This short story is part of our Global Dystopias project.
My very last client was a refugee on the ancient. It had been decades since the great pouring-in but his offness still showed around the eyes, and for this he was mildly persecuted by the people who lived on the snowy island. This persecution was a chill he was always catching. It was nestled in the angle of every native face like a private glacier tended by a miser in the shadow of his counting hut.
When we walked through town together, my client often mentioned that his feet were numb and he didn’t know why—he didn’t understand that a certain type of sock was being withheld from him. Instead, he saw himself as vital in the way of a variance, and a dedicated consumer to boot. But when I, who by birth belonged, looked at him, I saw a man nearly entombed in social ice, whose only possibility for escape was contained in his left eye, only this single one of his features—like someone’s idea of a joke—resembling a native’s, gesturing weakly toward the possibility of escape.
I saw a man nearly entombed in social ice, whose only possibility for escape was contained in his left eye, only this single one of his features—like someone’s idea of a joke—resembling a native’s, gesturing weakly toward the possibility of escape.
My client was awfully attractive—fierce of face and black hole staring. But he was also long-chested and weak-necked. And he had a pensioner’s taste in clothing. On top of that, he took a broad view of his intelligence. There was no topic he would not debate. In particular, he enjoyed lively conversations that seemed to be about natural history but were actually somnambular rehearsals of the manifesto that had failed his parents (they were coming through, you see, to further set him apart; each conversation he had was in this way corrosive). But in spite of all that, he was almost universally desired, especially by the elderly—plus exchange students, tourists, inpatients, etc.—so as his support person, it was my job to help him maintain a manageable pace, which I could do quite well because he was not desired by me.
So when I took him through the streets, I behaved as if I had a mad horse on lead. I blinded him against the teens, which was for his own good, and I whispered soothing stuff when we passed the hair salon. I wasn’t against a good time, but it still got me when they came up sidling sly, chill of face but hot of body, asking for a ride. They, who would never sit in his one big room or ask him down from the ridge to share a potato or take him to the hothouse with a shaker of salt, sought his amorous attention with great energy. They, who would never think of loving him, asked like beggars to be plunged by his exotic instrument. They were the mad ones! So, yes, my job sometimes made me desperate about the future of things. Though I did, almost always, once he’d been approached, let him go.
But as soon as we were on the ski trails, far away from the kiosks and the whaling pots flaming high against the ice, I would mentally unbridle him, and we would frolic on the freshly tracked snow and crouch in the under-pine like thieves. This was not part of my job, but I mention it in order to show that I was not entirely immune to his charms. We rarely spoke, except about the temperature of his feet and sometimes about the possibility of his one day obtaining skis, and although I knew this would never happen, I enjoyed imagining it with him. I loved the thought of his extra-long middle swooping left beyond the trees and its taking, because of his torso’s extraordinary length, at least two blinks more for his head to disappear. But this, as I conceived it, was not an erotic slowing of time. This was purely aesthetic on my part and maybe a little pitying—I wanted him to go longer, much longer, than the time remaining to him on Earth. I wanted his body to begin and end elsewhere, at home, meaning his home, wherever that was, meaning even I, whose job was to include him, wanted him out.
When I dropped him off at the end of the day, I’d head straight to the silent movie theater and sit in the front row by myself with one beer and one glass of water and watch the girl at the piano, who seemed to have been carved from ice, whose face was so firm that she could not express. What I’ve described so far is typical island, but she was not—she was ultra-typical and in that way extraordinary. Plus she was unseeing and completely devoid of life. She played music without playing music. She never—ever—turned to the audience. After the film, I’d walk home through the streets with a sway in my step. I’d allow myself to parse her until the hangman’s cart, then I’d stop and buy a length of candied rope, and he’d say, How’s it hanging, and I’d say, I have no idea, and we’d both bow our heads and snicker. Then I’d take a seat on the highest bench, prop my legs up on the snow, and sum her up. I almost always came to the same conclusion, with periodic variations that I attributed to the length of that day’s rope: I could break myself against her. I could vanish into pieces. I could be like a secret crack spreading fast through the ice of her body and not even she would know I was there until it was far too late.
But I had no real plans with regard to women. I intended to take no action. I was a support contact in a medium-sized village, and I was still relatively young. I knew that even the girl at the piano, who seemed the absolute height of chill, could turn out to be one of those who came to my doorstep in tears requesting clarification, or who obscured the existence of the outer-sock from my charge, but still willingly took a turn with him behind my back.
One day I picked him up early—I wanted to hit the shrimp stand before evening—and he was still in his robe. He asked me inside while he dressed, and I protested—I wasn’t supposed to, it was in violation of my role as representative of the outer-social—but then I spied the flirty tips of two skis peeking out from behind a large jacket hanging in the hallway. I asked him where he’d gotten the skis. He dropped his robe and laced his fingers together around the back of his neck. His penis was sturdy and smooth and his pubic hair was sculpted into the shape of the rising sun. There was a flicker in his left eye.
I wanted his body to begin and end elsewhere, at home, meaning his home, wherever that was, meaning even I, whose job was to include him, wanted him out.
I went out last night, he said. He stood in the middle of his one big room.
Yes. I went to Grunder. Have you been?
Yes, the club. He blinked. What can I say? I wanted connection.
Did you like it? I moved the jacket aside. The skis were made of birch. I could tell by the smooth slope of their smile that they’d spent many winters on the snow.
He watched me with the skis, keenly, as if he were their parent. No, I didn’t like it. It was awful. They served me wine in a glass with no stem. A night-child stole my coat. I went outside to catch my breath and my feet froze. Then I staggered around without feeling. My feet were two blocks of ice. I spent one whole hour in the snow. But that’s not all that happened.
He sighed and moved to his refrigerator, which was next to his single bed. There was no shower. There was no toilet. There was a pail and a long-handled scoop. He opened the refrigerator door and a cloud enveloped his lower body. He drank greedily from a brown bottle of fish oil. His torso trembled.
You found your way home in the end, I said. So, no problem. But next time, let me know when you’re in need of company. There’s no need for you to go anywhere alone. I’m your friend.
You’re my support contact.
He had never called me that before, and I was surprised to find that it stung. He quickly dressed and pulled some over-socks ceremoniously from a plastic tub beneath his single bed. He pulled them slowly, proudly up over his calves. I’ve made some friends, he said, as you can see.
I saw. He’d made contact of another kind. Of course, this was the goal but I hadn’t guided the connection and so couldn’t be sure of its health. I wasn’t able to remember what the handbook prescribed for situations like this, but I found that I didn’t really care. I was pleased that someone had seemingly rewarded him for his services for once—and so generously. I smiled. I let my lips hang open. I was tempted to drop my guard entirely, to quit, to propose a different sort of arrangement.
I met a girl and her elderly mother, he said. At the end of that awful hour, I passed a church. I was frozen to the heels. The door was open, and there was a lecture going on inside, so I slipped in the back and sat near the heater to thaw out. Why haven’t you taken me there? It’s perfect. A perfect space. There are purple candles that melt into white wax. And it smells good too, like elegant meats.
Are you almost ready? I asked, feeling tender. We have lots to do today.
He was prancing around in his socks, stepping high, his left eye flickering faster and faster.
Almost, he said. He took his old brown boots from atop the radiator and smelled them. Then he fell back on the couch and bent his leg and pulled his boot, with some difficulty, over the over-sock. He sat on the couch with his elbows on his knees and his legs wide apart.
The lecture, he said, was about the Earth’s groaning. It was about the necessity of tuning ourselves in to the frequency of the Earth’s groaning. Not because the groaning is an indicator of the Earth’s current pleasure or displeasure but because it’s a forecast—the groaning is the sound of the impending abolition of family or future. This was the night’s debate. Which one is on its way out? Family or future? There’s a big difference, but the lecturer admitted that even though she’s the world’s foremost expert on Earth groan, she is only advanced in it. She’s not fluent. So basically she was saying that she can’t do it herself, but needs more people to become advanced in Earth groan, which would involve, as a first step, everybody paying closer attention to their surroundings. So that we might be able to converse, gain fluency, and reach a consensus regarding which F-word is at stake. It was billed as a lecture, but it was really more of a call to arms. I found it exhilarating.
The lecture was about the Earth’s groaning. Not because the groaning is an indicator of the Earth’s current pleasure or displeasure but because it’s a forecast—the groaning is the sound of the impending abolition of family or future.
He massaged his knees. But I can’t learn a thing, he said. You, best of all, know my limits. So even though I appreciated her project, I felt free of any duty to respond to her call. I remain free. But anyway, there was a girl in my row. She was with her mother. The girl kept raising her hand and sniffing until the lecturer was forced to call on her. And the girl said her mother was already fluent in Earth groan and that obviously family had already been abolished—I mean, look around!—but that future wasn’t the right F-word either. Future was not at risk. It was film. Film would be abolished. The lecturer was not amused. She didn’t think the Earth would deign to comment on something as insignificant as film.
Well, would it? I was similarly inclined. After all, I was every day at the movies and had almost no relationship with the screen.
He looked at me. Then he began to move slowly around the room, filling his day bag: a carton of apple juice, his tattered wallet, a sack of nuts. I’m disappointed in you, he said.
One of the attitudes of the island, I said, assuming, despite myself, my most professional tone, is that the Earth is no-nonsense. The Earth is indifferent to our survival, which is why we love her so much. She isn’t concerned with fictions.
What about documentaries? What about movies about the Earth?
That sounds like flattery, I said. Which is another thing the Earth can’t stand.
He stood before his mirror, tapping the skin around his eyes. In any case, he said, the old woman was very upset that the lecturer was like you about the Earth and film. I haven’t mentioned that the old woman was really, really old. Practically calcified. But perfect. Just perfect in her way. She had a custom seat with wooden wheels. I’ve never seen anything like it. Also she couldn’t really talk except with her fingers, and her agitation showed that way, through her fingers. She flicked them all around, really, really fast, and her daughter translated for the rest of us what she was saying with her hands, and it was something like: She’s disappointed in your dearth of imagination. She hates your attitude. She calls it island-provincial. She blames you in advance for the abolition of film, after which will come the abolition of taking it easy and the abolition of fine food and finally the abolition of flesh until we are all just a herd of skeletons in over-socks who have no idea how to have a good time.
Which is how you learned about the over-sock, I said. I went around the room turning off lights. Really, we’ve got a lot to do today, I said, trying to sound cheerful. I encouraged him toward the door.
He went out into the blazing white snow and shaded his eyes. Well, yes, he said, but I did not really know the over-sock until I held the over-sock in my own two hands, he said, which happened when the girl and her mother took me to their house on the other side of the island. It’s near the little beach where I like to swim. We must have passed it a hundred times. They have a room that is all rugs. Made of some dark-furred animal. The kind of rug that is basically a life. And there’s a massive fireplace. So big. Just huge.
There, in the snow, he resembled a too-early flower. Beautiful and frail and destined to slump without the aid of some unnatural prop.
I’m not lonely, he said, but that’s the problem. I feel like I haven’t been taken seriously. I haven’t been given a chance.
He aimed his chin at me. Then showed me his throat. Don’t look at me like that, he said. Don’t question me with your eyes. I’ll just tell you, really plain. I plunged them both. And I liked it, with both of them, but more with the old woman. A lot more. Like I might be in love. And for the first time in my life I was offered juice afterward, and conversation, and over-socks, and skis, and I’m upset, I am, you never offered this to me, not even as a possibility. You never told me I could get this far with anyone.
He was angry with me, giving free rein to his disappointment, and it felt unexpectedly awful. But I had not done anything wrong. I had not offered him this possibility because I had not believed in it. I still didn’t. Moving forward, he would need all the protection I could offer.
My job is not to predict the future, I said. My function is support.
I lingered in the hallway. I gently fingered the tip of the skis. The socks are fine, I said. You can keep them. But the skis are too advanced. We’ll have to take them back.
The flicker in his eye sped up and sped up and slowed to black. Whatever, he said and walked toward the bus stop.
I heaved the skis over my shoulder and followed. I let myself inhabit the mute and immediate future of that evening, when I would be alone in the velvet row with my two glasses, free to fail to listen to the music the girl was not playing. Free to see nothing of the screen. Free to slide my stare down her frozen profile and plummet off the tip of her nose.
Despite the excitement of the night before, he wanted his usual shopping. We stopped at the international grocery for his bit of dried pork and his currants. The dandy in the bookstore had taken the liberty of ordering a few books he thought my client might like. I flipped through them at the counter while my client browsed the back shelves pouting. They were sweet little reads without moral or adventure, haphazardly peppered with sex. I could see what the dandy was after and usually I would have let it go but when, citing the excuse of his extraordinary neatness, he asked my client to remove his shoes and socks before coming through the curtain into the back and to please refrain from touching—he meant oiling—any of the hung icons and to think about taking as few deep breaths as possible in order to avoid marking—he meant staining—the sheets, I called the whole thing off. He’s exhausted, I said to the dandy. You would be too.
My client was unfazed by the blip in our routine. It was clear he had other things on his mind. He passed the bakery where he’d spent many afternoons plunging two hypothermic sisters without giving it a second glance. He explained, as we walked, that he could go longer with his new over-socks, he did not feel compelled to enter the shops in order to warm up, in fact, he felt free, freer than he’d ever felt before, and so talkative! By the statue of the famous harpoonist, he embraced me. I stared at the flayed tip of the deadly tool and let my chin sink into his chest. A gull tried to land there but couldn’t. The skis lay in the snow where they’d fallen at the moment of his descent upon me.
I’m not lonely, he said, but that’s the problem. I feel like I haven’t been taken seriously. I haven’t been given a chance.
That might be true, I said, grabbing the skis and assuming a business-like attitude, though, this, too, had hurt me, that in surveying his social history, he had not seen me. I had not appeared. So what was I doing here?
The trails? he said, brightening. Please—the trails. Can we go? It’ll make me feel better.
Sure, I said, determined to lighten the mood. Why not?
They were still unmarked, which was unusual this late into the morning and which I felt boded well for our fun. I stowed the skis in the under-pine and we hopped along like bunnies. I blasted him in the face with a ball of snow and a little blood rose on his lip and he didn’t care and we laughed. I fell onto the knobby root of a tree that was hidden by a drift and it landed like a knee in the middle of my back and I crowed in pain and we laughed at that too. We stopped laughing when he sat down by the skis and touched them and looked at me, his desire painfully plain.
Every face was a moon, and we could not stop rubbing our eyes, we could not stop turning around to peek at each other, like children.
I don’t know how to put them on, he said.
It was hard to say—but I had to say it. You know I can’t.
He took a ski and threw it like an athlete and it glided soundlessly into the trees, down the side of the ridge, toward the ocean and out of sight.
We stood side by side and looked at the water. It was beautiful and crinkled and blue.
Do you think I broke it? he said.
No, it was well made. It was old. It had been taken good care of for a very long time by someone who loved it a lot. But we’ll never find it now.
The house was just as he’d described. It was very near the little beach—so near that it was practically on the shore—but it was firmly hidden from sight by a dense stand of trees. It was single-storied and made of whole logs whose branches had not been removed so that the place had the feeling of a spontaneous architecture. The ocean was audible but otherwise unreal. At the door, my client adjusted his hair before ringing the bell, and when I heard light footsteps approaching I threw the single ski out of sight along the edge of the house. He looked at me in surprise but said nothing.
The girl didn’t ask who-who through the thick wooden door, but flung it open and turned on her heels. Come in, she said. I’ll be right back.
Her face was visible for only a moment but I would have recognized her in the bottom of a well—it was the piano player. I turned away, momentarily overwhelmed by her many movements. My client stepped inside like he owned the place.
Sigi, he called. I’m back!
I followed him inside, my head down. He led me through a mix of hallways to a large room filled with dark-furred rugs, the fluffiest near the fire. He took off his boots and his over-socks and even his socks and stretched out on the fluff, spreading his toes. He looked at me pityingly. Sit down, he said. Take it easy. I wanted to. I wanted to stretch out beside him and make a joke or two about the lives gone flat beneath us, but I couldn’t.
Only once had I ever seen the girl break face. The film was not over but was coming to an end, I could tell by the pace of her fingers on the keys, when there rose above the soundless sound of her playing a terrible flapping noise that meant the film had broken. The screen went white—I glanced at it for the first time—it was like a field of snow—and the theater and everyone in it was suddenly lit up. Every face was a moon, and we could not stop rubbing our eyes, we could not stop turning around to peek at each other, like children. But she didn’t stop playing. And she didn’t look, not at us, and not at the screen. I imagined a sudden shift in the topography of her profile, a gathering of flesh around her chin, a sudden jerk at the corner of her mouth as if she had been hooked by someone floating far above. But it was over in an instant. She was back to ice and I could not be sure of what I’d seen.
The girl wheeled her mother through the doorway, stopping at the edge of the rugs. Her face, here in her home, was animated, her expressions spastic—I was pained by her lively aspect.
Her mother, however, was permanent in that reassuring way. Her eyes hung back in their stony sockets. Her mouth was iron hard. Her nose was bound to itself and her breath had no effect. I determined to look only at her.
Help me with Sigi, said the girl. My client hopped to his feet, and I turned away to catch my breath.
There were the sounds of work, of the rearranging of things.
There, said my client tenderly. You’re with me by the fire, Sigi.
He laughed, and the girl laughed, but there was no sound to indicate whether Sigi was laughing or not.
She’s telling you how glad she is to see you again, said the girl. She’s been thinking about you since you left.
And I’ve been thinking of you, Sigi, he said. And of what you gave me. Tell her that.
Now she’s telling you that it was nothing. She’s asking you not to thank her. Act like a wolf, not a colleague, she says. The Earth prefers it.
But what do you prefer, Sigi? said my client. I knew that tone well. He was flirting.
I examined the wall of logs. I tried to take myself to the under-pine, far away from the warm and fluffy room, I was fleeing to the place of our togetherness—I wanted to be with my friend! Then I heard a shifting, a sliding around, which recalled me to the room. There was a creeping quiet. When I could no longer stand not to know, I looked. Sigi had been undressed. The girl was folding her mother’s clothing, using Sigi’s naked body as a surface for that folding, and my client was removing his pants.
Are we sure? I said, holding my own hand. Is everyone absolutely sure that this is what we want to do?
I can’t bear to watch a thing I love marching forward as if nothing will ever change, oblivious to the fact of its impending destruction!
Unclothed, Sigi was the color of driftwood. Her neck arced sharply so that her head could not lie flat. She was staring upside down at the wall behind her, her crown bearing maximum weight. Her legs had dropped to the side—they were hooked and tangled together—but the rest of her torso lay flat. Her breasts seemed to have been cured. They clung like scabs to the rack of her ribs. And my client got down beside her.
Wait, I said. Everyone wait.
The girl came to stand beside me. She leaned against the wall. I would not look at her. I couldn’t. So I would have to look at Sigi. At my client. At what they were about to do together. I had never watched a plunging before.
Sigi likes him, said the girl. And I don’t feel a drop of jealousy.
But, can she? I said, And what will it mean? I mean, is she?
Is she what? said the girl. Alive?
Sigi’s fingers began to flick. Faster and faster around the petrified core of her body as if she were a tree bewitched.
She says not to watch if it upsets you to see an old woman enjoying herself, said the girl. She says there is always the door. She asks you to do what you want, but she also asserts that the Earth will no longer stand to have its human needs ignored.
My client began to plunge. The sounds of Sigi’s pleasure drifted softly from the hole of her mouth.
It’s a sight to see, said the girl. Fun is the only thing I have eyes for anymore. I can’t even watch a film, which upsets my mother. The real truth is—she began to whisper—I don’t think film can be saved. Things have gone too far. And I can’t bear to watch a thing I love marching forward as if nothing will ever change, oblivious to the fact of its impending destruction!
The girl slipped her arm through mine, but I would not lean into the gesture. Does the Earth still speak to you? she asked. Do you hear what the groaning says?
I don’t know.
It’s giving its very last lessons.
And then what? I said.
Then nothing! Let’s go have some juice.
But I didn’t want juice. I wanted him. But by this one preposterous act he had outgrown me.
I got down on all fours. I crawled across the soft expanse. The body of my client and the body of the old woman were a bridge that spanned the ages. He rose from her like a thing from its fossil. Then he sank back down into her body, which was his custom-fitted grave. The top of his head moved up and down, up and down as he plunged, and she moved not at all.
I got close. Closer. Within inches of the top of his head and her upside-down eyes, which were black. I peered into Sigi’s windless depths and found myself reflected there. I was still young but my mouth—my mouth was not. I groaned.
And as if I’d jerked his lead, my client looked up at me. He paused in his plunging and was still. His right eye softened with warmth for me. But his left eye was flickering fast. I took a good long look and saw that something was moving there, inside of his eye—it was a film. I sat back to watch, my butt nestled cozily in a sea of fluffy rugs. The film came into focus, framed by the leggy length of his lashes. It showed my client, up on the ridge of the island. There he was, alone on the unmarked trails, his back to the camera, skiing. His moves were expert. He swished side to side, so sexy, so sure. Then he swooped left behind the trees, his extra-long torso taking its time, and disappeared.
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