It won't be long.
Sorry to take you away.
No problem. I told you I'd be here.
I always knew you would.
A nurse practitioner stepped into the room. As she did so, lighting came up perceptibly, brightening around our small island of bed, table, chair. Is there anything you need? she asked. Her signing was rapid, assured; until then I'd not been conscious of signing, only that we were speaking, speaking the way it seemed we'd always spoken. I'd slipped back into it so naturally, after all these years.
No, but thank you, Tish said. You're so kind.
And to me, once the nurse had withdrawn: There's so much I have to tell you, to ask you.
I nodded. A pigeon lit on the sill outside. Sad looking bird. It staggered on its way to the window, its beak bent back on itself when it pecked at the window. But a bird nonetheless. Most of the others were extinct. How long since I'd even seen one?
Have you been happy? she asked.
And are you now?
Most days, I think.
You always had good answers, love.
The pigeon's eye was an orange jewel. It bobbed its head up and down, side to side in that curious stitch they have, trying to understand. Knew it should be wary, wasn't sure of just what.
We never get very far from where we start, do we?
That said, her hand fell back exhausted onto the sheet. The word breathless came to me.
It's what they call in sports a broken-field run, I told her. They all know where you're headed, but there's that whole field between here and there. You keep moving, keep dodging. Everything's footwork, evasion, misdirection.
The opposition. The visiting team.
She sat looking out at the pigeon.
I hate to ask this, but....
Seeing where her eyes went, I said: It's all right. I arranged her gown about her, helped her onto the bed pan. Flesh on hips and stomach had collapsed, folding in on itself like a tent being taken down. She seemed almost weightless. Breasts, too, hung limp and deflated. Our selves, our identities, are so linked to sexuality. When we no longer have that, in a sense I suppose we become something else.
Once I had wanted this woman so badly. And once this body, like my own, ached just to be wanted. Where do all those feelings go? Into some ozone layer, maybe, out of sight and mind. Forever building up, protecting us quietly.
She turned her face to the wall, eyes unblinking, as I cleaned her.
I brought this for you, I said afterwards.
She held up the clear disk, turning it side to side, watching me through it.
A game I designed. I worked on it a long time. The producers think it's a sure hit.
Her eyes said: Tell me about it.
A man is on his way home from work. Everything goes wrong. He doesn't have exact change, the subway founders, a trio of terrible musicians comes aboard his car. Finally he exits, and comes up into a part of the city he can't recognize at all. He begins walking. Nothing is familiar. He's surrounded by whores in red boots, guys without bottom halves who cruise the city on plywood rafts atop roller skates, twitchy teens stepping off curbs to meet cars and glancing up every four seconds to rooftops, lawyers who've set up offices on the street like lemonade stands, an Islamic Mormon shepherding his flock of wives down towards the harbor. The goal's to get him home.
I hope it does well for you.
Me too. I've a lot of time invested.
Years ago, she said after a moment, I knew a man who was going to be a painter.
Yes, I said. I knew him too.
She nodded, and her eyes went to the window. The pigeon was gone. Rectangle full of darkening sky.
Maybe you should rest now.
There are some things I need to take care of. I'll be back later.
Smiling, she closed her eyes. I was almost to the door when I heard her knock on the bedside table, and turned.
"I thought this would be more interesting," she said. From such long disuse and from the damage done, her voice was a poor engine. She had to repeat what she'd said before I understood. Many years had passed since last I heard it, but the disappointment in her voice was something I knew well.
As I stepped into the hall, the nurse practitioner rose from a molded plastic chair. She held one of those heavily waxed packages of juice with a midget straw. Her name tag was a simple rectangle: Carson.
"Do you have any questions?"
I shook my head.
"You do understand, I hope: It wasn't a decision she made lightly."
"To die, you mean."
"We all die, Mr. Decker."
"Most of us for reason, though."
"She has reasons. Some of them we can understand, a lot we never will. Not that it matters."
"That sounds perilously close to mysticism, Ms. Carson."
"We don't much pretend to science here. We're more like... I don't know...wilderness guides, maybe. Helpmates."
She finished her drink and dropped the package into a reclamation bin. With some surprise I realized that we'd been speaking aloud. I had resurfaced, I was back in the world.
"She never could stand decisions being made for her. You know that better than anyone. And it explains a lot, for those of us who need explanations."
"One could look at it that way. Or as easily consider it little more than another expression of massive ego. Just another performance."
Like the time she'd crawled, naked and without language, out of the ice sculpture of a mammoth that artisans had spent eighteen hours carving. Or the way, years back, back when she spoke, she'd sit on stage and slit her skin with razors while reading aloud from the daily newspaper.
"It won't be long, Mr. Decker. You're leaving?"
"I'll call you, if you'd like."
I thanked her and gave her my number. Like the pigeon, I left. Soon I'd be extinct, too. We all would. Meanwhile the goal was to get me home. I had a good chance of making it.
This piece is part of our feature on James Sallis.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is a prolific man of letters. Author of the popular Lew Griffin novels (The Long-Legged Fly
, Black Hornet
, Eye of the Cricket
, and Bluebottle
), he has also written the avant-garde novel, Renderings
, and the spy novel, Death Will Have Your Eyes
, as well as more than one hundred short stories, poems, and essays. He has, in addition, written and edited a number of musicological studies and works of literary criticism, including The Guitar Players
, Difficult Lives
, a study of noir writers, and, most recently, Chester Himes: A Life
, a biography of one of his literary heroes.
A multi-faceted man of many talents, Jim has worked as a creative writing teacher, respiratory therapist, musician, music teacher, screenwriter, periodical editor (including a stint with the celebrated science fiction magazine New Worlds
in the 1960s), book reviewer, and translator, winning acclaim for his 1993 version of Raymond Queneau's Saint Glinglin
Jim was born in 1944 and spent his childhood in Helena, Arkansas, a rural town on the banks of the Mississippi River. Widely travelled, he has subsequently spent portions of his life as a resident of New Orleans, London, New York City, Boston, and Paris, among other cities. He currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife, Karyn.
A former Tulane Scholar and Fellow, Jim donated his personal papers to the New Orleans university's special collections in 1999.
He has been shortlisted for the Anthony, Nebula, Edgar, Shamus, and Gold Dagger awards.