I’m a Knot
by Peter Koch
I was outside. The requiem was over. I was taking the promenade west on foot with two people. It was dusk and everything was imbued with an amaranthine glow, which is contradictory in one sense. It was spring. The people I was with were talking more than I was. I was hardly speaking, in fact. This was the normal dynamic of our trio. The two people were female. They were smaller than I was. This wasn’t surprising, as I was somewhat tall. They were both very short. They liked me for being ectomorphic. I once heard a person say, “We ectomorphs need to stick to together,” in mock camaraderie with me. I assumed it was mock. My interlocutor had been a practical stranger, and I couldn’t be completely sure she was serious or not. This is why jokes are better made among friends, I’d thought, but not long after it occurred to me people made friends by making jokes. Pynchon once wrote that ectomorphs are naturally melancholy. I am, on the whole, melancholy, and have been since I was a very young child. I made jokes, however, relatively often. The two people I was with made more jokes than I did. I thought this might be because they did the majority of the talking when we formed a trio, and had more opportunities for jest, but the fact that they were garrulous didn’t necessitate that they should make more jokes. It wasn’t impossible that the bulk of my utterances, however comparatively small in total, might be jokes, in reaction to the drifts of their near-constant dialogic stream, and that I would have made more jokes than them despite speaking less on the whole, since, being privy to the conversation gave me the same opportunities to interpolate humorous comments in reaction to what I heard. That wasn’t the case. I was thick then (I still am, I suppose) and hadn’t yet adapted to the pace of the company in which I found myself. The requiem had not been for anyone in particular. The city’s parks department had hosted a university orchestra to perform it. The twilight glow was gone. The two women were my friends. My friends were talking about their bodies as we walked; about what they did to their bodies, and what they let or didn’t let other people do to them, or what they wanted people to do. I am male. I was listening to them as we headed west, on the way to a house party. They had much to say about their small bodies. Their bodies were delicate. They bruised easily, as peaches do. They were both bruised at that time. One of the women had an amaranthine (again, a level of contradiction) splotch on her lower back. She’d shown us before we attended the requiem. There was some fur on her back as well, some inches above the coccyx. Her name was Pat. The other female’s bruise was on her thigh. In fact she had two bruises, both of them gray. The second was on her shin. She went by Mackie, some kind of sobriquet. I’m not aware of its origin. Her bruises were older, hence their grayness. She’d shown us too. Neither knew how they’d gotten their bruises. I didn’t know if that was strange or not. I knew with certainty how I obtained my bruises, when I did get them, a rare occurrence. I was deliberate in my movements, and had always been coordinated. I could juggle five peaches without dropping one. I’m not speaking metaphorically in any way here. Because of my good proprioception, I avoided causing harm to myself where less coordinated others might. But I was sad. I was anxious; I often felt panicked. Sometimes, on the way to engagements professional and personal, I felt as if I was having a nervous breakdown, as suffered by the likes of the daughters of Hugo and Joyce. In part it was a fear of failure, a fear of responsibility. The fear of responsibility is called hypengyophobia. I think I had that. This kind of bad feeling was distinct from my natural melancholy. My eyes are gray, a color associated, I believe, with melancholy. My two companions were discussing their bodies. They hoped they wouldn’t get too many bruises in the coming summer weeks because their flesh would be exposed to the edacious eyes of the people of the city, and it was best if that flesh were unmarred; not, they both insisted, that it really mattered. I agreed it didn’t matter. I couldn’t believe they didn’t know the cause of their bruises. They shushed me; I would never understand. I agreed it was beyond me. My docility made them like me. I liked that they accepted me for this. Sometimes I worried my reticence was a fault. It may have been to some. To others it was quite the opposite, however. Pat and Mackie liked it. I suppose that was good of them. I don’t really care for exceptionally quiet people. The last bruise I’d had was from a bicycle accident. I’d been riding someone else’s bike home from a party and crashed when the tire caught in a groove in the pavement of the residential road and I’d braked suddenly, throwing myself over the bars. I hadn’t stolen the bike. I don’t like breaking laws. Sometimes it happens, of course. Pat and Mackie broke laws, I knew. Mackie stole rapaciously from corporate groceries, stuffing her cargo pockets with produce. The duo, along with some cohorts, had once entered a closed library through an unlocked window and stolen many books, one of which was Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir, a novel of class restriction and eventual transgression. I know this was one of the books because Pat had given it to me as a gift, then soiled the magnanimity of the act by telling me it had been obtained by theft. I was easily dissuaded from my initial disapproval; she suggested the risk she took for my benefit was more considerable than a simple monetary transaction. This made sense to me. We’d kissed in a copse, chastely and affectionately, and she’d given me the book when we returned to her nearby apartment, and gone to sleep in separate chairs after taking hits from a bong some visitor had left by accident. The three of us walked. I’d missed what our destination was, but didn’t inquire. I am simple. I believe that. I think it helps make me good. I had won over Pat and Mackie. They told me I’d had the same effect on one of their friends. I was reticent, I was agile. I’d won over Pat and Mackie, and their acquaintance. We were going to meet him. I expressed no interest at this intelligence. Mackie seemed to be limping. Mackie was clumsy. Her body was injured. Her bruises were on her leg. She told me it was nothing. She tended to dominate Pat, very softly, without malice. For whatever reason, Pat idolized Mackie, though she herself could, pound for pound, match up against her friend in matters both physical and intellectual, not that they were overt or even covert opponents. Mackie floated ideas, snuck suggestions into their ceaseless discourse, and days, weeks, months later, Pat had taken them, directly or indirectly. She was making herself as Mackie wanted her to be. Nothing else could explain her strange interest in the tarot, for example. I don’t believe in the power of the tarot, but I like the pictures, and I like the whole-hearted enthusiasm of its proponents and believers, though I have seen manipulative, ill-intentioned people read to rend others apart. She once explained some of the symbolism to me, stroking my hair like a mother, showing me the cards with the other hand, until I fell into a contented sleep. We were closing in on our destination, a house. Mackie wanted to own me, too. I didn’t know it then. I say this entirely without judgment. I like to be possessed, within reason. Mackie had her own masters, to be sure. She didn’t choose them; she could be moved without great difficulty, given the right circumstances. Briefly I’d had this effect on her, when we met, dispelled when I categorically refused her the privilege, as she saw it, of my influence. Partly a futility, of course, but I was trying to be moral. I was aware of my lack of depth and sincerity. I wasn’t going to deal with an incomplete deck. The air of the fading spring was still good. We weren’t far from a minor river. We weren’t far from the house; I could see it, typical for the city: capacious, wood-frame, wrapped by a porch. Lights in every window. Obvious decrepitude from youthful churn. On the street I found an abandoned or lost pack of cigarettes, twelve of the customary twenty available. With the encouragement of my two friends, who didn’t smoke, I smoked one. I didn’t ask any questions. I made the pack mine. My anxiety had returned. The dread I hadn’t felt since before the requiem, which had bored me, had returned. The man they’d spoken of was approaching us, like a messenger, maybe a picket, breaking from the group to head us off, though of course his purpose was the opposite. I remembered him. I don’t project my current level of existential education and factual learning retroactively onto my youth, as if I should have possessed some before-the-fact experiential savoir faire. I say this because Mackie, whom I still communicate with bimonthly, does, and it hurts her. Pat died. The person approached us. My duo embraced him; they were all talking, the three of them. The name given him, this social supplanter, by his apparently humorous parents, was Regent, whose sobriquet is the unfortunate Reggie, also the sobriquet of the regal, dusty Reginald. I was smoking another found cigarette. I believe Pat, who lost her life in a helmetless hit-and-run, was an introvert, despite her garrulousness. Mackie set her off. I’ve been set off. When it’s dark out, I like to stand at wood’s edge, should I be in the country, just emerged from a habitation, stare into utter darkness, and wait as involuntary delineation occurs. Sometimes the moon and its vast little clique of heavenly bodies shine so brightly that this isn’t possible. I find the indistinctness of the stelliform firmament both beautiful and irritating, like very old maps. We were led to the house by our interceptor Regent, with whom I’d never had a tête-à-tête, though I’d spent time in his presence with relentlessly voluble Pat and Mackie. My reticence was a winning thing, apparently. I looked away from the trio. I’m at odds with myself yet unified, I thought, attempting a riddle. What am I? I wasn’t sure this made sense. There are many varieties of knot that can be tied. I can tie just two, as can most people. I tried to run the would-be riddle by the group but found I had, for all practical purposes, lost my voice. The tobacco I’d found on the ground was, presumably, in some way compromised, and had made me mute, at least temporarily. In spite of my usual inclination to anxiety, this aphonia didn’t worry me as much as I’d have expected. With a total lack of assurance, I assumed I’d be fine and that my voice, which I used so infrequently to begin with, would return. With gestures I was able to communicate my dilemma to Pat and Mackie. They expressed concern, but told me there was nothing to be done besides waiting it out. I was glad their worry was tempered by whatever odd insouciance I seemed to be nonverbally demonstrating. We were on the same page about this challenge of mine. We obtained the porch of the house. The porch was canted. A woman was saying, “I’m not a good person. I admit it,” to which an apparent interlocutor responded, “How can you say that? I do this for a living, I know what I’m talking about, and you can’t say that.” Regent raised one large thumb in apparent approval, and we entered the dilapidated house. By my probably bad estimate, there were some fifty occupants actually inside the structure, with twenty more on the porch and grounds. There was nothing noteworthy about the proceedings. I wasn’t certain the term “de rigeur” strictly applied, but used loosely it seemed right. The four of us drifted through rooms until we landed logically in the kitchen, where a male and female stood in apparently one-sided conversation. She was explaining to him that she was considering becoming a housewife; that she had two suitors, a businessman from Tel Aviv and an criminal defense attorney, between whom she wanted to decide but couldn’t. Her dazed interlocutor was unresponsive. She kissed him, then laughed shyly, lowered her head, and said, more to herself than to him, “I’m in trouble.” He repeated that last word interrogatively. She said, “Not that kind of trouble.” Mackie took my arm and we exited the kitchen. Regent had disappeared with Pat. Mackie said, “All these poor people.” Mackie fell into conversation with an old friend of hers, who was waxy-faced, wasted, and sweating. I stood and listened as usual. Given my taciturnity, it didn’t matter that I was speechless from the compromised tobacco and its more or less redundant effect. During the course of the conversation it was revealed that Mackie owned both stock and land, which made me feel somewhat as I had on learning Sacco and Vanzetti weren’t necessarily innocent. I looked into the kitchen. The couple was still there. The male was saying, “Well maybe we could leave? Do you want to be around them, all things considered?” I made a round through the floor and didn’t see Regent or Pat. I went upstairs. My missing friends were in the hallway, crouching by a door. Was Regent a friend? Pat explained that a bath was being taken on the other side. Regent was chortling, working at the lock with what looked like a hairpin. I heard a splash and feminine laughter. Pat was rubbing her palms. Regent’s prestidigitations worked and the bathroom was gained. Three people were soaking in the large claw foot tub, soaking and now playfully castigating Regent for his intrusion. I didn’t go in, but watched from the door. I heard the sound of rubber sliding out of a tight spot; I don’t know the word for such a sound. One of the tub’s occupants held up the stop he’d pulled. The two other occupants of the tub shrieked. I wondered if they were bathing because they’d been somehow soiled before our arrival. There was the loud gurgle of the last of the water violently whirling away, and one of the women stood, naked and glistening. She stepped out of the tub and addressed Regent: “The towel of Minerva dries at dusk!” And she hugged him closely, drying her body on his clothing. I left. Downstairs, some dozen guests sat in a circle on the floor of the living room. One member of the ring was addressing the rest, tears running down her cheeks, explaining that she was neither winning nor losing her battle with depression. Regent entered with the wet girl riding his back. The speaker paused and started weeping harder. Regent ran outside with his rider. “I think that’s what I’m talking about,” said the crying girl. Mackie and Pat were beside me now. We walked onto the porch. My unfortunate Pat, who would so soon die violently, looked back inside, then at Regent running circles in the yard with his catch, and said to me, referring to I wasn’t sure whom, exactly, “Just let them.” And she gave me a look of such chilling, desperate despair that words won’t suffice to describe it. I was overcome with sudden elation whose source had something, though I wasn’t yet sure what, to do with my apartness from all these people. My voice was back when I woke the next morning.
Peter Joseph Koch was born in Louisville, Kentucky. His fiction has appeared in Post Road and the Xavier Review.