Gray Areas

A version of this story was published in the journal Literal Latte (1995 or 1996?)

“Landscape is a funny word for me, because it does conjure up pictures of nice little paintings with little paths going down them, but landscape really is and always has been a depiction of psychological space, often of psychological cataclysm. It doesn’t imply peacefulness, not to me.”
—Brian Eno

 

Lone vertical rising from a vast horizontal, the house stood on a gray plane.

In the wideopen spaces.

Broken windows, shingles, roofing tiles.

Gray, plain, but inhabitable.

Typical of a certain someone.

A duststorm preceding, receding, inch by excruciating inch.

As Helen pulled in and turned off, she imagined, in rough-grained pictures, the news story slash horror movie waiting to happen here, on the outskirts of nowhere.

One dim star found wrapped in plastic.

Left in a pit, a ditch, a dumpster.

That sort of sleazy feature.

Would the blood be red, gray, or an intermediate color.

The skin, the hair.

The victim.

The murder.

Parts, people, you’ve seen, been, if only from afar.

As instructed, Helen felt for the front-door key atop a webbed ledge on the back porch. Finding nothing—also typical—she stopped looking, stepped down, returned the chair to its corner, and sat there, fingering the wicker.

An armful of binders and folders before her, Helen moved along a green-mold-green-tiled corridor. The clicking of her penny loafers carried from freshly polished floor to bare walls to low ceiling, then back down, buzzing like insects in her ears. To the right and to the left, note-taking Peter Lorres leered from dark doorways.

In paramilitary uniforms.

Flashing epaulets and gleaming buttons.

Licking lips and flicking tongues.

Helen reached a stairwell, leading down, littered with sand, feathers, and small bones. Over one shoulder, she heard a certain someone’s hearty laughter. She turned to find the world’s most nearly perfect human being peering down at her.

Tell him a story.

If only from afar.

Make believe.

Lie.

If you can’t be more creative, fine.

Wait a minute.

Who owes whom an explanation.

Helen.

Say something cute.

Mocking.

Making up.

You know.

How I commune with the angel in depth.

That sort of something.

She studied his finely defined features, his straight blonde hair, his straight white teeth, his straight white lips. His buttons and epaulets. His cold clear brutal blue eyes. She had this one specific criticism of his body, however, which it helped to focus on: The legs, though more than stubs, were too short for the torso.

She smiled a smile that her flaring nostrils denied, belied, betrayed.

“Look at that mountain.”

She aimed and shot.

“We’ll see a lot of stars tonight.”

“You think?”

“The sky will be a bowl of lights.”

As a gray squirrel took a nosedive off its perch on a distant branch, Semi-Adonis nodded. His head bobbed and bobbed, a golden helium balloon on a short string. Then her grasped her hand and raised it, straight white fingers outstretched, toward bloodless lips. Took tips—tasting of soap and salt, she knew—into his mouth.

“So. How were my directions?”

“So-so.”

“Problems?”

“A few u-turns.”

“A few being, say, two?”

“Don’t take offense.”

Helen and Semi-Adonis faced each other across the Formica. Neither mentioned a thought (on her part) and question (on his, she thought) they could hardly suppress: How long it was—how long was it?—since they had conversed, free from paper and wire, with features, chins resting on clasped fingers, in a living-room-cum-kitchen equipped with various appliances, convection ovens and blenders and meat grinders and toaster ovens, collecting rust and dust on open shelves. Semi-Adonis rubbed his crystalline eyes with fists and rose.

“I’ll make coffee.”

Pause.

“Tea, please.” Looking around. “If you have the means.”

“Tea it is.”

Pause.

“That’s new.”

“What is?”

“Tea for two.”

“Not so.”

“Me for you.”

When he bared both rows of teeth, Helen turned from the light. Not that she disliked the effect; she felt unaccustomed to it. Strangeness between them foreshortened his figure, so that upright, Semi-Adonis seemed a mere gnome, of the garden variety, not the fine fettle of a man that abandoned her under such suspicious conditions one Sunday-brunch morning.

As she stood, squeezing and scrambling in her blue-sky-blue apron, Semi-Adonis stepped out. He left everything, including his wedding ring and a neatly printed note reading

Dearest:

Called away on business.

Followed by an extended absence.

Punctuated by cryptic messages at uneven intervals.

This could take years.

Don’t wait up.

Don’t get a divorce.

Awaiting word from higher-ups.

Sent from foreign locations with Spanish-sounding names.

The handwriting, the idea of fun and surprises, recognizably his.

Business.

Senseless.

Semi-Adonis kept secrets, took trips, never introduced his wife to his associates, but apart from these idiosyncrasies he’d been nearly the model husband.

Attentive.

Sensitive.

Best of all, interesting.

When he disappeared, Helen missed having him around.

Assumed he’d lost his mind.

Resumed her life.

Inch by excruciating inch.

She went on waking seconds before the alarm, acting as though nothing had changed. She went on reading, watching television, working at the insurance company, and raising her son or daughter, whose name was either Thomas or Andrea.

She went on existing in increments, thinking I’ll be okay if I look forward to that respite, that bit of rest, and then another, later on. She went on listening to that drone within her head. Though sometimes that sound dropped off, and Helen would be left contemplating her heartbeat and a silence inside that echoed the stillness and amplified the emptiness of the spaces she called days. Each break in this routine kept her from giving up the ghost.

Despite or to spite herself.

Say something fitting.

So it’s come to this.

You capitalist.

Works in mysterious ways.

Not so.

With wishes and suppositions.

You know.

Oh, to walk alone on the beach at dusk, your skin colored gray by dying day.

When the kettle whistled, Semi-Adonis switched off the gas and poured boiling water into handled cups holding tea bags. Helen studied the motion of his exquisite wrist as he guided a spoon within and between the cups.

The familiar curve of his buttocks.

Wrinkles in his cotton shirt where it pulled out of his canvas pants.

Dearest:

Forgive the violent silence.

It can’t be as it was.

Might we meet to compare notes?

Enclosed please find clues to my whereabouts.

Plus gibberish on the back about the facts and Semi-Adonis and never the twain, scribbled in pencil, half-erased.

Helen had considered, come to a decision, before showing the invitation to someone else.

He perused it, then met her eyes over the paper.

So it’s come to this.

Don’t take offense.

That’s not my strength.

I have to go.

Yes.

Know.

Denied, belied, betrayed.

Pondered, nodded, ran a hand along his crewcut.

Returned to his crossword.

Tell your husband we love him too.

Helen fried potatoes, onions, sausages, and peppers in a well-seasoned pan. She added corn starch, water, garlic, oregano, and enough Tabasco to turn dinner into synaesthesia.

She heard bongos, tin cans exploding, mariachi music wafting over from a distant shore, Semi-Adonis snoring from under heavy covers. Out the window she saw, through gray haze in the west, past the oil wells, a riderless white parachute, following by a second, descending.

“So. You made the trip.”

“I could do no less.”

“No?”

“Under the circumstances.”

“Still. You care.”

“I was curious.”

“You were more.”

“I liked your timing.”

“Fair enough. What else?”

“What a comedian.”

“Well. It worked.”

“Meaning I’m here.”

“Like a beacon.”

Semi-Adonis uncorked a bottle of the local poison and filled two cups. He handed one to Helen, who thanked him but held it at arm’s length.

“So. Why did I write.”

“Right.”

“You’re wondering.”

“Wrong.”

“But you came.”

“But I knew why.”

After Semi-Adonis took a swig, Helen did the same. It tasted like a cross between bathtub gin and bedpan urine.

“You read between the lines.”

“Listen.”

“You remembered me.”

“You’re making me crazy and breaking my heart.”

“Both at once?”

“Do you realize that?”

“Well done! Good for me.”

Semi-Adonis poured himself another drink, then handed the bottle to Helen.

Alone the next morning, Helen peeled herself from the ceiling and sat, head between knees, in search of a clearing. She rose, threw on his ratty terrycloth robe, which smelled a little musky and a little musty, and snooped around the bedroom. The surprises were grouped together, as though planted there for her, in Semi-Adonis’s bottom drawer.

An old photo of Helen, clothes off, eyes closed.

Several other photos, featuring different women in similar poses.

An itemized list of expenses: tea bags, potatoes, onions, sausages, et cetera.

A pistol.

A handwritten document entitled Desert Manifesto.

Concerning the World’s End (imminent).

“And I am determined, by which agency I am not as yet at liberty to divulge, to chronicle same.”

She made, first, mental notes and, second, conjectures concerning connections, convinced that her quasi-husband was conspiring with conmen. Accountants. Evangelists.

Though the idea was preposterous.

There it was, in black and white.

Before her eyes.

Some master mind.

In the wideopen.

The unkindest.

Senseless.

Spare me.

Lie.

More than usual.

We love him too.

Several hours and parachutes later, as Helen was reheating leftovers, Semi-Adonis returned. He kissed a bare shoulder, then rested his face in her thick black hair. She backed up and reached around to draw a warm thigh toward her.

“I think you’re terrific. Really. Remarkable.”

“Don’t.”

“You made the trip.”

“There’s someone else.”

Though a dullard, the someone else had good points, for which she could have loved him.

Would have, given time.

Given the decisive end of this one.

The one.

Dim star.

“Why are you living here?”

“I’m never leaving here.”

“Be straight with me.”

“Not a good idea.”

“You said business.”

“Perhaps.”

“For instance.”

“Several pursuits.”

“Parachutes.”

Silence.

Or: how I communicated with the agent in depth.

Semi-Adonis strapped on a Mexican deathmask, with two eyes made out of coal and stitches for lips, threw on a gray felt fedora and a canvas poncho, stepped out the front door, sped off in his land rover.

Helen gathered from this dumbshow that she had probed too close to the heart, or at least a heavily guarded interior part, of what seemed on the surface Semi-Adonis but was really a vanquished ghost. Or merely a vanished host.

Long lost.

She lay back on the mattress and thought of a trip they’d taken, a delayed honeymoon. They were wandering on the island, and she was wearing a short summer dress, red and white checks, a converted tablecloth, without underwear, and the crescents of her buttocks descended in succession, half-faces peeking out of hiding, daring someone to do something.

A certain someone crept up behind and gripped those cheeks.

“Ah, my little lovetaps, my bloom of youth. Let’s travel to Amsterdam, or another of the Netherlands, immortalized in song. We’ll sing along.”

When he nuzzled her neck, Helen laughed. Then she broke away and walked to the bluff’s edge, where water changed from reflective blue to green to transparent, where white sand dipped and was lost to the depths. Between her and a farther, disappearing shore ran six or so feet of current, no telling how fast. No knowing what preyed below those delicate but swiftly flitting eddies.

She was smiling.

It was a good day to be alive.