PAUL BARRETT

March 30, 2010

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When Anne awoke the sun had just set and the air held a chill and, for a moment, she wondered where she was. She could hear the surf in front of her, could taste it, even, and the tip of the lighthouse could be seen over edge of the bluff. There were trees, and the road, and the close-cropped lawn, but nothing else. Anne was alone. She blinked her eyes, rubbed them, then sat up and wrapped her arms around herself against the cold. She turned her head and stared toward where she thought she had last heard Richard’s footsteps, furrowing her brow as if displaying an air of displeasure or irritation might allay her unease. She stood up, found a tenuous break in the leaves and followed it to the edge of the bluff, digging her nails into her bare forearms. Anne gazed down at the lighthouse, the tide pounding against its western edge. For the cold, and for the silence apart from the rhythmic surf, Anne was unable to speak, to call out for her husband, and it was this impotence that forced her to believe that he was nearby. The dunes went on for miles in either direction, besides, and the forest of eucalyptus, only growing darker, was long since impregnable, and so Anne stood, half-paralyzed, watching the waves buffet the lighthouse, biting her lip and gritting her teeth, yawning occasionally and despite herself.

It was, perhaps, the chill, or else some subconscious force, that caused Anne to turn and start toward the path, stirring dead leaves as she walked. Her heart beat a raw and bitter rhythm in her chest, and she told herself what she felt was only: cold. Indeed, she felt cold all through, a cold deeper than the evening, which was becoming quite pronounced. Her hands were bloodless against her pale skin. On the hill above sat the house, steadfast and unfeeling. She watched it disappear slowly into the night as she ascended the path, watched it become enveloped in fog and nascent darkness.

Anne entered through the garage, half expecting to find Richard there, or else just hoping. The place, though, was unoccupied, aside from the car, and from boxes and bags, from a trash can full of shoes, an empty dresser, cabinets filled with jars and an ice-chest, antique lenses in old socks, screwdrivers, nails, mousetraps stained with peanut butter and death, boxes, still more boxes, a garbage bag bursting with Christmas tree skirt. Bicycles hung upside-down from the ceiling. Opposite the car sat the desk Richard had meant to use as a workspace, but which was now buried in pale, moth-eaten quilts and Anne’s wedding dress, maybe, the small knoll topped with a wreath of dry sticks and pine cones and dust.
She opened the door slowly, careful not to make a sound as she entered the house, then stole to the bathroom and shut the door behind her. She looked at herself in the mirror. Her hair was matted from sleep, her face was puffy and, she noticed, striped with tears. She pulled her fingers through her hair, then a comb, then, still unsatisfied, she ran the water for a bath. There were four moon-shaped furrows in each of her forearms where Anne had held herself against the cold; she rubbed them vigorously, though still they remained. Anne lit some candles and slipped into the water, shivering despite the heat. She closed her eyes. Surely Richard would hear the water. He would not come to her, but when she emerged, he would be there, waiting.

Anne wrapped herself in a towel and stepped out into the living room. Her husband stared at her blankly from the walls, from behind glass, and she stared back at him, at herself, at the women in period costume, or nude, draped in sheer linen, women with lamb’s heads, or a pig’s, or with the head of John Kennedy, the photos impeccable in their deception, their impact mitigated by time. Richard’s paperback copy of “You” sat face-down on the couch, just as he had left it before their walk. Each crease and wrinkle in the cushions had formed under his exact weight, was a direct result of his touch. A glass of water, half-empty on the kitchen counter, might well display evidence of his having drunk from it.
Her heart sustaining its sickening thrum, her feet cold against the bare floor, Anne floated into the bedroom and lay on the unmade bed. She listened for the sound of typing from the closet. “Rich,” she said, her voice unable to transcend a whisper. “Richard.” She unwrapped the towel and lay there, attempting to communicate her willingness, her compliance, her nude and desperate vulnerability through the closed door, but nothing came. She lay on the bed and listened, closed her eyes and stifled her breathing and listened.

Hearing nothing, shivering, Anne pulled the crumpled comforter from the bed and returned to the living room. She stared at the couch, at Richard’s paperback, at the folds in the cushions where he’d sat. Carefully, she removed the book and set it on the floor, maintaining its page, then eased into the couch as if her husband were asleep there. She closed her eyes and wept.

The house was completely dark now, but for the candles in the bathroom, weak and mercurial. Anne flipped on the television and bathed the room in its pale blue glow, the roar of information. Anne wanted disaster. She sought news—only news—flipped past commercials, comedy and studio drama, reality, weather, politics, sports, stocks, celebrities, home shopping. She circled the stations repeatedly, incessantly. She wanted plane crashes and burning buildings. She wanted man-made carnage of any sort, bombs and explosions. Statistics. Names she’d never heard and faces she’d never seen, names that would appear again in tomorrow’s paper. News so colossal it would stop the world, would permeate even children’s speech. News that would warrant mention at church. She wanted people dead, is what, plain and simple. She wanted history. Blue light danced on the walls, flitted across Anne’s pale face, cold and frightened and alone.

And, sure enough, history came, though only in small bites, in clips and promises, teasers and bumps—a vast and intricate non-history, recycled and well-groomed. Somewhere within that history, Anne slept, wrapped in their comforter, swimming in blue noise, the empty house, her towel cold and crumpled and damp on the bedroom floor.

Before the River

In New York there is Rena Scott, 48, and Frank Ellis, 32, photographer and one-time cop, and there is a sort of pall about them, like this is it, like somehow this is the end of things. And in many ways it is the end of things—in New York there is heat and chaos, and people carrying signs through the streets with verses from the Bible on them. There’s chaos and, eventually, a categorical lack of law enforcement, and Frank sits at the window in his uniform and snaps his shutter at the people below. Click. It’s Rena’s old camera, which he’s found in the closet. There could be film in it, or else no film. It’s Rena’s camera; Frank’s not sure either way. She’ll be up eventually, or else she won’t wake up, not ever, in which case Frank will have to adjust. He’ll move that filing cabinet down to the basement, or even out into the street amongst the looters and would-be prophets and the burning hot-dog carts. Imagine Rena’s papers torn up and singed and scattered through the heat like confetti. Important papers. Papers comprising deeds, listings, this sort of thing. Frank takes an orange from the counter and tosses it out the window. A car alarm sounds, though not in the vicinity. The camera lies on the table now, its strap sprawled out like Rena in their bed.

Frank says, “Rena,” and nudges her. He pokes her shoulder gently. Later she’s making him dinner and then they’re eating and not speaking to one another. Rena flips through a magazine.

In the morning there is the heat, ever escalating, and there is Rena and Frank and the camera and the open window. Rena says it’s over but what can she do about it. “Everything’s over,” she means. “You, me, everything.”
“Not everything,” says Frank.
“Take a look outside,” she says. Frank has on his uniform and he sits at the window. “Everything.”

Outside there is the same heat and chaos, plus a trampled orange rind, and glass and abandoned signs. Frank points the camera at one of them. Daniel 8:3, it says. Rena leaves for work and doesn’t return for two nights and Frank concludes the obvious.

There’s no electricity and Frank rises and falls with the sun. He sits at the window. He misses Rena, is what Frank does. He cannot move her filing cabinet without pulling out everything from the drawers, and even then it may be too much. He pulls the papers out and reads them. Parties and property, they say. Method of financing. Riders, title and survey, default, assignability. Time is of the essence, the papers say. Binding effect. Risk of loss/casualty. Frank watches the orange rind turn brown in the street. He aims his pistol at various heads, balding, helmeted, the streets are literally full of people. He trades the pistol for Rena’s camera and shoots a woman with her hair pulled back.

There is a knock at the door and Frank sees through the peephole a man wearing a Yankees cap with the bill torn off. “Please,” the man says. Frank tells the man to go away. “Please,” the man says again. “I’m hungry.”
“If I let you in you might not ever leave,” says Frank. “Or else you may leave after all, just when things start to get demanding.”
“I have money,” says the man finally.
Frank asks what difference does money make as he lets the man in. The two of them eat together.
“I haven’t had anything in three days,” says the man.
“Anything what,” says Frank.
“Anything.”

The man sleeps on the couch. The next day he helps Frank move the filing cabinet down to the basement. I could lock you up in here and no one would know, Frank thinks. He lets the man back into the apartment. Together they eat.
“You have to leave now,” Frank says once the sun has set.
“Please,” says the man. He asks Frank if he’s got a pack of cards. The man’s skin looks older than his eyes do, like he’s wearing someone else’s clothes. When he deals he does so confidently, though his hands shake. “Where’s your wife gone off to,” he asks Frank. His face shifts in the candlelight.
Frank says, “Who are you. Tell me your name.”
“We haven’t met before,” says the man. “You don’t know me.” He finishes his deal and looks at his hand. “It’s Blackjack,” he says. “It’s Twenty-one. Let’s go.”
“What difference is a game of cards going to make,” Frank says.
The man says, “Exactly.” He says, “What do you say, Frank,” and the men play cards.

Frank leaves the table and walks to the window. Outside the streets are still full of people. Car alarms and shouts and gunshots. “I think you need to go now,” Frank says. “You need to leave.” He shows the man the pistol. “I’m a policeman,” he says. Frank looks down at himself, at his uniform and everything, and he laughs. He says, “What difference does that make. What difference does it make if I’m a policeman, you know? Tell me that.”
“You said it, not me,” the man says.
“Just tell me what difference it makes.”
“Well, I suppose we’ll either see what difference it makes eventually, or else we won’t,” says the man. He walks out the door and Frank sits by the window, waiting for the man’s head to appear on the street and merge with the throng. The sun sets and he sleeps.

After a month of this, Rena returns. Her hair is shorn and the first thing she does is bathe herself and then she examines her body in the mirror. Frank looks on. Bruises and scratches. Rena has tears in her eyes. She looks up at Frank. Outside there is chaos and heat. There is a blinding white light pouring through the window, and more heat. Always more heat.

Paul Barrett is working on a novel, grew up in Orange County, and lives in Oakland now.  He used to live in Seattle and is working on some other stuff besides the novel. Paul is a graphic designer too, and is at St. Mary’s getting his MFA in fiction.  He’s listening to Liars right now, is 27 years old, and still childless.  He’s having a BBQ in a couple weekends, so he’s looking forward to that.

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