Fiction · 05/23/2018

Valley of the Kings

Alex flew out here to stay with me a week.

He recently got his own place, which does nothing to make me less obsolete in his life. Still, we had a plan and stuck to it, even though it was not a first choice for either of us. He’d grown his hair out since Christmastime. I sensed hostility in that, but really I think he’s just hiding out. His mother wants to shear him in his sleep, but that has to do with a lot more than his hair. So, for that matter, does this coolness between him and me. Most of our troubles have more to do with me and his mother. When I try to say something to him, I know it’s his mother I’m really trying to talk to. But it’s not her in my kitchen, looking at the toast I made for breakfast. It’s him. Alex and I spent a lot of the week like that, me trying to cross the void between us and say something meaningful to him, and failing. Plus his phone was always lighting up. When he’s looking at his phone, he’s all smiles and chuckling. What? he says when I call him back to Earth. And then it’s on me to say something. But I don’t have anything, or I have something and I can’t say it. I’ve never been a good talker.

That phone; I have an identical model. It’s an iPhone 6. I bought them for us one Christmas, on special. I knew he wanted one, and I knew his mother refused to get him one. When I gave it to him, he said gleefully, Mom’s gonna hate you. I said, Let her hate me. When she called me to yell, I said, What, now I can’t be in touch with my own kid? She said, Fuck you.

Just before Alex goes home, he asks me to take him down to “the lab.” I say, What do you want to go down there for? He says, I haven’t been down there since I was a little kid. I say, Not much has changed down there. He says, That’s okay. So we go.

I show him the little bits of crockery I was working with then, some scarcely bigger than crumbs of dirt. I say, See, the shards are stamped with hieroglyphs, The glyphs help me put the shards back in the right order. We’re trying to see how the glyphs compare with a certain cartouche. We found it many miles from the dig site, but you never know; it might have been buried with these pots, and time drove them all apart. If they’re connected, we’ll know more than we do about the reign of a very obscure pharaoh. We don’t have particular questions about him. He was probably a pharaoh like all the other pharaohs. There are just big gaps in the record.

Alex says, What might you learn?

I say, What we stand to learn, if everything works out — which it almost certainly won’t — will be no more interesting than what we already know; it’ll just be more. Right now we don’t know if this pharaoh recognized all the gods in the Egyptian pantheon or one, or even none. That could be important, because his people would have believed whatever he believed, and what his people believed would…When I look up, Alex is looking back at me like, What the fuck. When I look down, I no longer see the debris of the æons. Later in the car, I say, Hey, you asked me to take you down there.

That night I ask how his mother is. I know how she is, but I want to hear how Alex puts it. Alex says, She’s fine.

In bed awake, I play out the conversation as it would have gone if I were God. I say, Do you have any idea what it’s like to be me, trying to talk to you? He says, I have some idea. And I say, No you don’t. You are of me. I am not of you. You have no idea.

It isn’t that I thought knowing Alex would tell me anything about myself. But then, I didn’t think it would tell me quite so little either.

Before I fall asleep, I think about his mother, all alone in her house, which I sometimes call “our house.” I say, Good. But I don’t mean good. It makes me feel more alone, knowing that she’s alone. It seems so silly, all three of us alone.

Next morning, it’s Alex on his phone, tapping away. I watch him in disbelief. When we’re apart, the phone brings him to me, and when we’re together, the phone takes him away. But actually I understand; I feel closer to him when I can text him things instead of speaking them. I suppose the written word is the route to his heart, just as it is to mine. Still, I want to snatch it out of his hands and smash it. But there is a void to cross even in that. I say, Yesterday you made me feel like shit about myself, and I think you meant to. But funny enough, when I see him onto the plane, it’s me who apologizes to him for being cruel, and not him to me.

When I’m in “the lab” alone, I sometimes talk aloud and pretend I’m presenting my artifacts to the Royal Society. My first day without Alex, I stand up from the table and say, Ladies and gentlemen (I brandish the cartouche), this cartouche belonged to Ramesses VIII. You probably never heard of him. Well, he never heard of you either. (A pause for light laughter). And this iPhone belonged to my son, Alex. I bought it for him two Christmases ago just to be in touch with him, and, I confess, to spite his mother, who worried it would drive him further away from her. These are wondrous devices both, magical devices, whose mechanics no one in this room can possibly fathom. With them, we can “cross the void,” as it were. With this (cartouche), Ramesses crosses the void of time to tell me his name. With this (Alex’s iPhone), my son crosses the void of space to tell me he is fighting with his girlfriend, or he hates his mother, or just to say, at some small, idle hour, Hey. Who would not do that if they could? Who among us would not cross the void and say something, anything, no matter how trivial, if the universe only let them? Who would not reach out to his son and say, You’re a good kid? Who would not visit his son’s mother and say, Don’t worry, be patient, he’ll come back? Who would not go back to a time before his own birth, the start of all his troubles? Who would not whisper his name across the centuries? Who would not behold the Middle Kingdom at its full height? Ladies and gentlemen, in light of everything, I do not think this is so much to want.

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David Hansen got his MFA in fiction from Washington University in St. Louis in 2016 and in 2017 became their senior writing fellow in fiction. His stories have appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Conjunctions, the Connecticut Review, the Tampa Review, and assorted zines.