A New Short Story: Look Out, The Saints Are Coming Through
Here’s the latest installment in a new series, featuring short stories and works of fiction. This one’s got: war, lies, love, disappointment and Bob Dylan.
Look Out, The Saints Are Coming Through
XII. An Altercation, Denver
The parking lot was lined with lights. Increasingly, he didn’t like well-lit places. “It’s a metaphor,” she’d said. “You don’t want to look at things.” But that wasn’t it, he was all for looking; he’d made his life’s work about looking at things quite closely in fact, and not being afraid of what he saw.
He’d never liked this lot, though. He’d never liked the kids lingering too late at night and the same songs looped, and too loudly, through speakers strung like ornaments above the deli’s doors. Why the guy who worked inside didn’t go mad he never knew. He would have gone mad.
The argument had started innocently enough. He’d pulled his car up to an empty spot, and at the same time another car had pulled up to that same spot from the opposite direction, forcing a face-off, like prizefighters. And just as he was about to step on the gas, perhaps showing off his skills in the process, the other car surged, slipped into the spot, and even nicked a neighboring Porsche in the process. The nick made a noise like a rifle shot.
He placed his car in Park and let his temper rise. After a minute of waiting and breathing, he opened his door, got out, and approached the other driver. He’d seen this movie before. He felt sorry for his opponent, and for what he knew he was going to do to him. He was not aware that he was no longer in control of his actions, or his emotions. He was not aware that the choices he was about to make were not the choices of someone rational, certainly not the choices of someone trying hard to be discrete, and not attract attention. The choices he was about to make were going to attract a hell of a lot of attention.
The fight itself was a pale echo of other fights. And he knew from fighting, having fought in two wars (or was it three) across as many continents, as the meaning of “fight” broadened to a blur. Fighting had become like sleeping these days; he was always raging, on the verge. He was “uncaged,” as she’d put it, a claim in line with the worst word she could think of to call him which was “animal.” He took it as a compliment. Yes, he was an animal uncaged, here in this place which was once a wilderness but was now a set of storefronts selling things he had no interest in, or money for, selling privilege and its attendant symbols. She’d sent him out for something simple, cigarettes.
When the other driver rolled down his window, he was smiling. That smile was such a poor strategic choice. He thought he was defusing a bomb, not lighting the fuse. “Please get out of the car,” the animal said. And the other guy started to say, “Excuse me,” but by the time his mouth arrived at “cue” his mind was trying to remember the word “mercy.”
Later, sulking in the station, our hero considered his hands. They were cut up. He had pulled something out of one knuckle, sort of hoping it was a tooth or a diamond, something of use or at least of story value, but it was only gravel. He’d driven his fist into the pavement rather than add insult to injury.
“Every piece of gravel is unique, like snowflakes,” she’d said once. He remembered thinking he’d never met a girl who talked like that, who found everything fascinating, including him. She used to look at him while he fell asleep. “You go first,” she’d say. “I’m not tired.” The symbols of privilege hadn’t bothered them then. They’d aspired to them. They’d seen their lives laid out in an arc.
Punching a pavement; what an idiot thing to do. As he considered the old payphone on the wall he had another thought: the criminal justice system has a cash flow crisis, too. He refused to make a call and that made it all worse. His refusal allowed for time and time, like nature, abhors vacuums. I am in a vacuum, he thought. I am a vacuum. And then she arrived at the station and bailed him out but not before she took a tiny mirror from her bag and held it up, garlic to her vampire. “Look at yourself,” she’d said, as if he could see his dirty conscience in the glass.
When he came home after time served in another station in another country, after the protests and the pleading and the exegeses of the Surah an-Nisa, after the media had retreated and before it had returned, she’d lit candles, sourced some silver. She’d bought steaks. In the low light it took him time to see the two tiny pills placed neatly on a napkin at his plate, (“cheaper than a party,” she’d put it.). She started a conversation around the weather, a conversation not unlike those conversations in Chekhov around the weather: it wasn’t ever about weather. So much had become like the weather while he was gone, the weather between them: omnipresent, uncontrollable emotions. The weather was the things they couldn’t say, the things she didn’t want to know.
He didn’t want those pills, not at first. What he wanted then was only to erase the last days, and maybe the year that preceded them. He wanted her memories of him to be things he could edit and own. He didn’t want her to know why he was home. And so he took her in the other room, and tried to make her forget.
The origins of addiction are often simple and swift. In his case, the origins were also banal and predictable: boredom, despair. He buried the despair but boredom stalked the surface of his days. Superhuman and (up until then) disdainful of any altered state, he’d never even needed an Advil. So when he started down the path the stakes were high to hide it. He became brilliant, Olympic, in his lies and illusions, taking tricks he’d learned at work and applying them to self-destruction — a tradecraft of post-traumatic stress. He’d learn his dealers’ histories, creating an intimacy that lowered his fees. No one noticed until the thing was so sophisticated and deep-seated it would have taken a team of experts to find and fix. When she told him that once he’d said, “You’re my team.” And she realized it was true.
She never liked policing him; she thought loving someone meant loving them at their worst and not minding their excesses. This thought hardened into a belief, one built from spun glass and erected with precision, which is to say: fragile, but firm. Believing takes work. And yet she’d convinced herself that the creation of beliefs was easier than examining the possibility of their absence. As winter shifted into spring weeks went by as she watched the joint become a line become a needle, or a spoon. The tools never become too high-tech, a fact that makes an addict feel an element of artistry in things. They don’t call it “cooking” for nothing.
He had his architecture, too, a system of belief. Part of what he’d learned in his former line of work, as he was learning to say, was the importance of frameworks — frameworks for setting a situation in perspective, frameworks for fooling other people. For example, he felt his habit was recreational, temporary, a measured response to a radical situation. “I think it’s suicidal,” she’d said. And he’d responded, “Well, that’s one point of view.” At least they could agree on that: everyone has a point of view.
Frameworks for fooling others could soon become frameworks for fooling oneself, though. He had fooled himself into thinking that everything that had happened was a bump in, not a bomb through, the road of their relationship. One night, he came home to find her high; he didn’t like it. “Aren’t I allowed,” she’d said. It was hard for her not to make indiscretion zero-sum, even if indiscretion isn’t quite the right word for it. It was hard for her not to keep score. “It’s not a competition,” he wanted to say, meaning their love. But he knew she would say, “Well, what is it then.” And he didn’t have an answer to that.
When they met the first thing she thought was, wow: he doesn’t look like anybody. She’d been through a string of “beaux,” as her mother called them, boys who wore branded jeans and beards and took her to art parties.
The beaux were all basically the same guy with different names and periodically different frames of reference; they all treated her alike, which might lead one to wonder. Her brothers would have batted them aside but they’d migrated to the coasts for “opportunities,” and so away from a place where they could protect her. Or perhaps the lapse was her fault; she really hated the phone.
Something about those boys, those scenes, had made her feel smarter, even though no one cared there where you went to school, or if you went at all. One affair—the last—was with a guy who worked at Google and believed he would change the world. And when he talked about it he sort of sounded world changing, if absurd. He said things like “search is just a metaphor.” He passed out bronze nutcrackers on Chinese New Year, eight balls in their mouths. One day he said, after an argument, “You’re not angry with me; you’re angry with my choices.” She realized she was ready to be still, to commit.
When she met The One, before he went away to war, before evolving his status from infantry to officer to attaché, while he was still in his cage, her attraction was superficial. It was how he looked. She was leaning up against a wall where she worked, a bar. He’d walked in and right up to her, then slipped his hand behind her back. It was a radical act for a stranger, one performed with complete confidence, like he already owned her. She didn’t want to be the girl who wanted to be owned but she was. What are you going to do?
He had grown up “all over,” he said, though later she pushed back on that and it meant Colorado. He was a beautiful skier, and even when they’d tear each other open with their arguments she would watch him on a steep pitch and think, that’s fine. They did a lot of skiing, the ambitious kind where you hike half the morning to find pristine snow, your avalanche discs clicking around your necks. She liked how quiet it was on those hikes, and when they reached the peaks he felt as if they’d had a long conversation even though neither one of them had said a word. He’d tap his poles three times, like Dorothy, before pushing off over the edge of his Oz.
As a kid he’d worshipped Dylan. He was into the lyrics but maybe even more than that he was drawn to Dylan’s transformations. He wanted to transform, too. He would tell you if pressed that the original B-side of his first favorite song, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” was his second favorite song, “She Belongs to Me.” Later the second lapped the first, it having occurred to him that Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine was less a song he wanted to live inside than She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist. He wanted to be a rock star, too. He wanted to find his artist.
When he found her she seemed like a girl any rock star would fall for. She was careless in all sorts of sexy ways, and he forgave her occasional lazinesses, her nerves; when he needed his leash lengthened she never balked. She didn’t mind when he was vague about big things as long as he was clear about little things. Little things were things like the fact that he loved her. When he found her she couldn’t boil an egg, but later she’d make elaborate meals from scratch. “Cooking in my twenties, fishing in my thirties, golf in my forties,” she’d announced one night, after the wedding but before the baby, when things still felt free. “And then what,” he’d said. “And then this,” and she’d closed his eyes and showed him.
She didn’t like his music but she’d studied with Dylan’s most celebrated critic because she’d studied English at Yale (of course she had) and the class was required. They bonded over this early on, one of their original bonds. He asked her what she remembered of that class, as if knowing more about it, about Dylan, would provide clues to knowing more about himself.
“There was a lot about sin,” she said.
“Sin in the songs,” he said.
“Yeah, sin and grace. Something about Dylan being as talented as Milton.”
“What do you think.”
“I think,” and she paused, making him wait a bit before smashing it across the net, “That’s a stretch.”
But what she really thought was that the songs only mattered when you listened to them; no one needs a degree for that. So she listened. And one night, his Dylan thing having grown on her, she’d taken Blood on the Tracks down to that deli and said, “what about this, for a change.” She’d thought anyone offered a rational solution to a problem would take it, failing to understand that defining a problem was a matter of view not fact.
When he got the promotion, the “field job” that would take him away from her long periods of time, she’d asked about the interview process. “There is no interview process. There was only one candidate for this job.”
“Is that meant to be comforting or terrifying,” she’d said.
“I report, you decide.” He was teasing. And he was proud. This was the work he wanted.
Before he left, he told her they should think about a baby. The phrase “think about a baby” amused her, and she’d tease him about it until after almost a year of her answering “thinking about a baby” when he’d call and ask “what are you doing,” she pressed him to get specific. So they agreed to meet. They would meet, and procreate, that was the plan. “You pick a place,” he’d said. The connection was bad. “I’ll text a map of possibilities.” And she’d looked at that map and when he’d called back she’d said, “In the mountains. Then one day we can tell him he was conceived in the clouds.”
In later reports of the trial she’d read that the families of the victims, the families who had filed the suit against him, were flown out, away from their homes, at night. No one knew who’d arranged the planes, or why, or where they were taken. The assumption must have been that they were at risk. Isn’t it odd, she would come to conclude, that the case is now closed but both defendant and plaintiff remain at risk.
She didn’t actually know what had happened that night, in a place far away she’d never been to. Before he came back, she read what she could. She read that the guys were on motorbikes. She later learned he’d shot them through the windshield of his OGA-issued car. A Pakistani friend sent a photograph posted on Instagram: the car’s wide glass pane, split like a set of spiders, not bullets, had penetrated it. The photograph was taken from the driver’s point of view so she knew: in order to take it, someone had crawled inside. That same Instagram account had thousands of images: of him in handcuffs, of him entering the station, of crowds gathering outside his office, of signs they held, some with words like “kill” and “justice.” And though when pressed he’d told her that he’d acted in self-defense, that a threat had been posed, this never really sounded complete, as if he’d had recourse to completion. He never talked about it, though, and she never asked. It was fall. They had a newborn. He’d been home nine months, and he’d given birth, too: to anomie. He’d started AA. She was waiting for the step where you apologize.
I report, you decide, she’d planned to say in anger one day, when feeling brave, before reconsidering the instinct to show him those posts. Instead, she’d conceded a need for assistance. A neighbor was a doctor; she would ask for help. The neighbor would believe he understood her. He would say, Well, here’s the menu, and push a DSM-V across the table. Perhaps you can pick something that looks good.
Failing other options, he’d taken a job as a coach at a local private school. He knew just enough to tell offense from defense, but learned quickly. A team out East had a system he’d studied then cribbed, one that sped up the game and exhausted the opposition. He would send his coordinators to the sidelines holding flashcards cueing plays. “Who needs huddles,” he would say. He was an innovator. And as innovators do, he felt the exhilaration of starting something new.
Periodically though, her brothers would call with questions. They were educated, and believed their education afforded them views. That was how she first heard about the flights and the families, and about the wife of one of the victims who’d committed suicide. That was how she first heard about the woman held without trial, in another, unrelated case, the one who’d been offered as a trade for her husband before he was freed. Absent information, her mind went wild. Yet with it, she played coy. She would say what she’d been told to say: “It’s all conspiracy theories.” One day her older brother left a message on the machine. “Hey. The New York Times has another one of those conspiracy theories on its front page.”
It was her brothers who told her to school herself on immunity. Immunity had been central to his case, the definition of it, that is. She wanted to understand it, so he’d tried to explain. It was Christmas, coming up on a year. The baby was walking. The rages persisted.
“An embassy was once a group of guys, on a trip,” he’d told her.
“A group of guys.”
“The buildings we think of as embassies are technically called something else.”
“Chanceries. But it doesn’t matter.”
“Sounds like it matters.”
“What matters is the ability to assign immunity. What matters is how you define a thing. What matters—”
And as she wondered whether this was the talk where he would tell her all the things he’d never told her before, he changed tack.
“The idea of immunity was different in the beginning,” he said, carefully.
“The idea of immunity should get in line.”
They had become a symbol, and she had no choice but to make peace with the facts surrounding that symbol, “facts” being whatever he told her. She was angry when she considered the balance of their lives, what might become of them now, that lost arc. Her blues weighted the scales of his moods, increasingly the lure to rebel, slip, use. By New Year’s she could no longer get him into bed; he’d stay up screening the season’s losses, sometimes stoned. He even looked different. He looked like he’d been defeated. Not even the mountains softened the blow of this truth. She’d become immune to the view, speaking of immunity.
The one thing he did share, eventually, was the story of his trip home. He said that had been the hardest part. She’d asked why. “Everything was so still. No one talked to me.” He was holding his head in his hands.
“They probably assumed you were tired,” she offered, after a while.
“They were trying to be respectful.”
And then, “They don’t understand you.” She was talking about herself.
“Yes,” he said, looking up. It was an announcement; the code had been broken. A new transformation was underway.
Eventually, Dylan hated the fans. This is what her hero told her, reading aloud from Rolling Stone. “‘When he wouldn't, or couldn't, be our savior, we would become resentful of him.’” He closed the magazine before sending it sailing violently across the room, a failed Frisbee. “Survival is not something anyone should take for granted,” he said. As if she took anything for granted.
That night she’d slipped a note under his pillow, lines recalled from that celebrated critic, that class:
We must not suppose that we can imagine other people’s sufferings at all fully, and we must not imagine that in supposing them we can identify ourselves with them. Try never to use the phrase ‘identify with.’ It came in with Shelley and though Shelley is a genius it has something bad about it because his genius had something bad about it. Shelley could only care about other people if he thought he was really they, or they were really he, and we tend to find ourselves able to sympathize with people because we think, ‘I can imagine it happening to me.’ But there are an awful lot of ways in which that is false.
When he found it he went to her. “Hey Tooth Fairy,” he said, “I sympathize with you.” She thought about the fact that she couldn’t imagine what had happened to him happening to her.
When he’d signed on the dotted line to become a contractor, he’d very consciously considered it a wise choice. He’d thought about that triangle someone once showed him, the one where each side had a name: TIME, MONEY, PASSION. The idea is if you have two out of three, you’re good. Two out of three wasn’t just luck; it was a living. And as he’d signed on the line he had thought: time, money, boom. Passion was for later in life. Maybe one day he’d take up painting, or guitar. He’d always thought he could write some songs. He could become like Bob Dylan, into poetry and peace. Like Dylan, minus decadence, which sounded like an even better deal.
When she’d signed on the dotted line to become a wife, it had mainly been a choice about passion. She hadn’t seen that triangle, but if she had she would have mocked its simplicity. How could you consider time the same way you’d consider flour, as if it were a thing you could manage and measure, or catch in a cup. But catching things had been his practice and his cure. He believed what was wrong in the world could be righted, chronically creating charts for problems he’d been tasked to solve, an ironic arsenal of data for the consummate man of action. This was one reason he took to coaching. No one disputes the length of a yard. Once, before he’d started deploying, she’d drawn him her triangle. Its sides had no names. In its center she’d written SOUL.
When they’d gone for their license, one month after they’d met, the man at the desk had asked if they were related. They could have been; they looked enough alike: brown hair, blue eyes, matching blood types. They’d decided on November, at night. They’d decided on the woods, in a clearing perfectly encircled by pines. “As if erected by immaculate conception,” he’d said. He was describing its beauty; she was worried he was mocking her belief.
A friend had woven lilies of the valley into a crown, and into her hair, which then ran halfway down her back. The crown was her something new. Her something old was the style of dress, a variation on the one her mother wore that she knew from pictures. Her something borrowed were the horses they’d ridden in on, chestnut mares with braided manes and white markings at their hocks. For something blue, had anyone asked, she would have said, “my eyes.” Her sister was a minister and agreed to officiate. When she said, “you may now kiss the bride,” the bride said, “May I now kiss the minister?”
The night before, someone had said let’s all go around the table and say what marriage means. The responses ranged, everyone wanting to be witty, no one wanting to wilt the moment. Though when it was her turn, like Cordelia, the bride said nothing.
Against tradition, they rode to the service together. As they came up through the woods she’d teased him about how he held his knees, how he was anxious about the reins. She realized he hadn’t ridden in a while. “Not much stick and ball in Khost,” he’d said, coyly. She’d hemmed her dress short, wanting to look like Edie Sedgwick, and wore jeans underneath she’d slip off for the ceremony. Though their horses behaved, she’d brought sugar cubes in case.
They’d stopped to consider the stars. “I asked her to cut the bit about ‘obey,’” she said, shyly.
“You wouldn’t have done it anyhow.”
“I like to think I’m trying,” she said.
“I like to think it’s not that hard.”
And she’d kept the dress, and the crown. She’d kept the sleigh bells she’d hung on the horses’ necks. She didn’t understand when he’d encouraged her, later, to get rid of these things, later when he was home after the acquittal. Their new life — address, numbers, license plates — was established over a period of days and without emotion. She would have to remind herself later that before the despair there had been awe, and admiration. She’d once watched how he handled a life broken in pieces, how he picked up each piece and placed it carefully it where he believed it belonged. In those early days he’d refused to crack, and perhaps that refusal had become the cage. He’d hung on to the few things he could keep. He could keep her. He could keep his ideas about who he once was.
She could keep a memory or two. One in particular.
The baby-making trip had taken place only weeks before the spiders split the windshield. It would be Swiss, as it turned out. He’d sent tickets, and they’d met up in the little town where they’d been once before. “My Christmas bonus,” he’d said, lifting her up and opening the shade to show the Matterhorn. “Don’t ever put me down,” she’d said.
On the gondola he observed that they’d soon cross international lines into Italy. As she asked if that rendered them lawless, a child nearby asked another question, in a language she didn’t recognize. “He wants to know if this is paradise,” he explained. “Garden. Heaven.” That was how she learned he spoke Arabic.
Up on the glacier, conditions were grim. She felt dizzy, and hoped it wasn’t vertigo. She had to lean her whole body over her skis to move at all, even though the ground was flat, a wide screen of ice. They were wearing helmets for the first time, it having become more fashionable to wear them than to not, or perhaps simply more practical. Hers was red, with constellations in white and silver—the Big and Little Dippers, Cassiopeia.
The wind forced the snowfall horizontal, defying gravity. She couldn’t see him even though he was right there. She kept shouting his name and he kept answering, "here," to confirm, and comfort. Of course he was there. He was always there, then. He was her team of one, even so high above the cloud line.
I. Another Altercation, New Garden Town
The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations was signed in 1961, over a decade before he was born, half a century before his arrest. She would read about it, and learn about the idea of insuring the protection of a certain class of people—diplomats—as well as the protection of an idea. The idea as she understood it was that that certain individuals should be immune from certain kinds of prosecutions. Certain individuals should be given different rules. The assumption of immunity might lead a man to feel free, transformed even.
She read about it before the question of immunity was answered in his case, but not before he paid a price for its having been posed. The price was his right to define who he was, paid to an authority that needed him to be something else. The price illuminated what she lacked the framework to say, speaking of frameworks: it wasn’t that certain people should be immune; it was that they have to be. Immunity lends order. And occasionally saves lives.
The local authorities in Lahore had taken him in after the shooting, and tied his hands. They’d admired his various consular ID cards, the contents of his glove box. They had pressed back on his requests for water, and on his use of certain words, like “innocent.” They hadn’t laid a hand on him though. The only abuse was the interrogation he’d conducted with himself. As he’d asked himself a set of complex, philosophical questions, they’d asked for simple, factual things: What is your name. Where are you from. Where do you live. Where do you work. What do you do. They’d asked questions like: Are you married. Are you a spy. Are you American.
Are you American. Are you American. Are you American. They’d repeated that one until at last he’d looked up and answered: “I am.”
The “celebrated critic” is based on Sir Christopher Ricks. The quote included comes from a lecture Ricks delivered at the University of Richmond, 11th April 2011. The Rolling Stone quote is from “Dylan: The Lost Years,” Mikal Gilmore, Issue 1191, 12th September 2013.