Nferno by Ramon Kubicek

At first the fires were visible only as wisps of smoke in the hills. The general idea was that they represented an attempt to clear brush, perhaps as part of a development scheme. From Bellevue Heights, where Carter worked for the Morgans, it was believed that the marring of the view was only temporary, so no one actually bothered to complain.  Gerry and Anne-Marie Morgan had moved there only five years before, as a celebration of his promotion at Weatherby Stalls, the investment brokers, and one of the prime selling points of the 4 bedroom, 3800 square foot home was the uncluttered view of the valley. Carter also enjoyed looking out at the trees, rolling greens, and the bare hills spotted with pines and shrubs, for during his handyman duties there was plenty of opportunity to soak in all the green and blue. Gerry didn’t say much to him, because Carter always got the work done, although Anne-Marie usually had a few choice words. One reason why Gerry seemed to go easy with him, Carter thought, was that they were brothers-in-law, which might also explain why Anne-Marie was so often irritated with him. Since before Anne-Marie, Gerry had been married to his sister, Carter imagined Anne-Marie might be jealous of his and Gerry’s relationship. After all, Gerry had not only given him a place to stay—the white-shingled apartment on top the garage—but also used him quite often for tricky repairs.

Sometimes, Carter could hear them arguing in the main house, their voices carrying through the glass conservatory, across the rose-trellised garden, and up to his modest bachelor digs. One of the favorite arguments was about Gerry’s drinking; another was about Gerry’s neglect of her in favor of hanging out with his cronies; a third was about himself.

“I can’t stand him. He’s so creepy.” Or, “if you have some kind of guilt thing about him, can’t you just give him an allowance?” Or, “just be normal, that’s all I ask. Let’s have a normal life without that retard.”

“He’s not a retard, honey. Just a little different.”

Carter tried to imagine what a normal life would be, what it would include that Gerry and Anne-Marie did not already have. Carter did try to stay out of everyone’s way, but sometimes that was difficult when Gerry asked him to fix an electrical problem or re-do the plumbing. He had tried to live on his own, but that experience had proven to be difficult. The things he saw made ordinary life an embarrassing and often overwhelming affair.

Gerry’s buddies had made it known they didn’t want to see Carter. “The guy’s an idiot. And weird.”

“He’s amazing at fixing stuff,” Gerry said, “so he’s hardly a moron.”

“I don’t care. He’s still too weird.”

Carter was a touch psychic and intuitive, but he was also brain-damaged, Gerry thought, though he wasn’t sure whether that was an official diagnosis. “Brain-damaged,” Gerry said in a tone that was meant to provoke sympathy.

“Since when did you give a shit? What’s the real deal?”

“He used to be okay, but the accident left him brain-damaged. He was always a bit strange, but afterwards he couldn’t work.”

“Well, that’s too bad, about the accident and all. But it doesn’t excuse weirdness, “ Victor said. Victor was a poker buddy and a very rich car dealer, who’d been promising Gerry for months that he would place a sizable investment with him.

 

Carter applied the squeegee to the east-facing living room window and slowly eased the splatters of window cleaner into one thin wave that he guided to the bottom and wiped off with the white cloth he had in his right hand. Sparkling glass that for a moment showed him his own boyish, grinning face, as if he’d just been given a bowl of ice cream, would soon just be a moment in the passage from inside to outside and outside to inside. He loved the feeling of a really clean window just completed.

Now the shrubbery. The spruce hedges would be trees very soon if Carter didn’t keep them trim with his weekly snipping. He touched the blades of his clippers for their sharpness. Very good. When he had a rhythm going the blades made a swishing sound that he found soothing. He looked down by his sneaker and saw a Japanese beetle. Its green and copper markings made it look like a piece of earth mixed with something leafy. “Hello, little fellow,” he said. “You better make yourself scarce, or you’ll get stepped on. And don’t bring any of your buddies. I’m supposed to spray for the likes of you.” He carefully stepped around the beetle.

Carter began to whistle a nameless shanty tune. The sun was already hot on his neck, though the smoky haze from the distant fires made the light more diffuse. Bushtits flitted to the ornamental pond Carter had designed and refreshed themselves. “I like it that you like it, “ he said to the bushtits and laughed.

‘Can’t you do any stitch of work without talking to a plant or animal?” the old lady wore a white cotton dress and a matching beige crocheted shawl. She sat on the stone bench by the pond.

“I can talk to you, if you want,” he said, but he only glanced at her and kept on clipping.

“Talk, talk, talk. Only words. Sometimes you keep your mouth shut for days and then other times you can’t keep it shut. Like a leaky faucet. Better if you used that energy to figure out your life.”

“I’d offer you some lemonade, but I know you don’t want any.”

“You call that an offer? You call that polite? But you’re right. I’ll pass on the lemonade. You cut down your drinking?”

“Excuse me, Ma’am. I’m going to go to the garage now to get some bags for these leaves.” Carter left her sitting on the bench without looking in her direction. But then he knew she wouldn’t be there when he returned in a couple of minutes.

Not that Carter was always surrounded by the dead, though the dead were everywhere, wandering about as if there’d been no change in their circumstances, but he could never count on being left alone or even knowing when his body would allow him to distinguish between the living and the dead. It was the uncertainty that unnerved him. If anyone ever bothered to look at Carter, even a glance would show a tall, thin, unshaven man in mismatched clothes, swatting the air or arguing with a wall, a sight discouraging enough to give him space. Carter knew what others thought of him, the fear and disgust, but there was little he could do, even the medications didn’t help. The looks of the polite and the well dressed, the tightened lips, the eyes suddenly focused ahead, the hands of women clutching their coats tighter at the chest as they moved quickly forward. A laugh, that they should fear him, if only they knew, but how could they, with their careful, ordered lives? If they did know, they’d be running in the street, not that that would do any good. Only that morning, he’d awoken in his apartment to see a woman with fishbelly white skin rise up into the second-story window by his bed, saying something urgently, her lips repeating the words over and over, though in the suddenly cracked, stilled moment he could hear nothing.

Carter knew he was different. He saw things that apparently no one else saw. He fell into black places where depression fed on his brain. He tried to agree as much as possible with others, but occasionally he got confused and told the truth. He couldn’t remember much about his childhood, as if his memories had been burned away, but there had been some that had survived, and these showed him that even at school he had been a loner, apt to say unfortunate things and show interest in everything from machines to flowers. When the others scorned him or laughed at him, he didn’t know how to respond. He looked at their lives with longing. Real people like Barrie McLaverty, who in high school had cool clothes that fit right, who drove a sports car, who was a running back on the football team, who would probably go to the State university and then into management in his dad’s trucking business—these people had some sort of secret. Carter’s life by contrast was full of unpleasant surprises. He didn’t want to drive a car in high school, though his grandfather offered to buy him a car, and he rejected such things as fashion, popular music, Hollywood movies, and sports for geek passions in physics, math, mechanics, astronomy, Latin, archeology—even just reciting the complete list induced eye-rolling. At college he studied computers and became a whiz at programming and inventing. Then everything changed. Within a year, Carter couldn’t do math any more. His brain would get tired after an hour of sustained attention. His memory collapsed and he suffered bad headaches and numbing depressions. He squeaked through his final year of university. A year after graduating from M.I.T., he lost his job at a high-tech company and was on the street.

Then Gerry found him years later and offered him a proposition that would free Carter from having to worry about room and board. Gerry had found him trapped inside the bark of a tree a few blocks from Gerry’s place from morning until evening on the lawn of an elderly widow’s home, a woman whose eyesight was poor enough she hadn’t called the police about the stranger. He hadn’t just been captivated by the patterns like some kind of poet, no, for him it was being held within one of the tiny grooves of the bark that was the problem, so that what he saw and felt was a giant woody maze with terrible dangers, insect monsters who appeared not to see him but whose legs came awfully close on occasion. Another day a tree had become a living grid that had connected him to everything alive—fine and dandy if he hadn’t been trying to hold on for dear life, none of it understandable, and he had felt the trickle of madness down one side of his face.

So Gerry came through in exchange for some handyman stuff and occasional work on computer programs that Gerry could use in market analysis. That is, when Carter felt well enough. Gerry had lots of friends who like to drop over, and Carter had to make sure to stay out of the way, but even so Anne-Marie would pace upstairs and bang doors if the friends stayed too long.

Dankworth, a property lawyer, liked to come over to drink beer and play pool. He talked a lot about everything sports and business. Dankworth thought it a hoot that Gerry had a brother-in-law who didn’t know anything about baseball, basketball, or football. No Lebron, no Peyton Manning, no Jeter, and no movies—not even the latest Brad Pitt, Robert Downey, or Megan Fox.

“You’re putting me on, right?” Dankworth said, grinning, as he interrupted his shot to consider the significance of a twenty-first century adult who was not clued in. Dankworth, trim in his middle years, with a full head of athletic gray hair—Carter thought that former athletes might have hair like that—was clear in his divisions between work and play. Carter found that kind of easy knowledge fascinating, because he himself had never been able to see the separations well.

“Hey, Carter. Come in here.” Dankworth called him into the billiards room. Carter put down his garden shears, went into the house and slowly approached the room. Dankworth always thought that Carter’s slowness was a result of shyness or simplemindedness, but how could Carter explain it to him, to anyone, that there were never any guarantees about what you could find around a corner.

“Carter, Gerry and I were discussing that new Coen Brothers movie. What’s it called. Have you seen it? Do you know who the Coen Brothers are?

Carter said nothing, but neither did he flinch or show embarrassment.

“Didn’t see it, huh. What movies have you seen lately?”

Gerry looked away unhappily, but Carter answered Dankworth just as he was about to begin a rant about the Saints.

“Your mother had a pair of pearl earrings, Mr. Dankworth, that were very special to her. She lost them and always missed them, even on the day she died. If you’re wondering what happened to them, for some reason they’re in a little black box in your bottom desk drawer.” Carter then turned around and walked out.

Dankworth became purple with indignation.

‘What the hell are you talking about?” He put down his cue suddenly. “Where do you get the right? Come back here!” He balled his hands into fists and stood without moving, his mouth dry.

The next day Gerry had to have a word with Carter, asking him to stop speaking that way, especially to clients or friends, even if it was true, couldn’t he get that straight?  Gerry had a way of looking into someone’s eyes, especially Carter’s eyes, for emphasis, whenever he had a point to make and then looking away. Carter felt a little ashamed, he rubbed his face hard and shook his head. Not so much because he felt he had done something wrong, but because he could feel Gerry’s nervousness and disappointment and some other darker thing. An impulse had come over Carter, like the last time Mr. Rubenfeld had come over to talk of some business deal, but also interspersed his conversation with talk of women, his face acting out the different details of conquest and moments of passion. Carter, clipping the roses by the window, had seen Mr. Rubenfeld’s face change, the mouth, nose, and eyes mutating. Consuela, the 25 year old Mexican maid, had walked through the room, and Mr. Rubenfld’s tongue had flicked over his lips, his eyes had leered at her, Carter could not be sure even what had happened. Maybe a trick of the light, but Mr. Rubenfeld’s face, his green suit, the autumn golden light, for a few moments Carter saw a lizard talking to Gerry. Carter stared so long without moving they’d become aware of him, and still he’d stared, so that it had become a scene.  Or when Mr. Moravec had come to the buffet Anne-Marie had organized for the tennis club committee and had stuffed his face, the food spread on his lips and cheeks, crumbs and worse on his shirt. Carter, passing by with a toolbox, had been startled by the sudden hog in a white linen suit and had walked into the dining area, sill holding his toolbox, with the intention of leading the hog away from the guests, after all how did the animal get inside in the first case, and it was sort of his responsibility to look after things like that. Anne-Marie had to stop him before he got to close to Mr. Moravec, with a short barking command, and he blinked into realizing he should leave.

Ms. Pettigrew had commented on that behavior during his next regular session, as if he had done something amazing, even though as his case-worker, she mostly refrained from making any comments. Carter enjoyed coming to these sessions, though he couldn’t figure out what they were about, maybe a little because Ms. Pettigrew was sympathetic, maybe also because she was attractive, at least ten years younger, with her short brown hair that sometimes fell across her face and her soft brown eyes and her flawless skin. He also liked it that she was intelligent, not a probing, cutting intelligence, but an assimilating, understanding one—or so it seemed. She seemed to be suggesting he had done something brave, but that was because she didn’t know him.

On his days off, Carter would go into the city and frequent parks known for their welcoming shade, cool fountains, and available benches. In the park, he had learned that if you had certain problems you could get disability money from the government. Your problems had to be severe and permanent, but the money wasn’t bad.

“I’m getting disability,” one of the regulars had cackled. “My problem is life.” But all the regulars knew he was a Gulf War vet.

Others got money for amputations, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia. Carter thought about his own condition. People had said he was crazy. He could survive without medication, as long as he didn’t drink, but what was the point though? He could never work again at a regular job. The last time he’d talked too freely. So Carter decided to apply for disability, even though it would take ages, and now, unless he could be properly assessed he would be turned down forever. Karen Pettigrew, his case-worker, had taken it on herself to spend extra time with him to find a way that his story could fit some protocol. Carter suspected she had some kind of research interest in him, but he enjoyed the chance of being with her.

Carter’s first interview had been with Mrs. Flentz, a short, pugnacious woman, built like a fire hydrant. She’d looked at him suspiciously when he’d entered the cubicle, which was her interviewing area, as if showing up was already an unsavory act.

“Name?”

“Carter.”

Mrs. Flentz had given him a hard, “don’t mess with me” look. “Your full name.”

“Carter. No one has called me anything else.” Mrs. Flentz thought about it for a few seconds, then shook her head wearily and wrote something down beside the name Carter.”

“Nature of disability.”

Carter chewed his lower lip and tried to say something.

“Well, is it physical, mental, or what?”

“A bit physical, but I suppose it’s mental too, mostly mental.”

Mrs. Flentz shook her head, “Tell me about it,” she commanded. “You do realize we’re just opening your file. Later you’ll have lots of forms to fill out and you’ll need to get documentation for everything you claim.”

At first, hesitation, and then Carter blurted out, “I can’t keep thongs out.”

She looked at him as if he were crazy, but the wrong kind of crazy, some disreputable form of crazy.

‘Sometimes, I walk into a place and…No, forget that,” and Carter wouldn’t finish the thought. He offered no more information.

But Carter had the idea that a disability pension was available, even at the age of 41, ad that this pension would free him of having to live with Gerry and Anne-Marie. So he applied again, and this time his applicant was referred to the more sympathetic Karen Pettigrew. Over two interviews she had been able to elicit from Carter not only the basic information about his upbringing, but also that he “saw things.”

“What kinds of things?”

Carter smiled at the question. “This isn’t going to work. If I tell something, I know how you’ll respond, and that will change what I say next.”

It was Ms. Pettigrew’s turn to smile. “It’s called conversation.”

“Not conversation. You have to be equal to have conversation.”

Karen Pettigrew knew that she should refer him to a psychiatrist and move on to the next case. Such a routine disposition would actually help Carter in his desire to get disability money. But her own interests made her delay. There was the research project on adult children of drug abusers, for which Carter would make an ideal subject. His file had stated that Carter’s  mother had been a convicted cocaine addict. Well-to-do family, but it had all gone to waste. Look at Carter now. A former M.I.T. grad, summa cum laude until his last year, and now almost destitute. There was something about Carter that intrigued her beyond academic interest. He exhibited classic signs of paranoia, delusions, disintegration of personality. Something else too, a kind of openness and naivete that made her feel protective.

“So do you think I can get disability?”

“I think you have a good chance. As long as we move carefully and do all the documentation.”

“How much do you think I could get?” He looked at her with an eager expression.

She thought about it for a while. What harm would it do to tell him something? “Maybe five hundred a month. You could get five hundred.”

His face broke into a smile. “Five hundred?“ That would be enough for a room without breakfast. He could leave Gerry and Anne-Marie.

She decided to tell him of the research study, be truthful—up to a point. ‘According to our rules,” she said, “we can continue working together, and I may be able to help you understand what’s been happening to you. You won’t have to pay anything.”

 

 

Carter knew that the changes were coming. He had seen the signs in the street. Occasionally, the dissolving of walls so that what been pent up in that place for so long could gush forth, like the children who had run out of the walls by the Balmoral, an old people’s hotel on a dark cul-de-sac, running with shouts and laughter to turn a corner and vanish. The accumulated sleeplessness of so many, increasing like a tidal wave of desperation and exhaustion, drowned hundreds, and only their bodies remained, curiously able to keep on with activity. Like zombies, but there was no violence or ordinary terror attached. The laughter of a barman like the swift cuts of a machete once pierced him so that his chest and bones ached for days. Often he could see superimposed on street activity as a transparent film other places with people milling about, places both ordinary and exotic.

The nights were often terrible. The sheer weight of his clarity exhausted him, the alertness and the feeling of connections that he should bear and the light—sometimes a metal acuity that never lead to understanding but only to terror and sometimes the purely perceptual, like points of light in the darkness that expanded to windows or vortices, which sucked him in. Once you were in, it was only guess work that got you out. On some of his entrapments he met souls who couldn’t get back but who sought to entice him to stay or perhaps to lead them back to safety. In a puddle, he saw reflections of people writhing in terror and dying, while around him routine life carried on. Some of their faces seemed so familiar—who were they—and yet none that he could place definitely. In a red cloud he say a city of towers. In a bar downtown he saw flames in the faces of people as they laughed.

One day, a commotion of birds in three trees in a square, in the hundreds, he was sure of it, and then the crows never came back. The day after the birds, he heard frogs for the first time at the houses by his local bus-stop, so many that the owners stood outside their homes discussing the invasion and scratching their heads. A woman screamed in an apartment complex because she had cracked open an egg for an omelet and blood had poured out. Dogs howled all night for a week and then were silent, even in the midst of violence. Countless ants scurried in circles, over and over.

Carter saw people complaining, maybe more than usual, but he didn’t see anyone putting anything together, no picture, no comprehension. He needed someone else with insight. But the shrinks were the scariest of all, because they thought they understood something and they had some power, but they couldn’t see anything at all. They were blind, and they were trying to poke out his eyes with their prying. Or maybe they were right, and he was crazy.

So much noise everywhere. A child of the city, Carter had never in his 41 years quite gotten used to the noise. It was all a function of focus and balance. If he could enjoy uninterrupted sleep, if his teeth stopped aching, if there were just a handful of pleasant momentary distractions, then he could put a wall between himself and the noise. Then he could focus on something else, which would make it all easier. You expected the underlying whir and hum of traffic, the honking, the grinding of gears, the squeal of brakes, but in the compound melding of the sounds, sometimes the hardness pierced him within like the splintering of bone. He dodged into a coffee shop during one such moment and sat at the counter. He held the cup in his hands and inhaled the aroma. It would be good to stay with the coffee. But then the bike courier stepped in for a take-out, about 18 or so, a lot of flash in his clothes, the exchange no more than a minute, and there it was.

“Hey, man, gotta go.”

“Come on. Give me five minutes. You got 5 minutes. “ Carter tried not to sound as if he were pleading.

The courier looked at Carter like he’d been propositioned, a flicker of feelings, wavering between cynical amusement and distaste.

“Another time.”

“You can’t go out there! Carter shouted.

Everyone in the diner looked at Carter, checking just how dangerous he was, then returning to the meals. The courier was already out the door. Another few seconds passed, then the shriek of brakes, the thud. Carter left, shaking, his legs weak but determined to be gone before anyone thought of asking him about what had happened.

What happened at any time was the result of a pattern, Carter was convinced of it, by which apparently dissimilar things were connected. You couldn’t ell, though, what the pattern was till after the fact, then maybe. There was the woman in red who used to come to the diner on 42nd with her grandson and order coffee and cherry pie while the boy sipped a coke and drew on napkins. One day, a long greenish-brown snake slid out of her mouth, trailed down her body and entered her abdomen. The woman and everyone else seemed ignorant of the snake, so Carter tried to bury the image in his hands as he covered his face. Later he learned from overhearing a conversation in the diner that she had died suddenly from cancer. In his heart, he knew these two events were related, though he didn’t know how or why. Sometimes the pattern was subtler. One day, he’d been asked by Anne-Marie to see to a problem in their personal bathroom. While he was on his back underneath the sink looking at a pipe, he had a distinct vision of Anne-Marie having sex with someone other than Gerry. He shook the vision out of his head. From the window of Anne-Marie’s bedroom, as he was about to leave, Carter could see the pool and had a clear glimpse of one of Gerry’s clients slipping his hand into Anne-Marie’s bikini bottom with no hint of protest. Gerry was nowhere to be seen. What bothered Carter about these images was that he was being forced to peep. He was a freak in a peep-show, and everyone was laughing at him, but the customers were also on display and didn’t know that.

Now the pattern was changing and whatever was emerging was doing so with acceleration.

He could not judge anybody; that was the only definite truth.

Others felt the changes too. Anne-Marie, who usually seemed uninterested except in her world of pleasures, complained of unusual tiredness. Instead of getting up for a run at 7:00 a.m. followed by her 20 laps in the pool, Anne Marie came down after 9:00 in her bathrobe, her blonde hair still disheveled. Her eyes hollowed by dark circles, and she invariably sat with an orange juice for several minutes before even taking a sip, staring off into space or rubbing her face. Maybe at 10:30 she’d shower and dress and hope for a lucky breeze of energy to come her way. All day she was in a fog.

“It’s so god-damn humid, Gerry. I can’t take it.”

“I sure it’ll rain soon,” Gerry grunted and continued shuffling papers on the table, taking some from his briefcase, the ritual of effecting his transition from work to home, and putting the papers into three separate but neat piles.

Anne-Marie squinted as she dabbed at the crimson polish on her toenails. “I’m serious. I can’t sleep.”

“You have something you can take for that,” he said, his attention now shifted to the mail. He began scanning the envelopes that he’d fanned out on the table like a Vegas card dealer.

“The dreams are the worst, Gerry. The dreams are just hell.”

Gerry stopped his examination of the mail. He looked at her, his body poised and mind alert, as if a stranger had entered the room. “What are you talking about? You don’t have dreams, Anne-Marie.”

Anne-Marie kept on with her toes, pursing her lips as if she were about to do something extremely complicated.

“ I want you to get rid of Carter.” Anne-Marie stared hard at Gerry.

“Honey, we’ve been through this. Carter needs us.”

‘Carter is an irritating, knowitall moron, if that’s possible.”

“Come on, Anne-Marie. That’s a bit harsh.”

Anne-Marie got up and poured herself a gin and tonic. ‘What’s your thing about Carter? What’s it really about?

Gerry stopped playing with the mail and walked to the drinks table. He poured himself a Scotch and toyed with the ice.

“You admit that Carter is useful around the house. He’s also useful to me sometimes. He’s amazing at developing programs for analyzing stock market patterns. But you’re right. Those aren’t the only reasons.”

“Well?” Anne-Marie wasn’t in the mood for games.

“My first wife, Helen, was Carter’s sister. Their mother was a drug addict. Helen was killed in a car accident.”

“I know this already. A sad story.”

“But their grandfather, you don’t know about their grandfather, do you. I’m amazed. You sure I haven’t told you this?”

‘Gerr, do I look the fuck like you’ve told me?”

“Okay. Well, Carter’s name is legally the same as his mother’s. She got knocked up, and the dad never stepped up.”

“So?”

‘So Carter is Carter Belvedere, probably heir to the Royden Belvedere estate. You’ve heard of Royden Belvedere, billionaire?”

‘Carter, our house moron, is a Belvedere?”

“Carter, my sweet girl, may be a moron, but he is a very rich moron, and so far he is my fucking rich moron.”

– End of Chapter One –

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