Storiesby Justin Taylor
Families Just Like Yours
I don’t know how to be anything but this. It’s awful. I don’t know how to be a person. That’s what it feels like a lot of the time. Like when I visit at my cousins’. They’ve got this array of shower products so fangled and particular I can hardly believe in them. I take them on a faith which frequently lapses. Their functions must be magical or else my cousins are expert showerers. But for God’s sake I use the guest bathroom so what the hell? When I shower I always splash water on the floor no matter what and I don’t know how not to.
It’s always been a problem.
When I was a kid my parents’ shower broke and my dad wouldn’t fix it or get it fixed for like a year. So everyone showered in the other bathroom, ensconced in the motif: an unremarkable duopoly of childish blues and gaudy fish. I’d shower first because of my bedtime or else as a postscript to the afternoon. Dad would go in next and then he’d come out. He’d say: How do you get all that water on the floor when nobody else does?
Times were difficult and nuanced, two traits that I’ve found customarily interlock with aplomb. Dad was low on control. Sometimes we screamed at one another, about the water on the floor and how it could have gotten there. Never spoken between us was the unthinkable apparent—that I could have followed him in there. If it was that important. I could have watched and learned.
Would the grasses get ejected from the soil or sucked down?
Would the crosstown bus condense or striate or disjoin?
Would all the scratched silverware in all the restaurants up and down Cathedral Parkway start keening like churchbells or amp feedback; a multitude of lunch specials cast as the resonant chorus of a dissonant opera?
Trees will redistribute their shadows with thoughtless grace, like smokers circulating their sloppy seconds or children camping the mailbox in wait of God’s return letter. And what about the woman in the white dress, who doesn’t know the sun is a pornographer featuring the wild humanity of her ass and lips when she drifts like a veil between me and the light? She’s a curvaceous, transient spectacle unfettered by prospects.
In the considered unfolding she’d be another dead one, swept up in the great tide of suddenly airborne souls, invisible as a model Party member. That’s obvious and perfect knowledge. What we know about pole shifts or other apocalypses is so boldly hypothetical as to be beyond refute, like her decision to forgo underwear this morning or the sun’s casual warmth. How good must it feel to access that Godly light through the loose cotton folds of this bright item that she does not know is also a two-way mirror? She’s closer than ever to being unlimited. I’m just the guy who noticed. But then again maybe we’ve got something good between us—sharing the paradoxic truths of nakedness and death, driven by a radical honesty never to be replicated or understood. Her not-knowing ticks like a bomb clock nestled in the crux of our crippled, untellable secret: everything she’d never reveal across ten years spent as loyal lovers.
It’s not that things take longer than expected it’s just that time passes faster than you count on, all around you, while you’re involved. Writing to you, for example, costs me only ten minutes, but an hour goes by while I’m spending the ten. What we had on the veranda only took five minutes—you’re so good—but it was also a lifetime. I mean that a whole life was lived there.
When I see you with your intended it won’t be my failure to meet his eye that betrays. The betrayal will rather be inherent in my successful look.
A knowing, equal in intimacy to ours, will pass between him and me. That moment of knowing will be about knowing you, and he will know I know and I will know he knows I know. It will be experienced in correct, exact proportions. Balanced books are always thrilling. There will be no remainder or decimal trail. The moment will end when he delivers that special first push. I will rock back slightly on my heels for a second and for longer, maybe as long as a morning. Inside myself I’ll be watching a sun rise and brewing pendular force like coffee; gathering enough to rock forward onto the balls of my feet. I’ll be ready to meet him in the space between us and inaugurate the graceless arc of my eradication.
Secrets of My Success
I owe it all to consumption. That’s the thing I do better than anyone else. I take it all in and make it all mine and put it all back out there, like tagged beasts repatriated. I am a kind of God at that, or a lowly efficient machine. What couldn’t I obtain and reconstitute? I don’t even know. My techno-demiurgery is so instant; a word like “rapid” doesn’t even come close to giving you a glimpse. Look at yourself: you’re ingested and spit back twice over already… but you’re also a bad example. I’d have spent the time on you if I had had to. I’d have given you years if it had been meet and need. But it wasn’t and there you are, inside-outified: your radio collar abuzz with my greatest hits. Oh I could be done with you already but guess what?
The inside is dark, or darkish, while on a shelf, or maybe on an end-table, at any rate in a home, a prayer candle is sitting next to one of those big pretty designer candles that you buy at the mall.
Where there’s a painted-up fat lady or an older ex-hippie-type at a little pavilion in the middle of some wide area; the delta that preludes a food court. Like that.
And they’ve got at least seven vats of liquid wax—all different colors—and a scalpel (or whatever a scalpel gets called in the candling business) and they’re making these huge ones. They dip and dip, one different color after another, then slice designs into the wet tender candle-torsos. Layers of candle unfold one over the other in a waxy rainbow from a spectrum better-imagined than ours and the rainbow strips loop into a bow or a ribbon or wave just as the wax dries; and they take credit: your card goes ka-slick as it passes through the dark groove of the verify-and-charge machine.
So the prayer candle is squat and plain—nothing but a Cadbury Creme Egg™-sized dollop of wax, tallow-color for some sense of heritage that suggests the musty wooden sills of monasteries; dead believers.
The prayer candle is in the business of burning for Its Reasons.
“Well, yeah, and can you show me something that isn’t?”
So the designer candle is harassing the prayer candle, I mean just giving it Hell, about how little and puny it is. The prayer candle explains that it has Purpose. It talks about Its Reasons: I am the light-voice of prayer, vehicle of petition towards On High, etc., but that kind of shit doesn’t hold any water with the designer candle who’s a self-described aesthetician, an atheist besides.
Argument, then, ensues.
“To project light, yes, fine.” The prayer candle concedes that this is the raison d’etre of all candles. With sudden smugness, tasting victory, the designer candle—”I’ve got you now, mon frer, oh yes”—says that it will burn brighter and longer and prettier than the prayer candle: “I AM A MORE PURE APPROXIMATION OF THE TRUE NATURE OF CANDLEHOOD,” the designer candle shouts (footnoting in a low tone that the absolute manifestation of any ideal is impossible).
More than the prayer candle ever could be. That’s what he says.
“And how much did you cost?” saith the prayer candle.
The designer candle names some outrageous figure, it doesn’t matter what, but think big.
The point is that the prayer candle begins to laugh and laugh and laugh.
The designer candle lets this go on, at least a while, but is finally overcome by curiosity. Indolent, loudly, it demands to know “what’s so damned funny?”
“You dumb motherfucker,” the prayer candle says (forgetting for a moment its own Holiness). “For that kind of money, who would ever touch flame to you?”
Justin Taylor is a freelance writer based in New York City.