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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

The Dolorous City
by Janet Mason ||
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The waves of her self were washing away. She joined the others--Thea, Danae, Art--in reaching out for those who were missing. Helen, Diane. They remained only as particles, moisture shrouded in its own mist. The sun was a quarter of itself spilling slowly into the waves. Its brilliant palette, magenta deepening to violet, a bridge between ocean and sky, rose and fell in great chunks of ocean, a solid moving mass.
      A low moaning surrounded her, tossed back and forth in frothy swells. In their grief, the girls were echoes of themselves. They followed the sun as it melted into its own reflection.

Adrianne was adrift in the waves of her own absence. She was forty years old and her misspent youth haunted her like never before. It was as if her life had been peeled away from the inside, leaving her gutted. Loud rock music pulsing from the car radio was not enough to fill her.
      Its volume was not enough to drown out the voices in her mind. The highway that transported her to her father's house was a strip of time unraveling.
      In the city, where she lived her adult life, she put the gleaming double ax around her neck. She wanted to remind herself that she had chiseled herself out of the highest point of her own existence.
      It didn't matter.

On her way to visit her father, she drove down the familiar highways of her youth. The shades of her former self were everywhere. Even if she had tried to run away from them, she couldn't have.
      They were on her heels, careening around on two wheels. They were whispering her name, screaming through night. She was spinning in a whirlwind of silence.
      She had breakfast with her father and they spoke in stilted silences.
      She asked about his week. She told him funny stories. She thought of herself as trying. Still, if language was a life rope, it would not be long enough to reach across the narrow restaurant table between them. Adrianne could not rescue her father.
      But she could take him shopping.
      He needed to pick up a few things at the local Stalwart.

The flat gray building with red letters was so long that it was the horizon.
      Inside, it contained everything. The clothes they sold might be second rate, seams on their way to nakedness; the electronics may not work when you get them home; there may not be anyone around to explain anything, but everything was there.
      All in one place, filled with need.
      It was a multinational corporation which, Adrianne had heard, was putting smaller stores out of business all over the country. But its real purpose was to make people feel better about their lives.
      It made Adrianne feel worse.

The parking lot covered miles. Even as she pulled in, driving past the row of stores on the far end, the shoe store, the dollar store, the pet store, the money store, part of her was pulling back away, gasping for air even as she breathed.
      How had this ever happened?
      When she was a child, this had been a large vacant field. Kites had flown above it in the spring. Every winter, the fire department made a lake which froze and was covered with skate marks. Things tend to get built up. But why hadn't this field become a school, a housing development, a graveyard?
      It had become an extension of insanity. And now everything was for sale.

Adrianne and her father walked along the pavement outside of the stores. Just before the massive gray block of Stalwart, the sign on a narrow storefront said:

Dante Alighieri's Pizzeria and Fine Dining

In her previous visits to Stalwart, Adrianne had never seen this place. It was as if it had magically appeared. She peered through the window into the dark interior. A man wearing a dirty white apron tied around his waist was cleaning the grill. His scraper moved back and forth, forwards and back. The grill never got any cleaner. Adrianne was captured by the futility of his rhythms.
      He was her Virgil, guiding her down below the surface of cheese steaks and fried onions. The sizzle of French fries. The heat of everything. Ushering her into the uppermost circles of Hell. The glass doors of Stalwart swung open in front of her.
      She had tried to talk to her father about Stalwart's unfair labor practices, its devastation of communities, its harboring of third world exploitation. All his life he had been a union man. He had marched in the nation's capital protesting NAFTA. But Stalwart's prices beat anything around. And once a month, they had a free breakfast for senior citizens who were veterans. Her father was one of the most stubborn people she knew. Adrianne followed him through the automatic doors.
      That's the way hell is, she thought. You just have to go there. As she passed the automatic sensors, Dante whispered in her ear:

Through me one goes into the dolorous city, Through me one goes into eternal woe, Through me one goes among the lost peoples.

She entered the store and was bombarded with everything. Metallic balloons, a snack bar, a woman giving out coupons, a bank of TVs stacked on each other, next to that a wall of boom boxes. Displays of cameras, jewelry. Sound systems. Stacked snowboards, a giant cage of basketballs, racks and racks of clothes, radios, toasters. Everything was turned on at once. A loud humming filled her ears, as Dante's words trailed from her mind:

Before me there were not things created, Except eternal, and I endure in eternity: Leave every hope, ye who enter.

Adrianne and her father circled round and round. They were looking for light bulbs, but all they could find were tropical fish, dog bones, sweaters, purses, back massager vibrators, plug-in plastic foot massagers, sporting gear, an entire aisle of lawnmowers. Racks and racks of magazines and paperback books she would never read. Adrianne, with her two good eyes, was no better than her half blind father at finding her way through the circles of hell that confined them.
      The items on the shelves started to look the same.
      They had passed this way before.
      In desperation for something familiar to hold onto Adrianne grabbed something that was jutting into the aisle.
      Do you need a toilet seat, Dad?
      Are you sure? Look, here's a white one with a pink rose on it.
      I need a light bulb.
      If they allowed themselves to become distracted from the mission of the light bulb they might be lost forever.
      They wandered the aisle of pots and pans, crammed onto the wall, hanging by black handles, teflon, nonstick everything, red, blue, stainless steel, more teflon.
      A bottomless world of teflon.
      Adrianne fell into a dream she had the night before.
      She dreamed that she lived in a large sunny house and the walls of every room were lined with pots and pans from floor to ceiling, not an inch of wall space showing. Every time Adrianne picked one up to put it away, another one would magically appear in its place. Soon the floors were filled with pots and pans, the shelves, the sink, the tub, the toilet. She was awash in pots and pans, lost in dreaming.
      We are in my dream, Adrianne said to her father.
      Then everything started to fall into place.
Her dreams were often prescient. She knew where she was going. She needed to take something with her, something that wouldn't multiply. She grabbed a manual can opener, blue plastic on its metal handles, and kept on going.
      Finally, the light bulb aisle. A wall of corrugated cardboard and glass. She read the small print with her father. They scanned shelves: up, down, across. One hundred and fifty types of light bulbs, and they didn't have the type her father was looking for.
      He needed a particular wattage, a specific shape.
      Nothing else would do.
      They would have to go to another store.
      Adrianne's vision was filled with things. They circled back through the aisles, some which were different and some the same. Dismayed they had come this far for nothing, Adrianne reached out in the aisle of the pens. She picked a pack out for herself, another one for her father.
      You need these, don't you?
      Her father studied the small print on the package. Then he looked at the price listed on the shelf underneath. Just to make sure, he checked it all again.
      Hell was a tiring place.
      Adrianne was exhausted.
      The pens were pillars that held her up.
      Her father put his pens back on the shelf.
      They're overcharging, he said.
The package of pens was twenty cents more than he wanted to pay. Adrianne was slightly exasperated. Then she remembered her father had worked three and a half decades of shift work for his pension. He didn't give up his years easily.
      Adrianne told him there were more pens in the package than she needed.
      I 'll give you half, she said.
      Her father nodded and they walked on.
      In the middle of the store was a cosmetic counter.
      Adrianne went over to spray the scents into the air.
      Several preteen girls were on the other side of the counter, trying on the sample lipstick, peering into the mirror to see what they would look like when they were grown and desired. They turned to each other and giggled. Adrianne wondered what would happen if this moment were expanded to eternity. What if, having seen how ridiculous it was, they refused to participate in the future being sold to them? One of the girls had long flat blond hair. Adrianne hadn't known her high school friend Diane when they were children, but this is what she imagined she looked like. A helmet of hair molding her head before it was cut into a breeze. A pointy nose that in itself was a question. Eyes that saw everything when she looked in the mirror: a future that looked ridiculous.
      The girls had lost interest in knowing everything. They were eyeing the counter, counting the ways in which they could hasten adolescence. There was eye shadow to cloud their vision, waterproof mascara to make it last, foundation makeup to cover everything, including themselves. There were sparkles they could put on their face, on their nails. Sparkles to turn them into stars.
      Adrianne remembered her own preteen life and how it had led her to be one among the Maenads. She transformed her lunch money into silver eye shadow, hidden in the recesses of her cut off jeans shoulder bag. More lunch money was lit up in cigarettes, perfume masking her scent-stained fingertips.

Girls are good at giving themselves up.
      Anything to want, to be wanted.
      Was it all an extension of young female minds seeking reflections at cosmetic counters? How had the question of their own beauty--translated into their worth--been so deeply embedded in their minds? She wondered how it had happened so fast. She and the others--Helen, Diane, Thea, Danae, Art--falling prey to frenzy.
      It had happened that fast. Clandestine eye shadow to cigarettes, to joints, to amphetamines, Quaaludes, Black Beauties and Crystal Meth. For starters.
      She wondered if Dionysos had looked for signs. If he had watched them looking in mirrors, searching faces that were absent of themselves, faces that so wanted to be seen no matter what the price.
      Of course he did.
      All the manifestations of Dionysos did.
      She was set up and the others too, never to return to themselves.
      Helen, Diane, Thea, Danae, Art--herself, Adrianne.
      They had been an unbroken circle, destined for frenzy.
      All those hormones--their bodies surging past themselves.
      They refused to the let the future define them. They were not goody two shoes, or brains, or nerds. They would not be the good housewives of tomorrow, or its stenographers. They would not tend its sick, teach its children, or stand on its assembly lines.
      They were the present whirling in the dervish of now.
      In another century in another village, the women would have danced all night to bring the girls back to themselves. The bite of the spider a sexual repression. The Tarantata its only cure. Village women would have stamped up swirls of dirt with their bare feet. They would have writhed on their backs in fallow fields. The sky would have entered them and the earth would have felt its own undulations.
      Helen, Diane, Thea, Danae, Art.
      This would have cured them from depression, from suicide, from giving themselves up. But it wasn't another century, another village. All that was left was the memory of Dionysos. The Maenads' frenzy was turned back on themselves. They devoured themselves and they were devoured. Dionysos bragged of goading them to ecstasy of sending them mad and witless into the mountains. He had enticed them with their own drum, the beat he made from their own Mother Earth.
When Adrianne was twelve, science fiction fascinated her. She lived in the future then, one she could not later imagine for herself.
      She wondered if the girls at the cosmetic counter could look in the mirror and see a future. In the part of her that had abandoned hope, she could see the years overtake them.
      My mother's out with her boyfriend. I have to buy her a carton of cigarettes, said one girl to the other. As she spoke the features of her face flattened. Adrianne could see lines take hold of the corners of her lips, and a crease fold the center of her forehead. She saw that nothing ever changes and that this girl would grow old inhaling the residue of her mother's second hand life.
      On the way to the checkout line, Adrianne picked up a ball of twine.
      She was unraveling fast and had to find her way back.
      There were nine checkout lines at the entrance and exit of hell, looping around into eternity. She was nowhere near the dismembered lake and nowhere near the island of her own existence. But she could smell the vapors of the Miasma rising. The Miasma was what she thought she had left behind. The mess she had once made of her own life.
      Its vapors were contained in silence.
      What Is Not Spoken Of left glaring absences in herself and the others.
Time was spent and eternity bought.
      What Is Not Spoken Of. A gaping hole begging to be filled.
      Their purchases would outlive them all as they left behind dumpsters filled with themselves. Adrianne was among the lost souls as she stood in line with her can opener, her pens, her ball of twine.
      Even as she struggled to stay in the present, a part of herself split off. She was preparing for the descent. If she didn't go willingly, a hand would reach up and pull her under. Adrianne was only half afraid of the dark. She knew that good things could be found there as well as the rest. She would face herself in the Leopard, the Lion and the She-Wolf. Lust, Pride, and Arrogance would lose their holds on her. She would pass through the gates of Denial and Fear. If she went far enough, the waves would crash into the sun and the Maenads would rise up singing.

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