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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Saturday
Oct272012

« In Which We Eliminate The Need For Self Reflection »

You can find the archive of our Saturday fiction series here.

Due South

by DAN CARVILLE

"Give up poetry," I was told, and it seemed like the first good bit of advice I had heard in some time. Summer's grasp faded. Cold was on the way. I took a chartered plane as far south as I could go, then as far north as I could go. All my friends came with me, and my old professor.

Have you seen the way children to talk to one another? They repeat everything so endlessly that you could not fail to get the point even if you tried.

That is how my old professor spoke to me. I think he saw something of himself in my writing, distinctly male and yet also hinged at points of utter weakness. He was a old man. When man landed on the moon, he had been very old. And then when the moon was destroyed, he must have been still older.

I still had not figured it out by then.

A chartered plane without amenities is like a frog without a tongue. (These were the kinds of metaphors that had encouraged me to give up poetry.) We landed near the equator, in what we hoped was something like paradise, near enough to a resort hotel that billed itself as a tropical refuge for people like us.

It was too hot for me there. I spent all my time in the sand, hoping for a breeze or the kind of man who would make me forget about the weather. Tourists clustered like algae.

I called my old professor Mr. B. The initial stood for William. We had met at the university pool, and later I took his Advanced Poetry class. The other students worshipped him because they had not seen his body, vast and whirling, in the water.

"This weather invigorates me," he told me one day, when the rest were playing volleyball where the sand was thick enough that you weren't as likely to turn your ankle. "Did you know that this beach was twice as large, in recent memory?"

"Who told you that?"

"This morning," he said, "I walked to the end of the beach, past the breakers. There was a grass hut on the water. At the rear of the hut I saw oxygen tanks, held on a platform above the surface, safely out of the calm surf. I could not help my curiosity. I knocked at the door."

I asked if someone answered.

"Not yet. Have you ever read that Wallace Stevens poem?"

I shook my head.

We walked down to the location of the grass hut. Instead we saw a small palace, its cornices ribbed with gold inlay, austere against the grey sky. I tried to stop Mr. B from walking onto the property, but soon I could not help my own inclination to explore the place.

The grounds had not been kept up, but the overall effect loomed magisterially just the same. Columns upon columns flanked a seaweed covered enclosure that held a drained swimming pool. I thought of my friends tossing a frisbee back and forth in the ocean. I realized I no longer wanted to be among them as I had been before, but it brightened my mood to think that they could be with one another.

A small man with a face like heated clay strolled up. The top of his head made it to my navel. We began to protest and apologize but he waved it away, composed himself, and asked, "Which of you is the one who knocked?"

Mr. B raised his hand and the two went off together happily.

When I was a boy I witnessed the moon slowly falling apart. The waves were thrashing all the time, and it became impossible to enter the ocean. Most did not even notice the difference, or commented on it humorously, like it was a feature. They could wait until the moon dissolved completely and the seas were placid enough to swim again. For me, the land had been a prison from that moment forward.

The top floor of the mansion had one room composed entirely of chandeliers. In a jacuzzi near that room I found my old professor, smoking what I thought was hash out of a long purple pipe that connected to the wall.

He said, "Do you know what it takes to be made a saint?"

I said I supposed it was the result of more than one good deed.

"It is not enough to simply perform good acts," Mr. B said. "You must do them for reasons which will necessarily be rejected by the populace."

I said, "Every great idea had to overcome some opposition, certainly."

He said that in my work he felt that I could not decide which end of that binary to embrace.

"Go on," I said.

For a time he did not answer, but only stirred the water that bathed him with the pipe. It took me a moment more to realize that a moment before he had inhaled oxygen, presumably drawn from the tanks he had described.

"When I am among others," Mr. B said, "I wish to be alone. And vice versa; when I am alone I seek the company of those like myself, so they can remind me that I am not as they are." He kicked a hairy toe into the air. "Which is it for you?"

I told him that I thought a binary structure was rudimentary simplification at best, and dangerous superstition at worst. A bell chimed.

When night came my old professor towelled off, broke into a trot, and told me he would make his way back down the beach. (Of course the days were shorter now.) Without the moon the sky is a sea of lighthouses. I wished I could press my face to it.

I had not left the bath since Mr. B had gotten out. As darkness fell, the opaque ceiling peeled back to reveal the skylight behind.

If the moon had been there, I would have seen it then.

The small clay man came to check on me a few hours later. I told him that my skin felt raw, textured differently from the bath. He said, "I could have drained the tub, you know."

I nodded and waited for him to continue.

"Your friend...is he your friend?"

I said that I was his friend, but I was not sure if he was mine. The clay man laughed.

"Your friend is the kind of person who asks only the questions he believes he knows the answers to."

"That's awfully reductive," I said, wondering if it was meant to be insightful of my old professor, or flattering to me.

The clay man shrugged.

I said, "I don't think the oxygen is having the same effect on me as it did on him."

The clay man smiled but said nothing.

"Perhaps it isn't oxygen," I added.

The clay man took the tube from me, more gracefully than I would have expected from a man composed from those elements. After he had joined me in the water, I asked him what had been in my head since Mr. B told me of the tanks. They were built where no one would place them if it had been around, and from the barnacles on the bottom, they had been there a long time.

"What happened to our moon?"

He feigned innocence, but only for a moment, as if it allowed him to shrug off part of my question when he did answer it.

"This is the only way I can explain it. Your plane runs on fuel from the earth."

I nodded.

"You and I also run on what we put inside our bodies. If we cannot take care of ourselves, others care for us. If no one cares for us at all, we perish. There was not one day you looked at the sky and felt it was not looking back. Now what do you think?"

"That there is nothing there at all."

Sometimes I wonder what happened to them all, the people I knew and cared enough to bring together, but then I think of the smooth exterior, warped by the lack of air over millennia, coming apart in our tearing eyes, and I do not wonder anymore.

Dan Carville is a writer living in Los Angeles.

"Silver Bells" - Colbie Caillat (mp3)

"Baby It's Cold Outside" - Colbie Caillat ft. Gavin DeGraw (mp3)


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