BASIC FORMS: A PROLOGUE
Each thing, insofar as it is in itself,
endeavors to persevere in its own being.
Now we know the language, and we’re
fluent in it.
─ Philip Glass
The following is Chapter 1 of “Basic Forms,” the latest novel by Fred Skolnik.
by Fred Skolnik
The three shots rang out very clearly in Edward Zupan’s head as he crossed Times Square. They were always in his head. They had always been in his head, evenly spaced and with a long pause in between, fateful rifle shots like the crack of a whip that contained the fury of his hand plunging the knife into her flat, white belly again and again until the blood filled his mouth. The blood in his mouth was warm and sweet. The gun was heavier than he had thought it would be. And he could hear the scream that was in his throat. He had an idea what was coming next.
But the idea that he would find Marion at the Public Library kept coming back and coming back. It too seemed always to have been in his head, occurring to him now with such overwhelming force that even as he tried to dismiss it from his mind he knew that in the end he would be compelled to yield to it. In fact, it was not even clear to him in what manner he might expect to find her there, whether she was to arrive before him or after him or even if it was intended that they arrive simultaneously, or that Marion, for her part, materialize, so to speak, without reference to time or place. They had, of course, often met there before, stopping in afterwards at the Automat for coffee before taking the subway home. She had always been the first to arrive, though she never betrayed any eagerness to see him, waiting always until he approached before moving her tall, thin body forward in a single, almost ungainly stride to let him take her arm. Her hair was red, her eyes were green. She held her books against her chest. She may or may not have worn glasses.
Pain diminishes, memories fade, but visions never lose the coherence of their inner sense. It is as if entire worlds, lost or unattained, lie buried in some undisclosed dimension of the mind. The street was crowded. The air was hot and very still. In the distance he heard a pneumatic drill breaking up the sidewalk, and all around him the sound of voices, the hum of traffic, the brisk, determined report of women’s heels against the pavement. It seemed that almost everyone was hastening home, now that another day was ending. On the corner he stopped to light a cigarette but threw it down on the ground almost immediately, though somewhat more emphatically than he had intended to, almost theatrically, and turning east began to make his way slowly and hesitantly toward Fifth Avenue, moving out to the curb when the crowd became too thick and threatened to engulf him, crossing and recrossing the street three separate times as though following a prescribed route, though not without a certain show of indecision, as though some misplaced sense of direction or sudden change of mind had led him out of his way. Once, someone who must have been drunk touched his sleeve and he almost fell when he pulled his arm away, and once a car nearly hit him.
But up ahead the way was clear. The Library loomed up in the distance like a citadel, set apart from the gray commercial buildings that surrounded it as though occupying an oasis in the heart of a vast wasteland. There must have been a thousand women there, carrying books or leather bags, in woolen skirts and short red hair. Of course he couldn’t see their faces. He stood in the center of the sidewalk listening to the voices mingling in the air, faint cries reaching him as though carried over a great distance like the voices a child hears over the roar of the surf when he approaches the sea causing him to race forward with his heart beating wildly. It is always the sound of voices on a summer day that awakens in us memories so poignant they would tear the heart away. But Edward Zupan was perfectly calm as he stationed himself between the great stone lions at the entrance to the Library as though to scrutinize the faces in the passing crowd. The incongruity of his presence was made all the more apparent by the air of conviction with which other people were similarly waiting to keep appointments. The girl on the steps behind him, for example, a handsome, broad-shouldered girl in a maroon blazer with gold buttons, managed to convey an impression of genuine waiting without any of the obvious signs. Unlike Zupan, she neither glanced at her watch nor peered out anxiously at the crowd. She simply stood on the steps in an attitude of regal disdain, her eyes half shut and her chin slightly uplifted, sniffing at the air as though for want of anything better to do she had determined to while away the time by turning her attention to nothing more strenuous than the simple act of breathing. Farther up on the steps a middle-aged couple, a tall woman and a shorter man, were feverishly brushing and picking at one another’s clothing while continually bobbing up and down and cocking their heads at all sorts of odd angles to observe the effect, their faces registering the most incredible variety of emotions, from dark frowns of dismay to bright smiles of delight, with the discovery and elimination of each new wrinkle or speck of dust. Zupan moved to the side deferentially so as not to obstruct their view of the street, though this was hardly necessary as both the girl and the middle-aged couple were on the steps above him and therefore in a position to look out over his head if they chose to, which in any event did not seem to be the case, for when he turned around he found that the girl was watching him, so that it was really impossible to avoid meeting her eyes. This had the effect of disconcerting her, for she instantly let her jaw go slack and batted her eyes rapidly in an inspired pantomime of innocence, as though to dissociate herself entirely from whatever her gaze might have suggested, finally drawing herself up and resuming her former posture. In the meanwhile a young woman had joined the couple on the steps and they all seemed to be engaged now in a mutual exchange of recriminations and reassurances, pointing incredulously at themselves and throwing up their arms in regular succession as though to disavow whatever guilt or knowledge was at issue. Apparently it was the young woman who was being reassured, though it was clear that the couple were not in complete accord either, for it was occasionally necessary for the young woman to take one or the other of them to the side in an obvious effort at mediation, so that it was impossible to surmise the precise relationship of the three or the general nature of their dispute. So heedless were they, however, in the ardor of their animation as they kept circling around each other that they were soon thrown into a kind of blind orbit that threatened to sweep up whatever lay in its path and, to Zupan’s alarm, seemed to have fixed itself on the precise point he had chosen to occupy as its center of gravity. Fortunately, just as it seemed that this entire field of rampant forces was about to collapse upon itself, they froze in their tracks, perhaps aware of the attention they were attracting, or having somehow managed to resolve their differences, and, linking arms, advanced toward the street three abreast, the young woman locked between the couple, sweeping past Zupan in the most distracting manner and thus effectively screening for a moment his view of the girl in the blazer, so that he did not notice the slight, crumpled figure that had detached itself from the crowd and was hastening toward her with an unlit pipe extended in the air.
The girl looked down at him without the slightest change in her expression as he stumbled to a halt and drew himself up before her, spreading his arms and throwing back his head in a gesture that was meant to convey more than mere words. It might in fact have been an effective gesture, had he not persisted in it for an unreasonable length of time, expecting, no doubt, that the girl would reciprocate in some way. But the girl did nothing, leaving him committed to a posture that defied intelligent resolution. In fact, he might never have extricated himself had the girl not finally stepped down toward the street, giving him an opportunity to catch hold of her arm and attach himself to her side. So eagerly, however, did he press up against her as they began to make their way down the street that she was forced into a kind of starboard list in her effort to avoid him, leaning her body away and veering toward the curb with her head perfectly and imperturbably erect and then reversing herself to port as he slipped around her and renewed his pursuit in the opposite direction. Consequently they were soon zigzagging heedlessly back and forth across the pavement, continuing to negotiate the sidewalk in this preposterous manner all the way to Sixth Avenue and only squeezing through the revolving door of the Automat with the greatest difficulty.
In the Automat he brought their tray to an unoccupied table and ceremoniously helped the girl into her seat. Then he sat down and lit his pipe. He smoked a grape-scented tobacco, squinting slightly behind his glasses as the smoke drifted into his eyes. The room was filling up. Just a few tables away Zupan thought he recognized the middle-aged couple he had seen at the Library. At first he was not sure, so distorted had their faces become in the mindless self-absorption of eating. But the young woman was there too, sitting between them and gazing vacantly in his direction as she chewed listlessly on her food. The other two had removed their coats and rolled up their sleeves and were eating what appeared to be fried eggs folded into creased slices of toast, their jaws working furiously and the strain of mastication causing their temples to throb as the yolk broke over their teeth in a viscous yellow smear. It was the young woman who finished eating first. All at once she pushed her plate away and stood up abruptly, rolling her tongue around in her mouth to dislodge, no doubt, some bits of food from between her teeth and then leaving the table with a slight limp he had not noticed before. The couple exchanged a significant look and immediately followed, pausing only to shake some crumbs from their clothing.
The girl finished one piece of cake and then another. The young man relit his pipe. All around him he could hear the tinkle of coffee cups amid the quiet voices in the room, and the ringing of the spoons. It was beginning to grow late. The lights of the city shimmered in the liquescent evening air. It would be cool outside now that the sun was down. Sawdust had been spread on the floor just inside the revolving door. Perhaps it had rained, perhaps it was going to rain. The girl gathered up her things and rose from the table. In motion she was less graceful than at rest; another quarter-inch of girth, it seemed, and the throat, the torso, the fine, solid thighs would began to swell like a balloon past its final point of resistance. He watched her make her way between the tables and descend the stairs to the restrooms, her head erect, her shoulders drawn up stiff and high, each measured step belying the remorseless consciousness with which she withheld her flesh, and vanish almost majestically down the stairs with all the placid bearing of a ship going down at sea, first the knees, the hips, the shoulders, then the head sinking out of sight, leaving a kind of absence in her wake which held her form and she alone could fill.
The idea, however, that she might not return did not occur to him immediately, though he did in fact look toward the stairs from time to time and then to the revolving door that led to the street, as though by some miraculous transposition she might reappear on the other side. As far as he knew there was no other egress from the Automat accessible to patrons, unless one took into account emergency exits. However, never having had occasion to avail himself of the sanitary facilities located in the basement of the building he could not say for certain whether there was in actual fact another way out. Of course the possibility that she had managed to slip past him while his attention was otherwise occupied could not be entirely discounted, though this, in his opinion, was highly unlikely, since she would have had to traverse the entire length of the room under his very nose as it were, and not by any stretch of the imagination could she have been called inconspicuous. Nevertheless he changed tables to assure himself a better view of the door and the stairs.
Hours seemed to pass. A girl in a short white smock came by to clear away the coffee cups and when she leaned across the table the smock rode up her thighs. He looked at her idly. The smock was stretched across her breasts. She had a fleshy face and sensuous lips. She was not unattractive. Her thighs were strong and very white and she seemed to realize that he was looking at her as she turned around and bent over the next table. The clatter of dishes disturbed his thoughts, but also awakened other thoughts. There were many thoughts in his head now, gushing and foaming there. He wanted to silence them but they would not go away.
When he got up from the table and looked through the window, he was surprised to see that it was night. The street was silent. The way back to the Library was deserted. The train roared into the station. The doors opened with a pneumatic hiss. He sat at the end of the car and watched the stations flashing by, forlorn recesses of dim, baleful light and yellow tile reflected in the windows like mirrors of themselves. It was that hour now when the laws of the universe somehow seemed less certain and there was nothing really to shield you from whatever menace the night might hold, and he had a vision of himself waiting there too on some distant night for a train that might never come, or riding into the night on a train that might never stop, though he knew the night would end well, for she was with him, her hair was soft against his cheek, and they were going home.
About the author:
Fred Skolnik was born in New York City and has lived in Israel since 1963. He is best known as the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal. He is also the author of The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 2011), an epic novel depicting Israeli society at a critical juncture in its recent history. His second novel, Death, was published by Spuyten Duyvil in 2015. His stories and essays have appeared in around 200 journals, including TriQuarterly, Gargoyle, The MacGuffin, Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Words & Images, Literary House Review, Montréal Review, Underground Voices, Third Coast, Word Riot, The Recusant, and Polluto. A selection of his short fiction called Americans and Other Stories was published by Fomite Press in 2017. His poetry has appeared in Word Riot, Oak Bend Review, Free Verse, Boston Literary Review and Hacksaw. Under his Fred Russell pen name, he also published two novels in 2014: Rafi’s World (Fomite) and The Links in the Chain (CCLaP) as well as a collection called Aerial Views: 3 Sci-Fi Satires published by the Wapshott Press (Storylandia 23) in 2017.