The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2014

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APR 2014 Issue

A diary of mysterious difficulties…

Six months later, in England

Mrs. Micawbers took a long pull at her punch.

“I’m not ready to die. Sometimes, I’ve thought that I would like to die at home. Seeing you, my child, puts a little strength back in these old bones. You give energy to a sour and tried friend.”

Copperfield looked lovingly at Mrs. Micawbers. She had been a grandmother to him since he could remember.

“I am sure Francis will forgive me these moments of reverie…He knows that when it comes to my duties, I become a spring chicken again!” and she was right, Mrs. Micawbers was fierce as ever.  It seemed the older she got, the more retired she lived, the sharper her intuitions, the better her questions to uncover possible problems.

“I shall immediately snap out of it, Copperfield! Let’s get started, then. Dora’s apartment appears to be in order, but we have still to clean everything. I hope its enough, child,” she went on looking at Copperfield, and hoping somehow he understood the underlying messages. Doubtful, she became more explicit:

“If we can create more equity…I don’t mean to sound pedantic, but I wonder if you doubt our efforts, and I feel it is my duty to direct you, but you know how much I love you and want to protect you,” Mrs. Micawbers paused to refill glass of punch.

“You see, Copperfield, when we first got started, I was there, on the ground floor. We were all accustomed to a way of life that was disconnected, lonely. When Francis started his meetings, we knew he had experienced grave injustice, as had his family, but these were just symbols. We wanted more, so we met almost every night, for a long time. Dora was there, of course, firm as ever, making certain anything we did had a pay off. But, oh dear, I am talking of Dora as if she was a man-of-war…You’ll soon see, my child.”


Six months later, at port

Dora had dreamt of this moment for months. She tried to play it down in her mind, to make the preparations less painful. She attempted to locate an apt companion to the fierce memory of finding Agnes alone in her apartments, to no avail.

To make the journey home, Dora knew they would devise a crafty plan, but what Angelina brought over tied to her thin, red leg was truly ingenious. Dora would be embedded with a band of prostitutes that were regulars on the ship’s crossings, mainly to service the staff. She had met her compatriots earlier, and now the little girls had gone to their own homes to finish their packing. The ship would sail early the following morning.

Dora, standing at the mirror in the dim boarding house where she would spend the night, gathered all the strength she possibly could. She put on her wig and instantly took it off again—she would be wearing that hideous thing until she was welcomed home by Mrs. Micawbers!

She had decided to bring Maugham along for company, and as a prop. They went out for a dinner of cold meat at a nearby eating-house, and walking home she shuddered in the chill of the damp, dockside air. Dora thought,

“What if I took my fellow-travelers home to meet Francis? What would he say? Maybe the girls could be a part of our schemes.” Dora’s mind wandered distractedly and Maugham trotted along beside her.

Suddenly, she uttered a terrified scream, and struggled as a figure emerged from the shadows and grabbed her arm forcefully.

“Don’t squirm, fine lady, I’m no dockside lout but a scholar; the name is Mr. Dick” said the man, touching Dora’s cheek lightly with his finger, continuing to grasp her upper arm firmly with his other hand. She noted he wore a black, shiny glove over the hand that gripped her bicep, making her think it was perhaps prosthetic.

Why he thought this gesture would be reassuring was a mystery to Dora. He seemed to think this statement accompanied by a truly icky touch equivalent to winding up his affairs. Maugham snuffled. Mr. Dick continued,

“You’re leaving so soon? Is there no gentleman here to help you with your furs and to take you home?” Dora had to think on her feet. On which side was he? She couldn’t yet tell if Mr. Dick was someone she should fear or who would be a part of her return home.

She examined him in the dark as they walked towards her boarding house and Dora thought,

“Now a person wouldn’t think that they’d send someone like Mr. Dick to me without forewarning, but perhaps Angelina was waylaid and the message didn’t arrive in time.” Mr. Dick had a disappointing head, phrenologically speaking: full of lumps. She could tell by the way his limp hair hung in hanks over his skull. This was telling.

A light drizzle began falling, and dampened Dora’s neck. For a moment she thought she would cry. But she’d endured so much, and this Mr. Dick, whoever he was, wasn’t going to keep her from leaving for home. She would simply have to ensure that he was made more and more miserable by her each moment they were together. This thought was her only comfort. While Mr. Dick unfurled his umbrella, Dora protested,

“It is futile to use umbrellas in this weather. We may as well start hopping on one foot, like an immense bird, to avoid the soak.” Perhaps her odd remarks would put him off, if he didn’t respond, that may be a clue.

Mr. Dick started talking about his forthcoming journey. He seemed quite the gourmand. He babbled about the ship’s cook being a master with week-old vegetables, and as they turned down a side-street bathed in lukewarm Mars light. Mr. Dick let out a contemptuous breath, as if he might blow himself away.

Dora had no notion of where this would lead. She wondered about the money; millions of pounds she was meant to bring back to England. She thought perhaps it would be best to use Mr. Dick for protection, although from who was as yet unclear. She remembered Mrs. Micawbers warning her to always think of Emily in such situations. Her naïveté often got her through tough spots. She remembered Mr. Omer, shaking his head at the idea that Emily was ever strategic. She thought of Agnes, of the agreeable token of her noiseless presence that always brought a sense of the eye in the storm to Dora.

“I’ll enter it now. I cannot completely penetrate the eye, but I’ll try,” she thought.

In the midst of her reverie, she was brought back to the moment by Mr. Dick. They were in front of her boarding house.

He was saying, “I found out what an English gentleman had to do to broadcast authority.” He was rambling about his public school days. Dora continued to strategize, silently, “If I go in by myself…” she continued to muse on what she ought to do.

She thought of the past for comfort. After all she was a little girl no higher than Mrs. Micawbers’ knee when all this began, and everyone in the family had extended her every kindness. She thought back to her earliest memory, when Mrs. Micawbers begged them to forgive her having launched into the mess, which invariably would get out of hand, as if to keep off what she dreaded.

Dora decided to take a direct tack with Dick.

“Don’t tell me by advertising,” said Dora, “It is in all the papers.”

Mr. Dick, flummoxed, stammered his lines. Via this exchange Dora recognized the clues. She now knew why she had been kept waiting for so long to return. Finally, Dick began to make some sense,

“There, I again say, you are in trouble my girl. I know you care about this fellow,” he trailed off not wanting to say Francis’ name. The light on the porch was dull, flickering softly giving the objects around them the possibility of movement. Dick continued, “It is above and beyond, what they have asked of you.” Then after a moment, he added, “The step you dread taking, I shall see that you are safe.”

Dora looked up at him through her false eyelashes, “I told him I knew nothing.”

“You’re none of those things of the past, Dora!” Mr. Dick said with an intensity louder than a shout. “I doubt if even you had any idea of how many murders he committed in his lifetime. I was told to go in relaxed, sniff around and see if I could pick up your trail.”

Dora perked up quickly. The last thing she had done, when her skill was at its peak, was to delicately touch Francis’s vocal cords that deepened and roughened his speech. Dora said,
“I knew the cops inside would keep looking until they found me. And all the time my eyes watched the man behind the desk waiting for death to reach out.” For a moment she paused, and softly crying she told Mr. Dick that he would be made more and more miserable by her.  

He stopped her, and repeated himself, “The step you dread my taking, my dear. I shall be with you all the way,” and as he escorted her into the rooming house. They were finally in from the misting rain. A television droned in the next room,

“Areas of dense fog. Cooler than typical weather shifting out to sea. Warm currents will bring a possible hurricane. Cirrus clouds will be low over the northeast for the next several days. With overall moisture levels rising, the possibility of hurricane-force winds are likely in the next twenty-four hours. Their intensity will increase until they hit landfall by midday tomorrow. The overall moisture study reveals only trace levels of dry air. The National Weather Service sensors are analyzing the structure of the storm via NASAs DC ER research aircraft, which is home-based in Florida. The Naval Air Station will join the storm-tracking shortly, and federal agencies are prepared for disaster storm relief.”

The monotone of the severe storm update further unnerved Dora. She was beginning to breathe more rapidly, almost to hyperventilate; the rhythm of her clenching hands was likewise speeding up, and he knew that in a moment she would be beyond him. Mr. Dick happened to be looking at her when the hollow splashing sounds commenced, and he saw that she was smiling.

The source of the sounds: A couple of National Guard choppers sent out as part of a random drug-control sweep (looking for back-country pot-farmers, in other words) had seen lights from three Camaros sitting side by side in an otherwise open field, not far from the docks. The fly-like machines set down in a nearby clearing for a closer look. The chopper noise had broken Dora’s fear.

Later, when Mr. Dick thought back to this night, his first really clear memory of these strange events would be the storm-haze outside stopping, and his being suddenly aware he just couldn’t pull another breath, and that was all right, that was good, that was in fact just peachy-keen; he could take a certain level of pain but enough was enough and he was glad to be getting out of the game. His job was writing novels, that is, when he wasn’t rescuing Dora.

Meanwhile, she was rambling on, “I don’t mind the idea of them — but these noises are fearsome spooky, so they are, and I hardly even like to go near the churchyard — and I have to dig a grave for the little mouse I caught in the trap."

Dora’s tone had shifted remarkably as she began to reminisce about things long-past.
She remembered Chuckie, Yoder, and even Paul (who had so recently jumped ship, so to speak). Those early meetings with Francis in the shed. She had to wonder, suddenly, if Mrs. Micawbers, ever the caretaker, had burned it down. Dora spent the rest of the night curled at the foot of her bed, Mr. Dick on the sagging couch, neither of them asleep.

Dawn broke. Dora stood only a second, then went to the door, unbarred it, and threw it open. Mr. Dick couldn’t stop shaking, as they prepared to take the plunge and find their way to the ship.

They waited only a short while at the dockside in the increasingly intemperate weather. The wind was blustering, pushing large swells over the edge of the dock, soaking some of the less fortunate passengers with seawater.  The gangplank was put to use and the crowd began to surge towards the shelter of the ship. Once inside Dora settled into her cabin, as did Mr. Dick next door.

The door at the far end of the huge ward opened and out came Dora — she was dressed in a long aproned dress and there was a mobcap on her head; she sported an abundance of accessories and every bit was necessary. Mr. Dick went back to his cabin until the ship pushed off.

He settled, and thought of his beginnings with Francis. One day the hole widened into VistaVision width and the light shone through like a sunray in a Cecil B DeMille film. There had been no trouble between them since the blowup over the typewriter paper, which he had failed to deliver. Dick took three sips of his dry martini, then crawled back to the door and lay down against it, blocking it with the weight of his body. Getting the typewriter off the mantel would be beyond him, but he could write longhand. He needed to leave a note. Time was already running out.

He dozed. When he woke up it was dark, he was still on the floor, and at first he didn’t know where he was — how had his cabin gotten so small?

Hours stretched. Time on the ship was a mysterious thing. Dora and Mr. Dick spent every day playing cribbage, drinking martinis, and nervously waiting for the waves passing under the hull to deliver them to London.

Under previous circumstances this might have meant waiting for weeks, but not anymore. They kept a careful watch on their fellow travelers and that kept them going, mostly by habit and for their own safety. At the card table, Dora was saying,

“If the man in the street doesn’t know that we exist he can’t cause us any trouble…meanwhile the men here seem to get a lot of pleasure in watching the ladies walk the deck—I’m part of their consort, you know.”

Mr. Dick nodded wearily, and the day stretched to night.

Towards 2am, Dora finally fell into sleep. She dreamt of Bilbo Baggins, with whom she was convinced she shared some cosmic connection. She and Bilbo had escaped when Smaug smashed the mountain-side, but the snails remained! Sure enough the old thrush was there, and as Bilbo pointed, he flew towards them and perched on a stone near by. Then he fluttered his wings and sang; then he cocked his head on one side, as if to listen; and again he sang, and again he listened. The day grew lighter and warmer as they floated along. After a while the river rounded a steep shoulder of land that came down upon their left. Under its rocky feet like an inland cliff the deepest stream had flowed lapping and bubbling.

Suddenly the cliff fell away. The shores sank. The trees ended. Bilbo and Dora saw a sight: The lands opened wide about them, filled with the waters of the river that broke up. They flung their pale torches to the ground, and stood gazing out with dazzled eyes. They had come to the Front Gate, and were looking out upon a dale.

“Well!” said Bilbo, “I never expected to be looking out of this door with you, Dora, seeing the axes and the bent swords that they use. Now goblins are cruel, wicked and bad-hearted. They are not beautiful things, but are decidedly clever. They can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble, though they are usually untidy and dirty. Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well, or get other people to make to their design, prisoners and slaves that have to work till they die for want of air and light. It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far. They do not hate dwarves especially, no more than they hate everybody and everything, and particularly the orderly and prosperous…”

As Bilbo droned on, Dora was on the alert, and she felt that the darkness had sharpened her senses: hearing and smell. She crouched right down with her hands splayed on the floor, and head thrust out, nose almost to the stone. Then they felt its presence, only a black shadow in the gleam of its eyes, Bilbo and Dora could see or feel that it was tense as a bowstring, gathered for a spring. Bilbo almost stopped breathing, and went stiff himself. They were desperate. They must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while they had any strength left. They must fight. He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill them. No, it was not a fair fight.

He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill them, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbos heart, and he had Dora to think of: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. Bilbo and Dora trembled. It was not really the right time for this riddle, they were in a hurry.

Then Gollum thought the time had come to ask something hard and horrible. This is what he said,

“This thing devours all: Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; Gnaws iron, bites steel; Grinds hard stones to meal; Slays king, ruins town, and beats high mountain down.”

Poor Bilbo sat in the dark chanting all the horrible names of all the giants and ogres he had ever heard told of in tales to Dora. Dora muttered some apologies, and woke herself up from this strange dream. She wished Agnes was beside her to interpret its meaning.

In the early morning on the ship, a group of musicians practiced on deck. The soft sound of their instruments offered Dora a mixed bag of candy memories and longing for what their arrival at dock might bring. She felt growing inside her a system of dazzling aspirations she had for her return to the city. Dora thought to herself,

“I’ve dwelt at the intersection of the prized and the height of misunderstanding. Being out of the game, unauthorized to step into the smog, now I can finally see beyond the claptrap. I will be a registered rebel once again! No inquiry on these shores! This reflects the understanding of my experiences; the hallways of the greedy will flood.”

Dora’s reverie was interrupted by Mr. Dick knocking on her cabin door. He reminded her of the nonexistent bachelor they had promised to meet for breakfast. A mortified cloud passed through her mind. She pulled open the door and Mr. Dick entered the small room. He slouched suddenly into a club chair.

“As soon as we get to dock, I’m going straight to see a doctor.  That is, after I bundle you to Mrs. Micawbers. She is husky and strict, and she’ll have the drums and the cavalry out to welcome you home. Oh, haven’t we become lazy avengers of irony?” asked Mr. Dick.

Dora was motionlessness, not prepared for the fast and dirty conversation. She slammed the closet door and girded herself for Dick’s conclusions, as she packed her things. This would be the last day on the ship. Come morning, they would be pulling into dock, descending the gangplank, and Dora would re-enter the fray. What inheritance would she find at home? The detritus of the recent past? What would she have to clean up? She couldn’t help but wonder if she would automatically acclimate to the damp weather. And to the busybody-feeling she had often felt and missed when away. Today the divide between her sense of self and who she would be tomorrow was most profound. She said,

“The lizards’ trials were most severe,” referring to her dream of Bilbo, leaving Mr. Dick utterly confused, and she muttered on, “they eventually perished in the fire. But we have more important things to think of right now. Earlier in this trip, I had been too busy to observe, that the Madame has carefully watched me at every turn. As I went off to bed, she went off dancing… La ra la, La ra la. I felt safe, as I know she is watching. Mr. Dick, when will she make her move? I feel we should await her turn with patience…I have found myself in the condition of a my utmost energies to do it well.”

Mr. Dick rummaged around in his pocket while saying, “Madame or no, we arrive today, and as my work as an attorney, an advisor and guardian of you for him will be through. I have acted for him in all matters.” As Mr. Dick wound up his dry, and perhaps tipsy statements, they heard the foghorn blow as the ship pulled into its berth at harbor.

Within the hour Dora and Dick were on terra firma, and Dora, weeping, but not sadly – joyfully, clasped Mr. Dick in her arms as arrangements should be concluded as between man and man.

“I couldn’t overtake you; but I guessed where you came from, and am so grateful that you did come,” babbled Dora. Dick followed,

“He’s a going out with the tide,” referring to himself, “You’ll never see me again, dear Dora, for I have repaid my debt. Your Francis is not to be moved, believe me. Though as to that, madam,” he spoke very steadily and mildly, “Bless you, my little Dora – I know your manuscript is intended for no eyes but mine, how hard I worked to see you through.” And with that, Dick disappeared into the morning fog.

His departure seemed fitting to Dora, an appropriate bookend to his nocturnal appearance. Before Dora began to contemplate her next move, Traddles took her elbow at her side!

Traddles was older but as steady as ever. Every time there seemed to be no hope for him, he turned it around and became indispensible again. They said nothing to one another and he brought her to the London apartment.

Dora walked in, and Agnes was waiting. “My love…” she said meekly. There never was anything so coaxing as Agnes’s childish pale face, and tears coursed down her lengthened cheeks.  Agnes continued,

“You have been a long time without coming here. I hope to take every shade of color that could make eyes ugly and be sure they don’t enter our picture. Each day you were gone I rehearsed every word - every word I would say when you returned, and now have forgotten it all.”

“As to feeling,” Dora replied, “It was what he demanded, but was not so pleasant. I wouldn’t have fared well at all had I not had our memories, or your premonitions. Not at all.”

This is the fifth 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

APR 2014

All Issues