What comes over us is pretty scary. It takes hold without warning. Even when nothing’s going on, it’s there. It’s wait- ing. A delayed explosion, that’s it, that’s precisely what it is: a time bomb.
The alcoholic’s internal clock is the thing we’ve all come here to get rid of.
Paula and Cathy, the directors of this center, are unfailingly patient. They need patience with guys like us. And they have a sense of humor too—who could do without one in their line of work? Whenever somebody starts to shake, a sure sign of an imminent attack, Paula or Cathy comes over and says, “We must pull our tongue in, we mustn’t let it hang out of our mouth.” And then you find that one or the other of them, or the big fat guy when he’s on duty, has their thumbs between your teeth. Some people bite themselves bloody.
I checked in yesterday. It’s not the first time I’ve come here, but I’d like it to be the best time. The last time.
Two days ago, I broke a bottle on Marianne’s head.
In the fifteen years we’ve been married, that’s never happened before. Marianne provoked me, of course. I’ll spare you the details. I love Marianne and as she often tells me, she couldn’t live without me. Maybe the bottle was on account of that.
I’m going to give you the details after all. We had a house- warming party at our new place in town. Alcohol was flowing like a mighty river, and Marianne started flirting with one of my colleagues. A history professor, I think. “Hey,” I said to my wife. “Am I seeing right? Are you letting him check out your tits?” I should have whacked the guy, but Marianne was the one who got it. The bottle broke against her skull. She raised herself off the floor and left the house. She was found staggering down the street. The doctors told me an artery was cut and she’d lost half her blood.
Half her blood gone and still walking: that’s Marianne.
The most embarrassing thing is I don’t remember hitting her. Some of our friends told me about it afterward. “I don’t remember anything,” I said. “Not a thing.” They looked at me as though I’d killed someone.
I felt so bad I packed my bag and left. I landed here.
I know I have to call Marianne and apologize. For that and for all the rest. But whenever I go to the telephone, there’s a long line of guys waiting to do a whole lot of apologizing to a whole lot of people. Just listening to them makes your head spin. You’d think the worst criminals on the planet had somehow wound up here. Some of them manage to pull through. They start over from scratch. After they get past withdrawal, I mean. You see, the problem’s in your body. It’s your system that’s dependent. And then one fine day it isn’t anymore, but that takes awhile.
I don’t know how long I’m going to stay here, but this will be the last time, I think. It’s a great place as long as you don’t have an urgent phone call to make. Paula and Cathy bought the land from a retired farmer. There’s a dilapidated farmhouse at the end of the road. Its doors and windows are boarded up. Right in front of it, there’s a chestnut tree that drops leaves all year round. One day it’s going to fall on the farmhouse. Farther on there’s the paved road, and about a mile and a half away there’s alcohol for sale. We’re not allowed to venture that far. I found a little stream near the fence. A thin thread of water with pebbles on either side.
I kneel down and think about Marianne. About what I’d like to tell her. Some sad things, consoling things, and some other things, too.
Maybe she never wants to see me again.
People are always assuring us we don’t live in a world of certainties. We’re told there’s nothing certain but love, so long as it lasts; the family, so long as it stays together; and friends, when they’re passing through. Which is the same as saying that none of all that is any surer than anything else. And so? Does that mean we have to do without certainties? Can you hold out for very long without one or two stones in your hand?
Marianne and I live near a river. Our children are grown up now. Well, almost grown up. They don’t go down to the river with us anymore to catch trout or skip stones. I try to guard against it, but every time I throw a stone, I feel a twinge of fear. A superstition. There’s one less stone in my hand, and I’m going to have to make do. To live without the smallest certainty. In the catastrophe of complete uncertainty.
I don’t think my stories have ever been about anything else.
My name is Raymond. I’m a writer. That is, I hope to become one.
All my days are alike. That’s something I wanted. A victory, you can say.
I look out the window. You can’t say window. It’s a glass panel, a transparent solid overlooking the city. A cleaning person washes it down with soapy water three times a week (the panel pivots around) and then goes over it with a rubber broom. I’m rarely in the room when she does that. At the time when she comes, I’m generally dictating a letter to Sibyll or downstairs having lunch somewhere near the magazine’s offices. There are so many restaurants I haven’t come close to trying them all. Here’s the advantage of working in the publishing district: The good tables are always opening and closing. Like publishers. A series of openings, failures, and re-openings. There are no disasters, just different ways of trying your luck. One of my mottoes. I have heaps of mottoes.
When the worker assigned to window cleaning finishes on this floor, she goes on to the next. I’ve never asked her whether she moves her operation one floor up or one floor down. There are twenty floors in this building. Window cleaning on that scale requires a method. Or maybe a dozen people like her. I don’t know her name. The girl with the rubber broom. You could make a novel out of that. Sometimes I get the itch to do that sort of thing. But I restrain myself. My imagination is concise. My work is reduction. I edit short stories, epics in miniature.
The girl has a rubber broom, and ten pages on, all you’ll know about her life is that she goes down one floor after another, cleaning windows. Or maybe up. I like to leave things blurry.
It’s time. At a certain point in the day, depending on the weather, the light comes in from the west. It caresses the side of the building, but only from the floor below on up. It rubs its muzzle against the glass—it’s an image, don’t over-use it, I tell my students. An image is a beauty mark; when it’s close to another one, it becomes a wart. The light rounds its back against my panes and shhh—an example of onomatopoeia; two are allowed, but they must be comic in intent. You can see it at this very moment: the prism of colors. An effect that requires no fewer than sixty-six colored panes. This rose window cost me an arm and a leg. It never fails to thrill me.
People sometimes ask me, “Suppose you get fired? If they fire you from the magazine, what will they do about your stained-glass window?”
If they fire me, what will they do about their magazine? It’s entirely dependent on the stories I buy and publish. The voice you hear inside. Readers come to listen to that voice.
I’m not God. Who said I thought I was God? I have enemies everywhere in the publishing business. In rival houses, at other magazines. Enemies spreading like a case of psoriasis I purposely encourage. I love the constant eruption of envy around me.
Don’t think for a minute this stained-glass window can’t be removed. Like every one of us here below.
What else? Nothing for the moment. For the moment, this day is like the others, and the girl with the rubber broom has already taken up too much of my attention.
Oh, I almost forgot: My name is Douglas. People in the business call me “Scissors.”
That was a goose, right? I thought I heard a goose.
Geese have a way of squawking that imposes a brief period of silence. Then everything starts chirping and buzzing again, just like before.
Those brusque interruptions remind me of the first years of my marriage. I was young, I needed air, so did Marianne, but I didn’t let her have any.
We were kids, with two children we’d had too soon. What do you do when the road behind you closes and you can’t back up anymore? I wrote a story about that: “Who Needs Air?”
I’d like to take it up again, revise it, improve it. This morning Paula asked me, “What do you love most in life? What is it you want to preserve at all costs?”
I didn’t say, “My wife.” I didn’t say, “Marianne and the children.”
I said, “My stories.” Good God, I said my stories.
Excerpted from Scissors by Stephane Michaka Translated by John Cullen. Copyright © 2014 by Stephane Michaka Translated by John Cullen. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.