Table of Contents

An Audience of Clouds

  • Dead Woman On The Table

He is astonished by two things: the dead woman prostrate on the kitchen table before him, and the fact that he paid an admission fee to see her, along with the two other men sitting next to him on folding chairs with their hands resting primly in their laps.

Flat on her back, lying on the kitchen table, her body clad in clinically white brassier and panties chosen, perhaps, to discourage prurience, she is fossil-like, something excavated from the deepest stratum of silence, stillness. She seems as though unearthed, after centuries of mineral compression, from far beneath rich and prolific veins of gold and silver, massive deposits of unhewn diamonds striating tons of stone, in a land fertile with organic treasures. Africa. The DNA of that continent is stamped on certain features of her face, as it is on his, though the tint of amber that results from dark honey swirled in warm milk shades her skin and suggests ambiguous racial lineage, as his own complexion, too, might suggest to an observer dilution by myriad ethnic tributaries flowing through the bloodline. She appears to have been exhumed from some bedrock of pure inertia – and that, too, he feels is something he shares with her.

  • Why He Is Here, #1

He made his way fearfully to this kitchen, this house, having heard of it a few evenings ago while drinking at the neighborhood bar. Sitting at the bar he overheard the conversation of four strangers huddled in a booth. Their discussion seemed to concern another man who was charging a fee for some macabre service he was providing. A service one of the strangers referred to, somberly, as an abomination. Then they all gathered keys and packs of cigarettes from the table and left. But the one who had uttered that word so resonant with biblical overtones broke away from the departing group and minced his way on alcohol-slurred feet to the men’s room. He followed the stranger, who positioned himself at a urinal and stared absently at the scrawl of graffiti on the wall before him. Glancing over at the stranger, he feigned the need to refresh himself at the sink, tossing a handful of tap water on his face: a transparent plate of water shattering against his forehead, falling in tepid pieces between his fingers.

“I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation earlier. About that guy charging a fee for that.”

The stranger answered him without turning his face, his eyebrows arching slightly to accommodate the shifting of his eyes to the sink. “Yeah, I gave the dude three-hundred bucks to see it. Don’t ask me why. I guess I’m sick as he is for doing it.” “You used the word abomination. Pretty strong word.”

“Hey, if the shoe fits.” He dipped his knees slightly as though assuming the stance of a basketball player before the free throw line, straightened with the brisk zipping of his pants.

“I’d like to see it, that business you were talking about,” he said, feeding his tone out casually, staying slack with the line of his voice, waiting for the bait to be taken. “I mean, just for the hell of it.”

He moved aside as the stranger, reaching into his pocket, took his place at the sink and held out a scrap of paper. “Here you go, my man, knock yourself out. I thought it would be a kick, too, but now I’m not so sure.”

He took the paper, skimmed his eyes over a name and the number above an address. “Why is that?”

The man’s shrug implied a self-evident truth. He seemed willing to say only one thing more. “That’s his number. Tell him S sent you.”

“Say again?”

“The letter S - as in search.”

The next day he called the number and spoke to a man with a voice that conveyed the bulk and sweep of a zeppelin, an impression borne out when a man with an ebony complexion that appeared to be stenciled on, in much the same way that the darkness of a skeleton keyhole appears to be pasted on the plate of a doorknob, opened the door of a ramshackle house squatting secretively in its threadbare cloak of dim moonlight, opened the door and filled its frame with his own massive one, reaching out with his great tubular arm to retrieve the three-hundred dollars and the piece of paper with the name, the number, the address.

“Follow me to the kitchen and have a seat with the other two guys. The show starts in a minute.”

And he followed the man through an unfurnished living room where motes of dust like exhausted swimmers floated and drifted in the stagnant wash of moonlight spilling through dingy windows and then into the kitchen. There he sat on the small chair waiting for the “show” to begin, hands clasped primly in his lap, his knees held together conscientiously to avoid contact with the Hispanic man dressed in business attire seated to the left, the white youth to the right, all three staring straight ahead at a cheap folding screen. And then the huge man stepped from behind the screen, lifted it slowly and placed it off to the side by the sink, revealing the woman clad in the modest white brassiere and panties, stretched out and silent on the black-and-red checkered oilcloth spread across the surface of the kitchen table.

  • Why He Is Here, #2

His wife Vera died two years ago. She had been the stone skimming across the lagoon of his days, skipping lightly across the surface of days and nights that could only be described as monotonous before their meeting, causing an uncharacteristic happiness to ripple through his life, a happiness he always suspected would not last long. And it had not lasted long when all was said and done, or if not said, because he spoke so little to anyone at all after her death, then done. And by done he meant her downward plummet through the soft cruel deception of clouds, clouds the substance of which he knew was reputed by poets everywhere to consist of a redeeming buoyancy, a buoyancy that in fact could sustain nothing and was a lie, albeit it a lyrical one. Those very same clouds she had loved and that had sweetly engaged her imagination had opened beneath her in the end, a series of trapdoors imploding wispily as the seat she was strapped in was sucked from the ruptured fuselage of the airplane and somersaulted to earth.

  • Names Changed To Protect Anonymity

He sits on a folding chair, such as may be found at a table set up for a game of poker or blackjack in a disreputable room, in a rundown tenement at the edge of town, with an unadorned low-watt bulb overhead providing a shabby smear of light. The house is in a part of town that has been abandoned to the metastasis of urban decay and sits alone on a cul-de-sac abutting the Golden State freeway.

“To protect your own anonymity,” the massive man says, “you three will be given names. You, in the middle, the last one to arrive, you’ll be X, while the young man to your right will be called A, and the man to your left will be called B. That way everything is covered if … well, everything is covered. Just in case.” He pauses and a smile plays its broad melody across his face. In keeping with everything else about the man, his teeth are exceptionally large, an ivory plentitude in excess of the cavity provided by the height and width of the open mouth, calling to mind the rickety, off-white keys of an ancient player piano. “And I will call myself Mr. Reeves. Everyone seems ready, so the first night of our three-part show will begin now with Calida, the woman on the table.”

  • Calida

X listens intently, allowing the flask of his listening to fill with Mr. Reeves’ liquid words. He would later that night in his apartment compress Mr. Reeves’ narrative into a single journal entry, pages of hurried scrawl he would watch bleed from a leaking Bic pen, harden into scars between thin blue lines on a yellow legal pad:

In many ways Calida’s life began long before she was born, as all lives in a sense do. The voices of the ancestral dead add their echoes to the bloodstream’s murmured soliloquy, divulging words of wisdom in limpid whispers, making certain to point the way out when blind alleys are wandered into and the likelihood of overlooking avenues of exit is high. But it’s possible to hear without listening, perhaps Calida heard without listening, or it might be that the circumstances of her life, the din and shriek of poverty that filled her ears for twenty-two years, had easily overwhelmed those subtle voices. By the age of eleven she was a sponge bloated with the toxic debris of city streets, a young black girl with long pigtails buoyant in the air behind her as she fled the groping hands of men dead in their narcosis. Dead to all but a dry crackling lust, the lust that brittle twigs must have for water, sun, and the sap of the tree they’ve been severed from. Calida ran faster than her pursuers, she ran on legs so like a gazelle’s that in her running she found a wild rhythm. Her mother was unable to work but the two of them had to eat and so Calida devised a plan, calling the local pizzeria thirty minutes before closing time and then failing to show up for the pepperoni pizza she’d ordered. She knew that to the owner the pizza was now useless, unsalvageable, and that when he left he would toss the boxed pizza into the battered green dumpster in the alley behind the store. In supermarkets she took what she needed, never more than that. This Spartan thievery was guided by some obscure need for moral principle and she would return to her mother’s scrap of an apartment with her picayune acquisitions - her mother who was the statistic that Calida suspected she herself was destined to become, if she was not already that – and on the bed that doubled as their dinner table the somber-eyed girl with the pale amber complexion that the brown-skinned children contemptuously referred to as “high yellow” would extract a small package of ground beef from beneath an oversized sweatshirt, a can of Campbell’s Pork N’ Beans from the waistband of her floppy Levi jeans.

At PHS #44 she showed an aptitude for math that was a result of nights she spent tossing and turning in bed, kept awake by the sound of bottles shattering, cars doors slamming, raucous men braying profanities, deathly screams and the occasional hollow firecracker pop of small-caliber gunfire. To flush her mind of the fear inspired by this violent cacophony she discovered a technique that involved identifying the sounds as discrete events, isolating them into categories, then adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing these categories to create subcategories, on and on into the night, until fear and anxiety melted away and assumed the shape of a cathedral-like door that slowly swung open, revealing a peaceful landscape of sleep carved from clouds.

An eight-grade math teacher, Mr. Bonner, a small-boned white man with a bulbous forehead and a chipped front tooth, spent time with Calida after class to encourage her in the study of math. When he spoke of mathematics his voice, usually thin and somewhat vapory, rose on an arc of enthusiasm that formed the contours of an ideal world, a kingdom of perfection, a vast and unconquerable army of numbers stretching on to do battle with infinity, his thinly blue eyes seeming to contract in an inward swoon. One day during the second week of after-school tutoring, Mr. Bonner put his hand on Calida’s knee and she forgot to fight him off with the sharp points of her thin elbows, the battleaxes of her feet, the stilettos of fingernails that she had used to slash her way to freedom when two older boys in her apartment building had cornered her in the hallway one night and coiled themselves around her, intent on rape. She felt the teacher’s small-boned weight and heard his vapory moans and saw the soiled collar of his white shirt while she laid beneath him on the floor, but her head was crowded with numbers that spun like the disks wicked hypnotists use in the Saturday morning cartoons, and her mind was locked on that jeweled realm of mathematical perfection he had described and offered to her as a gift. After that she didn’t return to school, she simply stopped going. What she might have accomplished through her natural facility for mathematics lay far behind now, though she had never looked that far ahead either, never glimpsed the pages of books she might have written containing formulae and theorems and equations that might have brought her respectability or even acclaim, because this was a possibility beyond her imagining.

A few weeks later she felt an unwanted celebration taking place in the recesses of her loins, felt her womb filling with the confetti of festive alien cells. Her hearing somehow flushed itself of larger, more substantial sounds and became active on some subatomic level, where she perceived in the cells’ nuclei the tick tock tick tock of new life that would quickly mark the time into full-blown pregnancy. She knew about babies because her 14-year-old neighbor, Maria, was mother to a 6-month-old boy. Recently a virus of rumors concerning the girl’s second pregnancy, this time aborted, had reached Calida’s ears. The rumor was confirmed as fact for Calida on an overcast morning when Maria called a number from the urine-scented phone booth at the Chevron station on the corner and, acting on Calida’s behalf, spoke with a man, a doctor of some kind, who arranged abortions for teenage girls who couldn’t afford them.

Calida had her abortion and returned to her helter-skelter existence on the streets, the long bloodstained treadmill of ghetto years rolling inexorably beneath her darting feet. Time passed and she was twenty-two. She happened to glance in the window of a Footlocker shoe store as she was walking by and a spasm arrowed through her heart when she saw her old math teacher, Mr. Bonner, working there and waiting on a customer. It seems he had fallen on hard times. She walked up to the register he stood behind and looked fixedly into his watery blue eyes. He immediately flushed, a thin sheen of perspiration breaking out on his bulbous forehead. “You remember me don’t you Mr. Bonner?” It was obvious that he did, but he shook his head slowly, saying “No. Who are you?” “I’m sorry, I had you confused with somebody who did something bad to me when I was too young to stand up for myself.” She left the store. When he locked the door at nine o’ clock and pulled the iron grating closed in front of the store, she swiftly removed a butcher knife she carried for protection from her purse, came forward as he turned, and from behind stabbed him deep in the neck, pulling the knife to the side so that she felt tendons, muscle, elastic veins resisting, then severing. Of course he died two days later and she was arrested and after a speedy trial convicted of first-degree murder and locked behind bars. The court-appointed lawyer, a tall white youth addicted to Dexedrine who each day in court wore the same T-shirt emblazoned with a faded Beatles logo beneath a shapeless brown sports jacket purchased for $5.00 from a thrift shop, squeezed her hand sympathetically when her verdict was rendered. She did no time, or hardly any. Twelve hours to be exact. A matronly guard whose face seemed somehow incarcerated by an iron-colored slick of hair locked into a taut backswept bun discovered Calida lying on her cot in the women’s correctional institution she had been sent to, the flesh of her left wrist a jagged perimeter around a slit puckered as though gathered by a drawstring, the continent of the white sheet divided into crude subcontinents of blood.

  • Mr. Reeve’s Reliability As Narrator

At the point at which X would lift his pen, Mr. Reeves concludes his recitation and his eyes tumble toward X, whose own expression is smooth and flat as the railing of a Las Vegas gaming table against which dice ricochet after they are tossed. The first thing that occurs to X is the questionable reliability of Mr. Reeves as narrator.

Though the details regarding the guard came last in the recitation, she nevertheless now looms first in his mind. So yes, the guard, described in avid detail by Mr. Reeves. These details would not be available to Mr. Reeves unless he had been present, which is hardly likely. Though Mr. Reeves might have known these details if he had actually visited Calida at the prison or glimpsed the guard in the execution of one of her many dour institutional duties. Say then that Mr. Reeves was there, for the sake of argument, for the sake of moving forward. Had Mr. Reeves known the court-appointed attorney too, the cost of the ignoble sports jacket and its humble place of purchase, the lurid details of the amphetamine addiction? And so on, backward to the story’s beginning, with the issue of Mr. Reeves’ unlikely knowledge reaching its apotheosis in the matter of Calida’s ensemble of motivations. In the weft of her emotions, the twill of her thoughts. Yet surely if Mr. Reeves lacked legitimate firsthand knowledge of these intimacies, as it seems he must, and the jumbled facts of Calida’s life had somehow been subject to his secondhand absorption, would he be completely unjustified in reconfiguring the facts so that they might radiate a sort of maximum lucidity in accordance with his intent, though X is unable at this point to say what his intent might be? Maybe through such rearrangement it was possible to elevate the truth to a higher plateau – which is to say, vitiated logic aside, to make the truth more true.

Mr. Reeves has stepped off to assume an unobtrusive position at the far edge of the screen, granting the three men an unobstructed view of the woman on the table.

After hearing Calida’s story, X feels a keen awareness of her youthful beauty. But did this awareness exist from the very beginning, independent of his awareness of her story? While he suspects that the answer may be significant, his attempts to pry open with the crowbar of memory the lid to the vault containing his first impressions of Calida are fruitless. He only knows that he now sees as though for the first time the coarse tendrils of her hair, defiantly thick and lustrous even in death, twisting in black question marks and falling to the tips of shoulders as delicately rounded beneath the slender architecture of their bones as the curve of an elegant wine bottle at the end of its stem. He takes in all of her features at once, the willowy bone structure, the graceful articulation of joints, fingers, toes, the long flower-stem neck, the adulterated African fullness of lips that had seldom parted for laughter but seem even now prepared to receive from the mouth of life itself some rapturous kiss long withheld, the complexion of dark honey swirled in warm milk.

“What kind of … what is this,” the white youth says abruptly. Mildly agitated throughout Mr. Reeves’ narrative – one leg, the right, having bounced up and down continuously in a barely controlled rhythm of nervousness – he now sits as though mummified in stillness, only his lips moving, hands resting on his knees, eyes locked on Calida.

“You’re in the presence of the dead,” Mr. Reeves says in soft caution. “Don’t raise your voice.”

“Who is this woman? Where did you get her?” asks the Hispanic man in the business attire.

X watches Mr. Reeves standing in the space between the folding screen and the doorway to the kitchen, sees him leaning against the doorjamb, but without nonchalance or jauntiness, his hands buried in his pockets. His black slacks are drawn tightly across the broad expanse of his columnar thighs, his sockless feet shod in enormous black tasseled loafers, his gigantic torso a straining threat to the gray Haines T-shirt he wears. Ashen moonlight seeps through the window over the metal kitchen sink.

“If you fear that there was foul play,” Mr. Reeves says flatly, “that I killed her and brought her here, I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth. Even so, what do you care?” He looks at the group almost scornfully, as though the money paid to him tells him all he needs to know about the three. “Maybe my brother is a mortician, and I got the body from there. Maybe I paid good money for this body from some student who had access to cadavers at the university. What do you care? For all you know, she could be my daughter – though she is not. What do you care?” He speaks softly, but now there is an undercurrent of menace in his voice. “I’m providing you with a service and I promised you nothing but the three nights you paid for. Three nights of unusual entertainment, three women, three experiences you’ll walk away with and never forget. What do you care how I manage it? I’m nothing, I’m nobody here, it’s all about her,” he says, jerking his head back slightly, indicating Calida with a toss of his chin. “I’m a mere conveyor.”

“Yo, I feel bad, man,” the youth says hoarsely, rocking back and forth slightly in his chair, his palms sliding along the length of his thighs as he leans forward, then sliding back as he sits upright, the fabric of his warm-up pants a froth of black nylon beneath churning fingers. With each forward motion the gold chain around his neck swings out in a short glinting arc, then settles against his chest, then out, then back again. “I mean damn, look at her.” He does so for a long moment, then adds almost as an afterthought, “There’s always some white dude fucking shit up for somebody somewhere.” He presses his palms together, then opens them and looks into the center of each hand, as though he no longer recognizes them. “I’m only here because I’m involved in some things that didn’t go down like they should have and my brother Pauly, they shot him in the face and he’s dead. Wednesday I say goodnight to him on the phone, and Thursday morning I find out he’s dead. I’ve been trying, but I can’t figure anything out. Yeah, ok, he’s dead – but what does that mean? Where does that leave me? Where am I supposed to go with that shit?”

The youth falls into a perplexed silence. For the next thirty minutes no one speaks, no one moves. Mr. Reeves remains in his spot by the screen, his broad ebony face expressionless, his arms from the wrist up appearing to grow from his pockets like thick immovable roots rising from the deepest pockets of the earth, while the three men gaze fixedly at the woman on the table, at Calida. The slow dusky atmosphere that the very walls of the house seem to exude, similar to the manner in which a dreaming mind gradually exfoliates image from thoughts, deepens.

  • An Audience of Clouds

The next night X parks his car and stands in front of the decrepit house, his eyes lowered as he heads up the walkway. Since the death of his wife, he stares straight ahead when he walks, or looks doggedly down at the pavement. Because by looking down he avoids the mocking scrutiny of an audience of clouds.

X first heard that phrase, audience of clouds, on his second date with Vera, who would one year later become his wife, and then one year after that perish in a plane crash. San Francisco had been the plane’s destination. It was her first instance of public exposure as an artist, her first small success, and she was exhilarated to be attending the opening of a tiny gallery on Market Street where her painting An Audience of Clouds was on exhibit. But all that came later. On that second date she took X to a secluded spot atop a hill overlooking the ocean and explained that the verdant knoll dappled with the fragrant leafy shadows cast down by the branches of a stand of lilac trees had been her secret sanctuary since childhood. Stretching out flat on her back, she laughingly invited X to join her. When he did, she pointed to dark clouds drifting slowly overhead.

“That one there looks like Martin Luther King Junior’s profile, doesn’t it? Now look how it’s sort of melting at the center and the edges are moving in. Have you ever seen a picture of Richard Wright? That’s what it looks like it’s turning into now, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t see anything,” X said.

“Sure you can,” she insisted lightly. “You just have to maybe defocus your eyes a little and realize that it’s not the one shape it seems to be. It carries the seeds of all the different shapes and identities it’ll become.”

X only saw clouds.

“Now look,” she exclaimed, still pointing at the same cloud, “it’s turning into Fredrick Douglass, you see? See all the thick hair, like a lion’s mane? And you wouldn’t know it, but now as that lacy edge on it starts to pull away, it’s starting to look like Grampa Bailey, my grandfather. He passed away five years ago. It’s like, one person flows into another, and even the dead – well, it’s like the dead aren’t really dead at all. But you’ve got to have the imagination to make it so.”

And then she went on to describe the shapes of children running through magical landscapes, Arabian mares galloping over the mountainous crests of ocean waves, doves gliding backwards through the windows of laughing castles.

“One day I’d like to paint a picture called An Audience of Clouds,” she told X. “I’ve always had this whimsical notion that they’re looking down on us, as if they actually had eyes ….” And here her description of the idea behind the painting grew vague and fervid, her line of thought seemed to X to become dreamily and charmingly convoluted. She was saying something about clouds extending a challenge and an opportunity to those few individuals who had the capacity to respond to them. All this had something to do with rising, rising above the limitations of flesh and blood. . . .

X finished what she seemed to be groping toward, and in the lyricism of his elaboration he knew that Vera would believe he shared something of her vision and knowledge, that he was able to see and understand when in fact he saw nothing, understood nothing. “Rising above everything,” he said, and his voice walked hurriedly over the burning coals of the lie, “that bows down unthinkingly before the pitiless monarch of gravity and time, change and death.”

Much later, Vera confessed to X that it was at the moment of this gesture of gallantry on his part that she fell in love.

  • Consuela

He stands on the sidewalk, watching the house in its state of near-skeletal neglect in front of him, lit by bone-white moonlight. That house, presiding despotically over a defeated front yard devoid of grass or trees or anything at all that might grow or flourish. The yard resembles the malnourished gray hide of an animal suffering from mange. X has the feeling that the house stands in a pretense of inanimateness, waiting for him. That the house is concealing something, hiding its eagerness to take him in.

Mr. Reeves silently opens the door and leads him once more through the vacant living room. X takes his seat beside the businessman and the youth who wears the same clothes from the previous night.

The screen is in place in front of the table and Mr. Reeves stands off to the side. The faucet in the sink leaks. Widely spaced metronome-drops of water thud dully against the bottom of the corroded metal sink.

“Tonight you’ll see Consuela,” Mr. Reeves begins, “just as you saw Calida. Whatever it is you hope to see by looking at her this way, I hope you see it. Everybody comes for his own reasons. I don’t know what those reasons are. I don’t want to know. Or maybe you don’t have any reasons and you just wanted something new to spend your money on. I’ll tell you all that I know about her so you won’t have to ask me any questions. Don’t ask them, because I can’t answer them. I just provide a service. They say a wise businessman finds a need and fills it. That’s all I do. Don’t look any deeper than that for my motivation. Think of me as an entrepreneur for the new millennium.” Mr. Reeves lifts the screen and leans it against the sink.

X stares at the woman on the table. No gasp filters through his fullness of throat but something is wrong. He thinks at first that he is superimposing Calida’s features, her bone structure and body type and hair and complexion, on this woman, Consuela, perhaps because Calida has eclipsed everything not-Calida that his eyes have seen since last night, eclipsed every thought that threatened to wander off from the center at which her image had firmly embedded itself in his mind. But a furtive glance at the dumbfounded faces of the youth and the businessman confirms for X that the woman on the table now is the same woman who was on the table last night. It is not as though Mr. Reeves has attempted to alter or disguise her appearance in order to represent her as Consuela. Blatantly, it is the same woman – Calida, whom Mr. Reeves now calls Consuela. Everything about her is exactly the same, except that now the tint and rigidity of death is more apparent, the advancing rigor mortis sprinkling a gray ash on her complexion of dark honey swirled in warm milk. Milk that now seems on the verge of cooling, curdling.

X would later that night on the balcony of his apartment reproduce Mr. Reeves’ narrative. He would write hurriedly with the bleeding Bic pen on the yellow pages of the legal pad, as though fearing that the more time he allowed to pass, the less reliable his memory would become:

Born in Vera Cruz, Mexico, Consuela was the daughter of Luisa and Gabriel Sanchez. Vera Cruz – a tropical port city on the southeastern coast of Mexico, surrounded by winding waterways. The broom of the sea sweeps the air clean for tourists, who book rooms a year in advance to attend the Carnival and who arrive in high spirits for the festivities. Couples from Europe and America saunter hand in hand through the City Center and along the Plaza de Armas Waterfront boulevard that winds along the harbor, strolling happily through the rhythm-inflected night, their ears massaged by the infectious Caribbean melodies of Marimba groups and the robust vocalizations of Mariachi bands, their lungs inhaling the heavy humidity and sharp brine seasoning the breezes tossed off the catapulting crests of waves. At dawn they return to first-class hotels, the tang of fresh lemon-drenched shellfish lingering on their tongues and in their heads the roulette wheel of intoxication spinning in a delightful mild blur of tequila and rum, and they sleep and awaken hours later, unable to remember their dreams.

When they left the hotel to meander through the plaza in the afternoon, heading for the stately palm-lined promenade on the Villa del Mar Beach where they would ride horses offered to the public for inexpensive rental, Consuela in her starched white uniform entered their rooms with her pass key, her head bowed and eyes downcast, pushing her cart piled high with fresh linen, bottles of cleanser and strong lemony disinfectants. She was twelve and the American manager of the hotel, a heavy-set man whose kindness and generosity was mistaken by some for weakness or even obtuseness, allowed her to work even though she was underage. He was aware that her father had long ago deserted Consuela, her two sisters, her mother. The manager felt compassion for Consuela when he looked into the huge dark eyes that seemed to have been imprinted with the indelible images of broken people, places and things. He felt compassion for this pretty hunger-thin girl who in spite of the terrible poverty in which she lived and her lack of formal education was bright and possessed a keen native intelligence. When she was given the opportunity to absorb knowledge the trapeze of her mind swung dexterously from fact to fact, performing agile feats of memory, observation and deduction surprising in one so young. The manager taught her English and gave her an outdated set of encyclopedia Britannica, which she read from A to Z in the months to come.

But the manager was haunted by his belief that Consuela’s destiny, if she were to remain in Vera Cruz, would weave for her shoulders a drab serape of privation and adversity she would never be able to lift. The odds favored an unfolding of these conditions, but who can say? Gradually, he was seized with a kind of missionary zeal that widened to include his sister, who lived in Pasadena, and whose husband had recently died of prostate cancer. Into her life the dull blade of widowhood was making deep slashes of grief and loneliness. Why not bring the two together? The obstacles involved in sending Consuela to America were formidable and often disheartening, but he persisted, and in the end they fall away. Consuela’s mother wept on the day her daughter left, wringing and kneading her hands so mercilessly that the joints of her gnarled fingers cracked loudly. Despite her tears, she thanked the manager for all he had done. Consuela’s heart soared at the prospect of a new life and she promised that one day she would send for her sisters and mother.

The years passed and Katerine, the manager’s sister, came to love Consuela as she would have loved her own daughter. She enrolled Consuela in a private school, had her teeth fitted for braces, scheduled weekly violin lessons, and eventually paid her tuition to UCLA. Katherine was on the verge of sending for Consuela’s mother when the 81-year-old matriarch died of a stroke. Her sisters, now over 18, had no interest in America and decided instead to live with a great aunt in Ecuador.

Eventually Consuela got married, gave birth to a baby boy named Eric, and was divorced. She was an LVN at St. Luke’s Hospital in Pasadena and earned a good living.

The day after his 10th birthday, Eric opened the sliding glass door to their second-floor balcony to let in the mild evening air after a day of particularly stifling August heat. Or perhaps he stepped out on the tiny balcony to perform his favorite chore of spraying water on the parched leaves of the large potted fern Consuela placed there because there was no room for it in the apartment. Consuela sat at the kitchen table flicking through Self magazine, drinking a cup of chamomile tea. She heard a car backfire on the street below. Eric stepped in from the balcony and slowly pulled the sliding glass door completely closed behind him, then dragged his wrist weakly across his brow. “Mama, I have a headache,” he said thinly, his body drifting like a feather to the floor. At first she believed it was a game. Then she saw a lanky tendril of blood creeping hesitantly from his temple onto the carpet. Suddenly she viewed the room as though her back was pressed against the ceiling, saw Consuela kneeling and heard a long catastrophic wail twisting up through Consuela’s lips. Scooping Eric’s limp body up in her arms, she saw Consuela looking at the bullet wound, small as a peephole, below his right ear. She felt Consuela’s confusion – why, it looked harmless, as though someone had taken a black crayon and pressed the tip of it lightly against the side of his head.

He died instantly and the newspaper article that reported the incident the next day quoted an officer of the L.A. CRASH unit as saying that in all likelihood Eric Sanchez had been the victim of a stray bullet intended for someone else in a drive-by shooting. True, Consuela’s neighborhood had no history of gang-related activity and was in fact a moderately affluent community, but sometimes there was a “spillage of activity” from one section of the city to another or even from one city to another city. The investigator stated solemnly that Eric had simply and tragically been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

After a period of extended grieving, Consuela returned to work. At work she imagined that the weight she was losing was being transferred to Eric’s body in its exquisite child-sized coffin, preventing his disappearance into dust, for she couldn’t very well visit his grave and tend the purple orchids at the headstone to mourn a nonexistent child of dust. When she arrived home at the end of the day, she sat at the kitchen table and vacantly sipped chamomile tea. Then took off her white shoes, her white pantyhose, unbuttoned and removed her white uniform. Then, her undergarments. When she was completely naked she walked to the glass door of the balcony where Eric was shot and slid it open, stepped outside. The openwork balustrade would not shield her from the eyes of passersby but she stood there, leaning over the ledge and looking down through the fever filming her eyes at the sidewalk and street below. She stood there for perhaps thirty minutes. She repeated this ritual of vulnerability every evening because perhaps, God willing, there would be another one, another bullet. She stood there defiantly, her lips conjuring a small ghostly smile, waiting.

  • His Own Balcony

X lifts the pen. Behind him, through the sliding door, his bedroom is completely dark. He stands on the balcony of his apartment, holding the legal pad at his side and looking down at the street below through the shimmer of his own eyes’ heat. There is no traffic at this hour, no one on the sidewalk to glance up and see him standing nude at the railing. With the pen lifted, the bracelet of fatigue tightening around his wrist slackens. It is as though pen pressed to paper engages the start button on some console of memory, while lifting the pen instantly disengages the button, for now his recollection of Mr. Reeves’ monologue fades in the same way that an afterimage made by a flashbulb in front of the eyes fades, and X’s own thoughts return to him in a startling rush. There it is, her face, the woman when she was Calida. Even though the evidence of her European ancestry was apparent, perhaps most strongly so in the milkiness of her complexion, X had seen indisputable evidence of her predominantly African American heritage in the camber of her lips, the slope of her nose, the line of her jaw, the resilient curls of her black hair. And he had concluded that Calida was a black woman, as surely as X himself was a black man. But now he wonders whether what he perceived was the result of the story itself. Had he been in some way susceptible to its telling? Because he had stared at the woman on the table tonight and seen only Consuela. And he wonders now how he could have missed it – her Hispanic lineage, so evident in the camber of her lips, the slope of her nose, the line of her jaw, the resilient curls of her black hair. He stands there listening to the chorus of his thoughts, then lifts the legal pad and presses pen to paper.

  • Consuela

Soon each night there was a small cluster of perhaps 8 or 9 young men gathered on the sidewalk below her second-floor balcony. Traffic slowed and men pointed up at her from the windows of cars, tapping on their horns. Strangely, her neighbors, some of whom were surely aware of her ritual, never reported her behavior to the police. Or maybe it wasn’t so strange, given that these days many believed intruding into the affairs of others was an invitation for trouble or even retribution. However, one morning she walked to her carport and found a note beneath her car’s windshield wipers. It read: I know what happened to you and I’m sorry. I feel bad for you. I had a little brother and he got killed. It’s not right. I can’t tell you who I am but one of the guys that looks up to your balcony every night is the guy that shot your son. He wasn’t aiming for him but was just drunk and firing the gun to make a big noise, but still, you know what happened. His name is Ricardo and he doesn’t live around here but now he hangs around all the time to look at you. He’s stays drunk now more than he did before. He’s the one with the hair dyed reddish, with the skinny little ponytail that lays on his neck. Maybe you could call the police or something and tell them. But I’m sorry, I can’t tell you how I know any of this, my life wouldn’t be worth shit if I did.

At work that morning she pricked her finger on a hypodermic needle that had been used to extract blood from a patient infected with AIDS.

Weeks passed but she didn’t need to be tested. She knew.

In January it rained almost ceaselessly for a week. A dreary bridge of rain connected day to night. On the balcony, the rain spangled her naked body and she shivered convulsively. The weather had discouraged the group who customarily stood on the sidewalk below watching her, whistling, laughing and lewdly grabbing their crotches. Only one from the group was there, the one with the scraggly ponytail. Consuela went inside, put on a raincoat, holding it closed about her waist. She took the elevator down to the lobby, floating on ghostly bare feet. She opened the locked lobby door and held it open, and her raincoat slowly parted, exposing a narrow pyramidical segment of nudity. She was looking at him with feigned carnality. He took a tentative step forward, then stopped. She conjured the small ghostly smile, releasing the door, turning. The door sighed slowly closed on its pneumatic tubing and he nimbly slipped through it sideways and followed her, glancing over his shoulder.

When it was all over, he stood inside the front door of her apartment, gathering his hair into its paltry ponytail and slipping a frayed green rubber band around it. As he tied the laces of his Reeboks and adjusted his belt, he leaned forward to kiss her goodbye, but she jerked her face away. He tossed arrogant laughter like scrap paper over his shoulder and strode out into the hall, not bothering to look back.

Many months later there was a knock at her door one night. Consuela didn’t bother asking who it was. She didn’t care who it was. She opened the door and he was standing there, his hands behind his back. His eyes were watery – perhaps he’d been crying. The ponytail was longer and yet still appeared skimpy, almost moth-eaten. “Bitch,” he hissed, “you gave me the AIDS, you gave me your disease.” She could have slammed the door or screamed but didn’t. He produced a gun so small that it resembled a toy. Consuela turned her back to him and stared at the sliding door of the balcony, conjuring the small ghostly smile. A flat, hollow pop slapped against and bounced off the hallway ceiling and walls and then a hot tweezers seemed to pinch and twist her flesh viscously in the middle of her back, and finally … finally … Consuela felt her body drifting to the floor like a feather.

  • Thanatology

At the point at which X would lift the pen, Mr. Reeve concludes his account of Consuela’s life, and the wispy finger of déjà vu taps X lightly on the shoulder, gently reminding him that all was exactly as it had been the night before. Again, a white sheet of silence airily drifts down and shrouds the three men in their hypnotic contemplation of Consuela, with Mr. Reeves standing off to the side, his fleshy arms folded across his chest. Then, after a time, he picks up the screen and places it before the table, indicating that the proceedings are at an end. It is 1:30 a.m.

Outside, X, the youth, and the businessman walk to their cars, parked in front of the house that with each visit appears to be settling more deeply and balefully into disrepair, much as an old man settles himself grimly into a rocking chair and awaits the approach of death. It is the youth who breaks the silence hanging over them all.

“It’s funny, but I don’t even see that babe on the table no more.” He addresses his remark to no one in particular, abstractedly fingering the gold chain around his neck. “All the time he’s talking, it’s like I’m seeing Pauly’s face, like Pauly’s the one laying there. It’s almost like he’s talking about Pauly, telling all the facts about him and how they all led up to what happened. You know what I’m saying?”

“No, I don’t,” replies the businessman, opening his car door, “but I don’t like it. I want to know where he got that body. What if it’s from a murder he committed? What if he’s some kind of psycho? Who in their right mind would do what he’s doing?”

“Nobody twisted your arm to make you come,” the youth says.

“Look, all I’m trying to say is, if it’s something like that, some kind of murder or what-not, we’d be accessories, wouldn’t we?” the businessman asks, looking up and down the deserted street as though fearing discovery. “Even if it’s not that, it must be illegal to have a body like that on display. It must be at the very least a health violation or health hazard or something. And something else I don’t get. What’s this with him using different names for the same woman? What’s that all about? We’re not even getting what we paid for.”

“What did we pay for?” X asks.

The youth, no longer listening, appears to be lost in thought.

“No, kid, you’re right. Nobody twisted my arm,” the businessman admits pensively. “It’s just … I’m studying thanatology. So I can … deal with death. And I thought I could learn or somehow … understand … since I’ve never seen a body before.”

The youth laughs loudly, doubling over theatrically, then stands up and draws his hand across his eyes, as though wiping away tears of hilarity. “Thanawhat? So what’s your textbook, deal with death in five easy lessons?” He is still laughing as X drives away.

And when X arrives at his apartment, that same laughter echoes through the vacancy in X’s heart as he picks up a 5 x 5 photograph of Vera in a silver frame on his bedside table and carries it to the balcony, where he is barely able to make out the details of her face in the anemic light of the moon. And then, that familiar vacuum of dreariness, cloudlike and drizzling a damp lethargy, descends.

  • Rhianna

Her skin now seems to be overlaid with patches of corrupted silk or velvet, some kind of sheer fabric stitched together, pulled taut, then painted a dull papery gray. Though too chalky to restore the appearance of the body to its previous unblemished condition, the make-up on her face doubtless mitigates the more dramatic effects of decomposition. A light oil of some kind appears to have been applied to the rest of the body in an attempt to impart lifelike luster, but beneath that glossing is a deepening ashen tint, a bloodless mottling. Tonight smoke spirals up from the tip of an incense cone and scents the air with jasmine. X presumes its purpose is to mask any hint of odor associated with the body.

“This is the third and last night that I’ll be providing this service to you. My obligation ends here.” Mr. Reeves stands behind the kitchen table, gazing thoughtfully at the body for a few moments, then looks up at his audience of three and begins. “Her face had the complexion of still mountain water …”

Much later that evening, he would recall Mr. Reeves’ words and with a sense of urgency write them down on the yellow legal pad:

Her face had the complexion of still mountain water in flawless repose upon a smooth olive sand bottom – a sand bottom tinted with the leafy reflections of overarching trees. That trace of olive in her skin she inherited from her Jewish mother; her father was first-generation Persian. Though her parents named her Rhea, she changed her name, and to her friends, the other dancers at the strip club called Whambam’s near the airport, she was Rhianna, that wild Rhianna.

That wildness was in fact a bold kinetic spirit that neither parent could control when Rhianna was a child. The flame of a prodigious hunger and passion for life burned a path through her childhood, a fire that couldn’t be extinguished by her first grade teacher Mrs. Tamber or by any of her successive teachers or by rules in general, and if not by these then how much more unlikely that the flame could be doused by the superficial conventions of civilized conduct, at the bottom of which she was able to perceive the festering of a terrible hypocrisy. Lies, lies, she might be forced to live in a world that tilted askew on its axis of lies, but she herself would not lie. Once she graduated from high school, neither the sweet confection of her mother’s cajolery nor her father’s threats, sprinkled with the pepper of his heated Farsi, could persuade her to tolerate four years of stagnation at Ohio State University. What she craved was life, real life, not some pale academic simulacrum. So she fled through the archway of orthodoxy and absolute morality upon which, she surmised, the edifice of the entire Midwest was constructed, and found solace in California among kindred sprits.

Now that Rhianna was free and it was no longer necessary to funnel the scalding geyser of her energy into rebellion, she was left with the problem of defining herself, for if she was not engaged in the struggle against, in the struggle to deconstruct the monolith of a decadent and hypocritical status quo, who was she? Had she been a young adult in the 1960s and early 70s, she would have been labeled a flower child or hippie and shaped her identity from the amorphous philosophy of the counterculture, defining herself (or allowing herself to be defined) as an instrument of brother-and-sisterhood, the agency of peace and unconditional love. As it was, that chimerical sandcastle of peace and unconditional love had long since crumbled, and Rhianna was often forced to bear the burden of her own mysterious individuality in a state of restless confusion.

But she still remembered the raw kinetic force that had jolted her through her childhood, and she felt it to be, somehow, a part of her destiny. There must be movement, pursuit, physicality, controlled frenzy, adrenaline tethered to purpose in whatever she would do with her life. She found a job as a waitress at El Torrito, a popular Mexican restaurant franchise, but her mornings were her own, and during that time she took one-day classes in astrology, meditation, tarot, crystal scrying, conducted at sandalwood-scented New Age bookstores. At a Saturday morning class called “Reading the Runes” two things happened: she met and fell in love with a somewhat effete, clinging, but kind-hearted young man named Jerry D. who was a security guard at Sears, and she was told by the teacher – a reading was included in the $60-dollar sign-up fee for the class – that to be happy, she must express herself through dance.

In the five years that passed, Rhianna found that dance was indeed the perfect outlet for her jagged excess of energy. It was as if her energized legs were scissors that cut from the baggy fabric of her life a beautiful crisp pattern. And she further discovered that she possessed the gift of being able to think rhythmically. Or rather, able to translate the flow and sonority of everyday life into physical expression. She continued taking her dance classes when she was pregnant, and at night she dreamed she was dancing. She would wake Jerry D. first thing in the morning and demonstrate movements that her dream self had choreographed and executed across a polished, misty floor inlaid with tiles of infinity, stretching far beyond the horizon of the dream itself.

When her child Shawn was five and she saw that his eyes were still full of frozen focus, saw that a desolate twig of saliva still seemed to branch permanently from the corner of his mouth, she was able to dance through the sad diagnosis of life-long mental impairment draped over the child by neurologists. She danced, she danced and the voice of grief receded. And when Jerry D. was fired from his job at Sears and stopped looking for another one, lapsing into permanent bewilderment and ineffectuality, weeping endlessly, it seemed, over Shawn’s condition – Rhianna danced, she danced and the voice of grief receded.

At around the time that Jerry D. was fired, a friend told Rhianna that a strip club called Whambam’s near the airport was hiring dancers. The friend was a bartender there and verified that the most popular topless dancers earned hundreds of dollars a night. Rhianna’s need to articulate with her body everything she had learned about life was a pressing one now. She auditioned for a sleepy-eyed man named Littlejohn on a Monday afternoon, was hired and began dancing that same night.

She danced night after night, month in, month out, for four years. Though the predominantly male crowd applauded enthusiastically whenever she took the stage, she entertained no illusions that their responsiveness was due to an appreciation of the technical and imaginative merits of her performance. It was lust pure and simple, their libidos fanned into flamboyance by alcohol. The exquisite rhythmic inventiveness she employed to transform the pedestrian inventory of standard pelvic-thrusting, bump-and-grind moves into the aesthetic drama of flesh sensuously refusing to succumb to gravity, fell on blind eyes. From time to time a man would timidly approach her after the performance to tell her, in earnest it seemed, how impressed he was by her talent, and she was inclined to believe him when that compliment was not followed by the transparent segue into sexual proposition. One such man, though not timid, approached Rhianna after one of her performances and introduced himself as “Sam Renolds, talent acquisition,” explaining that he was from New York representing a musical production to be staged on Broadway and would soon be coordinating the audition process for the director. Would Rhianna be interested in trying out? He gave her his business card and input her number into a small computerized address book, promising to stay in touch. Rhianna prided herself on her common sense and street wits, her ability to quickly read the hidden agendas of strangers. She’d perceived an aura of legitimacy surrounding Sam Renolds and knew that he wasn’t simply another lecherous scam artist.

“Girl, why do you put so much into your dancing? You know those guys don’t care about no talent. All they want is to see you shake some tits and ass, that’s all they’re here for,” another dancer named Coco said to Rhianna. All the dancers, at one time or another, had asked Rhianna that question, and continued to ask, for they were awed by her ability to fiercely compress an epic sweep of expressiveness into the space of single song. “You’re too good for this place,” they all told her.

Night after night when she went home, aloft no longer, shoulders slumped beneath a fallen sky of dancing, Jerry D. would massage her feet. He would tell her about his day with Shawn and often his eyes would swell helplessly with tears. She loved Jerry D., but she was exhausted and dispirited by the burden of being responsible for a broken child, a broken man.

Mr. Renolds did indeed call her, two months after having spoken to Rhianna that night. He offered her the chance to audition in New York, and for the first time in years she felt the flame of that wild spirit of freedom and possibility flaring savagely in her heart again. She bought a plane ticket to New York but didn’t tell Jerry D. – she couldn’t bring herself to confront the look of desperation that would twist his face into a pleading mask of anguish when she revealed her plans to him. Instead she told Coco.

“Coco, I want you to do something for me,” she said on the night that she was to leave. “I have a chance to go to New York and maybe dance on Broadway, and I’m leaving tonight. Call Jerry D. and tell him for me. Tell him I love him but that I can’t live my life this way anymore … to take care of himself and Shawn … that maybe one day I’ll be back but I don’t know when. I may not ever get another chance like this, Coco. Tell him for me,” she pleaded tearfully. And Coco agreed. Rhianna danced that night as she had never danced before, she danced and the voice of grief receded. At the end of her performance, she called a cab and went to the airport to catch a red-eye Pan-Am flight to New York.

“Jerry D., this is Coco. Rhianna said for me to tell you …”

“What? I can’t hear you too good Coco. All the loud music in the background …”

“Rhianna went to New York, Jerry D. She said to tell you she was going to New York to dance and … she didn’t know if she’d be back but to care of yourself and little Shawn for now.”

Coco heard a long low moan on the other end of the line, then heard him drop the phone. Her shift was over and she decided that the phone was no way to break the news to Jerry D. When she arrived at the apartment complex where Jerry D. and Rhianna lived, she saw an ambulance pulling away from the curb in front of the building, leaving behind a small crowd of neighbors who had gathered there.

“What happened here?” Coco asked an elderly woman, her heart pounding with a sledge hammer of premonition.

“They said some guy had a gun and killed his little five-year-old son, then took the gun and blew his own brains out,” the woman said tonelessly, as though unimpressed by it all.

At the airport terminal, Rhianna stood with her face pressed hard against the broad sweep of glass overlooking the airfield, watching the plane she had not been able bring herself to board take off and soar like a bird across the sky and out of her sight. She watched it soar across the serene, magnanimous pastures of heaven. Yes, she would go home tonight and Jerry D. would take her feet in his hands and massage them. And then she would return to Whambam’s tomorrow. She would dance tomorrow night, she would dance and the voice of grief would recede.

At this point, the point at which X would lift his pen, Mr. Reeves concludes his story and slides the screen in front of the woman on the table. Apparently he has decided to forego the period of meditative silence he extended to his audience on previous nights, that period during which each of the three men would stare with hungry concentration at the body as though attempting to absorb every detail of her life and death. “But wait,” the businessman cries out in frustration. “She died. She’s dead. What happened?”

“As you probably guessed, she couldn’t outrun her grief, couldn’t outdance it. All the darker resources of her emotions conspired against her. The grief became chronic, then clinical, and her … well, let’s just say that her biochemical profile changed to reflect the grief. That’s as good a way to explain it as any. A few years went by and she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which had progressed too far and too deep to be treated. Metastasizing cells, overgrowing fallopian tubes, cervix, womb – all that.”

“But you could say anything you wanted to say. You could make up anything and we wouldn’t know the difference,” the businessman says angrily.

Mr. Reeves stares at him, his expression indicating neither concurrence nor denial.

“Well then, yo, I guess I could be saying anything I wanted to say about Pauly, about how he died,” the youth says quietly. “If I can find somebody and school ‘em like Mr. Reeves did us, it’ll be like he’s not all the way dead.” For the third day he wears the black warm-up suit. The flabby, exhausted nylon fabric plays loosely up and down his body, expanding and contracting in the manner of an accordion as he rocks thoughtfully backward and forward in his chair.

“What the hell are you talking about?” the businessman challenges the youth, who is staring into the palms of his hands resting on his lap. When the youth offers no explanation, the businessman stands up abruptly. “I should be ashamed of myself.” He walks slowly out of the kitchen, his head hanging abjectly and his shoulders slumped in an attitude of defeat, and a few moments later there is the sound of the front door being opened and softly closed.

Then the youth rises. He jams his hands in his pockets and turns to X with fresh energy. “Yo, fuck that thanatology punk,” he says to X in a tone almost conspiratorial as he, too, walks through the kitchen door. “Later.”

And it all makes perfect sense, and X wonders now how he could have missed it – her lineage, Jewish and Persian, so evident in the camber of her lips, the slope of her nose, the line of her jaw, the resilient curls of her black hair, and her complexion of olive, of amber, of dusky milk. “So what is it with you?” X asks Mr. Reeves, whose arms are crossed in thick slabs and segments of musculature across his chest.

“Me? I told you. I’m just a conveyor,” Mr. Reeves says. “And you should go now.”

“See you around,” X says, rising from his chair.

“I don’t think so,” Mr. Reeves says. “But who can say?”

  • A Possible Ending For An Unfinished Story

Raymond returns to that place he thought he would never visit again. But Mr. Reeves was right, for who can say? So yes, back, for the first time since his wife’s death, back at the knoll amid the trees rising like scepters crowned with the intoxicating scent of lilac, gazing up at Vera’s clouds – clouds the substance of which was reputed by poets everywhere to consist of a redeeming buoyancy, a buoyancy that until today he believed could sustain nothing and was a lie, albeit a magnificent one. The very same clouds she had loved and that had sweetly engaged her imagination, the ones that had opened beneath her in the end, a series of trapdoors imploding wispily as the seat she was strapped in was sucked from the ruptured fuselage of the airplane and cartwheeled to earth.

But as he gazes up willingly for the first time in years, the bubble of an uncharacteristic stillness expands in his mind and he can detect in the formless masses drifting slowly across the wide blue expanse embryonic shapes widening and roiling and resolving into definite images. He sees (over how long a period of time he could not have said) Calida’s face. Then Consuela’s. Then Rhianna’s. How is it possible that he sees three faces when they are the same woman? And Raymond can even make out the faces of Mr. Reeves and the youth. Finally he sees Vera, her face composed and calm, strapped in the seat and plummeting to earth, in a fall he always imagined must have whitened her mind with chalky terror before the unmerciful altitude suctioned the last atom of oxygen from her lungs. Calm because even though the sky betrays her, she is in that place she knows so well, far above the earth, enwombed by clouds that wind her in billowing lace, enfold her in fleece, release her, cradle her in porcelain froth, in sheets of soft parchment, release her, hold her in opalescent arms, then gently and finally release her, release her. He knows this because he is there, finally, there in the seat next to her, right now, descending. Or he will be, he will be there, when he returns to his apartment, finds the yellow legal pad, and presses pen to paper.

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