I am here without wife or woman, your guide and reporter, a hostage to the habits of rerunning the dead past in the cause of waking from the dream.
The first three nights of Reruns Rezoomed appeared in the March ’07 issue of the Rail
At the outset, we find the narrator/dreamer, Jack, at a writer’s colony in Italy, his former wife (and muse),
Molly, secreted in the bathroom. When he sneaks a glance, she leaves him once again.
Part One: Dreams of Molly
In the morning, I went out into the hall to look for my old room, knocked on a few doors. Various residents answered my knocks, invited me in for a drink or not, seemed at home with themselves.
There were two more doors left to investigate and I approached the first one warily in the hope of discovering a more productive strategy, my fist in the air in readiness, though unready to entertain the door.
Catching me in the act of procrastination, the door abruptly opened and I was confronted by a woman dressed in black, who I imagined I recognized as the painter of nightscapes. “I thought this might be my room,” I said.
“Right place, wrong time,” she said. “This is or rather was your room, but as you can see I’m here now.”
I wondered out loud why they hadn’t given her her own room if she had been officially accepted as a resident.
She stepped aside to let me go by. “They did sort of,” she said, “but then one day I discovered someone else had taken it when I was out doing my art so I commandeered the first unoccupied room I could find. We could share this room if you have no other place. I tend to sleep during the day and work at night so we shouldn’t get in each other’s way.”
I looked at my watch, sat down in the hall for twenty minutes then knocked again.
“I know you from somewhere, don’t I?” she said, going by. “Don’t touch anything.”
Everything else in the room, I noticed, was mine except for three black canvasses prominently displayed, two on the wall, one alongside the wall opposite the bed.
I went back to my sentence as soon as soon as I heard her leave the building. The sentence was a little different from how I remembered it, but also less hopeless, more susceptible to ultimate resolution.
She didn’t return at first light as promised and I had my room to myself or so it seemed. The paintings had a way of insisting on their presence in a disconcerting sometimes oppressive way. They were signed—at least the two on the wall were—with the initial Q. The one on the floor, which I assumed was unfinished, was unsigned. Her name, the name she introduced herself to me by, was Leonora.
If she ever returned, I planned to ask L what the Q stood for.
When I wasn’t writing—by this time I had moved on to the second sentence—I wondered if it was a coincidence that the two women in my life had both disappeared. Then it struck me that going back in time all the women I had known at length—Molly, Anna, Hannah, even my mother, had a talent for disappearing.
Feeling abandoned, I left the room in search of company.
When I returned the paintings were gone, at least no longer on the wall and I assumed—what else could it mean?—that Q removed them so that she would no longer have a reason to return.
But that night, someone shook me from sleep, wanting to know what I had done with her paintings. It was Q or Leonora or whoever and she had paint on her hands which transferred to the shoulder she had shaken.
I protested my innocence and then went off with her on a prolonged and seemingly hopeless search for the missing paintings. A sense of responsibility will take you down odd paths.
We went from room to room on tiptoes, looking in closets and under beds, taking something from each of the rooms in compensation for the loss. We had quite a haul of stuff in an orange garbage bag when we returned to our room to discover the paintings on the walls again, returned by the thief in our absence.
Q was pleased, though not greatly pleased, hugged me, and then began to moan, complaining that whoever took the paintings decided they weren’t worth keeping, which was hurtful and cruel.
I meant only to console her, but it led to something else, something much more or slightly less, and we were on the floor together wrestling in a mostly pleasurable way. I had no complaints. We were an action painting for a time, a kind of retro happening when interrupted by an authoritative knock on the door. No one answered but some official entered (the Director of Transgressions) to banish us from the Villa. I suspected it was Molly who had turned us in for the reward.
From my vantage on the floor looking up (Q was on top looking down) the official, whom I’d never seen before, seemed obscenely large.
Q and I left the Villa together in disgrace, were forced to wander around Italy, doing whatever came along to earn our keep. With the last of our lira, we bought some realistic-looking faux metal chains and I improvised a strong man act in the various town squares. Q would tie the chains around my chest and I would huff and puff and groan until it seemed I had given up and then I would break my bonds by expanding my chest. The unit had a trick link that came apart when I exerted pressure in a certain way. Each time I broke my bonds, Q would scream with pleasure as if she had never seen anything like it before.
Q collected money from the crowd in one of her hats and arranged portrait commissions at reduced price with some of the local gentry. The money we earned was better than nothing, though not much better.
For the most part, we slept out of doors or in somebody’s barn, using the other’s proximity to keep warm.
We kept our spirits up by makings plans to return to the Villa under different identities, but of course we knew it was just idle talk. They warned us on leaving that we could never return no matter what we did to redeem ourselves, no matter how much time passed.
In the early days on the road, Q and I seemed pretty much of one mind about everything. But after awhile, we began to squabble about where to go and what to do and how to spend the little money we had between us. After one of our fights, I took the sock with the money and left Q in the deserted ramshackle barn we had been using as residence.
Two or three drinks later when I returned to our temporary home, she was gone and her small suitcase with her. She had left me one of her paintings—the blackest of the nightscapes, the one I professed to admire—as a parting gift.
“That’s a totally stunning painting,” Molly said during a brief visit but her comment only served to make me like it less,
I didn’t miss Leonora for the first few hours of our separation, wrote an abbreviated version of our tragic love story in the ratty notebook I’d been carrying with me. The last line was: “He expected to miss her after awhile, after a week or so, but as it turned out the expectation sufficed for the feeling itself.”
When the story was finished, when the last line that had been playing through my head got itself down on paper, I couldn’t imagine how I would get on another day without her.
You could see it was an all day rain, but since I was low on funds, I went on to the next village with the idea of doing my strong man performance in the town square. As usual, particularly since I started drinking again, I was short of cash.
I put up signs in the town square, but when the time came to begin, there was no one in the audience. Eventually, a carbinieri showed up carrying one of my signs and waving it at me as if it were a weapon.
I assumed he was ordering me to leave and I packed up my chains, but on the contrary he was insisting that I perform for him even though he was the only spectator.
He had a folding chair and an umbrella and he opened them both and made himself comfortable.
I tied the chains rather awkwardly—it was generally Q’s job to tie the supposedly unbreakable knot—while the carabinieri watched intently.
I went through the motions of failing, which was the performance part of the act, and my audience of one laughed and clapped his hands. “He can’t do it,” he said to no one in particular.
His skepticism provoked me. I took a deep breath and expanded my chest, expecting the chains to come apart as they always did.
I panicked at first when nothing happened, but then I thought I hadn’t tried hard enough. So I took a deeper breath, expanding my chest to the breaking point, but the chains resisted me. And again. It then struck me that these were not the chains I had been using. Someone, no friend of mine, had made the switch.
The small crowd in the audience—I hadn’t noticed them assemble—started throwing things, fruit for the most part. There was also the occasional puh-ching of flying lead and I fled the stage, still wrapped in chains. The only person in the audience cheering me on was a woman in the back row who resembled Molly.
I ran without looking back until, several miles down the road, I tripped on a loose 16th century cobblestone and I fell in a sprawl in the middle of the wet street. The passing thought that held sway was, Whatever else happens, Jack, you can’t get much lower than this.
I ran into Q (or L) again at the airport in Milan. She seemed to have forgotten that we had separated on bad terms and gave me a hug and told how she had made all this money selling paintings, some of them commissioned portraits, to Americans returning home. She only needed 21 more dollars to afford her own ticket back to the states. On the other hand, I was 69 dollars short. My visa card, which I assumed was good, had been repeatedly rejected.
It was a close approximation of old times. Q had a set of chains in her carry-on bag and after a couple of drinks of red-eye for courage I performed for the captive crowd on the tarmac.
The stamping and clapping my performance earned—the chains snapping at the appropriate moment—improved my shaky self-esteem.
We made a killing though most of the bills Q collected in her hat were in obscure foreign currency.
The exchange booth was Closed for Repairs so we had to hang out in the airport, plying our respective trades, catching a nap now and then in the luggage carousel.
To get rid of us, the authorities put us on a plane going back to the states but because of weather or perhaps faulty navigation we ended up in New Foundland for refueling purposes.
We made the mistake of getting off the plane with the others during what they told us would be a 70 minute stopover. But as we had no tickets when we tried to reboard the plane, the woman at the gate denied us entry.
When Q argued they arrested her and when I protested her arrest, they arrested me and though we had American passports, after a week’s imprisonment in a makeshift cage adjoining the food preparation room in the local MacDonald’s, they deported us back to Italy.
The Italian authorities refused to accept us—there was a fraud charge on the books against us—and we found ourselves once again on a plane going back to the states.
We fought continually on the plane ride back, and by the time we reached Boston—the destination of this particular flight—we were no longer on speaking terms.
Q’s passport had expired and under duress I couldn’t locate mine so we were detained together, as it turned out, while the authorities reviewed our situation.
I made an effort to be polite, though it was unfelt, while Q (or L)—they addressed her as Leonora—remain sulkily silent.
They searched our luggage for clues. My chains were seized as undetermined evidence against me. Two bottles of pills were commandeered from Leonora’s case as well as one of her lesser nightscapes, which she said was not a nightscape at all but a portrait of an absent loved one painted in the dark.
While we were detained, we couldn’t help but overhear the following conversation, which seemed to take place behind the wall to our right.
“I’m for going by the book,” said the first official, “but it’s not clear to me how the book reads on this case. You know what I’m saying, Chuck?”
“Hey I’ve seen the new regulations—you’re going to love them when you see them, pal, lots more freedom of initiative, they just ask for creativity—though they don’t actually go into effect until 3:00 this afternoon.”
“Bummer. Three o’clock, huh? What time is it now?”
“We could always push the clock ahead if we have to, if time is of the essence so to speak.”
“For argument’s sake, let’s say time is of the essence and we push the clock ahead, what then?”
While this conversation was going on in the next room, Leonora and I shared the occasional desperate glance. We were sitting next to each other at this point, our hands meeting as if inadvertently on the bench between us. The guards were talking in whispers now and it became increasingly difficult to pick up more than an idle word.
“We’re in this together, whatever it is,” she said, “and I’m not going to be afraid.” Momentarily, the door opened and one of the guards entered the room. “I need to use the facilities,” I said.
“Use whatever facilities you like,” he said. “You’re free to go.” He unlocked the door behind us and held it open, standing absolutely still while awaiting our departure.
We were standing now, but we sensed we couldn’t trust what they told us and so remained in place. Leonora asked the guard to repeat what he said.
“It only gets said once,” he said. “That’s the regulation.”
I took Leonora’s hand and tried to lead her through the door and she took a step or two then became rigid at the doorway, refusing the final step to freedom, glancing at the guard, who had not moved since he opened the door for us, who was standing at attention with an almost imperceptible smile, a congested smirk on his face.
The first three nights of Reruns Rezoomed appeared in the March ‘07 issue of the Rail (https://www.brooklynrail.org/2007/03/fiction/from-i-reruns-2-jack-in-the-box-i ) check in with the Rail every month for a new installment of Reruns Rezoomed.
Brooklyn native Jonathan Baumbach is the author of 3 collections of short stories and 11 novels including Reruns, B, Seperate Hours, Babble, Chez Charlotte & Emily and On the Way to My Father's Funeral. His stories have been anthologized in O.Henry Prize Stories, Great Pool Stories, Best American Stories, Full Court, All Our Secrets are the Same, Best of TriQuarterly among other.