Fred Skolnik: The Story of A. (from Things Unsaid, a Work in Progress)

                                                      Immo age, et a prima dic, hospes, origine nobis …


When A. was a child he dreamed of being a hero. In that time and that place many children dreamed of being heroes. The idea had always been in the air, so to speak. No one could say where it had come from but it had left its mark on history and on the secret lives of defeated men. When he lay in his little bed watching the shadows on the wall or listening to the sounds of the night A. imagined himself rescuing damsels in distress who were small children like himself or performing daring deeds in the games played by boys and men. A great war had been fought but A. did not remember it. It was before the time when the past began to shape his dreams. He remembered only a few moments that would remain in him like debris floating through space until they came to attach themselves to the system of memories that formed the core of his life. He remembered first the shadows on the wall that evoked the mysteries of the night and then the lazy, distant drone of a plane high overhead in the cloudless summer sky and the rain falling in the yellow circle of the streetlamp on the corner of his street. These memories would create vast constellations moving in a space as big as all the universe, infinite like his imagination, shining with the light of a thousand trillion suns.

He did not construct his dreams out of empty air. The world supplied the materials out of which his dreams were made. It had always been like that. He learned the stories told of heroic men, warriors and conquerors admired by women and the weak, men who conquered worlds and dazzled crowds and scaled the highest mountains. These were the heroes who inspired him. He played with a sword, leaping and whirling and thrusting and parrying the blows of evil men. He ran in the wind and swam in the river deep in the forest and then slept in the sun on the mossy bank dreaming of endless fields and a woman like his mother coming out of the sea and embracing him.

In that time and that place women wore high heels and nylon stockings. His mother was tall, statuesque. His father was a little man with powerful arms. He had been wounded in the war. They lived first on a farm and owned some horses. Later they came to the city and lived in an apartment house. They had a doorman out front and a lobby with a marble floor and a chandelier and some paintings on the walls and a gilded mirror above an antique table near the elevator but his mother was restless. His father owned a garage. A. played in the street every afternoon. Now the world was becoming clearer to him and he could see what he had not seen before, though much was still concealed in the darkness and the shadows. For a long time he could not connect the little points of light that flickered in the background. They were like isolated stars. He remembered mornings in the park and his mother in her heels and other women like her in long skirts that showed the round calves of their shapely legs. This was the dawn of a new age. A great war had been fought and men were making their way home or striking out in new directions. The sky was always blue and you saw a squirrel run up a tree and there were beds of flowers and little ants and dogs on leashes and bikes and roller skates and bouncing balls, so much noise and movement and color and light and the sun so bright and a pale quarter-moon still in the sky and you wanted it all and you said, “Me! Me!” and then the shouts of children in the distance and his heart beating wildly as he ran to join them in the playground or the vast green playing fields or the deep, hot sand with the pennants flapping in the breeze above the pavilions on the boardwalk and the ships standing out at sea and the salt sea air clinging to the skin. Later he remembered the smell of fresh paint or rotten oranges when they took the body out in a body bag and a young woman on a fire escape smoking a cigarette in the hot summer night.

In that time and that place great heroes were being celebrated and A. followed their careers and imagined that he would be a hero too one day, undertaking great journeys on lonely roads and admired by all the world. These roads would lead him to fabulous cities where distant lights shimmered in the liquescent evening air. He thought about these places as he lay in his bed unable to sleep and watched the shadows moving on the wall and heard the sound of traffic in the street. In the other room he heard his parents’ voices and felt secure. A great war had been fought but it was over now. His father walked with a limp. On the floor beneath them there was a man without arms and legs who had a pretty wife. His mother was tall, statuesque, and used to dance by herself in the living room with the music playing loud and fast, spinning round and round and sometimes grabbing his hand and laughing in delight. His father came home from the garage with his hands black with grease. On Sunday mornings he took him out with his little bicycle and he rode around the block, faster and faster he went without thinking where he was going, just flying into the wind and his father coming after him and saying, “That’s it, keep pedaling!” with his newspaper under his arm. He remembered clear days in winter when he was bundled up and lifted his face to catch the heat of the sun and watched the people passing by while little signs registered unconsciously in his mind, imprinting themselves forever, so that one day, in some distant year, a spark of light would cause him to recall the way some woman stumbled when she turned to look at him or wiped her mouth as though she had just finished eating.

Before the war his mother had been in the theater, though A. did not understand exactly what that meant. There were many photographs of her on the stage, looking not at all like herself. His father had been a hero in the war, coming back with many medals, though not as tall as she. That apparently had not mattered. In their official wedding picture she was seated. They both came from large families, scattered far and wide, though present for the wedding and grouped around the newlyweds in the photos in their album. A. barely knew their names though he often heard of their adventures. These were his aunts and uncles. After they left the farm he didn’t see too much of them. One was a sailor and one was a soldier and another was a musician. The women had many children but they too never came around. Therefore A. and his parents remained alone in their new home, and downstairs the doorman greeted him as though he were a little gentleman. A. bounced a ball against the wall and waited for the other children to come down to play and then they crossed the street to the park in single file like a row of ducklings while the doorman held up traffic. At Christmas time his mother gave him a generous gift. She always got along with men.

A. went to school on the other side of the park. He walked to school beside the low retaining wall from which a steep incline ran up to the pedestrian walk, sometimes alone, sometimes with other children, his briefcase bursting with books and wearing a leather hat with earflaps like a fighter pilot in the winter when his nose got cold and he had to lean against the radiator to thaw himself out and other children slipped and fell when the streets were icy but not he, he was surefooted, quick to regain his balance when the ground gave way. He excelled in all the sports and fighting too and was a leader now among the children, they looked up to him, waited for his commands or his approval. Yet A. was assailed by many doubts and not at peace with himself. Already there was a certain melody playing in his head, a theme sounded again and again that he wanted to become his life.

That melody also came from the world. It took in the movement of things, it lifted his spirit and made him want to run, toward the limitless horizons of his life, outstripping the world, but it came to him too in the perfect peace of quiet streets on lazy summer afternoons, so that he wanted to come to rest within himself as well. It came to him when he watched the rain from his kitchen window high above the street or saw a woman behind a half-drawn windowshade. A. noted the passing of the years in his looseleaf notebook, writing in the new year at the top of the page every morning. In those years it snowed often in the winter and sometimes the trains stopped running, leaving people stranded if they were foolish enough to go to work. A. remembered coming back to the house on the coldest day of the year and drinking something hot to warm himself. Then spring came and the hot summer days and the still air again and they swam in the creek and there were leeches on her legs and he picked them off but that was in the future, he could not have foreseen such a moment, he might have gone down a different path and then it would not have been and the line that led to it would stop short like a road to nowhere.

These were the formative years, as they are called, though they did not transpire in historical time but rather in sequences that exceeded the speed of light when they materialized in his mind, each link or unit instantly evoking the others as in a film that is speeded up through some trick of the camera to show cells dividing or a bird’s nest being built. Each cell, it can be said, contains the imprint of the whole and so an arm will become an arm and a leg will become a leg just as the brisk, determined report of a woman’s heels against the pavement will evoke the memory of a plane in the cloudless summer sky, or rather both will be fixed like spokes in a wheel turning around the center of a life.

A.’s world was overtly simple. He was up by eight and walked to school. He came home for lunch. He played in the street or park. He read storybooks and newspapers. He listened to the radio. He collected stamps. Had he been a cat or dog it would have remained as simple as it seemed. The man without the arms and legs was an oddity, as was his pretty wife, who towered over him, but they were a cheerful couple. Out of this memory A. would begin to construct a somewhat sentimental model of romantic love. Later the couple moved away and he would hope their lives turned out well. He always hoped for the best. He had a fairly generous spirit, or perhaps lived vicariously through others, as many of us do. That was why he admired heroes. The triumphs of his heroes were like his own, though not entirely so. It was his own triumphs that were dearest to his heart, manufactured in fantasies that grew more and more elaborate as his experience of the world increased. Some were geopolitical, taking him to distant lands, others occurred right at home. In this imaginary world he began to create the myths that would control his life.

A. liked to dress up as a soldier and stalk enemies with a toy gun. He had a long military coat and a metal helmet that went pok-pok-pok when you hit yourself over the head with a rolling pin and crouched behind a chair or sofa waiting to pounce on them, that is, his enemies, at which point a struggle might ensue, until he drew his gun and fired again and again at the falling figures. He got these ideas from the movies he saw. He enjoyed getting shot himself, sometimes writhing on the ground until a nurse or some little girl came along to dress his wounds, or conversely picking bits of shrapnel out of some little girl’s behind. He had a cap gun but it smelled up the house and his mother complained. Sometimes his father agreed to be the enemy, even going so far as to smear ketchup on his face when he was shot, so that A. would later wonder if he too had not appeared on the stage at some point in his life. The house was fairly big. He conducted his wars in all the rooms. His mother always had appointments. She was pretty busy.

A. visited his father’s garage once or twice. He didn’t like it, neither the noise nor the smell. You had to take the subway to get there though his father drove to work. His mother took him, dressed to kill, that is, his mother, in her high heels and nylon stockings with perhaps a fur piece thrown around her neck, and the mechanics undressing her in their minds but not daring to say a word because she was a formidable woman and her husband had powerful arms though he was a little short with a big head and a face that was at once youthful and old. Why his mother went there with him he never knew. He remembered having lunch in a corner luncheonette and looking out the plate glass window at the dirty street. Farther up there was a railroad yard and some railroad tracks that ran beneath an overpass where traffic flowed in one direction and a boarded-up movie theater and vacant stores so it was a pretty rundown neighborhood where women in housedresses came out in the middle of the morning to buy their groceries or some cheap red wine but his father felt right at home here, as though it was his natural habitat. His mother too seemed to fit right in. Nothing perturbed her. Nothing could touch her. He imagined that she had supernatural powers. A. would remember his father’s garage in later years, or rather the neighborhood where it was located, in an emblematic way. It would open his imagination to the idea of certain kinds of women lingering in certain kinds of streets, romanticizing his old vision of the night even further, so that it would become fixed in a corner of his mind and tied to other visions there. All these visions make up the history of an unlived life.

A. was a voracious reader. He devoured many books, the romances of Sir Walter Scott and Jules Verne and James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain and Edgar Rice Burroughs. A teacher read Don Quixote to the class every Friday afternoon and he bought The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at a book bazaar for just ten cents. Out of these books he wove new fantasies. He was often alone in the house and looked through his parents’ things. His father had a metal box filled with mementos of the war, the bullet that had smashed his leg, a bayonet, a diary. His mother kept torrid novels in a bedside drawer. She liked to wash her hair with beer and wrap it in a towel. There was a fire escape outside the bedroom window where some burglars had forced their way in one afternoon when no one was home, taking his mother’s jewelry. His father had replaced it. He was devoted to her. They had married before the war and she was mentioned in his diary once or twice. A. liked to read it sitting on the bed in his mother’s slip. Once he tried to smoke a cigarette too, getting lipstick on it just the way his mother did. His father had had some close calls before getting shot, even being imprisoned for a while. There was mention of two other women in the diary but it wasn’t clear to A. what that was all about.

When they got their first television set they watched the wrestling together and his father pointed out the holds and even demonstrated some of them. His father was completely taken in but A. understood that it was all a fake. His mother came in and out of the room in her busy way, smelling of perfume, sometimes in just her slip, sometimes with the towel around her head, but always in high heels and nylon stockings. The heels made a dull, thudding sound on the wooden floor but clattered like castanets downstairs in the lobby and people turned their heads to admire her wherever she went but she walked with her nose in the air as though oblivious to their looks. When his father was with them he trailed behind, sometimes with a cane. They took him to Radio City once where they saw the Rockettes and a film about Sinbad the Sailor. This was the high point of their family life, as the three of them seldom went out together. Afterwards they went to an expensive restaurant where his mother greeted the theater people who came in to eat as though she were a celebrity herself. His father, however, never looked up from his plate, heedlessly shoveling in the food. A. was too young at the time to think there was anything peculiar about the ferocious way his father ate. A. himself chewed his food lackadaisically though he had been given to understand that they were having a gourmet meal. There was movement all around them, the waiters with their trays, people coming and going, and a steady hum of voices and scrape of dishes and clinking of glasses that made a little symphony that would always produce in him a certain dreamy mood detached from the everyday world and yet also responding to it as the backdrop of his dreams. His dreams were rooted in the world though sometimes he saw himself high above it, soaring into the sky and across the oceans. The mood persisted in the subway when they went home at the end of the day, the train rocking on the tracks and screeching in the turns and his own disembodied reflection in the window illuminated by the dim, baleful lights of the passing stations. All these memories would come to be attached in his mind to the signs and symbols that subsumed them. These became the centers of feeling that were at the core of his life.

A. was neither short nor tall, or fat or thin, but athletic, as we mentioned somewhere previously. He excelled at the games children played and therefore a great future was predicted for him, as he was also good at fighting and had a quick mind. His father of course imagined he’d become a mechanic and take over the garage but his mother was grooming him for more exalted things, things that were written in the stars, as she liked to put it. He became her protégé for a time. She took him everywhere so that he might learn to shine in society. She had many admirers. Men were dazzled by her beauty. They spoke to her in poetic language and she replied in kind, sometimes winking at him so that he would know it was all in fun, but he was jealous. His father stayed at home but coached him in the manly arts, hoping to make his arms as thick as his. A. was not happy. Something had gone amiss.

When he was seven or eight his mother took him to a mountain resort. Not surprisingly, she didn’t get along with other women. The resort was a fashionable place. The women were all prima donnas and the men came up on weekends after spending the week engaged in worldly pursuits. A. played with the other children. They played ball in the pastures and went swimming in the woods and boating on a lake and hiking on the mountain trails. In a wooden building called the Casino men and women played cards and sometimes in the evening there were amateur theatricals instead of the professional entertainment up at the main building and during the day he sometimes heard the tinny piano being played there and went inside once and saw a girl sitting on the stool and playing a melody over and over again and he would remember it in years to come though he never saw the girl again.

The proprietors were a middle-aged couple who often had to mediate among quarreling guests and sometimes quarreled themselves but kept things running smoothly as a rule. When the proprietress appeared she was always surrounded by an entourage of executives and accountants in business suits though most of the time she was only looking for her husband, whom she didn’t seem to trust, as he apparently had a roving eye, so conceivably the entourage was there to divert her attention, being loyal to her husband, who did the hiring and firing. These goings-on were the talk of the entire resort.

The women wore shorts and halters during the day and showed the beginnings of varicose veins, except his mother, who was flawlessly made. Mr. Sussman, the proprietor, was in and out of their rooms all day long, walking around in overalls and sometimes making minor repairs himself though he had a big maintenance crew at his disposal. He always had a screwdriver in his hand and was very friendly, saying, “Hello, ladies,” whenever he saw the women on the grounds, making them blush and giggle like schoolgirls. People didn’t know what to make of him. There were rumors that he’d gotten ahold of the resort by underhanded means. Despite the overalls he was a distinguished-looking gentleman. His wife, on the other hand, was somewhat stout, as was their teenage son, an oafish fellow called Fat Herman or the Zhlub by the regular guests, who often ran errands for his father, delivering notes to certain ladies and sometimes using a passkey to get into their rooms. As for Mrs. Sussman, when she wasn’t looking for her husband she spent most of her time with her sister Esther, a heavy smoker with a rasping voice who was lodged permanently in one of the cottages near the lake and looked after the resort in the off-season when the Sussmans went abroad. Mostly they played mah-jong with the other women but occasionally they went into town to do some shopping. Esther had never been married, as far as anyone knew, but on one of these trips she’d apparently caught the eye of a local farmer who somehow got into the cottage and tried to force himself on her after she got back a little tipsy from the floor show in the main building one night. Fortunately her screams brought out Mr. Susmann himself brandishing a shotgun and the poor man was seen streaking quite naked across the grounds, his huge member still erect, or so the women who saw him said, and could talk of nothing else for the rest of the summer.

A.’s mother liked to take young people under her wing at the resort, especially lovestruck girls, offering them advice. Occasionally she took an active part in arranging their trysts and assignations. Some would have called this meddling but most of these girls considered her a mentor and on any given afternoon she could be seen surrounded by them beneath the myrtle tree on the big lawn opposite the modest bungalow where the Sussmans resided for the summer season, holding forth about affairs of the heart. Needless to say, the same young men whom her protégés were trying to captivate often fell in love with her themselves. One summer she was followed around by a very handsome and athletic young man but had a rival in another of the older women, a certain Caroline Schwartz, who tempted him by taking him out on the lake in her husband’s speedboat, and the Sussmans had to intervene. A.’s mother was furious and vowed eternal revenge.

These summers were the only time he saw his many cousins. They were also a quarrelsome bunch, as were his aunts and uncles, always getting into one another’s hair with their intrigues and petty jealousies. A. tagged along. He wasn’t really one of them. He had his own little band and was held in great esteem there for his prowess at fighting and athletic skills. However, he was still many years away from coming into his own. Things were just now beginning to fall into place as he observed the world around him. He was starting to understand how things worked, though still in a primitive way. He knew whom to fear and whom to trust.

Time passed slowly in these years, though they were filled with exciting events, for there was always something up ahead that was more exciting still and he was impatient for it to come, in a week or in a month. Even an hour was too long to wait for the things he wanted. He did not know how to measure time, though it was the same for everyone, or so he had been led to believe. He could see it on the clock or on the calendar. The second hand went round and round but the minute hand never seemed to move. It was like the earth in its orbit, standing still while it flew through space and thereby bringing a measure of stability to its unwitting inhabitants. A. too seemed to be standing still as the years went by. He did not remember the past nostalgically but as a time where he was here or there in a kind of continuum running laterally through the world like a disk expanding simultaneously in every direction. Later he would feel trapped inside himself as though he were dreaming his life. But that was in another time.

When summers ended he went back to school, advancing from grade to grade. Each fall his mother took him shopping for the school year, never neglecting to pick out a few items for herself, so that her wardrobe expanded as rapidly as his, though unlike him she didn’t outgrow her clothes, seeming to have entered the world full-grown and therefore needing more and more closet space as the years went by. By the time A. was nine she had seventy pairs of shoes and forty hats. She would report these numbers to him when she was in an expansive mood. A. was fascinated by her accouterments. They would sometimes go through her jewelry together. He also liked to read the labels on her creams and lotions and occasionally try on her lipstick, as mentioned above. He loved his mother.

He loved his father less. Though affectionate, he frightened him at times with his powerful arms and the old limp that threw his balance off and caused him to dip from side to side like someone being thrown from a horse as he dragged himself along, only righting himself when he came to rest. It could not have occurred to A. to ask himself how his glamorous mother had come to link her fortunes to such a gnomelike creature, the medals notwithstanding. He had no reason to doubt his father’s paternity, not quite understanding how these things worked. Little of his father could be seen in him. As we have said, he was neither short nor tall, or fat or thin. If pressed, people would have said he was his mother’s son.

When his father was sick he drank whisky and slept in a sweatshirt, not wishing to miss a day at the garage. His mother never got sick though they slept in the same bed. What went on in that bed A. would never know. Sometimes his mother massaged his legs or rubbed them with alcohol when they hurt after a day of playing ball and when he took a bath she scrubbed his back and washed his hair. The bath was a Sunday night ritual, to get him ready for school. There were always rusty razor blades in the soap dish so maybe that was where she shaved her legs. Afterwards she combed his hair with a fine-tooth comb, looking perhaps for lice or perhaps to get the dandruff out. Then he sat on his bed for a while reading comic books.

Unlike his father, A. enjoyed being sick and staying home from school, but not the doctor’s visits when he stuck a thermometer deep inside his rectum, which he only allowed after protracted negotiations, even more so than when his mother took his temperature because he trusted the doctor less. Eventually, when his fever went down, they left him alone to idle away his days in bed convalescing with his comic books and toy soldiers and daydreams. He imagined taking a little girl’s temperature the way the doctor took his and nursing her back to health in the aftermath of some unspecified illness, or perhaps an infection brought on by the aforementioned shrapnel lodged in her backside. These were in effect his first consciously sexual thoughts but he was unequipped to proceed any further with them. His mother went out to shop every morning at ten o’clock with a great clatter of heels which he imagined he could hear reverberating in the hall all the way to the elevator. When she came back she made his lunch and then paced the floor restlessly and sometimes went out again so that he was alone the entire afternoon and would remember these times fondly though not decisively. When he was well he played in the street till dark and then did his homework and listened to the radio and took the newspaper from his father when he got back from the garage in the evening and read the sports section. He would remember especially the winter afternoons when it got darker and darker and then it was dark all at once and it was night. Someone was always playing a piano down the hall. A. sat on the living room floor hearing the strains of the music as he played with his marbles or baseball cards while his mother made supper, thinking sometimes of the girl in the Casino. The floor was waxed and polished but full of scuff marks as though someone had been dragging furniture across the room. There was linoleum in the kitchen and wallpaper on the kitchen walls and little hexagonal tiles in the bathroom where his mother scrubbed his back in the bathtub. The radiators were generally hot in the winter and consequently it was generally warm in the big apartment. In one closet his father kept his metal box. In another closet his mother kept her hats and shoes. They had more rooms than they needed and seldom had visitors. His mother went out when she wished to display herself. She only spoke to two or three people in the building though A. played with all the children and occasionally visited their houses. His best friend was a little boy named Perry who lived on the top floor with countless brothers and sisters and was always telling A. how pretty his mother was, that is, A.’s, being something of a sycophant and even then a shameless charmer. His own mother had understandably lost her looks through her excessive breeding and was a little short-tempered too. He told A. he had lived on a cattle ranch once, but A. believed he was making this up because he knew that A. had lived on a horse farm before coming to the city. Perry liked to come down to A.’s house to eat. Surprisingly, A.’s mother liked to cook, as busy as she was. She must have had a domestic side to her. A maid came by once a week and his mother often gave her clothes. She also gave clothes to the super’s wife. His mother could be very generous when she wasn’t settling scores.

The super was a German who drank a lot and had a bad temper. He lived with his wife in a gloomy basement apartment and could be relied upon to stoke the furnace and take the garbage out, though they occasionally had to bang on the radiator to get some heat. He also made small repairs in return for a shot of whisky and a small gratuity. Though he must have arrived in the country long before the war he spoke English with a heavy accent and was fond of using words like Schwanz and Fotze. He must have thought A. could speak German too because he used them frequently in their brief encounters when A. came down to the basement to look for his cat, apparently feeling that everything down there belonged to him and therefore resenting tenants who tried to remove things though once he did in fact give A. a discarded hat. The basement was full of cats and a lot of junk piled up in storerooms. A. believed that one of the cats was his, brought back from the resort by his father after A. had fed it for an entire summer, but of course this was a fiction, his father had only pretended to bring the cat back and release it in the basement where it might live a contented life among its own kind. A. did not realize this until many years later but by that time nothing could really add to his general feeling of disillusionment.

Sometimes too the super came up to the ground floor in the elevator to chase the children out of the lobby when they played hockey there on roller skates on rainy days, using a couple of antique benches as goals. The doorman usually joined him, as did certain neighbors, so A. and the others found themselves outnumbered and scattered in every direction with everyone shouting at them, except for one of Perry’s older brothers who always stood his ground, saying he wasn’t afraid of anyone. A. admired him and would have liked to be as brave as he was. Perry had another brother away at college whom A.’s mother called Harvard instead of Howard, perhaps as a joke, though she did have a tendency to mispronounce people’s names. She also referred to salads as solids. A. wore glasses in these years but never took them to school or out to play, not wishing to look like a sissy and therefore hiding them under a radiator in the lobby and picking them up again when he got back. The super was a scruffy type with a big belly hanging out of his pants and always smelled of whisky or paint or stale sweat. Sometimes he laid traps for the children and jumped out at them from behind a pillar or the stairwell as though to snatch them, saying “Boo!” and having a good laugh at their expense, a distinctly foreign laugh, everyone was convinced. A. was always afraid that he would grab him one day and drag him down to the basement and never went there alone now. He would have thought that the doorman would be in charge of things but just the opposite turned out to be the case.

A. was a late riser. He had trouble getting out of bed, especially on weekends, when he sometimes slept till noon. This was a danger sign. His mother called him lazybones and tried to tickle his feet, which made him laugh and squirm, but in later years she left him alone. When he got up, breakfast was on the table. When he went to sleep, fresh clothes were laid out on a chair for him. A. was developing a fatal flaw. He lacked get-up and go. He depended too much on others. He expected others to bring order to the world and even tie his shoelaces. He was not self-reliant. This was in direct contrast to his dream of being a hero. He could only be a hero in an imaginary world, though this was not to say that his dreams couldn’t come true.

On the other hand, he was full of mischief and, as mentioned above, a leader among children. This was perhaps a paradox. His enthusiasm held out great promise, not to mention his skill at fighting and the sharpness of his mind, but at the same time something held him back. We shall not probe too deeply here, other than to say that the somewhat complex persona he was developing – overly aggressive or exuberant in certain situations, paralyzed in others – made him a prime candidate for the psychoanalyst’s couch. It is not after all causes that we wish to clarify but their effects.

Sometimes his mother left town. When she was out of town she left frozen meals in the freezer. A.’s father ate them at the kitchen table. Afterwards he read his paper or watched the wrestling on TV. Then he went to bed. After he went to bed A. would turn on the television again and sometimes find a film to watch. He would come to love these films where things usually ended well with the hero in the guise of a mysterious stranger cleaning up a lawless town or a big city reporter exposing graft at City Hall and getting the girl who held up her face to his in the closing scene but also with heroes dying occasionally as in the books he read so that together with his romantic visions he began to develop a tragic sense of life. He knew by now that people were starving in distant lands or being murdered in city streets or stricken by disease or disappointed in love or losing everything they had in floods and fires and foreclosures and in the end of course everyone died and that was tragic too. He asked his mother if God existed and she said of course he does but after a while he stopped believing her. Though he lacked a philosophical doctrine to fill the void he was not really distressed. He had bigger problems.

For A. was not happy. Something had gone amiss. He heard the music that might have been his life and yearned for what it promised. He dreamed of a day when he would conquer worlds and dazzle crowds and scale the highest mountains.  Occasionally he contemplated suicide. But this was just a passing thought. He wasn’t really serious about it.

A. had a life, as small as he was. It was recorded seismographically in the cells of his brain, which was where he resided when all was said and done though his arms and legs did most of the work and his tongue formed words that more or less reflected his state of mind. Inside himself other voices spoke, also reflecting his state of mind, but though not unlike his own these were hidden from the world, sometimes rushing like a raging river, sometimes singing the sweetest song. The voices never stopped. They were what he was.

A. had a life. It belonged to him alone. It accompanied him wherever he went, written into the fabric of his being, so that even if he had wished to he could not have escaped it. A. had a life that unfolded with every step he took, but he might also have had a different life. Then his own life would not have been lived, lying buried in some undisclosed dimension of his mind, leaving a trail of roads not taken like spurs or nodes shooting impulses into the empty space of a severed limb. These impulses would form their own constellations, traceable only through an act of the imagination but always present in the mind. A. had a life but he might have had other lives and they were in him still. At any point he might have turned to the left or to the right and then like a rocket whose course is altered infinitesimally he would have missed his mark by a thousand billion miles and reached the other side of the universe.

For A. might have gone down a different path. Then those threads and filaments reaching into the empty air would have engaged the world and found expression there, coming together in his mind to create different forms and shapes and moods and thoughts, so that one afternoon perhaps, seeing a woman on the steps of the Library or in a subway station, another world would have opened before him. Then his life might have hung in the balance and he might have become what he would never be.

In that time and that place there was a feeling of great hope in the air but people couldn’t say what the future had in store for them. It was as if they were in the bottom of a well and the future was a tiny patch of sky that they could barely see. A great war had been fought but it was over now. Half a century had come and gone. One day the rest of it would be gone as well. This was the time of History. A. dreamed about being a hero. The wars he fought were in his mind. He imagined them. They were his secret life. But there was that other life in him that he would never know, buried in some undisclosed dimension of his mind, like a house that is never built, its foundations extending into empty space, its lines undrawn but existing in the formal sense. This life belonged to the future too. He had not yet reached the fork in the road.

We observe A. one last time as a young child. He is wearing corduroy pants and a flannel shirt under a sheepskin coat. It must be winter again. He is there. He looks up at his window and sees his mother behind the half-drawn shade. He looks across the street and sees the park where the trees are bare. He is there, not yet fully formed, unsure of himself, full of doubt and uncertainty but also full of hope as he contemplates the limitless horizons of his life in his childlike way. His brain produces thoughts; feelings follow. He cannot control them. He is not the author of himself. He is like someone in an empty room hearing voices from behind the walls. He is whatever comes into his head. His nose is cold. He has rosy cheeks. He waits for the other children to come down to play. The doorman nods at him. He occupies space. He is in the world, but he is also in himself. He cannot be extracted from either. This is his condition. With each step he takes he creates his own future but the forms of that future are prefigured in the deepest recesses of his mind. With each step he takes he pulls himself along in one configuration or another, leaving others behind. They do not vanish. They remain in him like tiny embryos, the foundations of his unlived lives. This will be the story of those lives.


Read Fred’s interview with WIPs about his novel in progress, Things Unsaid.