Ray of the Star

Laird Hunt

Coffeehouse Press
September 2009, Paperback, 192 pages

The Other CIty


In this excerpt from the middle of the novel, our hero, Harry Tichborne, attends a party of living statues, has a private conversation with one of them, dances, then goes for a ride in a full-size papier mâché model of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine with his budding love interest, Solange, aka the Silver Angel.


Drinks at the party they were attending were procured by pushing one of two buttons set close together near the baseboard beneath the front window, which prompted a slender hand to appear out of a small hole cut into the floor, a hand that would, when given a modest amount of money, reemerge with an ice-cold bottle of sparkling water, or a glass of grenadine, or a chocolate malt, while donations to the gallery hosting the event could be made by holding a bill under a piece of nearby plastic tubing that snaked its way up to the ceiling where it curved around and around before plunging into a clear receptacle, already well supplied with bills that would dance madly when a button near the opening on the other side of the room was pushed and a fresh bill was sucked into it, a seductive spectacle that deprived both Harry, holding a chocolate malt, and Solange, a glass of grenadine, of several bills each, and if a line had not begun to form behind them they might well have allowed the contraption to suck up the entire collective contents of their wallets, which would have been a shame because, as they discovered, feeding additional bills into a slot in the floor caused a room that housed a griffon’s skeleton to light up under the oak planking, and furthermore there were tempting deep-fried items on offer at back tables that Alfonso convinced them to sample, and so it was that Harry drank a chocolate malt and ate a deep-fried clove cookie while silver-faced Solange interspersed bites of deep-fried almond butter squares with sips of grenadine and waves at Julius Caesar, Atlas and Che Guevara, the latter who ran straight over, stuffed his unlit cigar in his mouth and gave Solange a bear hug, lifting her straight off the floor and twirling her around, before turning to Harry, bowing and suggesting that the two of them take the air, that it was a splendid night, there was a marvelous little garden attached to the store, etc.,
“Well,” Harry said,
“Go on, go on, Raimon is an old friend,” Solange said,
“And that’s really why I wanted to have a word,” said Raimon, once they had made their way through a backroom and into what was indeed a thoroughly charming tree-filled garden, lit with strings of lights that were reflected in a handsome, merrily plashing pond surrounded by high walls, one of which, according to Raimon, who lit his cigar and leaned against an ornamental quince, had been built by the Romans as part of the ancient city’s outer defenses, many relics of which Harry couldn’t have failed to notice were still standing amidst the modern edifices,
“Fascinating,” said Harry,
“Yes,” said Raimon, “Though of course every now and again some section of wall, uncared for by the municipal authorities, crumbles to the ground, leaving only its absence behind,”
“Its absence…”
“Its afterglow, in which some aspect of the former wall might be said to remain standing,’
“I like that,” Harry said,
“Are you familiar with negativity delirium?” Raimon said,
“No,” Harry said,
“It’s the evil inverse of phantom limb syndrome, whereby, rather than missing limbs and organs maintaining their presence, present limbs and organs vanish,”
“That’s awful,”
“It’s diabolical,”
“I’ve often thought of chopping off my legs, because of the condition I suffer from, but now I can see that they might not be so easy to get rid of,”
“Not so easy at all, take for example, the case of my missing hands,” said Raimon, wedging his brightly burning cigar in the corner of his mouth and holding his hands up in the air,
“What are those things?” said Harry,
“You can see them too?”
“Your hands, yes,”
“Not everyone can see them,”
“How extraordinary,”
“It’s the greatest mystery and speaks to the core of this whole business, which is to say that they’ve come back, but not quite the same and not quite in the right place,”
“Yikes,” said Harry,
“I’ve never heard of such a case and I’ve done a great amount of research,” said Raimon,
“Nor have I,” said Harry, for lack of anything terribly à propos to offer, while trying and failing to see in what way the hands were wrongly placed,
“If it were an instance of phantom limb syndrome, we might not be surprised to know that the limb in question had returned, in fact it is quite common for them to return to the wrong place, my own uncle lost his left ring finger to a rip saw and had it return some months later in between the middle and index finger of his right hand, it was most distressing for him and all of us, but this is an instance of negativity delirium in which what has vanished returns and is visible, at least to some,”
Harry wasn’t quite sure what to say to this either so contented himself to raise an eyebrow and nod in an enabling manner,
“Shall we go back inside?” Raimon said, looking at his hands and shrugging, as if there was nothing further that could or should be said,
“Yes,” said Harry,
“I’m glad we had a chance to chat,”
“I am too,”
“That’s really all I wanted, was to chat,”
“I’m glad we could,”
“She’s had a very rough time of it,”
“So I gather,”
“You could say that the universe has conspired against her,”
“I’m in a position to empathize,”
“I’m so very sorry,”
“Thank you,”
“It is all much more difficult than it ought to be, isn’t it?”
“It is indeed,” Harry said.

The statues present were either in partial or complete costume, which gave the wonder-filled room, through the front window of which the yellow submarine was fully visible, the air of a carnival, or, when Cleopatra and the Willow Tree began dancing next to the deep fryers, of a masked ball, so that for a time after his return from the garden, and his only very slightly unnerving conversation with Raimon, whom he had rather liked, Harry’s happiness knew, as they say, no bounds, and when the Oak Tree pulled him up off his feet to dance next to the deep-fryers he did not decline, and for a few minutes he shimmied and whirled with a gusto that probably, at his age, did him no credit, but he would have continued and perhaps even pulled Solange up off her feet had he not, in looking over at her, realized that she was sagging, that the moment, such as it had been, was passing, and that it was time to get back in the submarine and sail off into the night, a course of action that, upon his suggestion, appealed to her, and that was agreeable to Alfonso, and so after finishing their food and saying goodbye, Harry and Solange climbed back into the submarine, though not before catching sight of the connoisseurs, who were just that moment arriving at the gallery, and while they were already in the submarine and rolling when the connoisseurs passed them and bade them each, by name, goodnight, Harry felt Solange shiver for a moment beside him, and, although he knew it was indiscreet, he could not refrain from asking her what it was,
“Nothing, fatigue,” she said,
“I understand,” Harry said, registering, as he did so, that by responding in this way, he had completed a problematic circuit, across the poles of which a bright blue band of falsehood was now crackling—she had not shivered, he was sure, because of a chill, and he had not, strictly speaking, understood anything, even if the unwelcome phrase “death and the connoisseurs” appeared for a moment before vanishing—but Harry also registered that every incipient relationship is at least partially lit by the light of dubious complicity so he simply smiled in the blue light and they continued on their way in silence, Harry thankfully not thinking about the connoisseurs, but about negativity delirium, which just about summed it all, then about different qualities and kinds of illumination, and the structures that best masked or presented them, and Solange about the cold efficiency with which the connoisseurs had told and retold her story—which she suspected Harry had heard, probably from Alfonso, a story addict if ever there was one, because of the gentle way he, Harry, had remarked earlier, before she had actually laid eyes on him, that the last of her tears was gone—but also about the way Harry had probed for a moment, but not pushed, had allowed her her lie of convenience without forcing her to enlarge it, or to ask him to leave well enough alone, the sort of direct statement that, uttered too early, can have unfortunate results, often because of misinterpretation, which, the thought occurred to her, had too often marred her interactions with her young man who, likely because of his youth, which if not extreme had nevertheless been considerable, had gotten it wrong, so to speak, with some frequency, which in the short term had seemed endearing, but over the long term… well there hadn’t been any long term, and whereof, she thought, we cannot speak, thereof we ought to keep our mental mouths shut and reach for the Lucite, or rose petal jam, another jar of which she had purchased that morning and had told Raimon about that night, just after he had told her that if what he thought was occurring with Harry was actually occurring then he approved: she licked her lips, which still had a few flecks of almond butter on them and thought,
“But why don’t I feel more sad?”
“It’s this submarine, plain and simple,” thought Harry, whose mind had been moving along a roughly parallel track, as it had been, or as it seemed to Harry to have been, with the man under the awning,
“It’s like spending time in a hollowed out Twinkie,” thought Solange, who as a foreign exchange student in Lawrence, Kansas had eaten plenty of them,
“The thing even smells good,” thought Harry,
“What a beautiful night,” they both said,
and the coincidence, though startling after so long a silence, didn’t seem as extraordinary as it might have given that what they could suddenly see out of the front grill, the half-lit trunks of palms along the beach and ship lights sparkling here and there across the moonlit bay, was indeed beautiful,
“This is a fine spot and quite safe, I’m going to leave you here,” Alfonso said,
“We can roll it back together,” Solange said, and though both of them were sorry to see Alfonso, who came around and put his smiling, still-golden face in the grill, go, it seemed somehow appropriate that they would now have some time even more alone, even if as it turned out it was just to lie there very close to each other and look out over the glittering bay before debarking and making their slow way home through a night that seemed to rise and fall, enormous, like the sea they had left behind them—the sea, as Solange had called it, of commas, each wave a phrase in a sentence that was never quite finished, that would never quite be finished, until of a dreadful sudden it was—to bask separately in the mystery of what was occurring, this gently promising something that felt like it was happening to them.