Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
b y   a n n e   s p o l l e n   ~   n e w   p a l t z ,   n e w   y o r k

IT IS October; everything burns orange. Renn picks me up after work in the Studebaker. The interior of the car is dark, a hood, and when I step inside, the light I have been standing in disappears and I am absorbed into all that blackness.

"Hey," I say. His hair shines clean, straight, the color of wheat. He has shaved and his skin gleams, poreless and polished as coins. As we drive down the street, I think people might look at us and not think anything unusual, like we're normal as a bowling alley.

"Make anything?" Renn asks.

"Nope. Never good tips in the afternoon." We drive home beneath the mountain in a scatter of pumpkin-tones. Hot wind crashes through the windows of the Studebaker. There is movement everywhere, rushing sounds, as if the air is charged, ignitable, kindling the dry branches of the trees.

Renn stops the car but doesn't get out. "I'll drop you off, " he says without looking at me. "I'm gonna go see Will. You okay?"

I know he won't be back in time for dinner because Will has speed. We keep saying that we're going to stop doing speed. Our skin is peeling and our gums bleed constantly. It's the tightening we like. After I swallow the black gel cap, I imagine my brain tightening, twitching like a lion's flank. I hope he brings some back for me, but I don't say this, I just stand watching his car disappear into the exploding orange air before I turn toward our cabin. It's a lonesome structure, erected in the middle of a bald field. The field just rolls on and on, borderless as the sea, in the no-color color of dust. No trees or vegetation stagger its monochrome. Whenever I glance out our cabin window, my eyes search for shape or shadow and, finding none, I turn back to the sun-flooded vacancy of our small rooms. We live like this, beneath the umbrage of the mountain, using the light it sheds.

I boil water for tea in the kitchen, listening to the crushing silence. The warm, orange light sluices through the uncurtained windows and I stand, steeping a bag of tea, anxious for Renn's return. A knock on the door electrocutes me; my ears flower open and I am suddenly terrified. Renn and I do not have an open, drop-by kind of life. My first impulse is to hide, to pretend I am not at home and then peer out the window at the retreating visitor. I cannot imagine recognizing anyone, yet I am pulled to the door as though I am caught in an undertow.

I do not know the man standing before me, but when I see him, my fear evaporates. He is tall, with a sand ripple of hair falling to his shoulders. He has the look of fertile abandon about him, like the god Bacchus. I can picture him bedded in grape leaves, heralding the air with a goatskin of wine.

"Hello," he says in an impossibly gentle voice, "I'm Bartholomew, a friend of Renn's. Is he home?"

"No," I answer. The orange air glows, fanning between us with a rushing noise like the sound inside a shell. The field seems suddenly alive, full of rustling light, with bright, low clouds scudding near the earth. "How do you know Renn?"

The man laughs. Sun wrinkles fern the skin around his eyes. "Oh, I've always known Renn," he says. "All my life. He's my brother."

"Oh. He never mentioned a brother." I think rapidly, trying to remember any mention of Renn's family. There was a sibling involved, years ago, in some kind of tragedy, either a fire or a drowning, but I can recall no details. I look closely into Bartholomew's face and, for a moment, his features transform into Renn's like one of those computer-generated morphs on music videos. The glimpse unsettles me; I cannot stop peering into Bartholomew's face. It is as if he is pulling me toward him with a magnet or a hook. I do not know why, but I say, "Would you like to wait for him inside?" I am not frightened, though normally I would never ask a stranger inside, particularly a man.

"Thank you," Bartholomew says. I step aside to allow him entry and I notice how large he is. Renn is small and hollow looking with reed-like bones. "You know Renn is going to be surprised, maybe shocked when he sees me. It's been years."

I nod. For some reason, when he says this, I understand that Renn will never see him, that he is there for me. "Would you like some tea?"

"Thank you, yes," he answers. His eyes flick across the small rooms, the yard sale furniture. "Whatever you have."

"Please. Sit down." I turn to take the steaming kettle off the stove, then stop to look out the window. The field has a wild dimension to it I have never before seen. Its rope-toned grasses undulate with intricate dark and light patches.

"Does Renn still drink tea?" Bartholomew is standing at my elbow, smiling. His face pulls me into him, like the drift and tug of ocean current.

"No," I say, "mostly coffee."

"How's he doing?" Bartholomew asks, opening the cabinet where the tea tin is kept and handing it to me. I wonder how he is familiar with the haphazard layout of our kitchen, but somehow this action comforts me, as if he is now taking care of me and I am visiting my own home. I observe myself sliding into the chair at the table while he pours water, arranges crackers on a plate, places a tea bag in a cup.

"He's doing okay," I answer. "Though I'm not sure how much longer we'll be here." The verbalization of this shadow-thought surprises me. Marigold light begins pouring through the windows, lending the waves in Bartholomew's hair an appearance of flames. "We need... a change."

"Isn't there a college just up the road?" Bartholomew takes the seat across from me, his face white as wax. He looks nothing like Renn.

"I went there for awhile."

"And what happened?"

I think of meeting Renn, of the lost days and nights doing speed, drinking in the town bar with all those disconnected souls, eating diner breakfasts at 5 a.m., no sleep and still buzzing into the next morning. "I'm not sure," I say.

"Did you have a major?"

"Eventually. I took a lot of art history courses. I seemed to have a knack for looking at one piece of art at a time, for studying every detail and getting it. I liked..." I stop to rub some grains of sugar into the tabletop. Bartholomew steeples his hands and I notice how perfectly smooth they are, with no noticeable veins or creases, almost like shells. I drop my hands into my lap, shamed by my thick ropes of vein, my reddened knuckles, my obvious connection to menial work.

"What did you like?" Bartholomew asks gently.

"The pictures. You know how nothing moves. It's as if life freezes for a minute and you have this one tiny lull, this silent close-up and you finally get everything, all the details. You understand what's happening. In real life, I never understand anything until it passes, until it's gone. And by then, it never matters."

"Doesn't it?" Bartholomew slides back in his chair, watching light funnel across the floor beams. I walk to the window and gesture toward the mountain. I have the odd sensation that Bartholomew is somehow willing me to do this.

"You see, up there, when you look at the mountain, it's one wall of color. That's the way I see my life, blended and blurred in one rolling wave. But each color is really just a few trees. If I went up there and walked around, I'd be able to tell each group apart, study it, slow it down. But you can't. You never can."

For a moment, I think I hear the Studebaker and I am surprised by how much I do not want Renn to come home.

"That's not him," Bartholomew says smiling.

"How did you..."

"Your face. You've got an easy read there."

I walk back to the table. My tea cup, the sugar bowl, the lamp, even Bartholomew shimmer as if they are haloed. I want to look in the mirror to see if I, too, am haloed, but I am afraid if I leave Bartholomew, he will disappear. Evaporate. I sit tightly at the table's edge, hoping my controlled posture will girdle my internal loosening.

"So when you take speed, you're able to see distinctions then?"

I don't recall telling Bartholomew about the speed, but I accept his knowledge. "On speed, I see no edges. Everything sparkles. Edges resonate sound." I rub the lip of my cup and my finger slowly detaches. I study the tiny field of flesh between nail and knuckle, the loose pouch of mid-joint skin, the hectic crosshatch of lines. I look up to see Bartholomew smiling. I am smiling despite my rigid posture. "You know when the speed first hits, it's like you're rising up over your life, you can see it as a mural. It organizes your hunches, your intuitions."

"Kind of like a Sistine Chapel experience?" Bartholomew leans forward, his face and body perfectly composed, as though he's imitating my posture, taking on a reflective element of it.

"Right. And then you widen. Your feel your face, your bones, open and spread. You're enormously happy, expansive. You need nothing: no sleep, no food, nothing primal. You pare down all your physical needs until you're left with just your soul. I think that's what I crave, the loosening of everything physical." I look down as my hand separates from my wrist. There is no blood, only a closed seam at the end of my arm. Coolness spreads up my forearm, then heat.

"And that's what you need then, the sensation?" Bartholomew steps from the table. Instead of blocking the light, I see small throbs of light spoking from him so the room grows more intensely bright and warmer.

"I think so," I answer slowly. "Sort of a sensation of mental travel. Only then..."

Bartholomew is in the middle of the room now. I am aware only of a pulsing heat.

"Only then there's the crash, the sleep and the terrible waking, as though your body has been split open and drained of blood, of everything vital. And that whole sense of knowing, of understanding, is gone. Any epiphany dissolves in the sickness of the after. And I'm back to where I was -- wanting life to slow and stop so I can study it like a painting, like a field of color instead of a mountainside. So I guess..."

Bartholomew is gone.

My fingers return to my hand, my hand to my arm. All the heat and light rescind.

"So I guess there's no point in doing this anymore."

I sit at the table until dark holding a cup of cold tea. I watch darkness refill the windows and find that I can see the field more clearly than ever: dry, still, the color of clay.

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