David Shames’ story is as controlled as it is audacious. Universal tragedy and personal trauma are evoked with an aggressive wit and a delicateness which is both preposterous and yet convincing. At each step in puppeteer Jacqueline’s narrative, we’re confronted with a pathos which we feel and resist: for, as she well knows, her pain of the 1970s is not our pain of the 21st century. It’s here that the story capitalizes on the tensions mounting. The final scene realizes with gusto just how metaphors can fly and fail, just how severe the personal/public divide can be, and just how hard it is to share life’s horrors.
– The Editors
Hepatitis has made me immune to other people’s trauma. Today is September 11th, but my inflamed liver refuses to let me feel for America. Maybe it’s not so much the disease as its root, which extends back to another September 11th, in 1973, the day Augusto Pinochet staged his coup. And I was there, in Chile, this being right around the time I first realized I had hepatitis. Instead of staying with the twin towers, my thoughts always drift back to Chile this time of year.
Last night I was in my study, wide awake, watching videos online of people jumping out of the WTC buildings. They looked like crash test dummies as they pitched toward the earth. I was saying to myself Jacqueline, this, this here is your trauma. But all I feel is my ravaged liver, and nothing else. Explaining the pain in my abdomen would be as futile as trying to make myself feel a phantom pain for America, as impossible as grappling with the political views of a friend from the other camp. These would just be exercises in banging your head against the wall, saying how? how? how? So maybe it’s my liver, maybe it’s all the idealistic kids I saw getting mowed down in 1973 that makes me numb to all else. Boys and girls, standing up for socialism, only to fall like dandelions swept up by a weed-whacker.
My doctor caught me masturbating the other day. Can’t say why I get these impulses, but when I have to wait for him, sometimes I can’t help but sneak a hand up my skirt. Sometimes it is just to combat the anxiety, an activity for my antsy hands. Other times it has to do with starting an electrical storm in certain nodes of my brain as I prepare my mind for heavy news. Mostly, though, it makes the lacquered floor and the waxy paper on the examination bed seem more intimate, more comfortable, more within my control.
Dr. Wexler is a gaunt young man, a workaholic for sure, and as he strode through the door I shuddered silently, like I always do. When I cracked my eyelids, his face was buried in a file, his cheeks flush. I could tell he was torn between embarrassment and sympathy and he said nothing. What a gentleman. He went over the banalities of my condition, no new updates, blah blah blah. I could tell he was also slightly attracted to me, as his eyes would flit away every time we connected. I’m used to this sort of attraction. Perhaps it’s the wan yellow glow of my skin and corneas, the translucent gold of egg yolks painted on bread, which gives me some sort of aura. Who can say? Dr. Wexler cleared his throat before rattling off the latest things I must give up.
‘Coffee?’ I said, bummed.
‘No more coffee,’ he repeated.
‘What about tea?’
He thought a moment, as if he were pondering the phrasing, the choicest, most tasteful way to tell me I must give up all consumption, including consuming myself in public, too.
‘As long as you don’t drink 50 cups a day you should be ok. Go easy on the honey, though.’
On my way home that afternoon, I stopped in a specialty Tea Shop to stoke my new habit. The store reeked of heady Colombian beans. I found myself drifting toward a heap of fat burlap sacks at the back of the store. Using a box cutter I split one of the sacks open and buried my face in the beans. I could pick out all the individual sub aromas. Then the clerk gently tapped my shoulder. I could feel his sudden recoil as he became aware of my bony physique. A skeleton wrapped in a baggy wool sweater. I haven’t been eating well lately.
‘I’m afraid I have to ask you to stop, those beans are in the inventory,’ he said, his voice higher pitched and creamier than I would have guessed. He wore black jeans and a black t-shirt, both too tight. The stubble on his chin would have felt like sandpaper on my cheek.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ I said, ‘Just ask me not to sniff the beans.’ He stared at me through tortoise shell glasses for a moment.
‘Please don’t smell the coffee miss,’ he mumbled.
‘That’s better,’ I smiled, and my lip split down the middle.
I took all the Darjeeling and Gunpowder in the store into my arms Heading to the register, I noticed a naked wall. One of my puppet shows was coming up. With the furtive motion afforded only to skeletons, I plastered a dozen fliers. As the clerk rang up my purchases, he kept sneaking me these little open-mouthed, I-feel-like-I-should- comment-on-how-haggard-you-look glances. I can’t stand these, or any other expressions of pity. Then he craned his neck to look at the wall behind me.
‘Are you Jacqueline St. Claire?’ he asked, looking at the announcement for my comeback gig.
‘No,’ I said.
‘You have to fill out a form to post fliers,’ he said.
‘I hate puppets’ I said. ‘Stuff ’ll rot your brain.’
He smiled. His teeth were grey. ‘If you’re not Jacqueline, what’s your name then?’
‘Ginger Verona,’ I said. If I ever get a transplant and embark on a second career as an exotic dancer, this is the stage name I’ll use. I asked the cashier what his name was.
‘Well Doug, would you ever go see a stripper named Ginger Verona?’
‘That depends,’ he said. ‘Are you a stripper?’
‘Well, I would come see her then. And I’d give her enough love so she would quit her job and elope with me to Vancouver.’
I rolled my eyes, made for the door, taking my fliers with me. As the wind chime jangled I heard him whisper back, in a sultry voice, ‘I hope you’re feeling ok.’
Per Dr. Wexler’s orders, I am now on a strict regimen of 49 cups of tea a day. No honey, no sugar, just a little lemon and maybe some muddled mint leaves to bring some Zen balance to the flavor. Water is boiling so frequently in my kettle that my apartment has taken on a swampy humidity. Condensation slides down the walls, and in some places the wallpaper glue has melted and bubbles out. I’ve taken to helping the tacky patterns of lilacs peel away from the wall, tearing strips as long as I can. My walls look like the hide of an antelope half devoured by buzzards. I’d like to stripe war paint under my eyes, stalk about my domicile wielding a spear, hunting tapirs with an ocelot by my side, and together, bloodthirsty, we would dine on raw meat until the carcasses gleam.
Every now and then I meet with friends from those Chile days. Well, mostly Margie. She’s the only person with whom I can still have a conversation that’s not a skeleton, just bones and phrases gleaned of every last tendon. The only problem is from time to time even Margie makes those little wincing faces at me. Little hurt faces, and it’s the same face she made at me when Joe got shot in the head as he ran out from our bunker toward Pinochet’s fascist soldiers, out into the maelstrom while we watched. Pretending to work on a story for Nat Geo, we had gone to stand up for Salvador Allende. Most of us just wanted to have a good time. Only Joe had really meant to go through with the whole thing. I can barely remember what he looks like, his face censored from my memory.
Now, though, Margie is always like, Jacqueline, what did you let happen to you? As if my condition is too painful for her. As if my decisions to postpone doctor’s appointments (when I know I’m no closer to a getting a liver donor), or our idea to go traipsing around Latin America in the first place have been just too burdensome for her. She makes this fleeting expression now and again, and it makes me want to rip my fingers apart at the knuckles. But I’m the kind of person who licks her canker sores just to make sure they still hurt, so I endure these faces. They’re worth the conversation. When she came the other day, I was sketching Egyptian hieroglyphics on my wall, war paint on my face.
‘Did you get the puppet show gig at the elementary school?’ she asked.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Icarus and Daedalus this time round.’
‘Good.’ Margie sipped her tea as I sketched. Mold had crept up the wall and I took full advantage. Using it as moss, I sketched the surrounding scene in henna dye, a group of Amazonian warriors eviscerating a muddy splotch resembling a cow. Some stood at attention with spears, others yanked out its organs and intestines in accordion ribbons. Organ harvesting. Whoops. Freudian slip.
Margie was admiring my caveman paintings. She assured me that by returning to my passion, a calling some might even say, I was doing myself a world of good.
‘Break out of your funk,’ she said.
I told her, medically speaking, that my funk was known as a liver failure.
‘You going to scare the shit out of those little elementary school kids with this show?’ Margie wanted to know.
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘They know what they’re getting into when they order up one of my puppet shows. I don’t sugar coat it. I lace it with cyanide. These kids need a hard dose of reality.’
That evening I set to work on my puppets. My walls were scrawled with enough cave paintings to drive an archeologist to tumescence, and I needed a new creative outlet.
I started with Icarus’ wings. As the focal point they had to be the most ornate element. Authenticity was a must, so I cleared the desk in my study, broke out a sack of goose feathers I ordered from a quilt manufacturer. Most importantly, besides my sewing kit, were the dozen candles I melted down for wax. If this was going to be done right, then Icarus’ wings were going to bleed oily tears, they were going to weep into a gentle rain of plumage as he fell toward his destiny. A puppet corpse pitching towards a tissue paper sea. The surface tension taut as ice. Serrated waves knifing by. I burnt the midnight oil, working like a madwoman surrounded by my lamp lit cave paintings. By six in the morning my cuticles were caked in dry blood.
When I woke a few hours later I set my kettle on the stove until it hissed. My mouth was dry with the chalky residue of too much caffeine and not enough water. Burning my tongue with every sip, but not really minding, I drank tea and leafed through the newspaper. Every time I see a headline about politics I close my eyes. It’s not even fun anymore to see our democracy lurch toward an all out melee. I look at pictures. The human pictures, I mean, of pudgy families whose homes are being snatched up by people whose faces you will never see in the papers. If I were a newswoman, I would write a long article on the plight of spendthrift bankers who, in these dark economic times, have had to switch to Dominican cigars from Cubans. Accompanying the article would be a harrowing photo of a wrinkle-faced man in a suit, his face heavy with sacrifice, his pupils clenched with pitiful grit, sallow flesh wilting from his cheekbones.
When I reached the international section I came across a photo that made me spill my tea all over the page. The last time I had seen this photo I was 24. I was on the front porch of a farming co-op in the Colombian river basin. Little did I know at the time my disease was already beginning to wreck my liver like years of whisky never could. The photo was grainy as hell, of a bombed out building, rubble heaving out of its blown out orifices like the wind fleeing your lungs after a gut punch. The Chilean Presidential palace. The jets like shrieking ospreys overhead. The sputtering of machine guns.
Then I remembered I had to go to the post office. I ditched the newspaper and left. The streets were mostly deserted except for a few ghosts. To keep my lungs from clamoring for a cigarette, (a habit I kicked at the outset of my diagnosis) I made mental lists of things I would like to try. Foods: baby camel, sheep eyeball, haggis, the kind of blowfish that will kill you with its poison if you don’t prepare it right. Places I have never had sex: On the beach, on a roof during a lightning storm, in a doctor’s office.
Right before I reached the post office I stopped to throw up. This is what happened at the puppet show:
The house lights dim. A hushed whisper ripples across the crowd. Ms. Maloney’s 1st graders. Spotlight on the stage. Dark castle made of grey cardboard blocks. Spindly spires. Icarus and Daedelus, locked in the west tower. Daedelus, brooding, pensive, sits like The Thinker, machinery of his mind whirring. Forlorn, Icarus stares at the relentless, re-fucking-lentless black sky.
I’m in the puppeteer’s roost in full control. Spider web of marionette strings. Steaming cup of tea within my reach. A seagull drifts across an obsidian sky. Catches Daedelus’ eye. Meanwhile, Icarus peers over the edge. Contemplates suicide. A delicious abyss beckons. Icarus is transfixed. Wouldn’t it be nice to fly off the edge, lovely to fall until you kiss the ground.
Icarus: I’d never feel a thing.
Daedelus: A plan my boy. Points to the gulls.
Lights flicker. Daedelus starves himself, putting out his rations as bait. Seagulls land one by one. He plucks their feathers saying sorry sorry sorry. He looks at his son, envious of his youth, rankled by his apathy. He fashions the wings.
I could change the play. Last minute, save the kids from all the trauma. You know. Inking my thumbprint on their heartstrings til they bruise.
Icarus plummets for two full minutes. Feathers come undone like a deck of cards thrown into a fan. He flails. Spotlight cuts out right when he hits. The splat echoes into the silence. A child stifles a cry. The house lights go up. There’s no applause.
A few days after the show, I got a call from Principal Jacobson. He seemed to be concerned about some of the more graphic scenes in the performance.
‘Well, I didn’t write these myths,’ I said. ‘If you’ve got a problem with their content maybe you should call up Homer.’
‘Now now,’ he responded, ‘No need to get testy. I’m just saying, some of these myths in our curriculum can be, ahem, disturbing when presented visually. So why not tone it down a bit. Or better yet, choose a gentler selection. How about, for the next show, “Leda and the Swan?”’ I listened to the crackling silence for a moment. ‘You think a swan
raping a woman is toned down?’
‘What? No, that’s not what it’s about…Well, never mind. Just tone down the spectacle for the next show or we will not be renewing your contract.’
‘We live in a world of horror and he’s doing those kids a huge disservice by sheltering them,’ I complained to Margie later that day. ‘This is censorship.’ We’d met up at some tea house with a dubious far-eastern name. Hookah smoke swirled above our heads as we lounged on bean bag chairs. It was a pretty eerie, hazy effect. Might be cool for a scene in Hades. The underworld of dead souls. Some vindictive switch had been flicked on inside me. I wanted, purely for the kids’ sake, to put on a jaw-dropping tale so chilling that every last shard of innocence in the room would crystallize and shatter.
‘Oh, don’t do it for spite, J,’ Margie said. ‘That creepy principal isn’t worth compromising your integrity. You have to do something with a message. Can’t be all spectacle.’
And then it came to me. These kids, the 9/11 kids, these poor Rudy Giuliani kids, need to be shown something which paralleled Chile. I would have to show them how trauma can only define you if it has a history. Had to make them realize there is pain other than that of jets flying into buildings. There was deeper pain, pain with roots twisted in history’s undergrowth.
‘I know what I need to do,’ I said. ‘Prometheus.’
‘Well I can’t just recreate our experience, can I? Gotta do it via metaphor. Working class torchbearer rises up to bring fire to the proletariat, only to be strapped to a rock by the man, his liver chewed out day after day by fascism. It’s perfect.’
Margie arched an eyebrow. ‘You throwing yourself into the mix maybe with this liver thing?’
I shot her an icy death stare. ‘No.’
She pursed her lips. ‘I dunno if the metaphor will read.’
‘I’m going to put a little note in the program. No need to beat around the bush.’
For a few moments Margie just sipped her tea, watching as I took out my Wednesday pill bottle, filled with capsules of all shapes and sizes. Little circles and ovals, keeping me relatively alive and mostly pain free. Still not fully convinced, Margie said, ‘And the bird of prey is fascism? Really?’
I started to get frustrated. ‘OK, even if the parallels are a little thin it doesn’t matter. The message will be clear. Try and stand up for the people and you get screwed.’
She kept eyeing me. ‘Alright,’ she finally said. ‘I’ll buy it. Have fun with those liver swoops.’
I was all excited about the Prometheus bit right up until the show was about to start. Not that I really cared about my contract inevitably getting scrapped. It was just that suddenly I was a little envious of Prometheus. His liver grew back fresh every day. Plus he was a titan. It wasn’t much of a life, being chained to a rock. But, then again, immortality in any form is better than the specter of death looming over your head. I resented Prometheus and his power to heal. Maybe after the show I’ll drug him, hightail it to Mexico, get a transplant in a seedy motel room. Leave him to wake up in a bathtub filled with ice, his wound hastily stitched, his torso all yellowish from iodine. But it wasn’t time for my thoughts to wander. The show must go on.
Channeling my rage at the figure chained to the rock, I flicked my wrist and the bird dove for its punitive meal. My Prometheus was stuffed with a little pouch of fake flesh and blood. When the raptor’s beak first pierced his flesh the blood leaked out slow and pathetic and stained the rock. Prometheus raged at his chains. Perched on his chest, talons sunk into his skin, the bird fished out the rancid flank steak I shoved in there as his liver. It was half price at the supermarket. The bird flipped his liver once in the air and caught it in its beak. Swallowed it whole. It spit acid once into the open gouge before flying away, and Prometheus raged at his chains.
From the back of the room I could make out Mr. Jacobson’s quivering voice. He was calling for all the kids and teachers and parents to get ready to file out of the auditorium, and, please, could someone hit the house lights.
No way was he going to cut me off before a few more swoops. I haven’t even heard one gasp from the kids yet. It’s as if these boys and girls don’t get it, or they’re non sentient beings. I’ve pulled out all the stops. A rock face so menacing it looks like a jagged obelisk. An aquiline villain with such a broad wingspan its silhouette looks like a bomber jet. Right as I was launching the bird into the air for another dive bomb, the house lights turned on. I could see my audience. All wide eyed and rapt. But something was off. There was one boy in the front row, with sandy hair, sipping from a juice box. He was captivated. And yet, it was almost as if he were seeing some familiar sight. Something terrifying, but something he had seen before, something which no longer affected him.
The fluttering feeling hit me then, as if my stomach had fallen down an elevator shaft. There was no grand metaphor. Margie had been right. I would never be able to share my trauma.
Mr. Jacobson was frantically trying to usher all the students out of the room. One woman in the back was covering her daughter’s eyes. It didn’t seem worth it anymore. There was a disconnect between me and them. One last time I lofted the birdlike beast into the air, and the image seemed to hang there, frozen. For me, maybe, there’s a deeper meaning pumping through the show’s veins. But for these kids, it’s nothing more than that enduring scar, that image forever wrought onto their retinas. Some winged creature descending upon the tower.
David Shames’ fiction can be found in Vantage Point and Liquid Imagination. A graduate of the University of Vermont, he currently lives in Brooklyn.