Below is a nine page sample from She Plays in Darkness by Fern Chertkow. For a twenty-five page sample, click here. To read a sample of Visions of Anna by Richard Engling, click here. To purchase the book on Amazon, click here.
What am I doing?
Cynthia thinks. She sits behind her easel. The easel hides the aspen. The aspen hides the town, the offices, her day old job. It is June, and hot; the sun sets and the red hills cool like embers; she has a job, a situation, the murmur of her old TV at day’s end, but she poses the question just the same.
Age twenty-nine, and she has finished the only degree she intends to finish; she has the tools, the skills, and perhaps the looks to do “anything.”
Cynthia, without thinking, sketches petals.
No more Rose. It is like looking in the mirror and not finding a reflection.
Or finding the reflection she should have seen before. She draws a tulip. One petal dangles free, like a strand of hair. A woman who works, or exercises, or gardens; who doesn’t have time for repeated groomings.
What am I doing?
She is a secretary; she is not a secretary. At least, never before a permanent secretary, which is what had made it possible for her to wander from office to office for eight years. That, and the split expenses, which meant she never did have to work every day. She had taken workshops. She had painted half time. The twins had traveled together sometimes. Somehow that wasn’t enough. Whatever they had done, it wasn’t enough: sharing meals and decorating the apartment and working in the same studio (concerto for piano and easel) and taking walks, watching TV, singing, wasn’t enough. It wasn’t public. It wasn’t marriage.
If I am helpless before two things, Cynthia thinks, it is before a job and a man. I need the first to survive, and I know only one way to survive, a stupid way. And I need the second, I don’t even know why. Thirst. Completion. Sex. Because someone said so. Because secretly I liked sleeping with my Dad, and I want more. Or I hated it, and I want to make it different. Or.
She draws petals; she draws a blank.
An eighteen minute trip: twelve if she hurries; twenty if she strolls; eighteen if she keeps her wits about her, which she tries to do because she is making an impression.
Cynthia walks down the hill from home and cuts a path through the mall. At this hour the mall is partially open: access only to the large marble floor that separates stores like a sea. The handful of people who walk there work there. Modern city living: the people who work upstairs park in the intestines and ride up to the carpeted heart. Nothing external. No wind blows.
Cynthia glances at the mountains, takes a breath as she enters the mall, another as she exits. Tries always to breathe, to remember the endless wind, the mountains beyond the city, the cliffs beyond the mountains.
Cynthia and her friends walk the streets. The cast of characters is small, countable on the hands, with a few extras thrown in now and again to give the illusion of grandeur. There are regulars, even on a downtown street—proof that this is no city. Or proof that it is. For just like in the big city, all the regulars are the oddballs: missionaries, pigeons, street cleaners, more pigeons, transients, Cynthia, too many birds.
Pigeon shit needs cleaning. It’s lush, mounded, shades of gray. Two or three reduced men spray the sidewalk and scrub the debris. Awake missionaries, shiny clean, stand in pairs, straight as columns, their magazines pressed to their chests for easy viewing, bulletproofing. First sun lights the windows.
Overhead black pigeons flap. Their silhouettes ornament the false fronts of older stores; their wings carve holes in the sky. They come to rest. They roost, cluster, and coo.
Cynthia plucks her way across the soiled sidewalk. This is not a real city, she thinks again, continuously, and she looks to the shop windows for diversion. A mannequin, stylish in mismatched clothes, mustard on top, mauve below, gazes up at the insurance building. Red shoes—fit on, plastic, cut at the calves—gleam in another shaft of sun. A novelty shop, magic toys: Cynthia tries to catch a new one every day. The ashtray shaped like a hand, giving the finger. The Polish dishwasher, hidden in a rectangular box. Lots of noise: the talking ashtray, screaming, “Not another cigarette! Oh no!” Hack hack. The talking toilet trick.
That’s the one: she’ll put it out on the sidewalk. The next pigeon who does it will be startled by: “Hey—don’t shit on me!” Finally the birds will fold up, huddle at the center of the red rooftop, their gray arms flapping. They will plan their attack, watch for the sun to illuminate the street like a lab, then swoop, peck, and destroy. And so many men walking alone.
Cynthia walks alone too, but she has a goal—not a plan, just a goal. That’s good enough. She strides; she fools them. The men abandon her, enter the bookstore, cluster at the porno rack.
One woman walks alone. She wears too much makeup, a sequined hat, cheap perfume. She talks to herself. Cynthia wonders how it happened; her fingers twitch to capture that surface so she can think about it more.
Eighteen minutes; sometimes twenty three. It is more interesting to walk than to arrive.
The philosophy, a strategy, helps. She doesn’t see why it should matter who she works for: the philosophy says she can work for anyone. It’s just paper, right? Letters and memos and documents, pleadings and briefs. Spell right, type right, type quick. Words and paper, put ‘em together, fold ‘em up, send ‘em on their way. Fast food, only inedible.
A philosophy that serves her well at times like this. She has been assigned to Mr. Batt. Pictures of his children framed in gold slant on his desk. He is too big, too cold, to have children. He has wattles. He talks too loud. He has a sure sense of Cynthia’s role as secretary. He never asks personal questions. He doesn’t bother to smile. Thank you is out of the question. She should hate him. She does hate him. She doesn’t hate him.
The philosophy says don’t bother.
All he wants are documents. He wants the news that’s fit to print. So she types, puts the finished product on his desk, answers his phone.
He walks in once while she is answering the phone, as she says: “Can I ask who’s calling? . . . Fine. I’ll have him return your call.” He says: “May I ask who’s calling.”
“John Trevelor,” Cynthia replies.
“No. May I. Say, ‘May I ask who’s calling,’ not can. It sounds better.” Cynthia simmers. It doesn’t matter, she tells herself. Two weeks. Part of the problem is isolation. Mr. Batt is an important man; his office is in a corner, and Cynthia is in an adjoining office. There are windows in her office, but the glass is painted solid mauve. No light. No access. Sometimes she has nothing to do. She sniffs madness in the air. She sketches on pink message pads. She looks in the drawers, half a voyeur, half a thief, her fingers itching to steal. She can’t find anything worth taking.
Elizabeth Miller walks in, and Cynthia slides the drawer shut. Her color rises.
“Enjoying yourself so far?” says Elizabeth Miller.
“Oh yes, it’s great,” Cynthia says.
“I haven’t been too busy.”
“We’ll send you some work. I’ll look around. You’ll find out, there’s always plenty of work around here!”
Alone again. There is a long silence. She is deadened by it and resents the phone when it rings.
“Hello, is this Cynthia? My name is Alice Hopes.” Laugh on the other end of the line. “I’m sure you don’t remember me—I’m the secretary for Mr. Gibson.”
“I do remember you.”
Another laugh. “A bunch of the girls are going on break now. Would you like to join us?”
“I’d love to.”
“Great. We’ll meet at the front desk, OK?”
Cynthia stands at Mr. Batt’s doorway, all her poise erased. “I’m going to take a break,” she mumbles. Batt looks up. A couple of skinfolds readjust. “Fine.” He doesn’t care. He’s writing.
She can’t work for just anyone.
For a day, maybe. For three weeks, maybe. But Elizabeth has roped her in; and something that was free in Cynthia is beginning to wither. Some other force has risen up. She’s beginning to pay attention to the people she works for. Disaster isn’t out of the question. She’ll say no before it comes to that. Alice Hopes. Cynthia hopes. She hopes she can do the right thing.
The cream rises to the surface. In every pack there is a leader. In every office someone sets the standard of excellence. Alice Hopes is the queen of the secretaries. She is not necessarily loved, but she is essential; she is the measuring stick.
Queen of the girls, who sit in the lunchroom. Cynthia feels better. There are huge windows; she can look out. She can even look in: because she is not alone. She can see herself with the TV eye, walking in a group, belonging. Though she does not belong, the illusion suffices. They begin to ask her questions. Their gesture is not necessarily good natured; their curiosity is born of boredom, undefined desperation. She tries to answer. What brought her to this city? She just wanted a change. Oh. Where was she before? Cynthia tells them. They say: Oh. They lose interest. Alice takes over with family stories. Her audience is expected to be familiar with Tyce and Brett and Eric; one is a husband and the rest are kids; but Cynthia is content to fabricate some general categories and leave the family vague at the table spilling drinks and breaking dishes. She looks out the window. They talk about other families, then about clothes, then about illnesses. A group of pigeons rise in a sudden flap from a low rooftop.
“So what do you think of Batt?”
Cynthia turns. She can still feel the movement of wings. “I’m not sure,” she says.
The Alice laugh: it’s a dumb sound. Like Alice? Like her laugh. Hate Alice? Strong dose, either way.
Alice is beautiful, Cynthia suddenly realizes. She looks like someone Cynthia had seen in her Doublemint days. She wants to ask Alice if she was ever on TV. But that girl was ten years old and Alice still looks that way, thick dull blond hair verging on banana curls. Better not to risk anything.
But Alice is saying something important. Cynthia strains to pay attention. Alice is saying that Batt is a jerk.
“Does his secretary think so?” Cynthia asks.
Alice leans forward. The secretaries lean toward her, in a huddle. The birds watch from outside, wanting to learn. “What do you think she’s doing during this vacation?”
“Looking for a job?” Cynthia says.
Alice won’t give anything easy. Just looking around, she says. “She’s had it with him.”
The secretaries begin to chatter. A new exchange of stories. Batt apparently has the universal magic touch. Cynthia relaxes. She’ll say no if they offer him to her. She relishes the illusion of having judged right.
Alice asks her to join them for lunch. She hesitates. A little band snaps inside her, out of tune, the twang of elastic. She has always hated solitude. She especially hates to eat alone. But maybe that was because Rosemary hates it.
What would Rosemary do?
Cynthia doesn’t know the answer to the question. There is no apart script, only a together one. She does what she feels like, says she is meeting a friend.
She eats alone, tries fast food in the mall. All the people have emerged from the woodwork and Formica now; she needs to push and shove, share a table, walk at the pace of the crowd. She enjoys it. There is something to being alone when the solitude has been exacted by a refusal. It’s not as bad as being alone because no one asked.
Like at home.
Work alone all day, then come home, paint alone. Cynthia has a glass of wine, a simple meal, more wine. She wants to tell one person in the world how bored she is. She tries to paint. She watches old TV shows. New Doublemint commercials make her laugh. She tries not to call Rosemary. She calls Rosemary. No answer.
She is forced to draw it. Alice, prone, lolling, a bowl of charcoal grapes vague on the table. She plucks one. Overhead a bird flies low, goes for the fruit. Into the canvas and out. Cynthia drinks and dozes.
At first the desperate are part of the scenery. Scenery is anything that calls attention to itself: colors like the mustard fabric smeared across the mannequin; hunchbacks and warts; sweat smells. The transients score high on all counts.
Some of the transients come and go, and so they never quite have features; instead they fit categories. Stubble, grime. Backpack and a rolled-up bag beneath, blue or orange. Colors of hope, intersection with society: we don’t all pay taxes, but when we get hold of a sleeping bag it’s got to be orange or blue. Or green. It’s some normal color.
Cigarette. No sheen in the hair. No shine in the shoes. No fit in the pants. No sparkle.
Yet they look ahead down the street, they have a mission; they seek breakfast, wine, shelter. They perform, like everyone else.
Cynthia looks up at the audience during every performance. They are more interesting than the usual audiences because they participate. Wing flap is a sign of boredom. The bobbing head means nothing: it’s how they have to walk, it’s just mechanics. But watch the eyes: the cliché means something, that piercing glare. They mean business. They’ve got plans, and they’ll shit on you to prove it. Not an audience to ignore.
Not that they bother the transients. Claw in the beak, pee yew, and they tilt away, looking for higher-class meat.
Cynthia is the only one who moves toward the transients rather than away. All of them men, all of them alone. Most of them drinkers, but she, a drinker, too, sees past that.
They separate themselves from the scenery.
The top three:
Three. But she shouldn’t categorize him as a transient, he ain’t no loser. He has dark hair and bronze flesh, a natural tan, a lucky guy, handsome. Short: the first flaw. His hair is ponytail long, another flaw. He doesn’t work; he wanders. Cynthia runs across him on all the downtown streets, at eight, noon, three. She sees him sitting in the corners of fast food restaurants, by the window. He reads. He looks too bright to be a transient—and too bright not to be. Whatever the reason, he cuts a transient’s line sideways through the grain of a crowd. He looks more at peace than Mr. Batt, who, after all, has made it and should glow with inner peace. Instead, Batt is a jerk while this someone without a name, without a job, moves down the street, moves no one (until now), and seems to have arrived.
He wins the award for self actualization.
Two. Now we’re in business, transient from the smell to the attitude. He is gray top to bottom. His back ends in a right angle, which is his neck and head, drooped. Often one of his hands rests on that intersection; the other gesticulates. For like any transient who insists on measuring up, he talks, incessantly, to himself. There is no pause from sentence to sentence: one thought generates the next, and his audience is divinely captive.
One day Cynthia finds him sleeping on a concrete slab, twitching like a dog, all fours moving. Another day she notices he has a white bandage wrapped around his hand. Drunken act? Slice of despair? She imagines a deep cut mid-web between index and thumb. His hand closes upon the bandage in spasms. Each day the white goes grayer, until it matches.
One day he is writing in a notebook. Oh my God, she thinks, and realizes she holds to the notion that a transient must be mindless. She has never liked to write; pictures have always seemed more effective. His act gives him power over her.
And one day when she passes him, she goes on staring until his head jerks up and he looks her straight in the eye and she sees through the dirt and madness to a man; there is that recognition of person to person, the intelligence, the curiosity, the fear.
He wins second prize because he fits the definition, then disturbs it. She wants to (and does) draw him repeatedly, from a number of angles, trying to capture degradation and intelligence. Simple, extremely supple lines: they elude her.
First prize. Because he looks too normal, somehow. This one’s problem must be plain and simple alcohol. Because he is her age, and his blondish brown hair is thick, nearly her color, overgrown, and because he is tall, well formed. Second prize is bent like a hinge; first prize is curved like an S, as in scared.
He walks. He takes a step, two, ten, then turns around. In a day he covers miles and moves nowhere.
She gives him a name: Jeremy Stone. Jeremy Stone is a broken record, condemned to repeat a gesture for the rest of his life. He upholds the task: he looks serious; he walks back and forth quickly. He picks at the garbage with intent.
The face looks almost normal, but he is apart, outside; he should be asking for change, still tied to the society he has abandoned. But he does not ask. He does not talk. All he does is walk. All Cynthia does is walk, or so it seems. She awards first prize to the one most like her.
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"Haunting and lyrical, the late Fern Chertkow's highly original novel strikes a deep note of mystery that resounds throughout The Afterlife Trilogy Like the best music, the effect of She Plays in Darkness lingers in a wake of silence."
-Elizabeth Cunningham, author of The Maeve Chronicles.