“Frozen Voices”



Wanna dance, Jenny? Spring and soft rain. 1961. A Hamm’s “Land of Sky Blue Waters” sign. O’Hara’s, Ann Arbor. They all meet in O’Hara’s. Nathan paints nudes and Jenny studies art history and Lloyd lives inside law books and Gabe constructs wild paper buildings for an architect’s degree. Come on, Jenny. The dartboard on the wall, three darts in the bullseye. You don’t love me enough. And Nathan with roses, but never enough roses. As graceful as a dancer, his touch an oriental brushstroke. Paint and color, dark colors. Sadness in games of pleasure, but such a beautiful man, such a soft, gentle weight between her breasts. Wanna dance, Jenny? A jar of Polish sausages packed in vinegar. Wieners stabbed on a spiked axle that revolves inside a small rotisserie. You don’t love me enough. Now crossing over to the bar and sipping from a glass of foaming beer while fighting through red-swirling smoke. A girl in a small cage wrestling with an unseen monster. Couples on the dance floor. Artificial thunder from the glass-eyed god. Jesus and the Spoilers in the background. Electric organ and steel guitar. Come on, Jenny. You don’t understand, Gabe. The truth is I’m as free as any man here. More free in fact because they all want me. There isn’t one man here who wouldn’t jump at the chance to take me home and screw. Wanna dance, Jenny? Jagged chunks of sound. Splashes of laughter. Wanna dance, Jenny? Soft as April rain, smooth as a quiet mountain lake, as mysterious as an ocean, as dangerous as white water in deep rivers, she drops from a white cloud and falls to green, a raindrop on a leaf. You don’t love me enough. Dark, bloody drops of beer and wafer chips of flesh, a communion of human love. You don’t love me enough.

And then she was dead. Summer and the sun. June, 1964. On a Delta jet bound for Europe. The roar of engines in crescendo. Pleasant terror of the rigid fury. I never said goodbye. Gabe’s wife just died in a traffic accident in which his wife’s lover escaped untouched, and now Gabe wants to lose himself in distance, but Nathan takes the same plane. And then she was dead. Inside the man-made world. The taste of brutal engines inside the privacy of self. Scotch and the Spanish hostess. Upholstered seats and reading lights. I never said goodbye. And Nathan with too many words. An actor with a hundred faces. An entertainer with a Janus smile. A sportsman preying for women. And then she was dead. Slow motion of nausea, then lift-off the entrance into woman, the enchantment of transitory loss. I never said goodbye. Waiting in the noise that reflects the loss, listening to the loudspeaker voice echoing off the walls, muffled in by closeness. I never said goodbye. The earth a huge balloon now small and smaller until the shock of silence, the alien suspension of the sun. And then she was dead. But the old idea of love made the woman a goddess. The man’s life was completely centered around her. He worshipped her purity and he acted like a slave before his master. And then she was dead. The self in search of self, now high above the endless water. Thin wings slicing through fleecy clouds. The death of time and the shadow of the cross on the shimmer of waves. I never said goodbye. At first he’s like a pile of wet rags hidden in the corner of a dark attic, and the rags begin to rot. Silence except for the chatter of passengers. The Spanish hostess with the dimples and the scotch. And then she was dead. Now closer to the sun but caught in the suffocation of escape. I never said goodbye. I can’t live like this. Autumn and the smell of earth.

September, 1965. First the idea: a mansion with an elm-shaded driveway. Symmetrical lawns and gardens. An old tire swing in the backyard. I refuse to play the fool. Lloyd has been happily married to Jenny for the last three years. Little Stephan is fifteen months old. Gabe comes over to the house almost every night. Nathan sends occasional letters from Spain. I can’t live like this. And the blueprint: in a high-class neighborhood, near Detroit. No prefabrication, no cheap materials, but modern, with a garbage disposal. I refuse to play the fool. And Jenny. A beautiful, once crazy girl now housewife, mother, and perfect wife. A good cook. A fine hostess. Her laugh like the sound of money. Her body somewhere between a model and a movie star. The right wife for a corporation lawyer. I refuse to play the fool. And then the building: a seventy-thousand-dollar house in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Four floors, including cellar. Five bathrooms. A three-car garage. Rooms scooped out of solid stone. I can’t live like this. Writing out letters, attending conferences, and filling out briefs, then driving home on the freeway, struggling through congestion but rising, fighting through the noise, alone in the bleaching sun. I refuse to play the fool, Jenny. The sense of wealth and power, prestige and self-respect. The comfort of a solid building, the safety of a stone foundation. I can’t live like this. Where did you ever get that idea? You slept with Gabe once, didn’t you? Now wait a minute . . . that part of my life is finished, remember? You promised that we’d never talk about that again. I refuse to play the fool. But too much empty space. Too much silence, too many echoes of the past. Then Stephan to fill the house with sound. But the bills and the mortgage. The gardeners for the gigantic lawn. I can’t live like this, Jenny. Wrenched out of solid rock by a giant hand, he tumbles into daylight, and then they carry him away. I refuse to play the fool. The exhaustion of appearance tied around his neck, but Jenny here to comfort him, Stephan to play with, Gabe here as a friend. I refuse to play the fool.

There was nothing I could do. Winter. A cold wind. December, 1965. Snow, slush, and ice. An old man on a street corner, the white steam of his breath. I could do nothing. Nathan hears news of them two months later. As soon as possible he leaves Spain and flies back to Detroit. Before he visits the graves, he goes back to Ann Arbor, but O’Hara’s has been torn down to make room for a parking lot. There was nothing I could do. The church a warm and private place. Saints that glitter from stained-glass windows. Silence and the sense of holiness. I could do nothing. And Lloyd the private loser. The public victor, the public hero, the public saint. Sympathy for Lloyd, the defender of morality. From the neighbors, from the newspapers, from the pulpits. An old woman on her knees before an altar, but no sound of church bells in the graveyard. I could do nothing. Not believing at first. Suspending the shock and the hollow laughter of regret, but saving the reactions, building up the memories. There was nothing I could do. And the voices like gusts of snow. The wind and the voices and the trees. The stunted evergreens. I could do nothing. And it looks like you lose, Lloyd. I warned you about her. I told you never to marry her, remember? The monuments and small gravestones. The whispers of the dead. The unbroken cover of snow. A bare maple tree, its branches in a pose of supplication. Small icicles on the thin crust of snow. There was nothing I could do. Light as air, as careless as a sudden breeze, he flows through space, alone in air. I could do nothing. But the voices. The strong, cold wind near the graves. And the taste of death. The frozen tears. The steps backward. The wind-chilled voices. I could do nothing.

You don’t love me enough. They all meet in O’Hara’s. Nathan paints nudes and Jenny studies art history, and Lloyd lives inside law books and Gabe constructs wild paper buildings for an architect’s degree. Come on, Jenny. But nervous inside her. Nathan like a child’s terror in the nights of sin. Afraid of light, intolerant of yellow sun and open love. Content with damp cellars and stagnant water, blind fish and water snakes. You don’t love me enough. Jenny poses for Nathan. Always moving from Nathan to Lloyd. For two months Nathan and Jenny sleep together, and then he picks up another girl, so Jenny cries on Lloyd’s shoulder while she waits for Nathan to come back, and whenever Nathan fails to show up, Lloyd walks her home. Wanna dance, Jenny? Precisely, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Each man here in some way controls your actions. You’re twisting it around, that’s not what I mean, can’t you see? I control every man here because of sex. But you don’t love me enough. They laugh away her pain, and Jenny sleeps with Lloyd, but Lloyd has to study law. Wanna dance, Jenny? And then she falls to earth and filters down through sand to bedrock. But you don’t love me enough. So when she meets Gabe the night Lloyd leaves O’Hara’s to study for a law exam, Jenny talks with Gabe all night. Come on, Jenny. The dartboard on the wall, three darts in the bullseye. You don’t love me enough. And when Nathan, who’s in O’Hara’s with another girl, laughs at Jenny, she smiles, and after O’Hara’s closes, Gabe staggers home with Jenny; and they talk for a while, climb into bed, make love, and then Gabe falls asleep. Wanna dance, Jenny?

I never said goodbye. Gabe’s wife just died in a traffic accident in which his wife’s lover escaped untouched, and now Gabe wants to lose himself in distance, but Nathan takes the same plane. And then she was dead. The outside of Nathan a prism of roles affecting friendship and compassion; but the inside of him a block of ice revealing mockery and cynicism, the con man on the make. So they sit together and talk of love and women. Gabe never mentions his wife, so Nathan tells Gabe how a middle-aged woman in Florida took care of him until she died, leaving him almost a quarter million dollars. I never said goodbye. Riding high above the pain, the momentary pleasure of meeting Nathan engulfed by the memory of his wife. Talking, listening to cover the emptiness. And then she was dead. Nathan laughs and tells Gabe about Jenny. She married Lloyd two years ago. They live in a mansion in Grosse Point, Michigan. I never said goodbye. That might be so, but the woman has no power. Exactly. By giving woman the exalted position, the man takes away her freedom. By treating her like a goddess, he forces her to act like a goddess . . . but the man is then free to act like a human being. And then she was dead. Nathan visited them last week, and when Lloyd went to the office, Nathan and Jenny made love for old time’s sake. And then she was dead. Still the same old Jenny. And then she was dead. But his decomposition builds up incredible pressure, and suddenly the old rags explode into fire, and flames burst through the dark. I never saw her again. Gabe suffocates in pain. Choked into silence, his outrage cries for a release. Inside the man-made world. The taste of brutal engines inside the privacy of self. Scotch and the Spanish hostess. Upholstered tilt-back seats and reading lights. And then she was dead. He starts fighting with Nathan. Six passengers struggle to restrain him. When the plane lands, the police arrest Gabe, but when Nathan hears about Gabe’s wife, the charge is dropped. And then she was dead.

I refuse to play the fool. Lloyd has been happily married to Jenny for the last three years. Little Stephan is fifteen months old. Gabe comes over to the house almost every night. Nathan sends an occasional letter from Spain. I can’t live like this. But Jenny sometimes weak. Like jelly without him around to give her shape; like a plastic doll without him around to give her guts. I refuse to play the fool. Lloyd suspects nothing until he begins to receive anonymous letters saying that his wife is unfaithful, but Lloyd ignores them. I refuse to play the fool. And loving Jenny. The soothing quiet of her yielding sense of peace. And laughing away the world at night. Welcoming Gabe at first, remembering O’Hara’s, Nathan. I can’t live like this. Then the mysterious writer suggests that Stephan is not his child. He shows the letters to Gabe, and Gabe expresses anger, then outrage. The next letter suggests that Gabe is sleeping with his wife. I can’t live like this. But you seem to enjoy it when Gabe comes over. But he’s an old friend, Lloyd . . . My God, you can’t possibly be serious, can you? I refuse to play the fool, Jenny. Lloyd continues to work as if nothing is wrong, but the planted seed begins to grow. Finally he confronts Jenny, and she professes her innocence. Her explanations soothe his jealousy for two days, but the next letter blossoms the plant into flower. I can’t live like this. And they push him inside a huge machine that pulverizes rock to dust, and they dump the dust into a huge container. I refuse to play the fool. He returns early from work, parks his car a block away from the house, steals into the back kitchen, walks into the den, takes the loaded pistol out of the desk drawer, walks quietly into the living room, and discovers them on the sofa. And the blueprint: in a high-class neighborhood, near Detroit. No prefabrication, no cheap materials, but modern. I can’t live like this. Gabe smiles, Jenny frowns, and knowing that Gabe wrote the letters, Lloyd kills him first. Then he kills Jenny. And then he kills himself. I can’t live this way. I could do nothing. Nathan hears news of them two months later. As soon as possible, he leaves Spain and flies back to Detroit. Before he visits the graves, he goes back to Ann Arbor, but O’Hara’s has been torn down to make room for a parking lot. There was nothing I could do. But the private fool, the little child playing king of the hill and losing to a woman. I could do nothing. Then he takes a plane to South Dakota, and for three days he searches for Lloyd’s parents. Finally, he discovers that they moved to California. Searching back, remembering old faces, lost seasons, but shivering in the winter, the echoing fragments of time now frozen solid in the earth. I could do nothing. After a week he discovers Lloyd’s parents, and finally he meets his son Stephan, but Lloyd’s parents distrust him, and he flies back to Detroit. There was nothing I could do. One man was not enough for Jenny. She was a queen bee gathering drones, a spider engulfing flies. That was your wife, Lloyd. I could do nothing. Before he visits the graves, he drives past the house, and he decides to stop and see who lives there now. Jenny opens the door, but then he discovers that the young girl is not Jenny. Apologizing, he backs away. There was nothing I could do. Always there, always changing, always disappearing, reappearing, but Nathan is doomed to air. He buys three wreaths at a florist’s shop. Then he goes into a church and kneels before an altar but no prayers can be said. He walks into the graveyard. They rest side by side. I could do nothing. The church a warm and private place. Saints that glitter from stained-glass windows. Silence and the sense of holiness. There was nothing I could do. Carefully, he places a wreath on each headstone. For half an hour he stands before the graves, and then he walks away. Three hours later he flies back to Spain—back to the Spanish hostess with the dimples and the scotch. There was nothing I could do.

You don’t love me enough. And Nathan with roses, but never enough roses. As graceful as a dancer, his touch an oriental brushstroke. Paint and color, dark colors. Sadness in games of pleasure, but such a beautiful man, such a soft, gentle weight between her breasts. Wanna dance, Jenny? Pushing back into the exploding noise and the snapping hips, back to the giggling pinball machines, not trying to smile, but trying to glide above confusion. Come on, Jenny. But nervous inside her. Nathan like a child’s terror in the nights of sin. Afraid of light, intolerant of yellow sun and open love. Content with damp cellars and stagnant water, blind fish and water snakes. You don’t love me enough. But that’s because we allow you to control us; but without a man you’re nothing, Jenny. You’re a puppet, and all these eyes are strings that jerk you back and forth, in and out. Do you want to sleep with me tonight? What’s that supposed to mean? That I make the decision, not you. But without me, there wouldn’t be any decision to make, so I’m controlling you already. Wanna dance, Jenny? But Lloyd with an open smile and laughter, white teeth and blond hair. Solid, dependable, and energetic. Concrete and glass, steel bridges, an advertising sign. Black and white like a family photograph. Cigars and big cars, money and power and self-respect. Come on, Jenny. Then she rushes under earth, is gathered in a cavern, a deep cave where she rests in dark silence until the river pulls her into daylight. You don’t love me enough. But Lloyd the touch of smooth, brittle glass. No tears when he comes inside her; just artificial lights and electronic love. Jackhammer, steam shovel, flat-bottom truck. A noisy machine inside Brooks Brothers suits. Wanna dance, Jenny? A jar of Polish sausages packed in vinegar. Wieners stabbed on a spiked axle that revolves inside a small rotisserie. Wanna dance, Jenny? And Gabe. Not loud or quiet, but both and none. Explosions far away, sparks dying in a black sky. Not the past or the future, but twisted in the present like an accident of flesh. You don’t love me enough. For two months Nathan and Jenny sleep together, and then Nathan picks up another girl, so Jenny cries on Lloyd’s shoulder while she waits for Nathan to come back, and whenever Nathan fails to show up, Lloyd walks her home. Come on, Jenny. And Gabe a dancing stillness. Inside her a shiver of sunlight breaking through a black shroud. Rainbows. Like snow in summer, a rose in winter. Wanna dance, Jenny?

I never said goodbye. And Nathan with too many words. An actor with a hundred faces, an entertainer with a Janus smile. A sportsman preying for women. And then she was dead. Wanting to soar higher, hoping to leap into the whispering sun, but resting quietly in the words, trying not to move. The outside of him a prism of roles affecting friendship and compassion; but the inside of him a block of ice concealing mockery and cynicism, the con man on the make. So what you’re saying is, the master is bound and the slave is free. That’s it exactly. That’s why I exalt women and treat them like queens while I act like a drone. Let them think they’re the center of the universe. That’s the only way you can be free. And then she was dead. And Lloyd too good-natured. The hairy, folksy, nonintellectual, crude-joking animal pretending to be human. I never said goodbye. He breaks out of confinement, blazes into light, and then he rages down through the house, gutting everything he touches. And then she was dead. Beneath Lloyd’s tough-muscled exterior is a bloodless heart punched full of sentimental holes. Good old stupid Lloyd with his money and power and self-respect. Slow motion of nausea, then lift-off the entrance into woman, the enchantment of transitory loss. I never said goodbye. And Jenny with the long black hair. Cold-blooded, her marriage to Lloyd a flirtation with death. Hungry for power, and Lloyd the stepping stone. And then she was dead. Nathan laughs and tells Gabe about Jenny. Lloyd married her two years ago. They live in a mansion in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. I never saw her again. The outside of her a soft, tender, yielding woman, but inside of her the ocean, the strange monsters of the sea. And then she was dead.

I can’t live this way. And Jenny a beautiful, once crazy girl now housewife, mother, and perfect wife. A good cook, a fine hostess. Her laugh like the sound of money. Her body somewhere between a model and a movie star. The right wife for a corporation lawyer. I refuse to play the fool. But then the drifting sense of helplessness, the sense of losing time. And the revealing letters, but laughing at his own suspicions, joking to himself, then hoping that the lie is true. I can’t live like this. But Jenny weak sometimes. Like jelly without him around to give her shape; like a plastic doll without him around to give her guts. I refuse to play the fool. When Nathan was here . . . Were you fucking around with him? I’m not going to listen to another word. You better listen, Jenny. I’ll be goddammed if I’ll let you screw around when I’m not here. I can’t live this way. But Nathan irrelevant, powerless, nothing but a simple lecher, a helpless little parasite trying to suck warm love from cold tits. I refuse to play the fool. And they dump him into a huge vat, and the vat pours him into cleansing fire, and the fire petrifies him into steel. And Nathan the spineless little child. Amusing. Harmless. Sometimes nice to have around. I can’t live like this. And the building. A seventy-thousand-dollar house in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Four floors, including the cellar. Five bathrooms. A three-car garage. Rooms scooped out of solid stone. I refuse to play the fool. But Gabe a lousy fucking prick. No sense of humor, the cool hatred in his eyes. Then the mysterious writer suggests that Stephan is not his child. He shows the letter to Gabe, and Gabe expresses anger, then outrage. I can’t live like this. Then the next letter suggests that Paul is sleeping with his wife. I can’t live this way. No sense of respect. No pride. Just a bastard hatred underneath his silence. I refuse to play the fool.

But there was nothing I could do. And Lloyd the private loser. The public victor, the public hero, the public saint. Sympathy for Lloyd, the defender of morality. From the neighbors, from the newspapers, from the pulpits. But the exasperating need to resurrect the dead. Not the bleeding of a lonely heart. Not the ending of a morbid fascination. Not the sense of guilt. There was nothing I could do. And Lloyd the private fool, the little child playing king of the hill and losing to a woman. I could do nothing. Jenny had to prove that men needed her, that she didn’t need a man; and Gabe had to prove that women needed him, that he didn’t need a woman. They succeeded quite well, wouldn’t you say so, Lloyd? I could do nothing. Yet Gabe a different kind of fool. The need for revenge. The desire to crush the kind of life he couldn’t have. So ridiculous, his passion for evil. But there was nothing I could do.

The heat of the sun, the movement of water, the growing earth—these are the forces that cause him to react, and without them he drifts alone. Motionless. Nothing. I could do nothing. From the ideal to the demonic, Gabe’s hatred a strange test of death, as if death were a woman. An old woman on her knees before an altar, but no sound of church bells in the graveyard. There was nothing I could do. But why Jenny? Such a simple woman. Not the power of mind or the energy of spirit, but the power of sex. No mysteries in Jenny. No secrets hidden below the surface. But there was nothing I could do. After a week he discovers Lloyd’s parents, and finally he meets his son Stephan; but Lloyd’s parents distrust him, so he flies back to Detroit. I could do nothing. And Jenny. Not a housewife or a mother or a mistress; not a wife or a hostess or a whore. A woman. Elemental. Simple. I could do nothing.

Come on, Jenny. Now crossing over to the bar and sipping from a glass of foaming beer while fighting through red-swirling smoke. You don’t love me enough. But what would Lloyd say? What the hell do I care. Would you tell him? Of course not, it’s none of his business what I do. But if you told him, he’d never look at you again. Wanna dance, Jenny? Now watching couples bowing to the juke-box, now wandering, always moving from Nathan to Lloyd to Gabe. Come on, Jenny. And she goes dancing down to sea. Through mountain gorges, across the jagged rocks, around the deep, smooth bends she slides with liquid grace. You don’t love me enough. Pushing back into the exploding noise and the snapping hips, back to the giggling pinball machines, not trying to smile, but trying to glide above confusion. A girl in a small cage wrestling with an unseen monster. Couples on the dance floor. Artificial thunder from the glass-eyed god. Jesus and the Spoilers in the background. Electric organ and steel guitar. Now riding high on screaming stillness, now walking in the silent rain and now running zigzag down the alley and now skipping across the wet street and splashing down the gutter, now dancing up the stairs. Come on, Jenny. And they laughed away her pain, and Jenny slept with Lloyd, but Lloyd had to study law. Come on, Jenny. And bouncing on the bed, soft bed, and holding Gabe and slipping off her clothes, wet clothes, then yawning open like a cloud, still screaming rain, shattering in the fall. You don’t love me enough. But Lloyd the touch of smooth, brittle glass. No tears when he comes inside her; just artificial lights and electronic love. Jackhammer, steam shovel, flat-bottom truck. A clumsy machine inside Brooks Brothers suits. You don’t love me enough. But sighing into sunshine, raining golden rainbows down wet, slipping skin. Come on, Jenny.

I never saw her again. But waiting in the noise that reflects the loss, listening to the loudspeaker voice echoing off the walls, muffled in by closeness. I never said goodbye. But what happens when the woman puts the man on a pedestal? Ah yes. Then the woman takes away the man’s freedom. You see, by worshipping his penis, she forces the man to be faithful, thus allowing herself freedom to be unfaithful. And then she was dead. I never saw her again. But riding high above the pain, the momentary pleasure of meeting Nathan engulfed by the memory of his wife. Talking, listening to cover the emptiness. And then she was dead. But beyond forgiveness, beyond control, he gulps down air and fills his lungs with flame, and the walls begin to disappear. Wanting to soar higher, hoping to leap into the whispering sun, but resting quietly in the words, trying not to move. The earth a huge balloon now small and smaller until the shock of silence, the alien suspension of the sun. And then she was dead. Forcing himself to listen, smoking a cigarette, moving his legs, wiping away the sweat that seems to be blood, forcing himself to dream, now praying for an end of pain. I never saw her again. Nathan visited them last week, and when Lloyd went to the office, Nathan and Jenny made love for old time’s sake. Still the same old Jenny. And then she was dead. Talking and laughing and listening to hide the suffocation, but the memories snapping back like an elastic band, the pain coming back to fill the inside of the plane. The hypnotic churning of the waves. I never said goodbye. And beneath Lloyd’s tough-muscled exterior, a bloodless heart punched full of sentimental holes. Good old stupid Lloyd with his money and power and self-respect. I never saw her again. Now hanging just above the desperation, floating just above the terror, sinking now smashing, screaming, cursing, flailing in the fire like a drowning man. I never said goodbye. I never saw her again.

But I can’t live like this. Writing letters and attending conferences and filling out briefs, then driving through congestion, but always rising, fighting through the noise, alone in the bleaching sun. I refuse to play the fool. But where did you get these crazy ideas? Listen, Lloyd . . . Gabe bores me to death but I keep inviting him back because he’s lonely. He still can’t get over his wife’s death . . . and Nathan was here for just one day. But I can’t live like this. And loving Jenny. The soothing quiet of her yielding sense of peace. And laughing away the world at night. Welcoming Gabe at first, remembering O’Hara’s, Nathan. But I refuse to be a fool. They pour him into a mold and leave him to cool and harden. Then the mold is cracked apart, and they pound him into shape, and then they roll him off the production line, a finished product. But I can’t live like this. The drifting sense of helplessness, the sense of losing time. And the revealing letters, but laughing at his own suspicions, joking to himself, then hoping that the lie is true. I am not a fool. The sense of wealth and power, prestige and self-respect. The comfort of a solid building. The safety of a stone foundation. Working through the tedium, driving through the doubt, but reaching the deeper fear. Suffering the child, trying to bleed away the truth, but dreaming of revenge. Sinking into earth and crawling among snakes and worms. Lloyd continues to work as if nothing is wrong, but the planted seed begins to grow. Finally he confronts Jenny, and Jenny professes her innocence. Her explanations soothe his jealousy for two days, but the next letter blossoms the plant into flower. I am not a fool. Pretending a love, but echoing the laughter of despair. The trembling lacerations of the self, but the last letter bringing peace. Plotting the discovery, walking into the house, holding the gun, enjoying the silence, watching them, listening. The sudden memory of Nathan, the spineless little child. Amusing. Harmless. Sometimes nice to have around. I will not live this way. And smiling, pulling the trigger again and again, now feeling the weight of iron, the touch of steel, the distant sound now disappearing. I will not be a fool.

But I could do nothing. Not believing at first, suspending the shock and the hollow laughter of regret, but saving the reactions, building up the memories. There was nothing I could do. But I pity your stupidity, Lloyd. You should have known, but Gabe had to write letters and tell you what was going on. Couldn’t you see that he wanted to die? And couldn’t you see that she wanted to kill him? But I could do nothing. Searching back, remembering old faces, lost seasons, but shivering in the winter, the echoing fragments of time now frozen solid in the earth. And when the earth turns to dust, when the water runs dry, when the sun burns out, he is lost in empty space, just gliding through eternities of air. I could do nothing. But the exasperating need to resurrect the dead. Not the bleeding of a lonely heart, not the ending of a morbid fascination, not the sense of guilt. There was nothing I could do. The voices like gusts of snow. The wind and the voices and the trees. The stunted evergreens. But wanting to affirm the denial, linking their death to men, commemorating time and redeeming memory, the exasperating need to resurrect the dead. But struggling through air, fighting through the mind. I could do nothing. Before he visits the graves, Nathan drives past the house, and he decides to stop and see who lives there now. Jenny opens the door, but then he discovers that the young girl is not Jenny. Apologizing, he backs away. There was nothing I could do. Now disappearing in the labyrinth of reconstructed passion, winding down corridors that spiral upwards, climbing up steps that twist downwards, now emerging inside a graveyard, conversing with a ghost. I could do nothing else. From the ideal to the demonic, Gabe’s hatred a strange test of death, as if death were a woman. Kneeling down, lips against snow. Wanting to scream for a return. But now shivering. The freezing voices. There was nothing I could do.

Come on, Jenny. You don’t understand, Gabe. The truth is, I’m as free as any man here, more free in fact, because they all want me. There isn’t one man here who wouldn’t jump at the chance to take me home and screw. You don’t love me enough. And she reaches long plains of peace that slowly bring her down, down to the rushing lowlands, pushing her out to sea. Come on, Jenny. Home. But that’s what I’m talking about. Each man here in some way controls your actions. You’re twisting it around, that’s not what I mean, can’t you see? I control every man here because of sex. Wanna dance, Jenny? Jagged chunks of sound. Splash of laughter. Wanna dance, Jenny? Come on, Jenny. But that’s because we allow you to control us; but without a man you’re nothing, Jenny. Nothing. You’re a puppet, and all these eyes are strings that jerk you back and forth, in and out. Do you want to sleep with me tonight? What’s that supposed to mean? That I make the decision, not you. But without me there wouldn’t be any decision to make, so I’m controlling you already. You don’t love me enough. So when she meets Gabe the night Lloyd leaves O’Hara’s to study for a law exam, Jenny talks with Gabe all night. Come on, Jenny. But what would Lloyd say? What the hell do I care. Would you tell him? Of course not, it’s none of his business what I do. But if you told him, he’d never look at you again. You don’t love me enough. And Gabe. Not loud or quiet, but both and none. Explosions far away, sparks dying in a black sky. Not the past or the future, but twisted in the present like an accident of flesh. Wanna dance, Jenny? Come on, Jenny. But you’d like Nathan to know, wouldn’t you? Look, it’s none of their business, Gabe. But you’re still controlled. You can’t do anything without a man. Come on, Jenny. And bouncing on the bed, soft bed, and holding Gabe and slipping off her clothes, wet clothes, then yawning open like a cloud, still screaming rain, shattering in the fall. You don’t love me enough. You think you’re indispensable, don’t you? But I’m just a man, Jenny, just a man. Shall we make love, Jenny? Come on, Jenny. Show me how much I need you. Teach me how to be obsessed. Come on, Jenny.

And then she was dead. But the old idea of love made the woman a goddess. The man’s life was completely centered around her. He worshipped her purity and he acted like a slave before his master. I never saw her again. And windows melt, metal breaks, stone turns black, and the victims scald in flame. Consuming the air, he refuses to retreat. And then she was dead. That might be true, but the woman had no power. Exactly. By giving woman the exalted position, the man takes away her freedom. By treating her like a goddess, he forces her to act like a goddess . . . but the man is then free to act like a human being. And then she was dead. The self in search of self, now high above the endless water. Thin wings slicing through monster clouds. The death of time and the shadow of the cross on the shimmer of waves. I never said goodbye. So what you’re saying is, the master is bound and the slave is free. That’s it exactly. That’s why I exalt women and treat them like queens while I act like a drone. That’s the only way you can be free. Let them think they’re the center of the universe. And then she was dead. Gabe suffocates in pain. Choked into silence, his outrage cries for a release. I never saw her again. But what happens when a woman puts a man on a pedestal. Ah yes. Then the woman takes away the man’s freedom. By worshipping the man, she forces the man to be faithful, thus allowing herself freedom to be unfaithful. And then she was dead. And Jenny with the long black hair. Cold-blooded, her marriage to Lloyd a flirtation with death. Hungry for power, and Lloyd the stepping stone. She can screw around all she wants to because she’s human and the man is God. That’s what Jenny learned when she married Lloyd. Talking and laughing and listening to hide the suffocation, but the memories snapping back like an elastic band, the pain coming back to fill the plane. The hypnotic churning of the waves. I never saw her again. She worships Lloyd, but she’s free. Last week we slept together, just for the hell of it . . . Is something wrong, Gabe? I never saw her again.

But I can’t live like this. Where did you ever get that idea? You slept with Gabe once, didn’t you? Now wait a minute . . . that part of my life is finished, remember? You promised that we’d never talk about that again. I will not be a fool. And the motor works, the machine can move, can duplicate itself, can function like a human being until the driver has an accident. But you seem to enjoy it when Gabe comes over. But he’s an old friend, Lloyd. My God, you can’t be serious, can you? I can’t live this way. But too much empty space, too much silence, too many echoes of the past. Then Stephan to fill the house with sound. But the bills and the mortgage, the gardeners for the gigantic lawn. I will not be a fool. When Nathan was here . . . Were you fucking around with him when I wasn’t here? I’m not going to listen to another word. You better listen, Jenny. I’ll be goddammed if I’ll let you screw around when I’m not here. I refuse to be a fool. He returns early from work, parks his car a block away from the house, steals into the back kitchen, walks into the den, takes the loaded revolver out of the desk drawer, walks quietly into the living room, and discovers them on the sofa. But where did you get these crazy ideas? Listen Lloyd, Gabe bores me to death, but I keep inviting him back because he’s lonely. He still can’t get over his wife’s death . . . and Nathan was here for just one day. I refuse to be a fool. And Gabe a lousy fucking prick. No sense of humor, the cool hatred in his eyes. Christ, you must be insane. Do you actually believe that as soon as you go to work, I hop into bed with the nearest man? What the hell do you think I am? I’m your wife, Lloyd, not the local whore. Then what about the letters? I can’t live like this. Pretending a love, but echoing the laughter of despair. The trembling lacerations of the self, now sudden peace. Plotting the discovery, walking into the house, holding the gun, enjoying the silence, watching them, listening. What letters? Here, read them. I’m sorry about the questions, but I just had to be sure. Do you actually believe . . . ? Here, give them back. I’ll burn them. I’m sorry, honey. Forgive me. I will not be a fool. But there was nothing I could do. Looks like you lose, Lloyd. I warned you about her. I told you never to marry her, remember? Wanting to burn in fire, wanting to drown in water, wanting to bury himself in earth, he tries to reach down. But I could do nothing. One man was not enough for Jenny. She was a queen bee gathering drones, a spider engulfing flies. That was your wife, Lloyd. The monuments and small gravestones. The whispers of the dead. The unbroken cover of snow. A bare maple tree, its branches in a pose of supplication. Small icicles on the thin crust of snow. Jenny had to prove that men needed her, that she didn’t need a man; and Gabe had to prove that women needed him, that he didn’t need a woman. They succeeded quite well, wouldn’t you say so, Lloyd? I could do nothing. He buys three wreaths at a florist’s shop. Then he goes into church and kneels before an altar, but no prayers can be said. He walks into the graveyard. They rest side by side. But I pity your stupidity, Lloyd. You should have known, but Gabe had to write the letters and tell you what was going on. Couldn’t you see that he wanted to die? And couldn’t you see that she wanted you to kill him? But there was nothing I could do. But why Jenny? Such a simple woman. Not the power of mind or the energy of spirit, but the strength of sex. No mysteries in Jenny. No secrets hidden below the surface. But I could do nothing. Not one damned thing. But I was the guilty one. You should have known that, Lloyd. You married my creation, and my creation destroyed you, but Gabe ruined my creation, so we both lose Lloyd, do you understand? I could do nothing. Now disappearing in the labyrinth of reconstructed passion, winding down corridors that spiral upwards, climbing up steps that lead downwards, now emerging inside a graveyard, conversing with a ghost. There is nothing I can do. So we all lose, right Lloyd? Only Stephan remains. My son. I don’t think I’ll ever tell him. Does that satisfy you? Is that enough? I can do nothing.

Come on, Jenny, wanna dance? Soft as April rain, smooth as a quiet mountain lake, as mysterious as an ocean, as dangerous as white water in deep rivers, she drops from a white cloud and falls to green, a raindrop on a leaf. Dark, bloody drops of beer and wafer chips of flesh, a communion of human love. Come on, Jenny. And then she falls to earth and filters down through sand to bedrock. When Nathan, who’s in O’Hara’s with another girl, laughs at Jenny, she smiles; and after O’Hara’s closes, Gabe staggers home with Jenny; they talk for a while, climb into bed, make love, and then Gabe falls asleep. Then she rushes underneath the earth, is gathered in a cavern, a deep cave where she rests in dark silence until the river pulls her into daylight. Come on, Jenny. Inside her a shiver of sunlight breaking through a black shroud. Rainbows. Like snow in summer. A rose in winter. And she goes dancing down to sea. Through mountain gorges, across the jagged rocks, around the deep, smooth bends she slides with liquid grace. Sighing in sunshine, raining golden rainbows down wet, slipping skin. And she reaches long plains of peace that slowly pull her down, down to the rushing lowlands, pushing her out to sea. Come on, Jenny. You think you’re indispensable, don’t you? But I’m just a man, Jenny, just a man. Shall we make love, Jenny? Come on, Jenny. Show me how much I need you. Teach me how to be obsessed. But lost in the billowy pounding of the waves, she drowns in the scorching sun, and she goes back to clouds.

And then she was dead. And he’s like a pile of wet rags hidden in a dark corner of the attic, and the rags begin to rot. Silence except for the chatter of passengers. The Spanish hostess with the dimples and the scotch. Now closer to the sun, but caught in the suffocation of escape. And the decomposition builds up incredible pressure, and suddenly the rags explode into fire, and flames burst into the dark. He starts fighting with Nathan. Six passengers struggle to restrain him. When the plane lands, the police arrest him, but when Nathan hears about his wife, the charge against Gabe is dropped. But he breaks out of confinement, blazes into light, and then he rages down through the house, gutting everything he touches. And then she was dead. The outside of her a soft, tender, yielding woman; but inside of her the ocean, the strange monsters of the sea. But now beyond control, beyond forgiveness. He gulps down air and fills his lungs with flame, and the walls begin to disappear. Now hanging just above the desperation, floating just above the terror, sinking, now smashing, screaming, cursing, flailing in the fire like a drowning man. And then she was dead. Windows melt, metal breaks, stones turn black, and the victims scald in flame. Consuming air, he refuses to retreat. I never saw her again. She worships Lloyd, but she’s free. Last week we slept together, just for the hell of it . . . Is something wrong? There is not enough water, there is not enough earth. And consuming the air, he devours himself, and he turns into smoke and ashes.

But I refuse to play the fool. Wrenched out of solid rock by a giant hand, he tumbles into daylight, and they carry him away. The exhaustion of appearance tied around his neck, but Jenny here to comfort him, Stephan to play with, Gabe here as a friend. And they push him inside a huge machine that pulverizes rock to dust, and they dump the dust into a large container. Gabe smiles and Jenny frowns, and knowing that Gabe wrote the letters, Lloyd kills him first. Then he kills Jenny. And then he kills himself. They dump him into a huge vat, and the vat pours him into cleansing fire, and the fire petrifies him into steel. I will not be a fool. No sense of respect. No pride. Just bastard hate underneath his silence. They pour him into a mold, and then the mold is cracked apart, and they pound him into shape, and then they roll him off the production line, a finished product. Smiling, now pulling the trigger again and again, now feeling the weight of iron, the touch of steel, the distant noise now disappearing. And the motor works, the machine can move, can duplicate itself, can function like a human being until the driver has an accident. I will not be a fool. What letters? Here, read them. I’m sorry about the questions, but I just had to be sure. Do you actually believe . . . ? Here, give them back, I’ll burn them. I’m sorry, honey. Forgive me. I can’t live this way. But now standing in the rain, a mangled piece of steel, his strength is sucked away by water, fire, and air, and he crumples into rust.

And I could do nothing. Light as air, as careless as a sudden breeze, he flows through space, alone in air. The strong, cold wind near the graves. The taste of death. The frozen tears. The steps backward. The wind-chilled voices. Always there, always changing, always disappearing, reappearing, but he is always doomed to air. Carefully he places a wreath on each headstone. For half an hour he stands before the graves, and then he walks away. Three hours later he flies back to Spain—back to the Spanish hostess with the dimples and the scotch. But the heat of the sun, the movement of water, the growing earth—these are the forces that cause him to react, and without them he drifts alone. Motionless. There was nothing I could do. A woman. Not a housewife or a mother or a mistress; not a wife or a hostess or a whore. A woman. Elemental. Simple. But when the earth turns to dust, when the water runs dry, when the sun burns out, he is lost in empty space, just gliding through eternities of air, just floating through timeless air. Kneeling down, lips against snow, wanting to scream for a return, but now shivering. The freezing voice. Wind. Wanting to drown in water, wanting to burn in fire, wanting to bury himself in earth, he tries to reach down. But I guess we all lose, right Lloyd? Only Stephan remains. My son. I don’t think I’ll ever tell him. Does that satisfy you? Is that enough? But there is no way down to death; there is no way up to life; just random gusts of wind, these voices, these echoes through an empty mind.

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From Neighbors and Other Stories by Diane Oliver. Used with permission of the publisher, Grove. Copyright © 2024 by Diane Oliver.



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