Last Days Before the End of the World

khmer dancer

The spirits were hard to conjure that April, the link between heaven and earth fractured. The dancers were assembled with their master teachers. The kben was wrapped around the waist, then twisted and pulled through the legs to form the practice leggings. Hands were stretched and arched, expressive with the face serene, but harmony with the gods was not obtained. An unease had settled in and hung tandem with the humidity; these were the last few days before the end of the world.

Fifteen years earlier, the terror now advancing on the city was launched out of deserted boxcars in the railway center of Phnom Penh: the first Party Congress of the Workers Party of Kampuchea held in that empty train in secret. The Khmer Rouge—Angka—would leave the capital and hide in the northeast hills and later battle Lon Nol’s forces in the border sanctuaries and throughout Cambodia before returning victorious but eerily noncelebratory on April 17, 1975 to rid Phnom Penh of every vestige of the Old World, every person and everything to become a victim of the black pajama psychology of ultimate revolution.

The sound of rumbling trucks, of honking horns and motorcycles steadily grew louder and louder that day, pushing through the walls and music until these outside forces could no longer be ignored. The Khmer Rouge had descended upon the city and soldiers were ordering everyone out onto the streets, barking through bullhorns at the confused populace to leave their homes and shops. The Americans were about to drop bombs on Phnom Penh. Staying would be dangerous. No need to take anything; everyone could return in a few days.

The rehearsal hall emptied. Music books and instruments were left behind to be destroyed; headdresses and masks were abandoned and lost. Costumes were snatched up, and hastily hidden in hems and secret pockets, or folded and placed against the small of the back under shirts and blouses to eventually fade, erode into mere fibers, ruined by sweat and dirt and fear and time. The ballets and their movements, never written down but transmitted from teacher to student, now survived as memories in the minds of the palace dancers and their masters as the royal company was flushed out onto the boulevard.

Two of the younger dancers panic and resist; they can’t leave without their families. They are frantic, but a soldier is pushing them along with the butt of his rifle, shoving it first into one dancer’s back, then the other’s. Their teacher runs over to try and calm them and plead their case, but other soldiers come and grab the girls by the arms. They are taken away and hoisted onto one of the trucks in the convoy that has rumbled into the capital. Their teacher is dragged to a nearby tennis court, made to kneel, then shot dead.

It will be a long time before the gods can be summoned again, before harmony between heaven and humanity is restored.


My Only Glory

the power of dreams

The train was made to work. Henry jammed himself on, ran the diesel engine, and the train chugged round and round the field. Daniel, leaning over in Maggie’s lap, sunk his teeth into the boxcar’s wooden edge and, looking down, watched the tracks as the train jounced along. The three laughed a lot. Soon other kids stopped by, begging for a ride. Someone from the next town drove over and brought his little girl who rode around with her silent mouth wide open. The barn and field became something of a local gathering place. Kids were devoted to Leo and Tod, particularly a “horse-phase” gang, who ignored the makeshift railroad, each girl taking her turn standing on a stool to elaborately braid one of the great horse’s mane. Happiness woven iridescent by the summer damselflies filled Henry’s days. On weekends Maggie would bring Daniel over with Claude—momentarily stunning Henry, as if he had forgotten that her husband existed—but he used the sound of the brass train bell ringing, the sight of the tanned, lithe limbs of his charges all akimbo as they piled in behind the engine as blinders, and it was too easy during these times to not face facts, too easy to ignore that one particular fact that any misstep would land him deep in the abyss of envy and despair. He believed in the power of his dreams.

But those dreams were his high water mark. He never did kiss Maggie, although he might have on one or two occasions had he risked it. Come September, a month he always hated with its hard blue skies, the humidity lifted and most of his riders vanished back inside their schools. Then the weather turned; it rained for days and Henry did not see Maggie or Daniel for over a week. When the sun re-emerged and the sky became a still blue bowl once again, the pair did not reappear. Henry walked over to the Nelsons’ house and stood on the opposite side of the street, waiting for he wasn’t sure what, but there was no movement within that he could perceive. He got his answer at the post office a few days later when he overheard the Miller sisters talking about the Nelsons, Irene Miller saying with a knowing air that the boy was in Saint Luke’s for ‘God knows what,’ as if to say, for those like Daniel, suffering was his lot and the way of the world, and she understood that.

My uncle walked every day past the Nelsons’ house hoping to somehow discern some kind of reason, to distill information from the thin air if need be, until one day the answer came in the form of a For Sale sign planted startlingly upright in the Nelson’s lawn, like a flag staking territory for fear and pain. Daniel had died over Thanksgiving, and the Nelsons were fleeing their memories.

Henry retreated to his shed and stayed there a good part of the winter even though it had no heat; he most assuredly drank heavily. My father went several times to talk to him, Dad’s face on returning dark and troubled; he never spoke of these visits to us. When Uncle Henry emerged from his shed, he came out a different person. I liked to imagine people as colors and shapes, and my uncle—wiry and strong—had always seemed to me like a green vine, all loops and curvy tendrils, but his sorrow changed that. When I saw him next the only image conjured was one of ruble: rusty iron, crumbling concrete; no  grace or movement left.

The kids still wanted to ride the train, and sometimes he’d accommodate them, sometimes there’d be no answer to the small knock on the shed door. The barn became verboten territory for children of the more suspicious and anxious parents in town, though most snuck in there with their friends anyway. Leo was put down due to old age and was replaced with a smaller, dapple grey mare, Marisa. Sometimes I’d look at my uncle as he watched the kids in the barn with Marisa and Tod, and the look in his eyes made me advert my gaze as if I was spying on something sacred, and there’d be a catch in my throat and a sharp pain in my chest. He remained in limbo until the summer I graduated high school. Then he heard she had married someone else and he stopped running the train.

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie … my love, my train, my only glory, he would think over and over and over. When he died from holding on for far too long, the train was left standing in the field in the rain, then the snow, then the sun, the grass growing between the rails, the dark metal of the engine powdered with dirt, and rust, and bird droppings until it all stood desecrated, all love long gone, emanating a despair so solid and so steady that people would walk by that field quickly, never stopping, and kids would dare one another to run over and touch the engine, then run away again, because it was “spooked.”

Control Your Horses

uncle henry

The Nelsons, a young married couple, never shed their mantle of otherness, due to the fact that few people ever moved to town and because their only child, a troubled boy, was given to fits so severe he would struggle for breath and fairly turn blue.

The boy was called Daniel, never Danny. The man’s name was Claude, a sturdy man with pale skin and dark hair; late in the day, the blackness of his stubble against the whiteness of his skin was hard not to stare at. He was kind to his son, but embarrassed by him, picking up every flicker of pity, every tic of disdain on the part of the hometowners. He was hard on his wife; the more forgiving her response, the more compassion she showed, the angrier he’d become. She put no distance between her son’s plight and her emotions, and there was no room for him. There was nothing left for him. Her name was Marguerite. Henry would later call her Maggie because it was too much trouble to say it full out. Maggie was light on her feet and extremely quick—one minute she was beside you or in the room, the next, she was gone. Except when weighed down by her boy.

My uncle’s barn sat within town limits, set back off a road that curved around sharply then ran downhill. Marguerite would walk this road with Daniel at times, struggling with him in tow, not an easy process, and if you got close enough, you would notice he was strapped into a harness—out of view under his checked shirt—a leather lead line strap attached to the belt of his corduroy pants. The pair drew Uncle Henry out of his shed. He’d work in the front yard hoping to catch her going by. They’d smile at each other and nod at first; eventually Maggie stopped and talked. She had a warm, ready response for everything he said, and the first time she looked at Henry and gave him a sweet, sad smile of apology for her son’s outburst, it was as if someone whacked him across the head with a two by four. He was never the same. Life was never the same.

Henry asked if Daniel would like to see the barn—to distract him from his furies—but the massiveness of Leo and Tod frightened him, and it would have been impossible to maneuver him in and out of the old red and blue ride car. The only thing the boy liked was the train engine. He would grab at it, press his face against its hard surface, hold on and be still. Within this stillness he obtained a dignity, his brown eyes fixed afar and wondering, beautiful like his mother’s. In these quiet moments, it was easier to understand how someone could love him.

And Henry loved Maggie. Loved her in silence, though at times the way she looked at him gave him hope, and he had seen her turn her gaze on her husband, her eyes hard and cold. He hated her husband, with his suits and his youth and his prerogative, hated her thin gold wedding band that, even in that thinness, was able to catch the light and flash its possession like an intruder between the two of them though it was Henry who was the third party.

He’d sit in his shed and question himself; he could drive Leo and Tod with just as much male bravura as the young carnival ride operator whom all the girls fancied. He would weigh and wonder at the evilness of his bitter raging against the bonds of moral values and matrimony. Bonds he’d be willing to break. This was his chance for happiness. His despair at times was so strong it gave him incredible perception, and he could sense the despair of others, like a kindred spirit, almost see it rising up from the ground like steam off wet pavement hit by a sunlight shaft.

Things went on pretty much the same for several months until, one night in late June, too much humidity and too much alcohol sent Henry to the barn. He couldn’t sleep. He took a sledgehammer and shattered the old ride car cab; he took some surplus barn siding and broke that down as well; he hoisted an armful of abandoned train track off its stack by the salt lick blocks and went out to the field. He had an idea to reconstruct—on a more modest scale—the underappreciated carnival train ride for Daniel; between the dry grass, and the alcohol and cigarettes, it was a wonder he didn’t set the place ablaze.

Over the next several weeks he built an open boxcar carriage out of the barn siding and red and blue cab. The train engine was pushed back onto the old door, dragged out to the field, and attached to the carriage. It didn’t run; he would have to work up the diesel engine later. And then he laid the tracks. This was harder, to secure them, than one imagined. And he didn’t have any help. When he couldn’t sleep at night for the longing, he’d go to the field and work on the track, smoking and drinking, laying the rails.

When he was finished, rails secure to the ground, carriage attached to the engine, he brought Daniel over one muggy morning. Maggie and Henry put him in the carriage. It was deep enough that he could safely sit it in it alone without fear of falling out. Soon the train would take him around the field, Henry told him. “Whoo, whoo,” Daniel cried. He was able to sit for long periods of time in that carriage, happy as a clam in its wooden crate-box shell, leaving Henry and Maggie free on the field’s border. When he leaned on the fence rail and talked quietly with Maggie, watching her as she watched her son, it was so big for him—even though it was still far from his dreams, dreams in which he was confident, she was willing, and he held her tight and kissed her hard.

The Field Where the Train Runs

Leo and Tod

My uncle ran a small farm. He boarded two chestnut draft horses in his barn and grew field corn. Just a few fields with a tin-shingled work shack languishing in the summer in the drone of locusts and a deep purple rambling of pokeberry. Uncle Henry sat in there most of the time he wasn’t working, and when we visited as kids, it smelled of all I knew of old men: of spit tobacco, sweet hay, manure, and a strange, lingering smell that I would later recognize as alcohol. There was a vise fastened to the work table in there, and my brothers and I would collect hickory nuts and crack them in it; it was the only way you could eat them. The horses, big Belgians, were called Leo and Tod, and I always thought these were very small names for such large, gentle, snorting beasts.

Uncle Henry . . . bachelor uncle, older, so different from my father, yet so familiar, the Stoughton heritage, blood running through our veins. I thought of him then as an old man although he was only in his late forties, lean and strong. The farm and man fascinated me as a young girl like a foreign land: the dirt, the unadulterated maleness, the smells, the beauty; over the years its spell held, close to my mind and heart. We’d stand on the back of the flat-bed, throwing corn into the silo bins to dry, husk bits in our hair and eyes, unaware of what these fields would become.

Uncle Henry shut himself off from love and the world in that shed of his. But both came to him anyhow about the time I turned nine, first in the form of a shabby carnival operation that set itself up every Saturday evening in July at the fair grounds at the other end of town. Let loose there amid the out-of-towners, amid the adult smoky haze of cigarettes and the smell of frying fat, we’d eat cotton candy first so as to form a sticky film over ourselves that attracted all possible grime, then would toss pennies or wooden hoops in the hope of winning a balloon or a case of orange soda. Once I nicked a pink bubble gum cigar off the candy stand and spent the night waiting for the police to take me in.

The company—Freeson & Company, I think it was—outfitted two rides. Clearly the more popular of the two was a contraption that went round in circles, its boxy, banged-up cars lifting some six feet off the ground then gliding back down, up and down as they traveled the circumference. Certainly, it was doubtful it would pass inspection or was ever put through one. It screeched and shouted danger and thus was a magnet for the younger crowd, as was its dark-eyed, dark-haired operator, jerking the gear shifts with a charming, bored nonchalance, making the thing shudder into life. The other ride was a small train than ran on a track in the rear of the carnival grounds. We turned up our noses at its staidness.

Freeson & Company signed a contract with Uncle Henry to store their extra equipment in his barn during the summer when they ran their northern circuit in our part of the state. He had adequate space and was centrally located. Come Labor Day, they’d pack up and head south. Extra train track sat stacked next to the salt lick blocks. The abandoned blue and red ride car with a foot-and-a-half long crack running down the middle of its floor became a bigger attraction for us to visit than Leo and Tod. We’d sit in the cab and pretend we were race car drivers. Freeson & Company was not long for this world, however, and one early June, when our summer expectations were just rising, a truck appeared and unloaded the train engine; Freeson & Company had gone bankrupt, the equipment sold off on the cheap. Everything except the train engine. A “buyer” was coming by to claim the engine and reimburse him for his trouble my uncle was told. But he had no wish to be saddled with this arrangement and told the two men to put it back on the truck and take the rest of the junk with them. The driver, clearly the one in charge, said, “No can do; not touchin’ it,” and the men got back in their truck and drove off. So the engine, as big as a small pony, was pushed over on its side onto an old door, and Leo and Tod dragged it into the barn to be put with the rest of the seedy reminders of careless fun. Better off gone but still there, like a tattoo. It had sat there for two years (no one ever came to claim it) when the Nelsons moved to town.

If You Were That Farmer

the infinite stretch of fields

Even though I had sunk down on the chair, I continued to rock back and forth, back and forth on it, and could not find my balance. I drank the brandy Richard gave me without comment, felt it go down, adding more heat to my already burning lungs. He left the room and didn’t return. I grabbed hold of the cold fireplace screen with one hand to steady myself, bowed my head down, resting forehead on forearm, and in this position twisted my head to the side to stare at my jacket slung over the slat-back chair. I was stuck staring in this position for I don’t know how long. Finally I lurched over and with a small struggle pulled out Enesa’s note that I had stuffed in the pocket. I smoothed it out; there were streaks of her blood smearing part of the writing, but it was otherwise legible. It was a letter to Evan. Junk mail of the highest order, fan mail, a message in a bottle that would not be rescued, bobbing endlessly on an endless sea.

Dear Mr. Dorenberg, I sometimes think that you feel people love you because you are a famous singer and (illegible) player and that they are impressed merely with your skill and fame, and certainly that is true, but with me I want to tell you that it is more. But how would you know, how would you know who to trust, who is true and who is merely wanting what is fashionable, what is in, wanting what others want? Because they do.

I sometimes think I would like to prove my love for you that it is a finer thing than mere fandom. But how to do this? I think maybe if you were not famous, I could come to you. I think of my uncle’s house, his library and piano; Uncle Dekek always playing Chopin, pounding it, butchering it; he knows nothing of music really, nothing of you. Under his desk are stacks of old Life magazines with their images in black and white, and I like to think of some of the pictures in particular, those of old-fashioned America. I think of the farmers, and the women at their kitchen tables making pies, and the infinite stretch of fields of maize that spread out beyond their screen doors, and I often think of such a woman in her checker dress, her tired face void of lipstick, and the farmer working these fields, his back strong but bent from hard labor and care.

Sometimes I think that if you were that farmer, hands bound with dirt and shirt stained with sweat, and I was that woman rolling her dough flat, the flies buzzing round, rolling it as flat as the land itself, most times when you came in through that screen door, I would not even look up, but there would be times when I would (illegible) come over to you and look up at your worn face and run my hands under your open shirt, rub them over your sore back, not sore (several lines illegible) bus and the slung back Les Paul, but from toil that produces little. And I would love you even though you were that dirt farmer, and you would know that, not anyone else, just you, just the man no other man could come …

There was no more to read and my mind refused to follow the sequence of events that had happened next. I folded the paper into quarters and stuck it under my shirt inside my grimy bra, trying to get my mind around what had happened, around the saddest knowledge possible one could bear which was this: that whether she died, butchered as she wrote her story and left as signal warning in her room at her desk in the sunset glow, or whether she lived a long life outwardly happy with her pain invisible in her heart, either way this message would not hit its mark, impossible to be received or fully understood. That it existed and burned only onto itself and was extinguished with her. I didn’t feel like crying; I didn’t feel like anything. Maybe in the next life, Enesa, maybe in the next one.