Fiction · 10/12/2011

An Excerpt from Death Wishing

The night that cats were wished away was a hard one full of wine, tears, and spectacle. Even those of us who were indifferent to feline companionship felt heart broken for those who weren’t, and together our humid, grieving silence was more tangible than the awe-filled silence that followed the disappearance of cancer. We were united by that particular loss. Despite the media promise that Japanese scientists were hard at work trying to re-engineer the common house cat, my beautiful neighbor Pebbles had lost her faith, burning all of her leopard spotted, tiger striped panties and bras in a small, neat fire out on the banquette in front of our building on Esplanade.

The flame-crumpled rayon impressed me enough that I drained a bottle of cabernet in tribute. We lived in a jazz/pot community on the fringe of the French Quarter called Faubourg Marigny where I worked in my son’s vintage clothing shop as a cape and corset cleaner. Thus, my interest in her underthings was mostly professional.

Miss Pebbles stood over the ashes of her underwear and cried, and my respect for the phenomenon of Death Wishing deepened. They say Wishing started when some Army PR flak declared on his deathbed that there were alien bodies at Roswell back in ‘47. “Hunnerds of them,” he swore. There weren’t any aliens, of course. But the man said his piece and expired, and then all of a sudden there were. Rows and rows of the dusty bastards, stacked up on shelves in a shed in the desert. This occurred a couple of years ago.

Pebbles’ panty fire had melted already. She deserved better — antique lace, satin, velvet trim. Especially if she was going to burn the stuff. She made me crazy with her red hair and baby fat, and the way she smelled like Lisa, the hand soap they put in Quarter hotels. But I was far too old and fat for her. Hell, my son was too old for her too, but I held the minority opinion on that.

She sniffled in my direction. I maintained a respectful distance. “Is Val coming out?” she asked.

It’s two for flinching, so I didn’t. “I think he has a date.”

It no longer burned me that she had a thing for my son Val. I was quite comfortable dividing my fantasy from reality, and to a certain degree I preferred my love life to be all my own, compartmentalized, unrequited, and unspoiled. I had been married long enough, then divorced long enough, to appreciate the benefits of a purely invented reality. But human invention has its limits.

Upon dissection, we learned that every detail of alien physiognomy had already been imagined by scientists, artists, writers, etc. It was all very exciting, but ultimately there was nothing to be learned from hundreds of copies of an all too generalized ideal. The aliens didn’t come from anywhere, and they couldn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. They were the perfect ambassadors of our limits.

“There he is,” said Pebbles, sounding brighter, breaking my heart again. My son had rounded the corner, deepening his lazy stride once he spotted us. All Pebbles could see was the swinging black hair, scuffed boots, stained T-shirt and jeans — he went for that semi-retired rock star look. All I could see was how much he looked like his mother, Brenda. She and I lived a thousand miles away from each other, but Val was her easy surrogate.

He smiled, approached slowly, then gathered Pebbles into his arms and encouraged her to “Let it all out, sugar.” No respectful distance there. I despaired and left them to it.

More wine was needed. I threaded my way towards Chartres, stayed off Decatur where most folks were milling about, zombied by sadness. It was a sharp night made acrid from little saucers of untouched meat and milk left on stoops. Hopeful. Desperate. Maybe they’d come back. Cats always seemed very European to me, flourishing as they did in decrepit, ancient spaces as long as the food kept coming.

Little bowls of ground fish. Water pans with specks floating on top. I’d taken the route to avoid humanity, but this was worse. Miss Polly’s sandwich hut sagged in the corner of a parking lot on Barracks Street, looking like an outhouse. Of course it was closed, but I had a bad feeling it might never open again. Miss Polly owned five cats, all of the matted hair, diseased eye variety. That’s five we knew of. Having emigrated from the Ukraine sometime back in the sixties, she gave off a pungent and lonely paranoia that made her an ideal candidate for cat hoarding.

The echo and rattle of the night. Doors and trash bins slamming, high heeled clatter on the bricks, and then the two note cry of a woman as she called out: “Loooo-Laaahh.”

I did not know Lola, but I worried for her all the same.

And suddenly I no longer wanted to be alone. I took a turn towards the water, the music, the lights. The all night sad party. I knew I was close when a Hummer came squalling around the corner with fog cutter headlights, music booming, and what looked like about fifteen laughing passengers crammed inside. Well, at least some folks were managing their grief. The vehicle screamed towards I-10. The driver was probably lost, but I don’t think he cared. When we get traffic, it’s always madness on wheels. As that music faded, more routine down river noise returned. Music from competing locations spilled out into the humid night and combined into arrhythmic bird sounds, an appropriate affect given that few pre-Katrina bands were still intact. The players who returned and the ones who never left reassembled themselves into all-star collectives, and a lot of seventeen year-old ingénues found themselves filling in at legendary venues. Latin music was getting big. Latin players even bigger. Interesting times. Opportunity and broken dreams go hand in hand.

The world was vulnerable. Some argued that it was always so, that reality had always been subject to the whims of a select few. But that was s a political point, and useless. My worry was that imagination seemed so small and mean, sometimes.

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A bit of background: Well before his impeachment, the President managed to usher in The Language Act. The Act was an efficiently administered piece of legislation, hastened by the bewilderment caused when cancer disappeared. Imagine being one of those poor souls who continued in poisonous treatment even after the disease was vanquished. Imagine being one of those joyous souls diagnosed but saved at the eleventh hour by a force of un-nature. Something had to be done to blunt these experiences.

The Language Act was a perfect law, all tongue and no teeth, because its violators were virtually undetectable and literally unpunishable. Hence, no measurable failure rate. Because to commit an offense against The Language Act was to speak imperfectly before certain death. The Language Act was direct. Resolved: A dying wish must be expressed in simple, concrete terms. No wish may be issued with the intent to harm persons or institutions. Helpfully, the government produced a pamphlet of exemplar wishes that were deemed both safe and constructive, such as: I wish that the Atlantic cod stocks of the Grand Banks would double in yield, or I wish that this year’s Trick or Treating is safe and fun for all children.

Wishes against famine, disease, and war were omitted from the recommended list, and terms like eco-sensitive and e.c. or eco-correct began to pop up in speeches made by politicians and celebrities. “Eco” as a prefix no longer referred to ecology reliably, having now been hijacked by economy, and the two ecos were left struggling for the top bunk of popular concern. There was a campaign for Death Wishers to be responsible to corporate vulnerabilities as they crafted their final words. Broad stroke wishes might be well meant, but they were highly dangerous according to the administrative talking points. “Broad Strokes” became the new White House catchphrase, and at one especially delirious Veteran’s Day speech, the President addressed a military academy to warn us all against “Broad Strokes with the Cat’s Paw” — he should have said “monkey’s paw,” if he was referring to the old story about wishes gone wrong, but we knew what he meant.

No one took The Language Act to heart, especially since very few Death Wishes came true, and the successful wishes tended toward eccentric rather than calamitous change. We appreciated the return of the American Chestnut (when we finally noticed), but what the hell was a song bison for? Happily, the rumor of Bigfoot encampments turned out to be an internet prank. And at one point a very well meaning, but unclever lady died wishing “Everyone should have a thousand dollars.”

And we did. But that’s all we had. The thirteen thousand in my savings account vaporized, but I had ten one-hundred dollar bills in my wallet. Bums on Camp Street had the same, as did Donald Trump, every inmate in Angola, every baby in an incubator, and all the pygmies in the rainforest for all I knew.

I remembered the look on Val’s face as he showed me his bulging wallet. “It’s one of those wish things.”

“Yes.” By that time we’d learned, in the short span of the wishing thus far, not to get too excited by them. We strive for grace in our emotions.

“Is it fucked up then.”

“Undoubtedly,” I said. “According to the news, it’s gone all cat’s paw.”

We then witnessed an extraordinary stretch of global silence during which the world learned what had happened and mulled the possible outcomes of a uniform economic event. Predictably or not, there erupted a burst of violence and trade and Libertarian pornography — like another Katrina, like another Tsunami, but worldwide this time. A lot of outright taking occurred, and I could imagine the leaders of the World Bank pulling on giant red levers to close the gates in the financial levees that safeguarded corporate empires. It was the same in certain tribal communities where every citizen was forced to hand over their cash to their head men, and it was a fifty-fifty chance as to whether the leaders would abscond with the dough or burn it in a ritual.

The bottom line being that while everyone had a plan for being suddenly poor, no one had a plan for dealing with a windfall. Luckily or unluckily, the credit industry and the free market prevailed, and within thirty-seven breathtaking days the financial status quo restored itself, for the most part. Like a bad run in the stock market, I was down 10k, but Warren Buffett was back to full power plus some. The rich are rich by nature.

Some areas were devastated, especially in so-called renaissance cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland, both of which were driven back to their Reagan era second world statuses, but here in New Orleans we let the money, and the lack of it, wash right over us. We’re on our own ship down here. We learned that the hard way. These days we’ve got enough rum and bread stored away to survive the longest of dark journeys.

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Death Wishing is Laura Ellen Scott’s debut novel, due out October 2011 from Ig Publishing. What would be your Death Wish? Let LES know over at the Wish Tank.