Now (more or less)
The cell is torrid and moist, like the city
in which Iíve resided, so foul
with the pungent smell of death and fear.
I lie flat on the bones of the dead, staring at the shit
let my prison gown rise to expose my withered orchid.
The guards stare, salivate.
I am so chilled with fever, I tremble;
so petrified I turn into an angry stone.
This is a cave. No, this is my city.
No, this is my tomb.
I hear screams, a multicultural diversity of screams, a linguistic ghoulash. Celebrate diversity, cacophony, Ash Wednesday, Bar Mitzvahs, Irish wakes, Christmas, weddings, Easter, and proms! They say one must celebrate diversity! Celebrate good times! Letís all hold hands, clap, sing, shop, and give thanks.
The foreign cities are aflame, the fields cluttered with mines. Step on one and youíre lucky if only a non-essential part of you flies off. What matters is only the excruciating pain. Yes. Think about it. They say pain is a pre-requisite to pleasure, or a partner. Thatís other peopleís pain, of course.
Once, my city burned. I saw edifices disappear, smelled death for months. Even the cats wheezed. It was a conspiracy by them, whose name we dare not utter, yes it was, but nobody wants to hear that. No, it wasnít, youíre correct. Iíd have to be mad to believe any such thing, youíre right Iím wrong; forget I uttered the C word. I was being ridiculous.
I recall the day was a stunning Miro blue, clean as a new sheet, loud with sighs and gasps, no, one collective sigh, the gasp of millions. We lined up at hospitals, waiting to give our blood to the dead. There was nothing else we could do. I remember the flyers posted on the storefronts, the faces of the dead. Have you seen Marie, George, Michel, Ali? I memorized their faces. They come to me in nightmares, asking why? We could do nothing.
I will do anything to escape. Well, almost.
When they brought me to this city it was dark; I could not see through the black hood. But they forgot to put cotton in my ears and plug my nose, so I know I was brought to a camp by a sea or bay, could smell sea, hear waves. Camp --- oh, such a droll name, reminds me of summers in the Catskills when I was a child. There I was, gender delicate, so privileged to undergo summers of fun fun fun with the innocent sadists, those budding authoritarians in their early twenties, the counselors; and the kiddies like Tiny Tina, the little curled girls with their hierarchies of popularity. So I can drink in the smell of girlish talcum powder in my dreams, revive the Hallmark moments of childhood. Throw in a few extra cents if you want the distilled lilies, as in something that sounds like a dance and smells like ladiesí drawers. We Americans have so many accessories, donít we; what a bore.
I remember Tiny Tina and Lucky Lulu and the rest of the flock, age 12. They tied the big, strange, quiet one to the bed, stripped her, showered her with milk and talcum powder, poked at her tender, chubby spots, tittered: ominous, girlish giggles. Too stunned to weep, the strange one covered her eyes with her hands. I learned later that her uncle had raped her. Repeatedly.
I think it was a camp on a bay. But it could be this city, here wherever I am.
As I was Saying
I am not nor have I ever been. But thatís wrong. Thereís no neither for the nor, no either for the or Ė simply no choice, either ho or hum. I am not and I have never been. I am Godís little acre, passive soil. I dare you to cultivate me: come on, come on! The acid rain is falling.
Whether Iím in a camp or a city makes no difference. I could be diving in Belize. It is all the same in my cave.
But Iíll try anything to crawl my way out of here.
I will convince you:
I HAVE NEVER BEEN AN EXISTENTIALIST
That is why Iím here, isnít it? I swear to God never. I am ruled by white candles, moved by divine destiny. I pledge allegiance to God, the all merciful, the All. I fight for prayers all over the place, vocal prayers in schools, banks, restaurants, libraries.
My God is sweet, despite the sin of my birth, nearly an abortion, but the doctor erred. She received a call and missed with the scalpel. My mother nearly bled to death. And so Iím on this planet but for His Grace, quite the Miracle, my mother said quite frequently, handing me the sponge-mop, Wal-mart special. There were so many things to clean; there are always so many things that are dirty. A womanís work is never done. The hungry angler arises hours before dawn, before the early bird begins to catch worms. The rapacious angler catches many stupid fish, fish with mouths that wonít close. Of course, to be fair, they canít close with all the shit in the oceans
But I have never been an existentialist, heavens forbid. Never ever even when I had a lover who placed his hand over my mouth so I wouldnít utter a sound when I came. When I came, I said thank the Lord thank the Lord. He Ėthe lover-- was an evil existentialist. He wouldnít let me say it.
I canít possibly make anything happen, but I will try, clandestinely, give it the old college try, but nothing upsetting or revolutionary, you understand. Donít tell them, theyíll misinterpret. Always good to keep oneís mouth shut. Forget I said this. Better safe than sorry, have faith in the Lord.
My god is sweet. How about yours?
I HAVE NEVER BEEN A COMMUNIST
After hours of interrogation, I have nothing to confess, although itís possible I have no memories left. Please believe me. I have no politics.
Iíve always loved foie gras, Grey Goose, Gucci Puccis, blue fox coats, fancy dishwashers, diamonds, and white limos as sleek as Arabian horses. I am not ashamed.
Even when daddy lost his big job and threw himself out, I loved the burgundy leather sofa and that ivory statuette of Cupid with the lampshade hat. I loved so many things in that house I stayed there much too long. I suppose I wanted more and more and more Ė more childhood, more gifts at Christmas, more champagne and caviar, you know the scoop. They teach you to want. Wanting is an art. How could I know that my father was sufficient? Give me his voice, the lullabies he sang, the adoration in his eyes. I want so much to go back, sentimental fool that I am. He is dead.
Of course, I was never a Communist. Mother never let me share my toys. I never give anything away. I canít live without that Prada purse. They all have Prada purses.
Mother died in that house. She said the locks were broken; she couldnít possibly open the doors. They found her in bed with the family gems scattered all over the bedclothes, sparkling like tears. Most of them were fake, it turned out. It usually happens that way.
I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN A LOYAL TEAM PLAYER
I tell you I swear I will not make waves, never made them. Those who accuse me are lying.
When M ravaged P in the ladies room, I was hiding in a stall and heard everything.
When P begged me to testify I said no, what are you thinking? I support the company. My testimony would hurt the company. M is not expendable; you are, I said. I said Sorry, life is tough, gotta take the bad with the good tomorrow is another day forget about it, life is short, gotta catch the worm catch the worm, bye and may God be with you.
When the important news reporter wanted to interview me about financial discrepancies in the companyís auditing reports, I said B & Y are squeaky clean how can you suggest otherwise. Can you prove that B and Y are in hiding somewhere in South America? No, you canít, I said the phone records have been cooked by the liberals, goodbye no further comments.
When G & G could no longer sublet their apartment because of my co-opsís new policy, they appealed to me, unemployed and broke, they claimed. Iím a good citizen, on the board, president for 16 years, a no nonsense type of person. One must take control to defend oneís property; one must be decisive. So the residents always elect me and I have my obligations. Accordingly, I said no way to G & G, we canít have transients living here, have to control the comings and goings, too bad for you can always sell. Thereís a real estate agent on our Board, you know. While we sympathize, we canít possibly make an exception, when in Rome do as the Romans do make haste while the sun shines redo your resumes, tough luck. I am protecting my investment, mine all mine. I shall not waver. No exceptions.
When they started coming for the foreigners, I closed my curtains. My neighbors and I shut our doors. We refused the children. They were crying. It was not for us to decide what was best for the community. We spoke in whispers and cooked big chickens. We played Frank Sinatra to snuff the irritating sound of the gunshots and wailing, wrote to our politicians to get rid of the local porn shop.
When Billy said I want to fight for democracy, I didnít think Iíd be staring at a face without eyes, six months later. I said this is our team and you are right the President said so. Make us proud, Billy. Make us safe. I knew my duty. It is a motherís lot to sacrifice everything for her children, and her childrenís lot to defend their mothers from savages. That is what I know. That is what I was taught.
Now (more or less)
The streets are quiet in this cell. How odd. Snow falls, blood falls from the shit colored ceiling. Must be the blood of foreigners. They pierce the foreigners with daggers to extract confessions.
We go about our routines, as usual, but we know they are coming and there is nothing we can do. Our skin is bound so tight we are suffocating. We sigh. We gasp. We close our eyes, rely on our faith.
Carol Novack is the editor and publisher of Mad Hatter's Review, from which this story is reprinted.