So here's a story of which you may have seen parts before, which does not contain any sexual transgression unless you count that one of the characters used to be a prostitute, but that doesn't seem very transgressive to me despite what all the dead white guys thought who formed the bulk of my deviance curricula in college. ("Nuts and Sluts," such classes are called, as half of the study of deviance has historically consisted of dudes trying to figure out why women engage in prostitution, and mostly concluding that it's because they're evil or crazy. The other half of the study of deviance is Cesare Lombroso measuring criminals' heads.) Actually, "Deviance Curricula" would be a good name for the series of stories of which the following is a part, which I currently call "Zeppo and Friends." There's also the stock answer I give people in bars and cafés who ask me what I'm writing in my eternal series of spiral notebooks. I tell them that
As the sun rose, the light moved in narrow bars down the wall and across the sloping floor. It moved across Tancred's body so that he lay like a man dismembered -- here a nose, the corner of a mouth, two fingers, as still as a dead man's. Was he suffering inside? Tiffy wished he would thrash and struggle under the weight of his nightmares, the way other people did. She wished that at such times she might take hold of him, unannounced, and drag him bodily out of Hell.
"Tancred," she whispered. It was such a fine name to say, she would say it sometimes when he could not possibly hear. She had said it immediately after hearing it for the first time, and she had been lying down that time too, pressing a bloody towel between her bloody legs on an examination table. She had closed her eyes against the dizziness and through the curtain that separated her cubicle from the next had heard a man say, "Tancred Hill?"
"Tancred Hill," she had whispered to herself, not sure if it was a name or a diagnosis.
Now she said, "Were you dreaming?" because she saw his fingers move and knew his eyes were open though she could not see them.
"Yes," he said.
"Good or bad?"
"I want to touch you."
Their mattresses lay two feet apart on the bare floor, exactly parallel. According to Tancred excessive tidiness was a malignancy, unnatural and life-negating, and he would have cured himself of it if he could, but he couldn't. Every time they moved (which they did often) he would feel himself compelled to pile the books neatly against the wall and arrange the mattresses parallel to each other. Each morning, unless it was one of his worst days, he made both of them up with hospital corners. Tiffy, who had lived in filth, who had woken up many mornings bloody from bedbug bites, loved this tidiness and told him so; he replied that tuberculosis had made its victims' eyes glitter and their cheeks flush pink, and that this too had been thought lovely until they began to cough up blood. But he could not be easy in his mind otherwise.
He got up now to push the mattresses together. One could not have contained them both; his could barely contain him. Procrustean, he called it, though she said it was not the mattress's fault he was so big. It was constantly amazing to her that he was of the same species as all the other people in the world. His size was not the only reason for this, but it was the most obvious.
As he eased himself into her arms she heard a train rattling into the station two blocks away. The thread of noise raveled out into the air. "Tell me," she said, feeling her nakedness as something new and wonderful. Those people on the train were all wearing clothes, and not one of them was lying with Tancred. She could never hold as much of him as she would have liked, but here was his breast, here were his shoulders, all for her. He was like a fortress, and figured as one in some of her happier dreams.
"Nothing unusual," he said, for his terrors were repetitive, and bad dreams were among the lesser of his problems. Worse things happened to him while he was awake, things that were not supposed to happen to living men. Ghosts saw other ghosts, of course, and the dead suffered in their particular ways (though he always hesitated to use the word Hell), but Tancred saw and felt these things too. He did not do it on purpose but it happened. There was beauty too, though sometimes of a frightening kind. An ordinary object, such as a tree, might stand sharp and clear in his vision, as if it were carved from black onyx; each separate leaf, each tooth of each leaf, would make itself known to him at once. And finally sometimes he felt himself to be possessed, not as in the traditional sense by any single consciousness but by the world at large, which signaled him in certain noises and arrangements of light and motion. He would act and know himself to be acting but have no control over what he did. Could his actions at such times, condoned by the entire world, be evil -- could they be said to have any moral value? The question troubled him. This was why he had been in the hospital that night. He had been blown up by a roadside mine in Afghanistan, he told the doctor, and it had broken him in several places, but he had been told he had made a complete recovery. It was obvious that he had not. His ribs and his spine were whole again but there was more to a man than that. Was it possible, he wanted to know, to be dead, but not completely?
This had seemed like a reasonable question to Tiffy (whose eyes were still closed against the bright blank panel in the ceiling, such a terrible fixture for a hospital where people might be dying, wondering if bright blankness was all that awaited them) but must not have seemed so to the doctor, because she could hear him leaving abruptly. The man called Tancred Hill was silent.
"Did you really get blown up?" she asked.
"Yes," he said, without surprise -- as if, she thought, it was not unusual for him to carry on conversations with people he could not see. Because it would not have been fair to let him think she was a ghost she said, "I'm right here, behind this curtain."
She heard him draw it back; she heard him say, "But you are bleeding to death," and wondered if it was true. It seemed to her that as long as she did not look at the bright blank panel she would not die.
So that was Tancred Hill. "This woman is dying," he had said to somebody, and she had not died. When she saw him again, the next day, she felt keenly the lack of a fine martial name. There was only her scrap of a name, barely human, more fitting for a dog. She did not like it. It had not been worth trying to protect, as some women did theirs, with a lurid false one. "Tiffy Guzman," she told him, and he accepted it, as earlier he had accepted her disembodied voice, with no indication that he found it absurd.
"I am a whore," she told him, to see if he would accept that too, and he nodded. But probably he had guessed it already from the way she had been dressed the night before. How silly it would have been to die in those shoes.
"I am a killer," he said. Of course he was: other kinds of people did not get blown up by roadside mines in Afghanistan, did they? Tiffy knew what it was to have a broken body, she knew what it was to have death inside her where life should have been.
The narrow bars of light picked out sections of her fingers resting on sections of his shoulder. "Let's be awake," she said. Tancred stood and opened the blinds and the sunlight came in, its arrows golden in his hair.
"Good morning, Mrs. Hill," he said, very solemnly, and she laughed.
* * *
"I was thinking of my shoes," she said. "Remember those shoes?"
"They were ridiculous," he said. She was referring to the boots she had been wearing when they met, boots of white imitation patent leather. The blood running down her legs had collected in them and, though she was no longer standing, still oozed from beneath the shiny white straps. Tancred knew from experience how easy the human body was to puncture or rip apart, but he had never seen it sabotage itself like this. Perhaps this was a type of death peculiar to women, whose blood had been God's first punishment upon humanity. Humanity could continue only through women's blood, only through the disgorging of women's life in thick black gouts. Evil, oh God, evil ruled the world!
The woman on the table had her eyes squeezed shut and as a nurse put a needle in her arm for the transfusion she groped for his hand and moved it to rest over her face. "That's right, don't look," said the nurse, but Tancred knew it was not the needle the woman on the table feared. When the nurse left he remained with his hand over her eyes.
"It's nice of you to stay with me," she said.
"What is it you don't want to see?" he asked.
"Death." That made sense: hospitals were full of death. What would the word be for that? Yes: thanatophoric. White-tiled rooms were thanatophoric. Tancred was never at ease among surfaces designed for frequent cleaning.
"It's in the ceiling," she explained, but not as if the fact troubled her. In terror he felt her eyelashes flutter against his palm as she opened her eyes. How could she trust him, of all people, to shield her from death? Hadn't she heard what he'd said to the doctor? "I was going to have a baby," she added.
"Close your eyes," he pleaded.
"In a minute." But she must have pitied him because her hand came up to rest over his. "Say your name again," she said.
"Tancred Hill." He felt her eyes close. The lashes swept downward and trembled there between her cheek and his hand. "Will you come back?"
She fell asleep. At that very moment the doctor came back with several orderlies to place Tancred in a forty-eight-hour psychiatric hold, because the face of the earth was bristly with traps, and because (the doctor said) they were not satisfied that he was not a danger to himself or others. What had been the meaning of all that talk about being dead? What was he doing with his hand over that woman's face?
Tancred realized that he didn't know her name.
It would be useless to explain that he and she had been in league against death, but he thought an analogy might help to make things clearer. Did the doctor know that the son of a vampire and a mortal woman was called a dhampir, and had special powers over the undead, having been as it were inoculated with death at his conception? But the doctor failed to see the relevance, here among the white tiles, of mythology spawned in mud huts, and so Tancred ended up on the psychiatric ward, which was, if nothing else, a valuable lesson in the kind of thing to avoid discussing with doctors. There he sat in an armchair while Vanowen lectured him about the nature of death. As Vanowen was himself dead, this was a topic on which he had a great deal to say. And Tancred, who did not generally care to be lectured, thought it would be unkind of him to tell Vanowen to shut up.
The living thought of death as a cessation of the self, said Vanowen, but this was the problem, the self didn't cease, it was stuck on like a rusted switch. Did Tancred think Vanowen liked following him to these thanatophoric places? (Tancred thought Vanowen liked it very much, but did not say so.) No, he was stuck on, as all the dead were who had died since the early nineteen-hundreds. Something or other had gone terribly wrong then, and the situation was getting very serious. "Eight billion?" he had said, and laughed in that nasty way the dead had. Did Tancred think it was a coincidence that Plutus, god of wealth, had a name so like that of Pluto, god of death? "Oh no, Tank, oh no. There is no one as rich as death. There is no king with so many subjects."
In life Vanowen had not, as most people had, called him Tank. They had been friends, of course; but that hardly justified Vanowen's continued presence in a world that had made such a production of rejecting him. Tancred had been at the funeral, had watched as the triangular flag was placed in the hands of the brother or cousin who had not known how to hold it and who stood, finally, clutching it to his breast like a load of textbooks -- while in the hole below them Vanowen in pieces lay sealed in a box to protect their eyes from him. Tancred had bitten his hands to keep from laughing out loud. They believed they could be rid of him that way, that they could weigh down the dead with their own names carved in stone. Such arrogance was ridiculous; yet no one else was laughing. That was when Tancred had realized he was no longer fully in league with the living.
But when, as now, in the psych ward, he asked Vanowen how the self could be unstuck, and where the dead would go when that happened -- where Vanowen would go -- Vanowen said that he was not allowed to know that. Surely Tancred didn't think he was a friend to the dead now, just because he had become an enemy to the living? Oh no, oh no.
Nor would Vanowen tell him how to find the woman he had met in the examination room. But later that evening someone did.
He had pale, arachnoid fingers and a patch of graying mouse-colored hair over each ear. He didn't wear scrubs but he was hospital staff, as indicated by the badge clipped to his left breast pocket. "Tancred Hill?" he asked, and when Tancred said yes he removed a pair of glasses from his right breast pocket, placed them on his nose, and turned his attention to the photocopy he held.
"You asked Dr. Abelow if it is possible to be partially dead," he said after a few moments. "What did you mean by that?"
Tancred looked around, but Vanowen had gone. "The self," he said, but the rest of the sentence wouldn't come. "Are you a doctor?"
"No," said the man. "I'm a medical transcriptionist. I transcribed your file."
That being the case, there was no harm in telling him about the dhampir, so Tancred did. The transcriptionist's reaction was much more gratifying than Dr. Abelow's had been. He seemed particularly impressed by the phrase inoculated with death. But was the vampire always the father? Was there no such thing as the offspring of a vampire and a mortal man? The transcriptionist had sat down by now in the neighboring armchair.
Tancred thought about it. "There's a kind of Malaysian ghoul called a pontianak that's the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth," he said. Pontianaks ate men's intestines. He had learned about them from the same book that had told him about dhampirs, which he had taken out of the library shortly after his return to the States. "What happened to the woman who was in the room next to mine? Did she live? What's her name?"
"I don't know anything about that," said the transcriptionist. His brow contracted above his murky brownish eyes.
"I want to see her again," said Tancred. "She's Latina, maybe five foot two, dark skin. She'd had a miscarriage."
The transcriptionist pursed his lips.
"I promised," said Tancred.
"Not until you find her for me," said Tancred. And his heart thumped wildly long after the transcriptionist had gone.
He came back early the next morning, after breakfast. "She's alive," he said. "I can take you to her. But in return you have to tell me what I want to know."
"What do you want to know?"
Out came the photocopy and the glasses. The transcriptionist's brow was smooth now; a smile tugged at the corners of his lips; he had what Tancred wanted. "In Afghanistan you sustained injuries from an IED," he said.
"Injuries to several of your vertebrae, in addition to your skull and brain."
"And my spleen." They had simply removed that; perhaps its lack made him less attractive to pontianaks.
"And these injuries prompted your question to Dr. Abelow."
"That's what I want to know about," said the transcriptionist.
"All right," said Tancred.
So that was how he found her again. Tiffy was her name. Tiffy Guzman.
* * *
"Tiffany, is it?" These were Declan's first words to her, as he led her and Tancred into the stuffy parlor and seated them. The room was dim, the insufficient light of several lamps fixed in starry points on the knobs of the fender and smeared like jam over the glazed crimson tiles of the vacant fireplace. There were twinklings in the crystal drops that fringed a lampshade; another lamp was a bunch of lilies, each frosted glass trumpet glowing. Too clean, she knew Tancred was thinking, eyeing with distaste the scrubbed tiles, the clock snapping off the seconds on the marble mantelpiece, the thin shining hearth. She wondered what it was like to be the kind of person who lived in a place like this. The first thing she would have done, if she had lived there, would have been to take the deer head off the wall and burn it. Fortunately it was not mounted at such an angle that it appeared to be watching her.
"Just Tiffy," she said. She could have explained that her mother had had a fight with her sister Ann, and had taken the sound of her name out of Tiffy's name for spite, but it was a strange thing about that story, how it changed depending on who heard it. When she told it to Tancred it had been funny and a little bit sad, but she had a feeling that if she told it to Declan it would just be stupid. Probably just the kind of trashy behavior he expected from people who didn't have dead animals on their walls. Anyway it was Tancred he wanted; he sat smiling among his feminine objects, his spindle-legged chairs of soft gold velvet, waiting to devour the man she loved. "Do you live here alone?" she asked, thinking that surely hadn't crocheted the doilies.
He thought about this and then answered, "At the moment," so that she had to stifle her laughter until she and Tancred were alone again, in the sweet free air, and she could clutch his sleeve and gasp, "The doilies!"
"And why not?" he asked. Couldn't a man crochet a doily? And he held his big hands up before his face with a mournful expression, so that she gave a little scream of laughter and said she took it back, she took it all back, of course a man could crochet a doily. That's what they'd said at the hospital that Tancred needed -- a hobby. Probably, she said, needlework was precisely what they'd had in mind.
After that he would from time to time address her as Tiffany-is-it? or, if Declan was present, merely raise one eyebrow to let her know he was thinking it.
Now, having disposed of her conversationally, Declan said to Tancred, "Thank you for coming." (It wasn't fair, was it, to think less of him because his ears stuck out? Hers might stick out too if she were bald. But Tancred's hair was cut close and his ears didn't stick out.) He had a sheaf of papers photocopied from somewhere, and from one of them he read that Tancred W. Hill had suffered fracture of his C1, C2, C4, T6, and T7 vertebrae, as well as extensive fracture of the frontal and temporal bones of the skull, with attendant swelling of the brain and meninges that had made ventriculostomy necessary to reduce intracranial pressure. Was that accurate? It was. Tancred had been disappointed to learn that they didn't call it trephination anymore. Trephination let evil spirits out. It was odd that there was never any mention of what it might let in.
"And these injuries…inoculated you?"
Was that what he'd meant? Tancred tried to think. Torn, his body and soul had leaked into each other, and now both were contaminated. Bodies and souls were all right as long as they were separate, but it was like stirring sugar into coffee: you couldn't stir it out again.
And since then had he noticed any changes in his mental state? Was his attention span shorter, did he find it harder to concentrate, was he more talkative? Tiffy was looking at him curiously, wanting to know the answers also. Doubtless she was thinking of him as he had been, standing stiff in a stiff line of identical uniforms, or listening to Vanowen say, "What do you think?" which had turned out -- she knew this story -- to be Vanowen's last words, the last words before the world vanished and then rushed back leaving Tancred blinking without the slightest diminishment of consciousness at the unbearably bright blue sky. Because it was an explosion there must have been sound, but he didn't remember any. Since then was his attention span shorter? It was hard to say. He startled more easily, he said, wanting to be helpful.
"And you are sometimes violent," said Declan, consulting his photocopies.
"I am, sometimes, violent without meaning to be," said Tancred, slowly. This sentence took effort to produce, the most confusing part being the word I. That word referred to the thing that observed, which was supposed to be the thing that controlled his hands and arms, but when the violence happened --
"What do you mean, without meaning to be?"
This was easier. To return to the previously useful example of vampires, did Declan know how they attacked people, traditionally? Traditionally, the victim woke with the vampire sitting on his chest and strangling him. There was no way to fight back; the victim was paralyzed as the vampire stole his blood and breath.
"Is that what you do?" asked Declan, his pen scratching along the pages of a spiral notebook with a green cover. "You strangle people?"
"No!" cried Tiffy, indignant. Pompous little man, she thought, with your pile of notes and your virginal fireplace, you don't understand anything.
Declan pointed his eyebrows at Tancred, who said, "No." Once he had been understood as readily as anyone else, but either he had changed or the world had. Now he was like a beast without recourse to language. A peacock, probably, that shrieked things that sounded like words. Once in a while he shed a plume that lay burning against some gray stone slab. That was where one found peacocks, wasn't it -- in cemeteries?
"By dead," he said, "I mean…" But in human language he could not say what he meant.
"It paralyzes him," said Tiffy. "It strangles him."
Oh! yes. That was what he'd meant. Evidently Declan was satisfied as well, bent over his notebook. "You act without knowing you're acting?" he asked, but that wasn't right.
"He knows," said Tiffy. She wants him to understand, thought Tancred; why is that, when she thinks he is a pompous fool? But she was gesturing. Her hands swept and fluttered as she conjured him a miniature Tancred to be pressed like a daisy between the pages of Declan's spiral notebook.
She ended with a flourish. She and Declan were leaning toward each other over the coffee table with its pitcher of water: as Tancred watched, Declan stooped and plunged again into the sea's steel-blue surface, into the book on his knee. "He acts -- and he is aware of his actions -- but he has no control over them." He mounted triumphantly over the waves, scattering silver drops from his pinions, pausing only to say, for Tiffy's benefit, "That is called depersonalization."
"Well!" said Tiffy. That's settled, she thought; it's called depersonalization.
"But it's not characteristic of frontal lobe damage," he added. "Which is not to say he doesn't have frontal lobe damage. I'm sure he does. But it doesn't cause dissociative states."
There was no need to ask what did; it was typed out in the sheaf of papers that lay next to the pitcher. But how could his condition be described as post-traumatic when just yesterday he had found himself sinking down, yelling for Tiffy to take his hand before the earth swallowed him up? Vanowen was calling him, dragging him down to have a nice long talk about Hegel. Vanowen didn't care that Tancred wasn't allowed to go where he was; the dead were uncaring, they despised the living, that was the world's gruesome secret. They watched the processions of mourners with their gleaming boxes and sprays of sweet flowers, their folded flags and black rags and sobbing, and they convulsed with hateful laughter. Never mind all that, said Vanowen, as Tancred passed by a funeral parlor, withered sweetness and the muffled sound of weeping reeking from behind the door -- never mind all that, I have a few things to say to you about Hegel. And if Tiffy hadn't been there, if he had not felt her hands or heard her voice -- Tancred, she had said, and suddenly it was his name again -- sweetie, and that was his name too. How had he not known it before? Her fingernails were petal-pink and she took one of his hands in both of hers to help him to his feet, laughing as she pulled with all her strength, and Vanowen had to let him go.
With such power she could afford to be generous, and so she had decided to pity Declan, who was so ridiculous and understood so little. She poured herself a glass of water and smiled into his eyes. His hands, those spidery hands, fluttering over his papers, would never save anyone from the realm of the dead. "You're interested in frontal lobe damage?" she asked.
He drank in her pity without realizing it, knowing only that he suddenly liked her very much -- it was obvious from the way he smiled as he tapped his notes into a rectangle against the tabletop. "I am interested in the incremental nature of death," he said. "Your -- Mr. Hill's case is a very interesting one, but I think he and I have different notions of what it means to be dead."
"What's yours?" she asked.
"The cessation of the self," said Declan promptly. "We are accustomed to think of it as something that happens all at once, but no means is that always the case."
"No," said Tancred. Death wasn't a cessation, it was a surfeit, growing to push out life, which was this: the ordinariness of a room and a Japanese maple framed in the window, Tiffy leaning forward into Declan's lecture on the functions of the frontal lobes, her petal-pink fingernails and the disk of lime floating in her glass. Death longed to take all these things away from him and replace them -- with what? With women's blood, with unpleasant laughter. But Tiffy was the one laughing now, and hers was the laughter of the living, even here -- even as Declan said the words "targeted destruction of neural connections in the frontal lobe" and tapped her forehead with his index finger. She was stronger than Vanowen, even here.
"But it hasn't been performed for decades. Only a handful of the tens of thousands of Americans who were lobotomized are still alive. And then brain tissue is regenerated over time. Even if I could study them…" A fanning gesture of the fingers showed how little that would advance his knowledge.
"That must be frustrating."
"Freeman practiced first on corpses," Declan said, tapping his fingers on the cover of the notebook, addressing himself more than Tiffy.
Reflections slid across the belly of the pitcher as she lifted it to pour a second glass of water. She handed it to Tancred, her eyes meeting his for just a moment, her teeth catching her lower lip: Is it silly of me to feel sorry for him? He's so ridiculous. He took the glass, raising one eyebrow: Tiffany, is it?
Outside, the world was just as they had left it. The dark purple leaves of the Japanese maple swayed in the wind as Declan shut the door after them, and they descended the porch steps and walked to the park nearby where the green benches were hot in the sun. Tiffy was still giggling at the thought of Tancred's crocheting doilies. "Altocumulus castellanus," he said, looking up at the sky, because he knew Tiffy liked it that he knew things like that. Ten years earlier he had crammed his head full of useless words, and there they all still were: colors, species, letters of dead alphabets. He was nineteen then and nothing he wrote was any good, though he didn't know it. When he read it now, at twenty-nine, he felt nothing, not even embarrassment. Still, he could say that the sky was Egyptian blue, and the clouds in it were altocumulus castellanus. Why had that once seemed so important?
"Tancred W. Hill," said Tiffy.
"W for William."
"I was sure it was William!"
"Shall I tell you?"
"Wall-- Will-- What's like William?" She had drawn back a little on the bench and was regarding him with curiosity. One of her legs was bent under her, one foot in its seafoam-green sandal tucked under her thigh. Who is like God? thought Tancred.
He said, "Wilhelm."
She made a face. "Mine is Jasmine."
"That's very pretty."
"It's awful. It's almost as bad as Wilhelm."
He held one arm out to her and she tucked herself under it, pressing her face against his breast. It was a Tuesday afternoon and they alone in all the world had nothing to do. Mine, she thought, meaning Tancred, the sunny bench, the afternoon, all this. She owned the whole world.
"I think we should get married," he said. "What do you think?"
"Yes," she said. "We should, absolutely."
* * * * *
Now have a happy day, that's an order.