This is the Optative of Unfulfillable Wish
Kyle Bradley Cassidy
"In present and past unreal conditions the prostasis implies that the supposition cannot or could not be realized because contrary to a known fact." -- Smythe's Greek Grammar 2303
After graduation I left my apartment and moved across the river into a house. It is a big, fat house on the hard edge of the city -- edge enough that the houses here have backyards and hard enough that they're surrounded by razor wire.
"Welcome to the 'hood," my new landlord had said, the ink not even dry on the lease. I found him looking at me, grinning with the disquieting implication that he knew more than he was letting on. The move itself was five leisurely trips in a borrowed green pickup truck whose tired radio dribbled country-and-western music from one melancholy speaker and whose fan buzzed ceaselessly like a steel bee in a trash can. I had, at the time, possessed reservations about moving to the city, but I signed the lease with reckless glee and the witless assumption that Dr. Pangloss was right and everything was for the best.
Here everything seems vague, like a picture in a museum you looked at with no particular interest before finding out that the artist shot himself in the eye with a ten-gauge shotgun because he was jilted by the queen of Turkmenistan, and now that you're interested, you can recall only general shapes. The faces come and go. This house is a port town, inhabited by nomads who have other destinations in mind. We are mobbed by transient sailors who leave Chinese food in the fridge and then depart for exotic and faraway lands, leaving others as Keepers of the Slime Molds.
Not all of the faces here are so ethereal -- some have remained constant. It is, as often as not, friends and relations who traipse through the house like hobos. None have remained so stolid as Sir Fickwickwood, the affectionate gray tabby of unsubstantiated ownership who last night amazed us all by surviving a three-story fall into the backyard after making a heroic leap from a nearby rooftop into the window of David-the-Archeologist -- thwarted by a pane of glass.
Aside from David-the-Archeologist, there is David-Who-Works-For-the-Discovery-Channel, where he produces educational films about insects. His room on the third floor is stuffed with raw videotape footage, most of it silent and much of it dull, which he watches endlessly: scribbling down counter numbers and sending out for rough cuts, slowly distilling hundreds of hours of film, thousands of hours of lives, into 30 minutes that will keep a fourth grader interested. He, like Gregor Samsa, is slowly turning into a bug.
There is also Marty-the-Other-Archeologist (most places can barely afford one archeologist; it is a flagrant and vulgar display of wealth for us to support two): Martine, who was born in France to wealthy parents and came here to study dilettantism where it is best practiced. At dinner he informs us that ancient Greeks measured dry goods and food "by the assload." We think this is perilously funny and can't stop snickering all evening.
Marty works for a company that produces a popular series of books instructing readers on how to lie convincingly about their occupations, ostensibly for the purpose of picking up women. The volume he is currently writing teaches the layman how to carry on a conversation as though he were a foreign consul. The guide gives lists of answers to questions frequently posed to diplomats by attractive young coeds at parties, names of exotic countries that one may claim to have been stationed in, the proper attire, a list of buzzwords that no one understands, and a smattering of phrases in ludicrous languages. I ask him if he wants to write books for the rest of his life. He tells me an idea for an archeology book. It would claim that the Pharaohs were from outer space; that the Greeks had conquered time and death, invented the toaster, and discovered electricity; that crop circles were telegraphs to God fashioned by superintelligent boll weevils left here as the overlords of humanity; and a thousand other wild things. "I would be hated by my colleagues," he says, apparently in a trance, "but my book would sell millions." And in the end, what is so wrong about misleading a few million rubes? I realize that he has thought long and hard about this.
Every afternoon after waking, I make the adventuresome trek into the backyard, where I sit beneath the rosebush and trudge through Moby Dick. I plow like a bullock toting its load, I plod from line to line, furrow to furrow, digging channels in my mind and filling them with Transcendentalist droppings. This is perhaps the twentieth time I have attempted to read Moby Dick, and I am sworn to finish it this time. I have vowed to see Ahab's beckoning arm as the white whale sounds for the last time, the Pequod sinking from sight and Ishmael bobbing along like Job's last servant, clinging to Queequeg's coffin. And what after this? Perhaps a week of science fiction novels to clear my brain.
Today the neighborhood children are out back, jumping over a jagged razor-wire fence into the sanctity of an old woman's garden, quarantined from all but the youngest and most bored by these gleaming, lacerating steel ribbons. I divide my time evenly between the thickness of whale blubber and looking up at a long string of kids who are laughing and leaping over the blades as though they are playing on a water slide. A ball lands in my yard. Gleeful at the opportunity for legitimized fence scaling, the neighborhood queues up. "Wait," I say, lifting the ball, "I'll throw it back." Long faces -- no opportunity to test young limbs against metal and thorns. This urban army-in-training might defeat the wire, but the rosebush would claim victims.
Inside, my abstract housemates are engaged in a long variety of Sysiphian tasks: doing laundry, guarding the television (which must be kept on the Discovery Channel at all costs), cooking packages of frozen food, typing... one is learning Chinese, another laboring over Sanskrit... these are all very dedicated if ambiguous people, toiling over self-imposed afflictions of arduous endeavor with no tangible reward. The archeologists sgrpeak ancient Greek to one another over dinner -- a more amazing feat than one would imagine, as ancient Greek is apparently not a language that lends itself to conversation: the grammar is so astoundingly complex that it takes a full five minutes of brain-bursting concentration to properly conjugate "Please pass the butter." After seven or eight sentences punctuated by long silent minutes of sweating frustration and hair pulling, the archeologists crawl away from the table like whipped dogs and into the relative safety of the living room, where a new episode of Beavis and Butt-head is on television.
We are all graduated, degreed in something equivocal and useless and pursuing loftier goals for lack of anything better to do. We are comfortable in academia and we also realize that once we leave this succoring bosom, we are largely qualified to perform no task for which money can be gotten. For this reason, our diplomas ceremoniously line the bathroom wall. Marty's B.A. from Rice University is conspicuous for the glob of pizza grease smack in the middle, which I dropped on it one drunken evening.
There is no idealism here in our house of learned fools -- no lofty politics guide our conversations, which are just as empty, though more extravagant, as those we enjoyed when we were undergraduates.
Claudia walks through the house, trying on a shapeless black beret in a number of arrangements that make her look, in turn, like: a New York debutante; Lorenzo de' Medici; an acorn. None of these please her. The original goal, I am now told, was to appear "French." Claudia and I have become abstractly involved and spend much of our time milling about in thrift stores and trying on one another's clothes. Sometimes Claudia says that I seem distant, but it is only because I am thinking. I have told her that. Claudia herself spends much of the day dancing in rings to music that only she can hear.
I have devised elaborate methods of keeping my food hidden from transient tenants, all of whom are voracious eaters and prodigious book-borrowers. Over the past months a veritable hoard of houseguests has been steadily picking at my stores of rice and beans and has left me with only skeletal remains of a once-noble collection of the works of Mark Twain, complete in 31 volumes. They are all looking for something, moving like turtles with all their worldly possessions upon their backs but lacking that animal's grace and packing sensibility. They bring with them the most amazing assortment of broken and useless devices: telephones that do not dial, umbrellas made of wire and rags, televisions whose pictures continually jerk to the right in a sort of drunken vision -- but above all, dishes. Our kitchen resembles the crockery department at Woolworth's after a minor earthquake. We possess place settings enough to invite the whole of Congress to lunch. Perhaps four of these plates match one another. Most of them spend their time lying in the sink, coated with hardened spaghetti sauce and miscellaneous bits of crusted things. Teapots are best filled in the bathtub, where the spigot, though white with dried soap, is largely unencumbered. We also have silverware in great abundance. If smelted down, all these utensils would provide ample raw material to fashion a cannon and enough ammunition to sink a sizeble navy.
There is someone living in the basement. I've seen him only once. In the kitchen he scurried past me and down the stairs, muttering, " 'scuse me." I can't even see people anymore; they have evaporated from my head. But this one I can hear playing video games with the rapt attention of a Buddhist monk. Zaps and bangs and squeals can be heard through the floorboards for twelve or sixteen hours a day. One afternoon I hear him leave, and I sneak into his room, feeling the constricted glee of one committing a crime. It is like looking through a dead person's belongings. Nameless people in creased photographs lying under old newspapers and cigarette butts. A mammoth television with a Sega Genesis plugged into it. A bleeding beanbag chair, a dirty mattress, and a broken copy of Atlas Shrugged. Indecipherable albums by disco musicians. I back away in revulsion.
There are sirens all day long here. It is as though the city is burning down forever, one house at a time. The homeless people are not affected by the fires -- the whole city could burn to ashes and they wouldn't lose a thing. If tomorrow Philadelphia were expunged like another Gomorrah they would be the luckiest people alive. Amidst the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the loss of fortunes and houses hard won, the vagabond would suffer only his daily dose of melancholy. A reprieve from the gods -- when you've nothing to lose, you've nothing to lose. Rain bothers only those who live above the water.
Claudia: baiting Sir Fickwickwood with the anchovial remnant of a pizza. The cat is not interested and remains perched on a wall, awaiting the Second Coming. "We're adults," she says. "We can let the cat climb up on the table, and we can let him eat off of our plates."
"I never felt like an adult," I tell her, "until I bought my first bar of soap. In the Acme, after I had first moved out, when I realized that I didn't have to get Dove anymore because I was paying for it. It was going to be my bar of soap, and I could get any bar of soap that I wanted. I could get Lava, or Irish Spring, I could get Ivory because it floated in the tub. I'd always wanted a bar of Ivory soap because it floated in the tub. It seems so practical."
In this pocket world that exists within the razor wire we have a collective definition of reality: house rules -- codes of conduct upheld and violated by all alike. Whose turn is it to buy detergent? Who takes out the garbage? Don't leave the front door unlocked. Don't park in front of the garage....
All in all, we are good people -- in that belief I am secure. We are well intentioned, motivated and aimless. We have picked directions and blindly pursued them because we cannot see further than what's on TV this afternoon. "Our whole generation has been brainwashed by MTV!" I shout up the stairs after Marty. "That's not true!" he calls back, "heh-heh heh heh heh." We are all cyberpunks, digirati. We are capable of carrying on meaningless conversations at the speed of light and we can't go an hour without reading our e-mail.
Claudia hands me a lime freeze frosty. The green ones are the best and we both know this.
We are sitting in the backyard. As I tilt my head back and pull on the plastic, a child's balloon hurtles by overhead, far above the razor wire, a spaceship of sadness and desolation. "Look," I say to Claudia, pointing, "aliens."
"I can hear a kid crying," she says.
I call constance, who lives three blocks away. "Come on over," she says, and I do. At one time Constance was my best friend, my confidante, my accomplice. It's been a long time since that hazy and distantly remembered summer when we spent almost every day together, mostly eating and planning with sumptuous complexity the location, consistency, and duration of our next meal. Seven dodecahedrons and one lone cube of hot summer days rolled over us, banging their hard and lumpy sides down into our world, clump, clump, clump. In pieces they were completed, their facets not too terribly distinct from each another -- yet together they formed a perfect shape.
There were dots of adventure, such as the August when I cut her lawn for the first time. It had grown to a height of perhaps four feet, tough and sinewy weeds that the lawn mower would not even begin to consider devouring. So, dressed in blue denim cutoff shorts that I still own, carrying a scythe we found in the shed, I spent five absorbed hours playing either Willa Cather or Death, garnering a set of monumental blisters, hewing down cities of straw. Dynasties of entomology crashing before me, I the tyrant, I the destroyer: Your worlds are dust. Where was David-Who-Works-For-the-Discovery-Channel that day when I made homeless a thousand crickets and their myriad children?
Constance is somehow better than when I last saw her. Her hair has acquired some definition if not purpose. Her clothes have achieved a mature sense of style. She is sitting on her porch playing guitar, waiting. I have never been to this house of hers before, and it is late at night.
"Guess what," she says when I climb the porch stairs. She smiles and I say the first thing that anybody thinks when an old friend says "guess what" to you like that.
"I'm pregnant," she says, giggling.
"Is this a Good Thing?"
"This is a Good Thing."
"What are you going to do?"
"The Get-Married, Buy-a-House Thing. The Whole Thing."
"Big wedding and lace?"
"The whole thing. The big thing, and I want you to be there. I want you to take pictures at my wedding."
"Congratulations." I hug her and it is good to see her again, but still there is something missing. We are no longer the crazy kids we once were, though as we go inside I am gratified to see that she still has the lamp that I made for her out a dressmakers' dummy. It is wearing a new shade, green and sloping with tassels hanging from clamshell fluting, and a denim jacket. Thankfully this is touting a collection of buttons printed with left-wing slogans. I am glad to see everything that remains.
Constance makes popcorn. We eat it and wipe our fingers on cloth napkins. I tell her about Claudia.
"Did I meet her?"
"Yes, I think so, maybe that time -- but we weren't, she and I, not then..."
There is something we had before that we no longer possess. Perhaps it is passion, perhaps it is recklessness, or perhaps it is that now we are aware of our boredom. In 21 years, Constance's child will lie in the grass with a great friend and mull over what can be the most important thing in the world only when you are still 20 years old: What shall we do tomorrow? And the next day, and the next? And the next 20 years? But today, Constance and I sit at her dining-room table and we talk about the things of no importance that are now our lives and although we talk and smile, we are both only half there, the other half is buried away in some lost summer. And in the backs of our heads, a dull, relentless, quiet voice asks us: What is it all for? We talk and we grasp for the things that are left in the dark hole that was once our youth. We try to remember what it was like, and pretend that this is better.
And in the end, some second of our life will be our last. And in that span of time, the stoic face of Death will look down at us and ask: What have you done?
Kyle Bradley Cassidy (email@example.com) lives in Philadelphia with his lovely wife Linda and her 28-pound cat Thunderbelly. He has been a frequent contributor to InterText. He also has a great collection of fountain pens. (Bio last updated in 1996.)
InterText stories written by Kyle Bradley Cassidy: "Circles: A Romance" (v2n6), "What Are You Looking For, China White?" (v3n2), "The Nihilist" (v3n3), "The True Story of the Gypsy's Wedding" (v3n5), "Bread Basket" (v3n5), "The Monkey Trap" (v4n5), "This is the Optative of Unfulfillable Wish" (v6n1).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 6, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1996 Kyle Bradley Cassidy.