I awoke in chains, on my knees and hanging by my arms. My wrists were shackled and gray, linked by single loops of metal to the wooden frame of a door in the upstairs of the angelic edifice. Dark gray blood traced lines down my pale gray arms. I pushed to my feet to relieve the strain. My ankles were also shackled. My tongue tasted like puke. My entire body was as gray and weak as a bucket of ash.
Then I noticed that the corridor’s walls were again striped in blue and white, the carpet a Technicolor tapestry of white, blue, red, and purple. I tossed my head back. There was Despair’s apartment behind me, all grayscale. Kurt Cobain’s shotgun leaned in a corner, as gray as before. But that hallway was again alive with color.
I was now the door keeping Despair in check.
The clean stripes of the wallpaper across from me were broken by a neat triangle of black frames pointing at the floor. The photos from my schlubby apartment. Or echoes of them. The Schwartz-Clay family, tracing the twin branches of the false tree of my Jewish ancestry.
Inky threads leaked from the hair of my parents. They crept like ivy, obscuring faces and bodies. Smothering the ignorant boy I once was, blond hair covered by that lying baseball cap, hazel eyes hidden behind those lying sunglasses. Emma’s little Shunshine.
The tendrils sprouted dark green leaves and dark blue berries where blue eyes had been. Grew upward over grandparents and great-grandparents into a black double tree of death and shadow. Arms and legs curled downward along the wallpaper as the bush took shape.
I got bored watching it. I knew where it was going and Who was coming. I closed my eyes and shook my head.
“You do make a pretty good door, Joe.”
She leaned against the wall opposite me, the triangle of Her crotch and tits replacing the photos. She was dressed in a uniform, black jackboots, black slacks, black shirt and jacket, black-and-white armband with a black swastika superimposed obscenely over a blue star of David. One white thumb was hooked in Her black belt, the other toying with Her white chin. A nightmare in black and white, but Her eyes had shifted from blue toward green. The overlap between Herself and Her daughter, Misfortune.
But, something in that blue-green hue tapped at the shoulder of my mind. What the hell did that mean? I felt the privateer’s presence behind me, watching from the gray home of Despair. Where he had met Her daughter. Chuck’s ghost tapped my shoulder. This is the color of conflation, Detective Clay. Death, Misfortune, Despair, and Fear.
I’m not a fucking detective, you retro prick! And, I’m not Clay. Nor Schwartz. I am the son of Josef Stillman. The son of a carpenter’s killer.
“Having thoughts, Joe?” Her hips were cocked in triumph.
“Your stupid tree is upside down.”
She grinned. “Oh? Is it? It’s your tree, really.”
“And, if I’m the root, the whole metaphor is fucked up. They’re not my real family.” She grew still. I read it, the weakness of Her kind. “Walking, talking archetypes. Metaphor is supposed to be Your thing. You stupid Whore, and You can’t even get that right.”
Her eyes rose like a blue-green tsunami. She grabbed me by the throat. Cold nails dug into my skin, like the ice of the grave. The frozen Niflheim of my Aryan fathers.
“You think yourself a base and chemical creature, a slave to your genes? You think all of this,” She waved around with Her free hand, “would be here if you were a bacterium? A shaft of wheat? A fish? No more than the chimps who clung to their dark forests while your kind stomped onto the sunlit savannas and seized the Earth?”
“Was my father any better than a chimpanzee?” I swallowed defiantly past the grip of Her cold fingers. “Just another vicious ape raiding and murdering a rival troop in the jungles of civilization.”
She leaned in, teeth dragging at Her bottom lip. A revelation lifted Her turquoise eyes into a mouthless smile. Fear shook me at the anticipation of what She meant to say. I could not close the doors of my mind to it any more than I could unlock the door She had made me.
I felt Winter’s breath on my ear.
“The language of chemicals binds the rung below, as the language of particles bound the rung under that. The Likeness steps up to your rung on the language of ideas.”
She sucked in a long breath.
“A new code evolved, a new world emerged into Creation, a new link in the Great Chain of Being. You are not a simple animal any more than a billion other quickened species like yours, thronging on sweetly temperate planets scattered throughout the immeasurable expanse of the universe, struggling against your sentient duty and oh so eager to exculpate yourselves with a lazy retreat into biology.”
Her teeth bit into my ear lobe and tugged. She stepped back, hand freeing my throat. Fingernails traced my jawbone.
“Did you think you could exorcise Me with a tawdry appeal to science?”
“What the fuck do You want?”
Her lips pursed. She shook Her head and the close-cropped hair uncoiled into a black octopus draping over her shoulders.
“The question that vexes Me is what do you want, Joe?”
“Want is a funny word,” I said. “You think you want something but, like You said earlier, everything has ramifications.”
I shrugged. She looked uncomfortable again, and it made me grin. “Do I want all of the side-effects and consequences? Hard to tell. Who am I to judge?”
“Your humility.” Her eyes smiled in defiance of Her frown, then arced in desperation. “That humility is the key. Your district attorney once told you that you could do so much more good, if only you were more ambitious.”
I twisted my neck to crack the vertebrae. It was a welcome release.
“She’s said a lot of stupid shit,” I said. “She was nothing more than a receptionist not too long ago. She got elected on a wave of idiotic social justice fuckwads who just wanted a lesbian in office.”
“You judge that you are better than her? She is just some stupid dyke pushing a Liberal agenda.”
I read the trap perfectly. Testing the bounds of my in-group arrogance. Chimpanzee troopthink. Trying to catch me in some lame, heteronormative bullshit. Fuck this Bitch.
“She’s the best g-ddamned DA this city has ever seen,” I said, holding my head up. “She’s better than this city deserves. The DA’s got more competence in her pinky finger than I have in my whole body. But it’s got nothing to do with who she likes to fuck or what that means to the dumbshit activists in Sutler Heights.”
“You are an enigma, Joe.” Death let Her hand rest on the back of my neck. Her other hand snaked icily around my waist. “But, you must have some indulgence. You must want to let your hair down somehow…”
Black-polished claws slid up my face, past my ear. A naked chill wrapped around my head. Death stepped back into the hallway, Her fist taking all of my hair with it in a clump. It was gray for a moment, then turned wheat blond again in Her hand. She’d shaved away my link to Josef Stillman and made me look like a Neo-Nazi all at once.
Death grinned a black grin and lowered Her turquoise eyes on me. I felt my throat catch as She cast the golden hair onto the floor.
She sang in a mocking voice: “Let the Shunshine. Let the Shunshine in…”
I stiffened. “Yeah, I’m a regular long-haired hippie.”
She clawed my cheek and took a step backward. Her face was fury and frustration. Hot blood dripped against my chin. Wondering if it was gray, I glanced at my left hand where it was shackled to the door frame. The blood from my torn wrist was running down the wood, as red as a rose.
And there, shining wet with blood, was my Emma’s mezuzah.
I felt Charles Oliver’s ghost behind me. He prodded me with the analogy of Sodom and Gomorrah I had dumped into Álvaro’s ear. He reminded me of the ward against the angel of Death the Hebrews had used in Egypt, blood on the door frame. You are the sacrificial lamb, he chuckled. Then, he prompted me with the words of the angel Gandalf facing off against the devil in the depths of Khazad-dûm.
“You shall not pass!” I laughed, harder than I needed to.
Death jabbed a fingernail at my face. “Do you know how Chuck Oliver caught Me when he was hunting Despair?”
I stared pointedly at the ceiling. “I haven’t the faintest fucking idea.”
“I left a single strand of hair in Despair’s apartment when I kidnapped Her. On the chaise longue.”
The chaise longue. Death had sat there when snaring Despair. I had sat there when Misfortune snared me.
She flipped one black-nailed hand in the air. “The whole thing is a farce now. Despair came back to Me on Her own. Chuck died for nothing.”
I let my mind loose. Not broken, not bound. Just loose and free. I felt something clambering inside me; Something climbing. My Emma, leading me up to G-d’s crown. My Abba, leading me down to keep my feet on G-d’s ground. Between them, I found my Voice.
“Death is for Nothing, then,” I said with finality. The entire building seemed to shiver.
She looked wounded. Blue-green eyes grew damp and tight. Like a weak dame in some noir film, Death slapped me and stormed away down the corridor. My cheek didn’t even sting from it.
I watched Her as She walked toward the stairs. I wanted to let my eyes enjoy the curves, the organic sway of Her hips. The shape of Life on the round ass of Death. But, my heart was not in it. As She disappeared down the stairs I noticed the erotic thump of dance music from what I guessed was the lounge deep below. Chuck’s dance club born anew in the Lowly of Lowlies.
I yanked at the chains. They were solid. The wood of the door frame didn’t budge even a millimeter. I could pull at them until my wrists and ankles were shredded. I looked behind me at the shotgun. If I could reach it, I could probably blast myself free.
But, I couldn’t reach it.
I stared at the floor. At the clump of blond hair. At the wall where my family photos had been. I giggled like a silly kid. If that Neo-Nazi shitbag who murdered my Abba and Emma had known I was the son of a famous death camp guard, maybe we could have settled our grudge over drinks. Some schwarzbier and Manischewitz.
I settled into a funk. For a moment I played with the word “funk” in my head. Or, I let it play with me.
Such a glass-half word. Glass half-empty and it spoke like Despair. The rage of the End of Days. The Aryan Ragnarok, the Christian Apocalypse, that final judgment of the soul, the fall of civilization and all we hold dear. The arch collapsing over our heads.
The arch I had collapsed over Álvaro’s head.
Glass half-full and the same word shimmied like an angel with James Brown’s hope. I feel good, like I knew that I would. Bouncing in elemental victory with Earth, Wind, and Fire. Grinding with all the animal optimism of the Commodores against the dance lounge rhythm vibrating the walls of the angelic edifice.
My eyes closed as I imagined the lyrics to “Brickhouse.” She’s mighty, mighty…
I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. Death returning to taunt me?
My eyes opened, my head turned. It was Núr Lucas walking up the hallway toward me, hair covered in a green cloth, curves only barely covered by a loose black t-shirt and tight green yoga pants. I imagined Chuck’s eyes peering over my shoulder, scanning those life-giving hips and breasts, those plump lips ever-ready to throb the Word of Wisdom into the sterile air.
She turned her gorgeous body, dark curls flowing over her cinnamon shoulders, and muttered “Wait” toward the stairway.
A second set of footsteps halted.
“Give me a moment with him.”
This was a curious turn of events. Why was she here? Who was she holding in reserve? I could see no one in the stairwell behind her.
“How’s Álvaro?” It was the only opener I could think of.
Núr frowned at me. “He chose to stay in the lounge.”
“That fuckin’ figures,” I said.
“He saw you confront the Seven and enter Death’s door. He did not understand what was happening, but he knew it was bad and he would not leave until he knew you were okay.”
Her eyes were angry, but her lips were sad. “You are not lost, Joe.”
I chuckled at that. I shook my wrists, the metal links clinking against the door frame.
“What am I, then? I am a Jew who is not really a Jew.” I thought of my bitter, Zionist rabbi. And the inestimable Rabbi Hillel. And the converted Khazars. And my true father, the Nazi death dealer. “What the fuck does a Muslim heretic know about that?”
Her eyes lost their anger and joined her mouth in sorrow. A sorrow that begged comforting. Lips that begged a kiss. But, I could not reach her lips with mine.
“A Muslim knows this.” She laid one hand gently on my cheek where Death had clawed and slapped me. “The Prophet Muhammad–may peace be upon him–testified that whoever says that none but G-d has the right to be worshiped, and who has in his heart good equal to a grain of wheat, shall be taken out of Hell.”
Those amber waves of grain! Like the grain of wheat carved onto my grandparents’ breadbox. The last home of my star-spangled Cow-Fish. The last gift of a carpenter, murdered by my true father, Josef. Like the carpenter Joseph, false father of Chuck’s fishing Messiah, murdered on the purple mountain majesty of Golgotha.
I was a wondrous and monstrous constellation of ideas in the spacious skies of Hell.
“I am the foot soldier of Death,” I told Núr. “This is my birthright.”
“Joe,” she leaned in. The warmth of her body was a comfort from the chill of Death. “I found your father’s legacy online.”
“Yeah.” I turned my head to stare at the bloodied mezuzah. “I found it before there was an online.” That was a lie. All I learned was that the carpenter had died at Słoneczny.
Núr pressed my cheek with her hand. Forced me to look at her brown face. Her eyes were wet. “Do you not know? He wrote off dozens of captives. His own prisoners testified on his behalf.”
I was numb. Defiant. There is no exoneration in a Holocaust.
“His own wife turned him in,” I said. “My own true mother. Before she kissed Death and set herself free.”
“Joe, no. Do not see it that way.”
“There’s no other way to see—”
“Your grandmother’s train lost three Jews on its way to Słoneczny.” Núr’s hands cupped my face. I felt blood and gray tears wet them from my cheeks. “Your Zaydeh, your Zaydee, and your Emma.”
Fuck her for using those words against me. My eyes were tight. I could not open them to Núr’s. How could my Emma have been there?
“He let them escape the death camps because your Zaydee was withchild. Your Emma was born only because of him.”
Her thumbs tugged at my eyelids. I let myself look into this Muslim therapist’s eyes. She was weeping, too.
“He said, at his trial…” Her shoulders set. Her accent had become thick. She gathered herself. I read her. She was gathering her heart, her mind, preparing to quote what she had found.
“She was a mother seeking refuge at the inn. As a Christian, I could not turn her aside.”
I felt Chuck’s ghost behind me, whispering Yuletide gobbledygook. And the ghosts of my parents. All four of them, dead and misfortunate and afraid and despairing, conflated in the single g-ddamned gray tragedy of civilization.
“A saving grace, huh?” I sniffed. “Fuckin’ figures.”
She laughed, and I laughed. It did not slow the tears.
“Josef Stillman fled to Argentina. He was afeared of death. Afraid,” she corrected herself. “Afraid of the Allies’ noose. Afraid of justice.”
I remembered Death’s lecture about the murderous lions I had set free. And the lambs I had sent to slaughter. “You are one of my best employees,” She had said. Who was I to wrestle against justice?
Núr gripped my face. I felt her fingernails along my jawline. “Joe, your father longed for redemption there, in exile. In the long shadow of the Holocaust and Nuremburg. He married a Jewish girl, loved her with the love of his entire soul, and agreed to raise their children as Jews. To offer Life as countless as the stars in Heaven, where once he served Death.”
My mother, a latter-day Sarai. There was Chuck’s umbilicus. mother-to-mother. I could not embrace it. The sharp point of my father’s Y chromosome had pierced my heart. The cold legacy of masculine force. I was his sacrificed son on the mountain. But, Núr’s soft hands were warm on my face.
My lips parted, the invitation to a kiss. I felt Núr’s fingernails soften their grip. My entire being had opened. There was no physical kiss, but I felt the touching of souls between myself and this “Sufi chick.”
This terrorist sympathizer. The federal government’s words.
This men’s rights therapist, beating back the fatal consequences of masculine duty and obligation. My broken mind broke again.
“When I was a boy,” I said. “No, not a boy. I was a teenager. Halfway between boy and man.”
Núr’s hands eased around my neck and shoulders. They had the familiar touch of a lover. She was inside me. I was inside her. My eyes stayed closed, but they were no longer leaking.
“Some friends of mine took me to this place on the shore near Pismo Beach. There was a high rock, where kids like us would jump into the blue-green water. It must have been two, three stories up.”
One hand slid up to my face again. I felt a thumb caressing my cheek. She knew her work.
“I watched them jump. I was, like, seventh in line. Something.” My lips stayed open, drying with each huff of my breath. “They just leaped into the abyss, so easily. One, then another. I couldn’t stop thinking about that drop. Couldn’t stop imagining myself drowning, that watery turquoise the last thing I’d ever see.”
I took a breath. Then another, just to prove I could.
“I was shitting my pants.”
I laughed. Núr laughed. “How the fuck could they not be as terrified as I was?”
I let my eyes open. Núr’s face was close. I could smell jasmine and mint. Her brown eyes locked on mine.
“I looked down at their faces as they surfaced, bouncing up from the plunge. They were all bluster, sucking air and yeehawing like a bunch of rednecks.”
One hand cupped my jawline as the other eased down my chest, over my pectorals and then sideways, avoiding the aging bulge of my belly to stroke the narrow dip of my waist. Núr was tracing the contours of my fading masculinity. Even as I read her clumsy tactic, I admired it.
I felt my knees lock in place. “Then I saw, between all the whooping, glimmers of fear. They were scared. Scared shitless just like me.”
She smiled, and I felt the heat of her hand slip behind me.
“Where were the girls?” She smiled coyly. She already knew.
“The girls weren’t jumping. They were hanging out, just swimming in a circle below the rocks.”
“It was a display,” Núr said. I closed my eyes and nodded. As her hands left my body, it wasn’t like abandonment. It was a liberation.
“I could see that they were caught up in a web of bravado. The boys, I mean. To impress their buddies for rank. But mostly just to impress the girls. It was a web that had its fibers stuck in me only strong enough to get me to the top, but not to jump. I had felt cowardly. But then, I felt free.”
“So, you jumped?”
“I did.” I felt shame, suddenly. My eyes locked tight. “But for myself. Not for them.”
“Not for yourself,” Núr said softly. “Not for yourself, Joe.” She was right.
“For them,” I said. “For the boys. So they wouldn’t see their fear reflected in me. So they wouldn’t feel alone.”
“Why was he arrested? What are the charges?”
It was the DA’s voice. I opened my eyes and there she was, standing behind Núr. She was confused. My heart shivered in empathy, and I glared at Núr.
“Why did you bring her here? What is she seeing?”
Nur leaned in close, whispering in my ear: “Be compassionate. She is as lost here as Álvaro. She sees things even less clearly than you and I.”
She stepped away, slipped her hand behind the DA’s back. She was passing her off.
“This isn’t fucking fair!” I hissed. “What the fuck am I supposed to say to her?”
Núr nodded. “That is exactly the question I asked myself about you.” With that, she turned and walked away, leaving the DA and me staring at each other.
I grinned stupidly. “Must be like old times. You and Núr.”
The DA permitted herself a weak smile. “You mean me and Núr and Charles? I guess I’ve just gotten you in trouble, too, now.”
“Nah,” I said. “I got caught up in my own karma. Not your bad.”
She glanced longingly toward the stairs, where Núr had disappeared. I wondered what that hallway must look like to her atheist eyes. And what it looked like to Núr’s Muslim eyes. Or, how it had looked to Charles Oliver when he’d let himself get snared by Curiosity.
Then, I realized that the DA’s perspective on Núr, must be like mine. No doubt the same stifled desire Chuck had. She was our dark Goddess of unwanted Wisdom. Our Lady in the Lake. Our Belle Dame Sans Merci. Our Hokhma, as my Qabbalist mother would say, ironically the uppermost of the Sephirot of Mercy.
“I was so stupid!” The DA fell to her knees and held her face in her hands. “I thought of myself as her knight in shining armor, that I’d save her from her silly notions.”
I was bound, chained. I wanted to reach out, just to touch her shoulder. Some gesture of comfort.
“It’s not your fault. Good intentions and all that.”
She looked up at me with a solid expression. Her nod was a war of confidence and self-doubt. “I put Núr and Chuck together. I thought their superstitions would cancel each other out. I just ended up losing my job.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But, you got a better job, right? Let Dick watch that stupid, boring desk.”
“Dick Bures, yeah.” She huffed through her nose. “A better fucking job? I couldn’t fix this city even if I was mayor.”
I sniffed. “You got me a better job. Off the beat. A Detective, in spite of myself. That took some doing.”
She looked up at me. The warmth of her face was uncomfortable.
“You came to me as dark as a Hazel Eye.”
My throat clamped shut.
“A cup of the real stuff,” she said, stepping up to one knee. “Home browned, home ground, home made. Tempered to a golden bronze with cream that never cheated.”
My head was dizzy. I read her, and she was quoting something. My mind swept my memory for some purchase, but found nothing. She stood and put her arms on my shoulders, firm and strong, like a comrade-in-arms. I felt my resolve bolstered in spite of my confusion. Her eyes looked possessed, a warrior channeling the strength of her ancestors from the Quad Cities.
“Real from your birth,” she recited, “tender and perfect.”
“The fuck?” Always supremely articulate, me.
“The perfect cup of Joe. A match for twenty blue devils…”
She trailed off, as if she’d lost the script. Then, her mouth drew taut in certainty. “And you will exorcise Them all.”
I was at a total loss. The ghost of Chuck Oliver wanted me to capitalize Loss.
“Henry Ward Beecher,” she told me. She huffed a chuckle at the ignorance that slackened my face. “His words. He was an abolitionist.”
“This is why I chose you,” she said. Her face went soft. She laughed. “My own silly notion.”
My mouth was open. I decided to let the words from my head stumble through it. “What the fuck do you see in me?”
She stared past me, into the gray of Despair.
“I fell asleep at my desk when the rainstorm swept over the city. I saw a tornado shredding my house. No, my office. A black cyclone tearing away all the trappings of my life.” She swallowed. “My dreams. My fears.”
Her frog-green eyes met mine. “The photos of my childhood seemed to move in the frames behind my desk. Crumbling to nothing. My degrees turned black and empty. My trophies laughed at me. All the books in my shelves grew teeth.”
She was shaking. Weeping. I resolved to accept my role, to be the locked door of Despair. I spoke: “Hey, hey!”
She looked into my eyes again. “It wasn’t real. Was it?”
“It wasn’t real,” I lied with the lower case. It was Real.