by A.C. Koch
([email]henry_iblis [at] hotmail [dot] com[/email])
I, Ghatu, continue to devolve. Like my century, I tumble from beauty to shit with a thousand senseless catastrophes along the way. At my side reclines the sleek Frenchwoman who has been my lover across three continents and as many years, a person of such beauty, intelligence and strength that next to her I am but a flake of cum. Out the window smolder the slums of Mexico City — any way you look at it, one of the most spectacular disasters in all of human history. Caught between these two elements, Isabelle and the ghetto, I squirm. I am the lance that pins the butterfly to the board. Vulgar, yes — but remove me, and the spectacle is gone.
* * *
[i]What is History but the brains of a god spattered on a wall? And what is Time but a coat of paint? Who is the painter? Where is the wall? And why does this god again and again drive this bullet through his brain?[/i] The answers arrive in the instant of my awakening and all is, as usual, forever lost. Isabelle grips my shoulder, breathing sleep breath in my face.
“Ghatu, I heard a gunshot.”
“No, that was my dream.”
“No, Ghatu, the dream was a metaphor. I really heard a gunshot.”
“That’s ridiculous, Isabelle. You might as well say life is a metaphor. How does one experience a metaphor?”
“I think it came from upstairs.”
“It’s like the difference between sex and a porn movie. Degrees, only. Both are experienced. Neither is metaphor.”
“Dreams, if anything, account for a greater degree of –”
“Get up and find out what the hell happened! I think Jimenez is shooting.”
“Jimenez,” I say. The pervert upstairs. “If he’s blown his brains out,” I speculate, “does that make him the God, and this the House?”
Isabelle fixes me with an icy stare, the product of thousands of years of feminine longsuffering. I crawl from bed and cross the room naked. Clothes, dishes, cockroaches scatter underfoot in the murky light of late afternoon.
* * *
From the neighbors assembled in the hall upstairs I glean that Jimenez has indeed blown his brains out. This is a boon for the six families that live in the building, as Jimenez was known to be a packrat of epic compulsion. His tiny room contains a thousand canned goods, many of them decades old; twenty typewriters and assorted parts; crates full of light bulbs, each bulb individually bubble-wrapped and every one of them burned out; a closet full of deflated sex dolls, each one bearing the emblem of a different football club sewn onto the pubis; bushels of rotten garlic; seven horsehair top hats, each in perfect condition and arranged on a tall hat rack carved from a coppery timber not indigenous to earth; decades of issues of [i]El Paï¿½s[/i] crumpled into tiny balls and arranged in a rough pyramid; and many thousands of skeleton keys hung by fishhooks from the ceiling, not a few of which also bear fish.
Everyone in the building, some sixty people, mill in and out of Jimenez’s room carting away prizes. The canned food is the most popular. The defunct, bubble-wrapped light bulbs are slower to move. Rogelio Varela, a strapping young delinquent who lives next door to me, tries on one of the top hats. He struts like a king, fingering Spanish olives from a rusted can he opened with his pocketknife. He’s admiring himself in the mirror when he hacks a cough, bites his tongue in half and drops dead. The other six top hats remain untouched.
Meanwhile, Jimenez lies dead below the sill of the only window. Blood pools around him. He holds a poker hand in his fist — a full house — and the rest of the deck of cards is scattered in the blood. A small pile of matches seems to be the pot. No one is interested in Jimenez, nor will anyone come near me as I inspect him. As I walk about the room poking and peering, the Mexicans keep their distance: such a superstitious lot. They genuflect at everything and fan themselves in the stifling heat. Thankfully, I am entirely naked and a cooling sweat streams down my body.
When nearly everything of value has been hauled from the room and the twitching corpse of Rogelio Varela solemnly carried to his kitchen table, the landlady pulls Jimenez’s door shut and forbids anyone to enter again. Then she goes to the hall phone and calls several antique stores, a haberdashery, and the police.
* * *
Isabelle sits up on her elbows as I come back in the room. “What happ — Ghatu! You’re naked!”
“We are all naked, Isabelle, every one of us.”
“What’s happening out there? It sounds like a riot.”
I sit next to her, brushing the roaches from the blankets. “Jimenez is shot. The tenement is frenzied. They’re holding a wake next door for Rogelio who dropped dead the instant he put on one of Jimenez’s top hats.”
[i]”Top hats?[/i] What was Jimenez doing with top hats?”
“Seven of them. The same thing he was doing with a dozen sex dolls, a thousand light bulbs and a million skeleton keys.”
“Perhaps. In fact, I dreamt almost exactly –”
“Ghatu? Not now. Not now, okay?” She sits in the yellow light, head bowed and hand on her forehead. I rise and pace the room. Never a more squalid pit have I seen, yet I’m happy here. I own almost nothing, and all of it is scattered over the floor. The sink in the corner spits brown water at will. The walls, painted for generations, flake and snow fine, lead-based powder. A large funnel, nailed to the outside of the window sill, serves as a toilet. (The toilet down the hall is rumored to be dangerous.)
And here, in the midst of it all: Isabelle. She sits twisted in the sheets of my mattress on the floor as cockroaches, earwigs and millipedes skitter willy-nilly in the pallid light. She sits there like the hand of beauty in the till of despair. And only for that do I wish I lived elsewhere.
In fact, this is a jolly tenement, stuffed to the vigas with interrelated and crossbred families who provide for one another as if this building were itself its own universe. Mexico City is composed entirely of universes such as these. Only Jimenez and I, like black holes, were outside of this familial scheme. Now Jimenez has collapsed under his own gravity and I am the sole cosmic anomaly. I say this to Isabelle. She lies down and shows me her back.
For the rest of the night I try to rest but the wake next door keeps me from sleep. The women wail and pound on the walls and the men chain-smoke cigarillos. Smoke seethes through the joists and under the door. Children sprint about hurling bubble-wrapped light bulbs and typewriters at one another. Pungent aromas waft with the smoke as Jimenez’s canned goods are transformed into a midnight feast and the next hour becomes a gallery of shrieks and gurgles as everyone in the building dies the twitching death of botulism. At last all is silent and I join Isabelle in sleep — dreamless sweet sleep.
* * *
When the police arrive at ten in the morning, responding to last night’s report of a gunshot, they find a tenement littered top to bottom with corpses. It takes them all day to haul them out. I sit on the corner in front of the cigarette stand watching body after body carried out the door and tossed in a dump truck. The police themselves don’t do the work, they make the neighborhood [i]chamacos[/i] do it. I smoke a whole pack of Boots sitting there watching.
Isabelle went home in the morning, leaving by the window as customary, and noticing nothing out of the ordinary except that the building was very quiet. Where she lives, in the high-rise towers of el Centro, there will be no news of mass death in the ghetto.
When at last the police have gone I return to my room. The neighborhood kids are busy looting the apartments of the dead, stripping the wiring and the copper piping, but my room is untouched. Also untouched is Jimenez’s room upstairs. The police didn’t even enter, though out of superstition or negligence I don’t know.
Neither did they discover the sort of shanty town on the roof of the building where a dozen or so corpses lie rotting in the sun and acid rain. Their fluids seep down through the roof and into Jimenez’s room which is already steeped in blood. I begin to notice drips in my ceiling early one evening as I’m tidying up in expectation of Isabelle. She despises my quarters, yet I believe she also finds a certain thrill in the whole ordeal of driving through the ghetto, covering her evening dress with a dirty smock and climbing the ladder to my window so as to avoid certain rape in the hallways by Rogelio or some other miscreant. The tingle of danger is transferred to me and I believe it is partially responsible for the voracity with which she pursues me. I am the ghetto, I am the night, I am savage love and brutal embrace. For a pampered city girl as she has become, what could be more piquant?
And so I tidy up but not too much, and I comb my hair but leave it a little mussed, and I scrub myself but only one armpit, and I wash the wine glasses but leave them spotty. I pace around the room feeling irresistible when I notice the fresh stains on the sheets. Blood is dripping from the ceiling.
It’s just then that Isabelle arrives at the window, crawling over the funnel and turning on the window sill to let her smock fall open on her ivory body. She?s so white she’s blue. I pulse. She holds open her arms. We’re on the floor in an instant. The insects feed off our sweat as we fuck, and blood drips down on our backs as we roll one on top the other. My arousal is intensified in the knowledge that at any moment the ceiling will collapse in an avalanche of splinters, newspaper, bubble-wrapped light bulbs and liquefied corpses. Isabelle, sensing my urgency, draws me out like a bead of water trembling on the tip of a faucet. Alas, before I can drip, the ceiling bursts. We lay frozen in the unspeakable debris.
How do you bring your lover to orgasm when you are buried in decades of putrescence and the fluid remains of decaying cadavers? The moment is lost. Isabelle digs herself choking from the wreckage, shoving aside light bulbs, garlic and jellied limbs in a cloud of plaster dust. Together we make our way to the window where she vomits down the funnel. I drape her smock around her shoulders and light us two cigarettes. She doesn’t want one so I smoke them both, double-barreled.
“Why do you insist on this lifestyle, Ghatu?” She glares at me. As if I caused the damn ceiling to collapse.
“This,” I say, gesturing, “is not a lifestyle. Where you live, at the top of the Torre Latinoamï¿½rica, in an air conditioned atrium with electronic connections to every energy node on earth, [i]that’s[/i] a lifestyle. This, here,…this is just survival.”
“Energy nodes, Ghatu?”
“I wouldn’t live where you live for anything.”
“That’s because they won’t let you in the building.”
“Besides, living here, deep in the ghetto, imbues me with the spice of danger. The ghetto is the new frontier. The squalor is limitless. I am the law and the outlaw. I am the mountain and the plain. I –”
“I’m going home.” She’s crawling out the window. She looks up as she descends the ladder. “I won’t be back, Ghatu. Not to this place.” She jumps to the ground and hurries across the vacant lot next door where a bonfire burns and shadowy figures slither.
“How will I find you!” I yell into the night. But her limo roars up over the curb and its back door pops open, swallowing her up. She speeds away like a black bullet through the wretched street as the neighborhood kids hurl bricks and flaming bottles at the titanium shell, already blurring with velocity. Isabelle, Isabelle, so strong and still so scared.
* * *
I set about arranging and organizing the objects that have collapsed into my room, ergo: everything that was in Jimenez’s apartment, including Jimenez. He had tumbled into a corner still clutching his poker hand in his rigor-mortised fist. I drag him into the hall. The other corpses and pieces of corpses I dump out the window where they are eagerly snatched up by the bonfire people. Something inclines me not to throw Jimenez out there. Perhaps I am already scheming to make him a part of his own collection, though I can’t say this is a conscious decision.
Nevertheless, I spend the rest of the night staking crates of light bulbs against one wall, reconstructing the crumpled newspaper pyramid in the middle of my floor, hanging the bushels of garlic like plants above my window, setting the hat rack and top hats by the door. I make a sweep of the building to retrieve the objects which were snatched up by the other tenants. I become lost in unfamiliar hallways which loop around and dead-end and open on still narrower and darker passages that are unknown to me. At one point I become aware of a succulent aroma as if a meal is being cooked behind one of these silent doors. The tang of [i]mole poblano[/i], the eye-watering sting of roasting peppers. I pound on doors, asking kindly for a bite to eat but my voice falls away into deathly silence and no answer comes. I return to my room dragging a makeshift sled piled high with loot.
I occurs to me as I reconstruct Jimenez’s temple of junk in my own room that he may have inherited all of these things from someone before him, and someone before [i]him[/i]. I go after the task with the zeal of an exhibit curator, arranging the millions of artifacts in, I must say, a much more conscientious manner than Jimenez had done. When everything is swept into piles and all the plaster thrown out, my room is nearly filled wall to wall although the ceiling is now over twenty feet high: the skeleton keys dangle from their hooks way up there, and sunlight shines through Jimenez’s high window. I rig myself a sling from Isabelle’s old pantyhose and sleep suspended from the wall. I dream by a factor of millions: a million sheep jumping a million fences. I awake smarter than ever before and blazon with the knowledge that what I have begun here is only the beginning and that from now on, forever, everything that exists will become, over time and piece by piece, [i]mine[/i]. That nothing will escape my collection, no object, no emotion, not the Author nor the Reader, not you, not History nor Time, not love nor emptiness itself — that everything should come rushing together with irresistible gravity, that I, Ghatu, should preside as curator of all that exists, collected, impacted, deep inside the ghetto.
(This story is a chapter excerpted from The [i]Cockhard Death Cycles[/i])
(c)2002 A.C. Koch