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Ghost of a Flea


Chapter One

After a while I got up and walked to the window. I felt that if I didn't say anything, if I didn't think about what had happened, didn't acknowledge it, somehow it might all be all right again. I listened to the sound of my feet on the floor, the sounds of cars and delivery vans outside, my own breath. Whatever feelings I had, had been squeezed from me. I was empty as a shoe. Empty as the body on the bed behind me.

A limb bowed and pecked at the window, bowed and pecked again. Winds were coming in across Lake Ponchartrain with pullcarts of rain in their wake. I heard music from far off but couldn't tell what it was, not even what kind. Maybe only wind caught in the building's hard throats and hollows, or the city's random noise congealing.

I seem never to learn that standing still doesn't work. There you are with a smile on your face, they won't notice me, and all the while all the things you fear keep moving towards you, their smiles a violent travesty of your own. "In your books you never write about anything that's not past, done with, gone," LaVerne had said years ago. She knew that was a way to stand still, too. And she'd been right — about that as about so much else.

Sooner or later I'd have to move. Go back out there, into the world, a world much smaller now, where it was about to rain. And where one of the coldest winters in New Orleans history like a bit player waited impatiently in the wings, strutting and thrumming, for its cue to go on.

I'd spent my life in rooms much like this. You move, like a hermit crab, into their shell. Then in time, as old clothes and mattresses do, they begin taking on your form. Their safe, familiar walls are a second skin. You and the room become of a size and kind, indistinguishable. The room, its surfaces, its volumes, diminish when you leave; and you in turn, away from the room too long, find yourself growing restless, edgy, at loose ends. I peered out the window, a dim image of the room behind me superimposed there like a fading photograph or one taken too soon from the developing tray, suspended half-formed, neither wholly out of the world nor quite a part of it. The window had become a universal mirror. In it everything was reversed, turned about, transformed: light bled away to darkness, walls and corners bent to obscure, indecipherable shapes, the whole of the room lumpen, autumnal.

And out there in the window-world where a moth beat against glass, a man I knew both too well and not at all stood watching. A man dark and ill-defined, with the mark of lateness, of the autumnal, upon him too. I remembered Henry James' remark upon meeting George Gissing that he appeared to be a man "quite particularly marked out for what is called in his and my profession an unhappy ending." Gissing had deployed his creativity as the single dynamic force in a life otherwise marked by doubts and indecision, discord, disappointment, disillusion. All of which had a familiar ring to it. I must come to some sort of conclusion, I suppose, I had written, years ago. I can't imagine what it should be. Now I knew.

All the people we've met, all those memories and voices real or imagined, the hoarse whisper of our communal sadness, the beat of regret and sorrow in our blood, the haphazard apprehensions that have made us what we are — they're out there now in the darkness, all of them, at these silent barricades. All the people (as LaVerne used to say) we've watched disappear out the back windows of trains. LaVerne, parents, Hosie Straughter, Vicky, Baby Boy McTell. Myself. This odd man Lew Griffin who understood so much about others and so little, finally, about himself.

Another moth joins the first. Together, apart, they beat soundlessly at the window's periphery. This latecomer, a sphinx moth, has the body of a bulldog, colors like those of an oil slick in moonlight. Also called a hawkmoth. I watch the two familial insects, who could scarcely be more dissimilar, bump and bounce away from the window, skitter the length of its glass in long slides. Perhaps I should value my life more, that something else so badly wants in.

Because the volume has been increased, or because other sounds have fallen away, I can make out the music now. Charlie Patton's slurred voice and guitar, like hands that have gone into water and come out with something shapeless, something that nonetheless coheres for just a moment before it begins spilling away. Po' Boy, Long Way from Home. A long way indeed.

Here in this still room, then, in this moment before the world returns in a rush and bears me back into it, I will tell you what I know: It is not yet midnight. It is not yet raining.


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