|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.57(d)|
Read an Excerpt
An Agent of PathosA novel
By Michael Stuart
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Michael Stuart
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Nothing so much prevents our being natural as the desire of appearing so." -Francois de la Rouchefoucauld
Daniel's fingers stuck to the doorknob longer than he intended. The thick, leftover sap of sleeping pine trees kept the separation from being as clean and surgical as he wanted. The earth was under his fingernails.
Belle was lying on her side in a ball. The green satin sheet decapitated her below the neck. Her dark hair fell inanimately upon the pillowcase and slid beneath her twisted shoulders. Daniel stopped for a moment to look at her, watching each rise and fall of her chest as she respired. Had he never lost the feeling, that ineffable heat that struck him when he first saw her walking across the yellow, wilted August grass, things may have felt different. Daniel loved her instantly; he knew that he should and never questioned why. But this was not that distant past. In the gap between being naïve enough to surrender to someone without a premeditated defense and the salve of middle age, adulthood had built edifices to their mutual sins that obstructed his recollection of pleasant memories. This night, he saw Belle as she was.
The moonlight was floating through the open window, gently bathing her tan summer skin in a juxtaposition of pale blue light. Her face released a sort of midnight glow, ethereal but dull. The curtains flapped gently as they moved under the force of a humid breeze. Through the rectangular panes of glass, Daniel could see the valley and the shimmering highlights of the lake, the jagged silhouette of rocky peaks in the distance, and the panoply of stars in the sky. There was ambiance all around.
It was quite a wonderful night.
He slowly unbuttoned his shirt and slid it onto the chair in front of her vanity, being as careful as possible not to make any unnecessary noise, trying to be adroit in the darkness. He did the same with his pants then slowly stabbed his feet into the bed. The mattress creaked beneath his body.
In a voice that was much more breath than sound, he heard the words, "Daniel, what's going on? What time is it? You're really late."
"I know," he replied, "I'm sorry."
"Will you tell me now?"
"When you're more awake."
"Daniel, I really just want to know." Her eyes were still closed. She had fought this battle before and knew the forthcoming outcome, yet she still felt compelled to try.
She sighed. "Then hold onto me for a minute so I can go back to sleep."
He wrapped his forty-two year-old arms around her waist and pulled her body backwards into his stomach.
The night was quite wonderful.
When the morning light broke through the darkness, Daniel had not closed his eyes. His pillow was wet. He would turn it over to hide the evidence. His arms were still around Belle. She still slept soundly. He had no intention of waking her. Let her dream, let her rest; let her be free of everything. He wished he could be.
The fan chattered over his head and cast oblong streaks of shadow across the ceiling. The red tint of sunrise smothered the room. Refracted light from the early dawn made the darkness retreat into a fuzzy state where things were approaching visibility in the authenticity of full color. He tried to follow a single blade of the fan through its rotation, keeping it in clear focus. When he locked his vision on a dark wooden board, it would speed away and blur with the motion of the others, twirling at a pace too quick for his gaze to separate it from other movement.
Daniel glanced around at the humble country furnishings that decorated the room. There was her dark oak armoire and mirror, his nightstand, the wooden floor, the picture of her mother and father on the wall, his closet door, her closet door, and the large window with lacy drapes that had settled along with the wind. Belle loved the curtains. She said it made the room look feminine, like something pretty lived inside.
He leaned over as far as his position would permit, withdrew his arms from their connection to Belle's body, and escaped the sheets.
In the shower, he found no comfort. The hot water seemed to momentarily thaw his mind but his thoughts ran together like melted snow. His whole life, he thought; it was his whole life. Now was his whole life already. What should he feel? Angry? Frightened? Melancholy? Lonely? Confused? Morose? Weak? Disposable? Alive? Dead? He did. He felt it all, alone in the shower.
It was Saturday. Every Saturday morning Daniel walked down the steep valley behind the log cabin that he and Belle called home, hiked for several miles, sat down on the hillside, and breathed the mountain air. That was all he wanted to do, he just breathed. It made him seem so far away from everything, from the honking horns, from the bills, from the sickness, from the war, from the world. The diversion was never more necessary than this morning.
He was hoping that he could sneak out of the house before Belle woke. He couldn't. Twenty years of cohabitation had programmed her with the prescience necessary to intercept him. She sat at the kitchen table in her pink bathrobe with frizzy hair waiting for his entrance into the room.
"Will you tell me yet?" she asked without looking at him. "Just tell me."
He said nothing immediately. Belle raised her head. She had aged gracefully. Her eyes were a cavernously dark shade of brown, still capable of swallowing him entirely. Her features were holding their advantage over the years. Her auburn hair had not a strand of gray amongst its fibers. Her head was resting on her folded hands where French manicured nails peeked through between opposing fingers. Her elbows were propped on the surface of the table allowing the sleeves of her robe to slide down her thin wrists toward the floor. Her skin was richly colored but not dark enough to lose definition. She was beautiful.
She had been almost everything he wanted.
Belle peered into him. All he could think was that he had loved her.
"Why don't you walk with me?"
His request came as quite a surprise. His words were simple and free of the obfuscation that tended to color his speech. She had never been invited to accompany him on his weekend ramble. His declination of her usual request had become implicit. The introduction of acceptance to their routine was an unplanned variable. Daniel knew it was never easy for Belle to face the alternatives of a broken routine, even those she strived to disrupt. She was caught off guard. Her eyes opened with an expression of bewilderment.
"I haven't put on my clothes yet. What if someone sees me?"
Daniel returned her question with a glance that Belle recognized as her only opportunity to acquiesce. She nodded without further protest, rushed up the stairs, returned with a long tan overcoat, and met him on the deck.
Daniel was sitting in the porch swing, gliding easily back and forth, surveying the distance with his mind and eyes. His blonde hair danced like wavering stalks of wheat as the wind massaged the morning. He was dressed in a pair of overworked blue jeans and a dusty brown Carhart coat with too many stains to count. He was oblivious to her appearance and failed to notice her until she had obstructed his line of sight. His irises were the color of jade dust as they captured the morning light. His vision shifted to her approaching figure.
"You look tired," she said.
Under his eyes were puffy bags of swollen, reddish skin. The firmness of his jawbone stretched his cheeks gauntly over his face. He seemed to have developed new wrinkles during the night.
"Nice outfit," he said quietly, upset with himself for his inability to suppress sarcasm, even at a time such as this. "Let's walk."
As the two took the long, soft walk through the forest, across the meadow, along the lake, and up into the adjacent hillside, no words met the air. Daniel pulled her by the hand, the pressure of his fingers a muzzle on Belle's mouth. The morning was still wet with dew and a mist hung over the water in a spectral fashion. Some mistaken crickets chirped as though it was still night. Half way up the hillside, Daniel abruptly stopped, turned around, and sat down on the moist ground.
"It's beautiful." Belle spoke of the view that now spread itself on the horizon. "I can't believe you hid this from me for so long."
He didn't understand the comment; one cannot hide the world when it is in plain view.
The jutting spires of dark green pine trees that covered the mountain gave way in a surreal path that framed their cabin majestically amongst a backdrop of clouds and distant peaks.
Had this been a different occasion, one might mistake the scene for an American beer or blue jeans commercial. Daniel's jaw was clenched below a thin, straight nose. The corners of his eyes were just wrinkled enough to show age. The short walk had improved the pallor of his clean shaven face. He looked quintessentially correct, the way advertisements tell the world an alpha man should look in middle age. Belle stood beside him, wrapped in an unbuttoned coat that allowed her pink bathrobe to dangle outward. She hesitated to sit on the wet earth.
The Colorado air was so sweet this time of year, each breath was like a tiny sip of the summer's nectar, sugary with the moments remaining before fall banishes warm days into memory. After sweeping dry pine needles over some loose dirt, Belle lowered herself to the ground and looked at Daniel. His profile cut outwards and his opaque stare held an obvious secret.
"Alright, tell it to me. I know you too well to believe that there's nothing going on. I can't deal with this anymore. This silence and pretending it's not real." She moved her loose hair behind her ears. Her hand was unsteady. The tip of her nose grew pink. Tears were already welling in the corners of her eyes.
Daniel did not turn his face or even glance to the side, he simply replied in a plain voice, "It is." The words were too calm and clear to signify something so devastating.
She leaned her head into his shoulder and hooked his arm with her hands. There were several seconds of immaculate silence. In a whimper came her answer.
"Not really," she said.
He nodded once.
Belle's voice left her. Her shoulders shook heavily and she hid her face with her hands. She hated crying in front him.
He moved slowly and put his arm around her back, drew her close, and kissed her forehead.
"Now you know," he said. It then became too difficult for either of them to speak.
How long they stayed in that solitary spot was uncertain until the sun supplied a measurement by falling behind the mountain. The daylight relented to the dusk.
Chapter Two"Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." -John Donne
It was cancer, an affirmation of the things they dreaded. Daniel refused to mention it by name, as if depriving it of an audible acknowledgement was a cloak that protected against the effects of the tumors.
The implications of such a thing are innumerable. It affects every segment of life. The uncertainty produces many reactions, not the least of which is fear. The damning disease itself was responsible not only for the physical pain, but also the chaos of comprehending mortality. The latter was a more difficult task.
When Daniel was growing up, the cars were big and made of steel and roared like monsters down the road. Not like the hollow, plastic animals of today that collapse on contact. They were solid from axle to axle, teeth to tail. People appeared tougher then, too; they were as stalwart as the cars they drove. That's how Daniel's father seemed. The lips of Adam Beasy seldom showed the weakness implied by a smile or the diaphaneity delivered by a frown. His posture was solemn, his words were thick, and his life was fortified. His life was straight. He could not be broken or bent.
Those were the only impressions Daniel was able to form of Adam. Adam was not home often enough for Daniel to think anything to the contrary. A child distinguishes how an adult should act by the mannerisms and actions of his or her parents. A boy looks to his father, a girl to her mother. Daniel looked at his father and felt that a man should be a statue with a mechanical function. The skin that felt human was nothing real. It bled, but the blood was underneath, therefore it was not there. Everything outside was a covering, armor to protect the vessel from wear.
The nights Daniel spent sitting quietly balancing himself atop a deflating basketball alone in the driveway were his preparation for manhood. Concrete conditions the soul into the feeling of how it should adapt to the adult world. It is firm and without remorse for its lack of emotion. It neither warns of its heat in the summer nor does it apologize for cracks in the winter. It cools at night, it is hot under the sun, but it is always performing its intended function; it is inscrutably solid. Men are not allowed to be different, but boys are. Boys do not understand at the time, but they are. A boy can run at night and feel the sweat of his brow drip to the evening grass or he can lounge in the shade when the star of the day shines bright. They never know it has to be the other way around until it's their time, when the hourglass has flipped over and the last grains of youth have fallen through the portal.
Who was Daniel's father? His name was Adam; that much he knew. He worked as an insurance salesman, he fought in the war, and he loved the St. Louis Cardinals.
Adam left the world when Daniel was eleven. He died from a single gunshot wound, fired from the only full chamber in a revolver which was operated by the delicate hand of his wife.
Daniel watched his mother kill Adam. He sat at the kitchen table, salting his mashed potatoes, wondering what the fourth of July fireworks would look like this year, wondering if the grass stain on his bare right knee would be permanent, wondering why his mother was smoking again, wondering why he always had to eat by himself.
Per his evening ritual, Adam entered the unlocked house without a greeting. He hung up his coat and fedora and laid down his briefcase on the kitchen table, just as he had done every night prior to this one. He looked at Daniel without smiling and then fell backward, hitting the wall and leaving a red streak down the yellow wallpaper. He never saw the gun.
Daniel did not hear the sound. He had dropped his fork and hit his ear coming up from under the table. His head was ringing as his father dropped to the tile. Eyes open wide, he looked across the room at his mother. She placed the revolver down on the white tile floor, then calmly turned off the stove and moved the steaming pot of boiled potatoes to a cold burner. She crossed her legs and sat down beside the gun. She didn't cry. She didn't blink. She reached into the front pocket of her dull white apron and pulled out a cigarette. She calmly struck a match. Her hands did not shake. She smoked the cigarette and stared out a window that did not exist.
She was beautiful sitting on the floor. Her hair was a curly, golden blonde that offset her blue eyes. The hue of her rouged cheeks presented a balance that artists strived to achieve. Her face was too symmetrical for words, so perfect it was found rarely in real life and even seldom seen in the magazines that boys keep hidden beneath mattresses.
Daniel remembered the orange flare of her inhalations and the flickering, dusty ash hanging precariously to the end of the tube. Lashes of smoke rolled from her mouth and nose then floated upward into oblivion. His mother's lipstick coated the end of the cigarette with a pink smear.
It was the only animation of the moment in his memory, as if she was merely a painted backdrop and the glowing cigarette was placed in her mouth to deceive the viewer into thinking the scene was real. Adam's body slumped lifelessly against the wall, dead with his eyes open and fixed on nothing in particular. He leaned awkwardly against the left side of his neck. His right cheek pressed into the yellow wallpaper. There was no expression on his face, not even a hint of surprise, just that archetypal calm stare that was the Beasy trademark. A nickel sized hole in his white oxford shirt expanded downward over his stomach in a red saturation.
Excerpted from An Agent of Pathos by Michael Stuart Copyright © 2010 by Michael Stuart. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.