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Authors: John Domini

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BOOK: Bedlam and Other Stories
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“Oh,” she was repeating happily, “oh, oh.”

I headed away and turned the first corner.
Very
easy, I thought.

I remained pleased for the rest of the day.

When I was sixteen, I escaped the required football program at my high school by convincing two teachers I had extra-sensory perception. An experiment was run with a deck of cards. I had stayed up the night before and marked the deck with a pin. Instead of football, I spent my fall afternoons (and most of my winter ones as well, since the teachers' faith in me was strong) pretending to read minds, predicting the directions a man in another room would walk, and picking out the letters on flash cards held up behind a screen. My senior year they dropped the required football program. And at accounting school, of course, there was never any need to try something so strange. But now, after the conversation with the old woman, I felt as happy as I had when I saw those two teachers begin to shuffle my marked deck of cards. What others had to endure, I was exempt from.

Priss often showed up at my office. She came at lunch, or at 3:30 when she got off from the plant store, or even at both times. I realize this business with Priss isn't in the main line of my story, but I feel compelled to talk about it anyway. Things didn't work out between Priss and me. Not that the incident with the old woman had a direct bearing on our breakup, either. Priss's reaction to that story was less than I'd hoped for, but she didn't condemn me for what I'd done. There wasn't a scene.

Priss…into the office she'd stride, all body, wearing her plant store outfit. It's a small office to begin with, and it contains, besides my desk, the desks of two of my associates. Then how did Priss ever fit in? She told me, “People like you marry people like me.” Marry? Thank God I never married Priss. I gave it considerable thought. I did propose once.

It was during winter, a freezing day we'd spent out at a beach north of here. This was Priss's idea; it was entirely too cold for the beach. We got behind an enormous rock, bigger than my office, big as a sailor's chapel I visited once, south of here, and Priss and I built a fire. We had a meal beneath two blankets, one of which was electric, as it turned out. We made a great deal out of plugging it into the sand. We snuggled until it seemed we had between us not four arms but two. During the drive home I was quieter even than usual, giving as my excuse the Sunday-rush traffic. One sensation stayed with me throughout the ride: our warmth in contrast to the purple cold. It was as if a buffer zone of magic feeling had got fastened irremovably to my skin. I felt it even though I could see my hands on the steering wheel, ordinary hands with ordinary skin, badly dried and chapped by the day's rough weather. When we got home I rubbed them with lotion but the impossible zone remained. Then late in the evening I got out an old bottle of Cointreau (the stuff's too rich for me, under most circumstances) and proposed. Priss had been coming on so amorously before that, all hands and shiftings of position, even though it was night now, not morning. But after my question, no. She got up from the sofa and began moving around the room, barefoot, wondering about “the noises outside.” But these were only the usual. These were no more than the babies and dogs, the teenagers belligerently calling attention to themselves, the sirens veering loud and soft between the high yelp of brakes, the deeper uproar of public transportation, and the firecrackers that blasted no matter what the weather, and the shapeless blurt of harmonica and drums whenever the door opened on the dive down the street—the ordinary rumble, here or in any other city. I didn't repeat my question.

A wise move, as I say, because it soon became obvious that no one body, no matter how warm, could provide me a lifetime's solace and distraction. Priss's body was only the torso, anyway. Her ankles were so weak, she once told me, she could never wear high heels comfortably. When we danced, though it was always she who hauled me out to dance, her fleshy hands would sweat unbelievably. They'd sweat as if the amplifiers were sending shocks directly into the lines of her palm. Slow dances would become ferocious, her pelvis grinding against me till I couldn't even focus on my watch. Really, I should have recognized our problem earlier. Priss was too highly wired, too finely tuned, too changeable, too young. In short, she was too much pressure for me. I assist in the loans department of a small bank with few branches and no pretensions to creativity or farther expansion. In this world Priss might fit as a receptionist, or just possibly a teller, but only temporarily at best. Myself, on the other hand, I‘ll continue to approve only moderate loans and I foresee no changes except the rare raise in pay. Why should I weasel around after my own office, and then a larger office, and then another one still larger? After a certain point's reached, they're only rooms. But someone like Priss, with that disorganized heart of hers, they scramble your priorities, and suddenly ambition sets in. Every minute of the day you've got to own more money than you did the previous minute. Every year of your life you've got to own a bigger house than you did the year before, and live farther away from “the noises outside.” When the important thing in life, in fact, is to know who you are and exist accordingly. I believe it is. But Priss, her name wasn't even Priss, exactly, but Priscilla.

Perhaps my description of her is incomplete, or exaggerated in places. But as I say, Priss isn't entirely to the point, here. The only real bearing she has on the story is that after the breakup—because of the breakup—I began a strict program of running. That the breakup should lead to running seems to me perfectly understandable. I only turned twenty-nine this May.

Every day after work I ran along the Charles River. I changed in the Men's at the bank and carried my working clothes in a pack that I wore on my back as I ran. Summer was ending. Some days the sun appeared to smile as it set, an optical illusion caused by cloud formations, which reminded me of the weatherman's voice the morning of the day I spoke with the old woman. You see, I told myself those evenings in August and September, a hard choice doesn't mean the end to all pleasure.

It was on one of those runs (the last of them, because I haven't run since this happened) that I went up the wrong street on my way home and was seen again by the old woman.

She was sitting on her stoop this time. She wore khaki pants and a bulky wraparound sweater, outdoor clothing. Her elbows were on her knees and her chin in her palms. The steps appeared darker than before, not swept as often possibly, but the glass in the front door was so clean I could see a bit of the foyer inside. I could see a photograph or painting in an oval frame on a pale wall. She had let her hair grow since spring. Now it was pinned up, with a few strands shaken by the evening breeze down about her ears. Then she jumped erect and stared.

Even in the poor light there was no mistaking where she was looking. I should have dropped my chin and run on, or I should have nodded once, nodded with an affirming smile, and then turned the first corner as I'd done before. But I couldn't repeat what I'd done before. I was tired and my thinking was gummed. I couldn't focus on the choices available to me. And, and more than that. How was I to know why my garbage should have touched her the first time? Never mind that I shouldn't have lied to her. I shouldn't have, never, certainly not. But how was I to know that when I said what I did, I would somehow get past her restless looks and her fright—would get
inside
? I stood silently, facing her, dipping my head to inhale.

She continued to stand erect, but I couldn't tell if she was scanning the farther sidewalks again. I could see her hands, though. She brought both her hands up slowly, so slowly I suffered a vivid moment's impression that she was going to hit me, lay into me with those brittle fists. I may even have straightened up to take her attack “like a man.” But she only moved her hands up past her own shoulders, setting them in the end against her temples so that the wisps of hanging hair were pinned down. Her mouth went open like mine. It was getting so dark now I would see something first and then figure out what it was, like watching a color cartoon in black and white. She sucked in one breath and held it, as if she too were gasping for air.

“Ma'am,” I managed, starting to put together some line.

“You!” she hissed.

My voice broke; I flinched. One strap of my pack slipped down to my elbow. I'm not the kind to make suggestions—I don't make many—and I don't expect them to take hold.

But that was her single outburst. I continued my stupid patter, too uncertain even to readjust my pack. But she merely lowered her arms and stood composed and silent. I began another argument, then let it drop.

Still I stood there. I realized I was waiting, though I could not and cannot figure out what for. But no good ideas came to me, no ideas, not like they sometimes come, wildly clapping their hands and screaming and whining, until they get through to you, no matter that you don't want them. Nothing came to me. I only felt that I should wait.

The old woman stood, and I stood. Finally I broke away in a very slow trot, feeling against my back the flop of my rumpled dayclothes. I stopped again at the corner, still close enough to hear her over the evening rumble.

I heard nothing.

Each day the loans department receives sheets of computer printout from an intown bank. These enumerate the latest developments on all our loans, including every new penny of interest as it accrues. Lately we've reached such a level of organization that I need only flip through the thin cards on my desk in order to know my schedule for months in advance: number of account, date opened, date of last payment, regular amount, collateral, rebate factor, special instructions, special instructions. The coming years, also, are embraced by this system.

The old woman wasn't a witch or an oracle. She was only who she was, and living alone. I tried to help. Who knows why she fell for it? That was a quiet street, calm houses, trellises and flower boxes, like so many of the one-ways in this area. How could I have known she'd be so…frightened, or whatever it was…to believe me? I don't speak up often. And yet now I find myself always walking to work, in order to peek down her street. The urge to apologize is strong. No doubt it is the urge to apologize. What else could I want? Some mornings I see “her children,” what a delusion, but her door remains shut. Still I go on getting up early, to brace myself for the walk, because these days are so cold. Slowly the night's thickness leaves my hands; slowly my few rooms grow warm. Early, 6:30 and sometimes earlier, an hour when the body's need for heat alone will pull you hard out of dreaming.

Astral Projection
WHAT IT IS

Empty this body out: there we have Astral Projection. And right now stop,
stop
thinking there's anything so incredible about Astral Projection. Stop it right now, at the start. Because there's nothing so incredible here, nothing occult or grotesque, nothing satanic or weird or alien. Nothing at all.

At one time, granted, Astral Projection had substance. It was hung then with weights of obscure ritual and truth, like a hammock nestling a cloud. A hammock knotted between the two hard
t's
of its five otherwise ghostly-soft syllables. Ass-trill Proche-kt-shun: I can imagine a king murmuring the words, sunk in his robes. Or a sorcerer out of Disney with eyebrows sharp as the hands of a clock. In those days even the most sentimental melody could press my mind and heart together, tight, tight. But now a person can stumble over Astral Projection anywhere. Even people who'll go no further than to switch on the radio, even they've heard of it. Yes switch on the repeating round of the radio dial, hear the spirit world gutted. Listen to the dim feebs calling into Dr. Joy Brown, “Up Close & Personal,” Monday through Friday 10 to 1 on WITS. Hopped-up skanks excited by mumbo-jumbo, trailer-park juiceheads making a big deal out of nothing. Never cracked a book in their lives. Don't pretend you don't feel the same as I do. Don't pretend you don't hate these people, and hate what they've done to Astral Projection. They've put all the magic in the
National Enquirer:

WIDOW VISITS FIFTEEN STATES

WITH DEAD HUSBAND

Souvenirs fly through air, witnesses say

Yet in true Projection, in that moment of trust and substance I believe I once believed in, the soul leaves the body. You must remember this. Empty the body out, and the soul travels. Or if the word “soul” bothers you—what they've
done
to “soul” on the radio!—think of it instead as separating two bodies. The first of these two would be our habitual place, five senses multiplied by three erogenous zones et cetera, and the second would be another body somehow carried inside the first. The second body is “bigger,” in most senses of the word, than the one in which it lives. Likewise the second body is far more changeable, movable, extensible. Think of stuffing a large and active mouse under a teacup.

But body-and-soul or simply two-bodies—the fundamental things apply, in either case. Myself, trying here to expain, trying to get once and for all a grasp that won't betray me, trying as if I had an extra set of hands to hold back the breaking up of what I did…myself, I can't split hairs. When my character was cracked open nothing so incredible came out. I don't want to get all subtle and elasticized and strange. Rather, when I look for an analogy I recall the first time I held a lead fishing weight. I was just a kid then. It had Chinese markings but the brand name was French,
Quinze
. Something so small yet so heavy. Myself, I believe Astral Projection can be that simple, that firm. Or maybe I believe merely that I once believed.

CONNECTIONS

As for example Plato believed. He constructed kingdoms of migrating souls, hierarchies that proved which spirits you could trust. From Pythagoras Plato took the original geometry, then he fit those theorems to coordinates of his own. He sketched a supernatural universe, which he claimed provided the outline for this one. The World Soul, Plato called that universe, and he said it assumed the perfect shape and motion: a sphere, rotating around itself.

BOOK: Bedlam and Other Stories
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