“Boomerang, nomerate the zeddiest zed in the lexigraph,” I said. While I leafed through the last volume of The Condensed OED on the sofa, my sister Jane sat cross-legged on the floor, watching ultimate fighting on the television, our tabby Alfred nestled in the crook of her lap. She was wearing pink Oshkosh overalls.
“Zyzzyva,” she said, staring at the top-heavy Filipino kickboxer as he kneed an ursine Belarusian in the face. “That’s zither yalumba double zither yalumba vixen aleph. It’s a wallybo wittle weevy. Summy summy peasy peasy. Amazon,” she concluded, giving me jazz hands. After an extended grapple, the Belarusian tackled the Filipino face-first onto the mat and was now head-butting his upper back.
“Ourburos,” she asked, “do you think the zed yalumba double zed yalumba vixen aleph sacrilege –”
“Vixen aleph eviscerate,” I interrupted.
“Vixen aleph eviscerate, might a mighty mass eviscerate the Brother Ass?”
“Might a mighty mass eviscerate the Brother Ass?”
“They did in that looky-loo we we looky-loo’d.”
“Cherry, Apple, Pumpkin, Mincemeat, Rhubarb,” she rebutted, fiddling with one of her pigtails, her eyes on the bleeding Filipino. Jane was nine. I had just turned eleven. “Verity looky-loo.”
“Verity? The looky-loo Torture Channel.” Jane disliked being proven wrong as much as she believed in the transcendent power of human cruelty to outstrip the fictional imagination.
Our mother Muriel and father Stewart walked into the room, their sleek wheeled luggage parked behind. As usual, they were wearing dark suits. The color of Stewart’s I would have called espresso. Muriel’s was unquestionably sienna: like Rita Hayworth she wore her auburn hair brushed dry and up from her forehead and generally dressed in the reddish spectrum of the earth tones to bring out her natural highlights. As an aspiring art critic, it was important to be aware of these things.
“Muriel, Stewart!” Jane and I shouted in unison, rising from the floor.
“Jane, Porter!” our parents replied. This call and response was a game of ours. We’d been doing it for quite some time.
We lived in B––––, a small city in the north Midwest, and our parents were philosophy professors at the college located on the edge of town, a few blocks from our house. Every year I browsed through the listings in U.S. News and World Report, and my parents’ institution inevitably ranked near the top of the liberal arts category. This made me proud.
Muriel bent to kiss Jane on the lips. Then they rubbed noses. Our parents passed their thin, aquiline features to Jane and I, which made us appear older than we were, that and our unfailingly erect carriage. While Jane moved to my father, who knelt and pressed his lips to her forehead, my mother kissed me on both cheeks then asked if she had any makeup smudges. I examined her pale face, then shook my head. “When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.” I sidled over to my father, who extended his hand down toward me. We shook. My father was quite tall and austere, which seemed appropriate for a Heideggerian. Unsurprisingly, he found physical affection between men somewhat suspect, and when I was four, our typical greeting changed from a kiss to a manly handshake, which I approved of.
“You may either win your peace or buy it. Win it, by resistance to evil,” I said, looking first at Stewart, then Muriel. They nodded. That weekend they were attending a metaphysics conference in Boston. Since they believed metaphysics was long dead and were presenting papers that defended such a position, they would be arriving in New England as proselytes in an unfriendly land. The year before they had been in Baltimore, participating in a panel discussion on ontology with a pair of neo-Thomists from Notre Dame. After a pointed comment during the Q&A, the panel’s spirited debated devolved into fisticuffs. Muriel sent one of the Catholics to the emergency room with a broken nose before the moderator could restrain them. Fortunately no one pressed charges.
Muriel told us Ms. Darby was running late but would be here shortly. Ms. Darby was a new sitter, a cousin of the masseur of the squash partner of the owner of our mother’s favorite antique furniture shop. More immediate connections to sitters had already been tried and severed: since Jane and I were disinclined toward respecting non-parental authority figures, nearly every sitter was a new sitter. This was also one of the primary reasons we were homeschooled.
“Do try not to repeat what happened last time,” Muriel said.
“Real time spectroscopy,” said Jane. She smiled. The last of her baby teeth, an upper incisor, had just fallen out. “Everything is different on different scales.” Luggage in tow, our parents exited through the front door. We waved to them from the bay window as they drove away in our Audi.
It was a Friday morning in early October, and along our boulevard the sycamores’ leaves were beginning to crinkle, while the hickories’ foliage was the color of a soufflé. Our parents would return Sunday. I resumed reading the OED on the sofa. Alfred had been joined by his brothers North and Whitehead and they were now nuzzling my sister, who petted them absent-mindedly while watching an enormous dreadlocked Haitian dominate a scrappy Peruvian with a series of pirouetting roundhouses.
An hour later the front door opened and a woman strode into the hall as though appraising the home for auction. She was not what I expected. Most sitters were either matrons who trundled about dusting then fell asleep while puzzling through the crossword, or high school girls with names ending in “i” who arrived in and never changed out of their flannel pajamas, then proceeded to eat brownie batter and watch John Cusack movies the whole weekend. But this woman could have sat for Titian if she’d been a decade younger, if Titian had used tramps for models. She wore stiletto heels, a black wife-beater, and a spiked dog collar. The geological strata of her makeup made her look like a debauched manikin. Her substantial thighs were bound – barely – by a narrow swath of irregularly bleached denim. Piled high atop her head was a scramble of blonde curls. I had always considered blonde hair obscene and remembered that Renaissance socialites used human urine to bleach their locks golden. Briefly, I supposed the Medici court must always have smelled like an outhouse.
From the living room Jane shouted, “Alarum, alarum, casa in the casa,” before sliding into the hall on her socks. As soon as she spotted the large stranger, she grimaced and said, “Who’s the ceiling inspector?” Jane’s language often grew salty when she was irritated.
“Ms. Darby,” the woman said, staring up at the Rothko print on the wall.
“Porter Macdonald,” I said, nodding, unsure if it was appropriate to shake hands. “And Jane. She – ”
“Oh, whatty what what what?” Jane asked, cupping her ear. “Morbid obesity, line two? The dead want cheese, but we won’t give it to them.”
After strutting past us into the kitchen, Ms. Darby yanked the refrigerator open. I doubted she was morbidly obese – while Jane knew more of these things, I would have guessed her BMI was somewhere in the upper twenties, the “Overweight” but not “Obese” category. Scanning its contents of our fridge like a Mormon in a crack den, she asked, “Why is everything vegetables? Human beings are naturally omnivorous. Before civilization we ate whatever animals we could get our hands on.”
I was going to say that pre-civilized humans probably killed whatever people they could get their hands on too, but before I could Jane grabbed a wooden spoon and brandished it at the woman. “The definition of carnivorous,” said Jane. “Addicted to the cruelty of devouring the timorous vegetarian, his heirs and assigns.”
“I prefer not to eat food that has a face,” I said in a way that I hoped was more tragic than accusatory.
“Well vocatted, Ouroburos,” my sister added, after sucking in a liter of air.
“No wonder you look like little albino Ethiopians. Two tossed salads, coming up.”
Jane and I turned to each other, shocked at this woman’s callousness.
“The suspicion of fear,” I sputtered, “The beginning of racism, or fascism, or, the Molotov cocktail von Ribbentrop Pact.”
“Nazi,” said Jane. “I’m going to go looky-loo the looky-loo, spectate some fisticuffs,” she huffed, storming TV-ward. “I am an animal! The left needs a new paradigm!”
“The center cannot hold,” I called after.
A few years earlier, when our parents still read to us before bed, they began choosing titles from a genre we had hitherto been unaware of: the sitter-with-a-heart-of-gold morality play. These stories always began with vivacious siblings who habitually terrorize their sitters – “sitter busters” as one such book called them. In each, as the newest sitter’s character is peeled back, the siblings realize she’s different, that despite her obese and sweaty or wizened and halitotic exterior, a fairy godmother dwells within. During the course of the weekend or week or however long the parentless interval is, the siblings and sitter grow so close that they when the parents return the siblings don’t want the sitter to leave. The moral being all that is gold does not glitter, you can’t judge a book by its cover, etc. Of course Jane and I quickly began judging these books by their covers, so much so that one evening as my father turned to page one, before he had even uttered the first word, Jane shouted, “Hegemonic propaganda,” pulled the book from his hands, and hurled it into the fire. I explained to our dumbstruck parents that these stories assumed the dualist fallacy that posits the stuff of bones and blood and muscle tissues is only a puppet manipulated by an eternal immaterial spirit, i.e., the body is the prison of the soul, i.e., that if you looked “deeper” than the sitters’ haggish exteriors, you would discover their “true selves,” lily-white and radiant. I quickly reminded them that as physicalists who believed in neither the immortality of the soul nor the metaphysical, Judeo-Christian hierarchies that enforced such a belief for the sake of their own hegemony, it was shameful for them to try and pawn off a ridiculous pre-modern worldview just so we’d stop squirt-gunning our sitters with battery acid. The solution, I said, referencing Veblen and Comte, was to find better help. Our parents apologized and told us they would do what they could.
Ms. Darby wasted the afternoon in the kitchen, talking to a man she identified only as “Bolek.” Jane and I guessed he was her pimp. When she left without telling us where she was going or when she’d be back, we considered forging a ransom note then walking to the student union and paying a few undergrads to impersonate our captors. But Jane was enjoying the Discovery Channel special on Aztec warfare and on the sofa I was reading about the various uses for zinc, so we decided instead to lock the doors and windows and close the blinds.
“Lookify, spectate,” Jane said, pulling on my big toe. It appeared to be a reenactment of some ceremony – there were many smoky torches and hordes of loinclothed warriors who appeared Meso-American.
“Zinc,” I said, waggling the tome, then proceeded to read: “The reproducible preparation of p-type ZnO represents an important task that might be realized via the partial substitution of Zn two plus by Li plus in the ZnO lattice. A systematic approach employing molecular organometallic precursors for the preparation of ZnO materials. The materials have been characterized with various analytical techniques including X-ray absorption, micro-Raman, and low-temperature photoluminescence spectroscopy; high-resolution transmission electron microscopy; powder X-ray diffraction; and electron paramagnetic resonance.”
“Paradigmatic resonance,” Jane cooed. “Organometallic precursors.” Her eyes were still on the TV, where two of the Meso-American mesomorphs were holding down a captured soldier as a third cut his heart out.
“Bursars,” I said. “Purse thieves. Horse thieves. Greensleeves.”
“Photoluminescence,” she said.
“Bioluminescence,” I said. “Wild senescence.” We were oscillating at the same frequency.
“Wil E. Coyote’s benevolence.”
“Micro-Raman,” I said. “Greco-Roman.”
“Systematic approaches,” she said. “Final solutions.”
“Paramagnetic, paranormal, parapsychology. Metempsychosis.”
“Death,” said Jane, pointing at the screen, at the heartless expiring native. “Tenochtitlán.”
Tenochtitlán is almost impossible for most native English speakers to pronounce, but Jane had done admirably. Our front door suffered a battery of knocks. “Whether for life or death, do your own work well, Boomerang.”
I returned to my oxides, Jane to her Aztecs. After another series of knocks, Ms. Darby called for us to let her in. She sounded agitated. She tried the other doors, then wrapped on the bay window. Jane said, “That brass door.” She flung her hands TV-ward. “The climactitude! The apocalypse!” The three Aztec warriors were dining on the heart of the captured soldier, who was shuddering at their feet.
“Grand malling,” I said.
“Molly Malones,” she said.
“No mollification,” she smiled, jerking her thumb hitchhiker-style at the front yard. We heard a car pull away. It did not sound fuel-efficient.
Near dusk, hearing a male voice and a female voice at the front door, we moved to the hall and waited. After a few minutes of fiddling with the handle the door finally swung open, and there on the threshold was Ms. Darby and a young Slavic ogre sporting a mohawk, its ridge long as the blade of a scythe. Her legs were welted satisfyingly pink.
“Brats, this is Bolek. Bolek, the brats.”
“The right of conquest has no foundation other than the right of the strongest,” I said.
“Studies show five out of six children born behind the Iron Curtain between 1977 and 1986 are, technically, bastards,” said Jane.
Bolek sneered, revealing a translucent mouth guard. I had no idea why he was wearing a mouth guard.
“Bolek’s the bassist in a post-anarchist post-punk band,” said Ms. Darby, seeming pleased at her prepositions and hyphens. “They’re huge in Krakow.”
Jane glanced up at the round-faced, weak-chinned giant, then turned to me and said, “Does he have Derrida Omnibus Wonton Neverneverland –”
“Sacrilege Yalumba Neverneverland Derrida Rasputin Omnibus Moribund Eviscerate?” I concluded.
“Indeed,” she said.
“The smart money’s on it,” I said.
“Rasputin?” asked Bolek. I’d seen smarter-looking gastropds. But Jane was not done. Chin-high to the giant’s belt-buckle, which depicted a pair of horses copulating, she glared up at him.
“Fob Uvula, Rasputin Eviscerate Truss Aleph Rasputin Derrida.”
Bolek’s face sagged so much that his mouth guard actually fell out. He picked it up.
“Monarchists,” he grumbled. Ms. Darby asked why we’d locked the doors.
“We just witty bitty witty bitty,” said Jane, “Daffodils afraid of the fierce cosmic winds.”
“What the hell does that even mean?” asked Ms. Darby.
I chuffed. Adults so often feigned ignorance to disenfranchise the young.
“It means the world is a howling maw,” I said. “It means prudence is sometimes knowing how to hide.”
Bolek was grimacing, pensive, as though trying to channel a thought from the ether to his brain via mohawk. “Theeese children of the states of America,” he said, elongating his vowels like some kind of bad Count Chocula impersonation. “Spoiled. No respect. No hospitality.”
“To make your children capable of honesty is the beginning of education,” I said.
“Let’s play a game,” said Jane. “I say a word. You say the first word that comes to mind. Gulag. Sodomy. Functional. Illiteracy. Fetal. Alcohol.”
Scowling, Bolek attempted to push past her into the house, behind Ms. Darby.
“Upon the sacredness of property civilization itself depends,” I said, stepping in front of him. “That’s Carnegie,” I added, although I couldn’t remember whether it was Dale or Andrew. I believed one was an energy tycoon and the other a motivational speaker. Rolling her eyes, Ms. Darby mentioned something about union-busting and slutted off toward the kitchen. When Bolek pushed past, I told Jane to keep an eye on them then dialed my father’s cell phone. He picked up after the first ring. My father was that kind of man. “Hello, Stewart Macdonald speaking.”
“This is Porter.”
I asked him if there had been any good panels today. I had learned from him always to ease into a serious conversation with a smattering of small talk, like piquing the palate with hors d’oeuvres before the entree.
“No. They were all quite dull. But your mother and I are settling down for a nice meal of oysters and scallops and Gewürztraminer. Is there anything I can do for you?”
Now was the time for meat and potatoes, so to speak. I explained Bolek. “He appears to be an anarchist. And not the good kind. I mean, the kind like the Paris Commune sabot anarcho-syndicalist pragmatic utopian –”
“Please put her on the phone, son.” He understood.
I strode into the kitchen as though I was Arthur and the small portable Excalibur just pulled from the stone. I handed it to Ms. Darby without saying a word. Jane was beaming.
“Yes, Mr. Macdonald?” she asked, her tone higher and more unctuous than the one she used with us. “He’s my nephew,” she said before being interrupted. “It’s only for … he’s really a … but Mr. Macdonald … yes, yes, perfectly clear.” She handed the phone back to me, looking like she could have chewed my ears off.
“Hello, Stewart?” I said.
“Yes, son. I’ve talked to Ms. Darby. The criminal is to leave immediately.”
I thanked him.
“I rejoice in victory,” Jane crowed. “I delight in the slaughter of men.”
“And if you have any further trouble, don’t hesitate to call. It appears Muriel and I made a poor decision about Ms. Darby. Forgive us. We’ll be sure to bring back an extra-large print for you.”
“Stewart?” I whispered, slipping into the living room so that Jane would not hear.
“Jane is fast becoming an Azteophile. Perhaps you could bring her a replicate necklace or headdress or possibly a spear. Do they sell human hearts in Baltimore? I think she would like that.”
“We’ll see what we can do. She’s lucky to have such a conscientious brother. Good night, son.”
“Sleep is good, death is better; but of course, the best thing would to have never been born at all.”
A few moments’ silence seized the air. I was afraid I had misquoted Heine. “Yes, yes,” he finally stammered. “That is something to think about. Son,” he added, “Do ever play baseball? Or other sports?”
“The brain is the strongest muscle in the body,” I said.
“Of course,” he said. “Perhaps we can play catch upon my return.”
While I was in the process of saying goodbye, Bolek shuffled out, his head sagging. When I returned to the kitchen, Ms. Darby stared at me and ashed on the windowsill lavender. I considered telling her to take her death sticks outside, but I decided it was worth keeping good relations for the present.
Upstairs, I walked past my door and into my parents’ room at the end of the hall. After turning on my father’s nightstand light, I slid open his closet, and there hanging in a neat line were his suits. I knew the measurements without looking: 32 waist, 36 inseam, 44 chest. Every day my father left the house in one of these suits, clear and powerful and beautiful ideas growing within his mind like orchids made of diamond, the modern warrior marching toward the battlefield of the intellect, and the suits were his twenty-first century standard, the flags of old cut and stitched and sewn together but flown no less proudly for being flown on the body, standard and armor in one. I petted them, the blends of silk and wool soft and strong, knowing that in not so many years I would wear such suits into my office, my classroom, continuing my father’s war along a different front. Taken together, they were a dark and lovely tapestry, and the colors I called midnight, tornado grey, merlot, called onyx, oxblood, lignum vitae, Vulcan’s beard.
Later that evening I was attempting to read Ruskin in bed but really was recalling Bolek and wondering what terrors Ms. Darby was unleashing upon the guest bedroom, when Jane peeked around the half-open door, slipped in, and gave a little wave. Only in the past year had she stopped wearing onesies, and as a vestige of those days, she favored thermal tops tucked into nubbly sweatpants. She slid into me in bed beside me. The summer freckles sprouting from her nose and cheeks had begun to fade. I was about to ask her opinion on the Pre-Raphaelites when she asked if the fact that we were atheists necessitated a denial of the possibility of life after death. Six months before, our father’s father, himself a distinguished Continentalist, had passed away.
“Verity,” I said. “Every man dies. Not every man really lives.”
Time slowed. Jane pressed her tongue against the inside of her cheek. She was a tremendous film snob. “Mel?” she smirked.
“The quote’s original. Look it up.”
“Willy Wall once flayed a British soldier and fashioned from his flesh a baldrick.”
“Balderdash,” I said.
“Qu’ran. Moron. Boron.”
“Studies show that two out of every three people who believe in heaven don’t have a coherent theosophical –”
After a long draught of silence, she asked if she could sleep in my bed. I said of course.
“Ourburos,” she said.
“This is the best of all possible worlds.” I flushed with gratitude and affection, but then she continued: “For to torment Ms. Darby and leave us in peace. That there’s no heaven, but a double-sized hell.” Within moments she was visited by the Sandman. Even in sleep she appeared defensive, and I tried to stroke her cheeks into what seemed to me a more childlike slackness. “Push and shove,” I said. “Rubber glove. Turtle dove.”
I woke to the smell of frying human flesh. It was a ghastly – a salty, fatty stench. When I realized I was alone in bed, I rushed from my room down the stairs and into the kitchen, where the odor was so strong it made me nauseous. I felt like a character in one of the horror films Jane liked so much.
Ms. Darby was at the stove, but I saw no carcass on the kitchen floor.
“Where is Boomerang?” I shouted. Ms. Darby whirled in her clunky heels.
“What? Jane?” She was chewing on something.
“Cannibal,” I shouted, pointing at the crackling frying pan. “Brass Door. Forty-four. Casa. Abercrombie and Fitch. Jabba the Hutt. Chairman Mao!” I could not imagine life without Jane.
“It’s bacon,” she said. She made a sweeping motion toward the stovetop. “Take a look.”
I approached, wary of some mischief. In the pan, half a dozen slices were shuddering and squealing. It did look like the cooked bacon I had seen in films.
“That’s cute,” she said. “Thinking I was eating people.” She picked up a slice with a pair of tongs and waved it in front of me. “Sure you don’t want any? Maybe its savory goodness will help get rid of some of your professors’ kid ennui.” The slice looked like a scorched lizard. She continued. “Did you know the word ‘buccaneer’ has the same derivation as the word ‘barbecue’?”
I was not about to admit I did not, so I told her you are what you eat then sat down at the kitchen table while she hovered over the pan like some sort of slutty Caucasoid witch doctor.
Although I had never read the Bible, I had heard its Apocrypha contained a story of seven Jewish brothers who were brought before their nation’s Hellenistic overlord, offered pork, and threatened with death if they would not eat. While their mother watched, each son from the oldest to the youngest refused and was tortured to death, some maimed then ironically fried alive on an enormous griddle. At that moment, staring at the flesh of the swine, their defiance gained a new nobility in my eyes.
Jane walked in, cradling Whitehead and wrinkling her nose. “Roses are red, violets are blue, meat equals murder, and you’re a whore, too.” At once, she took in the whole tableau of sitter, frying pan, tongs, bacon, disgusted brother, and in one motion dropped Whitehead, grabbed the broom leaning against the kitchen table, and cracked Ms. Darby across the knees, toppling her. “A parable,” Jane lectured down at her. “A farmer owned a farm. He feared a drought. He prayed for rain. No rain came. The farmer died. The animals ate his corpse, and then each other. And then they died. Then the rains came, and the ivy grew thick.”
Since her skirt was as tight as the cellophane wrap on a ham, Ms. Darby couldn’t get up. “Give me a hand,” she said. We ignored her. While she struggled, Jane threw the bacon away and I poured us a couple of bowls of oat bran. We sat at the table. Jane’s bare feet dangled a few inches above the hardwood. As Jane was explaining that a sonic boom occurs every time a bullet is shot from a gun, Ms. Darby scooted backward to the countertop, grabbed it, and pulled herself to a standing position. Her knees looked like a pair of blood oranges. She shook her head. “You kids are bad,” she said. “Someday that’s going to come back to bite you.”
“It’s because gunpowder’s chief reagent is sodium nitrate. The vastness of its boom-boom. The cannonade.”
“Blunder,” she said. “Torn asunder. Plunder. The twilight of the gods.”
Later that afternoon, as I was giving Jane a piggy-back ride to the community garden, she asked me when I would have to start going to real school.
“The Middle Passage would be a better way to nomerate it.” She tugged at my earlobe absent-mindedly. Homeschool is the new old school. It’s the new New School.”
I explained that although Muriel and Stewart were immensely well read, there were some disciplines about which they knew relatively little.
“The brain is overrated,” said Jane, tickling my nose with one of her pigtails. “What of the viscera? The loins?”
“Education is the leading of human souls to what is best, and making what is best out of them.”
“Schools are prisons,” she said. “It’s nothing but disinformation, meatloaf, and the Socratic method.” Since I couldn’t tell her that it was important to have friends with whom I didn’t share genetic material, I simply nodded.
“Alfred will issmay you, dismay you,” she said, resting her forehead on the base of my neck. Before I could respond, I saw Billy Brinkley up ahead on the sidewalk. He had been limping for six months, ever since he and Jane were playing conquistadors and Incas – in which the conquistadors were the villains, of course – when during a break he told Jane his cat Buttons was prettier than Whitehead, and Jane picked up a pruning knife and stabbed him in the thigh. While I called 911 to tell them how our friend had tripped and fallen on a knife that been left blade-up in the ground, Jane grabbed Billy by both ears and shouted over his screams that if he ever told his parents what happened, she’d sneak into their bedroom late at night and scalp them.
As soon as Billy recognized us, he hung his head and crossed over to the other side of the street, his left leg dragging behind like a dog’s tail. Billy was a good kid.
“Death, death, death,” Jane whispered into my ear.
“They’re like animals,” Ms. Darby said into the portable early that evening. “Animals who use big words.” She was talking to Bolek, occasionally pausing to swill Chianti directly from the belly-shaped bottle. From what I could gather, the cellist in Bolek’s post-anarchist post-punk band had been arrested for robbing a Whole Foods. I wanted to tell her that “Animals who use big words” was in fact a good shorthand definition for what a human being was, but I knew the irony would be lost on her.
At the community garden Jane had suggested pouring organic maple syrup into the oil tank of Ms. Darby’s Suburban, but I reminded her of our promise to Muriel and Stewart not to instigate. Sighing, clipping a sprig of rosemary, she agreed. Jane was now screening The Godfather trilogy, a film I valued as an objet d’art, but one Jane seemed to appreciate more as a how-to manual. She was now watching the scene where Fredo is shot on Lake Tahoe. In the dining room I now was trying to decide if our tablecloth was vermillion or cerise. Ms. Darby was wondering out loud if Jane and I hadn’t actually been adopted, our birth mother leaving us on the doorstep after twice carrying Satan’s offspring to term.
Deciding the tablecloth was vermillion, I entered the living room and was about to ask Jane what it was that made blood turn red when exposed to air, but I stopped in the doorway to watch her watch Fredo realize he’s about to die. Her expression was one of awe.
“Only an immediate awareness of our finitiveness grants self-knowledge,” she declared, pausing the DVD to stare into his terrified black eyes. “All abstractions are lies. The only truth is in the punch and slap.”
“Bullet time is the only real time,” I replied. “We falsely spatialize time.”
“We falsely timize space.”
“Everything went downhill when they stopped letting parents spank their kids,” Ms. Darby slurred into the phone. “The beginning of the end … What? … Yeah, yeah, the brats’ll be in bed by then. I could use a drive and some smokes anyway,” she said. “Speaking of which … yeah, hugs and kisses.”
It was nearing eight and I was hungry. While searching the pantry unsuccessfully for the maple syrup, Ms. Darby asked, “You have any friends who aren’t spoiled professors’ kids?” When I found the bottle, it was empty. I turned toward her, cut, trying to find a way to explain that I had Muriel and Stewart and Jane and the cats, that you don’t need many friends if the friends you have are good. But what I said was, “You have any friends who aren’t on welfare?” and then bustled past her to put the bottle in the recycling. She stomped upstairs to the guest bedroom, while Jane leaned back into the sofa. “Oopsie boopsie,” she said as the bullet rang out in surround sound. “Fredo Corleone sat in a boat. Fredo Corleone got shot in the throat. The visual is nondiscursive.”
Jane grinned, stroking North’s tail. “Oopsie boopsie. Sacrilege Moribund Omnibus Kraken Ipswich Neverneverland Gimlet Kraken Ipswich Louche –” Then shouting from upstairs, and a minute later Ms. Darby was looming over us, holding open her purse. Inside were three packages of cigarettes that had been ripped open and swamped in syrup. “Upstairs,” she said. “Bedtime. Now.” Her face was definitely cerise.
In my room I read Ruskin but kept looking up from the tome to stare out my windows. A storm was fermenting in the west, an armada of black galleon clouds tinted green and sailing toward us. No doubt it would be a classic Midwestern bruiser, stripping the warm-tone leaves from their branches and spitting them into gutters, sousing houses with cold rain, turning manicured lawns to mud. I remembered Waterloo, Napoleon and his cavalry, his cannon, mired in the thick Polish earth. The lesson to be learned was the prime importance of mobility, adaptability. From her room Jane hooted and laughed: storms seemed to course through her blood and whenever she knew one was coming, it riled her like a wolf under a harvest moon. I wondered if Muriel and Stewart had been in any more brawls with the neo-Thomists. I wondered if Ms. Darby was Catholic.
While the windows drooled rain, I tried to stay awake until Ms. Darby left so that we could lock her out again, and this time call the police when she came back and tell them she had left us pornographic voicemails and was trying to break in. But I nodded off, momentarily snapping awake to one or the other of the tabbies caterwauling at the storm. I was roused for good by Jane whimpering in the next room, then moments heard later the whine of the hall’s floorboards under Ms. Darby’s weight. A door opened, socked feet shuffled, and after a lengthy pause, Mrs. Darby laughed, “Oh, that is great, that is just too much,” before tromping back to her room.
When I opened Jane’s door, a salty tang met my nostrils. By her bed Jane was standing still as a Beefeater, her eyes cold and black and clear as the cosmos, and in their rage, I understood. The groin of her white sweatpants was grey. Jane often had nightmares, but I think she’d hoped her bedwetting days were done. Her narrow chest heaved under her thermal nightshirt as gusts keened through the trees whose branches scratched our roof.
“Fear death by water,” I said.
Jane pointed her thumbs at herself: “Judge, jury, executioner.”
Some children exaggerate their intentions. Jane was not one of them.
There is a complex and often paradoxical calculus to the relationship between the variables of love and death, and I knew that I ought to step outside of myself, outside the scene of thin siblings in a dark room, above even the cruel glee of the night’s storm, and examine things as though I were not there, as though Jane was not my sister, as though Ms. Darby was not awful. But I did not. It was not that the Aristotelian impartiality of this judgment was impaired by a sudden bolt of rage. Instead, the perfect black void in the corner of the room above Jane’s bed caught me: due to the trees and high winds, Jane’s room was a tarantella of shadows, except for that deepest corner, and I started thinking of the central panel of Bosch’s triptych portraying the temptations of St. Anthony. The painting is a riot of burning cities and scurrying monsters, and at the center demons and witches perform a Black Mass on the ruins of castle, and behind the scene in a partially destroyed turret, the crucified Christ hangs on a wall, surrounded by a darkness so total it seems liquid, so placid it seems frozen. Without it, the rest of the painting is sound and fury. It is the stillness that makes the storm.
I lowered my eyes to Jane.
“Taste is the only morality,” said, leading the way down the stairs. “Tell me what you hate and I’ll tell you what you are.”
“Every drop of human blood contains one hundred thousand platelets,” said Jane. “I want every platelet in every drop of that brass door’s body to scream and screech and skein and skin and scruggle with my hurting.”
“Is that true, about the platelets?”
“They look like donuts.”
“Red velvet cake donuts.”
“The devil’s liferaft,” she said, grabbing a towel from her bathroom.
“Okey-dokey,” I said, turning my back to give her privacy. “We’ll have to incapacitate her first.”
“The work of the abattoir requires the tools of the abattoir,” she said, emerging towel-less, but with a lumpy bulge in the groin of her sweatpants.
Downstairs I pulled the frying pan from the stovetop, waggling at her for inspection The pig fat had hardened and now looked like a sheet of ice.
“Okay. We’ll need an Alexander.”
“An Abandon All?”
“Verity. Plus a Castro.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Slow today,” she said, tapping her nose. “A girlie.”
“A knack jaw,” she added.
“Which will neccessify a strop moth.”
“And maybe just a straight strop,” she grinned.
Ten minutes later Jane was outside the guest room. She knocked. At end of the hall, buried in shadow, I gripped the handle of the frying pan. The smell almost made me sick. The door opened. Ms. Darby asked what she wanted. “There’s a monster in my room,” said Jane, pointing to the other end of the hall. “It’s dressed in papal robes. It’s making ex cathedra pronunciations. Waving a monstrance at me. Trying to frighten me into conversion. Call the ACLU!”
“What?” Silently, I charged. Ex cathedra was our signal. After whirling the pan over my head like bola, I hit Ms. Darby on the back of the skull, and Jane barely dodged before she crumpled to the floor. My sister and I each grabbed a foot and pulled her back into the guest room.
“Thank the dryads we have hardwood,” said Jane. The back of Ms. Darby’s head left a smear of blood along the floor like a minimalist Basquiat rip-off. It seemed appropriate for someone as trashy as Ms. Darby. After laying the drop cloth over the quilt, Jane and I tried several strategies for hoisting Ms. Darby onto the bed. But she was too heavy for us.
“Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best 20/20 hindsight,” Jane said, flicking her jaw absent-mindedly with her forefinger. Ms. Darby’s slack expression was not much different than the one she wore while drunk, except some of her hair was now stained a deep golden brown.
“How now brown cow,” I said, grabbing Ms. Darby’s thick heels and setting them on the edge of the bed. “Tactics is three quarters positioning.” After seizing her by the ankles, we dug our feet into the drop cloth, leaned back, and strained. Gradually she slid up the bed. We spun her so her head lay on the pillow then, expert campers, we made quick work of the square knots, tying her hands and feet to the bed’s four posts. As we finished, Ms. Darby began wiggling her fingers and moaning. Jane knocked her out again with the bedside phone. Ms. Darby vomited a little on herself.
I was about to mention we should cut off her sleeves when I realized we’d already tied her hands. Jane saw the dilemma, but then pointed to her temple, rummaged through the nightstand, and found a pair of sewing shears. I nodded. She cut the pink silk sleeves from the body of the garment then used the intersection of the blades and sliced from shoulder to wrist in one clean cut, first on the left arm, then on the right. Then the doorbell rang. Jane and I shared a nod, and I raced to the front door and opened it. There was Bolek, his soaked mohawk fallen and flopping to the left like half of a very intense comb-over. He was much shorter without the mohawk.
“Where’s Darby?” he asked.
I tried to imagine what Jane would say. Direct lying seemed cowardly. “Studies show that half of sitters never return once they leave.” I stared up at his mouth and tapped my teeth.
“It is a retainer,” he said. “She had promised to drive me to the place of my employ,” he said. “Ven she didn’t show up, I had to walk for I did not have the cash for the cab.” He wiped the rain out of his shaggy eyebrows. “My lateness was beyond and hour and I was fired.” The wind roared into the house from behind him. I shivered. Muriel always joked that I didn’t have much insulation.
“Sorry,” I said, understanding that cycles of poverty were perpetuated by happenstance events like a friend failing to pick someone up for work.
“Why are you holding a hacksaw?” he asked.
“Carpentry,” I said. “If you can cut a board, you can build an empire.” I wanted to apologize for what we’d said to him earlier, but I didn’t know the words.
In the porch light, I could see his ribs under the second skin of his T-shirt. As he stuck his pinkie through a hole in his earlobe that was held open by a steel ring, I wondered what post-anarchist post-punk music might sound like. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
“We have almond butter,” I said. “Let us sup. You will tell me of your homeland, and I will teach you to read my language. We will be the subject of a Young Adult novel.
“I think I should better get back to the apartment.”
“Okay,” I said. “But wait. You’re Lee Marvin. Let me get the stammer and stutter.
“Au naturale,” I said. “Like I like my women.”
“Right,” he said. “Thanks.”
“Your Ms. Darby is an Abercrombie,” I said.
“I believe she is preferring the Old Navy.”
I nodded, wishing him well on life’s journey. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindness.”
Upstairs, I found Jane kneeling over Ms. Darby, fiddling with the woman’s lips. “Whatty what what what?”
“Bolek.” I squeezed the saw’s handle as though shaking my father’s hand.
Jane nodded and began palpating various parts of Ms. Darby’s soft body. “Ouroburos,” she said. “This is the Obicularis Orbis,” she chanted. “Depressor Anguli. Pronator Teres.”
“Jewel-winged fairies,” I said, squeezing the woman’s slack hand. “Obituaries. Orbits.”
“Flexor Carpi Radialis. Flexor Carpi Ulnalis.”
“Levator Labii Superioris,” Jane said, rubbing the woman’s cheeks.
Nearby, lightning struck so bright it blinded us in the dark, as if it were an old-time photographer’s flash photo. After gripping the crook between her neck and clavicle for support, I began sawing. The blood pooled in a ragged line as the blade gnawed through the deepest layers of her epidermis and started into the fat.
Then the doorknob turned. Fear mixed in me with a growing fondness for Bolek – perhaps he had returned to share the almond butter. Perhaps he could help dispose of the body. Perhaps we would be friends. But it was not Bolek. Our parents stood in the hall, looking in. We did not say their names. They did not say ours. Then without warning Ms. Darby sprung awake, frenzied and disoriented, making more noise than I would have thought, considering the gag. Some of the blood splattered on her face, my hands, my face. I dropped the saw. Her eyes had the look of the lobotomized. Jane scurried over the bed, picked up the frying pan, and raised it above her head.
“Evil,” Jane said to my father, nodding at the sitter. He strode to the bed, ignoring Ms. Darby, and picked Jane up.
“My darling,” he said, and kissed her on the forehead. Raising her from the bed, he pulled the frying pan from her hand and tossed it on a pillow. The lump of the towel under Jane’s sweatpants pressed into his suit coat, but he didn’t seem to notice. As they exited, Muriel drifted toward me, paler even than usual. What dripped down her face might have been rain, might have been tears. I took her hand. It was cold. I stepped over the struggling body and off the bed. Blood from my hand and water from hers mingled and fell pink to the floor. Muriel’s face and grip and posture were curving into a question mark, and as we entered the unlit hall, I knew I ought to answer, to explain that this time was different than the other times, that a more terrible enemy called for a more terrible response, but all I could think of was the Bosch painting. So I began telling her of the beautiful witch queen who presided over the black mass, the village fires that turned half the sky to soot, the fleeing fish and fowl, and of the castle’s inky crucifixion room deep within the ruined turret, told her that we must always boomerang back to our source, that the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.