The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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MAR 2014 Issue

A diary of mysterious difficulties…

Sometime in 2007

The sun beamed down from a cloudless sky and temperatures sometimes rose into the mid-60s. Dora said to herself, “What surprises them wouldn’t surprise me,” and that gave her an outside chance, anyway.

She thought back to her recent past. Life had changed radically, so swiftly. Part of her understood exactly what this assessment meant: she had given up the idea of escape. Rather, she settled into her new groove, actually living it, attempting normalcy. She had absconded with the precious package Traddles had hidden with her aunt what seemed like ages ago. Some days she even forgot about it.

Most days, she wrote until dawn was coming up in the east, and then fell into bed and slept for four hours. She reminisced, which was less dangerous than it once was since she was far from England and anyone who knew her past.

“I did have an older brother, though, and we used to go to the movies every Saturday afternoon…”

Sometimes the idea of Francis was just an abstraction. She imagined him vaguely as she drove to the market. This was sometimes literally dangerous, as she would fade back into her old life in her mind. The edges of things were slightly less sharp, colors muted. Just before she got too far, she’d reel it back in, stopping short, pulling over, or swerving to the shoulder. She banged the door open and out flew onto the tarmac.  Still in a daze, she’d think,

“I am forgetting the details; the memories are dear.”

Surprisingly it was the details that brought a thought into focus. The slightly underdone tapioca in a berry pie she tasted would bring her back to the day sweet Davy Peggotty had proposed. The ring he gave turned into a blade, slicing the night, letting her see the tricks behind his saccharine words. The leaves shuddered in the breeze a bit, then her fog would clear and morning had arrived!

Back at the market, Dora would try to stick to common tasks. Selecting only the loveliest fruits and vegetables, getting to know the fishmonger to ensure the sweetest scallops. But in her chest she’d feel the rumblings of the fact of her life. At the butcher, she would see raw muscle, the wounds she had mended in the bloodiest days. The fruit was safest by many degrees! Yet, the facts remained, she would drive weekly to the market and steer her shopping cart up and down the aisles. More than once she thought she saw Mr. Omer amongst the cereal!

Her reward for enduring these sessions of self-deception was not safeguarding the meeting signal-whistles of old, but making comforting soups, as the evenings got cool. Somehow, this became a reliable ritual, where the danger resided in whether the late-season leeks would overpower the delicate zucchini, or if the bacon and sauerkraut soup would freeze well.

The days blended with soupy notions. She had made a variation on seven types of soup with white beans in seven weeks, once with chick peas, barley and porcini, another with Swiss Chard and rosemary, then a puree with mire poix and good olive oil. She soaked the beans, used canned ones, experimenting with all varieties of preparation and obsession. Bay leaves and parmiggiano rinds were added to most of the concoctions.

The soup thing was weird, but Dora was keen to twist the screw in her mind. To begin to get a grip on what it meant to be in this new world. How would she make it work? By becoming a regular at the market? Mixing new ingredients, or stamping labels on freezer-ready containers? If she didn’t continue, she might brake. And if the money ran out too soon, she’d be forced to wing it.

Dora put extra sugar in her tea, and took comfort in the fact that on this plane of existence, on certain days, it made her happy just to see some cows grazing in the fields, or to notice her neighbor’s arm as he painted his fence, or the fiddleheads available for only a moment at the market, or the delicate shape of the butcher’s ear. She let her anguish be private, nocturnal. She wrote it down at night, in code so no one could possibly detect its meaning.

“I’m responsible for a great many things,” she thought, “and it will all be written here in this incomprehensible book.”

It was indeed strange to think about Agnes, the poetry of her physical being, and her existence as the caretaker of the boy. What was Dora’s role compared to that responsibility? Unthinkable that she should feel sorry for herself. She would castigate herself over and over, hoping that some springtime would arrive when she could land in that very field, return to her fight, and with straight a face, go back to Agnes, the boy, and Mrs. Micawbers.

Her safe harbor, for now, seemed so open-ended it was stifling. Each day’s possibilities were too much for her. She yearned for the clear constraints of her former battles. The sun’s morning rays meant something dramatically different when the struggle wasn’t what she woke in the morning to contemplate. Rather she felt that she had to request a reprieve of some form, it's words in a dead language she did not know. Through some alchemy where grain may turn into plate metals, and she might hear that faint meeting signal-whistle and be a part of it all again.

She had to remind herself that even in her current state of disconnect, she did still play a meaningful role. She had to stay away, to exist in deep cover in this foreign place where every roll of her eyes, the slant of her shirt collar, and color of her toenail polish was not a possible signal to someone that could be discovered! Automatically she tried to frame the past in a golden halo. It sometimes took a hot bath with aromatics and a sea sponge to stop her waves of paranoia and fear.

Dora would shout out loud, “Where is the ray?!” and, “What is the address of your sister?!” Recounting the old signals and passwords they had memorized for the Edinburgh and London journeys. Then, once out of her system, she’d make a note of the episode in her book, as she had for the past 18 months, and recover from the shock of her present.


Two days later

Dora drained her second Pepsi and held the empty plastic bottle between her and him. She said,

“Listen very carefully, Paul, and don’t interrupt, because I don’t know how much time I have. By the time they come, you should be back in your own room, snug as a bug in a rug. Why worry? If you worry—you die. If you don’t worry—you’ll still die. So why worry? Where one door shuts, another opens. A loaded wagon makes no noise.”

On these occasions she would typically take Maugham along, her long-haired dachshund. Well, not strictly “hers”—he too was borrowed from a “friend” for appearance-sake. While rarely did she read to him, he loved it and often reminded her of it when they were at the café together. But today was more serious. For Dora, being outside again, needing to convey what was necessary to the man across the table, was too great an experience to allow much concentration on other things.

Suddenly, Paul cried out, and embraced her, as he had that day in Liverpool, when it seemed certain that the pirates had taken her away as Mad Jack had sworn they would. Then Dora realized she was going too fast—it was tough being out of practice. She shifted gears and explained,

“Now listen closely, my friend…each Saturday, Francis and I would go to the movies. While I always used to enjoy the newsreel and the color cartoons and the feature, what I really looked forward to was the next installment of the chapter-play. That was my New Testament. It brought a sense of regularity into my chaotic world to see the story unfold over the weeks. Haste makes waste, I always thought. And besides, who ever wants a good story to end?!”

Dora then fed him a series of proverbs he took for code,

“Keep your eyes on the sun and you will not see the shadows. He who laughs last laughs longest. Just go with it,” She threw in a reference to the Trojan Horse and continued, “Honesty is the best policy. After dinner sit a while, after supper walk a mile. You are responsible for you. If wishes were horses, pigs would fly. Desperate times call for desperate measures. A watched pot never boils.”

Before he could recover from this onslaught of wisdom, Dora threw a thick folder in front of him. At least she had stopped obsessively combing her hair. Without a bon voyage or even a curse Paul made for his ship and Dora watched him board it. His fingers clutched the folder and Dora fantasized attacking him, grabbing the folder and taking his place on the boat back home. She thought,

“Customs would be a snap and when the ship was about half full I would board and take a seat near the hostess. Her name would be Angelina…”

There were wheels within wheels stirring in Dora’s mind, and in spite of herself, she would like to have known more about what was going on. She felt out of the loop, but nonetheless followed instructions and affixed stamps on each of the seven boxes he had left with her, addressed to different pick-up addresses, marked paid of course, and she was ready to finish the operation. She was capable of so much more, but this was better than nothing. She’d go back to making soup.


A month later

“I believe the messages only will arrive when I appear to be safe,” she said, though that safety really meant Dora was vulnerable, alone.

“When I was in the U.K. with my brother, sister, cousins, my aunt…that felt truly safe. Hah. How they gossiped about us. They thought our closeness must mean something weird was going on.”

On days like today, she mostly talked to Maugham. He looked at her with a combination of rapt attention and utter boredom that she could never quite understand but somehow found reassuring. She imagined this is what it might be like if she had a kid. She imagined what her child might look like, as an infant, holding a toy, trying to figure out how to use his digestive systems. Smiling at a fart.

“Oh children, always pampered,” she thought, which pushed her thoughts to college, the normal stresses of figuring out that scene while using trees and plants to examine natural genetic drift mutations. Learning how scientists study plants in order to predict patterns of global change. It was a cool, calculated way to describe murder as an accident, or evolution. She had done just that in some biology class.

The blue hydrangea outside shivered.

“The bees are late this morning,” Dora thought as the usual swarm descended on the flowers. The sound was puffy and soft, insistent. Before she had understood what it was, she could not ignore it. On the basis of their regularity, singularity of vision and effort, Dora thought,

“Often perfect organisms show themselves and provide exactly the example one needs. Truth. It is often just that simple.”

She opened the paper. Headlines read: Museum support radically cut; National Science grant to beekeepers; Howard Hughes Medical Institute in financial ruin; Athletes urged to crack drugs; Yahoo stocks down precipitously; Sports: U.K. v Ireland, F.I.F.A. Trade Deadline Nears, Football, Cricket, Tennis, Rugby, and Golf Highlights; U.S. chairman pressured Major League Baseball--chides athletes failing to steer children away from drugs.

She read breezily, willing herself not to care too much. Willing herself not to think about her schedule for the day, or lack thereof. She would sit with the paper, discuss such and such with Maugham, take him out for a pee, perhaps start a soup then play at writing for hours.

“Wow,” thought Dora, “today is sure to take away my lust for life. I can feel it. It is dirty thinking.”

It was a lesson she learned after spending only few days in hiding. She lectured herself on thinking of the future, taught herself not to think of settling accounts. She kept replaying a fantasy involving a man named Harry. For some reason, she kept laughing. Looking around her, hoping no one was paying attention, wondering why she found this exercise so funny, and then kept right on laughing.

Some days she watched television. Dora liked putting up her feet on the threadbare ottoman, and watching those odd daytime shows. Inane banter over live telecast seemed to be a national addiction, somewhat parallel to the computer addition, which mostly facilitated porn. There on the T.V. screen she watched as a bejeweled mom conducted an “intervention” with her addicted daughter on game show called “Rags to Rehab.” Typical American dream stuff. Audience members were encouraged to shout advice to the “distraught” mom while she confronted her daughter on stage. A psychiatrist was on hand to bring it on home. The wise doctor declared,

“Folks, she’s pretty sick,” referring to the mom rather than the daughter, and continuing conspiratorially, “They will both have many years of therapy ahead to unravel this mess.” The mom’s mascara smeared down her cheeks. Dora wondered why, post-Tammy Faye, did they not prevent this kind of make-up malfunction on television—then again, she convinced herself that it created a desired effect, and that subconsciously evoking Tammy’s downfall and remorse.

The next show was “Spider Solitare” and she called it quits. She zapped the zapper and shut down the T.V. How many months had she passed in isolation: August, July, April, March, February, January, December, November, October, September, it was all a jumbled web in her mind.

In all, Dora’s existence was pretty sad. “They demand too much,” she murmered, “And all that newbie skill might end the project. How I wish I were back there. What they have requested is beyond what I can bear.”

Dora gazed out the window to be sure she wasn’t being eavesdropped on. But looking more deeply than most, she noted that at least her bungalow was better constructed than her neighbor’s. The neighbor, an old maid, was picking up a dead snake in her sparse yard. An omen? Agnes could have answered.

To cut her boredom, she had developed a need for speed. She drove too fast, getting pulled over by a cop she got to know, who never gave her a ticket, letting her off with a warning each time. He may have flirted with her, she couldn’t tell.

The next morning, driving into town with Maugham beside her, Dora was careful not to crack the speed limit. Today she had an assignment. They communicated via carrier pigeon.

How these docile birds got across the ocean was incomprehensible to her, but that’s how it worked. A week earlier she had received her remit on a tiny scroll secured to the pigeon’s ankle. She had come to call the pigeon Angelina.

Dora met him at the usual café.

“The Navy will get her,” she told Paul, with far more conviction than she felt. Dora dropped into a chair while she locked the rest out. A midget painted bright red rode by on a bicycle. It was a bad sign and she wanted to get out, immediately. Again she thought of Agnes.

“Of course I can’t run away and draw any attention to myself,” Dora thought. The manager of the café came over, remarking that he hadn’t seen her in a while. Dora’s answers were clipped, revealing nothing. The manager left and they were once again alone to contend with the important matters at hand. Paul reported that the yard that was building the ship had no idea of its true nature. Dora let out a deep sigh of relief. She was still Dora. Nothing had changed.

“I want to talk to you, arrange a deal,” she whispered with urgency, “I need to come back!”

Said he, “Dora, you can read the headlines now! If you come back too soon, all will be lost.”

Bullshit was what that was.  Her eyes searched his face.  His voice was closer still.

“I’m withering, but that’s all right. I expect that you’re correct…” Dora muttered as everything else went blank. His eyes conveyed that he felt no sympathy.

“I expect that you’re right,” Dora said again, with more conviction, her strength only slightly bolstered.

Then he surprised her—Paul suddenly revealed he was pulling out of struggle.

"Paul, are you really done?”

“That’s all right, I am, I know…” he stammered.

“You’re kidding yourself,” said Dora.

“Not kidding,” said Paul, curtly, “Francis told me to go away, to disappear when I told him how tired I was. I am not kidding myself. There is no more of this in me.”

If Francis told Paul to vanish, there was little choice in the matter. Dora had never liked Paul all that much, but mostly because he was the only connection she had to England these days, and she resented him. She wanted more. Now he wanted less. But Paul was true to the cause. He was no Davy Peggotty.

Dora was only surprised it was happening now. They had always expected that someone would, but not so close to their next action. Her thoughts wandered…who would be her next connection? She looked up from her distracted thoughts.

Paul was shaking and couldn’t stop.

“Everything is blank,” he said, “I know we have fellowship, but I almost wish I never knew it. My life is too complex.”

A car door opened and shut. He tried to shift his long legs under the café table. Now it was her turn, Dora felt no sympathy.

“Francis knew all the symptoms and he saw them loud and clear in me,” Paul rambled.

Dora knew the meeting was over. He had delivered his messages, and told her more than she needed to know about himself. Paul wouldn’t exist to her any longer.


    This is the fourth installment of A diary of mysterious difficulties…. Check out the first installment in our November 2013 issue.


Laura Raicovich

Laura Raicovich works as president and executive director of the Queens Museum. Her book At the Lightning Field is out this April from Coffee House Press. She is the author of A Diary of Mysterious Difficulties (Publication Studio), a book based on Viagra and Cialis spam, and is an editor of Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books)


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

All Issues