NONFICTION ISSUE #23

"Enveloped, or How I Felt with You" by Julia Haw, 40" x 36" Oil on Canvas, 2007-2012, Mud Season Review
*Image: “Enveloped, or How I Felt with You” by Julia Haw, 40″ x 36″ Oil on Canvas, 2007-2012

The Funambulists

By Jonathan Rovner

 

Conjure up two people—let’s say one man and one woman—and place them in a nondescript room. Don’t slap them down like stamps in an album; people are fragile, after all. Fill the room with tension. The problem, of course, is that tension doesn’t look like anything. You might have to use your imagination. Maybe floodwaters are filling the room with a sluggish inevitability, or else a ticking bomb is sitting on the coffee table you just invented to have somewhere for the bomb to sit. Wait, scrap all that. Put them instead on a wire high above the earth. They can’t see to the bottom, and neither can you. Now you’ve got something. Two tightrope walkers—one man, one woman—face to face and not touching. Each watches the other. The man is thinking (because you make him) that if they fall, at least they will fall together. But the woman, who is wiser, knows that there are some places you can only go alone. Each watches the other in fear, but also anticipation. Because they know something is going to happen. Keep them there, balancing. As long as nothing moves they still have a chance. Try not to invent wind.

*                                  *                                  *

The following screenplay, never to be performed, is called An Uneventful Night in the Lives of Two People, One of Whom is the Author[1]. In the interests of full disclosure, please be aware of the following emendations and substitutions:

  • My crippling fear of rejection is represented by stale vaudeville-style jokes in the manner of the late Henny “Take My Wife…Please!” Youngman.
  • My girlfriend’s frustration is expressed by the blowing of bubbles from one of those cheap bottles with its accompanying plastic wand that you can buy at the dollar store.
  • My paralyzing inability to make a decision—large or small, personal or professional—is represented by the eating of waffles.
  • Poetry will henceforth be rendered as “Star Trek: The Next Generation Fan Fiction.”
  • My girlfriend’s dog, a lovable but needy and enormous Great Dane, is represented by an eighteen-month-old baby named Snuggles Ralph
  • The cramped one-bedroom apartment in the slums with the prostitute next door who sits on her front porch watching her pimp across the street near the park where no children play, with the liquor store two doors down where someone got shot last month, with the dealers on the corner every night, with its decrepit fixtures, blown sockets, raccoons under the floorboards, black mold, poor insulation, and hardwood floors (and isn’t there something especially unforgiving about hardwood floors?) that, scrub as you might, will never come clean, has been transposed into a comfy and spacious country cottage, with a wide fireplace (plenty of chopped wood out back), deep shag carpet, and the plaintive sounds of rural night: owls, cicadas, the occasional coyote. Not wolves though. Let’s keep wolves out of it.
  • My anxiety is represented by the cuckoo clock I wear on a string around my neck (yes, almost exactly like Flava Flav).
  • Night terrors will be referred to as the 1980s children’s game Lite-Brite.
  • My hands, marked by their softness as those of an academic who has not done hard labor in nearly a decade, are, at a pivotal point in our narrative, replaced by the hands of a clown—chalk-white, unyielding, obdurate.
  • The clown’s hands are a transposition of the hands of a middle-aged male neighbor who babysat my girlfriend many years ago while her parents were at work.
  • As a tribute to the yearning for specificity—for the nailing of things down in their rightful places—that we as sad-sack pilgrims cling to desperately on this all-too-often fetid earth, the names of television programs and peanut butter cups have not been altered.
  • The repeated childhood sexual abuse that warped and perforated my girlfriend’s ability to trust is represented by a large pink elephant, which stands patiently in the corner, unremarked upon but insistently present. It does not speak and does not leave.

 

FADE IN:

INT. COTTAGE–EVENING

DOLORES WOEBEGONE, a slim, lovely woman of early middle age, with hard brown eyes and wearing threadbare jogging pants and a loose-fitting sweatshirt, lies supine on a pleather loveseat with a MacBook open on her lap and her bare feet in the lap of TOM FOOL[2], a balding, nervous man with slumped shoulders who seems to have difficulty sitting still. On the floor, near the foot of the couch, RALPH stares dolefully at the television, which is playing a syndicated episode of the oft-vulgar animated show Family Guy.

 

DOLORES

Tell me if you think this can

work.

 

Tom mutes the television. He makes a show of cocking his head, a silent actor overemphasizing the action of “listening.” This attempt to elicit a chuckle goes unacknowledged.

 

DOLORES

(reading)

“The third time Captain Jean

Luc Picard traveled back in

time, he was surprised to find

himself at 221B Baker Street,

face to face with the one and

only Sherlock Holmes.”

(beat)

Well?

 

TOM

I like it.

 

DOLORES

You don’t like it.

 

TOM

I’ve been in love with the same

woman for twenty years. Don’t

tell my wife, but I wish I’d’ve

married her!

(beat)

It’s resonant, evocative. The

repetition of “time” and “time”

serves, I think, as a kind of

anaphora that beckons the

reader deeper into the euphonic

juxtaposition of “Sherlock” and

“Holmes.”

 

DOLORES

You really like it?

 

TOM

Of course I do.

 

DOLORES

Thank you!

 

She moves three inches away from him[3]. Tom smiles and returns the television to full volume. Onscreen, the town’s lovable elderly pedophile is on a ladder, his face pressed to the window, watching an obese teenage boy dance shirtless around the bathroom. Tom quickly changes the channel to MSNBC. Dolores instinctively slides an inch closer to Tom.

 

DOLORES

Have you looked at any of those

PhD programs?

 

Tom produces a plate of stacked waffles and a knife and fork. He cuts the stack and indelicately shoves a forkful into his mouth.

 

TOM

(chewing)

I love you…[4]

 

Dolores, her jaw rigid, unscrews the plastic cap from a bottle of bubbles, dips the wand in, and blows out. A steady stream of bubbles fills the air. The tiny door on the clock around Tom’s neck springs open. A pastel-colored jaybird thrusts itself into the open air.

 

JAYBIRD

Cuckoo.

 

The jaybird withdraws. One particularly large bubble breaks against Tom’s nose.

 

DOLORES

(shrugging)

Brad and Annie asked if we

could babysit the girls on

Saturday. I said of course we

would.

 

TOM

I love you…

 

DOLORES

Oh, I love you! If you don’t

want to, just say so!

 

TOM

My wife won’t go anywhere

without her Discover card, but

I’m the one who ends up

discovering the bill!

(beat)

Happy to. Really.

 

DOLORES

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to

yell.

 

She scoots closer to him on the loveseat, hesitates, and moves back to her original position. Ralph, still lazed out on the lush shag carpet, begins to whine.

 

DOLORES (CONT’D)

He wants to be up here with us.

 

TOM

He’s a baby.

(addressing Ralph lovingly)

Aren’t you? Who’s a good boy?

Don’t you like the floor?

 

Dolores stiffens and moves closer to Tom.

 

DOLORES

Please don’t talk to him that

way.

 

TOM

Babies don’t understand

English, you know—all he hears

is the tone of my voice.

(beat[5])

I’m sorry.

 

Dolores blows a small trail of bubbles, but clearly her heart is not in it.

 

DOLORES

It’s fine. It’s fine. What

do you want for dinner?

 

TOM

Whatever you want is fine.

 

DOLORES

Thai?

 

Tom notices that Al Sharpton has begun discussing the Penn State pink elephant scandal. He quickly clicks the remote control, pausing just long enough on CSI: Miami to see a young woman’s pale corpse atop the morgue table and to hear the words, “Assuming he’s the killer, why didn’t we find any semen in her?” He settles on a QVC program attempting to hawk (for three easy payments of $29.95, plus S&H) a gaudy amethyst necklace in the shape of a heart.

 

TOM

Thai works.

 

DOLORES

Or we could get a pizza.

 

Tom sets down the remote control and with sticky fingers stuffs an entire waffle into his mouth.

 

TOM

(chewing, swallowing with difficulty)

What’ver ‘ou want.

 

SHE

Or maybe we’ll just eat our

feet.

 

[Author’s Note: Though it is unnecessary—and often the mark of a rank amateur—to include specific camera directions, I think it’s long past time for an extreme zooming out. Start slowly, then pull back faster. Here are our characters as viewed from the top of the nearest sweetgum tree; here they are as viewed from a ten-story building; here they are from a supersonic jet that hangs suspended in the air, neither moving forward nor falling. From the right height, any place will seem so small against the landscape that it’s nearly impossible to imagine the people there are anything but perfectly all right. It’s a game you can play. Conjure up a world that makes sense, where the people who need you are never disappointed. Where you are never woefully inadequate.

Imagination is a sleazy car salesman, the bastard kid of Truth. And it’s the latter that will pull you from your impregnable jet in the clouds and sit you down and explain with cold and scientific exactitude that there is a kind of pain you cannot comprehend, let alone remedy. If a man exists who could heal this pain (a real man, the kind you read about in books), you are not him. You—by not being him—are making it worse.]

 

 

"At Times Your Heart is a Perfect Metronome" by Julia Haw, 36" x 24" Oil on Canvas, 2008, Mud Season Review

“At Times Your Heart is a Perfect Metronome” by Julia Haw, 36″ x 24″ Oil on Canvas, 2008

 

DOLORES (CONT’D)

(furiously blowing bubbles)

Just tell me what you want!

 

TOM

My wife went to one of those

fancy spas and got a seaweed

mask facial. You look great, I

said, but when are they taking

it off?

(beat)

You’re right. I’m sorry. Thai

sounds delicious.

 

He sets down his plate of waffles. She sets down her bubbles and moves closer to him. They look at each other, at first almost skittishly. He smiles. She smiles. They are safe again, and together. He reaches out his hand to touch her leg, just above the knee. But it’s a cold and bloodless ivory hand that clamps itself down on her leg.

Somewhere deep inside, ignorant of the passing of years or the maturation of the body or a lifetime of kindnesses heaped up like sandbags to safeguard the ramshackle flood walls, her hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system, mobilizing the nerves into a sort of fist, and the adrenal-cortical system springs into action, dumping dozens of separate hormones into the bloodstream to prepare for the coming danger.

The leg stiffens.

As though stung, the hand withdraws.

 

TOM

(barely audible)

Read me some more.

 

She shakes her head softly. Across the room, watchful of all that transpires, and with the unflagging vigilance of a sentinel, the pink elephant says nothing.

 

TOM (CONT’D)

Please.

 

DOLORES

(rotely)

Geordi La Forge, his leg snared

and hooked by the bear trap,

tore his gaze away from wicked

Moriarty and sought out the

reassuring face of his noble

Captain–

 

Onscreen, a poof-haired saleswoman is explaining that the origin of the heart symbol can be traced directly to the Gospel of John.

 

TOM

(scowling)

That’s wrong.

 

She purses her lips tightly and closes the laptop.

 

DOLORES

Hmm?

 

TOM

I was just reading about this.

They think it comes from a

plant called silphium.

 

DOLORES

What does?

 

TOM

The heart symbol.

(beat)

It was a big deal like

three thousand years ago. In Minoan

Crete. Where the minotaur

comes from.

 

She shudders. He mumbles a curse at himself and adds “minotaur” to the ever-evolving list of triggers[6] to avoid at all costs.

 

DOLORES

And it’s a big deal that you

know that?

 

TOM

My wife wanted a BMW for

Christmas, and I said: Whaddya

trying to do, Break My Wallet?!

 

DOLORES

And it’s important that

I know you know that? Right now,

while I’m reading?

 

He takes a bite of waffles, starts to stand, and reconsiders. Then he stands and strides purposefully across the shag carpet into the clean and roomy kitchen. Outside, an owl gives a mighty hoot. It sounds like a gunshot. He removes two individually-wrapped Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups from the freezer, unwraps them on the counter, sweeps the bits of stray chocolate into the sink, and returns to his place on the sofa. He hands them both to her and she eats slowly.

 

DOLORES

I’m so tired.

(sniffling)

I was up till dawn playing

Lite-Brite.

 

Then like a gunslinger she unsheathes the flimsy plastic wand from its bottle and begins to blow. Bubbles surge forth in a frenzy. They float up to the ceiling, sink down to the carpet, and fill the empty spaces between them. She dips and re-dips the wand; she pants with the effort. It’s almost beautiful, these thin liquid shells of iridescence that glance off one another or merge, that collect the flickering colors from the television screen and rebroadcast them in wobbly miniature. A world of bubbles, like something out of Willy Wonka. And then they begin to burst, one by one, into splashes of soap that disappear in bright gleaming shivers.

Trembling, Tom collects the last crumbs of waffle from his plate. Ralph, his nose twitching with the smell of chocolate, begins to whine.

 

TOM

(dismissively)

Shh. Quiet, dingus.

 

DOLORES

Don’t talk to him like that.

 

She beckons Ralph to join them. In order to make room, she slides half onto Tom’s lap, still holding her laptop. The baby leaps to the loveseat and sinks into the cushions with a contented sigh. Dolores has gone rigid. Tom feels the tensed dead-weight of her against him, a mannequin carved from oak. They sit for a long beat, as though frozen, and then she opens her computer again. Ralph licks his lips and blinks happily at the television, which has landed finally on Lawrence Welk. The orchestra, full of staid white men in suits, is in the throes of its own magnificent blandness. Trumpets toot politely; drums knock like an invited guest; the piano is a balm of warm notes. Elderly couples dance arm in arm.

 

DOLORES

(staring dully at the computer screen)

Tell me if you think this can

work.

 

 

FADE OUT

 

 

[1] Title is tentative and subject to change.

[2] I’m well aware that it’s unnecessary to give myself a pseudonym, but it feels right.

[3] Emotional distance is represented herein by physical closeness, and vice versa.

[4] This phrase of endearment, common currency of lovers the world over, serves in this text as proxy for the filler sound “Um…” as well as the exclamation “For Godsakes!”

[5] I probably should have mentioned this earlier, but these beats, or pauses, can, at the discretion of the reader, be interpreted one of two ways: either pregnant, in the sense of a Christmas morning wake-up call (the expectation of joyful recompense just around the corner), or else teeming with a stockingful of nothing—think of wind in the high desert, or mausoleums, or a recently-emptied womb.

[6] These include, but are not limited to: broken instruments, unwashed sheets, socks, dramatized violence—actual or implied—against humans, animals, or property, and the music of Gordon Lightfoot, Jim Croce, and Jackson Browne. And sometimes me

Jonathan Rovner

Jonathan Rovner teaches at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani. He learned to write at Walnut Hills Elementary School. His handwriting has not markedly improved since 2nd grade.

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