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Charles Marvin

Circuses

The planes came in the night, late, in summer-when the leaves of ivy growing outside my narrow windows shuddered in the predawn breezes, and only a few lights burned, here and there, in the stone towers of the city. I would lie awake on the worn, thin mattress over the cagework of my bed as the gauzy curtains stirred about the windows, listening for the approach of the engines in the dark. Even before the time when the invasions had begun, I had reached that point in my life where sleep was a rare thing-unwonted thoughts curled about me like vapors through the hours, as if I were drifting forever from a warm, cherished place. I would read late into the night, deep into books that would draw me into an aura of protecting voices, spells to drive them back.

The planes came from far off, riding out over the Great Lakes in long moonlit formations; they snaked toward the city through forested mountain valleys, gliding over windmills and old shadowed barns rising from clusters of trees. They would arrive so far into the sleepless dark that it seemed the night itself was under their spell. As they banked downward to ride among the unilluminated towers of the city, you felt the sound of their engines trembling in the very stone around you-you felt it right down to the calcium in your bones.

To get a better view of them I would turn down the flame of the lamp beside my bed, casting the room about me in garish shadows; standing among my sheets and pillows, the mattress sinking under my feet, I would steady myself against the cool shale sills beneath the windows and gaze outward over the dim realm of the city. For a long time I would see nothing, as if there was only sound-only the mad roar of hundreds of machines about me in the dark. Under a bright moon, perhaps, I might catch glimpses of silhouettes passing overhead like witches. But then the pitch of one of the buzzing trails would begin to drop; and then there would be others, spiraling in downward crescendos, dogs barking at them from the building's highest rooms. All at once, a round-nosed fighter would materialize in the air before us-shuddering in the wind, ghostly, obscured in ragged mists-and then veer away again, swooping down into the night's fogs. One after another the rogue pilots would descend, chasing one another around the tops of buildings and rocketing away down the empty avenues. On nights when the moon was full it seemed they would gradually fill up the sky, swirling in a vortex over the city. They seemed not so much an invasion of machines then, but of forest spirits-griffins and gargoyles drawn not by some malevolent call but by the celestial stonework of the buildings, the rain-smell of old caverns risen into the night. Their noise filled my skull; the curtains about the windows fluttered past my bare shoulders; I would watch and listen to the chaos in the dark until the deep light of the hour before dawn, when all of the planes, as if by one signal, veered off in a maelstrom of trajectories toward the sea.

At times several of us who lived in the upper stories of the building would ascend to the highest rooms to hold vigil for the planes, in the sumptuous quarters of the celebrated screen actress Miriam Callaher. I was twentythree now and without parents. My mother and father had been set afire on a balloon ride by a sudden gust of wind; I had been sent by their executors to the city to serve as a clerk in my uncle's department store. Miriam Callaher's tale was an entirely different one, tugging at wishful feelings I still harbored. Fame struck her at an early age, before she could even remember-she was a child star whose "declining years" had lingered on for half a century. As her health progressively failed that summer, our nights gathered round her grew more frequent. Drawn to the temptation of her imminent death, to the secreted treasures that we imagined sparkled beyond the silver screen, we must have seemed to her like the tiny, wizened bats that lit in the foliage just outside her casements, hanging by clusters of berries that they would suckle, dark-eyed, in the night; we would sit and laugh on her plush red carpets, her ornamented windows thrown open and candles flickering all about us, drinking her Madeira as she snored uneasily in her bed.

Gradually these bed-vigils led to odd friendships, occasional parties held in dark little rooms, and opportunities, finally, to explore the city's underworld. Most of all I remember my theater nights out with Edward Carras and Corona Dizen, two darkly dressed, ghastly personages who had befriended me one night when I was unhappy: we sat at dramas in velvet rooms deep under the city, where the light of captive moons shone over the stage and lovers met in trance-like silences. Years ago the theater had sunk away into the bowels of the city, disappearing into a world of dimly lit halls and winding staircases, to intimate curtained rooms that one would arrive at suddenly out of the dark, as if to the chambers of buried kings. The city, somnolent in its wreckage under the night's circus of planes, was a place not of actual but subconscious revolutions, acted out in dumb shows and strangely agitated melodramas. Unclear as its aims were, the new theater attracted its share of fallen angels. Edward himself was an erratic genius, a young stockbroker who neglected his clients in order to roam the city's shadow-world. He was tall, dark-haired, a distracted man of delicate features who drifted down the cool labyrinthine halls in a long gray raincoat with notched lapels and raglan sleeves. He had the detached air of a diplomat; he often stood apart with his hands in his pockets, looking quietly about him on subway platforms or on the threshold of Mrs. Callaher's sumptuous rooms. I remember him whispering to me one night in a hushed theater, so far under the city that water dripped from the ceiling, before an open stage completely dark save for a spotlight shown upon a mule looking out to the audience. All of the actors in the play had killed one another and were being eaten by huge, hulking birds. "You can't imagine what it's like," he said. "One day a guy's got limousine drivers and prostitutes and safe-deposit boxes full of jewels, and then he's wiped out overnight and in a penitentiary the next morning." Acquisitions programmers struck instantaneously, darting through matrixes of information toward individual accounts-one probe from swarms of millions breaching the electronic fortress to marry a family fortune. The birds croaked and flapped before us. "There's nothing to buy anymore," Edward whispered. "It's a feeding frenzy."

Corona Dizen was an occasional actress in the dramas we would attend. Their purpose, she would explain to a doubtful Mrs. Callaher, was political: to counter the dangerous notion of a split between reality and the imagination, roughly analogous to work and play. Political reality, she would insist, was simply imagination in its most basic form, played out upon people's lives-men were sucked into machines, women ground to the bone, children enslaved, all to produce the wealth of a shimmering diamond necklace worn by a dowager queen. "That is why you must give us all your money when you go to heaven," she would explain eagerly to Mrs. Callaher, her dark eyes animated, her smooth face rippling with just a hint of mirth. "All of the artists must keep their money together, and never give it away. If we have enough capital we can change the world's dreams. Listen to me, Mrs. Callaher, I know you are not sleeping!"

I followed in the perfumed wake of this ominous couple like a black cat who, for periods of time, becomes the companion of strangers. I had a half-formed idea then that I would make my way through life in this fashion, moving lightly from one tableau to the next, existing on the intoxicating essences of people's lives. Edward Carras and Corona Dizen were dark, exotic fare: the sort to share with casual acquaintances scenes and confidences that would be secreted away by others. I think that they were as interested in my curiosity, in fact, as I was interested in them.

It wasn't until the night of Claus Mueller's hair-raising production of James Fenimore Cooper's Leather-Stocking tales that I was sufficiently distracted from my companions to really understand what attracted them to the new theater. Even then I could see that their political views were mainly decadent; they spent their time drinking Madeira and going to plays. Nevertheless, I vividly remember sitting with my shoulders hunched, God knows where under the city, between the rustling and faintly luminous Corona Dizen and a huge pile of a man in a seersucker suit who was eating something from a bag, gazing to the vague burnished light of the play before us and thinking: now this is something, isn't it? A shadowy figure stood in the middle of the stage, wrapped in what seemed like sheets. A gentle, swirling music played about her-now and then clear tones of it would ripple outward, the upper bars of a xylophone, perhaps, or chimes tapped one by one. The light about the stage warmed to a feverish golden haze crossed by moving shadows, such as a canopy of wind-tossed leaves might make under a harvest moon in a house. The figure at the center was a woman, dressed in a shawl and a bonnet that stuck out so far in front of her face that she could not be seen. She looked about her, standing awkwardly before a rude table lit faintly by an oil lantern. The shadows of her teacups flickered behind the four glass panes at the top of a corner cupboard; a rocking chair stood apart from her. She looked about her for some time, her hands at her sides, as if wondering what to do. Throughout the play it had seemed that she had had no lines to speak. She had initiated none of the dialogue, speaking only when prompted by one of the other characters. After a scene of extended debate in which she would stand in the bright sunshine and look about her, someone would stop and ask her what she thought about the Indians, about the cattle, about whether or not she believed in God. On each of these occasions she had hesitated, the characters standing apart and watching her as she struggled to make some reply. More often than not her answers bore no relation to the play, and after she had finished-it was hard to hear, exactly, what she was saying through her bonnet-the other characters would go on with their conversation as if she had never said a word. She was listed in the program as "Mother," played by an actress named Clara Brown, of whom neither Corona nor Edward could call anything to mind.

Now she was abandoned on the stage, alone in a wilderness cabin. On the table before her were various household implements-a white butter dish, a creamer, a half-empty water pitcher; knives, forks, and spoons; a sieve, a whisk, several plates and saucers; a blackened bread pan, and a cast-iron skillet pearled with bacon grease. She took up a large wooden rolling pin as the indistinct light swam about her, trembling a little, the music rising in intense oceanic swells around her. I sat utterly spellbound in the audience, the mountainous man beside me turning something over and over again in his mouth. Suddenly a high-pitched scream, icy and horrible, rose from the bundle of rags before us. It was as if it was all she could think of. In the next instant she was whirling about, smashing everything on the stage to pieces. Her fury was terrible, indescribable. The crockery flew up around her, the chair-the chair she attacked like a human being-and then all the lights went black.

Afterwards, as people gathered to talk in the dim yellow corridors leading out from the theater, it was clear that something extraordinary had taken place. You could hear it in people's voices. If I had been asked then to explain just what it was that had happened, I'm certain I wouldn't have known just what to say. But I had felt something-that sense of recognition that occurs only inside history, yet kinetically distances one's perspective from it. Clara Brown, standing without a script in the eye of the play's dream, unable to meet the demands of either the real or the unreal-a principal player in a drama beyond her control-was where we felt ourselves to be, the story of the world mutating in the grasp of our minds like a fairy tale no longer comprehensible. The newspapers would articulate this for us in the morning: in the meantime we simply felt excited, aglow with a secret knowledge, as if the heavens themselves had given us signs.

Edward left us after the performance, pushing his way back through the crowded corridors to the dressing rooms backstage to get his program autographed; meanwhile, Corona and a bearded, monocled man holding a small velvet box stood and discussed the luminous glow of the stage lighting, which had reminded the gentleman of certain paintings of Bierstadt and the Hudson Valley School. I stood beside Corona, watching the man as he spoke to her. He looked back to the two of us, pleasurably to her and with flickers of nervous irritation to me. When Edward returned the halls were emptying. He hadn't found any of the actors-a trap door had been left open behind the curtains of the stage, he said, and from there an iron ladder had led down to a series of storage rooms, dark passages of old brick and damp timbers that led only God knew where. Having settled that, Corona and I bade our threadbare aesthete farewell-he was dressed all in black but his clothes were dusty and unkempt-and found our way back up to the streets, which were empty at that hour and hazy with a creeping fog.

Later that night we would gaze from the stone parapets of the city's highest cathedral, out to the waterfront where crowds of men were being beaten back onto torch-lit wooden piers under the towering silhouette of a Navy destroyer. They were roused like this from home and tavern in the dead of night to be shipped to the wars overseas; Edward and I were fortunate to be working, exempted from impressment so long as the wars remained stalemated. I reminded Edward of this and he nodded slowly. "But I can't seem to wake up in the morning anymore," he said, his voice clear but faint over the distant shouts of the captured men. "I set the alarm but I keep dreaming it's this man who's talking to me. I've been coming in late for two months now, sometimes not at all." He continued to gaze out to the smoking, fiery glow over the rioting crowds, his face cast in shadows. "I just can't seem to get frightened enough anymore."

I hadn't seen this coming. I admired my friends and thought little of what might be their failings, until such time as evil manifested itself in them and prompted a parting. But this was too sudden. I had little choice, therefore, but to sit and listen as Edward wondered aloud if he could get a job in my uncle's department store, in our own building and the ones adjacent to it, just for a while. He thought the proximity would be a kind of convalescence for him: he could look down from his room in the mornings to the display windows along the street, where the sun crept down to warm the mannequins over the lone early pedestrians, and know that his world was small and safe. At night he would breathe in the dusky smells of stone and rain through the fragrance of the vines about his windows, and know that he was exactly where he was supposed to be, a worker in the garden. What he figured, essentially, was that in an impaired state he might be able to manage a life something like mine.

Corona sat in the moonlight at the top of a dark stone stairway, overlooking the two of us further down amid the shadows of the cathedral. It was another subtle game they played-one of them would speak to me as the other listened, as if I were an intimate object used between them. Corona was wearing a black dress with a wide collaret that evening, high heels, jade earrings. Her dark hair was cut short, like a boy's. After considering us for some time she said to me that it would be good if I could do everything I could for Edward. Her tone was austere yet confidential, as if Edward could not hear her. "He can be trusted," she went on easily. "He will not make mistakes and is not ashamed to do simple things. But you must help him."

Edward stood with his back turned to us, looking out over the machicolated walls of the cathedral to the dark streets below. "She doesn't even know when she hurts people," he said, his voice cutting bitterly into the night. He turned to us from the city, his gaze rising past me to the woman above us. "She'll hurt you, too," he said.

The distant calls of the men had grown more pitched, blowing in on intermittent gusts from the harbor. The navigational and air warning towers of the destroyer, looming and alien, seemed to gaze down with a vague sympathy to the men who were being driven aboard. Teams of other men were being hoisted on platforms into the night, struggling to hold on, some of them falling to the crowds below. I couldn't watch it anymore.

"I think I can take care of myself, Edward," I said, speaking familiarly to him but becoming all the more aware of Corona's presence between us. "Life's too short not to, don't you think?"

Corona waited on the effect of these words. She seemed to be holding her breath as she watched over us, forging the bond between us with a sort of prayer. I realized now that I was trading our friendship for something more personal and disquieting. As Edward sat down dejectedly on the smooth steps in front of me, I wanted to reach out to rub his shoulders, to assure him we wouldn't let him be taken from us. But I sensed also that I had gotten too close to something voracious and unpredictable, as if I had strayed to the brink of a dark, wet cave strewn with bones. I wanted somehow to draw back from my blunder into the cool night air again, but found I couldn't shift the spell of warmth around me.

In the days and nights that followed I would take special care that I would be left alone. I bought my sandwiches from machines in the basement and haunted the empty stairwells of our building, avoiding chance encounters on the elevators. Instead of going out in the evenings, I looked through boxes of old family photographs, arranging the blackandwhite prints on my bed to make up stories about my childhood. Naturally I deliberated on what I could do for Edward. I was to become the bridge across what seemed to him an unleapable chasm to my uncle; he would walk trembling over me as I looked down to the traffic, praying he wouldn't screw up and send both of us falling.

It was all too much. Edward's malaise seemed reckless, uncontrolled, and finally all too casual. As was typical when faced with dilemmas, I took to my bed and read books. It was the only freedom I had from the messes I got myself into, from those who laid responsibilities upon me with no more thought of it than children would have. My tastes in literature, perhaps, were all too indulgent of my moral weaknesses. I would have preferred to dream. At any rate, they kept me out of more trouble than I was already in. There, at least, I shadowed the lives of others vicariously, without the risk of someone's eye suddenly flickering to catch my soul.

I immersed myself in tales of torch-lit barges which moved down rivers under the earth, unknown to the world above. Those who had found their way through forests down to the rain-swept, rocky openings of the earth, or who had wandered down subway tracks to where the city ended in tunnels of steam, after groping their way through darkness finally to a vast shore, would there find rescue: a luminous ship would approach, animating the overarching walls of the earth with an undulating fire. Around the stout legs of the boat's twenty-six oarsmen, from bow to stern, a perpetual orgy writhed, ruled by a king in flowing robes who would walk, barefoot, over the backs of his dominion. As the barge drifted in and the king reached out amid the smoking torches, smiling, to help you aboard, you couldn't remember anymore what it was that had brought you to him. As you climbed in, your clothes were stripped from you like the dressing of a wound, and then you were subsumed forever.

From time to time another barge, utterly dark, would float by the naked kingdom in the passages. The revelers would give this ship wide berth, hearing from it only the sound of dogs barking. Under the world that makes a terrible din-some said that the dogs had been driven mad by the echoing of their own rough voices. Sometimes, as the fiery kingdom drifted slowly out into the wide expanse of an underground lake, out from amidst waterfalls rushing down serpentine chasms, the barking would be heard far in the distance. At other times, through a narrow aperture the wooden barge would pass far too closely, listing to one side, the water rising up its rotting deck. The bearded king would stand among his subjects and watch the silhouettes of the dogs flicker in the low amber glow of his kingdom. Now and then one of the forms would leap with a growl into the water and try to make it up onto the revelers' barge, only to be beaten back: the animal would bite at their flesh as it went down, its teeth flashing in the dark.

I read on, digesting my dilemma through the evenings by way of metaphor, until one night I awoke to discover that I had been sleeping for a very long time. The lamp at my bedside had burned down to a low flicker, and the curtains stirred airily about me: outside the wind had picked up and the air had taken on a certain chill. Thunder over the distant mountains rumbled softly down the avenues, and for a moment I thought I could hear a sputtering high overhead in the winds. I dressed slowly, putting on whatever my hands could find about me in the dark. The room seemed to have grown smaller as I had slept. Quietly I left it, locking the door behind me and coming out into the dim, burnished light of the hall.

What I would remember of this night would come back to me in flashes, stuttering images that would hold, burn, and fade, one into the other. I was lonely: I wanted to visit Mrs. Callaher. I climbed up the building's dark stairways, past dusty corridors lit here and there along the walls by a bulb that hadn't burned out. The topmost chambers were darkest of all, without lights or windows: I heard the rain and the thunder about me there and tried to sense where I was in the dark.

Mrs. Callaher's nights always began this way, in uncertainty. No one was ever called or sent for. One simply made one's way up into the dark, to narrow passages where one might turn a corner and suddenly be nowhere at all, at a rusted iron ladder rising up a concrete wall, or at a door slightly ajar leading to a maze of somber portraits. The lady's apartments were far beyond the reach of the building's ancient elevator, so high over the city that the streets below were often lost under a sea of clouds. Others might be with Mrs. Callaher whom I might not want to see, but it was also true that my own solitude unnerved me: like a child who hid in cupboards from a familiar monster, I dreaded yet itched to peer from a crack in the door.

I knocked at what I thought must be the right entrance, judging by a damp, familiar smell in the air and the vague sound of voices within. As I stood and listened for a reply I became aware, slowly, of what seemed a deep vibration coming from the stone walls of the building, all around me in the dark. Realizing what it was, I couldn't believe my luck. Towering into the storm's winds, the edifice was picking up a new tune from the skies: an aerial circus of approaching planes. Never before had they flown to us into the mouth of a thunderstorm. I was delighted, whatever the impending destruction might be. And I congratulated myself as well for having waited until just the moment of their arrival to climb up into the clouds to see them.

Edward Carras flung open the door and stared out at me. His dark hair was wild, wind-tossed; a vague light framed him. "Where have you been?" he cried out. He seemed beside himself with an excess of feeling. "Clara Brown's here, and all the planes are coming. We've all been here without you!"

I looked past him into Mrs. Callaher's dark rooms, out to the glinting wall of lead-paned windows at the end of them, set high with colored trefoils, which stood between the lady's visitors and a moonlit field of clouds. The storm was below: wisps of its substance drifted to the glass, toward the silhouettes of Corona Dizen, the actress Clara Brown in a short pelerine cape, and the bearded gentleman Corona and I had met the night of Clara's performance, among others. Mrs. Callaher lay on a raised bed overlooking her guests, propped up with pillows in a recessed nook of the room. Shelves of bound leather books rose up the walls behind her, their gilt bindings edged with moonlight. Mutely, slowly, she was raising an arm toward the others, as if to warn them of something. But they all had turned their backs to her: they were listening to the bearded man sing a little song about the wind and the rain, a tumbler of dark port wine raised in his hand. Corona stood apart from the group, gazing sardonically at them with her own drink by the windows. Occasionally she turned to look out over the clouds. As Edward brought me into the room I could see the planes for myself, massed far in the distance, where the edge of the storm flashed over the sea's horizon. "They've been gathering there all night," Edward told me, his voice strained and hoarse. "There's more of them than we ever imagined."

Just as Corona, Clara Brown, and the others gathered about the bearded gentleman turned to look at us the white gleam of the clouds beyond them curled upward like an onrushing of ghosts. Mrs. Callaher made a strange, choked sound from her bed, reaching toward them but unable to rise any further. Corona was wearing a black strapless evening gown and thought, perhaps, our attention was directed toward her. She smiled back at us as the maw of the clouds turned in a rush of gathering motion behind her. The bright mist flickered with shadows, filling the room, and then, all at once, a dark shape took form rapidly behind it.

Somehow-and here Corona and the others turned just in time as the spectre appeared before us-time was altered just then from an abstraction to a force, generated by rapid images on the nerves. We all stood back from the windows, watching as a World War IIera fighter plane hung suspended in the winds some fifteen feet out from us. Its turbofan engines sucked the mist; its bulky silver wings shuddered. In the gunnery cage behind the pilot a scarecrow of a man in goggles and a leather flight helmet aimed a rifle at us, cried out something, and fired.

The shot shattered one of the panes. "Jesus!" Edward shouted. We looked around to see if perhaps Mrs. Callaher had been hit; but she remained propped among her pillows as before, though more alive now, gazing fiercely from her bed toward what was now a scene of swirling mist behind us, the plane plummeting away. Edward grabbed a small pistol from the mantel and fired several shots toward the machine's descending shadow, scattering the glass from the windows in all directions until one of the men grabbed his arm and forced him to drop it. "They shot at us!" Edward cried incredulously, struggling with fury but little strength to free himself and retrieve his smoking weapon. "Let me go, you goddamned ape!"

I thought of grabbing the gun to put a stop to any further mischief, but reflected that in doing so I might be set upon as well, perhaps by the bearded man himself. A cold wind rushed in through the broken windows, loosening bits of glass and sending them sailing towards us. Edward was brought down violently to the carpet in a wrestler's stranglehold, his burly vanquisher puffing and letting out short grunts as Corona beat on his back with a shoe and screamed at him to let go. Then there were more shots, automatic fire rising up the building. The fighting stopped; we all turned to the shattered wall of glass, holding each other steady in the wind. Creeping to the windows, I had just enough time to see the flash of the guns below in the clouds when the plane itself rose from the mist, banking away from the building at the last moment in a steep arc toward the moon. I tried to catch my breath then, but as soon as I'd sucked a mouthful of the visitor's scorched air another shadow rose toward us out of the vapors: a vast, ancient skeleton of a plane emerged, wobbling on double wings that seemed stretched from animal skins, blankets flapping from its open cockpit. Suddenly it was flying out of control, right at us. Clara, Corona, our two former adversaries and the others broke and ran from the windows, with me behind them, tripping over a decanter of port wine en route and tumbling over one another to the carpet. It was as we lay there, looking back helplessly through the room's wild shadows, that we saw Mrs. Callaher sitting up in her bed in the glow of the moonlit sky, lifting a black revolver toward the massive ghost filling her windows. She fired, repeatedly, as it rose past us: then the wall of glass collapsed before her and the storm rushed in, like a flock of birds.

We knew then that she was going to live forever. We would wait for her money in vain. The wind blasted about her, blowing scraps of newspaper and tarot cards and dust and little leaves and petals into her bed as she fired again and again into the tempest. I think she was laughing at the storm. Corona, Edward, and I, heaped in a far corner beyond Clara and the strange, bearded man, watched her anxiously, huddled close like rats. A spark had been lit in the old woman, catching in bones of old oak and hickory for a long winter's blaze. The ether of all her old movies went up around her in a vapor that night, never more to dampen her spirits. Facing into the wild wind, her white hair flying back from her face, she contemplated a future of journeys-burro rides down the Baja coast, balloon flights high over the Boreal forest-not a bleak death among curious strangers. We watched her for some time, imagining her future, before we even realized that she had put a hole through our bearded companion, and that he lay beside us as dead as you'd want him.

The planes harried the tops of the buildings for another hour, though none so close as to attack us again, flying out at last toward daybreak in squadrons over the sea. I would learn downstairs that morning from the old men at breakfast that they had come not only from the Great Lakes that night but also from as far away as Nova Scotia and Ireland, even Norway. The planes had gone on to terrorize the Balkans across the Atlantic, en route to the Middle East and Persia, if the drifting broadcasts of the amateur radio operators could be believed. There was nothing, apparently, that anyone could do about it. On our side of the ocean the gun batteries sank away in deepshadowed ruins twined with sea grapes, abandoned years ago to hermit crabs and spiders. God only knew what arrangements were on other shores. As for the world's air forces, those who held forth in the dining room believed that these flying circuses were all that was left of them, taking orders from nobody, mere wreckage circling the globe.

We can't choose the world we live in. But as I walked the streets that morning in the early sunlight, pausing at a plaza of quaking white petunias to look up to the great equestrian statue of General Luther Rollins-one of the planes had crashed just beyond into Jackson Park the night before and was surrounded by a knot of onlookers-I recalled decisions I'd made only vaguely in recent weeks and found a startling resolve in them. A thin, stooped man in black trousers and an old T-shirt peered down into the smoke-darkened windows of the plane, holding himself steady against its crumpled fuselage. Children climbed up onto the plane's wrenched wings, rocking the whole structure gently. Was there someone inside? This was all that Edward was asking for, after all, to be saved from plummeting God knows where his misfortunes would take him. Thousands fell around us, perhaps, yet he was the only one within my reach: should I snatch my hands away from him as a matter of principle, to be fair to everyone? Should I wait, perhaps, to make a better choice?

My uncle was staging an underwear exhibition that afternoon. It would be the perfect chance to approach him publicly. Normally he remained sequestered at the heart of his department store, at the bottom of a wide sloped theater of two-way mirrors and wall-to-wall carpeting where he sat at an octagonal desk terminal, smoking his cigars while gazing up to the gilt-edged secrets of the ladies' dressing rooms. And it should be known that his store was a favorite among the women of the city precisely because of its ornate fitting rooms, their polished glass walls ricocheting amber-lit images of his cherished customers like telescopes to heaven. Each time I was summoned to my uncle's throne room I felt like smuggling a hatchet in my trousers to yank free at an unguarded moment, to dash up to the mirrors and smash to pieces the bumptious fraud of his illusion. But I couldn't see frightening the ladies, crashing through their very spectres with a raised tomahawk. The walls were soundproof as well: all around my uncle as he chatted to one of his cronies on the telephone, keeping me waiting before him, they would look in, young girls adjusting the straps of their bathing suits, full-figured brides in white slips attended by nervous matrons, slack-mouthed bombshells hoisting jeans, their tawny hair falling about them as they zipped themselves up. In my uncle was the marriage of Freud and P.T. Barnum, and he pursued his opportunities to the limit, gazing to each of the windows as he talked with a slight turn of his swivel chair, the smoke curling up from his noxious cigars, softly blowing rings to innocent girls and old stooped women alike. Going through the store's correspondence, complaints of broken toys and torn dresses and puppies who sat alone in corners and wept, that morning in my little cell of an office high over the streets, I thought of what I could say to my uncle on Edward's behalf. When I called my friend at his office in the financial district, he wasn't there; I finally located him in his room, hung over, disguising his voice over the phone.

"He's not here right now-" came a whisper, as if from the far end of a drainpipe.

"Edward, it's me," I said, raising my voice in an effort to jar him from his lethargy. "We've got a chance to see my uncle this afternoon when he'll be very distracted. I think we can get you a new job today."

"Oh," he said. There was a long pause as he thought about this. "I need some coffee."

"Well, come down to my office and I'll make you a pot." I listened to the groan of his bedsprings, the slow struggle of rising into the centrifugal force of gravity, lifelong inertia, the roller coaster ride of stimulants and depressants. "Don't wear anything clever," I said to him, hearing a pause in his breathing as he listened to me. "And don't make me wait for you."

When he arrived his tie wasn't done right, his hair was crooked, and he'd gashed himself trying to shave. I led him down the hall to the bathroom to show him what he'd done, holding him before the speckled mirror over the sink to see himself. He smiled a little, nervously, then coughed up a mouthful of something: bending gingerly to the drain, he quivered as I held his arms. "It's all right," I whispered to him. "You'll do fine."

After a light lunch downstairs we crossed to the building across the street, riding my uncle's splendid escalators through shifting vistas of glass and chrome amid the Wednesday shoppers to the gallery on the store's fourth level. Rising under a bower of roses, we joined a hushed audience there under lights turned low. Ahead of us, on a bright grassy clearing sprinkled with buttercups, an assembly of vine-clad nymphs and fauns held hands. Small finches lit in the budding branches over the youths, flittering excitedly under the hot stage lights as a strange music of woodwinds and voices played around them. In the midst of the revelers a man and a woman knelt before one another, the woman in a loose camisole, her partner clad only in clinging leather briefs. The young man, his long dark hair wet to his shoulders, lost himself in caressing, kissing the smooth body before him; the woman's fingers spread into the mass of curled hairs up his stomach and chest. An announcer appeared then, a small, chesty woman in a lacy baby-doll shift carried bodily by a man in chains. She pursed her lips to a round cherry, resting one hand on the neck of her consort and raising a microphone with the other. "I love everybody!" she exclaimed, the audience warming to her in ripples of applause. "Now what do you think of that?" It was when she alighted from the man's arms before the lovers that I caught a brief glimpse of my uncle behind the dais, the gold curtains billowing slightly from his movements. "And now here's sweet little Brenda Darwin," the announcer continued, "in the prettiest pink corselet you've ever laid your eyes on, followed by a caveman from Borneo . . ."

We slipped into the curtains to the right of the audience, approaching my uncle slowly down the narrow passage between its billowing folds and the high concrete wall behind it. The spectacle of the models, the honeyed, dizzying glow of skin touching skin, had made its impression, especially on Edward. Inching his way along the wall he would suddenly tip toward the curtains and I would have to grab him by the arms to steady him. "Control!" I whispered in his ear, holding him back from the murmuring hum of the crowd. "It's just like driving." Now and then we'd gone for rides in Mrs. Callaher's huge shadowy car, ancient as Hiroshima, out into the country down midnight roads skirting the floodlands. The years had misaligned this wonderful machine, and more than once I'd yanked us from the brink of headlong drives down slopes of poison ivy and honeysuckle. And that was Edward's problem, it occurred to me: he was unable to follow a straight line. It didn't matter that failed men were being hoisted aboard ships and sent off to slaughter. It wouldn't matter if he was walking a bar high over a lake of smoking lime. I could only pray that if we ever got to my uncle, Edward would manage somehow to keep a straight face, speak coherently when he had to, and try to follow what my uncle was saying. Nobody knew math anymore-Edward would appear like an improbable angel, drifting from the heavens to dandle on my uncle's knee and read through his disarrayed ledger books. But my uncle was not a subtle man. If Edward behaved like a fool, my uncle would more or less assume he was one and would brush him aside.

But as we came upon my uncle peering through a break in the curtains at the end of the stage, I relaxed somewhat on this count. The man was in an even finer mood than I'd thought he'd be-hearing us approach, he turned to us with a sly grin, his round pink cheeks and little eyes all aglow. His smile disappeared into his mustache; for a time he stood balanced before us, short and stout, the dark pinstriped suit he wore giving him the mien of a port authority captain-a smiling, gentle sot, not knowing just what to say, taking Edward's hand in both of his as I introduced them. "It's good to see you, Edward," he rasped out warmly, his voice spare and hushed. "How do you like my little show here?"

"Well, sir," Edward said, rather brightly I thought, "you've certainly got their attention."

I thought it best here to tell my uncle what Edward did for a living, and mention that he was thinking of moving on into retail work. My uncle absorbed the information quietly, nodding as he looked to Edward.

"How's the stock market?" he asked suddenly. He made an unsteady motion with his hand, waving it a little, to indicate he wanted Edward to speak, not me.

Edward paused. It seemed like a bad moment for him. "Well, sir, it's havoc," he said forebodingly. "Society's a by-product. You think you're in the clear, and then some guy next to you-starts throwing up."

My uncle growled in assent, smacking his lips. "Ah, what does it mean?" he muttered. He turned to peer through the curtains, scratching his head. A woman in a shimmering brassiere and garter belt was sitting back with her hands behind her on the runway, her long legs dangling over the audience, cooing to the front rows. A priest in a flowing white robe decked with flowers stood behind her, tossing great red blossoms from a brass bowl over the heads of the audience.

"I feel so good!" the woman shouted, her breathy voice amplified all around her. "How do you feel?"

"It stopped meaning a long time ago," Edward answered, turning over what my uncle had said like a black worm under his tongue. "You're a despicable man," he went on abruptly. "I think you'd rape your own mother if you could-"

"How's that?" My uncle turned around again vaguely, a little too far at first; he took hold of Edward's arm to steady himself, his glance falling perplexedly on me for an instant, as if he couldn't figure out who I was. "I get dizzy just watching this stuff," he told Edward, confidentially this time. "How do you feel?"

Edward had been doing fairly well, I thought, and so had my uncle, but I could see now that both their attention spans were reaching their limits. I might have a minute, two at the most, to work with their souls. As the audience broke into gentle applause behind us, I laid a hand on each of their shoulders, turning my uncle a bit so that he was facing Edward. "He's ready to start living a better life," I told my uncle. "And I've brought him to you because I think a good man should work for a good company. And this," I said, gazing back and forth between them, fondly but deliberately confusing each with the other, "just might be as good as it gets-maybe the best man you'll ever know."

My uncle looked shyly at Edward; Edward stood quietly before him. Suddenly, my uncle took him in his arms and they embraced. Pilgrims in dark coats and hats were emerging now from the curtains behind the models, with pistols in their hands. "We'll find a safe place for you," my uncle murmured, patting Edward on the shoulder and turning his eyes wistfully away. Though his gaze was immediately caught again, like a child's, by the curious spectacle of the pilgrims stealing quietly among the trees toward his buxom idols, he seemed profoundly, almost sadly moved. "It's the least we can do for you, son," he said. "God knows, it's little enough we can do."

Charles Marvin's fiction has appeared in The Quarterly, MR, Northwest Review, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

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