The Midwest |

The Enchantment of Uses

by Pete Segall

The imagined fights I get into with people who don’t know me are growing ever less gratifying.

What do you call a figure in the darkness? Your imagination. What do you call a figure moving towards you in the darkness? Your conscience. What do you call yourself in the darkness? The whole world.

At the onset of winter a pair of mosquitoes take up residence in the bathroom. “Ghosts of summer,” says the husband. “Stupid relics,” says the wife. Without difficulty the pests evade swiping hands and rolled up magazines. Their movements have no shape or definition. They buzz around at intervals, approaching the track lighting, knocking against the frosted window, sometimes colliding with each other. “Battling deities,” says the husband. “Cursed lovers,” says the wife. Their buzzing subsides when the vents sing out heat. Sometimes they sit on the lip of the tub doing inscrutable flitting with their wings. “Beleaguered settlers,” says the husband. “Bewildered colonists,” says the wife. “Doomed pioneers,” says the husband. “Temporary survivors,” says the wife. “Close enough?” asks the husband. “I’ll think about it,” replies the wife. There is lashing snow, followed by chills hostile to the idea of life. On New Years’ morning they make a bet about how long the bugs will live. The husband says Orthodox Easter. The mosquitoes loiter by the toilet. They are uneasy, conspiratorial. The wife gives them until May Day. She wonders if the reason they are giving these mosquitoes so much attention is not their resiliency or any anxieties of their own that they project onto the pair, but instead as a way of ignoring the other beasts that roam through their house. The alligator, the raccoons, the coyote who spends all day on the living room ottoman and is starting to show them its fangs. Normally they are sober people who go to bed early. But levelheadedness is now so hard to come by. For his part, the husband wonders about their bet, terms never having been agreed upon. He’s hoping, hoping, that if he wins his wife will let him do the thing she says he isn’t allowed to do anymore.

We took turns locking each other up. First he imprisoned me for a year. I emerged pale and gaunt and surrounded by ghosts I had conjured to keep me company. Then it was my turn to lock him up. I asked for only one night. When I unlocked the door at sunrise I found him on the floor, naked and hairless, gnawing at the skin he had shed, guarding it from wolves whose presence in the room could not be explained.

She went by herself to the country of dead mothers. She returned taller, with her left pinky in a splint. I asked what it was like, being among the dead mothers. She said they were austere and sensible but frightened of their own shadows. The shadows are invaders, she went on. The country of dead husbands, the country of dead lovers, the country of dead pets. It is a war without pity or honor. The dead mothers’ best defense is to turn out the lights. Is that how you did that, I said, pointing to the injured pinky. No, she sighed. They make visitors bare-knuckle fight for their entertainment. That skinny brunette’s chin was harder than I thought.

“If I’m ever murdered I want the investigators to look at my corpse and see a blank canvas,” says my friend. I pray he develops a swift and clearly defined disease.

At our party everyone wanted to be near the homicide detective. “Killers are dull people,” he said. “They cheat at board games and circulate petitions that go unsigned. They kill because they fear people will find out just how stultified their lives are.” The fourth grade teacher at the nearby school asked about the man the papers called the Hard Luck Killer. The detective finished his drink. “The forces of capital are ghoulish but sloppy. They leave evidence without even trying.” “What about the disemboweled woman whose entrails were used to spell out unfair on her living room floor?” the teacher asked. “Routine case,” said the detective. “The men who were hung from the lamppost outside the post office?” “Mistaken identity.” “The boy who stabbed his father and claimed self-defense?” “Ditto.” “The old couple they found bound together and drowned in their own tub?” “Disappointed magazine salesman.” “When was the last time you had to discharge your service weapon?” the teacher asked. The detective said this morning. “Was your aim true?” she asked. “Truth is for almanacs and spelling tests,” he said. “I prefer the ambiguity of waking in an unfamiliar bed.”

In time I forgot the name of the battle where I died. The Wilderness? The Midway? Hastings? Then I couldn’t remember if it had even been a battle at all. Maybe I’d just been punched and hit my head on something hard on the way down. This was one of the primary problems. None of the dead could stop going on about how they met their ends. My plague, my thrown embolism, my head-on collision, my Spanish Flu. That was all they wanted to talk about. After so many years of hearing them the ownership of memories turned blurry and finally faded altogether. Our deaths became collective; shared events. I wish I could remember how this fact would be received in life. I suspect it would be noisy, or is it just that I think now that everything is noisy?