excerpt from 'Square Wave'
By Mark de Silva
Two Dollar Radio
All rights reserved.
THE POWDER WAS DARK AND FINE, REALLY A DUST. It carried into the light in tobacco wisps as he loaded the chamber, packing it flat with the weight of his body, twisting the tamp before easing the pressure. A featureless surface remained. He locked the handle in place and started the pump. Two honeyed streams oozed from the filter head down to the shallow white cup.
The springs squealed. She leapt up from bed, the Ballade in D minor — Brahms, her favorite — following her out of the bedroom as she opened the door and darted to his side. He did not react. Her hands clung to the edge of the sink as she leaned over it, finding a way into the margins of his view as her bare breasts grazed the Bolognese-stained plates poking up out of dishwater, frothless now after three days of attrition.
He stared down into the filling cup. Without raising his head he looked at her. Blue eyes edged with green — they fluttered, fixed his own, released them, and fixed them again. He was unchanged. She swung her head away from him, tucked her chin in the hollow of her shoulder, and swung it back, her face now more flush with light just as cirrus draped the sun. He turned off the pump.
"We should take a trip," she said.
The crema was thinning already. She'd left an entire bag of beans, a Kenyan peaberry finer than her palate, to stale in the unlidded grinder.
He handed her the cup. She tasted it and made a face, crinkled her nose. "You make it bitter." She spooned too much sugar into the drink and sipped at the travesty.
"Why?" he asked as he refilled the basket.
"We could go to Sri Lanka. It's safe enough there now, right?" "I have what I need."
"Well then not for that." She shut her eyes in concentration or its imitation. "Réunion." The word came abruptly, eyes popping. She touched her thumb to her lip and tilted her head. "Dakar?"
"There might be things I could use back in England. More letters, maybe some journals. We could probably stay at the old house itself this time. If you really have to go somewhere."
"Dakar!" The eyes quivered — that, her manner of punctuation. "Isn't there art in Dakar?"
"In going there?"
"A biennial. I think. Oh, I need to know these things."
"Really, though, I shouldn't go anywhere. Not till I've written up these pieces up for the Wintry."
He pulled the second shot and smiled. The pump's din made conversation impossible, forcing her to wait the twenty-five ticks of his Submariner.
"But if you have everything you need, you can do it there." He paused, though without quite shaking his head. "And do you even have the time for this?"
"Too much. You know that. It is such a strange little place to work, Carl. There's hardly enough to do. Three issues. It's more like half a year's work. And just to go into that office — the six of us. Maybe you'd think, I did, that that would make things intimate, more informal. And it is informal, but not intimate. It's a vacuum. Silence from start to finish most days. And these are supposed to be people you'd actually wanted to work with. Really good readers. They write interesting stuff too, smart commentary. But in the flesh, they're false, or tepid, or humorless — or falsely so without alcohol, and even then, the jokes are mostly bad. Paper-interesting, that's what I'm calling them. Halsley's made them that, I think, if they weren't already."
He downed his espresso and set the cup on the surface of the gray water. They watched it capsize and sink to the bottom, trailing dark ribbons that coalesced into a cloud. Her cup sat on the counter, nearly full.
"It's like there's some threshold we haven't reached," she continued. "Maybe it takes, I don't know, ten before you have a staff, any real range. Or else less people than we've got, if you want something concentrated, personal. Ten or more, five or less, and we've fallen in between. But then maybe it's got nothing to do with numbers. There's just so much ego in that room, and less than half of it's paid for." She threw her arms out to her sides as she said this. "And no one stays past five, except for close. That's three weeks a year. And still only till eight."
"I should take your job," he said.
"You should! I can follow the hookers then."
"That's not really my job."
"But that's what you do."
"And they pay you for it. That's a job. I don't know what I think of it, but it's sounding better than mine right now."
"But you'd be just as bored. Because most of the time nothing happens. You just walk around, looking for trouble, and you don't end up finding it, the right kind, easily or at all. This stuff with the whores, it could still turn out, probably will turn out, to be the wrong kind. Tangential. Not my job."
She shook her head and ran her finger along the lip of her cup. "I don't know what to do. Maybe I should start reviewing more. Do you think they'll let me have my old job back?"
"You were replaced."
"I found her for them, though. The magazine could take us both, replacement and replaced." She looked at him hopefully. "No, you're right, they won't. I don't really want to go back anyway. Every time I talk to them, and they still count as friends, individually, every time they mention the magazine, their voices change, they tighten, or if it's in person, their faces do, and I know I was right to leave. I don't like the silence, the sputtering pace now. But the sort of noise I came from ... and it only got worse after you left."
"I was pretty bad at the job. The midwifing. The Rolodex. The dinners."
"But you were sort of hoping to be bad. Relieved at least."
"I'm not sure what I was hoping."
"No, I'm not blaming you for quitting. I would have had to leave anyway. But you're too something, for editing. Not just there. Anywhere, probably. Too ... yourself. Maybe for the city too."
"I wouldn't —"
"And I love that." Her eyes flashed. "But can't we go somewhere? You'll like it."
"The first essay needs to be done soon. In weeks probably."
"Oh, you'll get them all done. They'll be perfect."
"You haven't seen them."
"But I know."
She must have known most of what she knew of him this way, whatever way it was. She'd never asked to see the drafts, though she was better positioned than most to appreciate them, having once been a graduate student in history, at the same university he'd attended, in fact, in England, and at the same time, though they knew each other only glancingly then. She dropped out before finishing her master's thesis, on literary expatriatism in the Georgian era, with Washington Irving, and his Geoffrey Crayon, the would-be pivot.
It was only after the scholarships, back in the States, in Halsley — in magazines, in fact — that they'd become properly acquainted. But he bore the city's literary world no better than academe. The issue now was frivolity not fustiness. It took him just months as an editor to see this, that wit and bombast would always trump rigor. They liked to condemn it as dreary; apparently this was the worst thing something could be. It didn't have to be, though, applied in the right way, he thought, even if the universities had made it seem so and given them cover for a sloth of mind he was never going to acclimate to, however artful the dress.
She seemed to have run into the same problem. Wasn't that what she was complaining about just now? The fecklessness? Still, he wasn't going to suggest that she quit as he had. Bright as she was, it might be that nothing in the world suited her better. No one, after all, could accuse her of being too herself, only not enough.
"You don't know what the pieces are about," he said.
"They're about your family."
He squinted. "Incidentally," he said, a half-truth, if that. "And that still wouldn't tell you if they were any good."
"Carl, you do everything well," she said, just before threading her lips between his, stifling the demurrals. She gripped him by the nape of the neck and slid her hand upward, lifting the dark curls of hair as she licked the backs of his teeth and sucked his lip.
"Where did you get this impression?" he asked, pulling away and biting the leonine nose.
She squirmed. "You bite too hard." He bit it harder. She whipped her face away, over her shoulder, and leaned against him.
"I can tell by the way you speak," she said, taking the twist out of her neck and tucking her face below his. She gripped his stubbled cheeks with both hands. "Heart-shaped face?" she said. "Let me just look at tickets at least." She shot away from him, to the sofa, and curled up with the laptop.
How did he speak? Since they'd been firmly together, five months now, she'd heard only fragments of anything serious from him. Mostly this was because she attended to his words selectively, just bits and pieces, a phrase, a transition, an odd construction. Yesterday, it had been "a decent shot at regret." Before that, there was "twice-lived" and "something worse than impossible."
While he was thinking aloud, probing, carefully tracing a line of thought, she would pounce on words like these and blurt out, "How well put!" Often he lost the rest of the thought this way, and turns of phrase meant to be means became ends. Even when he didn't, he would break off the inquiry a sentence or two later, seeing that the matter was of no more than private interest. That she didn't mind these abortions only vexed him further. Whatever she got out of what he said, it was hardly ever what he hoped she would get out of it.
This wasn't all bad. The language that drove her to exclaim like this often marked quarries of significance he might otherwise have passed over. As a means of divining these veins beneath his words, she was exceptional. Further meditation was almost always repaid, though she never provided it herself, of course, or encouraged him toward it either. She was thinking of other things by then, the words only an exit onto an avenue leading elsewhere, to a story she preferred. She would be lost traveling this route for some seconds and come to with a silent rattle of the eyes. The praise came then, the tiny kisses laid on his face. It was difficult to stay annoyed.
So it would be left to him, Carl Stagg, to subject these fragments, at a later time, to the maw of his mind, scraping away at their surfaces until a pleasing resistance was met, and what was left in his grasp was hard as stone.
"Tickets aren't so bad, if we buy now — or soon." Her voice, unraised, came from the living room. Immediately she appeared, her face carrying the question.
He stepped on the trash-pedal and knocked out the steaming puck of spent powder. She stopped just short of him and regarded the grocery below in the street as he rinsed the portafilter and wiped down a kitchen counter that didn't need it.
"To England?" He liked misunderstanding her.
"No! Africa. Doesn't that sound better? You've spent enough time — I've spent enough time — in England. The house is crumbling anyway."
"It's been renovated."
"And I'm supposed to hang around while you're in the attic digging up old family letters?"
"You could help me if you want." He hung the unsoiled cloth from the oven door and wrapped an arm around her from behind, just beneath her breasts.
"You don't touch them enough," she said.
He turned her around and put his hands on her waist, squeezed her hips, pinched the skin with his thumbs and pointers. Her panties were a shambles. In places the cotton was reduced to just a few crosshatched fibers, and the elastic was dark with sweat and sloughed skin. He pulled it down in front with his thumb and ruffled the dark hair; but he was thinking of Portsmouth, of London, and then of the Fens, where they had both spent most of their time in England, though separately. Finally Kent came to mind. He could see if Oli might save him a trip and visit the country house in Canterbury, send him the last of Rutland's letters.
"I like that you like it." The hair, she meant. Her mouth twisted into a smile that became a pucker. He kissed her eyes shut, right to left, and released the elastic with the lightest of snaps, silent.
"Can we sleep here tonight?"
"So ... tickets?"
He laughed. She left the kitchen for the living room, her arms behind her, pulling him along by the fingers in a way that turned his hands into pistols.
Renna's apartment was larger than his, nicer. The living room was a long rectangle lined with narrow boards, maple or ash, varnished and staggered. The wood had gone matte in places: along the path from the kitchen to her bedroom, from the bedroom to the bathroom, and then near the foot of the sofa, the massive gray-green brick covered in a rich fiber.
Besides the sofa there was little else. A parched mahogany table of unknown but apparently ancient provenance served for eating and working. (For him, anyway. She preferred bed for both.) There were cigarette burns all over it. (She didn't smoke, and though he did, the marks predated him.) The table's edge bore semicircular scuff marks from the bottle caps popped on it in its life before Renna. Two folding chairs were wedged under it, and a pair of unstable barstools sat near the kitchen counter. That was it.
The other bedroom, only recently adapted into Stagg's second study, had been vacated just weeks before by the gymnast, a pommel horse specialist. He left in haste to Orlando, to train at a well-regarded program where a spot had opened up owing to another man's career-ending injury. There was some chance of making it to nationals this year, he'd said, but at twenty-three he was already considered old, and his best shot at laud, Olympic qualification, had passed him by three years earlier. He'd finished two places out on the horse.
In the nine months he occupied the second bedroom — he'd replaced a college friend Renna had rented the apartment with originally, a year before, while Stagg was still in England — the two kept things mostly polite and formal between them. Now and again, though, they would eat together.
Stagg once shared a starch-heavy dinner of gnocchi in a veal reduction with the two of them, at the battered table. They'd lifted up the leaves, unnecessarily, as nothing was placed on them. Stagg found the man more of a boy, really. He was not stupid, though his education was soft, his brain, Stagg imagined, resembling unkneaded dough.
That night, he asked him idly about the origins of the pommel horse. Something about Alexander the Great came back, martial preparation. And then, cheaply, he asked him about the meaning of the horse, knowing, first, that the gymnast was not practiced in the address of this sort of question, and, second, that whatever meaning might be lodged in the horse, recovering it would be pedantry at its worst, certainly not something worth sullying dinner with, and probably not even a seminar room.
"Knowing" turned out to be too strong, though that is what it felt like. The gymnast's answer, not in so many words, was that the horse was a bounder of mastery. In most things — art, science, politics, friendship, love — success was ill defined, necessarily murky, an always evolving question. Not so, he said, on the horse. A simple mastery was possible. And curiously, he said this was so irrespective of their being anyone in a position to judge the performance, even the athlete himself. Judgment had nothing to do with it.
It was this qualification that complicated the gymnast's answer. The case, and the contrast with the other endeavors, would seem simpler to make with an unjudged sport, track perhaps being the ideal. But the gymnast spoke with such casual conviction, Stagg found it difficult to disbelieve him, even if it threw into doubt exactly what case he meant to be making, and it was not quite possible to understand how what he said could be true, or even how the world would have to be arranged for it to be true.
But wasn't it Catherine, another Great, who'd said that victors aren't judged? The question flitted through Stagg's mind. He let the conversation move on. He would rather explore the thought himself, later, on his own. The gymnast, if he knew anything of this, could only muddle things from here, or coarsely domesticate whatever wayward insight he might have had. Still, Stagg was more impressed by the man then, if only complexly so, than he had ever been, before or since.
Excerpted from Square Wave by Mark de Silva. Copyright © 2016 Mark de Silva. Excerpted by permission of Two Dollar Radio.
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