Jenny Drai

from Where Our Lives Take Place




Anne’s hair streams about her shoulders in coarse, smelly rivulets. Her bones are light, not hollow, but light, brittle. When she coughs—she will cough—a rosebud of blood blooms. Scarlet. The bud stains the tiny, snow-white cloth she carries in one clenched fist. This is the way her situation is going to play itself out. The Director gathers her reams of index cards, full of notes scrawled in pencil. The Director studies the first scene. Because. Because. When a woman—Anne—knows she’s dying, has already lost a son, is dying, her hair tumbles. Quick as burning debris slung through bright air by the swinging arm of a massive trebuchet. Such hair comes loose out of even the most carefully coifed bundles. Fancy headdresses with fine veils stop mattering. When I shear off my own hair after three years of growing it, I feel the sudden wind on my neck. Who touches which strand?
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For every moment in history, there exists a multiplicity of narratives. This narrative is the story of a wife, broken by ill health, by wife-ness. By knowledge of her health, and her wife-ness. Each narrative is represented by a play, in the crucible of this theme park. The Director gathers strands. Like handfuls of frayed thread. That narrative? Grief rising. Sorrow catches in the throat, like a bubble of spit.
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The theme park is a place of wooden plank stages, green lawns, dirt paths. Some of the stages are draped with colorful bunting. Others are bare. I’m sharp, a real vise, when I peer at the bare stages. I cut at the space.
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I ought to tell you about the visitation I received last night. While scrubbing enchilada sauce from the baking dish. Everyone, everything I had ever researched traipsed before me in a parade of light, of dust. Yes, there is a lot of dust in my house, but that’s hardly the intended point of this (hopefully brief) aside. In short, I’d been reading a consideration of the guilt or innocence of Richard III. Anne Neville was his queen. (My interest in this subject had been piqued by reading about the discovery of his skeleton several years ago.) He also was among the apparitions, but his face told me nothing. His face told me that I was angry. I don’t understand what is happening in our relationship. Later, we went to the grocery store and you selected a ripe cantaloupe. You placed the melon gently in the gleaming metal cart. My eyes were still full of other planes of existence. I kept asking myself: Can I handle being confused? Then I carefully picked out several small red potatoes. The store had been almost empty and we easily avoided the couple arguing in the beverage aisle. The history of our changeability. As I watched the couple, I thought about how I threw the dinner plate late last week. The sharp shards littering the kitchen floor cleansed me, but only for an hour or so. I thought about how I can know anyone and not know anyone at the same time and how you count as one among this group.
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Who am I, you’re no doubt wondering. Of course you know, and you don’t. Suffice it to say, I’m an Observer, who pretends to be an Agent. Agency hides in the theme park in plain sight, under the peaked wooden rooves stretching out over some of the stages.
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D (Dickon, Richard) stands near the hearth and watches his strained wife with mixed—say it—emotion. He resents the severe circumstances of younger sons who may be more capable than older brothers but who inherit nothing on their own. Anne brings to D her inheritance. And he stewards that negotiated wealth. The Director writes the scene every which way. Youthful Anne runs away from wicked George, Duke of Clarence, to hide herself in a London cookhouse. Richard finds her, marries her, secures her fortune. The fate of all medieval heiresses.
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I must confess to you my own fascination with space, which reeks of human hearts, human power, human ambition. Why I did what I did at any one point of time and so forth. What you did. Some points being more important to understand, to dissect, than others. Like when I threw the plate. I acted out of anxiety, I think. Because I don’t understand. Sometimes we get along and then you or I seem to transform. Everything becomes terrible. But today you grab my hand in this theme park, this theme park with no roller coasters, only the scenarios of historical situations, the variable outcomes of other people’s actions. Full of stages. Paid performers portray scenes in lavishly decorated vignettes. What we observe are spread-out motivations, emotions, machinations. Emotion may sometimes be defined as strong feeling, but then what is feeling? Agitation, disturbance, warmth, flashes of anger—the bile rises slightly within D’s throat when he thinks of his dead, spendthrift brother. When he considers his own skill at mediation and negotiation. How he could flourish in a meritocracy, but is instead stifled by the pomp, the restrictive medievalism of his accident of birth order. Well, America isn’t really a meritocracy anymore. I don’t know about England. His own ambition burns at his mouth’s corners as if the wine he drinks each night were a dark slick of grease beset by licks of orange flame. This flame coats his voice, which remains unknown. In turn, a woman (Anne) knew that sound once and looked over her shoulder. The Director toils with pen and ink to reconstruct the situation.
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And what would I be an Agent of? Of decisions? Of trajectory? What Facts would I wear, swinging from a loop on my belt like a bundle of keys? Clink. Clack. Because an Agent is the chatelaine of her own stage. Agents have Power to understand incidents from their lives. The Facts become a sheath of silk, or a linen shift. Fine and cool against bare skin. To be an Agent is to know things.
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Perhaps Anne did slightly turn her neck. Maybe D smiled at Anne. Possibly Anne gazed up at D after she gave birth to his son, as he clasped the sleeping child to the fine cloth of his shirt—he wears only a shirt and hose in some cozy, imagined domestic scene. As D holds Edward, the baby, he imagines his own dynasty. Centuries later, D would simply have taken his SATs, probably getting into Harvard. He comes from a good family and a good school district, plus his acumen and diligence would vault him steadily forward. He’s a man who salts his own food, so that he may know the flavor of his meal before he sits down to sup. Prior to the first slice of ham or the initial spoonful of thick green pea soup. The last sentence was written at the late-night diner we visited after the grocery store last night, where we left our nonperishables in the trunk of the car to snack on French fries and BLTs. Scribbled on a cheap paper napkin with a failing ballpoint pen I fished out of my jacket pocket. You appeared gallant and attentive in your light blue windbreaker. We considered why we’d made plans to attend the theme park. We discussed why we needed to go. At least we were both in agreement that something between us was amiss. Then we paused in our reverie to consider the hour. The moon dripped light. Like an overripe, sweaty wedge of room-temperature cheese.
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Natural light rules in the theme park. Later, once the sun begins to fall toward the horizon, torches will be lit. Charcoal smudges of smoke, like velvet drapes, will hang against a darkening sky. Or, what is built by human hands, covered by the un-built, the built-up but easily dismantled, the never-knowing, where-we-are.
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At the theme park, Stage D2. We watch as Anne coughs again, a hollow racket that bends her body, threatens to strain her, break her, splinter her, reveal her bones. Maybe you had better come to me, D says, pulling her toward the graceful light of the fire, the engulfing warmth of the hearth. Maybe, he suggests as he strokes her hair, you are merely overwrought. And she is—this Anne faces the proscenium, the quiet distance of the fourth wall. As an unraveling ball of frayed and tearful yarn. But to be overwrought first implies that one is ‘wrought.’ Of what are we wrought? Not iron, not a lacework of iron. Centuries later at the Home Depot, D and Anne wheel a large orange shopping cart through one wide aisle, where they examine an assortment of trellises, like any young couple. Young Eddie drags unenthusiastic feet and struggles not to whine. Dickon, Anne says, pointing to a black iron trellis. This one. She unwinds, then rearranges a blue scarf of light cotton around her slim neck as she indicates the sleek design. Don’t you think? she asks. D smiles. He thinks that the light in this large box store somehow combines the business of overheard voices with the emptiness of the space. Customers ask questions, employees rush about in orange, bibbed aprons, the shelves are stocked with every ware imaginable, but the wide central aisles, on the other hand, they’re streaming with light like a halo. As if this place were a church. D looks at Anne. He would never hurt her willingly. He can afford to give her what she wants.
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Ambition sometimes breeds disaster.
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There are other theme parks, other Directors, other generating scenarios. We Observers, we see ourselves on every stage. In so doing, we spelunk. Like armchair adventurers through the terrain of human history. We parse what has happened from what might still happen. Motive hangs about the space. In the corners. From the rafters above the stages. We diagram motivation, and the space, like sentences.
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At this theme park, the fire is warm. Anne’s body melts into the licks of flame. Rumors persist from the cubbies of other scenarios, on the smooth planks of those stages, that she will be poisoned, set aside, divorced—she, an anointed queen—to leave an opening for her husband’s next marriage. D needs a cohort of plump, jolly sons. Anne hasn’t delivered. Now Anne tries to hold her own body in her cupped hands. She wants to exist in a single space. In one warm room or one clear, bright eye. To see deeper than the skin of a man’s face, which is impossible. Also, Anne attempts to restore the—she believes—dual validities of truth and fiction as they exist within the space. But there is fiction in the truth and truth in the fiction. This is where you lose me, you’ve told me often enough before, and you will again, for example, on the drive home from the theme park. Really, we’ll be stuck in the parking lot, part of a slow caterpillar of automobiles crawling incrementally in orderly lines through lanes of gravel, waiting to reach the black tarmac of the road.
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I think I lose you because you refuse to understand the contemporary condition.
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How divided we are, by space, by time and decision, by the scaffolding of our surroundings. Wires strung with this or that. Ladders hung with steps, hewn out of tangents, those brief, splintery asides. And, always in the background, the parks, and amphitheaters, and stages with which we populate our lives. Condition, I tell you, in the falling light. Our. Condition.
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On the drive home, a white moth will land briefly on the windshield. I’ll try to tell you that truth, and space, are like the moth, because they are fleeting and already, seconds later, far away from us. You’ll give me that look that means something like: Avogadro’s equation, now that’s truth. Plotted points on a graph, now that’s space. To which I would reply: More than one thing can be true, and present, at the same time. Take us, for example. Look at how we muddle through.
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On Stage B1, Anne feels hollow, as if she’s floating. She realizes part of D may love her, even cherish her light bones, slight frame, everything her body represents, but that still, he is a man of a certain resolution and resolve. He will serve his own interests first. Now D sinks into sleep gently after a full day of mergers and acquisitions but Anne lies wide awake in a silver pool of wan moonlight. She has barely processed her discovery today. The leftover stain of powdered makeup that’s clearly not hers, found on the collar of one of D’s dress shirts. As she sorted laundry in front of the television, CNN droning in the background. News of other people’s more sinister disasters—hostage situations, floods, terrorist attacks. We’re nothing compared to this, Anne thought, as she separated the lights from the darks.
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The theme park offers all sorts of refreshment and the two of us feast mightily. Joints of roast turkey, large cups of homemade sarsaparilla and lemonade. They concoct the latter drink before our very eyes, cutting bright yellow lemons in half, squeezing the rivulets of juice into water over ice cubes, then stirring in the sugar. There’s also kettle corn, corndogs, even chocolate covered bacon, which is as disgusting as it sounds. As we eat, we watch historical personages roam the trodden dirt lanes, passing between stages, all under the watchful gaze of the Director, who roosts above all at her polished walnut desk at the top of a hill of brilliant emerald grass. No one is allowed to approach. The Director floats above the theme park like a small, mysterious talisman. A widescreen shows the visitors her every move. You jostle my elbow when she scratches out a line and starts to write anew—the actors in one of the scenarios change tack mid-scene—and I spill some lemonade on my t-shirt. One cold, spreading stain
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This is how a wife comes to stand, then rest, beside her husband. This husband is, was always, a particular set of shoulders, a precise height and weight. He was always his angle of head balanced on his neck in his space divided through his time. This husband may, perhaps, be cagey and suspicious. He may be self-contained, never requiring aid or help, or he may cut himself one evening at the dinner table, bleeding all over the white tablecloth when he attempts to jimmy away the plastic seal on a jar of steak sauce with a paring knife. This husband opens his body’s space to the space of the world and the wife rushes to help. To elevate the wound and press clean cotton wadding against the torn flesh. Despite whatever happened yesterday.
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The theme park sprawls over the fairground. As a structure, permanent, and semi-permanent, at once. Maybe in your language: The theme park exists as space as a function derived of time moving through velocity.
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IMG_2584Jenny Drai is the author of three collections of poetry, including Wine Dark (Black Lawrence Press) and [the door] (Trembling Pillow Press). Two poetry chapbooks have also been published. They are The New Sorrow Is Less Than The Old Sorrow (Black Lawrence Press) and :Body Wolf: (Horse Less Press). The History Worker, coming in August 2017 from Black Lawrence Press, also has a Richard III tie-in. A novella, Letters to Quince, was awarded the Deerbird Novella Prize and published by Artistically Declined Press. Her work has appeared in numerous print and online journals, including American Letters and Commentary, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, and The Volta, among others. In addition, she was recently awarded the 2017 Gail B. Crump Award in Experimental Fiction from Pleiades Magazine. She studied literature and foreign languages at Beloit College and received an MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College of California. She blogs about her current project (a novel about Beowulf, bees, and queens), neurodivergence, and transatlantic life, and posts photos from her travels at jennydrai.com. She lives in Bonn, Germany.

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