*scroll down for fiction by Jane Stubbs
The Interpellated Man
I. Solo One step follows another all the way to a crossroads, where a road that connects silence to madness crosses a road from hope to despair. A road and a road and a man stands there but he doesn’t know it yet. He is drawn by a voice that comes to him from a distance, a slow train. He listens. Looks for something to attach to the sound and perceives emptiness but for the sound which grows as he grows, into the space. At first the sound is reedy, unstable. He discovers he has fingers and sticks them into his ears, shakes them around to try and clear his vision. He looks down, locates his feet, and finds them unsteady. He sees that he can see where he stands deep ruts gouged into the ground that is red clay, hard as granite. His feet move around searching for balance on the uneven tread where wheels—must have been here before—turned circle after circle. So, others have traveled this way too. Before when? He wonders, but his mind is not composed enough for the thought to take hold.
The voice in the wind expands, takes shape. The ground is parched and cracked. He knows he knows he’s lost and wants for the voice. He is looking for something in his pockets. He finds a compass, an ancient thing with a red needle trembling beneath a crystal face. So there must be somewhere to get to. The voice tells him this is true. And although he seems to be in a place where solitude meets solitude; he is not alone and with this thought a dull certainty grows in rosy blotches on his cheeks. The compass keeps time. The direction-of-travel arrow keeps straight. The listener finds meaning collides understanding arrives, repeats. From his imagination where all the real things are born a mirage leaps out, hope and madness begin a slow waltz on a makeshift dance floor where these roads meet. The listener shuffles his feet.
The sound of strings floats down from the sky, form clouds around him. Melody rises from the broken ground. Both are called into being by the voice, as are all things here. It sings, blood never failed me, yet, never failed me, yet. The listener knows these words are telling him about himself in a special way. He waits for further insight but nothing comes. In the beginning, he cannot think, only feels. Despair sings solo. And he knows when he hears it that this is part of what makes him. Unsettling sadness grips his chest. His hand pushes at the pounding rising in a crescendo with the song. The beat under his palm tells him nothing. The voice sounds like it’s coming from ahead of him now. He points the compass in that direction, the needle points south. In that direction only a thin line black line draws the ground from the sky. In between this and there the red earth sprawls a text of glyphs cracked into the clay, mute and indecipherable. He wipes beads of sweat from his forehead and looks to the sun directly overhead. The light, he realizes, shimmies it all into a haze of the past. Old wind blows across the space between him and the horizon. He looks away. Thinks of the voice. The voice is telling him something. He tries to put it together with the compass dial, marking it in degrees. Each line of the song breaks then forms again. The listener squints against the bright light, the man is close now and he sees his face is cracked like the ground and his skin burnt to the color of the clay. The man seems to have risen from the cracks in the ground. In the distance he sees that the voice is the man. The man must be singing, he thinks, is singing, one thing I know? The old figure is torn and tattered, broken and forgotten by the world that he sings into existence. Wind kicks up red dust stinging the listener’s eyes that are ears. Upon hearing tears spring to his eyes, sparking sunlight into diamonds. He feels the prismatic light fill his throat with color. Sound plucks feet into motion pulling him toward the apparition in the fuzzy light.. The listener is afraid. Although his feet are put into motion by fingers plucking strings, he doesn’t want to leave the road, wants to remain rooted to earth. There is one thing I know for he loves me, so. The clay turns to blood where his tears fall. A bell tolls from somewhere he cannot imagine, coming closer, coming for him.
He consults the compass and uses the orienting arrow to sense this place. Hope rises in him with the sound of sweeping strings calling from under, above, from the road behind. One voice, two tones. In the space between bars in the middle of this wasteland, the duality is an embrace. The listener turns in slow circle and sees there is not one man but four all moving at a vagrant’s pace, a stride that says nowhere to be but someplace to get to. The four men sing in unison: one thing I know: love never failed yet.
II. Solo with Strings
The listener turns to take in each of the figures as they approach. He feels the heavy strings pulling despair from hope, hope from despair, one sound, four qualities, one point, four direction. Always connected end-to-end. Diamonds in the sky obstruct his view; there is blood in the dirt, strings drawing circles in the sky like birds in flight. An orchestra accompanies this sullen moment into perfect clarity: the landscape unfolds a beautifully desolate terrain. The voice pushes both the listener and the singer toward each other as the sun shines over a bleak horizon. Sorrow calls to love across vast space: come to me. The past stretches out and the land grows wider too so long that the horizon bends to shape infinity, but the voice keeps a fixed insistence on only one thing. Blood never failed me yet, is one thing I know, for he loves me so.
The finds he is tired and wishes to sleep, but this is not time to lie down. He bends to touch his knees then feels for the top of his head. The past brings questions to his mind. Where did come from? How did he get here? But the voice has not given him words for this, so he doesn’t understand the way they float in his mind, which he doesn’t yet know how to name. Instead, he uses hope to wrap harmonic arms around his weary bones. He senses time all around him. The line of infinity loops and crosses itself for this is the place where end meets beginning.
He is thirsty and cannot take in enough air. Using the compass, he tries to fix himself inside this location. But the earth rotates while he stands still. There are mountains on the horizon now, and on the other side, the future waits, the compass points north. A bell tolls. The march goes on. The voice keeps its vigil: blood never failed. It never failed me. Having made a slow arc in the sky, the sun casts a long shadow against the listener from behind. He sees himself for the first time in the shape of a silhouette, long and black, stretched out under blue skies streaked with clouds. Understanding arises in him. This is what keeps the living alive. One thing I know:
III. Full Orchestra The voice tells me that it will never fail, never failed never failed, for he loves me, it never failed me, for he loves me, so it never fails me. The man who sings walks toward him with arms stretched out and a crooked smile on lips cracked like the clay, broken and torn, bleeding, head tilted upward , rapturous—he loves me so—up to the sky, soaking in the soft sun. Everything turns beautiful in a golden purple light.
IV. The Voice and the Voice
Where the compass is held under a tolling bell, the two of them meet. The earth swells from the inside out.
V. A Voice Inside the Voice with Full Orchestra
And a new voice is born; the landscape shifts again. East to west. Where there was once silence comes sound. Where there was loneliness, madness sings, but it is exquisite, a harmony on the light side of dark. The horizon disappears. Sunk into the inside. Sucked into the ground. Lost in the clouds. The listener is trembling as his eyes trace the shape of the man who sings. The song stirs his blood, awakens his longing and love. He sees the reflection as in a mirror himself in himself being conjured. He realizes he knows this song and might if he tried be able to sing it too.
His voice flies around, tries to catch hold, but cannot find a firm grip. The words are the same, but the quality is different. He tries to sound sure but cannot match the insistent tone, his voice follows from madness but madness is not silence and there is more to it than choice, more than direction; it never fails. From inside him, a space so vast he cannot imagine it, his voice soars and dives, searches for strength to measure the world in the simplicity of the song. One thing I know. Silence and despair and hope and madness all travel the same road.
The sound of his own voice brings him to his knees with arms reaching, begging the sky to keep going. His harmony overtakes melody of the man and everything pours out into the deep red clay, the ground turns to blood under a blue sky, hands become fists. The compass falls to the ground and cracks. In time, the melody returns, but nothing much is clear. The listener, picks up the compass once again, slowly stands, one foot at a time. He is unwinding silence, accepting uncertainty on this other side. The listener tries to hear the voice that knows, and when he does, he tries to sing, to match the serenity he hears, but madness pushes knowing. The needle of the compass spins. The song does not stop, cannot stop. One line ends and the next begins, a mantra of days and nights. The music slips away quietly, the embrace of that voice that came from nowhere and everywhere releases and the one left standing keeps singing, moving now, himself, in all directions at once. But he follows the song and the song continues.
Having found his voice, the man speaks to the open plain: I am hailed here to exist in this. I am he and this song is mine and I am singing myself into this world with your voice and will follow the road where the road will take me. And I will sing. It never fails it never fails it never fails.
a selection from The Imp of the Perverse
When she arrived home, Ellen found a small package on the doorstep, but it wasn’t mail. It didn’t look like mail anyway, and besides, the mailman wasn’t due for another few hours. With a sickly excitement in her gut, she bent to pick up the brown paper cube and turned it over. It was held together with bits of duct tape and tied up with twine. It was simply labeled in ballpoint pen: To: Ellen.
I’m coming home, Baby.
She brought the package inside and laid it on the kitchen table while she made a sandwich, enjoying the mounting anticipation a mysterious package brings. Two slices of honey wheat bread in the toaster. Who could have left it? Creole mustard on the table, butter knife, lettuce. Why no indication of origin? Sliced turkey cold cuts, tomato, sharp knife, cutting board. Her birthday was months away, Christmas had come and gone, and she had no prospective suitors—none that she knew of anyway. She assembled her sandwich and sat down to eat. Between bites she constructed an elaborate fantasy in which Silas had returned to town, broken from his incessant yearning for her and his bad luck in Georgia, and in an effort to win back her heart, had come up with the idea to leave her various small gifts for a week or so before appearing, in person, on her doorstep to beg for her forgiveness. She remembered that phone conversation: I’m coming home, Baby. Make room in your place and we’ll find a better one when the lease is up. Ellen smiled. It was impossible, she knew (or at least she told herself so). But there was always a chance. At the very least, perhaps he had convinced a friend to leave a small token of his affection here, something that would convey the message that he was still thinking about her. That wasn’t too farfetched. And it would explain the presence of the unfamiliar, almost childish handwriting scrawled across the package, and the scraps of duct tape used to fasten the paper wrapping in place. Maybe a fellow carpenter?
Ellen washed her plate in the sink slowly and set it in the rack. The waiting was pregnant with possibility. So she washed another dish, then another, and soon she had washed all of the dishes that had sat neglected in the sink for the past few days. She took the dishrag from the hook and dried each dish thoroughly, placing each carefully back in the rack. Yes, it could happen. It could be.
She sat at the kitchen table and examined the package again. She shook it. It rumbled. The contents were comprised of several pieces—not broken pieces of a whole, but three or more separate and distinct items. She smelled the package, but it smelled of only paper.
She brought the package into her bedroom, laid it on the rumpled bedspread, and set to work at the knot of twine binding the paper to the box inside. It was knotted several times in several places, and a minute or two passed before she lost patience and retrieved the mustard-and-tomato streaked knife she had used to cut her sandwich. Pop, pop, pop, she freed the package from the twine. She tore through the paper, wadded it into a loose basketball shape of grocery bag and duct tape, let it fall to the floor, and studied the old shoebox that neatly contained her hopes inside six paperboard walls.
She lifted the lid and removed a bit of crumpled newspaper evidently intended to steady the contents inside. The first thing she saw was a small box printed with the word Chanel. Inside the box was a square bottle of whiskey-colored perfume. She removed the cap and sniffed, replaced the bottle in its fancy little box, and set it aside. She dug through the shredded paper in the box and pulled out an Almond Joy. This she tossed aside as well. A DVD was wedged in the bottom of the box. The image on the cover depicted a man seated alongside the shadow of a cartoon rabbit. Ellen read the title. Harvey. What the hell was that? She turned the box over. 1950. Something about an invisible bunny. Perhaps the movie was significant in some way? Perhaps these three items had something in common? What did it all mean? Was it a message? A code?
Ellen flipped the box upside down and shook the shredded paper out onto the bedspread. Nothing. Just the movie, a candy bar, and a bottle of perfume. None of it made sense. None of it reminded her of Silas. Nothing rang with any familiarity, though she tried desperately to assign some kind of connection to the items. The Almond Joy—his favorite was Reese’s; she preferred a plain Hershey bar. Had they discussed perfume? No, she never wore perfume—she couldn’t afford the likes of Chanel even if she had any desire for it, and he was allergic to most scents anyway. The movie? Shed have to watch it. Maybe it contained some kind of key. But she didn’t have a DVD player. Silas knew that. Perhaps he’d assumed she had gotten one in the interim?
She was steadily sinking. It was apparent that the package had nothing to do with Silas. He would have written a note. He had always been pretty straightforward. He was a scientist. It was highly unlikely that he had suddenly developed an interest in puzzles, or the creativity to send her messages of love or promise through seemingly unrelated and insignificant gifts.
Frustrated, she re-examined the scrap of newspaper. It was a page from the Times-Picayune, a page from the Living section. She studied it for hints. On one side were a few partial comic strips; on the back was a portion of a recipe for a shrimp and mirliton dish. This meant nothing. This was random.
She had a secret admirer.
A quick mental scan of possible suspects turned up nothing. She rarely talked to anyone at school, though there was the guy in her Anthropology course with whom she’d shared a few words while smoking in the breezeway. He wasn’t bad looking, and she’d sensed a modicum of mutual attraction, but there was no way he could know where she lived. Unless, that was, he lived in the neighborhood and had perhaps seen her around. But that was a stretch. And really, none of the items seemed to bear any relation to the relatively shallow conversations they’d had.
Someone had noticed her. Someone was paying attention to her. Someone desired her. They knew her name, and they knew where she lived. It had to be someone she knew.
Sonny lay on the bed and counted the dots on the ceiling. This took much concentration, as the dots seemed to be arranged at random, not in neat, orderly rows, which would have made the task much simpler. He knew that if the dots were arranged in predictable rows and columns, like thousands of egg crates stuck together, he could just count the dots in a square inch or so and then multiply that by the sum total of square inches the ceiling covered, or more accurately, the sum total of square inches that covered the ceiling.
But they weren’t arranged in rows, they were arranged in clusters, tight clusters of dots with no discernable boundaries, all smushed together. Where did one cluster stop and the next begin? How could he count the dots in one cluster without allowing his eyes to stray over the border to the next, when the border between the clusters was invisible? That was the challenge. It took great effort. But if he could focus, if he could first determine the border of each cluster and then store that in his mind, then count within that border, all the while superimposing his mental map of the invisible demarcation lines onto that one patch of ceiling, then, theoretically, he could calculate the dots in that cluster, and make a rough estimation as to the number of clusters on the ceiling, and further, the number of dots therein. He imagined this was something akin to how God might calculate the amount of people on each continent from space. It would be difficult to count every person on the continent, probably even more difficult than counting the dots on the ceiling, since people are born and they die and they even move around a whole lot. But God wouldn’t do it that way, because God was smart. God would just count the people in one country, and then multiply that by the amount of countries on that continent. Then he would have a rough estimation. It occurred to Sonny that God had perhaps passed this method down to Sonny to aid him in the task of counting the dots on the ceiling. God was a merciful god indeed.
But…but that didn’t account for the fact that some countries were bigger than others. Brazil, for instance, was much larger than, say, Columbia. And since it covered a far greater portion of the land mass that constituted South America, then a rough count of the amount of humans populating Brazil would not yield an accurate number by which to multiply the entire number of countries in South America. Likewise for Columbia, since it was significantly smaller than Brazil, and probably not the same size as Argentina, though there was no way of knowing, since Argentina was a different shape than Columbia. Or Brazil, for that matter. Shit.
But God must have another method, then. There must be another way to count the people and the dots. But Sonny didn’t know it; only God knew things like that. That’s why God is omniscient; God knows how to do things like count all the people in South America, or all the dots on the ceiling, or all the hairs on Sonny’s head. He ran his fingers through his hair. He still had a lot of it, thank God.
He hated being stuck up here. It was hot and he couldn’t see anything out of the windows—all the upstairs shutters had been closed for years. His momma had complained that it didn’t let any light in, but he knew that was a necessary evil; by no means would he allow himself or his home to be penetrated by evildoers. Especially not the one who had done him evil before. The bastard never quit. Never. He seemed to lurk around every corner, waiting for a chance to pounce. He was a jealous creature, an especially venomous snake. And now Zenny may have—
God, he should have reminded her to be more careful, but every time Sonny brought him up, Zenny seemed to shut off. She seemed to think that just because she was older, just because she was his momma’s sister, that she knew what was best, what was dangerous and what was safe. Well maybe she knew when he was little, but now—now who knew best? He had the house, and she had to live with a bunch of other old ladies in a house where they told you what to do and you couldn’t have dogs.
Sonny rolled over and stared instead at the floor. It was covered in dog hair. He’d kicked all the dogs out of the room. He wanted to be alone. But was he ever alone? There was God; God was omnipresent. God was everywhere. He was in the bed with Sonny right now.
He’d watched her through the window again yesterday, when she found her present. She’d looked so confused at first, before she brought it inside. Then she’d disappeared into the kitchen for a while, and he was afraid she’d opened it in there. But then she’d come back into the bedroom, where he had a clear view into her window.
He thought about her delicate little woman hands fondling each gift. First the perfume, which she’d brought to her little woman nose and sniffed. His thoughts returned to the candy bar. He lamented the fact that she hadn’t eaten it within his view. But maybe she had by now. Maybe she’d waited till night time. Maybe she’d indulged during her nightly bath. Women did that sometimes, at least on TV. Almond Joy.When he was little, his momma had told him that when you touch yourself, all of your dead relatives can see you. He made the sign of the cross and said a quick prayer for forgiveness. Sonny wondered how many times he could ask for forgiveness before God would stop forgiving him. He wished God had specified a number for that in the Bible.