Tuesday, October 10, 2006

All Concern Rests with the Dead, Annalisa: Part I, chapter 8 from The Edge of the World (a novel in progress)

Leonard was on the road for a month. He went through El Paso, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle. He circled around to Billings, Bismarck, Minneapolis, Des Moines, Denver. At the end of the month he was in Reno, the town where Lily and he got married, and he had decided, after being away from her for the first time in his life, that he wasn’t going back to her.

Having considered his situation in every respect, he had come to the conclusion that he was too young to be married. He needed to spend some time by himself, he thought—one year, two years, perhaps the rest of his life. And after a long month spent wandering in an attempt to be alone, he now, at last, actually felt alone.

He found a job bussing tables and washing dishes at a restaurant. After being on the job for a week—and getting his first paycheck—he moved out of the cheap hotel he’d checked into upon his arrival and into a one room apartment over a wedding chapel. Moving meant picking up his duffel bag, walking down North Wells Street a few blocks, then up the stairs to his new apartment where he set his bag down again. He then used what was left of his paycheck and went out to buy a used mattress at the Salvation Army thrift shop.

Back in his new home, he put the mattress on the floor and lay down. It was, he had to admit to himself, a very inauspicious start as far as beginning a new life was concerned. He had no radio and no television—none of the things that made a person feel connected with the world. But he knew that soon, very soon, things would get better.

He worked the night shift at the restaurant, and when he left at three in the morning he would walk home, taking a route along the Truckee River. He’d take his time, sometimes stopping along the way to sit down under the stars and watch the river. Since he didn’t have a television, he had found himself taking long walks to entertain himself when he wasn’t working.

Leonard’s day would invariably begin around noon when he’d awake and walk across town to Idlewild Park, the main attraction of which was a statue called The 53d Whispering Giant. Over thirty feet high, it caught the gesture of a man in the act of whispering, his hand held near his mouth as if he were imparting some great secret to whoever was standing beneath him.

Leonard would watch the tourists. Families from northern California with young children taking a cheap vacation. Young men and women from back east or from across the Atlantic backpacking across the states. Gazing up at the statue’s face, they’d try to guess what message the giant had for each of them.

Usually they came up with such quaint messages as “You will get married before the end of the year” or “A great fortune will come your way”—the sort of messages one would get from reading a horoscope. But to Leonard its message wasn’t so quaint, and when he looked up at the statue for the first time—unaware that he was supposed to be receiving some kind of communication from it—the words that came to mind, and which he actually thought he was hearing, were, “You will die with a smile on your face.”

Leonard wondered what the meaning of these words could be. At first he was frightened. But after reflecting upon them, he determined that the statue was telling him he would die happily, in his old age, while fucking some athletically inclined girl some fifty years younger than he. Which meant that somewhere along the line Leonard would have to start fucking girls who weren’t related to him—and he was determined that now was the time to start. Doing so would be strange, he was sure, but since he was a young man with many years ahead of him, it was something to which he’d have to get accustomed.

He had been at the restaurant for a month when Annalisa began working there as a waitress. She was twenty years old with reddish-brown hair that draped over her shoulders and fell all the way to her waist. But even more impressive, like a building rising stoically from the snow, was her body. All breasts and hips, it seemed ready to burst out from beneath her waitress’s uniform, which was a size too small for her. She was the first girl other than Lily who could give Leonard a hard-on by the mere sight of her.

And like a widower whose sense of mourning and reluctance was beginning to disappear, Leonard began to consider the possibility that being with another woman might not be as difficult as he had thought. That blood ties went beyond family.

Still, there were some peculiarities about Annalisa which disturbed him, the first of which were her various tics and twitches. Sometimes Leonard would see her, when she thought no one was looking, suddenly jerk up one of her shoulders or contort her face in what looked like an impersonation of a frightened school girl. Then he began to notice, when he was working her tables, that she often mumbled things underneath her breath after taking a customer’s order. “Motherfucker,” “fat ass bitch,” or “suck my dick” were the words Leonard heard most often.

Soon other people began to notice—indeed, it would have been difficult for people not to notice as Annalisa’s looks alone drew attention to her—and after a couple of days the restaurant manager brought her into his office for a discussion. He asked her blankly if she were taking drugs. Or, if not that, simply crazy.

These were questions she’d been asked many time before. Questions which, despite their ill-informed brusqueness, bored her. Annalisa had to explain that no, she was not crazy, nor was she on drugs, but that she did suffer from an affliction of the nervous system. After she pleaded with him that she really needed the job, and that she actually enjoyed working there, the manager made a compromise. He switched her job from waiting tables to bussing them, a job where she wouldn’t actually have to converse with the customers and so would be less likely to let forth some obscene whisper.

It wasn’t much of a compromise—anyone else would have been fired on the spot. But Annalisa’s looks let her get away with things. They gave her a power which she was never aware of. With her body she could have easily made it as a dancer or as a call girl down in Vegas, yet she was too naive to take advantage of it. And although she was smart enough to know that the life story Leonard would later tell her was fictional, she was naive enough to believe that the real story, whatever it was, was all part of the past.

The next day the manager told Leonard that he was no longer a busboy but a waiter. Annalisa, who was now bussing his tables, acted coldly towards him and would sometimes mumble “fuckhead” or “stinking asshole” as he walked by.

This was, obviously, not a good beginning for them. But then beginnings rarely are. This isn’t simply some trite or excessively romantic observation on my part. I’ve found that anything worth striving for involves at least a few false starts—it’s always the things that eventually turn bad that have good beginnings. Which isn’t to say that anything good that’s been achieved stays that way, as bad endings are always with us. Like Leonard’s true past, they always seek us out no matter what measures we take to avoid them. Which is why it’s best to create our own bad endings before someone else creates them for us.

And so it was that one afternoon, as Leonard sat in Idlewild Park before going to work, he saw Annalisa. She was standing in front of The Whispering Giant, gazing up at its face. He watched her for a few moments. Her body, for once, was completely calm, as if the steadfast carriage of The Giant had transposed itself upon her. And as she stood there listening for its message not a single “motherfucker” or “suck my dick” came from her mouth.

“It told me I’d die with a smile on my face,” he said as he approached her from behind.

Annalisa glanced at him, then quickly turned back to The Giant.

“What does that mean?” she asked after a moment of silence.

“I’m not quite sure,” he said as he stood beside her. “What message did it have for you?”

“It hasn’t told me anything.”

Leonard looked down Annalisa’s blouse and noticed the freckles over her cleavage. He was beginning to get a hard-on. Annalisa turned to him, then glanced down at his pants.

That night they left the restaurant together. Although he didn’t show it, Leonard was nervous as they walked home. Feeling as if he were about to do something that had to be kept hidden, he kept looking around to see if anyone was watching. When they reached the door to his apartment he opened it quickly, let Annalisa inside, and promptly shut the door behind them. Being with Annalisa felt dirty, which excited him even more.

Without even bothering to offer her a drink, he immediately pulled down her skirt and panties. Then kneeling he stuck out his tongue, momentarily holding it half an inch away from her pussy as if to savor the sense of anticipation he felt at receiving what was to him a perverse gift. Finally he grabbed her hips, shoved his face forward and licked her pussy as she leaned back against the door running her hands through his hair.

Annalisa was surprised by the lack of ceremony with which Leonard took her. Yet she was intrigued by him, and rather than being frightened by what she didn’t know about him, she gave in to it.

“Oh Leonard,” she moaned, “you...” as he tongued her clit and slid his finger in and out of her pussy. When she was about to come he stood up and put his dick inside of her, pushing in and out as he pulled her shirt over her head.

In another minute they were done. Annalisa put her arms around him as they fell to the floor, laughing as they caught their breath. But despite his laughter Leonard felt a twinge of guilt that bordered on regret. Indeed, he nearly found himself mourning, as if he had lost his humanity and fallen victim to the ways of a corrupt world.

The first time they were out in public Leonard had to keep reminding himself that being with her was not something he had to hide. They were sitting in a restaurant that evening, waiting for their meals, when he leaned over the table to kiss her. They had been holding the kiss for a few seconds when Leonard suddenly jerked his head away from her.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Well,” he said, pausing as he tried to think up an explanation, “I’m not all that comfortable showing affection in public.”

“Didn’t you ever make out with your high school girlfriend in front of other people?”

“That was different,” he said after a moment. “I was a kid. I guess I’ve become a bit conservative since then.”

“You’re too young to be so conservative,” she answered as she stood up. Then putting her hand around the back of his neck, she pulled him towards her and kissed him on the forehead. “But it’s all right, so long as you don’t get that way when we’re behind closed doors.”

Two weeks after they started seeing each other Annalisa moved in with him. Because Annalisa had brought with her, among other things, a television and a stereo, the apartment was now a comfortable place to relax. They found themselves spending most of their free time at home, listening to music on the stereo or watching television which, aside from fucking, was their favorite activity.

In the early afternoon, before going to work they’d watch the soap opera All My Children. Annalisa had been watching the show for years, and after watching it with her for a week, Leonard was hooked. The Brady Bunch, which was now on in reruns and showing opposite All My Children, no longer interested him. Taken on its own terms, without pretending the Brady kids were having wild orgies, The Brady Bunch became just another boring situation comedy. All My Children, on the other hand, was interesting the way it was—Leonard didn’t need to use his imagination and create his own little stories for its characters. He could just sit back and watch without having to strain himself in the least—the show would do it all and give him tales of romance, intrigue, and even, here and there, action sequences. And although what happened on the show was never as wild as what he had created with his own mind—and in so being was more like real life—it was something he could openly discuss not only with Annalisa but with other people as well.

Annalisa and he soon began inviting friends from the restaurant over for dinner on their days off or for drinks after work. Their apartment was now completely furnished—they had a sofa and coffee table for the living room, another table with chairs for the kitchen, plus a queen sized bed and a dresser for the bedroom. They threw out the mattress he’d bought at the Salvation Army.

Although Annalisa and he didn’t make a lot of money at the restaurant, each of them had—Leonard for the first time in his life—a credit card. And in addition to using them to furnish the apartment, they also bought a set of china, flatware, a food processor, a coffee machine. They also began buying records.

Every week Annalisa would pick up one or another of the latest disco releases. Being with her he grew to like disco, and when she came home with a new record they would immediately put it on the stereo and dance, which would inevitably lead them into the bedroom. By this time sex with Annalisa had ceased to have the slightest trace of dirtiness about it, and in fact seemed completely natural, wholesome even. Because they were just two small people in the world. Because her blood and his were the same. And although they never peed together, never did the six-pack or had sex outdoors, Leonard found that their sex life was never anything less than exciting.

It wasn’t long before Leonard realized that he loved Annalisa. It was something he didn’t think he’d ever be able to feel for another woman. But besides that he understood that they were also good for each other. When she was with Leonard, or even when he was just nearby, as at the restaurant, Annalisa rarely exhibited any symptoms of her nervous disorder. With him she was living a normal life, and rather than being a beautiful freak, she was, simply, a beautiful woman.

As for Leonard, he felt, for once, at peace with the world. His thoughts, his desires, were no longer at odds with everyone else’s. Were without dislike or suspicion. He no longer had to stretch his imagination, creating a universe of his own, as the real world with its common ideas and routine conventions was now good enough for him.

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