By Adam Soldofsky
It was unpleasant, but I’d been in the military. The lines were incredible yet they moved along towards intake. My neck was stiff. It was uncomfortable to look over my shoulder. We exchanged glances. Few of us spoke. It was all fairly obvious. The sky above was a boiling pixilation that exploded perpetually on the horizon.
In the hangers they blasted our eyes with lights and waved little wands. They snapped our photograph against an eggshell backdrop. There was some confusion with the names. Trouble with certain accents. There was mumbling, mishearing. Embellishment. Truncation. Poetry underwrote posterity once again. I fed my name to the manglers, then waited with baffling hope to be issued identification, a card they printed on the spot.
I sat in the chair across the desk from the caseworker in her cubicle. The walls were pinned with the drawings of children. Her perfume lay claim to the air. She asked questions, returning my answers as she marked in the file:
Parents: still living.
Ran away from home to join the war.
I was handed a number of vouchers. We discussed my options for shelter, nearest relatives or a halfway house.
The house was in a subdivision in the Western District. The Underworld was entirely communities of this sort. Immaculate. The paint, tactful. The turf, orderly and green. Picture windows. Sacred geometry. Little parks. Plaques beneath the statues.
My room was cozy. The residents were men, old and young. Some were talkative. Others kept to themselves. I was partial to the latter. The house rules were displayed in a frame in the common area and read as follows:
Clean up after yourself.
Share in household chores.
Attend all mandatory meetings and classes.
Maintain employment or pursue an education.
Keep all appointments with your case manager.
Report any and all progress or adversity.
I went to the meetings. I attended the classes in the little room at the community center. The topics were abstract or pragmatical. One of the first concerned the lack of Justice. This was of much interest to me, as I had done some killing and wondered about the moral implications. Some of us had suspicions back in life. But we did not gloat to the others. People expected revelations. The rest of us tried to be sensitive. There was unlimited access to counseling.
I enjoyed the classes, thought less of the meetings. My case manager had enrolled me in two support groups. One was for Veterans of the Trojan War. The other was Coping with Your Unglamorous Death.
In the veterans group, I felt out of place. I hadn’t died in combat. I was more than a little ashamed of my death. There was some snickering when I told of it. I expected as much. The group leader thanked me and I sat down. Later he found me and pressed my hand between his two. His sincerity was profuse but clearly authentic. He told me it was okay.
What can you do, I said.
My horse kicked me, he said.
Not her fault. A wasp stung her flank.
The group for Unglamorous Deaths was at first a sad affair. Later it became very funny. I was obliged to tell about the drunkenness, the climbing atop Circe’s terrace to sleep nearer the stars. The morning call to ship, my subsequent panic, tumble, broken neck. There were worse deaths assembled here but I was still very close to mine. The group included women. We did some socializing outside of the meetings. There was one woman I found lovely and intelligent, the full details of whose death I’d rather not––t involved an ill-advised bet.
That she could wrest such dignity from her disgrace was unsettling. Apotheosis is a term I didn’t know then. My mouth was generally thrown out of rhythm by her presence. I could speak to her but first I’d have to swallow something jagged. I was astonished by her interest in me. I was never in love during my life. You remind me of my grandmother, I told her on a date.
Aren’t you a flatterer, she said.
You’d be flattered if you knew her.
Tell me something about her.
Well, I said, she began her life a slave-girl.
Her former masters are here. She is not.
I was not a brave soldier and this was obvious to my superiors. I was the youngest aboard my captain’s vessel but that hardly explains anything. I did not enjoy the war. I had enlisted to escape my father.
It was a surprise to find myself excelling in the classroom. I scored highly on the placement tests. I enrolled at the university on scholarship. By now my wife and I had a little house in the quiet planned community known as Tanglewood. I worked construction and went to school. There was a lot of development in the Underworld at that time. My wife pursued her certification in counseling. Eventually she found work mentoring girls.
I continued to visit the discussions at the community center. When we discussed the Memory Question the room was always split. We must preserve the recollections from our days of life, urged the Rememberers. For some this required heroic diligence. The Forgetters supported oblivion for the purposes of comprehensive assimilation. They were sometimes accused of taking this position simply to legitimize the eating of lotus. The two camps got along for the most part, despite the difference of opinion. Though they tended to vote opposite each other.
I was not dogmatic myself, holding on to what was pleasant and burying the rest. One Rememberer, enlivened by the debate, stood up and declared:
Every soul in this room has one recollection that validates all that is disagreeable. You, she pointed at me. Give us yours!
Sailing in black night, the algae blooming like a cosmos off the coast of Malea.
My neighbor had been a prophet of doom when he was alive. Now he was a mechanic. A nice man. We’d have conversations in our driveways, mornings when I went out to collect the newspaper. I was now an academic. My dissertation—The Civic Disadvantages of Memory in the Absence of Justice—had been published and I was offered a post at the University. What would my father say? In all the years I lived under his roof I never once saw him impressed.
I told my neighbor about my wife wanting children. How I wasn’t sure. How I worried about the Vanishing.
Everybody worries about that, said my neighbor.
Don’t you? I said.
Oh sure––I have a group, he said. We meet Sundays before football.
Death had not meant an end to mystery. Souls vanished routinely from the Underworld. Those that returned after days, weeks or months had nothing to report. No idea they’d been gone. Many did not return. Thus I worried about becoming a parent. Children are adaptable and resilient, said my neighbor.
There was no end to the children entering the Underworld.
It is our responsibility to open our home, said my wife.
She tended to appeal to reason when she wanted something. It was convenient how duty and desire coalesced so seamlessly in her. I hated to interfere with her happiness. Her love was a dynamo beneath us.Compromised, it would lead to destruction.
We put our names on the waitlist.
When the child arrived my love ballooned dangerously. If I looked too long upon the little girl, particularly when she rode on my wife’s hip, I would begin to tremble like a rocket. This condition was somewhat alleviated when I held a camera.
We went often to the park. We visited the sleek shopping mall. The floors gleamed underfoot. The selection stole my breath. We went for drives. The hedges along the roads, the rows of houses nearly identical and wheeling in all directions propelled me toward ecstasy. I took far too many pictures. There were fountains in the public squares.
Flowers in the beds. There were street fairs. Markets and bazaars. I enjoyed anything which brought me into proximity with my compatriots. Our assembly seemed the proof of something important.
We hosted parties in the backyard. Invited our colleagues and they brought their children. I built a swing set. The children chased each other about the yard and flitted at our knees. The adults sat on the patio and discussed the newest speculation surrounding the Emperor and Empress. Their role in government was now purely symbolic. Thus their private affairs became the national pastime.
She has no shame, said one.
Neither does he.
Well, I think she’s worse. Look how she dresses.
Look how he flaunts his infidelity.
She’s much worse, said another. She was nothing before they met. He plucked her from obscurity and set her down in luxury and adoration.
They both ought to have some shame, said another.
What use is shame in the Underworld? said my wife.
Just when I felt it impossible to fall any further in love she would say something like that.
I don’t know, said someone, but I feel they ought to have a little.
Couldn’t we have another?
Well. We certainly have the room.
That’s hardly the point, my dear.
I want another one. I feel we’re ready.
And we do have the room.
We wrote back to the agency. Our application was approved and a second child, a boy, was placed in our care. He was shy. He did not take to us so readily. He watched us carefully and we watched him. During this time I dreamed of Odysseus. Seldom did I wake dry, without the tremendous outrage for which I could not account slamming in my ribcage. A captive on a sinking ship.
I took walks under the ever-rippling canopy worrying about the boy. He went long periods without speaking. He’d cut large notches from his hair with kitchen shears. While I lay in bed fear and love tore over the tracks of my nerves on a collision course. My wife is an effortless sleeper. Immediately embroiled in a dream,she is what my mother would call an unbothered soul. Lying beside her, the children lost in the dark of their rooms, the ruthless oceanic quiet of the street lapping against the window, I felt utterly removed from grace.
Though he took me on it was clear Odysseus was bothered by my presence. I was roughly the age of the son he’d vanished from. Sometimes when he was giving orders he could not bring himself to look at me. Then the desire to please him would incandesce my bones. Now I was feeling this way about the boy. I would relive any horror to know his thoughts. Preparing him for school was like dressing an idol. Meanwhile, the girl thrived. She needed us for shelter. Transportation. The rest she could manage. I felt childish in her presence. She tolerated my kissing her when I dropped them at school. The boy followed along through the double doors, his steely hermetic aura wavering about his little shoulders.
I went on to the University. Gave lectures. Saw students in my office. Tried to appear composed. Drove home through the tessellating neighborhoods. Kissed my wife. Inquired about the children. Performed my part in the meal. Afterwards loaded the dishwasher. Read the paper. Put the children to bed. Spoke idly with my wife on the sofa. They’re enforcing the beard policy at the University, I told her.
Are they really?
Everybody has to grow one?
Only the men.
I’m sorry about that.
Do you mind a beard? Not terribly.
And if there were a lot of grey in it?
You’d look distinguished.
You wouldn’t leave me for a younger man?
Not if he wore a beard.
Young men grow the most disastrous beards.
I’m glad you’re not a young man. I would probably have to leave you.
Went upstairs to bed. Lay with my wife until she was asleep. Lay awake, the the world above bearing down. Darkening. Day in and out.
I came home, set down my damp coat and briefcase. Dried my beard on my sleeve. The girl was at the table with her homework. The boy sat on the floor. He would only wear white during this period. He had on white coveralls atop a white t-shirt. White socks and sneakers. He was drawing things on his arms with a red marker.
Where’s your mother?
The girl shrugged.
I went upstairs. I came back down.
Where’s mom? Her car’s in the driveway.
The girl looked up from her assignment.
Maybe she went for a walk.
But it’s storming.
We regarded each other. The boy started with the marker on his legs. I looked in the backyard and in the garage.
What’s for dinner?
I don’t know.
I looked to a small gesture of agreement from the boy.
I fed the children. I bathed them and put them to bed.
She’ll be back, said the girl.
She was always right.
I checked on the boy. He lay dreaming like a pharaoh with his arms folded over his chest.
I went downstairs. Sat on the sofa and faced the front door. Light entered from the street shredded through the blinds and shuddered on the walls. I shook under the blanket. The storm kept on.
Days and weeks. The children were adaptable and resilient. I considered joining a group. I lectured and graded papers enveloped in an unruly lavender fog. I saw to the children though it felt like the reverse.
Don’t worry, said the girl. It’ll be okay.
Where did she come by this riddle?
The boy clothed himself in white. Each day he covered his body in red glyphs. Each night I wiped them away in the bath. The weather was strange. The sky was lowering around us.
Don’t worry, Dad.
Finish your breakfast.
The firmament fell to the land like a dark bridal gown. I needed to buy groceries. I’m going to the Superstore.
No thanks, called the girl.
The boy stood up from the floor covered in his own crimson language and took my hand at the threshold.
We drove through shattered element rebounding from the streets and hurried through the parking lot under the umbrella. I’d made a list but found it soaked. Incoherent. Chaos clapped me on the back. I began to weep. People stared. The boy took my hand. Led me down the florescent aisles. I filled the cart.
Prism / Oaths
We hustled to the car and unloaded the groceries. There was a great clamoring taking place around us. I held up the visor of my hand and looked off towards the edge of the lot where shoppers were descending and crying out. There the gale had twisted and upturned the low sky and left it an aqueous vertical prism. We began to weave through the vehicles, moving with the crowd towards the spectacle.
The shoppers were swarming at a cleft in the low firmament where fires burned in the body-cavities of two bovine corpses, behind which living men dressed in armor were praying oaths over their bloody swords. Among them was Odysseus. A tremor swept over me. Then another. The boy made a way through the hordes with me in tow. His eyes were calm and his steps decisive. I felt my tongue begin to glow.
Hot and Cold
The crowd peeled away around our progress as from a blistering heat. At the fore the boy halted and I approached Odysseus where he stood in the dark puddle of his sacrifice. He recognized me at once. He began to weep and clutch his chest while I stood before him in my raincoat and penny loafers, the damp running off my beard, the groaning multitudes at my back.
Elpenor, he said. How did you come to the world of darkness, faster than me in my black ship?
Indignation scudded through my extremities. I opened my mouth. Out burst my story like a starved scavenger bird.
Do not desert me!
Burn me in full armor!
Where was this coming from?
Plant my oar upon my tomb!
Or else my curse be god’s bounty on your head!
Was I this soul? I shook with embarrassment.
My captain placed his hand over his heart histrionically:
All of this, my unlucky friend, I will do for you.
He smiled like a miser, eyeing passed my shoulder for the soul he’d come in search of. I went hot and cold. I would spit in his face. I would throttle him and claim his shield. The boy reached for my hand.
He stood in his white uniform beneath the umbrella. Little red lights sparked in the soles of his shoes.
Adam Soldofsky is the author of Memory Foam (poems) and Telepaphone (a novella).