James Devereaux unlocked the door to his two bedroom apartment and stepped inside,
hugging a full paper bag carrying his week’s groceries. Next to the door, at eye level, hung a
mirror with a shelf above some small hooks. James hung his keys on the first hook on the left,
then caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror as he turned. It created a curious illusion; instead
of seeing himself, he saw the apartment as he walked to the kitchen with the groceries, the sparse
decorations and his own framed head among them.
The furniture was a rough collection of Ikea, Fred Meyer’s, and Target purchases made
on an ad hoc basis as he realized what he needed. He’d come from New York with only two
bags, with a few trunks of knick-knacks and hard copies of files mailed along afterward. He
hadn’t even had a car when he arrived. Hadn’t needed one in New York. And his furniture hadn’t
been worth shipping. Not even his TV. Barely worth the trouble of the Craig’s List ads.
But the apartment wasn’t empty. He’d bought a blocky, dark brown coffee table which
didn’t quite match the black entertainment center that held up his new TV, a modest 32 inch flat
screen. The coffee table did match the end tables on either side of the white denim-covered Ikea
couch, because he’d bought the end tables at Target with the coffee table. The Target tables held
twin Ikea reading lamps with white shades covered in an appliqué like the skirts of tiny wedding
dresses. There, among that furniture, James saw his own face. Almost tasteful. Yes, that was true
of both, but there was more.
Betraying the twenty-something bachelor-pad stereotypes, James had neither bare walls,
nor a framed movie poster or black and white nude or a supermodel in a bikini or one of those
giant Fathead sticky posters of some athlete dunking a basketball or straight arming a defender
while fighting for a few more yards of his living room. James knew enough about bachelor-pad
chic to avoid things like ninja stars on the walls. He did have a few touristy trinkets. A ceramic
sculpture of some Dia de Los Muertos masks hung on his wall in the dinette above the table and
chairs he’d picked up at Fred Meyer’s. But on either side of that he’d positioned two framed
photos, one of the four college friends who’d accompanied him on the trip to Mexico, and one a
shot of a Mayan temple he was particularly proud of, just to make sure visitors wouldn’t think
the skulls were part of some angst-y teenage death worship. The wall behind his TV held four
framed pictures; his parents, his brother, sister-in-law and their baby, a larger shot of his infant
niece, and a picture of his childhood home in New Orleans with the pre-Katrina roof. He
accepted the new roof, and hardly had anything to complain about since the house had weathered
the storm so well (and wasn’t in the ninth ward so it hadn’t flooded at all) but the old roof, with
the mossy dark brown wooden shingles, felt more like his childhood; happier and more alive and
less utilitarian and safe.
Balled up on one side of James’ couch was the Afghan blanket his mother had given him.
On his coffee table, he’d put out classy coaster, even though he preferred the kind he stole from
bars. And as he stepped into his kitchen and set his groceries on the marble countertop, he
noticed the dusting of flour he’d missed when cleaning up from the batch of cookies he’d made
himself the other day. All in all, it was not the house of a swinging bachelor, but of a lonely man
in need of a wife, or at least a gay roommate who would appreciate his décor, gently suggest
ways of improving it, and help him eat the excessive amount of cookies in the Tupperware
container next to the fridge.
Ixtab saw all this, too. She stood in the living room, next to his TV, leaning her head
against the wall because her headdress was frickin’ heavy. She’d once been the Mayan goddess
of suicide, but as that empire had waned she’d been demoted down to the goddess of writers and
journalists. Still, she liked a good suicide, if she could manage it. To her mind, a good suicide
wasn’t the act of some middle aged accountant suffering from depression and buried in gambling
debts, or the impulsive act of a pimply teenager who fully expected to attend his own funeral and
enjoy watching the pretty girls cry over his corpse. No, she wanted artistry, and since she was
basically limited to writers and journalists, when she wasn’t persuading some famous and
successful investigative reporter to commit obvious plagiarism, ruin his career, and send himself
into a highly documented tailspin of blame and apologies on the blogosphere before offing
himself, she was working on duping some truly promising novelist into hitting the big time and
then putting the final punctuation on the book with a really dramatic bit of terminal self-harm.
Devereaux served as a work in progress toward this end. She felt she could squeeze a truly great
book out of him and make his life unbearable at the same time. So far, her most successful move
had been his newfound position at Western Oregon University. Any big move takes a
psychological toll, but for a Cajun boy who struggled to make a home for himself in New York
City, the transition to a small town in the Northwest was particularly difficult. The isolation
brought on by the lure of a tenure track job in the midst of a particularly bleak economy had
pushed Devereaux further inside himself and deeper into the novel he was writing. She thought
she could get a good book out of him just before he’d had enough.
And it was going to be a good book. Perhaps even a great one. It had the scope of
Tolstoy, covering a family that spanned from the Civil War, through segregation and Civil
Rights, to 9/11 in New York and Katrina in New Orleans. Because Devereaux was a product of
both worlds, he could capture the places in a way some hack from the young, peaceful, and
drama-free Northwest never could. But despite the book’s pastoral cast of characters and lush
historical backdrop, Devereaux managed to play with the form, dancing and tiptoeing through
time, shifting not only between pitch-perfect voices, but also between styles, sometimes writing
about the Civil War like a blogger or even a series of twitter posts, sometimes writing about 9/11
like an African-American Southern Baptist civil rights crusader railing against injustice. It was a
bit American-centric for her taste, but she couldn’t fault a Roman for writing about Rome, and
wouldn’t have criticized a Mayan for writing a Mayan-centric novel, if they’d had novels.
Ixtab straightened her headdress. It was a simple cap, not large enough to balance the
weight of the large arc of feathers that sat on a spindle in the middle and curved in either
direction wider than her shoulders. She carefully twisted her wide nose piercing into its proper
place. The carved bone was pointy at both ends, for easy insertion, but the central point was a bit
curved, and tended to make the piercing arc away from her face, rather than toward her cheeks as
it was supposed to. She was amazingly attractive, by Mayan standards, thin but with wide hips
and a heaving bosom, a wide, large nose, and a brilliant smile she could flash like a Cheshire
cat’s in the darkness of her smooth skin. Her eyebrows were a bit too pronounced for Mayan
physical perfection, but then they made her look serious, and it would have been unseemly for a
goddess of suicide to look too cheerful.
She’d chosen to remain invisible to Devereaux, at least for now. There might come a time
when she could safely reveal herself, perhaps even be physically intimate with her pet project,
but she’d have to wait until he’d sunk deep enough into madness that he could safely write about
her without revealing her to the other writers and journalists she’d be working on in the future.
Those kinds of people tended to do research, and the last thing she wanted was to finally reveal
herself to some reporter only to be instantly identified and then interviewed.
She stepped into the kitchen and stood so close to Devereaux that the feathers of her
headdress brushed his face while he moved around, putting away his groceries. He couldn’t feel
the feathers, but each tickle made him want to go into his study and hammer out a few more
words on his laptop. Somewhere in his brain, images of nooses and pills, pistols and long falls
lodged themselves in crevasses that would only be plumbed in dark dreams.
Devereaux followed his implanted impulses back into the study where he opened his
computer and ran a finger over the touch mouse, waking the machine. The screen glowed on, a
Word document open with a taskbar full of them lining the bottom of the image.
He scrolled down to the bottom of the current chapter, remembering his place in the
narrative. This particular chapter was about a white high school teacher in New York who had
survived 9/11 but was now grappling with the zeitgeist that seemed, to him, to be saying that all
the problems of public education were the fault of bad teachers who couldn’t get standardized
test scores to rise. Since the teacher lived and breathed in a world of education, this felt like the
country was blaming all the problems of the world at large on him. This mirrored the previous
chapter about a man who was, unbeknownst to the teacher, his second cousin. This man, an
African American cop in New Orleans, lived in a world of criminals, and so when he watched
the criminals losing all respect for law enforcement, he too felt that the center could not hold, the
falcon could not find the falconer, and everything was turning and turning in the widening gyre.
Devereaux actually considered putting some reference to the Yeats poem into his novel, perhaps
from the mouth of the high school English teacher, but decided that was the kind of lame ploy
that would only come to mind to the worst kind of hack. Though he knew he was disciplined
enough to cut such a thing in the editing phase, he chided himself for even considering it.
Ixtab, standing over his shoulder, smiled at both his choice to omit something so
cloyingly faux-literary, and his anguish in the process. Yes, she could make this man do himself
in. And it was nice to see that he would go to such lengths to avoid anything cliché or too clever
by half. No, his means of suicide, like his writing, would be meticulously devised and glorious in
its execution. Though she knew it was a ways off, she felt a hum of excitement vibrating in her
lower spine. She decided it was time to kick it into a higher gear.
Ixtab leaned forward very slowly and cocked her head so that her feathered headdress
wouldn’t brush against Devereaux’s hair. She placed her lips centimeters from his ear. The
whisper breathed out so silently that he couldn’t distinguish it from his own thoughts. “Maybe
the teacher should have an affair with a married woman.”
Devereaux blinked, then leaned back in his chair so quickly that Ixtab had to jump out of
the way. He made a hard “Poof” sound as he exhaled, then drew a long, slow breath through his
nose. He knew the teacher, like the cop and his father, the judge, and his mother, the civil rights
worker, and her father, the slave, and her mother, the slave nanny who was raped and sired the
line that led to the New York teacher… they were all James Devereaux. Every one of them was
inside of him, a wriggling mass of genetic memory, geographic locations, political persuasions,
personality defects, character flaws, and strange ticks. People would someday ask him which
character he most identified with, or perhaps they would assume that he was most like the
English teacher. After all, he taught writing at the college level. It wasn’t such a leap. But they
were all him. He would say so, if asked, and sound like a pretentious prick, but it was the truth.
Every character in a book is a part of the author, whether she likes to admit it or not. And so, if
his character was considering it, maybe he was too. There was just no way around it.
Ixtab listened to his thoughts and realized she could have given the same advice about
some character long ago, to the same effect. She’d made the same mistake as his hypothetical
questioner, thinking only the English teacher was a cypher for Devereaux. She hit herself in the
forehead with the heel of her hand, then caught her headdress as it tumbled in front of her face. If
she’d realized that he was all of the characters, he and that woman he’d been eying would
probably be bonking their way toward two ruined lives and his hastened suicide by now.
Dammit! she thought.
Devereaux thought about Christy. First he pictured her naked. He didn’t like that he did
this, but it always seemed to be the first image that came to mind. He literally shook his head,
clearing the thought. Then he considered Christy, not dressed and carrying a stack of papers or
quickly looking away from his eyes at a department meeting, but in the abstract. She was
married. That should be enough, he thought. It should all end there. She seemed happily married.
That shouldn’t be relevant, but it strengthened the case. She was happily married to a guy
Devereaux had met, a guy who seemed nice, if a bit boring. Some kind of accountant or
insurance salesman or something. What had his name been? Devereaux suddenly found himself
obsessed with the need to remember her husband’s name. He felt that, if only he could remember
Christy’s husband’s name, the man would become more real, a hypothetical victim to the
uncommitted crime he was considering. He knew the name had been something normal,
something forgettable. Dammit, he thought.
Mr. Miller is enough, though, right? he thought. John Doe Miller? John Doe Miller didn’t
deserve to have his life ruined. And did James really intend to make Mrs. Miller into Mrs.
Devereaux? And she had a kid, too, right? James certainly didn’t want to take Mr. Miller’s son
and make him into Little Mr. Devereaux.
But, of course, that didn’t have to be the consequence of an affair. Devereaux assured
himself that he could be honest with Christy about his intentions. If she was looking for
something he couldn’t give, the whole issue would be moot, and he wouldn’t have to worry
about it anymore. He wouldn’t have to think about her when he didn’t want to, wouldn’t have to
see visions of her, undressed and beckoning him, when he wanted to be thinking about other
things. Sure, it would make things awkward, but weren’t they already?
He knew this was an oversimplification. A quick scan of his own book would teach the
most casual reader that life is never so simple or straightforward, even when it was laid out in a
more conveniently linear fashion. Life would get messy. Lies would become ugly revelations.
Simple truths would become insults. But maybe she would just say no, and it could all go away.
Or maybe she wouldn’t, he thought.
Ixtab smiled again.