To Be Engulfed

Excerpt from “The Cheerful Scapegoat” by Wayne Koestenbaum

To Be Engulfed


Upon returning to a town I’d forgotten how to love, I stum- bled upon a dying child. I stood outside the cottage. Uninvited, I peered through its opened window: I observed the sick boy, who lay in a box. He reminded me of a donkey I’d once pitied on a road leading to a lagoon I still fear. The child’s name, I would learn later, was Arturo. His parents, impecunious villagers, had wanted him to grow up to become a famous conductor, like Arturo Toscanini, but now they were insufficiently grief-struck by their child’s immi- nent death.

How could I claim to know the feelings of the parents? I’m no clairvoyant. My empathy skills, measured by a bat- tery of psychological tests administered during my recent confinement, proved deficient. My only grail is tranquility— a calmness I achieve by dispensing with emotions. By for- feiting citizenship in the affective realm, I achieve Paris, my new home; I earn the right to be a parfumier on the Place Vendôme.


When I return to the village, my first home, I discover the dying Arturo. The child doesn’t engulf me; nor does the town, or its fishing boats, or its Sunday carnival. What engulfs me is the schmatte worn by Arturo’s mother, as she leans over the box, containing a body that will soon qualify as remains. The schmatte engulfs me; I perceive its flaws and its charms; and the oscillation between flaw and charm produces a vortex in which I picture myself drowning.

When I return to Paris, I will buy a similar schmatte, from a couturier whose unconventional practice finds an unlikely locale in the smelly environs of Les Halles. My schmatte will smell of horse contrefilets, of veal kidneys, of calf’s liver. The couturier—and her gullible customers—pretend that no foul aroma clings to the cotton. I know better. The corpse of Arturo sanctions my schmatte; I wear it, and I write these words, in his stunted honor.

Excerpted from The Cheerful Scapegoat by Wayne Koestenbaum. Copyright © 2021 by Wayne Koestenbaum. Excerpted by permission of Semiotext(e). All rights reserved.