Detainee 717


Chapter 18

When K13 received the frantic call on his cell phone from his ex-wife, Skye, pleading with him to drop whatever he was doing and come to the house to reason with their daughter, he had been skulking where Salah could not see him behind a splay of ruptured wall that asserted the haunted and decomposed quality possessed by the solitary scarecrow crucified in a hemorrhaged immensity of fields. The fact of his hiding compelled him to briefly consider the psychological dynamic that fueled the timeless and, in his experience, often squalid interplay between concealment and revelation. The thought might have been interesting in another context, but not now. From his vantage of slightly shameful seclusion he was able to watch Lamborghini deploy her dance in rhythms of restrained mockery, barbed seduction. She moved. How? A slim shell of rage expelled from a projectile-firing tube. Moving implacably, issuing cold caustic brilliance, polishing the spaces she passed through. On the very air itself the woman left a phosphorescent signature of implicit violence everywhere she had been.

The two of them had not discussed exactly what she would do or how she would assist K13 with his interrogation of the detainee; they agreed only that she would “be creative and improvise.” He was a bit surprised by the cheesy blatancy of her method of forcing Salah to confront the powerlessness and humiliation of his predicament. A predicament that dismantled Salah’s identity and re-defined him as a mere victim of the arbitrary whims of another human being. He believed that the use of her sexuality would have been completely hackneyed and predictable were it not for the translucent veil of subtle irony she hung over her performance, muting even the dramatic gestural fanfare of baring her breasts. It was the first time he had seen them outside the gentle but insistent goading of his imagination, with its matter-of-fact ability to render any waist-up garment she wore transparent. Her breasts were well-formed and symmetrical as the lobes of an hourglass; because they were not voluptuously weighted, when she moved, they did not – not significantly. The irony suffusing her every move could no longer surprise him, because it informed all her actions, large or small, and he was accustomed to it. Though this irony enabled her to distance herself from her work, it betrayed a slightly stale, dusted-off postmodern quality. He sensed she could no longer distinguish between what was manufactured in her responses and what was authentic. And yet, ultimately – so what? He related to her therapeutic flight into irony and approved of it. But Lamborghini’s improvisational instinct had been on track, after all – the clichéd sexuality was effective, if Salah’s expression, turbulent as boiling water, was any indication. Waves of emotion passed through the detainee’s face, cresting with a look of defeat and utter demoralization. He was torn between watching Salah’s reaction and allowing himself to linger in aesthetic appreciation of Lamborghini’s semi-nudity when his cell phone trilled triplets of stark and unmusical tones: Skye, alluding to some domestic emergency involving their daughter, emphasizing the importance of making himself available to the girl. She splashed the accusation for once into his ear as an acid afterthought. Then she hung up before he could say no. When he hit speed dial to call her back, the line was busy.

K13 stands at the door of the home he had once lived in with Skye and his daughter in this unassuming but solidly upper middle class neighborhood that sprawls at the threshold of a deep descent into suburbia. The very word suburbia clunks with obsolescence and pushes him to search for an alternative, but he can think of no replacement for it. He feels foolish ringing the bell, almost criminal. As though, having freely abandoned a treasure whose value he had underestimated, he has no right now to openly return to it.

After a moment his ex-wife throws the door open with a hectic over-sized impatience. She looks at him with electric-green eyes that are decisive in their refusal to reflect her thoughts. Those eyes had been a major factor, years ago. In their reflection he had watched himself swim into a hot green chemical envelopment. The word helplessly would not have been altogether inaccurate. The eyes scalded with the promise of actinic sex.

She had been a throw-back to an era she was too young to have lived through first-hand when K13 first met her. She adorned herself with beads and large asymmetrical chunks of jewelry in the abandoned shapes of vestigial organs. She wore suede vests with florid spangles and fringe, calf-high vinyl boots with the slithering sheen of rain-wet asphalt, denim bell bottoms emblazoned with tattered stars and stripes in red, white and blue. She paraded in psychedelic headbands and T-shirts tie-dyed in rubbery cartoon colors. Her parents had been members of the hippie subculture and as a child Skye had been strongly influenced by the pugnaciously oppositional style of that era’s clothing. She would have registered that it was a mode of self-presentation relying on heavy doses of counter-culture spaciness and nonlinearity. By the time she became a youngadult , what she remembered only partially she would be able to fully retrieve by examining photos of her parents and watching movies depicting the fashions of the 60’s and 70’s. K13 found the open-endedness and nonlinearity in her manner of speaking quaint and endearing. Their marriage was in large measure the result of his direct and powerful experience of her “spaciness.” That quality seemed to be exactly what he needed, he with his fact-smothered, earth-bound tendencies anchoring him so firmly to the structure of his own perspectives that the berry-fresh juice of spontanaeity was virtually drained from his life.

A year after they were married they left Madison, where they had both graduated from the university with bachelor degrees, K13’s in political science, Skye’s in anthropology. At the time the prevailing propaganda had been that these degrees would ensure a competitive advantage in the workplace. In actuality they would prove to be inutile pieces of parchment allowing them only to coast along on dreary salaries rather than to accelerate into the future. Salaries that were a gray and thin spew of exhaust creeping from the young shiny vehicle of their ambition. Two years later they made their way from Wisconsin in a west-reaching traverse to settle in a state just as desperately cold, just as Midwestern and dispiriting – their current home.

Skye decided to obtain a teaching crendential; it was either that, or work a retail job at Macy’s in women’s shoes. After a flurry of jobs that embittered him, K13 was considering returning to school to acquire a Master’-level urban planning education on the advice of a friend who worked as a regional planner and insisted that K13 could benefit from his “solid connections” and enjoy gainful employment – if not build a real career– in some aspect of the field. On the threshold of this transition K13, in a way that seemed to him at the time to be completely radom and serendipitous, met the Diplomat and was recruited by him. He would quickly learn that nothing the Diplomat did was random or happened as a result of serendipity, even if what he did made little or no sense and seemed completely arbitrary. From that point on, as far as Skye knew, K13 was some kind of “operations consultant” awarded bids by any number of state and federal entities, contractually bound to uphold Draconian confidentiality provisions as an ironclad condition of his employment, under penalty of forfeiture of fees and, depending on the agency, possible punitive consequences, “up to and including” incarceration. K13 could no longer remember other details he invented. He had not needed to invent many, since Skye was lulled into a stupified silence by the amount of money that began to flow into their bank account through some improbable open faucet of ideal and unexpected circumstances. His consultation fees. Later his daughter would be the one who over time would barrage him with increasingly skeptical requests for explanations about his work that K13 at some point stopped trying to provide. I’m not asking for details, daddy, just really general stuff – like what do you have to do in your job. It had become clear to him that the more aggressively he strove to supply the kinds of details that would make even the most genral of descriptions convincing to Namaste, the less convincing he became. He was not unaware of the overall irony of his predicament with his daughter – that success in his work for the Diplomat depended in large measure on his superior skill at effortlessly assembling a collage of well-constructed lies.

Even before they left Madison, Skye cut her lupine tangle of long hair, hair that darkened the slopes of her shoulders, swarmed there as though preparing to bay in a frenzy at the moon. After the move she gradually adopted a conservative style of dress, and her speech patterns slowly solidified and finally echoed the inflections of the general population. She was, K13 regretfully observed, absorbed into the status quo. But the errant nonlinear embellishments never quite disappeared.

“Come in,” she says, standing aside. “Talk to your daughter. The fruit of your loins. She’s another one that’s secretive, private, so I just keep getting the Reader’s Digest version when I ask her what the hell happened. If you can’t tell your own mother when you think your life is falling apart, then as the kids are so fond of saying, WTF, exclamation point. This whole thing actually happened yesterday. Today she should have gone to school, or at least she could have gone to the parade. They let the kids off after a few hours this morning to attend the thing. But no, she’s bunkered up in her room. ”

“And the issue is?”

“If I told you the little I know, there’d be no shock value when you opened her door. Go ask her yourself. All I know is that she was surrounded in the mall yesterday.”

“You said surrounded.”

“Surrounded, yes, by some kids, assaulted, obviously I don’t mean sexually if it was her hair that was under assault, then an older girl gave her a ride home.”

He’s tempted to probe for details, beginning with Skye’s statement that it was her hair that was under assault, but restricts himself to a question that stands the greatest likelihood of inviting the least complicated response. “A ride home from where?

“The Oakview mall. What about the girl?”

“Exactly what are you asking me?”

She cries out now in great frustration. “I should think you would want to know about the Oakview girl!”

His hands parenthesize space, pulse there with calm emphasis. “I do.”

“Well, what do I know? Ask Namaste.”

K13 follows Skye through the living room. This room is little more than a repository for junk. Her hoarding instinct, manageable in the early stages of their marriage, has now become rampant, a full-blown display of pathological impulses. He knocks on his daughter’s bedroom door. “Can I come in? Namaste?” Skye walks back into the symptom-laden warehouse of the living room. He decides to clear his throat. “Nam. I’m coming in.” With his index finger he taps the door, already slightly ajar, and it parachutes bedroom vista in a melodrama of slow supernatural swing.

Her bedroom is neatly Spartan, a pointed contrast to the other disorderly rooms in the house. She sits quietly on the tautly made bed, legs twisted in a full lotus pretzel, staring at the only poster in her room: J. Krishnamurti in profiled contemplation, fist lifted to lips, the photo almost murky, almost shadow-haunted.

Her head has been completely shaved. The shaved head is the apparent link to Skye’s statement about assaulted hair.

As she waits for his reaction her spoon-shaped eyes serve K13 generous helpings of a clear-sighted gaze that provides a kind of crystalline nourishment, a gaze that feeds its broth of borderlined innocence to his sipping cells, with their mitochorndria parched and chapped as snowstormed lips, cells needing something like nutrition, a reminder that his sight had once been unpolluted for his own briefly borderlined season of teenaged innocence years ago. A slow blink breaks through the mask of stasis on her face, the only sign of life amid the desert-night compression of stillness dominating her features. Her single blink manages to sum up the panoramic width of his unvoiced response to the surprise of her delicately rounded skull; it seems to be so succinct a translation of his own inconclusive thoughts and emotions that the simple reflexive gesture reaches into eloquence. He suspects that she has breached his mind and is reading it. His daughter calmly sips a cup of tea. Steam drifts up from it like a woman vaguely seen from afar rising slowly from a hot bath, wrapping herself in a robe.

K13 pulls the chair from the Ikea desk and sits facing her. “You know I have to ask.”

“You could just accept it.”

“The way you’ve accepted it.”

“You have scorn for acceptance.”

“You see me as a spiritual reprobate. You surround me with your feeling of disapproval. You’re judging me, Namaste.” Delivered not as a question, not as an accusation, but simply as an observation, his remarks seem to both shame and shock her. “Budhism advises withholding judgement to avoid suffering.”

“You’re right,” she answers immediately, dropping her head. “I wasn’t thinking.”

“I’m only trying to say that acceptance plays a part in the scheme of things. There’s a time for it. A place. But I don’t see this as being one of them.”

“It’s nothing. Some kids did it for a joke. They did a bad job so I took what was left off.”

“They were just up to a little innocent mischief.”

“Something like that.”

“Harmless shenanigans.”

Her hand lightly passes over her skull in a hovering skim. He might be witnessing the birth of a gesture that will become habitual and compulsive, even after the hair grows back. She explains as casually as possible, “It was a let’s get random moment.”

“I can’t see you,” he says, “doing the same to someone in a let’s get random moment.” The hand again. Observing what might possibly be the genesis of neurotic idée fixe is overshadowing his pity for his daughter, it has a clinical allure for him, as though he’s been presented with the rare opportuntity to witness a pathogen festering on a slide. With an expertise he realizes he should find troubling he seamlessly retrieves his meandering concern for Namaste. This is what the future is for – identifying gaps, making needed adjustments. He will look more closely at this moment of inappropriate detachment tonight when he’s in bed and his eyes claw through the ceiling’s cracks in search of loose particles of sleep, the defiant rigidity of his body warring with the softness of the mattress. There are no angles, ridges or crannies in her skull. Her femininity seems enhanced rather than diminished by baldness. He imagines rising from the chair, walking over to the bed, bending to embrace this deep-thinking sylph, this girl burdened with his motley, heterogeneous blood. The urge to ask himself when she became so somber and earnest, round-shouldered with the paradoxical weight of a sensitivity delicate as a wind-blown whisper – this urge is muffled by an image of Namaste in pink flannel pajamas at the age of five, on her knees at bedtime intoning her prayers, eyes deeply closed with precocious intensity, the rosary given to her by her old-world Italian grandmother clutched to her chest. This image clarifies K13’s question and allows him to understand that what he was really asking was not when but rather how. Then a finer degree of clarification clicks into place, refining the question further and finally: not how so much as why. The need to embrace some ritual that drawfed and absorbed the isolation that shrouded the individual must have been urgently felt, her unnameable desire to add its fragile tracery to some larger cosmic tapestry or design must have been congental and keen. Other than this mysterious and fundamental longing, she herself probably could not have explained why. To be so propelled, K13 glimpses, would be exhausting, would fail to bring fulfillment. Suddenly he sees himself kissing her skull reverentially, papally, broadly imparting dispassionate blessings. He walks over to Namaste’s taut trampoline of a bed. And indeed, she rises. He is a bit surprised – though not unpleasantly – to see his own arms lifting and opening, summoning her into closeness and connection, Namaste sifting herself through the wariness that is the screen she lives behind, a screen still porous enough to allow this moment but hardening rapidly into cynicism with each passing year. With each passing day.

She says, “I’m all right,” and because her face is lightly nestled in his chest, her voice seems to quietly withdraw toward the back of her throat with the humility of a novitiate backing up with head bowed to depart from the office of her abbess.

“I know you are. But you’ll have to tell me how all this happened.”

She begins to cry. “This is the second time I’ve done this in two days.”

He was a teenager once, coiling his way blindly through the jagged nuances of adolescence. Writhing vulnerabilies, failed attempts to win validation, the graceless misconstruals of incipient sexuality. Then slowly comes a darkness, a slyly tiptoeing awareness of death emerging cagily from the reluctant realization that youth, with its perjured intimations of an eternal present where the body never succumbs, is a paradise that is a flawed, terrained only on the surface of things, though the impression it makes is one of volcanic depth: he watches his sister wither away from leukemia. He remembers thinking, so if that’s what’s really waiting, this means nothing. This: being young, living in a world without weight, beautifully buoyed by a world that functions as the boundless extension of your consciousness. This: days and nights not yet poisoned by betrayal, the betrayal of learning that nothing is as it seems. Then the more ultimately damaging betrayal, later, that those things which are precisely what they seem to be, shouldn’t be, and never should have been.

Namaste is sitting in the middle of her bed again with its mummy-snug white sheet, no bedspread or blanket, legs bowtied in full lotus. As she tells him her story, K13 is aware that she is standing at a distance from the experience sufficient to enable her to sketch details without regurgitating the original emotions of fear, panic, terror. It is the distance created when viewing a scene through the wrong end of the telescope – that is to say, illusory. The distance will collapse when he is gone and she resumes thinking about what happened on her own. He knows that she is now, to some extent, flushed with the mild euphoria of dissociation. He has seen this before: the skidding verbal cadences suggesting breathless intoxication, the glowing ember in the eyes attesting to some benign and even beneficial feverishness, the mild sense of awe at having survived against odds – something like the redemption-perfumed rush experienced by the pathological gambler who manages to leave the casino without having lost the savings it has taken the family decades to accumulate. Talking fast, in a singsong sweetened by a running downhill sense of speed, she casually recites the names of her tormenters, Hailey, Paige, Pitch, Creek, then tumbles on toward the climax of the tale, streaking through the gruesome minutia, the ghoulish clicking of the scissors like teeth scraping the blackboard of her eardrum, the infernal hell-colored exit sign, the flat lifeless echoes heaving through the corridor’s dimness like bats toiling in erratic adjacencies of flight, the improbable high drama of a last-second rescue, or – and she thinks a moment before using the phrase – the deus ex machina moment, the appearance of the wrathful goddess, sudden as a blessing, the subtly beautiful girl, Shiva the Destroyer.

“Lord Shiva is depicted as a young man.”

“How did you know that, daddy?”

“I read in high school. I read in college. I still read.”

“Shiva had male and female reproductive organs. So I choose to say she instead of he.”

He realizes this must be Skye’s Oakview girl, then. “What was Shiva’s real name?”

Her eyes find a position slightly above K13’s head and thoughtfully shift to the left. “It’s weird I don’t remember it. Maybe because it’s so easy. It’s just one syllable. Like … Sage or Tak or something. I’ve got her number around here somewhere.”

“Difficult to find,” he says, glancing around at the nearly empty room, “in all this mess.”

“I get the feeling you and mom would be more comfortable if my room was in chaos.”

“Maybe your mother. For me, chaos has become livable, doable. It’s become an acquired taste.”

She goes on to tell him about the appearance of the mall cop, how she documented the incident in an official report. Namaste had given him the names of the kids who had held her down and cut her hair, but diminished the malevolence of the event and indicated that she had no intention of pressing changes with the police. After listening to Namate’s story he’s satisfied that he knows enough about what has happened to offer her all the proper responses, the soothing nonprescriptive advice that is more active listening than anything else, the murmured reassurances that such experiences anneal and temper the very structure of the personality, with the result that the structure emerges from exposure to even the most fiery traumas greatly strengthened. If she were a detainee he would know exactly what to say at this point to gain her full trust, and this trust would enable her to turn the corner and put an end to her suffering. But she is not his detainee.

“I’m guessing you already know,” she says, “that in the Buddhist tradition, shaving the head can symbolize cutting off attachment. Among other things.”

He knows what is coming.

“ I was thinking I might not grow my hair back for a while. I’m not a monastic or anything, but still … ” “Already mentioned this to your mother?”

One of his daughter’s admirable tendencies flashes into action: an ability to employ logic that is unadorned and direct and advances a simplicity so obvious it almost renders the solution to a problem invisible, a solution readily overlooked in favor of unnecessarily creating complexities and vetting them. She’s always been able to sidestep the punishing distortions of guilt, anxiety, catastrophic thinking. If asked, K13 would propose that people tend not to pursue simple answers and are convinced that solutions, to be effective, must be intricately engineered. No one has asked, or is likely to ask.

And so instead of panicking, worrying about her mother’s response, Namaste jumps directly to the simplest of facts. “She won’t like it but what can she do?”

“We panic, we worry needlessly about what others will do,” he extends her logic, “we do what we want anyway. Others can’t prevent this.”

“I guess that’s what I’m saying. She can only complain.”

“But a complaint that’s supported by an almost infinite number of subsidiary complaints.”

The ball of the negligent shrug Namaste tosses into her shoulders might be a crumpled Kleenex that is flicked at a wastebasket but misses. “I have no control over how she feels or what she says.” Her fingertips ghost-dance lightly over the haunted surface of her skull. “What do you think, daddy? Should I let it grow back?”

“Eventually.” She’s more fragile without the hair that always reminded him of a child’s fingerpainting in thick black acrylic, all wild skid marks and runnelled layers and scrolling tendrils, the chaotic gloss and spill, the unruly Byzantine depths, sometimes the treble clef of an errant lock tumbled in an eye, sometimes strands that whorled away in whispers and returned in shouts, a rippling orchard of tresses, sometimes a labyrinth the wind wandered lost through, unable to locate beginning, middle or end. In this she reminded him strongly of the much younger undomesticated Skye, though the greater density and swirl of Namaste’s mane would derive from his bloodline’s bolder machinations. Her hair provided protection, ballast and augmentation, and without it she looks defenseless as some small sea creature that has lost its shell. He will adjust to this, if necessary. He can adjust to anything, if necessary, and has been told that this predisposition contributed in large measure to the perception of his value as an asset. “I’ll miss that beautiful hair of yours. But if this is something you need to do, then this may be the time and place for me to practice acceptance.”

Only four steps and his hand is on the doorknob, and with one foot in the hallway he hears her voice tapping him on his right shoulder, I’m glad I got a chance to hear you say what you said, and the only reason he’s able to answer her is that he’s already on the other side of the door and moving away, always moving away, and he knows she will only hear his severed mumble, I love you, if she hears anything at all.

Next Chapter

Chapter 19

Article By: dglenn

Arts | Fiction | Novels

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