AFTER THE PARTY
Mr. Cool steps out onto his balcony to watch the stars. The stars begin to wilt. His glass door slides open and shut silently as Mrs. Cool joins him on the patio. The stars resume their original glowering stance. I had thought the stars would wilt to see you so beautiful tonight, says Mr. Cool. Mrs. Cool glowers. From the garden below, the well-sung song of katydids rises to mingle with the summer air.
Dr. Infecto lurks in the shadow of the palm tree. If Mr. Cool is a ten billion gigawatt laser beam, thinks Dr. Infecto, then I am the abyss in which he never finds his mark.
Mrs. Cool is caught in the throes of a previous marriage. Her sadness stings the silence that elsewhere hangs so elegantly about the house of Cool. Ice cubes swirl against her new husband's glass, crashing with a fragile, contained violence. She speaks, and the words slip off the gangplank of her tongue: I think the party was a wreck.
You were stellar, says Mr. Cool. Mrs. Cool half-wilts and bows her head. From the garden below, Doctor Infecto launches a flaming katydid up at his enemy. Mr. Cool walks towards his new wife, as if to embrace her, and the katydid whizzes past his ear. The flaming insect lands, still alive, and staggers along the cool stone floor. It leaps into the small Japanese fountain at the center of the balcony. The water sizzles.
Mr. Cool does not embrace his new wife. If we view the history of divorce as the individuation of the political impulse to form a more perfect union, he says, then the institution is a brave extension of the American experiment, and a necessary one.
If we view the history of divorce as the cultural-sexual negation of a divinely mandated personal destiny, then we are pulling the thread that will someday unravel the only garment in which naked, lewd America has wrapped herself, Mrs. Cool replies, coolly.
Downstairs, in the living room, Amerigo America, ex-husband to Mrs. Cool, rises up from where he has been lying, stone drunk on the divan. Dr. Infecto watches through the bay window, but, in typical inimical fashion, he does not alert the unsuspecting couple above.
Instead, Dr. Infecto is hard at work, lighting katydids on fire to load in his katydid catapult. The katydids in Mr. Cool's magnolia bushes, imported from the Isle of Wight for the unmatched sweetness of their well-sung song, catch flame like a dry leaf. Dr. Infecto sets the next alight, and the flame spreads quickly across its leaf-like body. As Infecto peers back, however, through the bay window, wishing new misfortune on his old nemesis, he loses hold of the convulsing insect. It scrambles across the lawn to find its mate, which also promptly catches fire. Each hop in the opposite direction, terrified, until they encounter other katydids, setting them likewise aflame. So the little dots of flame spread and multiply across the well-watered lawn, only slowly snuffing out, each in time.
Mrs. Cool watches as the lawn swarms with thin, stuttering illuminations. They remind her of ocean phosphorescents, or the ceiling of a dark room she once knew, stickered with pale-glowing stars. It occurs to her that she has not seen the actual stars for months, except when they were glowering. She watches sadly as the small fires of the katydid-stars slowly consume themselves, drowning out their well-sung song with the crackle of their leaf-like bodies.
Amerigo America, former student body vice-president to Mr. Cool's student body president, groans. He holds his own head in the darkened hall. He evades their bedroom on the right, their library on the left. What I need, he thinks, is a restitution of individual autonomy unpolluted by the eros of advice. What I need is a breath of fresh air.
Mrs. Cool is explaining to her new husband a certain mating ritual of katydids. Her eyes are downcast; unbeknownst to her, the stars above are wilting slightly. When a male fertilizes a female, he leaves inside of her a nuptial gift, a nutritious deposit wholesome enough to nurture mother and child through the harrowings of pregnancy. Mr. Cool seems not to understand her implications. Mrs. Cool denies that she has implied anything.
Amerigo America, one-time disinterested hero, now aching for the tender pressure of the world's adulation, lets fly his left foot and catches a sharp edge on the margin of the hallway. He cuts himself just above the eye. Pain caroms along the outline of his socket and deep into the thick bones of his skull.
If he were to come here now, what would you say, asks Mr. Cool, rhetorically. Would you offer him a parting gift, inverting the intention of the insect? When he finally withdraws his love from you, would you have him take with it your sustenance, plunder your very womb? Mrs. Cool glowers down at the smoky, well-trimmed lawn, the dash of patio, the marble tops of breasts of her new husband's neo-classical caryatids, by virtue of whom she and Mr. Cool remain suspended there, in mid-air.
Dr. Infecto sees that his scheme has floundered. Grasping for a new means of destroying his archenemy, he tiptoes through the kitchen of Cool, to the edge of the darkened hall. There he spies Amerigo America, choirmaster of the spaces between skyscrapers on a cold Chicago night, bleeding from a cut above his eye. Dr. Infecto removes a certain device from his pocket, moderate in size but possessed of a singular destructive potential.
If only you and Dr. Infecto would finally annihilate each other, Mrs. Cool tells her new husband, in a snit. I'd be Mrs. Infecto just as soon as I'd be Mrs. Cool. It's the posturing I can't suffer, your wilting condescension on the one hand, his glowering rage on the other. A life with you is like a day that never ends, because it reviles the night, does not consider it a part of itself.
Amerigo America, a North Pacific of the limbic system, possessed of belugan ear for distant vibrations and salmonic instincts for undercurrents and backward-running eddies in the midst of swirling rapids, accepts the device pressed into his palm. His sight dimmed by the shock, the darkened hall, and the blood now pooling in his eyes, he does not recognize Dr. Infecto's malicious grin.
A single, charred katydid, the last survivor of a once-thriving colony shipped together en-masse from the flameless fields of the Isle of Wight, pulls himself out of the small Japanese fountain on the balcony. He has no interior monologue, Mr. Cool advises, and to inflict one on him would be to commit pathetic fallacy. Mrs. Cool scoops him up in her hand and holds him above the balcony ledge, to survey the field of tossed embers, last flakes of flames that were his family. The katydid makes no sound. Smoke rises and wilts into clear night air.
Amerigo America, winsome butler in a sitcom dream of life now hopelessly out of date, ascends the stairway to the balcony. He turns Dr. Infecto's device over and over in his hand, as if by so handling it he could better understand its weight. If the history of divorce is the amicable separation of the faithful, imaginative leap from the various congresses and capital dealings that constitute our lives in love, he reasons, then the promise of America is fulfilled in it, and not to anyone's satisfaction.
Mr. Cool has just overruled everything Mrs. Cool has said so far this evening. The stars above, unbeknownst to either of them, are about to run out of gas. Like two oceans pounding opposite shores of a narrow isthmus, Mrs. Cool and Amerigo America--a vespers mass with the Magnificat excised--face each other through the sliding glass door. If Dr. Infecto is a black hole from which no light can escape, says Mr. Cool, then I am the lengthening, the warping, the fractured continuance of light behind his sable curtain.
Mr. Cool suddenly senses everything. The almost nonexistent stars; Dr. Infecto lurking in the shadow of the palm tree, or huddled, finger-eared in the darkened hall; the weight of a single katydid on the pillar that supports the balcony; the antiphonic silence of the grassy, ash-swept field below; his new wife's sudden ease, as if a canal were just dug clear through her belly, and all the silt and effluvium trapped therein were finally allowed to flow out forever and dissolve into another ocean, as smoke into night air. Mr. Cool turns around just as Amerigo America, sharecropper not of the shallow skin of Earth but of her molten fleshy tissue, walks out onto the balcony.
Dr. Infecto pinches his moustache, pulls his knees up to his chest, and blows katydid ashes from his pant legs like dandelion feathers. If there were a hundred thousand Mr. Cools, he thinks, a hundred thousand Dr. Infectos would arise to torment him. But there would only ever be one Mrs. Cool: apart, impatient, and upset at her husband's sudden self-proliferation.
Amerigo America, fall-guy henchman to his own destiny as designed by his always-steadfast better half, trips blindly over the small Japanese fountain and loses his footing. The inconspicuous yet terribly powerful device leaves his hand and flies toward the feuding couple. Mr. Cool finally touches his wife, pulling her towards him. They fall together to the cool stone floor of the balcony, and Amerigo America falls beside them, a leaking vase full of wilted desires.
The device lands on the railing of the balcony, where it bounces once, then twice, and finally comes to rest. The charred katydid straggles over to it and hops onto a large red button on its front. The button clicks under the insect's weight. Suddenly, the katydid is transformed into two katydids, then four, then eight, then sixteen. Dr. Infecto scowls to see his plans foiled again: there remains only one Mr. Cool, and so there will be but one Dr. Infecto, always only half-succeeding in his attempts at world obliteration. The katydids continue to multiply.
Mr. and Mrs. Cool lie on the stone floor of the balcony as the cloned katydids hurdle off the railing and onto the grass below, already chirping, with an undertone of over-sweet malice, their famous well-sung song. Mr. Cool curls his body into the body of his new wife, like a beluga in the act of love or a wisp of smoke in the moment of its disappearance.
Amerigo America, ghost ship towing an actual, terrified water-skier, is blind to their sudden intimacy. He can only grapple to feel the marble-fleshed left calf of Mrs. Cool, extending from her evening dress, sprawled against his empty hand. Amerigo's mouth opens, then shuts again in pathetic silence. If we view divorce as a once-small colony of love, he thinks, a homeland for youngest sons and zealots with no place in the mother country, then what happens when it bursts its borders, expands outwards until its empire envelops even love itself? Who conquers whom? Mrs. Cool's leg, that once-discovered Greco-Roman caryatid appendage, shifts beyond his grasp--whether evading him or inviting him further, he cannot tell.
The blood is finally drying in his eyes. His lids crackle satisfyingly as he opens them, in time to see the stars fall like dry leaves from the wind-shaken canopy of sky.
"Airport Botany" is from a novel in progress titled fluorescence, which explores the limits and conceits of human will as we seek to control the forms of life around us. The work is illustrated by my brother, Guido Porto. Here are a few of the receptacles for the things that go bloom in said novel: [here]