[ToC]

 

L'APPEL DU VIDE

Allegra Hyde

 

Nobody escaped that summer. Nobody complained. Politeness had come back in style. Pantyhose, too. We wore it under our straitjackets—even through August—through the red-orange dust storms that rose from the desert like overblotted rouge, powdering the city and frisking our front doors, unsettling the Scientologists. If enough other people are suffering you can put up with anything. Citizens began sending more thank you cards, more hate mail as well. There were ten reported incidents of anthrax. Only one proved authentic. As of yet, the number of authentic thank you cards remains undetermined. I like to believe the percentage is high. I like to believe that I believe the percentage is high. A letter is the purest expression of human emotion. An offering sent into the world with no guarantee of return, released like an untrained dove, or a hawk.

*

"It's always the same building," the semi-private detective muttered into his recording device, as he stood, sweating, in the shadow of a one-armed saguaro. He glanced at the Hawthorne Institute for Social Justice. Its flat square roof: used an hour earlier as a launch pad, as a diving board, a four-story excuse. "You'd think," he added, before clicking off the tape, "they'd pick somewhere with a better view."

*

I was on my way to the post office, dressed in beige nylons, a tank top. Mid-morning and the mercury had already crept over 100 degrees. Sidewalks hissed. I walked faster. A cat emerged from a drain hole, lofting its tail like an orange-yellow pipe cleaner. I thought of kindergarten. I thought of googly eyes, and Children-Who-Bit, and how, even then, I longed for what I could not have. La douleur exquise. The cat slunk behind me, vanishing and reappearing in the puddling shadows of parked cars. I paused by a cerulean Camry: rapped my knuckles on its trunk. I meant to frighten the cat, but an old woman reared up in car's backseat. Her mouth opened into a scream—or a chuckle. My knuckles burned. In kindergarten, the children would hold hands and sing secular ballads while their parents departed. The cat disappeared near a laundromat that was next to a dentist, a pool supply store, an unlicensed butcher. The post office was closed.

*

"How did it feel, sharing?" said the woman with clipboard and a bad dye job, who spoke in the wispy tone of a stoned fortuneteller. She looked at Sophía.
     Everyone else in the circle of chairs looked at Sophía: an overplump Chicana with long glittery nails. In moments of silence, all we could do was speculate. All we could do was look for clues. We tried to guess if the girl was actually emotionally troubled or just whiney. If her silver buckled boots were cheap knock-offs, or expensive knock-offs.
     "Go on," we said, craving resolution, "you are doing super duper."
     The girl's eyes became juicy with tears. She raised a hand to wipe them away, but her hand trembled near her face, too quivery to wipe, her manicured fingers like ten tiny spears. We held our breath, waiting to see if she would blind herself.

*

"You ask the police what they think and they'll look at the body and say, with all seriousness, there's evidence of a fall." The semi-private detective paused and wiped his brow with a red-checkered handkerchief. Lately, he had been making an effort to accessorize: belting his waist with silver-studded buckles, tucking falcon feathers into his fedora. It was these touches, he told his partner, that got a man ahead in life, got him noticed: the details.
     At the base of the Hawthorne Institute for Social Justice, another police vehicle pulled alongside a stringy perimeter of yellow tape. Two police officers got out and joined the others.
     "There's evidence of a fall," said one.

*

The homeless come up to me in ones and twos. Bobble-headed men in shit-stained pants, women sucking soda into gap-toothed mouths, children with eyes like knives. I must have a face that looks compassionate, credulous, sick with guilt. The homeless make speeches requesting money; they ask for food, bus tickets, soap, socks, sex, and six-packs of Coors. Sometimes I clap when they finish speaking. Always, I refuse. I am not the sort of person who distributes spare change. It's not that I'm not compassionate, credulous, sick with guilt. I just don't carry coins. I don't like jingling. The world would right itself, I believe, if we could all learn to walk with silent feline steps. Sleep in the daytime. Lick away grime. Eat mice.

*

The semi-private detective clicked off his recording device. It made him feel both relieved and listless, finishing a job. Ambition had never held much appeal, but neither had boredom. A wayward detective was an urban blight.
     He sunk a hand into his pants pocket for a Marlboro, then remembered he'd quit; he sunk his other hand into his other pocket for a Tic Tac, then remembered he'd run out; he turned to his partner and said "You gonna just stand there?" then remembered his partner was deaf.

*

Sophía and Erwin and L'Marin and Jodie and Wasaaf and Sid and Pujita and me and the clipboard woman, and nothing between us except a tissue box: a single white tissue flaring like the peak of a primeval fire. Erwin spoke first. Like the rest of us, he was young enough to be hurt, old enough to be nervous. He had thinning brown hair and small raisiny eyes. His cheekbones, however, were stunning. Jolie laide: ugly beautiful. He told us that he had almost skipped our group therapy session, on account of his social anxiety, but now everything felt right. Felt natural. The more Erwin spoke, the more confident he became. Social interaction, he said, was like a nutrient. He was being nourished by our presence.
     In our heads, we all agreed that the first person to speak was always the least interesting.

*


"I got your letter," said my father on the phone, and after some momentary confusion I remembered sending it from Kankan, in Guinea, where I had spent three months working as a doctor's aide.
     "What did I say?" I asked him.
     "To tell you that I had received your letter."

*

"I could really use a Tic Tac," said the semi-private detective to his partner. "Let's make a detour to that Mobil station."
     His partner could read lips, but he remained unmoving. Instead he swung his eyes toward the Hawthorne Institute for Social Justice, its flat square roof, then down to the perimeter of yellow tape, the sour sheen of police badges.
     "Goddamn you," said the semi-private detective, again reaching for a cigarette and again coming back empty-handed. He had begun to feel cranky. Sunburned. He wanted an ice cold Pepsi. A box of Cracker Jack. "Let's go," he said, and made a drinking motion.
     His partner didn't budge.

*

Among us, Jodie was wearing the least amount of clothing and she could not stop crying. We all wanted to touch her—because of the crying—but we stopped ourselves because of all her pale pink skin, which we were afraid we might dent or puncture. "What you're doing is very brave," said the woman with the clipboard and for a moment we believed this to be true: we believed that vulnerability held power, that emotion wrought change, that togetherness was possible. We felt we all held invisible clipboards, that we were planning the fate of nations or a war. Jodie was our weapon. Our missile system. Sophía, the fingernail girl, was also advantageous. L'Marin turned his eyes inward and drew a breath. Pujita wet her lips. Without a table between us, we could all see into each other's crotches. "Sheesh," said Erwin, as if he were a cartoon character. Jodie stopped crying and laughed. We all felt sad again.

*

"You're a righteous prick, you know that?" said the semi-private detective to his partner, though he had started walking towards the Hawthorne Institute for Social Justice. "We both know this is a clear cut case." He shoved his detective license in the face of a police officer, then ducked under the yellow ribbon. "What else do you want to know? What is there to know? Are you coming or what?"

*

When I think of the letters I have sent into the world, I feel the dull nausea of hope. I wonder how many letters remain in transit, orbiting the earth in 747s or riding snugly in railroad cars or bobbing in fishing boats; I wonder how many are decomposing in the bellies of worms. In Kankan, I sent postcards by the hundreds. I sent them to my former lovers and my foster parents, to my favorite piano teacher and my least favorite talk show host, but mostly to my dead enemies, to whom I owed the most. I filled the letters with one long apology—an attempt at honesty, really, at resurrection—writing and writing until I discovered messages scratched into the table, into my arms. I was a doctor's aide, but the doctor had gotten sick and could not provide instructions. I had to invent my own instructions, which often involved taking local remedies for diseases I did not have. I ate raw beef soaked in gin to cure alcoholism. The fat of a boa constrictor to cure gout. Violet Tree for the parasitized belly. Unwele tea for the virus.
     If enough other people are suffering you can put up with anything.
     "Do you know what the French colonists did?" said the doctor, in one of his rare lucid moments. "When they finally left Guinea?"
     This is what I know: that the French language renders the commonplace posh. It supplies tragedy with elegance. The hideous with mystique.
     "They destroyed everything!" said the doctor, feverish and giddy. "Every school and church and hospital and tractor and horse and flower from their colonial regime!"
     This is what I also know: how stand on a cliff, toes curled over the edge, and look.
     L'appel du vide: the call of the void.

*


"Almost there," said the semi-private detective. He was sweating again, after climbing eight flights of stairs. His tiredness made him forgetful. Forgetfulness made him courageous. He had begun believing the climb to the roof was his idea and not his partner's. "And here's the door," he said, wiping his brow with a red-checkered handkerchief. He gripped the doorknob, sucked in a breath, and turned.

*

Wasaaf weighed 300 pounds and he was from Yemen. His thighs spread out from his chair, offering the kind of cushiony lap that would have appealed to kindergarteners. We were not kindergarteners. Wasaaf scared us, in part because his resting face was a frown, in part because we had read certain articles, watched certain TV stations, had been told certain things about certain people in certain countries. Racism was a terrible sin, but we believed negligence was worse. "I am on lithium," Wasaaf told us. We nodded. We made sympathetic mewing noises and looked away. "I was hospitalized last week," said Wasaaf, "for depression." We felt the room's air become more difficult to breathe, Wasaaf's honesty like air-borne acid. An attack. We changed the subject and talked about our dreams. Sophía described the feeling of flying through air. L'Marin described having x-ray super powers. Erwin described a world beset by many-headed eagles. Wasaaf ground his fists into his eyes. "I wanted to die," he said. "I tried to die."
     Pujita described a dream in which she could not speak.
     Sid described a dream in which his teeth rained from his mouth like hail.
     "But sometimes it's hard to know the best way," said Wasaaf. "The best way to do it." He said this looking at me. I felt the other's relief, rising like steam: they were not being asked. Wasaaf looked at me and rubbed his plump hands against his thick thighs as if smoothing a skirt. "I've been wondering: Why did you go all the way to Guinea?"
     I hesitated before answering. I felt the moment quiver and bloat—the clock rattling onward—the chill of silence. Then I described a dream in which letters I sent were received, and in which I received sent letters, and the world otherwise operated beyond the laws of physics.
     "And then I woke up," I said.

*

No one complained that summer, though everyone wished they could. The world had turned ugly and we were all nostalgic—nearly sentimental—for when times were less ugly, though still somewhat ugly. Headshaking increased 20%. Sighing increased 45%. Such movements changed our air currents, which made the meteorologists excited. They encouraged us to be watchful. Vigilant. Incorruptible. The sky simmered with fireworks, explosions. It became hard to know what was patriotic and when we were supposed to clap. Where there is too much noise, it becomes difficult to see straight. When you write enough letters you believe one will come back.

*

Returning from the post office I saw a dead cat—an orange lump of fur, squashed against a curb—and I wondered if it was the cat from earlier. Not that it mattered. All cats eventually die, however many times they practice landing upright. Still, I felt I should dispose of the cat. Give it last rites or a funeral pyre or a name. Perhaps I might have, had I possessed adequate equipment. And if it weren't for the straitjacket, the sunshine, the stink.

*

"I look forward to seeing you next week," said the clipboard lady. She looked at all of us and smiled, but her smile was a little bit lopsided and a whole lot imploring and we all knew that she only had this job because she was also crazy, and must have believed, at some point, that she could help herself by helping others, that we could save each other—as if a group of tumbling sky-divers could save one another mid-air—as if that was ever an option.

*

On the roof of the Hawthorne Institute for Social Justice, the semi-private detective and his partner walked to the edge. They looked. Across the desert valley, traffic rumbled in geometric veins. The sun sung off metal making the commonplace appear valuable—stoplights, house keys, studded pet collars—and, in the distance, mountains rose like jagged teeth chewing at a sky almost too blue to be real.
     The air was heavy with heat. The smell of gasoline. Fried pavement. A guilty kind of quiet. A queasy kind of quiet. A panhandling, promise-laden, persuasive kind of quiet.
     "Sheesh," said the semi-private detective.
     His partner didn't laugh.

 

 

 

 

 

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—The body of an Arizona State University student was found at the base of the Barry M. Goldwater Center on February 12, 2015.

—The body of an Arizona State University student was found at the base of the same building on February 13, 2013.

—Temperatures in Arizona can rise so high that citizens sometimes drive while wearing oven mitts.

—Maricopa County is home to an estimated 250,000 free roaming outdoor cats.