Thursday, October 19, 2006

By the Time I Get to Phoenix and Other Gentle Rants of Madmen: Part I, chapter 9 from The Edge of the World (a novel in progress)

In September of 1984 Leonard had been living with Annalisa for over four years. After spending the entire afternoon of their day off watching television, he told Annalisa that they should dress up and eat out for a change. He took her to Le Moulin, the best restaurant in town, and at the end of the meal he ordered champagne. When the waiter brought it out, he knelt before Annalisa, and as people in the restaurant began to take notice he held out to her the diamond ring which he had bought the previous day.

“Annalisa,” he asked, “will you marry me?”

She looked at him lovingly and extended her hand as a smile came to her lips. A smile that reminded Leonard of television ads and movies. A smile that seemed to connect him to the world.

“Yes, Leonard,” she answered, “I will.”

He was aware that he was still married to his sister—a circumstance Annalisa, of course, knew nothing about. Although it was a marriage which would never be considered legitimate in a court of law, it was a marriage to which Leonard felt bound. And as soon as Annalisa had said, “Yes, Leonard, I will,” it occurred to him that he hadn’t thought this out as thoroughly as he should have.

Still going with the moment, he slipped the ring on her finger. They stood up, and as they kissed and embraced the couple at the table closest to theirs began applauding. Leonard and Annalisa then picked up their glasses and made a toast to their upcoming life as a married couple.

On bringing the glass to his lips Leonard came to the realization that in the years he’d spent with Annalisa he hadn’t been conducting himself in a rational manner. It all became quite apparent to him, at this late point in the proceedings, that he hadn’t been true to his own nature. And now, having turned away from his ideals, from what he understood as right and wrong, he had gone so far as to ask this strange but decent woman to marry him.

As he sat with Annalisa the image of Lily, which he had banished from his memory for so long, came vividly back to mind. He could see Lily just as clearly as he saw Annalisa who now sat beside him at the table. But while Annalisa had a drop of champagne clinging to her lower lip, the image of Lily had what was plainly, in its color and consistency, a drop of semen. And he felt for a moment that Lily was actually watching them—Annalisa with her wide innocent smile and he with his nervous, guilty grin.

Having given in to practicality, to the false ways of the world, Leonard decided that now was the time for him to start thinking clearly again. And the expression on Lily’s imagined face seemed to be telling him that he had to be strong, that he had to take action. Just as he had long ago on the night of Lily’s prom.

When they finished the bottle of champagne he ordered another one. Annalisa was blinded with joy and drank more and more, not noticing that Leonard was hardly touching his drink. When they got home he picked her up and carried her to the bed where she immediately passed out.

He dug up his old duffel bag and threw some old clothes in. When he was packed he looked in on her. She was still sleeping, and after listening for a minute to the peaceful sound of her breathing he took out a piece of paper on which he wrote, “I’m sorry.”

He knew that in the morning things would be bad. He’d be in Phoenix by the time she woke up to find his note. “Suck my dick,” she would scream as she jerked up her shoulder. “Motherfucker,” as she contorted her face. Leonard leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. Then turned away and went out the door, his sentimental universe weighing heavily on his mind.

He walked down the street and got money from the machine at the bank. Just enough for a ticket and meals for what would probably amount to a three day bus trip. He got to the station in time to catch the last bus heading east. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride he’d ever had, but he imagined it would be easier, and quicker, than hitch-hiking.

The only seats available when he got on were in the back of the bus which was where the more sociable—and crazier—of the passengers were to be found. The man sitting directly behind Leonard, in the very last row, felt the need to sing:

And love is just a passing word
It’s the thought you had in a taxicab
That got left on the curb
When he dropped you off
On East 33d...

And when he’d gotten tired of singing he’d mumble to himself. Bitter words, curses. Utterances only he knew the meaning of.

While he went on with his singing or mumbling, other people were telling each other their life stories.

One woman spoke about her old boyfriend—her only true love—whom she had lost touch with. When she mentioned him by name the man sitting in front of her, who explained that he worked as a bail bondsman, said that he knew the name. That he’d gotten a man by that name out of jail not too long ago. And that he might be able to help her find him.

An old woman across the aisle from Leonard talked about growing up in Arkansas, getting married young and having kids who, now that she was old and widowed, never visited, never called. And now, for vacations, she’d just get on the bus and ride for a couple of weeks, stopping in different towns during the day then sleeping on the bus at night while en route to some other place.

The man in the seat next to Leonard talked about his Filipino friend from World War II. His friend was going to come to the States so the two of them could start a farm. “He seemed sincere,” the man said. “I mean, we were good friends and after the war, when I was back here in the States, we were writing back and forth, making plans for our farm. But suddenly he stopped answering my letters. I kept sending them, but I never heard anything back. I never knew what happened to him.”

A sad, regretful look came over him, and Leonard wished he could tell him his own story. He was suddenly in the mood to let out his personal history and say, “Well, when I was fourteen, my sister and I ran off and got married. You see, she was the only woman in the world for me...”

But of course Leonard couldn’t tell him that. So he sat back, shaking his head, saying, “Yeah, it’s a damn shame how things seem to get lost in this world.” Whatever sentimental observations came to mind. Then he kept quiet, lest he be overcome by the perverse desire to talk to strangers.

It took over two days to get to New Orleans, and in this time the man behind Leonard never once got off the bus for food or simply to stretch his legs. Whenever Leonard went to use the bathroom in the back of the bus he’d look towards him, trying to get a brief glimpse of a madman.

But the madman would invariably be facing the window as he sang or mumbled words which, for some reason, Leonard felt were directed at him. In New Orleans, however, the man finally got off the bus and it was here, during the morning breakfast stop, where Leonard got his first good look at him.

The man was sitting in the waiting area at one of the television booths where one puts in a quarter and gets to watch for fifteen minutes. While staring intently at the screen the man suddenly turned just as Leonard passed by.

“Do you see that? Do you see that?” he shouted after Leonard.

Leonard didn’t know it was the man until he heard him speak. A deep gravelly voice that whether it was shouting or whispering seemed to carry across a room.

“Do you see that?” he asked again, pointing to the screen.

He was a tall, muscular man, not much older than Leonard. Sitting there in the TV booth, he reminded Leonard of an overgrown school kid, the kid who kept getting held back a grade and was too big for the desks in his classroom.

“You know what that is, don’t you? You know!” He looked solemnly at Leonard. For some reason it was important to him that Leonard know what he was watching. “Come on, you know what that is.”

Leonard looked down to the screen. The man was watching a cartoon.

“You see that? You know what that is? You know what that is.”

Leonard watched for a minute. It wasn’t something he was familiar with. Even as a child, Leonard had never watched cartoons. With their garish colors and oddly shaped figures, they were set in their ways and left no room for his imagination. He preferred the filmed images of actual people, because it was only upon actual people that he had the chance of imposing his own order.

“Oh, yeah,” Leonard finally said, looking down at the man. “I remember now.” And walked back to the bus.

As soon as Leonard got off the bus in Fort Myers he headed straight for his old apartment building where Lily, Lemuel, and I still lived.

It was noon on a hot, overcast day near the end of summer. I was at a point in my life when, although I had yet to look into anyone’s eyes, I had begun to understand the things that went on around me. I had known since earlier that day that Leonard was coming home. That he was coming home believing he could repair what had gone wrong between him and Lily.

By eleven that morning I had grown quite restless, knowing what no one else in my family knew. Soon Leonard was inside the foyer of our building, checking for the name on the mailbox and seeing that it still read “Bodine.” He wiped the sweat from his brow, tucked in his shirt, and breathed deeply. Then walked upstairs and knocked as I sat in front of the television watching the same cartoon the madman from the bus had been watching.

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