Excerpt from 'The Angel of History'
The Angel of History
By Rabih Alameddine
Grove Atlantic, Inc.
All rights reserved.
There is a dignity in decay, Satan thought, as he regarded the terra-cotta planter basking on the kitchen windowsill. The sage shrublet growing within was silver-green fresh, yet seemed puerile and fatuous, like an ill-mannered child compared with its cracked, aging container. From the living room, Satan could just see the only window in the dim kitchen, a small rectangle above the always dry dish drainer that had not held more than a single plate in months. Jacob ate his lonely dinners standing next to the counter every night of the week, staring at the blank wall like a waiter in an empty restaurant.
"Are we ready?" Satan asked. "Shall we begin the interview?"
He leaned forward a little in his seat, a black olefin armchair that contrasted with his white suit, and reached for the mini digital recorder on the coffee table, a gesture to emphasize his question; he placed his thumb on the red button but hesitated before he pressed, waiting for some sign from Death that they could begin.
"Wait," Death said. "What interview?"
"You can't have forgotten already," Satan said. "You agreed to do this interview. It's why you're here."
"Sorry, I was thinking of something else." All in black, of course, Death shifted in his chair to a more comfortable position. He had an unmistakable whiff of history about him, and of formaldehyde. "I wish it on record," Death said in a slightly amused voice, a glint returning to his eye, "that you wanted me here. Your asking for my help is highly unusual. It makes me feel so — I don't know exactly — needed, maybe even happy. I want to shout from rooftops, from mountaintops: you like me, you really like me. You want us to work together, Father. I want that in a memo."
"Fine, most fine," Satan said. "Let's tape your gloating for the record, shall we?"
Satan disliked the machine's unobtrusive silence. Long gone were the days of cassette tapes, or better yet, reel-to-reel players whose fluttery noises might have unsettled his interviewee. He had made sure to place himself between Death and the door, anything to discomfit his nemesis. Almighty Death, Lord of the Underworld, Master of Lethe, imperturbable Death, whose pale angular face and bloodless lips rarely exhibited anything but frosty inviolability, whose usual demeanor was imperiously incurious, looked interested, maybe eager.
"Go ahead," Satan said. "The machine is recording. Tell everyone that I asked you here to negotiate."
"Negotiate?" Death said. His black beret drooped rakishly over one ear. "What's to negotiate? You're losing Jacob and you want my help."
Satan rolled his eyes in an exaggerated manner. He allowed himself a long sigh. "On this evening my first interview with Mr. D dealing with Jacob."
"Wait," Death said, fixing his pert green eyes on Satan. "What do you mean 'first'? Will I be required to meet with you again? I agreed to an interview — just one. You said we must help your protégé. Fine. Though why I should help him or you is beyond me. Work with me, you said. We need you, you said. We haven't even started and you want more. What will I get for all my troubles? Tell me."
"You get my company and so much else," Satan said. "You could have rejected my invitation, but you're here. You may not wish to admit it, but you love him as much as any of us. Look, I can't do this project without you. It's our dance, you and I."
Death sat up in his chair, a grimace flickering briefly across his face. "Do you think this is going to work?" he said, contemplating his finely tapered fingernails, recently manicured and polished in glossy blue-black. "You don't know, do you, Father? A shot in the dark is what this is. Tell me you have a plan at least."
"I do have a plan," Satan said, emphasizing his statement with a grin and a simple eyebrow lift. "Let us begin." He spoke into the microphone. "On this evening, this thing of darkness joins me."
"And you're the prince of light," Death said with a sneer.
Satan dismissed the interruption. "We conduct this interview in Jacob's apartment, which we both know intimately. My partner is unshaven, seems harried and duressed, for in his look defiance lurks. He can't seem to remove his tormented gaze from the photos on the fireplace mantel, all the young men he snatched well before their time. This interviewer believes that guilt nibbles at my friend's usually arid heart, that heinous acts and egregious errors have been committed."
"Oh, come, come," Death said. "Why are you lying? Well, that's a silly question." As he lifted his arm to flick a bony finger, his sleeve dropped and revealed an intricate forearm tattoo: the rape of the Sabine women collaged with various other slayings, Daisy Duck hanging from the gallows, Nietzsche roasting on a spit, Peter Pan drawn and quartered. "Did you bring me here to provoke me? I can play that game. But tormented gaze? Me? Please."
Death stared at the pictures, six of them in silver frames with filigreed roses, Jacob's friends looking young and deathless. He saw everything that had been on the mantelpiece before Jacob's roommate began to spend every night with her lover, before the recent rearrangement: two netsuke Buddhas, one lounging and laughing, the other meditating; a black onyx rosary with twenty-two beads plus one; a small, suffering Jesus with his cross on a short pedestal; and a sand-colored seashell that whispered its longing for home. All were now bunched closer together, a mismatched potpourri, in order to make room for the photographs, each with a small branch of dancing lady in a tiny silver vase before it, yellow oncidiums. The poet mourned anew.
"I'm sorry," Satan said. "I was trying to set the scene. This is for Jacob, not for us. He needs us to help him remember, to harrow the soil and dislodge the silt."
"But you're doing such a magnificent job," Death said. "Too magnificent. You've been back in his life for a year and some, and already your spade-fork has unearthed so much of what he long ago buried. He remembers so often now that he's seeking professional help."
"And thou art most gracious," Satan said. "Yet my role here is not done."
"He will probably check himself into that nuthouse called St. Francis."
"I loathe that narcissistic nincompoop of a saint," Satan said.
"We can agree on that at least," said Death. "Holierthan- thou, PETA-idolizing numbnuts."
"On that convivial note," said Satan, "and without further ado, we begin. How long have you known our boy?"
Death sighed. "Since conception, of course. Where there is congress, I am."
"Why do you remember him?" Satan asked. "What was so special? Of all conceptions, why his?"
"Well, I remember him for many reasons," Death said, "probably the same as yours. He is an Arab, so I would have to attend to his loved ones sooner rather than later. He should have accompanied me early on, such a sickly child he was, but you chose him." He inclined his head against the chair, shut his eyes for a moment, remembering; when he tilted his head back, the beret returned slightly off-kilter, his eyes were brighter, and a rascally grin creased his face. "I tell you, Arabs make my life worth living, such pleasure they have given me through the years, just as much as Jews. Arab Jews are the best, of course, their lives full of suffering and dying and no little whining, Yemeni Jews, my, my. But back to Jacob, he is a strange pervert. Obviously, he was wedded to me, so I kept watch, as you have."
"Oh, that," Death said. "I remember his wondrous conception because of the carpet, what a treasure, what a fucking glorious masterpiece. How could I forget that carpet?"
Excerpted from The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine. Copyright © 2016 Rabih Alameddine. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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