Fanny Howe’s novel Indivisible (2000) does things with words and with the good old Aristotelian categories of time and space that you don’t see much of these days. Henny, a filmmaker, is married to McCool, an alcoholic musician. They live in a working-class part of Boston. Without children of their own, Henny raises foster kids and also opens their door to transients for much-needed money. Tragedy and betrayal result, and there’s lots of good stuff about mysticism and philosophy in general and Buddhism, Marxism and Catholicism in particular. Nietzsche and Bambi — who else would you expect? — also figure into the story. On the verge of a religious conversion, Henny locks her husband in the closet…
IN THE WHITE WINTER SUN
I locked my husband in a closet one fine winter morning. It was not a large modern closet, but a little stuffy one in a century old brick building. Inside that space with him were two pairs of shoes, a warm coat, a chamber pot, a bottle of water, peanut butter and a box of crackers. The lock was strong but the keyhole was the kind you can both peek through and pick. We had already looked simultaneously, our eyes darkening to the point of blindness as they fastened on each other, separated by only two inches of wood. Now I would not want to try peeking again. My eyes meeting his eyes was more disturbing than the naked encounter of our two whole faces in the light of day. It reminded me that no one knew what I had done except for the person I had done it with. And you God.
A gold and oily sun lay on the city three days later. Remember how coldly it shone on the faces of the blind children. They stayed on that stoop where the beam fell the warmest. I wasn’t alone. My religious friend came up behind me and put his arm across my shoulder.
“We have to say goodbye,” he murmured.
I meant to say, “Now?” but said, “No.”
I had seen I’m nobody written on my ceiling only that morning.
Brick extended on either side. The river lay at the end. Its opposite bank showed a trail of leafless trees. My friend was tall, aristocratic in his gestures — that is, without greed. He said the holy spirit was everywhere if you paid attention. Not as a rewarded prayer but as an atmosphere that threw your body wide open. I said I hoped this was true. He was very intelligent and well-read. He had sacrificed intimacy and replaced it with intuition.
I wanted badly to believe like him that the air is a conscious spirit. But my paranoia was suffusing the atmosphere, and each passing person wore a steely aura. “Please God don’t let it snow when I have to fly,” he said and slipped away. My womanly body, heavy once productive, and the van for the children, gunning its engine, seemed to be pounded into one object. It was Dublin and it wasn’t. That is, the Irish were all around in shops and restaurants, their voices too soft for the raw American air and a haunt to me. “Come on. Let’s walk and say goodbye,” he insisted. We walked towards St. John the Evangelist.
“I’ve got to make a confession,” I told him. “Can’t I just make it to you? I mean, you’re almost a monk, for God’s sake.”
“No,” said Tom. “The priest will hear you. Go on.”
Obediently I went inside. The old priest was not a Catholic. He was as white as a lightbulb and as smooth. His fingers tapered to pointed tips as if he wore a lizard’s lacy gloves. It was cold inside his room. Outside – the river brown and slow. A draft came under the door.
I think he knew that a dread of Catholicism was one reason I was there. He kept muttering about Rome, and how it wouldn’t tolerate what he would, as an Anglican.
Personally I think pride is a sin. But I said “a failure of charity” was my reason for being there. This was not an honest confession, but close enough. The priest told me to pray for people who bothered me, using their given name when I did. He said a name was assigned to a person before birth, and therefore the human name was sacred. Then he blessed me. Walking out, I felt I was dragging my skeleton like a pack of branches. After all, a skeleton doesn’t clack inside the skin, but is more like wood torn from a tree and wrapped in cloth.
Outside Tom was waiting and we walked over the snow. “I missed that flute of flame that burns between Arjuna and Krishna — the golden faces of Buddha, and Yogananda, Ramakrishna, Milarepa, and the dark eyes of Edith Stein and Saint Teresa. Are all Americans Protestant? The church was cold, austere. I’m a bad Catholic.”
He nodded vaguely and said: “But you’re a good atheist. Catholicism has an enflamed vocabulary, don’t worry. You can transform each day into a sacrament by taking the eucharist. You just don’t want to bother.”
Even the will to raise and move a collection of bones can seem heroic. Only an object on one side — or a person — can draw it forwards — or on another side an imagined object or person. Maybe the will responds to nearby objects and thoughts the way a clam opens when it’s tapped. “Mechanistic…. We really should put more trust in the plain surface of our actions,” I said.
“Do we really have to say goodbye? And leave each other in such a state?”
“But first, Tom — I have one favor to ask you.”
Exactly ten years before, during a premature blizzard, I left all my children at home and went to meet my best friends in the Hotel Commander. I did so carrying the weight of my husband like a tree on my back. This was a meeting I couldn’t miss, no matter how low I stooped.
The walk from the subway to the hotel was bitter, wet and shiny. Traffic lights moved slowly on my right, while the brick walls and cold gray trees sopped up the gathering snow. I kept my eyes fixed on the left where dark areas behind shrubs and gates could conceal a man, and stepped up my pace.
Lewis and Libby were already seated in a booth in a downstairs lounge. I shook off my coat and sat beside Libby and we all ordered stiff drinks, recalling drunker meetings from earlier youth. I leaned back and kept my eyes on the door, in case my husband appeared and caught me offguard.
“Relax, Henny,” Lewis reproved me.
“I’ve never met him,” Libby cried. “It’s unbelievable.”
“He’s unbelievable,” said Lewis.
“He can’t be that bad.”
“He is. He should be eliminated. He won’t let her out of the house, without her lying. She probably said she had a neighborhood meeting tonight. Right?”
“Henny’s not a coward.”
“She likes to keep the peace though. That’s not good.”
“I’m going to be back in the spring. I’ll meet him then,”
Libby said. “And if he’s all that bad, I will do something to him.”
“Henny has an mercenary army of children around her, protecting her against him,” Lewis explained. “They aren’t even her own.”
“Hen, tell me the truth. Do you wish he would die? I’ll make him leave you if you want me to,” said Libby.
A renunciatory rush went down my spine when I saw, out in the lobby, the back of a man in a pea-jacket and woollen cap. Gathered over, I left the table for the rest room, and Libby followed breathless. She was wringing her hands, smelling of musk rose, and dancing on her pin-thin legs in high heel boots that had rings of wet fur around the tops while I sat in the sink. “Was it him? Was it him?”
We never found out.
That was the same night we climbed out the hotel kitchen window and walked up a slippery hill, one on each side of Lewis, hugging to his arms, while the snow whipped against our cheeks and lips, and we talked about group suicide.
“Phenobarbital, vodka and applesauce, I think.”
“No, Kool-aid, anything sweet.”
“For some reason.”
“Jam a little smear of strawberry on the tongue.”
“Catbirds and the smell of jasmine and we all lie in a line under the stars.”
“With great dignity.”
“Despite the shitting.”
“I can dig it,” said Lewis. “I can dig it.”
“But we have to do it all together,” Libby said.
There is a kind of story, God, that glides along under everything else that is happening, and this kind of story only jumps out into the light like a silver fish when it wants to see where it lives in relation to everything else.
Snow is a pattern in this story. It was snowing the day of my first visit to the Federal Penitentiary. The ground was strung with pearly bulbs of ice. I had visited many social service offices in my day, but never a prison. I associated prison with sequence and looked around for a way to break out. As a first-time visitor, and in the early moments, I remembered nervously standing with a crowd of strangers waiting for someone familiar to emerge from behind a green door with a big light over it. For each one of us, the familiar person would be a different person, but our experience would be the same. I already know that some conflicts in life have no resolution and have to be treated in a different way from common problems.
But prison seemed to relate to issues of privacy in ways that were unimaginable to those who had never been forcibly hidden. Simplistically I was scared of being in a jail because it was a space that was unsafe from itself, the way a mind is. But I forced myself, as I sometimes do, to go to the place I dreaded the most — to the place that was so repugnant, it could only change me. Maybe the sacred grove of our time is either the prison or the grave site of a massacre. I have always believed I must visit those sacred groves, and not the woodlands, if I want to know the truth. In this case, I only wanted to see someone I loved and to comfort her by my coming. And surely enough, I did undergo a kind of conversion through my encounters with the persons there. When you visit someone in prison, this paranoid question comes up: Do I exist only in fear? The spirit hates cowards.
It broods heavily in the presence of fear. I only felt as safe as a baby when I was holding a baby or a child and so, sitting empty-armed, in a roomful of strangers, watching the light over the heavy door, was a test of will.
Then I saw a child — a little boy in the room with me — he was like a leaf blowing across an indoor floor. And while waiting for my friend to comeout the door, I moved near him.
I asked him what book he had brought with him. He kept his face down and said, “Gnomes.”
“Do you read it yourself, honey?”
“No, I can’t. Tom reads it to me.”
“Do you want me to read some?”
“Sure,” he said and lifted his smile. His eyelids were brown and deeply circled and closed, as long as the eyelids of the dead whose lashes are strangely punctuated by shadows longer than when they were alive and batting. He wore a limpid smile that inscribed a pretty dimple in his right cheek.
“I’m getting obsessed,” he said, “with books about gnomes, goblins, elves, hobbits.”
“How do you mean obsessed?”
“I want to know everything about them. And sometimes I’m sure they really exist and run around my feet.”
“How can you tell?”
“My shoelaces come untied sometimes, and I think I feel them on my shoes.”
“I don’t know, honey. I’ve never seen one. Let’s go read about gnomes.”
When I took his hot little hand in mine, I felt the material charge of will and spirit return to me. I had an instinctual feeling that the room held me fast by my fate. To be here was to be physically “inside” but the way a ghost is inside the world when it returns to haunt someone and still can depart at will. The ghost is confused, paralyzed by its guilt at being present without paying the price for it. Punishment is easily confused with safety.