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Darkening Dido


I happened upon this story in our forum, Ateliers. It was first posted in January '09. It is a 5 page excerpt taken from a 25 page long short story, a kind of story within a story.

The story involves four young friends. There is the conversationalist who's described as the perfect conversationalist so gifted he often talks for his meal. He is a kind of young sage. Then there is the movie goer, an aficionado of films. Third, there is the quiet spoke, a man almost pathologically quiet, enough so that you figure he is hiding or running from something. Last, there is the narrator. The story makes clear he is a man who is trying to figure out who he himself is. It is also clear he worships the conversationalist as a man who comfortably knows who he himself is.
 
The friends have just come from a rock concert. Walking the streets, and really pumped up by the concert (the band might have been Dire Straights), they have decided to go to a Speak Easy kind of bar that stays open all night. Once there they buy many bottles of a particular wine to carry them through the night. In attendance there is a bartender and a waitress who will both end up joining in the proceedings sometime before dawn.
 
After much lively talk a moment of quiet, a kind of lull, comes over the room. Maybe it is about 3 AM. The conversationalist decides to do something the friends have always shied from doing. He asks the quiet spoke why he is so god damn quiet. Here is his story of why.
 
*************

This is the one question especially that none of us have ever dared ask this man. The one whose answer, perhaps, we were most afraid of hearing. And it was just that he was one of those delicate men who, at first glance, gave you the impression of being gay. It was only gradually that you realized how his was an adoration of women which, unlike the stronger seeming type of man, was as unmixed with the seeds of conflict as could be true of a sympathetic soul. But there was also something about him that made you wary, something in those sympathetic strings of his that were stretching him to the breaking point. In another age he might have been a wandering saint whose greatest pleasure could have been derived from the language of birds and little children. But in ours, he was an inwardly turning man whose only defense was a silent kind of shroud.
 
Our quiet friend took the question squarely between the eyes. He did not flinch or fidget in his seat. But we could almost see how he was staggering beneath the blow that had been dealt him. As quiet as was his habit of being, if it was possible, he seemed to retreat even further behind his mask. Just as, for a moment there, it looked as if he had found the crevasse leading to every man's bottomless self, and that he was almost willing to let himself go, even if falling forever. But then he returned to us, to the body of our company inside the room, and he was beginning to return the focus of his attention on his indelicate examiner.
 
"I haven't always been this quiet," he began by saying, "though I suppose I have been more receptive than most men in my habit of taking inside of me what is going on around me. I guess you could say I am a sensitive, which is what one long ago friend did say about me. And since you've asked me to speak about myself, I see no harm in repeating so high sounding an epithet. And I imagine all of you would be surprised to learn of my opinions which, I freely admit, have been set like stones in the mortar of my loneliness. And even though I know I am like an old man for you, what you don't know is how much age I've seen, and still on the underside of thirty."
 
He was laughing then, this silent man. Nor was it pleasant to hear. It was like the laughter of someone who thought he knew something you didn't. It was just so low, curdling, and perfectly dry.
 
"But I really haven't always been this quiet," he began again, and reaching for a measure of composure. "Before I came here, I lived for awhile in the ante bellum capitol of the Old South. Richmond town is what I called it. I never just thought of it as Richmond. For me, it was always Richmond town, which was a trick I used for bringing the town personally alive. And I would almost sing it out, sometimes, while walking down Grove Street, or along the wide Monument Boulevard. And the red brick townhouses, the skinny sidestreets, and the old store fronts would seem to be singing it too. Especially in autumn when the oak, maple, sycamore, and locust trees were so many party dresses swinging in the breeze. In spite of everything, the urban desolation of private wealth and public indifference, the fumes from the cars speeding to uncertain destinations, and the rag tag folk who seemed, sometimes, to be my only walking companions, it was the loveliest town I've ever lived in. There was nothing that could stop me from singing my song, even in winter.

"I had a good job translating texts and manuals in the city's art museum. It was much the same work as I do now, but I enjoyed my work then, not like now. I also enjoyed the people with whom I worked, curators, guides, historians, and the clerical personnel, some of whom were the older women who had lived in Richmond town all of their lives, and who still spoke in the gracious tones of a time before ours. A time, I suppose, that may never have existed except in my imagination. And theirs. And one of my favorite pastimes, while I would take a break from my work, was to go to where the students would be copying the painting of some master, and to either quietly watch them as they worked, or, sometimes, to fall into an easy conversation about the artist they were imitating. I was not old then, you see, or penned inside my own ways. I was always wondering about things I saw and heard, and I had no opinions.
 
"I'm coming to where I can answer your question. In fact, I'm almost there. But there is one thing more you need to know about my Richmond town, even though I'll only mention it in passing. It's just that it gave to me the one love of my life, the great thing. And why we insist on calling something of so uncertain a disposition as love great, I'll never know. Except that it alters forever our chances for an undisturbed revery, or, if you'd rather, a comfortable drudgery.
 
"She was one of the students who came to the museum, and I met her while she was copying a minor El Greco painting that depicted the Tagus River snaking its way around Toledo. I had been to Toledo a year or so before, and I interrupted her work by telling her so. Which information impressed her about as much, and in the same way, as might have a buzzing fly. But she had looked at me then, just right then, in her annoyance. And I guess it was the falling-in green of her eyes that made me speak again, and the way she had for standing as if there were no museum walls that could contain her. So I told her that what struck me the most about the ancient hilltop town was how the Tagus looked from its western prado. I said it looked just like that, and pointing to its painted image screwed to the wall in front of us. She, not having seen my gesture, said like what. And so I said that when the moon was shining over the calciferous plain surrrounding the town, the Tagus that El Greco had painted so obsessively was the same ghostly river as what I saw bending its way around the base of its hill. She looked at me then, really for the first time, and she said that her teacher had told her that the painted Tagus was an example of the Greek's 'Mannerism.' I said that I wouldn't know about such things, but that it seemed to me the painter had rendered the river of his exile faithfully. Then I said something that I didn't know I knew, believed in, or had ever felt before. And I wasn't even certain I knew what the words meant. But I said that maybe for a man so far away from home, the Tagus had been a kind of shimmering soul's light, or a snaking pathway that promised to take him back to where he belonged; and that, even if he had been given the chance to go back home, he might have decided to stay by his river that had become like a doorway leading him on.
 
"It was then that she set her brush down and looked at me quizzically. And I felt as if she was weighing me, or trying to decide if I was worth the interruption. And so we talked for the rest of my lunch hour, and I met her the next day, and the next. Soon there was the dinner, and then the evening when she said she would be staying through the night. And what more do I need to say except that a man's ceiling is sometimes a woman's floor. We met, we loved, then she left town on her way to Spain. What had been my greatest love had not been hers. She was an artist after all.
 
"And it wasn't long after she left Richmond that I decided to move into a cheaper apartment, or to maybe take a room in a house somewhere. I didn't really need to economize, being responsible to no one but myself, but I wanted to save my money. I was going to follow her, you see, and flush her out of Toledo's thicket of narrowing streets. And so I asked around amongst my co-workers, thinking that the older ladies, especially, would know of someone who rented out rooms, someone who would be asking for less rent than what was listed in the newspaper. Funny how they were all particularly kind to me at this time. Having shared in my affair, in that discreet and far off way older women can, they were now concerned to share in my suffering. And how could I tell them I wasn't really suffering, since, I myself was unaware of the silent mask that had begun to pull itself protectively over me? So I let them be in their various kindnesses. I even encouraged them in order to secure my taveling ends. And it wasn't long before one of them told me about a friend of hers who rented out rooms on the second floor of her house so that she could feel herself protected.
 
"I was also told that her friend, who was confined to a hospitol bed, had once been the most beautiful woman in Richmond. She had waited to marry at a later age in her life than most women do, my co-worker told me, so that she could more enjoy the affect of her beauty on the town. And when she did marry, it had been to a wealthy lawyer who was now dead and who had left her well cared for. What all of this meant, my co-worker finally said, was that not only did her friend have no need for the money, but that, in her opinion, it was more for the sounds of a young man's tread than for the security of his presence that she continued renting out those second floor rooms.
 
"Needless to say, I was anxious to see the most beautiful woman in Richmond. And, to put it bluntly, I was hoping to rent one of her rooms for a song. My co-worker made the arrangements for an interview, and it just so happened that her friend was looking for another boarder. So on the day appointed for me to meet the woman who, I hoped, would be my new landlady, I left the museum early and I walked to her house. As I had imagined it would be, it was located in an older section of town that was still preserved in its time-ago charm of an era that itself had been given over to glorifying the memory of time-ago fallen soldiers. The house stood as squarely against the street as a bad poem of popular sentiments that had long since been forgotten; and, for that reason, its gingerbread facade was pleasing to the eye. I was met on the porch by a woman who turned out to be the owner's nurse and companion. And, being told I was expected, I was led down a long and narrow hallway to the house's solarium which the owner had come to keep as her sitting room, dining room, and bedroom. The nurse knocked on the door of the sun room, and then went in, leaving me in the hall. I could hear muffled voices inside the room, the squeaking of bed springs, and what sounded like a chair being dragged across the floor. The nurse then opened the door and asked me to come in. And so I walked into the brightly lit and largish room, with its thick paned windows set from floor to ceiling, to where there was a chair beside the bed. Half-sitting, half-reclining on the bed was the most beautiful woman in Richmond. But there was no way, I suppose, my kindly co-worker could have prepared me for the person I now saw.
 
"I've kept this memory locked away for a long time, even from myself. You've asked me a question and I am almost to where I can bring out your answer. But you shouldn't expect me to give you an answer in anything like a reasonable manner. It's just not possible.
 
"The woman sitting in the bed before me had no legs. I could see the mould of where they abruptly ended beneath the sheets. Her arms were splotched and bloodlessly yellow, and the skin that covered them was as worn out as a year old newspaper. Her hair was all but gone, and, on the side that was away from me, letting in the sun, she had no face. What I mean is that the most beautiful woman in Richmond town only had half a face.
 
"I saw all of this without flinching. Having been raised in a household of women, I was too well mannered to show anything like alarm. But inside I was screaming. I wanted to run out of there. And had I been able to, I would have left my smiling, even-tone replies to her questions on the chair to better cover my retreat. And what I was finding the most difficult to take were the eyes of this lady who hadn't meant to grow old. The impression they made on me was much more affecting than the shadowy cavern of her face that was tilted up like a teacup to catch the afternoon sun. They were just so alive, those eyes. But can you understand? There was no doubt in my mind that they had once belonged to, once been set to an unpredictable beauty of flashing form. And as long as I kept my attention focused on those eyes I was all right. I could talk about my job, or the vintage of her house. It was only when her eyes lost mine, and let them fall out of her grasp, as finally happened, that I was lost. When it did happen, I stumbled over my words, and then I fell silent. And when they caught mine again, we both saw how I had failed her. I hadn't been up to the test. It was when she looked away from me, turning her head towards the window with the crinkling sound of her scalp rubbing against the pillow, and it was a gesture signaling her disappointment in my visit.
 
"I shortly left her bedside to look at the room that was for rent. But it was only a pretext for releasing us both from our cruel and untimely meeting. I stayed upstairs long enough for the sake of the appearance, and I made a certain amount of deliberate noise so that she could hear me from her room. When I returned downstairs, I thanked the nurse for letting me see the room, and I told her I would be in touch. I then went to the old lady's door, thanked her as well, and once again I said that I would be in touch. And what I remember thinking about, as I was walking down the long and narrow hallway and reaching for the door, was my mother who had raised me, my older sisters who had shaped me, and the one girl I had ever dared to really fall for. In short, I was remembering each and every woman who I had followed from one day to the next, and who had led me to this house. And it seemed to me then that my life had always been in the hands of a woman, either in closing or opening, pushing or pulling, and that, unless I did something to pull myself out of this cauldron, I would never have surcease until I die."
 
With his hands still trembling, perhaps still looking for the door, our silent spoke fell back into his accustomed cloth of quiet. His story having brought us all to the mark, we understood that his silence had become the only effective defense against the visionary rudiments of an old woman's room. But now we too were quiet, we were almost as quietly keeping as him. Even the waitress, I think, had seen something of what it must have been for him, and of what it is for all men, in spite of their advertized efforts to the contrary, from cradle to grave. Having reached that rarely met point in a conversation, where its participants are so far below the shallows that thoughts become slippery eels electric to the touch, I didn't want to disturb the company by asking the waitress what she thought. But how I did want to ask her what she was thinking. And would she say, as I had once heard an older waitress say to a group of young turks in a late night diner, "I know who you are, you're just men"? Would she, instead, say nothing, and keep us still guessing? Or would she want to know why it is, then, that she is still subject to the whims and inept caretaking of every priest, politician, paramour, and pennysnatcher coming into view from over the hill? These were in the mix of my thoughts, at least, and she just wasn't talking. Then it seemed to me, and worst of all, that maybe she too was now seeing an old lady's room. Just as I knew I had viscerally felt what our friend had described for us. I couldn't deny what he had managed to say without saying it, or find the means with which to argue over the finer points of his unspeakable logic.
 
But it was finally our larger friend, the conversationalist, who, with a few simple words, somehow melted the cone of silence building over us. He leaned himself closer over the table, hunching his shoulders like some mothering vulture about to feed its young, and, looking at the scared sensitive in our midst, he asked, "But what man can say differently? Tell me! Who hasn't had to play the part? Who hasn't seen how, one day, his own love's face will melt away? And what woman hasn't known an old moon's bone? What you've seen hasn't set you apart, it's just made you damn shitty about crossing over the road from a sun-blanched field into the forest. Which, in itself, is a pretty time worn story. And, if you don't mind my saying so, it's the lesser half of the story at that. You would have done better, you know, to have stayed at the beginning until you were ready to turn the page. It was just the short-cut that did you in, just the film splicing, the counterfeit."
 
As our friend spoke, the sun was just beginning to lighten the sky. I heard a mockingbird somewhere, not so far away, and then a red bird in reply. And it seemed to me that, even inside this room, less certain things were starting up too. We were all feeling the stirrings of what our larger friend was saying, of what he had just said in so few words. And even our sensitive was getting something of a sunrise coloring in his cheeks. So maybe he had been waiting for someone to come along and tell him he was wrong. And what we were seeing again, in our larger friend, was that wild eyed Indian clad in green, peering out from inside the deepest part of the forest, and somehow inviting us to dive in too. It wasn't there for long, this greening side of our friend. But it seemed possible to think he would be coming again. And our friend was already suggesting that we treat the new day to a bottle of champagne.
 
*************

Terreson


Last edited by Terreson, Feb/10/2013, 4:51 pm
Feb/10/2013, 4:28 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
Katlin Profile
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Re: Darkening Dido


Much enjoyed this story within a story, Tere, and its Southern Gothic tone. Set in Richmond in the early 1970s, I'm guessing, there is a timeless quality underlying the tale.
Mar/15/2013, 7:52 pm Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
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Thanks for reading, Kat. Actually, I think there is something essential in the tale.

Tere
Mar/15/2013, 8:19 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
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My second read. I love this story.
Mar/21/2013, 6:57 am Link to this post Send Email to vkp   Send PM to vkp Blog
 
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Thanks for reading twice, vkp.

Here is something that might be interesting to the board. By age 18, long before I made anything worth reading, I resolved to only draw on what I've known, experienced, at least relatively, to use Camus's phrase. I wish I could say I don't look down on those who proceed differently. Coleridge made a sharp distinction between poems of fancy and poems of the imagination. One has earth roots, the other does not.

I saw that El Greco sky. In Toledo, on the town's western prado. The moon was full that week and there were clouds. It was the sky I had seen in his paintings. As the story points to, El Greco was less the mannerist art history has him to be than he was faithful to what his eyes told him was real. And the old woman. Saw her too. In those years I was renting rooms from old ladies, divorced or widowed, who lived in an expensive town and needed the income supplement. And maybe needed the added sense of security with a man on the property. So I had an interview with that truncated old lady who had been described to me as once the most beautiful woman in town. As my character does, I too damn near ran out of her home. The rest is fiction. Character of the silent spoke is not me, never worked in a museum, never had a painter/lover, at least in the way described. But consider the possibilities of how materials can be turned to fiction.

Tere
Mar/22/2013, 6:41 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
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I read it first last summer, and it has stayed with me.

Last edited by vkp, Mar/23/2013, 9:41 pm
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Tere,

Once again I appreciate the backstory to this piece. I love hearing about the "real" stories and then seeing how you re-imagined them for this story. Good stuff.
Mar/23/2013, 6:53 am Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
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Thanks, Kat. It is fun stuff to me, or used to be, taking the materials of experience and putting them to narrative purpose. You may recall in the Open Faces novel posted on the board the convenience store parking lot scene where an angry young man attacks a woman and is killed by her. I once posted that scene on another board. It involves cocaine. A fellow, a Californian living in Copenhagen, took me to task for writing about something I clearly knew nothing of. Of course I demured. You may recall there is a fair amount of cocaine in the novel. Two years worth for me. Never understood the man's crit. I think I got down pretty well what the drug does to the body. Especially the cold part when coming down.

Tere
Mar/23/2013, 12:56 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 


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