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Novel Excerpt

From The Theater of the Invisible Guests

I know well what I am fleeing from but not what I am in search of.  |

Michel De Montaigne


When Ben murdered Evelyn, only a few blocks from where I lived, and I went out of my mind to figure out why, I came to understand that anything lived but not written down would haunt me until my last breath, even if termites, or time, made a mockery of such labor.  My stubborn Mum, determined to crack the carapace I grew around myself after my father disappeared, had lectured me so often about the lives of the saints that I decided to become one. It didn’t work. I’m writing this story to understand how we come to fit—or not—into the world, why fate destroys some of us, like my son Daniel, and gives some of us a second chance.

I’m no saint.

It was a lesson I learned and forgot long ago. In my youth, I kept a daily journal on schoolbook paper, a careful, even obsessive, account of my turbulent days of emotional dislocation. It would be embarrassing to reprint anything found in those books, and at any rate it’s impossible. When I returned, broken by a wrecked relationship, for a holiday from university—the wrecking, I can see now, was my own doing, but at the time I wasn’t capable of accepting blame—I thought that the voluminous day books full of rants and laments would help me get my bearings, understand why the young woman I wanted didn’t want me anymore, why I couldn’t seem to fit anywhere.

After dropping my duffel bag, I greeted my saint of a mum with a peck on the cheek, which embarrassed her. “What are you playing at? Get on now, none of that nonsense.” I laughed—it pleased me to see her cheeks turn ruddy with happiness when her wayward son came home, which was not often—and cursed, almost by rote, my absent father for deserting her.

I went to the back yard storage shed the size of a jail cell with a floor of hard-packed earth where she had stored the diaries during one of her house-cleanings. The grass in the yard needed a mow, I saw, and I made a promise to take care of things around the house before I left. In those days we lived on the edge of a small bayou town in subtropical Louisiana where my dad had relocated us; the must and decay and heat generated in the Deep South by an intolerant sun scorching the shed’s prefabricated tin roof took away my breath. The mosquitoes wouldn’t leave me alone. I could hear the scurrying of cockroaches making their nests inside the boxes. No prizes for guessing that I felt as if I might suffocate and cursed my Mum with rising anxiety and flop sweat as I searched through cardboard boxes that were moist from humidity and leakage. When I found the one I wanted, I could see before I picked up the topmost wire bound notebook that most of it had been devoured by termites. I imagined a million tiny teeth. The pages that had not crumbled away had absorbed enough moisture to blur and erase the cheap ballpoint ink that filled every line in my weird, convoluted scrawl.

I remembered the fevered days and nights when I had scrunched over each page, writing down whatever came to mind as if inspired and drunk with insight, desperate to discover my secret life, and surely there must have been some of that in those mildewed stuck-together pages, but plenty of times I must have been just plain drunk, or high on my own babble.

Standing there in that heat-soaked shed as if imprisoned, not only was I uncertain who I was; the ravage of termites and humidity had erased all the evidence of who I had been. I had nothing left; I felt hollowed out. Soaked in perspiration, I was so bereft, as if attending a funeral, that I didn’t even notice that my Mum’s wedding photographs, carried all the way from England and stored in an adjacent cardboard box, had suffered a like fate. Good riddance, I would have thought—at least something good has resulted from this bad thing—no more reminders for her of my father the deserter. Many a night after he left I had caught her poring over the wedding photos with her prayer book near at hand, as if the right incantation could bring him back and make our wee family whole again.

Instead, twitchy and unable to face the loss of my earlier self, I launched away by foot from the termite-infested house with its carport that housed my mum’s old slant-six Buick and the statue of a little black jockey in the front yard. Even my dad, a Southerner who liked to shout “Forget, hell!” whenever the subject of the American Civil War came up, thought that was too much, too hoity-toity, but we had been renting the house. He decided that he couldn’t dislodge the cheeky jockey with his jaunty cap (who was made of fiberglass, not stone). My English mum, ever practical but not conversant with local culture, had covered it with a white plastic sheet that had been used to keep my mattress dry if I peed in bed, which was something that I did occasionally far longer than most. She called it Casper the Friendly Ghost, after a cartoon. She had never heard of the Ku Klux Klan, but a kindly neighbor, a cigarette between her lips, tromped to our house, the youngest of her brood clinging to her ham-thick thighs, and brought her up to speed. “Sugar, you don’t want to do that. Folks will notice and talk. The colored down here have been really well-behaved lately, but something like this can’t do any of us on this block any good. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you, sugar?”

The sheet was long gone that day of the termites, and the jockey’s skin color had faded under the scorching sun so that he could have been an amalgam of humanity rather than the submissive representative of a particular race. I walked fuming for hours along the streets that smelled of melting tar and the railroad tracks that crisscrossed the town. Soon enough the bayou and the town were behind me; for hours I tramped a black-topped road with fields of sugar cane and corn on either side of me, the hot wind beating like a tunnel of heat and the cane stalks and cornfields seeming to swirl and whisper a dirge of some kind, until vertigo overcame me and I hunched in the shade of an oak to catch my breath. An old Cajun in a rusty pickup truck pulled to a stop to offer me, in broken English shot through with French, a swallow of water from an old military canteen and a lift, his sweat-stained straw hat pulled down so low that it hid most of his face. I drank the warm water, which tasted like metal, from his canteen and waved him off with a thank you and a thin smile and headed back to town, by now limping with a painful blister.  Later, when the aroma of chicken-fried steak and sizzling barbeque filled the air along with the croaks of bullfrogs and the clacker of crickets, and fathers in torn jeans threw footballs to their sons or drank beer with their bare feet up on the railings of front porches, I stopped for a soda pop and a burger at the town diner, but afterwards I kept walking, just as I did many nights at the university, until the sun sunk behind the oak trees hung with moss in the bedraggled city park built along the muddy, winding bayou, where I found a picnic bench and sat until nightfall in a thoughtless, angry stupor before heading back home with a six pack of beer under one arm.

In those journals I had built a moat of words and thoughts as a bulwark against my confusion. My defenses had been irreparably breached—by insects. I imagined termites inside my head and under my skin and that night, dreaming that my body was clotted with murky creatures, developed a raging fever that gave Mum permission to treat me like her little boy again and nurse me back to health. “The saints had to deal with worse,” she said. “I went out there and took a look to see what might be salvaged.” It was then that she told me about her wedding photographs. For her, it was the final straw; it wasn’t long afterwards that she packed up her things, put on her old pea coat, and headed back to England for good.

Years later, when my son Daniel tried, his words hesitant and not entirely comprehensible, to describe to me what methamphetamine had done to his insides, I felt as if I was standing again inside that incinerator of a storage shed, sweat soaking my plaid cotton shirt and the ruined daybooks covering the close-packed earth floor like mildewed linoleum tile, termites inside my bloodstream, each one living on words taken from me.

After Daniel’s death—Mum had died long ago back in England—I traveled with a group of twelve expatriates, myself included, on a tour of the islands of Bali and Java in Indonesia. It was the dry season when we left smog-filled Yogyakarta, in central Java, at dawn, and made our way through toxic congestion on a bemo, a dilapidated share taxi jerry-built from what had once been an elongated version of a VW camper bus. It smelled of mildew and sandalwood and still had a sink, a refrigerator, and a pop-top canvas that trembled like jelly when our Indonesian driver, a chain-smoker with good English who told us to call him William, veered at full speed between motorbikes as if on an obstacle course. It was one hell of a ride.

He called us the twelve apostles. It was a grand joke to him and he laughed every time he said it. There was nothing very apostolic about us, though. We were ragamuffins and hippies and lost, corrupt souls in exile from our lives. Guilt-driven and swimming in grief, I imagined that I was secret. You can’t know about me, I would think if somebody tried to get close. I’m secret.

Mt. Merapi, Indonesia’s mountain of fire and second most active volcano, only a few kilometers from the city center, had been our original destination, but it had spewed smoke and lava the previous day. “The spirits unhappy,” William said. “And I had a dream last night. Spirits unhappy. Disturbed.” A wiry man with a wrinkled face and a few tufts of white hair, he motioned with his ever-present cigarette like a wand. He was not only our driver but also our guide in Yogya. “Guide driver,” he said. “Or driver guide. You, the twelve apostles, you pick which one.”

I can’t even remember now why I was there. I think it was because I had no place in the world, was torn emotionally to bits over a broken marriage and a lost son, and needed money, so I had worked as a project manager for a year—wet season, dry season—on one of the far-flung Indonesian islands—there are 13,000 of them—for a transnational energy company at a site where machines the size of dinosaurs tore at the earth determined to destroy it to extract copper and gold. I lived with the stink of sulfur on my skin. When the underpaid workers that I managed rightfully decided to strike, the security forces, Indonesian police hired by the company, came at them with cattle prods and then gas canisters and finally opened fire with fusillades from automatic assault rifles. The poor sods only wanted to negotiate a living wage, but they didn’t have a chance, did they? Seven were shot dead just to keep the others in line. One was shot through the forehead: a pinhole in front, brain splatter like oatmeal flavored with tufts of hair and blood in back. I tried to administer aid after the slaughter, but only managed to mat my short-sleeved shirt and the company logo on it with blood and brain matter.

After the massacre and a corporate cover-up that furiously blamed the Indonesians for their own deaths, as if they had turned rifles upon themselves, I lost my stomach for the work. My boss, a Brylcreemed redneck from Louisiana shaped like a haunch of venison–a torso marbled with fat and legs like matchsticks–made me understand that what happens on the archipelago stays on the archipelago. I shrugged, sick to my stomach from the stink of death and human dissolution, but I told myself that it wasn’t my fight.  “Don’t worry, you cheeky bastard,” I said, “no chin-wagging from me. I’m easy.” I guessed it was what he wanted to hear from the Louisiana Brit who often drank beer with him, even though he knew the company had cocked up when it brought in mercenaries and that word would get out (already had) with no help from the likes of me.

I was knackered, so I took my considerable earnings and, despite my raw anger-–I could feel my jaw muscles work while I waited bathed in perspiration for a company helicopter to whoosh me away from the murders—traveled to nearby Bali and joined the cultural study group. I couldn’t handle the aggro at the time and wanted to clear my head of the things I had seen, of the mayhem that took place to keep the miners in line.

My mum was British, my father a Yank, though Mum, as I’ve said, no longer walked among us upon the earth and Dad might as well have been a ghost, because he had vanished from my life. I was born in Cockermouth, a market town among the fells and lakes and mountains of Cumbria, the birthplace of Fletcher Christian and of William and Dorothy Wordsworth—that makes me part mutineer, part romantic wayfarer. Wanderlust was the bane of my life. I was game for anything in those days. I was also grievously alone in the world.

I never could have guessed that day in Yogya with the twelve apostles that I would write this epistle after years of making a living among the snowdrifts of the American Midwest. Along with the tragedy of my son Daniel, my silence at the time of those murders in Indonesia felt like a betrayal and became one of the reasons that I wandered the States like a spirit seeking alchemical change. I lived with my memories of failure and loss on a daily basis. What Ben did to Evelyn was the icing on the cake. I couldn’t forget, even in the taciturn and bland Midwest, my mother’s alarming stories about the lives of the saints; all that they endured, what they survived, how they provided inspiration and encouragement to those in need.

We apostles spent that day in Indonesia with our guide William at a beach on the Indian Ocean. Afterwards, two of my fellow travelers told me that they had seen him levitate.

“I was there,” I said. “I didn’t see that.” I grinned at Karen.

“He was levitating,” Karen said. She had a small container of lip balm in one hand and applied it fastidiously. “I saw him.” She lived in Kentucky with her father The Colonel and her mother The Colonel’s Wife. At least, that was her story and she was sticking to it. When she wasn’t traveling to see the world, she was majoring in equestrian science. “I intend to spend my adult life training thoroughbreds,” she had told me, “and then owning them.”

“Fancy that,” I had said. “Horses scare me witless.” She was thin and graceful, her skin the color of white sand, but I could see that her fingernails had been bit to the quick.

“Fancy that,” she had repeated, and smiled while tilting her head, so that I had to tilt my own head to see her straight on. “Ever been to Kentucky? Blue grass country?”

“Is that an invitation?” I had replied, causing her to blush.

“Maybe,” she said, crossing her arms over her breasts. Besides the lip balm, she had a plastic spray bottle of sunscreen close at hand. She feared overexposure to the sun.

All of us, in swimsuits, relaxed by the hotel pool, which was surrounded by lush vegetation and the fragrance of jasmine. We were back at the Hotel Swastika (whose name, in Indonesia, means, oddly enough, well-being for one and all). I had a drink in one hand. I usually did. When something bothered me, I drank. If it didn’t help, it didn’t hurt either, at least not at first.

The day was the day and it passed. The night would soon surround us and lizards would join me beneath the sheets on my bed if I was unlucky. Outside the hotel compound, we could hear the constant roar of motorbikes. Java is sometimes called the island of motorbikes and batik, and Bali isn’t far behind. We could also hear a symphony of frogs. One of the lizards, on the fringe of a small poolside lily pond, studied me, its throat expanded to the size of a golf ball. I could see that it was sizing me up to determine if I would be a good bed partner or not.

“You didn’t see the Levitation,” Paul said—I could hear the capital letter—“because you were off staring at the ocean.” The musk of his clove cigarette made me sneeze. “You’re a daydreamer.”

Vegetative beings surrounded me, some seen, many unseen. The invisible guests, I thought, a conversation with a dalang, or shadow puppet master, still fresh in my mind.  “I prefer to perform in daylight when people too busy to watch,” he had said, his ikat sarong tied by a sash and a peci, or a black felt cap, tugged tight on his head. Because he and his musicians were rehearsing during the day, when there were few if any spectators, he also wore a faded Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street tee shirt. At night, he would dress formally in a teluk beskap, or a Javanese jacket with a sarong, and would orchestrate for a lively audience of locals and tourists his wayang kulit, an all-night extravaganza performed behind a white translucent screen with two-dimensional puppets moving elaborately between the screen and an oil lamp or electric bulb to dramatize the ancient, elongated myths of the Mahabharata or Ramayana to the clamor of a gamelan orchestra. He puffed on a clove cigarette while we spoke after he gave the gamelan players a break. “In daylight, you the one visible guest, but I perform for the invisible guests. The ancestors. You see them?” He opened his arms wide in a grandiloquent gesture, as though introducing me to a universe that until that moment had been out of my ken.

I scratched my hirsute head, craned my neck, narrowed my eyes, and studied the smog-filled urban landscape. He was clearly a master of a realm about which I knew next to nothing. Maybe it was a way for him to soften life, the way my mum had done with her saints. I shrugged, admitting defeat. He and I stood in the middle of a busy pedestrian square paved with concrete. Business people in western dress hurried past, probably on their lunch hours, without the slightest inclination to stop and gawk or listen as I was doing. This was a part of their culture that they had left behind. As far as I could see, I was the dalang’s only guest. He nodded courteously, stomped out his cigarette, and called his scruffy gamelan musicians back to the unattended daylight rehearsal. He might have been a castaway on a desert island. “They everywhere around us,” he said. “The invisible ones. When people don’t listen, they listen. Pay heed.”

“A daydreamer,” I said to Paul at the hotel and chewed on the word like a stick of gum. It was probably true. I spent my childhood in a housing estate, then my American father took us across the pond, where he worked irregularly as a roughneck on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico after situating us in that rented house in the States—the Deep cockroach-infested South, in Louisiana, where I developed a taste for gumbo and jambalaya and Dixieland jazz.

When he deserted us, disappearing like a puff of smoke with a “seedy waif” (Mum’s words) from one of the local juke joints that he frequented, she raised me in New Iberia, Louisiana, a bayou town where she worked until I came of age and went to the university down the road in Lafayette on a scholarship. Not long after the termites destroyed my daybooks, she offered me a proposition—return with her to England or make my own way. I stayed, she returned to a place that no longer belonged to her, a squalid slum and not the cozy of her imagined youth, and often enough I survived by daydreaming—about where my dodgy father might be, since he had vanished from my life like a djinn into the great wastes of America, or about who I might be, Fletcher Christian or William Wordsworth, heroic mutineer or transcendent poet. I lived more vividly in my head than I did in the world.

“Levitating? Wait a minute,” I said. “Where was Tom?” He was the heavyset, bearded cinematographer traveling with our group. He planned to put together some kind of documentary about Indonesia, the land of motorbikes and batik. “Let’s go to his room and take a look at the film.”

Karen made a face and shrugged in her bathing suit. She opened her hands as if offering me the earth. “The battery gave out.” She grinned triumphantly. “He went off to walk in the water. He’s a daydreamer, too. Like you. So there’s no visual proof. You have to believe, Rama.” She had fallen in love with the Ramayana and decided that I was meant to rescue her, as Rama had rescued Sita, from the snares of The Colonel, who frequently arranged debutante parties so that she might meet a suitable bridegroom. Against my better judgment, I had accepted the nickname and taken to calling her Sita, at least when we were alone.

“It’s a question of belief, is it? What are you guys playing at?” I said. “William? He’s a chain smoker, a lecturer, tied to the world. A guy, not a mystic. He’s the last person I might imagine who could levitate.”

“Who would you imagine levitating?” Karen said and made her face lopsided. “Me?”

I laughed. “Sita, I can imagine you doing lots of things,” I said, flirting, “but levitating? That’s a stretch.”

“Have it your way,” Paul said, grinding his freckled jaw. “We saw what we saw.” He took a sip of his drink and stood close to Karen. He had designs upon her and had seen the two of us getting close. He stared into the lily pond as if there was a shadow hovering over the water. I saw a green snake slither away in the grass. “William was in the lotus position. He was floating. Believe it or not. That’s how it was. Karen and I both saw it. You weren’t there, goddamnit.”

“Ah.” I motioned for Paul’s cigarette and he reluctantly let me take a drag. “So it’s not a question of belief. It’s a question of experience, isn’t it? I didn’t see it, did I?”  The conversation irritated me. “You know what?” I said. “I wasn’t there because I was levitating myself. On the beach. My goal is to be a saint: holy, godly, pious, religious, devout, prayerful, virtuous, righteous, good, moral, sinless, guiltless, irreproachable, spotless, uncorrupted.” I stopped to catch my breath. Karen was biting on a fingernail and smiling. Paul had narrowed his eyes. “Oh, and did I add pure and angelic? It’s hard work, trying to be a saint. Sometimes, I have to take a break. And levitate.”

They left it at that and we went off to have chicken nasi goreng, or Indonesian fried rice, all washed down with plenty of Bintang beer. We spent the next day exploring the Buddhist temple of Borobudur before we hopped on a plane for Bandung, a city where the pollution was so bad that some of my fellow apostles wore surgical masks outdoors, which made them look like large insects, and then to Jakarta and Singapore and Tokyo and Seattle. Once we returned to the States, I never saw the travelers again, with the exception of Karen, now my fiancée, nor did I hear anything about William until years later, when I came across a notice on the internet of his death from lung cancer. I remembered him chain-smoking.

That I had witnessed, so I walked from the ancient apartment building in the Midwest, where I lived in imagined exile, to the corner head shop, or whatever they’re called these days, and bought a packet of clove cigarettes, I forget the brand, but I smoked a few, thinking of William, our guide driver or driver guide, and tried to imagine him levitating on a beach near the Indian Ocean halfway around the world, imagined how he might have hovered above the ground, a third eye almost visible in the middle of his forehead, witnessed by dizzy American travelers, except for Tom the cinematographer and me, daydreamers many thousand miles from home, mesmerized  by the beautiful, depthless Indian Ocean. Surely, I thought, smoking the clove cigarette, that was a kind of levitation, standing on white sand, staring into the blue-green sea, and traveling by means of cosmic energy into the intricate lattice work of the ocean waves.


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