers who want to batter him with long wrenches. The livery drivers who think he's a stain on their backseats. The blood relations who refuse his late calls, who refuse his collect calls. Godfrey's peculiar genius—a numinous apprehension of the universe's authentic shape, its tendons and tissues, its knotted veins, its hollow bones—lacked any outlet or consequence that could be appreciated by a general audience, that would beg their pardon. He was a hog famous for biting off the fingers of curious toddlers, the famous mad hog who also arranged, unnoticed, the apple cores and corn cobs from his trough into glyphs that predicted droughts and solar eclipses. If only he could conduct arithmetic by clopping a hoof; if only he could grip a paintbrush in his savage teeth and cover a canvas with spots and blots and streaks that invited interpretation. This was an impossible mode in which to exist, this in-between state, but alas, no one had remembered to provide Godfrey with the glossy brochure that listed his alternatives.

In the end they begged him to stay: for himself, for themselves, but enough was sufficient, as he liked to say, and Wheatfields had, at that moment, no legal hold on him. He informed the administrator on duty—Dr. Peltier, an ovular man who wore an uneven blonde beard against which he should have been sternly advised, and whose soft chest, like that of an uncooked fowl, was a pleasure to poke—that he would involve the police, involve federal agencies, if his duffel and trunk were not shipped with all haste to his Brooklyn address. Godfrey clipped the identification bracelet from his wrist with scissors he plucked from a canister on the front desk while the receptionist pressed herself, gasping, against a wall. Outside, he bolted down the handicapped ramp like a driven foxhound, baying and dripping froth as he pursued his musky quarry. At the front gate he plucked the navy ballcap from the head of an immobile, flange-necked security agent, donning it while making pistol shapes with his free hand. He whistled "Tell Her About It" and then "You May Be Right" as he followed the curling country highway—passing toppled stone walls and farmhouses with missing roofs, stands of birch that should have been lovely and likely were, brooks from which trout arced like gobs of silver mucus hawked—down to the village. On the Greyhound back to New York he felt a clarity and a calm. Above the bus twilight coalesced, forming straight streaks that portioned out the sky like the city's grid. If angels descended, long-haired pretty angels, bright and sluttish angels, strumming on lutes made from mastodon ivory and unicorn gut their favorite anthems of liberation—well, perhaps they did, and it was Godfrey's failure to take in their unambiguous signaling. He sat by the toilet, which emitted a nostalgic odor of camphor, and visited it several times to vomit. He recorded, in the white space of a subscription card shed by a previous passenger's Redbook, a few fresh lines:

"When enemies in silver masks thread wires 'neath your skin—
Pour noxious tonics down your throat, and shove your Self aside—
Tear off their demon masks! Punish and purge them of their sin!
For I in dearest Reason dwell—in living Art abide!"

A beginning: a beginning began. Shifting winds blew sand from buried monoliths. Defoliants burned vines from the walls of Mayan temples. Godfrey tapped his mechanical pencil on the seatback before him. "My estrangement," he muttered. "A passing derangement. No." He ground his teeth happily, scrawling, counting beats. Genius, unearthed, asserted itself. Sunlight bathed it. Shadows bent around it. They had him so wrong: things were going great.



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