He came to me as a lizard-looking porn star with raven hair and pencil moustache, lifting books from a shelf in a two-piece retro crushed velvet suit. He was detached, indifferent and gloomy, a wiry man stretched out by a torture rack. He picked up a dog-eared copy of Factotum, and when it fell to the floor, he stamped the heel of his right black leather boot into the author’s pot-faced picture. “Berryman was best,” he said with an Australian third degree burn drawl. He picked up a copy of Metamorphosis by Kafka and shrugged apathetically. “Do you have the Book of Mark, or a King James edition of the Old Testament?” I lifted myself from the bed, rubbed my eyes once, and then again. A miasma of cigarette smoke stretched toward the ceiling, an Indian Rope from which he had descended. “I’m not that religious”, I tell him. He turned to me and said, “It’s good not to believe in the irrational and the absurd.” Taking a long hit of the cigarette, he exhaled words and smoke, “But it’s damn more exciting when you do.”
I was in a half-sleep when I placed the two teabags in the cups in the home that had all but abandoned me. The kitchen had a jungle of noises creeping out every dark recess that night, tired helpless voices of all manner of mechanical and electrical creatures. As the kettle rumbled, the refrigerator gurgled and burped, as if digesting what was in its belly. The lights buzzed with an erratic energy, as if young and delirious on its own illumination. And beneath a spotlight, he sat, the same Marlboro light hanging from swollen lips. “So why am I here?” he asked. I placed the cups down and sat beside him. “I thought you knew that?” He took another drag, placed on a pair of sepia filtered aviator glasses and said dryly, “It’s the bone scissors, isn’t it?”
There is no way he can tell me the secret of the bone scissors without any music. He tells me it would be like fucking a mute girl on a bed of cotton wool. “Best sex of your life and all you can hear is your own fetid breath, heaving and grunting. There has to be sound, noise, something beautiful that will mask our terrible voices.” He picks out Van Morrison. Tupelo Honey.
I always thought it better to surround yourself by real people. Imaginary friends, whatever their shape or form, were dark, strange little apparitions that had the ability to influence and be mischievous without any of the consequences. They were the misshapen shadow fettered to your ankle, a hushed but compelling voice among the clamour of life. I never wanted an imaginary friend for these reasons. Instead, I wanted to be one. When I was eight years old, I made little business cards out of disused cigarette boxes and handed them out to the local kids. I told them for a small fee I would be their imaginary friend. All I needed was a place to hide in their bedroom, a wardrobe, or cubbyhole. I had only one offer. Her face was shaped by misfortune, mournful eyes held within each an eternity of misery. For doing one thing or another she was always grounded, confined to her bedroom where she had to reflect upon her wrongdoing. Her parents named her after Elvis’s wife, hoping a name alone would bring the same fortunes into their sorrowful existence. It didn’t.
Her home was a real stink-hole: stripped floors, rusty bicycles in the hall. We crept everywhere that night: first through the backdoor, then up the stairs and finally into her room where she shoved me into a wicker laundry box. I was told to be as quiet as a mouse. Not a peep. She would return soon. Amidst a foul-smelling nest of soiled knickers and sweat-stained vests, I waited. And waited. I opened the box’s lid an hour later and the room was dark. Priscilla was gone. I heard the dumb-mumbling of a TV downstairs and a man shouting. I crept out of the box and took every step with soundless breath. Floorboards snapped and groaned like burning logs on a campfire. Pipes yawned and stretched out their slender forms beneath me. Every part of that house grumbled and griped as if I had awaked it from hibernation. Even my own bones betrayed me, cracking and popping with every step I took. Between banister rails of stripped wood, I saw a man, his baldhead a balloon of reddened skin. He was in the living room beating hard on a woman. Her top lip was busted and bleeding – her modest dress torn at the shoulder. He kept yelling at her that she was a bitch, and that he was going to kill her. I ran out of that house and kept on running until I got home. I tore up the business cards and decided that I never wanted to be anyone’s imaginary friend because you never know who you might get. And as I watched the man before me reach into his velvet jacket and pull out another Marlboro light, I wonder if he was looking at me thinking the same damn thing.
“No, I’m not,” he said, and I wondered if I was speaking aloud without realising it. Running his hand through his hair, he said, “Ever heard of the story of Elijah, a wise man, cursed with male pattern baldness?”
I shook my head.
“One day, Elijah was walking to Bethel, minding his own business, when a bunch of kids jump out and begin teasing him. They start calling him names like, baldly. So Elijah thinks, fuck this, and he turns round and curses them in the name of the Lord. You know what happened?”
“Out of nowhere, two bears emerge and maul to the death all forty two children.”
I asked if the story has any relevance to the bone scissors. “No. I mention it because you felt it important to add the fact the wife-beater was bald.”
“Are you some kind of God?”
“I have been referred to as the bastard child of Elvis and Dracula, but never a God. You can call me Nick.”
“So why the story of Elijah, Nick?”
“The moral of Elijah is you shouldn’t mock people. The man you remembered may have been beating up his wife because she was fucking someone else, or that she cut off his dick. He may have been beating her because she teased him about going bald. What the man was doing to his wife was no different to what God did when he sent the bears to maul the children.”
I took a sip from my cup, a beat missed to avoid sounding stupid.
“You didn’t see the full picture,” said the man, “only one moment. I’m here to allow you to see everything.”
My imaginary friend pulled from his boot an ivory pair of crude looking scissors. He placed them down on the table in front of us and removed his glasses. With gloomy eyes and piano teeth, he told me, “These scissors were fashioned from the femur of Christ.” I guess I was supposed to be impressed, but they looked cheap, like something found in market stall in Marrakesh. “With these scissors we can cut a hole through this world, and enter the world of Saudade.”
My imaginary friend warns about a world within a world. Saudade, he told me, can be something small, like a memory of a happier time, one you know will never be again. Or it can be the deepening sense of longing that tears the soul apart. It is a place of great sadness, and from it, one can live eternally in a state of idle wistfulness. He added, “Happiness is too joyous to be trusted,” he said. “It reeks of insincerity. Only sadness can be depended on. Hollowness and pain are the last idols of integrity.”
In Saudade I could be truly glum and dismal. I would never need to feign interest in things I find disinteresting; never “act” happy or pretend to be “improving” as a human being. I could be indifferent and shallow, hopeless and disconsolate. I could sit and reflect with a heavy heart upon everything I have lost. I was born into light and now had the chance of being delivered back into the dark. I reflected for a moment upon Priscilla, and sweet little Jack. To feel happiness again would be an injustice to their memory. I had no choice but to agree.
My imaginary friend picked up the bone scissors and snipped the crude ivory blades together before my face. Between him and me there was only a sinister cocktail of fetid aromas from rotting meals, the dank stale air of a man living alone. As every blade snapped, a mysterious furrow in the emptiness before us grew. The more he snipped, the more the gap widened until I could no longer see his face, but instead a gash of blackness. He then walked around the hole and with bony hands prized the gaping wound open; tearing it with such force I heard it cry out in distress. A hostile wind blew from the dark.
“Get in,” he said. “And abandon all hope.”
I climbed upon the table and crawled inside the hole.
I was falling. Velocity gathered hoarse winds and hurled them in my face, hollowing my cheeks and bellowing derision in my ears. The world below me was a car park I knew all too well, swelling as gravity pushed me closer to it. With arms flailing and stomach churning, I cried out to Nick to make it stop, to haul in time and tease the end from ending. But he did not. And the floor kept on coming.
They say before death you see your life flash before you, a précis of all your limitations, endeavours and misgivings, all projected onto your inner eye. When I closed my eyes within that moment, I did not see my life but that of my wife’s. In measured heaves I regurgitated her past, of buried moments so sickly bitter in taste I ptyalized each to the world gathering in size below me.
Blink and I saw her father’s hand strike down upon her eggshell face, the colour of his skin turning florid like that of beetroot as he gathered a merciless rhythm. This striking of his hand upon her became a physical embodiment of the punctuation mark, an end to a declarative sentence delivered with brutality, and one she could never challenge lest she feel more of the same. I knew this because she knows this. Her father was a master of the “punch-sonnet”, fourteen cruel strikes that to him had rhyme and reason attached.
Blink. I watched him fall through the door, stinking of the booze, delivering epic reams of vicious prose upon her and his doleful wife. He unleashed Hell upon them both, and they could do nothing but wait until the ballad of his denouement drew to its close. From under a stairwell, I watch through my wife’s eyes her father pummelling his wife. I had witnessed this same image myself, as a young boy, from the gap between stripped banister rails. I had seen his baldhead reflect the light from a stripped bulb, the tear in the woman’s dress, the blood trailing from her lip. I was Priscilla trembling under thick blankets of shadow beneath that staircase, struck dumb by fear, and expectant that the boy she had taken to her room, her own imaginary friend, would see the horror in her life and take her away from it all. Twelve years later, I grew the confidence to do just that.
Blink. Thirty-fifth Floor.
Hand in hand both Pricilla and I staggered down the tongue-red matrimony aisle of the Elvis Chapel in Las Vegas. The Hound Dog Special gave us one song from the Elvis impersonator, our names in lights, and a stuffed hound dog as a keepsake. The minister sounded ten packs of cigarettes away from emphysema. His hands were raisin blue against the Holy Book. Every now and then, he would look down Priscilla’s blouse as the sweaty jumpsuit wearing Elvis belted out a needy rendition of The Wonder of You. Through Priscilla’s damaged eyes, I saw the pawnshop gold ring slide upon her finger. Carried by the stench of Jose Cuervo, we delivered in unison our own maudlin vow to one another: to entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you, For where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. And where you die, I will die and there I will be buried. May the Lord do with me and more if anything but death parts you from me. I watched as my youthful face leant in to place a warm kiss upon her pale lips.
Blink. The bridal suite – a cheap motel somewhere off the Strip, a place for hookers and jailbirds to unite amidst foul smelling bed linen and the clamour of neighbouring bedsprings. It was a pit, an alternate reality filled with bad clichés. In the static hiss of darkness, I heard myself whisper in Priscilla’s ear, “Where you die, I will die.”
Blink. Twenty Eighth Floor.
A broken elevator. I watched myself carry boxes inscribed with hand written words up the ten floors to apartment 108. Priscilla labelled each according to their purpose, not their content. The Box that read “Domesticate” was filled with cooking books and kitchen utensils. Another box that had the word “Aspire” written on it contained brochures of places Priscilla had always wanted to visit: The Walls of Carcassonne in France, Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, Macha Picchu in Peru. The box that read “Hope” contained sexy lingerie, pornographic videotapes, ovulation and home pregnancy tests. Priscilla labelled everything, from boxes to people. If she could, she would have written on my forehead “Enabler”.
Blink. A bubble wrap strip of sweat had gathered on my brow. I was naked, on top of Priscilla. Through her eyes, I looked down to see her hand gripped tight around my furrowed scrotal sack. “Hit me!” she screamed, and as she looked back upon my own face, lines mete out by agony gather like leeches around my eyes. Her voice repeated the words in my ear, “Hit me, and smooth the progress of my torment.”
I watched Priscilla write on the back of a sonogram picture the word “Change”. Her swollen belly with its tributaries of cerise scarring was emblazoned with the word “Tumour”. In the full-length mirror, her reflection was of a woman mid-term, limited by the advancement of her unborn and cupcake binges, drained of colour save for her cheeks that were crab apple red. Across the mirror, she had written in black marker pen the word “Ugly”. A song played out in the background. This song was the incarnation of her misery. Over and over the lyrics entwined around her limbs like vines, consuming the life beneath. This song was why Nick had visited me.
Blink and I was squeezing Pricilla’s hand. The room was a sterile chamber of beeping machines, low-lightening and administered agony. The same song plays on a small portable CD player. The same Australian drawl sings: When you’re sad and when you’re lonely, and you haven’t got a friend. Just remember, that death is not the end. Between her legs, and performing an episiotomy, was the head of a midwife I remembered only as Ruth. The surgical scissors she used threw pretty shapes of light along Priscilla’s thighs and her pubic hair. Against panting breath, I heard the lyrics: And all that you held sacred falls down and does not mend, just remember that death is not the end. Fluids spilled out and from Priscilla’s innards a lilac shit-covered human being with all ten fingers and ten toes is pushed out. Blink and Priscilla coaxes our baby to latch on to the safecracker dial that is her nipple. Her inner dialogue revealed that she was waiting for the overwhelming bond between child and mother to take over. Waiting.
Blink. A Frozen field. I was Priscilla watching myself drag our son, Jack, and his blue sledge up a hill coated with virgin snow. The damage left by our footprints, and the sledge’s gutter trail, made it look like a twenty-foot centipede had crawled up that hill. Priscilla waited at the bottom to mark the end of the run. I was a speck of dust in a mound of flour to her eyes. Land and sky were one; the horizon blurred by pale clouds and hoary pasture. Priscilla leant down and wrote in the snow the word “Empty”, and from afar I heard myself and our son whooping and wailing as we descended toward her. Our son was crying by the time we stopped. He looked back at the hill and between sobs he said the same word over and over: Doggy. Doggy. Halfway down the hill was a black dot that looked no bigger than a piece of coal. That damn hound dog. “You drop Doggy, Jack?” I asked, and Jack, all tears and snot smeared over reddened cheeks, nodded his head. Priscilla waited while I retrieved our wedding keepsake. Jack remained cold and shaking, sobbing while she lit a cigarette.
Blink. A razor blade became a surrogate pen. In lines of four, like those of a prisoner counting down his days, Priscilla scratched at the pale skin near the top of her thigh. In the corner of her eye Jack stood beside the door, the tattered and dirty hound dog hung from his right hand. In his left hand was a wad of damp gauze. “Fetch the magic blanket to Mummy, Jack,” Priscilla called out. And Jack, all smiles and joy oozing out of every pore, ran over and pressed the sodden cloth to the engraving on the her thigh. His hand was tiny, the nails all jagged with dirt festering beneath. Like the clay that casts a mould of baby’s feet and hands, Priscilla pressed Jack’s hand into the gauze, releasing the penance-sting that tempered her antipathy. The gauze fell to the floor, and there, in the soft pastel light of a dying bulb, was the faint impression of Jack’s thumb and fingers. It was day but Priscilla walked the rooms of our apartment in her nightdress. Ten steps behind was our son, a smile on his face and hound dog in his hand.
Two pale feet hung over the edge of a window ledge. The town beyond Pricilla’s vantage point was a felled Christmas tree with a thousand tiny lights glimmering. Below was darkness, punctuated by more lights that flood the secured car park of our apartment block. There was no sound, save for the hem of her nightdress fluttering like a fledgling beating out its first flight, and that song repeating the line, Death is not the end. Death is not the end.
Falling. Against persuasive winds and gravity, Priscilla turned her body before the moment of impact. I too was facing toward the sky from where the body of something small tumbled toward her. From the pitch-black abyss above, threadbare limbs was lifted by haste and matted fur was blustered by crushing winds, and before obscurity prevailed against light, and the strands of Priscilla’s heart snapped under the strain of apprehension, I made out the little figure of our son chasing the hound dog’s tail. Before her eye had time to well, all was black again.
I was delivered from darkness to a blinding light that was a padded cell in the Mental Health Institution of Brockton County. My arms were bound, my feet stripped naked and the smell from the floor reminded me of the bed Priscilla and I consummated our marriage in while in Las Vegas. My eyes adjusted to the new world and from a blur I saw my imaginary friend sat in the corner wearing a turquoise suit and a coffee stained shirt open at the neck, smoking on a Marlboro. In my head, I was singing that damn song, and my imaginary friend said to this, “Priscilla found faith in its lyrics.” He exhaled smoke and declared, “It was a hymn from which she drew strength. And you hear it now because where she and your son now reside you want to believe there is salvation. You want to know that there is something better after death. This is why I came to you.” With fingers festooned with slot machine jewellery, my imaginary friend, the singer I know only as Nick Cave, pointed at me with raised lip and in a gruff voice finally said, “But I can’t allow this, because where you die, I die.”