(An Odyssey Story)

She’s going to tell you a story – as she so often does – about O’Dean, a man she might have met on his travels. He was a bit of a wanderer, that one. A strange one, riddling and shifting from one shadow to the next. She’s going to tell the story well. Probably not the way he would tell it. She’s a good storyteller – he is, too – but she’s not going to lie, or embellish much, and she’ll remember most of the bits where he was a fool and leave out some of the others. She just weaves the story, in a time long enough ago that you can’t quite imagine it, far enough away that you’ve never been. She’ll tell the story much better than he ever could have even if he weren’t long gone. She tells good stories in her singsong voice – listen.

His name was O’Dean, yes, and he was a wanderer. The longest he’d ever stayed anywhere was in the home of a woman, in a town with a name he’s forgotten. He stayed nearly four months. The woman was one of the few he remembered, later. Her face drifted through his mind sometimes, and it made him yearn for what could have been a home. He had meant to go back to her someday. He would have found her, sweet face more lined but smiling, and the child he’d left her with, whose life he’d never learned of. He never did go back. Instead he wandered. One town to another, down one dirty street and up the next. He accumulated a gang and they followed him around, for a while. One town threw stones to drive them out. O’Dean had insulted someone quite badly. Three of the gang fell and bled as the rest fled with O’Dean, and he laughed. He was always laughing. Joking, telling riddles. Lying with a glint in his eye. He was almost always charming enough, dark hair and craggy face grinning, for long enough to be believed or humored. Long enough to wander away unscathed.

Odysseus bei den Laestrygonen

Odysseus bei den Laestrygonen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were so many small adventures. After the stones, they had gone to an old fishing town, reeking with brine and creaking old damp wood. They had found the tavern there more than adequate. It smelled strange, but the whiskey was good enough to ignore that. O’Dean flirted with the barmaid as his companions got heartily drunk, guffawing and yelling. They had retired for the night, to various places, and gathered again in the morning to squint against the bleak pale light.

As O’Dean led them all down past the wharf, an old sailor started forward. He asked them, raspy and belligerent, who they thought they were. What were they doing in this town, and hadn’t they better leave, then. O’Dean had a way of making himself welcome, and he clearly wanted none of it. He scowled at them, face twisted behind an eye patch, words ringing in the salty air. O’Dean spun, and glowered. His answer was contemptuous, as he grimaced at the bony old man; “Nobody to concern you, old man. We’ll do as we like.” The old sailor staggered forward, fists clenching, and O’Dean swung to clap him across the face. The sailor slumped back, curling over, until he could look up from behind a protective hand to glare at O’Dean with his one good eye, already red and swelling. He muttered, “Go then. Curses of the sea on you – go!” O’Dean scoffed and turned, waving his hand for the others to trail after him uncertainly over the slick cobblestones.

They left that town soon after. Most of them, anyway. Several stayed, consumed by something or other – O’Dean was never sure. He never quite bothered to find out. He just kept going. He kept on, to a crowded town bustling with merchants, gamblers, thieves. They stopped first at an inn, on the outskirts. It was run by a formidably busy woman, a middle-aged spinster who gave the impression of condescending to speak with any person at all. They stayed a week, enticed mostly by her cooking – though, admittedly, by her sharp-edged allure too. O’Dean left half his men there, still gorging themselves like pigs at her table. He had no taste for her cooking, and he’d lost his taste for her after so long a time. They went on, now only four others with him.

In the midst of town, O’Dean and the few with him hung around the edges of a bar with a card game planted in the center, watching the gambling. O’Dean held back, clung to the shadowy corners and the dusty tables. His men were less able to resist the whirl of money and anticipation, and they were drawn in. He escaped the gambling hall with two of his men. They left to explore the streets again, to hear the music drifting from the windows and the eerie silence of the darkness of the streets too late at night. They were drawn to the bustle and brightness of a tavern nestled in the corner of two streets, wings fluttering to the flame of loud voices and the smell of meat cooking. O’Dean stayed back again, and watched warily as his men jostled their way into the room. He joined them, after a minute, at the corner where they were already draining their mugs of beer. They called for meals, and he watched from his corner, dark eyes in the shadows and mouth twisted in apprehension. He knew not to trust anything, and the tavern-keeper had a shifty look to him – O’Dean didn’t like anyone who thought himself stronger than he was. The person didn’t exist who could outwit him, that he’d yet seen. So he stayed quiet, and shook his head at the steaming plates. His companions ate eagerly, without further thought. After another minute, he stood to leave – not before cutting the purse from a belt or two. It didn’t cross his mind to wonder whether the proud tavern-keeper would be angry at the men, once they found themselves without money to pay for all they had just taken. He left, swinging the door shut behind him and closing off the warmth and light. He started down the street again, comfortable in the softness of the cool dark.

He spent another few days wandering those streets. There O’Dean met a woman, a beautiful whore, down a dusky corridor in the upstairs of the brothel. She drew him in and cared for him tenderly – or tried to. She wanted him to stay, promised him forever. O’Dean sometimes had that effect on women. He wanted none of her forever – he left after a week, tired of the need to stay.

He went on to a place further on, another town with streets that looked the same and alleys with the same shadows. Every place seemed to have the same shape to it, after a while. It was easy to forget where he was – he’d been everywhere, for so long. He was a wanderer. Sometimes he thought of staying in a place, but the restless heart in him balked at the idea of settling. The face of the woman he had almost forgotten rarely surfaced – and when it did, he could remember that he had no home. He was meant for the roads, the streets, the new corners of places far away. Always finding an adventure didn’t leave him anywhere to return to, and he liked it that way. It was just him and the stones beneath his feet.

The next place he went was his favorite. It was a village filled with noble, decent people – gullible. O’Dean didn’t trust kindness either. He pronounced them all fakers, and went on without scruples. He stayed among those fake, kind people for a time. It was comfortable there. He slept in clean crisp sheets, and on his last night he dreamed that his adventures were grand. He dreamed that he fought off the impossible to do what he’d always thought improbable, and at the end of his dream he went home, to a place he couldn’t quite imagine. There was a woman there with a familiar face, and he knew just what to do and how to be. He always did, of course, but in his dream he grasped a sliver of contentment, of some strange far-off place he’d never been. In his dream he returned after his wandering, and he triumphed over those who wanted his place, and after that brutality there was a warm body and a fierce pride.

When he woke, he gathered his few belongings and slipped from the inn before its owners awoke. He started down a new road, feet finding the patterns that led to someplace unknown. The dream was already fading from his mind, and he set his face toward the distance, to keep on, to find an adventure, to wander and nothing more.

A Ring Under the Bed

Faye was turning to reach for the light when her elbow slipped, knocking into the book still lying open and then, painfully, into the wall. She cursed and sat up, rubbing her arm. The book had slid over and then flipped up to drop neatly between the mattress and the wall, and she could see the pages splayed on the floor through the crack. Her arm didn’t quite fit. The bed was heavy, too, and the mattress was scratching her skin.

With a sigh, she pulled herself out of bed and knelt on the floor, craning her neck to look under the bed. There were a couple wrappers and some tissues scattered there. The book was leaning against the wall, the farthest from her it could be. She could feel the irritation heat her face, and with a grunt she dropped on her side to the floor. Her head on the carpet, her shoulder stretched out and the book was only a few inches away. She could almost reach it.

Her fingers brushed against something small and cold, and her hand grasped it like a reflex. She curled a couple fingers to hold it to her palm and reached just a bit farther until she felt the pages tickle her skin. The book in hand, she withdrew her arm from under the bed and sat up, back against the edge of the mattress. Carefully unfolding the bent pages and closing the book, she hauled herself up to the bed. The floor under there would need to be cleaned out, and she pressed a reminder into her mind. Maybe she would remember tomorrow.

With the book retrieved and put away, she could look at whatever she’d grabbed. It was still folded in her hand, and when she spread her fingers flat she saw a golden ring. It gleamed at her, and she blinked. It was beautiful, if a bit silly-looking, she thought. All gold filigree, intricate and curling, with a diamond nestled in the center. She turned it over, studying the shape and rubbing a thumb over the dips and whorls of the metal.

It looked like it might fit her. She wondered how it could have ended up under her bed – a hiding place for jewelry, maybe, or a proposal gone terribly wrong. The smoothness of its inside rasped against her skin as she toyed with it. She held her hand out before her, feeling a bit silly, and then she slid it onto her finger. She admired the shine of the metal and the glint of the stone against her hand for a moment, and then everything disappeared –

The Second Half of the Story

I went to see Adam again. It feels like I need to be there as often as possible, just to make sure he’s eating and sleeping and whatnot. He’s a dreaming child stuck in this young man’s body, and he doesn’t have a mother to tell him to do his homework. He’s more emaciated than he was, which is really scary to see. He looks too tired and sad to walk, let alone write for hours on end. Not really sad, though – I suppose it’s that when I see his face, pared to the bone and grinning, it makes me sad instead of him.

The picture of Theo that he sketched is taped to the wall. Theo looks more like Adam used to look than Adam himself by now. Young, smiling, just handsome enough to deserve the word. I told Adam he needed to let Theo alone and get back to his own life for a bit. After all, the character would still be there after a meal, a shower and a nap. The expression on his face was so incredulous, for a moment I felt like I had actually said something crazy. The way he’s working, it seems that he thinks Theo will dry up and disappear the moment he’s left alone, and the only way to keep him alive is by feeding him words constantly.

It’s becoming part of my daily routine to drop by Adam’s place after work. I fix him some food, drag him protesting into the bathroom and then tuck him into bed. It’s a bit like being someone’s parent for a few hours a day. I certainly worry enough about him. Mary says I look worried all the time now, and my forehead is beginning to feel tense and scrunched. I can’t remember how to relax my face, to not look anxious. I suppose Adam feels like this, but more. And instead of worrying over a friend, he’s worrying over a person he invented who lives only in his mind. It’s so frustrating – something has to change.

***

I just got back from Adam’s place. Adam wasn’t there today.

When I pounded on the door – usually he leaves it open for me – nobody answered. I kept on, and eventually I heard a muffled voice. The door clicked and swung open, but instead of a skeletal jumpy Adam I found myself looking at some man I’d never seen before. He looked vaguely familiar, so I thought perhaps he was a friend of Adam’d whom I’d only met once or twice. He smiled to see me, though, so I smiled back and went inside.

I asked him where Adam was, hoping that he was sleeping already. It was a guilty sort of wish that I wouldn’t have to deal with him at all today. This man just looked confused, though. There was nobody in the bedroom, and the silence was stretching. There wasn’t an answer.

I looked everywhere – in all three rooms, not that there were so many places to look, and checked the closets. Adam was nowhere. I felt an irrational paranoia, an unease that whispered perhaps Adam had collapsed, was in the hospital, had simply died and was twisted at the bottom of a river or someplace similarly lost and hidden. The feeling was growing and halting my breath, fluttering against my heart. The strange man was just looking at me, calmly and curiously, as though I were something new and odd to him.

I thought maybe he would have answers, so I asked, “Who are you, then? I mean, why are you here and he’s not?”

He looked relieved that I had spoken first, and said, “I don’t know what you mean. I don’t know why I’m here, it’s different. I mean, I came from here, or someplace like here. But I don’t know this place.”

That was not helpful at all, so I went into the kitchen. It occurred to me that Adam might have left for something, and stuck a note to the fridge. He’d done that once or twice before, and it would be a good sign. It would mean he had left the building for groceries or errands or some other normal human thing. There was no note anywhere.

The realization that the man hadn’t answered my questions swept over me, and I turned to him. “You never actually did tell me who you were.”

“Oh,” he grinned. “Sorry. I’m Theodore. Call me Theo.”

I left after that, and I won’t go back.

I’ve been reading too much Borges

I went to visit Adam today. He’s been so busy lately, though there hasn’t been anything to show for it. Every time I’ve seen him he’s been typing furiously, pen scratching on the paper and head bent over the desk. There’s a mountain next to him, a pile of crumpled paper on the desk that’s nearing his head. It’s been threatening to fall for a while now, and today it had actually started to drift to pieces. Adam didn’t look so well either.

He’s gotten a bit haggard. When I knocked he opened the door and I was shocked, breath pushed out of me. His eyes are so wide, and ringed with shadow. It looks like his skin is bruised, and I swear he’s gotten thinner in the past few days alone. He smiled when he saw me, though. He stepped aside and ushered me in, and started to talk.

“I’m breaking through it, this stupid writer’s block. You know it’s not something that happens much to me. Just the past couple weeks, and my god I’ve been going crazy.”

“I know,” I said. “I know you have.”

He snorted, and plucked the paper from his desk with a flourish. It was a gesture at odds with his appearance, like a beggar bending in a courtly bow. I took the paper from him, and the words rushed from him.

“I’ve come up with this new character. Theodore, I think his name is. Theo maybe. He’s brilliant, just the answer to everything. I’m sure I’ll figure out his story – I think probably he’s a writer too, don’t roll your eyes, but he’s a writer and he’s having this trouble with, I don’t know, someone. Anyway he’s clever and a bit disheveled and all kinds of screwed up, the kind of guy you can’t talk to for five minutes without wanting to edge away a little. You know what I mean?”

I nodded, and skimmed the paper he’d given me. It was a description, simple, of the person he’d just described. It didn’t seem like much to me, except that it was the first paper in a long while that he hadn’t crushed into a wad and tossed on the top of the growing pile. So I gave him a hug, and told him I was glad. I didn’t stay long, because Mary was waiting for me. We were going to go out to dinner.

***

Yesterday I saw Adam again. When I headed over there I was thinking that he’d be so much happier, looking healthy, smiling. Once I saw him, though – he was smiling, but he’s shrunken and shriveled more than ever. It looks like his skin is withering on his bones. He was so enthusiastic though, jumping around and talking, a prancing skeleton with a mop of unwashed hair. He was telling me about Theo – he had to remind me, that was the character he’d made up. This guy lived in a little apartment, and he was dealing with his father’s death only a few months before. He had a situation with a woman that he wasn’t quite sure of – I interrupted here to ask Adam, pointedly, how he was doing. He really just wanted to keep talking about how Theo was doing.

I could see, clearly, that having something like this to focus on was giving him energy. The motivation, the drive that I’d always seen in him was there, stronger than ever. He practically quivered with the intensity of his excitement. It looked like that energy was disappearing from his body even as it filled his mind. He kept babbling about Theo, and waving his arms. I thought he might fall.

After a bit I got him to sit and eat some cereal. There didn’t seem to be much other food in the whole place, though I searched the cabinets. I found some old cereal, sour milk and a rotten bunch of grapes in the fridge, and a drawer full of dry spaghetti. He was eating cereal when I put some water up on the stove, after washing out the pot. The spoon shook as he brought it to his face, and he had to concentrate on feeding himself like something he was remembering how to do. I made him a pound of spaghetti and put it in the fridge, and I didn’t leave before I made him promise to eat some at least twice a day. I think he only waited for me to shut the door before going back to his desk and his pen.

+++

To be continued, once I have written more of it. Also! A drawing of mine and an accompanying snippet of words were published today here.

More Underground

This place was bigger than she had ever imagined. Karen had pictured a cave, narrow and dripping. There would probably be stalagmites. Or stalactites, she was never sure about which was which. This was an enormous cavern, with a ceiling so arched and high that she couldn’t see the angles of stone amongst the shadows. The left side of the area – the wide expanse of concrete, surrounded by walls that leaned over them all – dropped abruptly. That must be where they’d come from, along the dead track.

 

Abandoned subway station

Abandoned subway station (Photo credit: Geir Halvorsen)

 

She walked further, timidly, pulling Andrew by the hand. He followed more slowly, his steps lagging behind her. He was gaping at the ceiling, and the walls, and the group of people sitting before them. They were all lounged about what seemed to be a very old television, clustered in front of it. There was a reporter on the screen, interrupted by flickers and static as she told them earnestly of the newest political developments – “There has, however, been some controversy over the recent reelection of the Senator, especially given the scandals he faced at the end of his last term. Over to you, Ron.” The people were beginning to get up now, to mumble to one another, and one person leaned to shut the television off. It shuddered to a black screen as though relieved to give up the burden of CNN.

 

Karen was a bit surprised. A group of people who lived beneath the surface of the city was hanging on the words of the world above; she had assumed they would shun news of the world. It was a much more attractive prospect, and seeing the reporter made it feel like everything up there was inescapable. That wasn’t why they had come. She yanked on Andrew’s hand, and he squeezed hers.

 

She stopped to smile at him. He was looking at her, his face solemn in the low light of the station. She looked back for a long moment, and for a bit they stood there together, silent, in the cavern underneath the world.

 

Short and Sweet

A man was once in love with an apple (she was a Pink Lady). He cherished the gleaming curve of her rosy skin, and the soft succulence of her tender hidden flesh. They lived a blissful life together, the man and the apple, until it happened. One day, the man looked at his beloved, and felt the stirrings of a new hunger in the pit of his abdomen. He craved the taste of her, longed to feel his teeth sink into her. So he ate her. He crunched and gobbled and then licked his dripping fingers with regret, but relish.

He mourned his darling love, the loss of her rounded shape and the beauty she had brought into his life. Then a week later, he was in the produce section, and a certain Golden Delicious caught his eye —

Expectation

Dora had a plan. More of a script, really. It wasn’t so much that she decided it would happen, though. Rather this was just how she knew it would probably go. She would get there – step off the train – and Annie would be there. Their eyes would meet, and Dora would feel the smile spreading irresistibly across her face as she saw the matching grin on Annie’s. They would walk toward each other, and be pulled into an embrace. Annie would press a kiss onto her cheek, and it would be the softest touch she could imagine. She would be able to feel the imprint of those lips on her skin for days, the ghost of a kiss that lingered.

Annie would say, “I’m so glad you’re finally here. I’ve missed you so much.”

“I’ve missed you too,” Dora would answer. “More than you know.”

Their hands would tighten around each other, and Annie would sneak a look at her. “I think I know. What do you want to do first, now that you’re here?”

Dora would pretend to think about it for a minute. “I don’t know. Since we’re in town, we might as well go to the Bean.”

That same smile would light Annie’s face again, and their steps would turn that way without thinking. They would walk there as they had so long ago, and as they walked the memories might bloom.

Annie would say, “So Brian is living in California now. Remember how he always joked about surfers? He’s totally dating one now. At least one, that is, you know Brian.”

Dora would laugh with delight, as she always did. “Right, but did you hear that Tina’s got a job already? A steady one, I mean.”

They would talk like that, easy and familiar, until they got there. Once they were inside, with the warm smell of coffee surrounding them, Annie would walk up to the register. She’d order both their drinks, not forgetting the two extra shots of espresso that she always teased Dora for.

The loudspeaker blared and Dora started. That was her stop – it would be silly if she were so far away daydreaming that she didn’t get off the train at the right place. She heaved her bag to her shoulder and edged down the aisle, past the knees and handbags that spilled out past the seats. As she stepped onto the platform, she didn’t hear her name. She had to wait and look around before she spotted Annie, hurrying toward her. She’d cut her hair – it was curling around her jaw now. Dora blinked at her, a little disoriented by the swarm of people rushing around her. Annie reached her and stopped, then leaned to peck her cheek.

“Hi,” Dora said.

“Hi.”

“Good to see you.”

Annie smiled, a strained expression. It looked like she was biting her lip. “You too. It’s been a long time.”

“Yeah, it really has. Do, um, do you want to get a cup of coffee?”

“Okay.”

They walked side by side through the streets. Dora’s mouth was dry, and her hands were clenched on the strap of her bag. When they reached the front door of the Bean, they both tried to go in at once. After a moment of shuffling out of place for one another, Dora stepped back and pulled the door open for Annie, who flashed that strained smile at her again. Dora followed her inside.

Annie stepped up to the counter and Dora stood next to her, and when the scruffy teenager walked over to the register they both started to speak at once. Dora snapped shut her mouth, and forced a smile.

Annie said, “I’d like a chai, please. And for her, could you make a mocha? With two extra shots of espresso, right?” She grinned, a real smile, and Dora smiled back.