This piece was one of the winners of the 2002 Piccolo Spoleto Fiction Open, and since it’s never been published, I thought I’d post it here so that if my house happens to burn down, the story will exist at least somewhere, if only in cyberspace.
A Wilderness of Mirrors
1 May 1991
In just two-and-a-half days, Jake has driven from Charleston, South Carolina, to Nowhere, Nevada.
360 degrees of blanched desolation surround him – there are no other vehicles to be seen – not through the windshield where a guitar string of a road twangs to the horizon – not in the rearview mirror horizon twangs road string . . .
Sage and cacti rush past through the side windows a blurrrrrrrrrrrr – but ahead the desert stays put, like a static postcard, too pretty he reckons, the sun sinking up ahead, rose tinting the godforsaken.
All he has for company in his VW bus is an AM radio and the cowboy songs his father sang him to sleep with. At this hour in this postmeridian desert space, no radio waves come a-callin’, so beneath the ocean roar of rolled down window wind, he sings in his best voice, “Get along little doggie/ Yo’ misfortune’s none of my own . . .”
A couple of hours pass, and things begin to cool and darken:
Static . . . faint buzzing . . . yakkedy sax, yakkedy sax, yakkedy sax . . . static . . . Ay candela, candela, candela me quemo . . . static . . . wash-ED in the sac-RED blood of JEEEEEEE-ZZZZUSSS . . . static . . . “Barry, okay, what I hear you saying is . . .”
Jake lets go of the steering wheel and snaps his fingers.
Forty-eight hours ago in Georgia, Jake discovered her, Dr. Tupper, a call-in therapist offering eight-minute sessions sandwiched between commercials for laxatives and smokers’ tooth polish. This is only the third time he’s heard her, but already he’s picked up a trace of transference.
Jake admires Dr. Tupper for offering callers keys to the cells of their personal prisons in the hope they might extricate themselves from their pitiful pasts. A couple of callers have broken down on the air, their sobs bouncing off satellites into radio receivers nationwide. Dr. Tupper answers in a calm firm voice, compassionate but strict. She won’t allow them to get repetitive with all those potential suicides on hold.
This caller Barry is having trouble with his partner. Barry loves the partner, but he “don’t” in his own words, “have the desire, you know?”
Great at first, then a cooling down to mere mechanical jack-in-the-box, around and around, monkeys and weasels, till pop goes the heartache.
She knows. Takes him there in no time. Has him blurting it out in under three minutes.
His junior High gym teacher. Coach.
Her advice is always the same. “Get help.” In the calmest and most patient of voices, she says, “Don’t bury a horrible thing inside of you, Barry. A horrible thing inside of you gnaws beneath the surface.”
3 May 1991
Head propped on her elbows, Cassandra lies stomach down on her comforter. The personal section of a newspaper is spread before her propped up on pillows:
Young, generous Orson Welles type seeks white female for
conversation, maybe more. Send photo and letter to “Rosebud” c/o Journal.
Orson Welles type. That spells f-a-t. Or maybe a racist 17-year-old prodigy who has penned his first screenplay! Her hand shyly covers her mouth as she giggles hoarsely.
A voice, a Southern male voice, from the radio, intrudes
. . . I see nowhere everywhere. That same ol’ Shoney ridden stretch leading into every town filling me with despair. Everything makes me sad, Dr. Tupper, everything. Fluffy clouds, Elvis, Otis, the Godfather, everything. Ain’t no white rabbit revelations for you to pull out presto. Got no other reason to be sad than I live in this world I see around me. My parents were good to me. My teachers left me alone . . .
White Rabbit revelations?
. . . Many depressions originate in chemical imbalances . . . seek medical attention . . . seemingly cosmic grief dissipated by merely swallowing a pill . . . the world is not necessarily dark, but existentially you’re viewing it through the lens of your depression . . . a miracle really . . . your life from drizzling rain to bright sunshine in just a few weeks . . .
Cassandra rolls over and switches off the radio, arises like a well-fed ghost in her white nightgown and stares into the mirror above her dresser. It opens to the reflections of another mirror, a full-length mirror on the door of her bathroom behind her. Ahead of her and behind her, mirror opens upon mirror upon mirror, diminishing her cloned reflection into nothingness.
“Eat me,” she says out loud.
She puts a cd on and gets out the latest Vanity Fair, flips to a photograph of a shirtless cowboy, and crawls back into bed with that manboy from the radio, Jack or Jake, her fellow desperado. She turns to her side and closes her eyes to the carefully curated statements of her room, then opens them to grab the remote and turn down the volume of the cd. Now, with eyes once again closed, she can barely hear the music as her hand – his hand – touches her stomach.
3 May 1991
After she got off the air, Alice Tupper talked to three people on hold who didn’t make it on. They were the lucky ones, she told them, because she could spend a bit more time with each one. But three was the limit. You had to draw the line somewhere. She had a visit to the hospital to make.
Two of the three were already in therapy and basically wanted her to confirm – validate – their treatments. The third was in worse shape. She had been molested by her stepfather and now had entered the confrontational stage. Alice was all too familiar with incest and its aftermath. Her own father had molested her when she was eight. The child Alice had not fully understood what had happened but sensed that it was too terrible to admit, like the eating of the Apple. She suffered the classic symptoms: a feeling of worthlessness, the misconception that it had been her fault, the propensity to have others dominate her. But luckily, a therapist had saved her. And now she was a therapist trying to save this young woman, to talk her into following through, to reinforce the importance of support groups. She gave her the rare option of calling X number next week at X time. She made the young woman promise to call. Alice waited to hear the click before she removed the headphones.
The LA air was exhaust-laden, but she hated air conditioning, and with the top down, she felt as if she were getting her money’s worth for this flashy car she could afford but not really enjoy. Palm trees and utility poles clicked past her in the rearview side mirrors where tinted SUVs shot up and past like rolling city states.
It had been a long day, but this was going to be the worst. Rosalita was dying. Alice had known her for eleven years, one of her first “saves,” a spirited reflection of Alice and also a reflection of the therapist who had saved Alice. Rosalita had done it, broken the cycle, educated herself at a community college, gotten a job in social work. But disastrously, one of her exes had been an intravenous drug user, and now she was little more than a breathing skeleton.
Rosalita had passed the point of complaining, passed the last outposts of vanity, her olive skin drained into a waxen deathmask, her flesh withered to the bone. She lay upon her back in an incongruous bright yellow gown, the hospital bed tilted up. Her grown children stepped back so Dr. Weinstein and Dr. Tupper could approach the bed. Alice stroked the dying woman’s limp hair, held her skeletal hand, told Rosalita goodbye in a speech she had sort of rehearsed. As tears streamed down Alice’s face, Rosalita wanly smiled, barely nodding. At its conclusion, she mouthed “thank you.”
Dr. Weinstein waited with Alice in the hall afterwards for the tears to subside.
“Jeff,” she said at last, punching the elevator button with the Kleenex still in her hand, “I got a call from this kid today, and he was like, ‘I-Am-a-Teenage-William-Faulkner,’ and I couldn’t really tell if he were putting me on or what, but basically, all he wanted to know was why bother.”
Jeff was ready to say something, but the elevator arrived and opened, so they stepped in and joined a short, middle-aged Pakistani woman.
“Anyway, I think I blew it. On the radio all you have are words, and I couldn’t find the right ones, but anyway, I kept thinking of the caller in light of Rosalita, you know, how she fought to the very end.”
As the bell politely sounded, the Pakistani woman brought her hand to her head and adjusted her scarf. The elevator stopped, the doors opened, and she stepped out and away.
“But what about you, Jeff? You don’t get many happy endings, do you?”
“Nope,” he said, “they pretty much all die.”
“How do you deal with it?”
He was a tall man, bald and stooped, but he cracked a devilish, boyish grin.
“Like Pontius Pilate,” he said, “I wash my hands a lot.”
They were both laughing as the elevator opened to the lobby. A well-dressed woman with good posture frowned as she brushed past them into the cage. Alice bid Jeff good-bye and passed through the automatic doors into the night. Around the corner of the hospital in reserved parking, her red Z-whatever waited.
Once on the highway, she slid in a cd and tried to lose herself in the music, but with the top down, the thrash of night air drowned out the weak singing voices.