CHESTER & AUDEN
by Margrét Ann Thors
Chester kept a red folder with a single sleeve into which he stuffed his remaining memories of Auden. If you tipped the folder on its side, out would fall dried orange petals from the tulips they plucked after hearing O’Hara read ‘Having A Coke With You,’ and turquoise gift paper in which Glück’s Averno was wrapped (The color of swimming pool water, Auden told him as he slid the collection Chester’s way, Like your eyes in sunlight), and two sets of splintered, soy-sauce stained chopsticks from the first time they shared Japanese take-out and decided in stewed midnight stupor to feng shui Chester’s apartment. He could not at the moment be bothered to sort through the drawer, and so amidst insurance statements, a decades’ worth of DMV correspondence, and a trove of unsigned greeting cards were cloistered the artifacts of Chester’s first and only love. Or so he believed.
Issue #105 soundtrack: Vox Humana "Dirge for Autumn"
At age forty-seven, Chester had spent the previous eleven and one-half months in seclusion, ridding himself of all things-Auden. Gone were bamboo cooking utensils they had purchased on impulse and never unboxed, two VHS recordings of A Streetcar Named Desire, and an autographed bandana that Willie Nelson had pitched into the audience and Auden had wrestled from a brusque, bear of a woman who later informed an usher that it was the graying homosexuals in Row K who had lit the first joint. Though himself not a Jew, Chester spent the first week of his abandonment townhouse-confined, without once glancing at a mirror. Shiva, sat for himself.
Most things-Auden, Chester left on the bottom step of his townhouse to be picked up by a charitable donations van that once per fortnight circled the Wicker Park neighborhood, collecting discards. Though he shuddered to think of Auden’s red-knit winter cap in the stock room of a secondhand shop, and though he winced at the thought of their Mayan clay chiminea being re-purposed as a marshmallow roaster, he couldn’t trust himself to keep the items close by. Such was the order of things.
Still, there were certain items that even the charitable donations personnel refused to accept – “We take donations, not recycling,” a pithy note explained – and so in the days following Auden’s desertion, Chester found himself frequently black-fingered, skimming a stack of Tribune crossword puzzles—a stack the solicitors of donations had condescended to call “recycling”—that he and Auden had spent their Sunday mornings completing together.
Those Sunday mornings, that shared Sunday rest—Chester soggying cinnamon biscotti in café latte, Auden making childish slurp sounds with each sip of Earl Grey; their talk, their song, full sun at noon, crooked moon at midnight; not a care for North, South, East, West—only there, then.
“Recycling!” Chester huffed, reading the note for the three-dozenth time. Then, because he was alone, because he was the only animate thing in the entire townhouse, he orated. “Firstly,” he said, imagining an audience of more than air, “I challenge you to locate another duo in the Midwest who have so flawlessly completed 3 and 11/12ths’ worth of Sunday crosswords which, as I need not point out, are the most difficult puzzles in print. If the nation of Iceland has a museum devoted solely to animal penises, and if a ten-year-old ham sandwich sells for $30K in an online auction, surely you do not need me to assure you that these puzzles are, to some lucky bidder, worth their weight in gold.”
There were so few people left to talk to, so few things worth saying. How does one, one alone, fill a Sunday?
“Secondly, my donation speaks to a more philosophical issue surrounding art, value, and purpose. While the crosswords in question have been completed and thus no longer serve their initial function, I would argue that they have in the process of their completion been elevated from the level of sport to the level of art, which serves no practical function but to evoke—in this case, to evoke a sense of awe—” There, he flung a wrist wildly through the air, chuckling to himself before acknowledging the emptiness before him, the emptiness within and without.
He swiped his hand across his forehead, smearing black ink with sweat, looking like a good Catholic on Ash Wednesday, wondering where in god’s name Auden might be at this moment, thinking of 4- and 15- and 23-letter words to describe the feeling.
For this reason, because of these imaginings, Chester knew it would not suffice to simply burn the re-rendered poems that had been taped to the refrigerator
(This is just to say
the plums-colored kisses
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold)
or to pay the cleaning service an additional fee to fumigate the bed and its linens. As any beating heart will attest, places store memories the way bodies store the minerals that sustain them. Lovers paint rooms with the gilded brushes of their tongues and promises and intercoiled limbs and then, by some cruel alchemy exclusive to the human species, the gold rusts. The lovers part. The cracked stone steps, the ceiling fans, the windows which saw out but not in—the entire townhouse, in form and concept—all had become things-Auden. Chester himself had become a thing-Auden.
Every place Chester looked reminded him that he was leaving it.
His office, he saved for last. Of all the rooms it was the messiest, after all, and would require him to leaf page by page through three decades’ worth of notes on the men he had devoted his life to—Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Ibsen.
Written in the top right margin of each sheet of paper was a date boxed neatly within a hand-drawn rectangle. Always black ink, even as a young student. Chester skimmed the papers as one flips through albums of family photos, charting the gradual deterioration of his script from the bold, determined letters on 4-August-67 to the slanted architecture of 12-December-81 to the hasty scuffs of the more recent decade. Where had they gone, all those numbers, those days?
In the bottom left-hand drawer of his desk lurked three accordion folders, unlabeled, worn thin with documents he felt obliged to keep—bank statements (dismal, dwindling, going to the dogs), postcards with “Having a great time!” penned in small capitals, notices that his vehicle was due and overdue for emissions testing. Here also skulked the red folder Chester had christened with things-Auden three days after their first date.
“This isn’t a date,” he’d reminded Auden from across the table at the coffeehouse. Later they would call it their table, their coffeehouse. “Just colleagues conversing.”
Auden rested an elbow on the counter and wrapped his palms around Chester’s laced fingers. “Thursday, September 29, 1993. It’s a date and you know it,” he’d said.
Though Chester had not opened the folder, already its contents reconstituted themselves without prompting—the dinner rolls they poached from an unattended room service cart, the car chase around the water tower, the shredded pages of forsaken poems that Chester had salvaged. So heaved was his heart into his throat that if he were starring in an old-time film rather than wearing a pickle-stained tee-shirt and clearing out his desk, he would have drawn one hand to the base of his neck and rested the other on the nearest table and perhaps gasped for dramatic effect.
Instead, he looked down at the wrinkles spindling out from his wrists and decided then and there to keep the red folder, so long as it remained sealed.
His mind combed through the day ahead of him—a new faculty housing lease to sign, a wine rack to restock—and then: the red folder. Why, he wondered, could he not picture where he had put it?
He choked the drawstring of his bathrobe around his waist and shuffled the tingles from his slipper-shod feet. Outside the window, the men and their truck appeared to move at half pace, their mouths open two seconds too long when they spoke, the bags they tossed suspended in midair before arcing down to the next set of hands. Somewhere inside the girth of the truck, Chester knew, mantled by cartons seeping old lasagna from their seams, and paper lunch bags leaking clumped cat litter, and plastic jugs dripping expired milk, was an opaque black bag, inside of which those remaining things-Auden had, by doltishness or divine intervention, been stowed.
The man nudged aside one of his headphones. “Huh?”
“I didn’t mean to throw it away, I need to have it back, I can’t leave until I have it back.”
Around the truck Chester marched, his slippers soaked through their cheap plastic soles, none of his olfactory organs yet acclimated to the stench, his stomach clutching and folding itself into acidic origami, the tips of his fingers numb from the effort of not diving into the back of the truck and tearing open the bags of food and feces and dead flowers.
Chester could hear his own breathing. His robe clung to his skin like it does fresh from a cool, clean shower. The man inside the cab gave the wheel a shove and then hopped down from the seat, slamming the door behind him. He walked around the hood and hocked chewed gum beside the tire, close to Chester’s foot. “You lost something?” he said, thrusting a pair of glorified gardening gloves into Chester’s sternum. “Losers, finders.”
Alone, a loser, Chester sloshed behind the truck, bathrobe drawstring dragging behind him on either side. Against his back, the sun jutted above the horizon of the townhouses to cast its gaze on the open-jawed machine. Murky morning thusly declared, Chester took hold of one of the truck’s teeth and hoisted himself onto the ledge, one foot at a time.
For a moment he stood there as if statuary, poised above solid ground, no longer bothered by the reek of once-warm pasta sauce fermenting, once-dry baguettes steeping. The fortune-lines of his palms were stained black with gunk – he’d declined to wear the gloves – and when he wiped his hands on the pockets of his robe, the terrycloth darkened as well, making it look like he had used his bathrobe to swab his ass—and yes, he was a pathetic creature, the remaining hair on his head gray and gnarled, the whites of his aging eyes ocherish, the folds of his belly dividing his torso like an arthropod’s. Knowing this—knowing the pitiable state of his being as he knew the constellations of freckles that dusted his lover’s shoulders—Chester plunged feet-first into the trash.
The air wobbled like jelly, moist and viscous—and his fingers resisted his command to keep looking, keep looking, and his eyes stung from the energy of not crying, not crying, and when a worker raised his palm to slap the side of the truck and insisted that Chester get his ass on the curb so folks could get on with their jobs, he felt it.
So unsteady were his hands that he shredded the plastic open with his molars. There was the smack of spoiled yogurt. There was his stomach, chewing itself. His heart, burning. But he had found it. As Charlie clutched his golden ticket, so Chester clutched his red folder.
Somewhere in the midst of his wading, he had lost both of his slippers—how little it mattered, he would have to trash them anyway—and so when he hauled his body up and came to stand on the platform, he did so in bare feet. Ravenous at their first gust of clean air, his nostrils flared, and the garbage men, laughing soundlessly from their stoop on the sidewalk, turned to one another and pointed at Chester’s head. When he swept a palm from his eyebrows to the back of his skull, he took a slimy leaf of romaine lettuce with him.
He jumped down from the platform and onto the pavement and nearly—just nearly—tangled his feet in the drawstring of his robe. His eyes closed halfway, allowing the morning light to fall upon his face. The dew felt cool against his toes, and the sunlight warm atop the clogged pores on his nose, and when a gust of wind billowed his bathrobe open to reveal the graying hairs on his chest, he allowed his gut to swing and sag without sucking it in.
From the outermost reaches of his toes he felt a lightness; his knees suppled; his crown reached effortlessly through the heavens. He slurped a deep breath through his mouth and, without thought or volition, released the red folder from his grip, as though it might drift like blown dandelion seeds, calmly along the wind, or like an expensive delicate ship, sailing calmly on. Time—unconquerable Time—seemed to stall, almost as if a young boy had opened the bay window above his bed and whispered to the sky, Stop all the clocks….
As the red folder fell, it tipped on its side and, when it did, out fell dried orange tulip petals, and torn turquoise gift paper, and two sets of splintered, soy-sauce stained chopsticks. Out, too, slid postcards Chester and Auden had penned to one another using imagined aliases, and faded beermats from The Bitter End, a seedy dive bar they both adored. Out tumbled the reticent scent of Auden’s morning breath, and the midnight Auden fell asleep on Chester’s shoulder three minutes before the millennium changed, and the way Auden never said ‘good night’ or ‘good morning’ or ‘I love you,’ only ‘always’—because it’s always a good night if I’m kissing your closing lids, because it’s always a good morning if yours if the first breath I taste – because, Chester, I will always love you. Always is the only thing worth keeping.
Before Chester’s eyes the red folder was still falling, and in the recessed mysteries beneath his skin some-thing was changing, churning. Out from the red folder fell spherical four-winged insects stuck static in amber, and every lover with hands smaller than the rain, and every limb rendered impotent by an aneurism; out fell a small mother-of-pearl that had taken an mollusk its lifetime to grind, and a boy with sun-scorched wings; a lover’s lullaby, too, and lemon seeds stuck to the underside of a scarf, and loads of tired eye circles the color of rotted plums; every tomato lobbed at a podium, every pupil singed with pepper spray, every adulterous wife in provincial France. From the folder fell every novel about a wily ship captain trying to capture a whale, and all the poetry written in Auden’s wake—poems about the b o d y , and about those in whom the gods delight. And, too, one tiny stillborn heart, barely bigger than a thimble, buried before its first beat. Out fell all the meals Chester deprived himself of, all the lovemaking Auden availed himself of, each of the three-cubed lives of their cat; all those artificial sweeteners and their attendant migraines, all the Viking raiders and the Celtic women they raped and pillaged and stowed in ships sailing towards strange cold ice lands—all fell out of the red folder, which was itself still falling. Out fell the words the thunder did not say, the letters spiking the Hollywood hills, the city Sinatra sang about when he sang about New York, the bartender’s last call, the giggles of little girls trapping lightning bugs in mason jars, a bruise yellowing on a mother’s shoulder, flower bulbs shaped like tumors, ice fingered in a glass, a wet dream.
And now the folder was empty, just a flimsy fold of crimson cardstock stained with things-rotten, things-discarded, things-broken and of no further use. “Filthy,” Chester said to himself, because that’s what he was.
To someone, though, once, he’d been the entirely beautiful. Poetic, almost. A thing worth keeping.
Margrét Ann Thors is a writer, educator, and elf-enthusiast who splits her time--and her stories--between iceland & the east coast. at present she lives in reykjavík, where she is working on her first novel and plotting to someday build a tiny house. get in touch with her here: about.me/margretannthors
Ana Cantorán is a Mexican interdisciplinary artist and ritualist based in Brooklyn NY. Her work is a delicate conversation between the visual arts and theatre that creates poetic strength. She holds an MFA in Theatre: Contemporary Performance from Naropa University. You can find her work at anaisadrift.com.
Vox Humana is a stage name for Andrew Conner, who is interested in the intersection of mind, myth, and spirit in music and the arts.