Today we have another short story from Charles. This story marks a progression in Charles’ writing from the humorous and vaguely morbid clear over the fence to the full-submersion baptism into darkness.
Don’t worry. He has assured us that his cheerful wordplay will return, maybe some day soon.
“The Quietus of Stephen Malloy”
–A reflection on a forlorn young man lost in a world of love and words.
The ink and the darkness of the ink on the much too thin fingers burned like a candent and unctuous glue. Again, the pen had snapped and spilled its viscous seed on the paper and the pen cap and the hands that held them. The substance of unformed words smeared onto the page, on which a lone sentence bounced side to side as the hands slid the bloody ink away into long black streaks.
Damn it all, muttered the presumed owner of the hands. The affected fingers were rubbed across the flimsy canvas once more, and Stephen Malloy read what remained of his proclamation.
We are all strange beings thrust into the world, vying for attention, vying for love.
The ink had splattered just a tad beyond the period. Stephen mused at the blood-letting before him, his lip under the bite of his incisors. The defunct writing utensil rolled radially along the blotted page like an unspun clock hand.
Shit, Stephen said. His feet began to drum against the carpet scruff. One arm anchored him to the desk while the other hung about his head with its free hand toying with the hair, spring-like whirls of sandy blonde locks. And within the cage forested by those locks the gears of Stephen’s mind may have been set a-turning, clinking and scraping along.
In his mind the ink must have pulsed and breathed.
He sat beside a window near the fireplace of rust-colored brick that his father had preferred over the more plebeian stonework. Outside, snow drifted in the ashen blast of a volcano native to the tundra.
The pen lurched closer to 12 o’clock as the hands slammed the desktop. Stephen thought. Well, I don’t suspect I’ll finish it anyway, even if I had a month. And I know I don’t have that long.
He punched a breath through his diaphragm and took up the bleeding pen.
The inspiration for the scene, he reminded himself, is her. The female face floated into his mind. The face he was picturing was that of Lindsey Dawson. She had white skin, and the cleavage of her breasts was like two melons converging. Melons, Stephen thought. Anagram for lemons. He pictured the breasts beneath Lindsey’s shirt shriveling to the size and ovular shape of those sour fruits.
Lindsey was from the university. He had met her at a musical function. Or an art show. Maybe it was just passing by the first time, and the art show was where he had introduced himself.
Stephen had been a hedonist then.
He concentrated upon the motionless pen, the many words once contained therein, now upon his hands and the page, bled upon the desk like a burnt offering. His face froze in paralysis. He thought of Lindsey dating her tall bearded painter and of how she’d lose her virginity to a strummer of the acoustic guitar if she had not yet already and how she’d marry a banker who plays the saxophone and writes haikus in the evening. The subsequent sigh fled like an asthmatic burst from Stephen’s boney chest.
Stephen tossed the pen toward the fireplace where no fire burned. This time, he did not bother to wipe his stained fingers. He sat at the desk a little while longer, thoughts of Lindsey percolating through the spongy mass between his ears. Then he closed his eyes and thought he’d better not get up at all.
Blaire lived as a roomer in the annex of Ms. Mackefy’s townhouse beyond the commons. The walk was not far. The numbness of his body through the falling snow made Stephen question, not entirely in passing, whether his skin could feel much of anything. Lindsey’s skin, cast over fine bones, the blonde hair cut short and hung over it, all assembled with dollish grace. The way a hand might slide from below the ear to the jaw and trace the neckline produced shivers more so than the snowfall ever could. At the backend of the annex a door stood with snow piled tight around its edge. The knocks summoned no doorman, and so commenced the booted task of digging out the snowy blockage with the help of bare hands.
He sat sprawled on the sofa, his tarantula legs all wide-set and furry, his arms likewise long and lank. His rotund black hair setting a backdrop behind his head, like a tonally inverted version of those found in the paintings of saints. In one hand he clasped a bottle of wine with perhaps an inch of fluid remaining. No glass was in sight.
For half a minute’s time, Stephen raised each of his boots to pick away the snow crushed into the mazes of their soles. Blaire blinked intermittently, his gaze unmoving, as if contemplating the absence before him, hoping to conjure from it some lost possession.
“You’re drinking Charlotte Hill. 1967?”
“Was,” Blaire, said. He raised the bottle to his mouth without looking, leveled it, and gulped. “Am now.”
Stephen stood. He sought some place for his red hands, thawing now in the heated room, but found no pockets. He was still wearing his pocketless charcoal slacks.
“Hey, Steph, I’m sorry I missed the, uh . . . oh, God, what’s the name for it?”
“Yeah, God. The wake. Man, I was, uh. . . it was Tuesday, right?” Blaire looked to Stephen for the first time since his entry, finding forlorn mystery in his presence or else in his own inquiry of it.
“Monday. It was last Monday.” Stephen was studying his boot laces.
“See, yeah! I thought it was Tuesday. That would explain. God, man. So sorry. God.” Blaire breathed slowly, expelling a breath that had its own scent and life. “You’re still doing that writing gig, right?”
Stephen’s eyes drew lines up the opposite wall. “Yeah. Just freelance. There’s a literary society at the university.”
“Huh.” The air was breathless. Blaire examined the label of the Chardonnay, perhaps for the first time.
“And you? Still moonlighting at the pub? What about those film classes?”
“Yeah, but the uh, the classes weren’t working out. I’m laying low, uh, trying to get back on my feet, uh, I mean, well,” Blaire laughed a deep, sonorous laugh. “Look around.” Stephen looked. There was a sofa, a cabinet, a dresser buckled in on itself. “The money helps, though, Steph. It really does.”
“Hey, I’ve been to a few concerts. Saw this band last weekend, called the, uh, Beggar Boys, or, wait, no wasn’t that the uh. . . Anyway, man. You should come out some time.” Blaire locked Stephen in that sanguine stare of his. “Have a drink. Hear some good music. I mean, given the circumstances. . .”
Stephen choked on the beginnings of a sigh. “That’s not what I need, Blaire.”
“Sorry, Steph. I thought it would cheer you up. I mean, this stuff happens, and we keep on going. Gotta enjoy life while it’s there.”
“Jesus, Blaire. Stuff happens? What are you talking about? You haven’t a clue.”
“Sorry!” The quiet of the room generated its own ironic hum. “Here, Steph. Drink some sweet sixty-seven for me.”
Stephen approached with heavy steps. He twisted his fingers about the old jade bottle, blown from the most ancient of sands. There was nothing left.
Blaire and Stephen caught each other’s gaze. Stephen’s mouth was nearly agape. Blaire’s mouth widened. He laughed. Stephen slumped onto the couch beside him.
“Hey, are you still working on that blonde girl?” Blaire asked.
“Lindsey. Her name’s Lindsey.”
“Yeah, man. She’s a looker. Good choice.”
“There’s so much more, though.”
“Man, I love those blondes. About this time last year. . . no, wait. That would ‘ave been. Well, actually, there was this one girl last week—”
“I don’t think that I want to talk about this right now, Blaire.”
“Well, just why the hell did you come over, then?”
“To talk. To you.”
“We are talking, man. The hell?”
“I meant about more than that.”
“More than. . . women?
“Christ. Yes, about more than women.”
“Right. Well, then. I’m here. What is it?” Blaire adjusted his lounging sprawl. He opened his body, the hairy and near-naked limbs extending like an optical illusion directing viewers’ eyes to spiral inward. Blaire raised his eyebrows in anticipation.
“It’s just that, well. There’s this piece I’m working on.”
“So, it’s about this notion. It’s that, see. . .” Stephen’s eyes trekked across the bare, annexed room. “I think that loneliness is an affliction unmatched in its assuredness and resilience,” Stephen said.
Blaire smiled. “You must not have felt much affliction, then. Ever pissed pins and needles? That’s pain.” He threw his head back and laughed. Stephen’s eyes narrowed, his brow collapsing over them. “Eh! Remember that time when we went swimmin’ over in that creek behind your house? We were just drenched to our knickers coming back up, and afterward when I was showerin’ that was some tough piss! Oh, and your mum, she was so livid about all of it and. . .” Blaire’s face contorted. He looked like a boy who had just realized he’d sworn.
“Yeah,” Stephen gulped. “We were just kids then. Long time ago, it was.”
“Um, Steph, see here, uh. I really got to get goin’. Pub’ll be starting up in several hours.”
“Sure,” Stephen tightened his boot laces and stood. “It was nice seeing you, I think.” Blaire’s head rotated to follow Stephen out the door, as if it were some spotlight obliged to illuminate the path behind him.
Surely, he must have thought that finding her would have been harder with the snow falling under the banner of the darkening night. While Stephen walked across the commons, the slants and outcroppings of the stoic halls collected their bounty as all else fell silent in observance of the descending frost. He spied her well-bundled form huddled on a bench beneath the arched hallway outside the arts building, its enfilade of brick pillars lit by old cast-iron lamps. As he approached he saw that she held a canvas on which she drew in crumbling charcoal, and as she looked into the falling snow she drew only the emptiness she saw between the flurries. Her streak of near-white hair gave her away in the dim light, in whose glare her face appeared in its true form, as one that is known to be smooth by sight alone.
When she saw him, he smiled. Her face became sad before his, and she rose and embraced him. Something like ice traveling down his spine. The strangeness of the chills amidst the warmness. His hands slid up her back. They walked to the bench and sat down together.
“Did you hear?” Stephen asked. She nodded. Her eyes were wet, and the wetness reflected the light most of all.
“God. I don’t know what to make of it,” Stephen said. His hands had fallen into his lap. She took up her canvas and began to draw again. They both looked into the snow.
“What happens to people when they die, then?” he asked.
“Oh, Stephen,” she was crying still. “What do you want me to say?”
Her face ran with fluids. “They get buried. They disintegrate in the ground.”
“And what about God and Heaven and Hell and divine justice?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she sighed heavily. “Those are all just stories, Stephen. They’re made up to make us feel safe. Things your parents tell you when the dog dies.” She bit her lip.
“Well, goddammit. Is that it then? Really?” He looked out into the night. “Have you a cigarette?” She shook her head. “Didn’t really want one anyway.” He stood. “Will you go home with me tonight?” She gazed just past his shoulder with her tear-lit eyes.
“You know I can’t do that, Stephen.”
“Christ. Why not?” The young women looked out into the snowfall. Her eyes were cast with something not entirely of her own reckoning, as if some spirit had come to dwell within them in this late hour. “Fine,” Stephen whispered, and disappeared into the darkness of the night.
Along the banks of the creek fed by snowmelt he fumbled along until he came to the stone bridge. In the dead trees at its side a gaunt and hairless dog sniffed about. Its eyes shone pale in the moonlight. It came near Stephen and began to whimper, licking at his frozen hands with which he sought to shoo it away. At last he yelled at the beast. He kicked it and sent its emaciated form groundward. Its yelps seemed only to agitate him further. As it pitched itself up again, Stephen drew snow from the ground and showered it as it plodded back into the brush, its neck wrenched to look at him the whole way back.
He sat in his father’s chair in his parents’ house, before the fireplace where yet the hearth stood empty. The hand upon his jaw seemed somehow familiar there, as if it stemmed from that very bone. The thin chest rose and collapsed again. And in a moment Stephen eyes shut and he unlatched himself from the chair and walked to the desk in the corner of the sitting room where he had sat earlier. The paper remained nearly bare on the tabletop. Beside it he noticed a black card dated from days past. On its front Stephen could make out the lettering “We are grieved to learn. . .” He opened the card again before he sat. Inside was printed a psalm of God’s love for His people in their times of exile. This card he rotated in his hand, thinking perhaps that it hid some other message revealed only by a shifting angle of the light. Like the cover of books he had read as a child. A passage from St. Luke’s Gospel floated into his mind: Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence ye are. Then on his finger he saw the patchy stain of dried ink from the fit earlier. It must have reminded him of the liver spots he’d seen on his mother’s skin. He sat down, looking at the paper again. He sought a pen from the desk drawer but there was none. The sole line upon the canvas of the page ran over and over. It was all there was to read. Stephen sat there a long time, observing the silence. And then, in a slow gush of wetness, he wept. His sobs resounded through the time-worn halls of that old house. They were the cries of something that could have been, of that which still might be, that keeps echoing and reverberating long after its source has failed. And then came a knock, and the calling of his name, traveling up from the foyer below.
Stephen sprawled over the crumpled paper. The throbbing sobs abated, but the tears crept at will.
And he was silent, and he was still.