[Fiction] Artichokes (Cantos) — Al Anderson

[The sky]

My thought, predetermined, is focused on my search for you. Thus, I call out your name in glass bottles shattered against concrete walls, and in the wind that anxiously rushes through the corridors of abandoned tenements. You respond in the form of an idea, spoken and birthed, flung out, vibrant, from the polluted ocean. It is there, in between the words we find each other again, amongst the clouds, above the city, in this late summer, when the heat is intolerable, beneath this sky torn by the first thunderstorm of the season, I fall in love with you once again [before a divine palette of dark grey, torn open by deep reds.] We watch, from above, from below, from within: secured within the idea of ourselves, holding each other very tightly, regarding the chaos, this once dream now sleeping juggernaut, breathing hoarsely upon the worlds face. Your voice, that reminds me of light shone up from oceans, in broken sentences, forms a question. I answer you over a thousand years, in water and fire. You brave a distant thunderclap. A single swallow flies in between us it is in the flight of this diminutive champion that I write my answer. I say, come, we have a long way to go yet.

[An attic room, the sun setting]

Boy 1: I love you more than those invisible dimensions otherwise implied in Caravaggio’s ‘Calling of St Matthew,’ indeed more than I love the master himself, more than I love to despise all those baroque charlatans who came after, blind to beauty, murdering nature with each clumsy stroke of their wretched brush.  You remind me of a roast chicken slathered in tomato ketchup and eaten in seconds, how’s that for a Benjaminan symbol…? or would that be an allegory, decay eternal and everything? Needless to say I love you, more even than I love my own loneliness, which I love in a perverted kind of a way and I feel that it is this same logic of perversion that I apply to you and why I love the most when I’m away and I meet people who don’t know you, to whom you don’t exist. Then you exist only to me, and I own you, but even then, there’s a profound distance between us which I can’t stand, that drives me absolutely fucking crazy. That makes me consider doing horrible, evil things to you. That makes me hate you. And I when I hate you I long for you more than I ever have before.

[Rural Sweden]

Mr. Dylan A. Rourke has moved to a mansion in Sweden. A gothic pastiche of the most obscene variety, it’s not as if you would be able to tell the difference anyway, he says in a letter to a friend, which he later burns. As it starts to snow he considers his journey, as his biographers call it, thus far. He went from scientist, to art historian, to lawyer, to patisserie chef, to psychologist, to philosopher of the mind to his first serious suicide attempt, to poststructuralist, to postmodernist, to conceptual writer to his second serious suicide attempt. Bored, he has painted his walls green and decorated them with his own interpretations of the works of Umberto Boccioni. In retrospect, he realizes that futurism is not his calling. But he has already hammered in the hooks, so there you go.  His ex-husband has run off with a cock sure paleontologist who was once interviewed on the news, has a documentary coming out and on Thursdays runs a club night in Vauxhall called Raptor.  Mr. Rourke knows he cannot compete; he has published half as many books, and doesn’t look nearly as good in a Stetson. He has made a single half- hearted attempt at reconciling with his former love, by using the last of his oils to write ‘please come back, desperately lonely’ on some driftwood which he throws into a nearby lake.  Fuck you. Fuck you, I hate you, he says in a later email. His ex- husband has yet to get back to him.

[By the river]

They stand on the beach together, they had planned on taking their shoes off, to feel the grains of sand between their toes, but there is a lot of broken glass, and used syringes, Immigrants, probably, he says, ever the wounded lover. Wet clumps of dyed blue cling to her flushed face, he goes to brush it away, so that he can kiss her one last time, she yelps as it catches a fresh piercing.  In his head a melancholy string arrangement, over an irritated lobe, a sepia lens. Like a Godard film, he later recounts, having never seen a Godard film and pronouncing Jean-Luc ‘John Lucas.’ She misquotes someone, García Márquez perhaps. They hug, for what he will describe as an eternity (about forty seconds.)  He is a bit too short, he smells a bit funny, he does not know how to roll a cigarette, is all she will remember of him. The strings reach their crescendo and then break into a poorly planned medley of every love song ever written, all moulded together into a single headache.  They kiss a final time getting tearful as their teeth clatter together, as each slimy tongue clumsily bars the others entrance. He later recounts this kiss by reference to exploding galaxies, sparrows in flight, and English summers. They say their final goodbye and run into each other at the bus stop.

[a warehouse loft, just off Old Kent Road]

The smell of oil paint disguises that of the rotting chicken carcass in the sink. The afternoon sun shines dimply through the skylight, illuminating him and the girl with no face, in her latest iteration. He looks strangely holy, but then again he always has to me. I look at the paintings thrown around the room, hanging from the ceiling on chains, ripped apart, stamped on, hundreds of them, he has made hundreds of them. 

It’s her walking towards you, over and over again, sometimes juxtaposed upon herself, her form multitudinous, reaching out, sometimes her body torn apart and spread over three canvasses, always looking for him. There is a legion of her, but always there is just one, a legion of loneliness. That’s all he paints, and has done for the past year and a half. 

I wanted to ring ahead, she sometimes says, I have must just missed you, at other times, or simply, are you there? I compliment him on the latest facsimile, the girl alone again. He burps in answer and asks if I’ve brought the gin. I have, London dry. I hand him the bottle, which he unscrews and pours into a coffee cup, it is followed by a drop of flat tonic, and a slither of brown lime which has been cut from its body with a rusty palette knife. He downs it, and pours another. 

[The sounds of the city, distant]

Boy 2: I’m locked up, deep inside the house, searching for something to resemble your presence. My lust for you is so intense that it scares me, especially since I branded the concept of ‘lust’ passé in my last paper. You leave me wide eyed, like a naked child before a vast, empty valley. And I’m far too tired to be wide eyed. I’m far too tired to dream of your face, your lips in particular, as I’m far too tired to think in that much detail. So I think of the valley instead, I think of empty space. You have made me fall in love with empty space. When we first met, you laughed at me, in a forced, terrible way. Now you’ve stopped I can’t bring myself to look at you any more. Who are we when no one is laughing at us? Now I feel like I’m chained to you, like a dog to a wooden post. Also, the dogs dead. Or maybe not, just really sick, and almost dead, but hanging in there. Also, you’re not a wooden post, you’re the sea. And I’m telling you this as a way of getting back at you for not existing. Because I love everything about you, even that you don’t exist and it kills me. It kills me a million- billion times. It gives me a death for every star there is in the sky. In fact, that’s what I love about you the most: that you don’t exist, that you’re killing me. 

[Pause. Rain.]

He’ll put down the phone. Don’t say such things, he’ll say, don’t say such silly things, he’ll say to the phone. He will then boil some artichoke hearts, and let their smell fill his living room while he listens to Discreet Music and thinks about whether the dog is trying to swim, or is just lying there, in the ocean, waiting to sink. He wonders which version of itself the dog would prefer. He has eaten nothing all day, and may eat artichoke hearts for dinner, though he boils them more for the smell.  He turns off the gas, and heads up to his room, where he stares out over it all. In this rain, life, he thinks to himself. Beneath this city, a baby forest dreams, he thinks to himself. Then, after the last light has faded, he will receive another phone call. Yes, he’ll say, I’m ok, yes, I’m ok, yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, I’m ok, he’ll say, I’m ok.

Yes, ok.

[the light changes]

I am addressed at last: I told my dealer that I’m making a video game and he seemed really interested, but that’s just part of his job I guess. He’s a novelist. But obviously not really, he’s a drug dealer, and I’m not really making a video game. Some student looked at me like I was a piece of shit: yeah, you look at me like I’m a piece of shit, but look at you

— you’re wearing a Southampton uni pullover, taking happiness from a three year media baccalaureate — you’re the piece of shit man, I lived somewhere else once, man, this isn’t my home, man, I am rootless like the shamed ronin.

I am not sure if they are this student, or a more general they who have, for whatever reason, earned his ire. I just watch him and fight the tightness in my throat and the sting behind my eyes.  

He puts on a Joy Division LP and dances around the room, knocking over a few canvasses, the faceless girl falling to the floor.  I tell him he’s looking good, which he is, sort of. She calls out to him and he picks up a paintbrush and answers with some text scrawled over her latest portrait: I wanted to ring ahead, but I didn’t catch you, you must have been out. He contemplates the work. He makes a final adjustment to the background (a meadow) and kicks the whole thing over. He takes the canvas and throws it across the room. He stretches a new one, picks up the easel, crushes some pigment, fills a cup with turpentine, finishes his gin, stubs his cigarette out on the floor and starts again. I offer a quiet goodbye, which he either ignores or doesn’t hear. I know that I will think about this for the rest of the week. That thin boy, unwashed for months, lank hair disguising his feminine features and those thousands of faceless girls that are one girl. The image of those two, alone, her asking him where he is, where he’s been, and him avenging her through art that no one will ever see. I pause on the stairs and hear him dancing again, before out onto the warm street and taking a left. 

[Beneath streetlamps, beside a wall]

He carries a black plastic bag. He stares at his feet, and keeps at an irregular pace, slowing down, speeding up, dragging one foot behind the other, then walking normally. The wall is about forty foot tall.  Behind it there was once a fine school, renowned for its liberal approach to education and its beautiful boarding houses, built in the arts and crafts style.  He does not look at it. He has walked passed it maybe 1000 times.  Never once has he stopped to contemplate the life it once protected, the boys and girls, who had names like Lily and Jack, and who would smoke cigarettes with their art teacher, with whom they’d be on first name terms, beneath the lime trees that smelt divine in late summer, and whose scent could not help but reminisce of youth and hope. He passes some graffiti that reads everything is shit forever. He sends an email when he gets home: You there?

[Attic room, distant sounds]

I feel sleep before I fall into it I feel the dream before I know it in the bleak afternoon I fall asleep though I begged myself not to amongst the debris and all that wreckage that once I dreamed his face replaces that now   By that waking nightmare I dreamed again that hideous dream       the dream of the boy who dreamed    I dreamed of the boy who dreamed glass spiders and plastic velociraptors singing  stunted ballads to the Medusa Galaxy falling flat on the chorus [needless to say I am brought to tears anyway] I dreamed of the boy that dreamed of vast fields of strange crops remarking on human flesh crowned by blue eyes that gaze through you your body a plastic film your body transparent a window into untruth into the self and intellectual destitution I dreamed of the boy that dreams of train tracks leading to furthest possible point beyond thought into pure feeling appearing only at midnight horrifying you in their invitation train tracks that run on forever into the mouth let me be one with the ruins to which I dedicate my thought like in my final essay – about him, of course – comprising a half sentence let it comprise of nothing much let me stoke the fire in preparation of its being written [Joy = the effacement of memory] let me feed it into the flames and with it my mind with it thoughts of him let me burn let me be ash and join the wind once again  the hours wash over me like waves over a pebble and after the hours the countless hours  there is no pebble          

just me

washed away

the current

I obliterated by the waves of time and after I a name thrown to the wind like ash like dust like nothingness his name all I shall offer up all I care to give in answer to my annihilation in answer to my love were this the end I would prepare a goodbye but there shall be no goodbye as there is never any end just ash and wind dancing in eternal unity perfect equality

Epilogue.  [The windows open]

The sunset falls against the back walls, the books are all dog- eared, the posters faded, the last of the coffee has been drunk. The money is gone, again.  I light a cigarette that I found underneath my bed and avoid checking my emails.  The light withdraws and paints the horizon beyond the trees an absurd orange, the clouds move in, pale, soft blues and frame the sunset perfectly. Were I looking at a painting I would consider this Neo- Romantic sentimentality at its most heinous. I think of what I wrote three years ago: A million faces, a million more stories pass us by as if we didn’t exist at all. I think of the soft hands that wrote that and then I think of the faces and stories that have passed since, I think of not existing, close my eyes and, just for a second I cease. I am unwritten, deleted from this space, from this cigarette that hurts the throat, from the bitter aftertaste of expired coffee. The not- me, the space where I was, hears the rumble of a train. The space, which I would have otherwise inhabited, feels the last of a summer breeze. A bird sings.

I open my eyes and look out of the window.


Al Anderson is a writer from Birmingham. Some recent poetry can be found in DATABLEED, Lighthouse, No Issue, The Suburban Review and two anthologies from Pilot Press. He is a PhD Candidate in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia and lives in Norwich.

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