FICTION | Burns & Helen, Past & Present
On the stoop Burns sits with his knees on fire in the dark, looking and not-looking at the sweetgum tree across the street. The tree glows orange in orange streetlamp light. Go to the drug store, Helen said, and buy me some razors. That’s all she asked Burns to do. A simple enough request. Car keys dangling in hand. There’s the car. Pulled up to the garage, waiting for you to get in it, and here you are on the stoop, Burns, staring at the sweetgum in the dark, and you want a cigarette, your first in almost thirty years, and your knees hurt. Used to enjoy it. At fifty-nine, not so much. So why sit here? Burns-past got the idea that stoop-sitting was a helpful aid of thought. Burns-past thought: he read and wrote. He scholarized, too, standing at the front of the classroom. Youthful, sclerotic, in the past Burns walked back and forth before the blackboard and said, This, children, is literature, and here is the best way to read it. But over time he became less sure of what he meant by the claim, so he stopped making it. He was no longer sure of how to think himself, to think himself into a way of thinking. All ways seemed closed. All he really wanted was to read, but he did not read anymore, because what he read piled up more questions within him, questions he had once answered fairly easily, but which, in the growing concreteness of his life, he no longer knew how to confront; at best, sometimes he would sit with a book open in his hand, an old paperback, yellowed pages and broken spine, annotated in the sure, flowing script of his college days, and in the less-flowing, even more sure script of his grad-school years, and he would marvel at the confidence of the younger Burns, the Burns now gone, who knew exactly what to make of everything he encountered. Burns-Now, Burns-at-Fifty-Nine, Burns-on-the-Stoop has no idea what to make of anything he encounters, and does not read, or teach: he helps Helen and stays at home. That’s it.
You can come back when it’s over, whenever that day is—that’s what the department head said to him on the last day. But Burns knows he won’t go back, and he knows the department head didn’t really mean it. And that’s all right. Because he, Burns, has nothing left to say. His language spilled out onto his pillow one night and he could not force it back into his head. Now-Burns, knees on fire, is thinking about Helen and the drug store, Helen and her request for razors, Helen-now-lying-in-bed. Her eyes likely still open. Helen can’t sleep. That’s part of it. A big part of it. If she could sleep, there would be no request. And then Burns could sleep. He, Burns, could sleep the sleep of no razors, and there would be a cessation of consciousness, if only briefly. A happy thought, because then Burns would just be Burns, as Burns has not been in a long time, not at least since the trip to the doctor. But before that, too. If we had not been to the doctor that day, Burns thinks, maybe, maybe, this would not be happening. Maybe. Not so: a lifelong confusion of cause-and-effect, or cause-and-correlation. Questions: they only result in pain, but answers are worse. Helen would know, Helen could explain that. Helen-past, the explainer. Present-Helen lies in the dark and tries to sleep. Helen-past, not always a great sleeper, would have at least opened a book. The explainer would’ve read a novel, something big and dark. Helen-past, big and dark, kept a novel by the bed, yelled at Burns, don’t you see I’m reading? Now Helen doesn’t make it past the jacket if she even picks it up and looks at it. Another reason for Helen’s request, Burns thinks. She can’t read. No sleep and no reading. Only television, a thing Helen-past made much about hating. Didn’t let Burns watch in the morning. No news, Helen-past said, before breakfast, or after it. No news at night, she said, too, when he got home from teaching and found her in the studio upstairs. Now they watched the news, hours of it, until the world, Helen said, seemed to be on fire all the time. Because her mind is on fire all the time. Or rather not on fire at all, Burns thinks, but hollowing. Hollow. All this makes Burns afraid of his own future, his and hers, together. It doesn’t seem far enough away. By not going from the stoop to the car, he delays it. When the future gets too close, it is fearsome. And this is what Burns feels: one wants the future to stay where it belongs. But now the future is here, it crowds in on the present everywhere, its eyes look in greedily through all the cracks. The cracks look both ways: he looks through the cracks and sees it, the future, and the future he sees is a future with all the pigment sucked out of it, like the juice from a wedge of orange extracted by a thirsty mouth. So Burns delays the trip to the drug store, to delay the future. In the past Burns would not have gone at all. He probably would’ve said, Can’t you see I’m busy, can you not do it yourself, or will it kill you to break your routine of never leaving the house? And Helen might say (might’ve said): These pictures won’t paint themselves, you academic ass-hat. The only Burns considering going to the drug store is present-Burns, the one who lives with present-Helen, who wants to be past. Which is the future. Eyes-now-open, alone in the room. Not sleeping. Not reading.
All her paint tubes have dried shut. She said, last month, Take those canvases away. To where, you said. To wherever they won’t be here, Helen said. That was Helen-present. Helen-present says Take the canvases away, and Burns doesn’t, or didn’t, take them away. He hides, hid them in the attic. Maybe, he thought, hiding canvases, she will want them again. But she won’t want them again, Burns knows. Burns knows Helen is done with painting. Helen-present doesn’t desire a future-Helen, either. But she does desire razors. Go to the drug store. She said, get razors. You know I am here right now, Burns. Listen to me. I am not fucking around with you. When I don’t know—and I don’t know—how to hold a paint brush. I am done. And Burns-present says, What about me? What about you, Helen says. This isn’t about you. I love you but this is my body and this is my life and my hell, not your hell, and I know it is hell for you too. That’s why I want what I want. Could you not buy me some fucking razors? And Burns, past and present, said, Isn’t your body part of my body—at this point, by now—isn’t your life partly my life? And Helen says, No. And Burns is quiet. This is worse than life, the explainer says. It hurts, Burns. Are you listening, Burns? I haven’t slept in two days. Before that I hadn’t slept in two days. Don’t do this to me. Burns looks away, out the window, at the sweetgum, full of winter sun. Burns says, I can take you to the hospital, but he knows she will say No to this. She has already been. They both know everything there is to know about what is happening to her. Soon enough, Burns knows, they will begin to know what is going to happen, too. Helen says, I’m terminally not mentally ill you know that. I have every right to what I want from you. And she is right, she has every right to this. She says this to Burns, and all of Burns hears her. Every right. Now, on the stoop, sweetgum in street lamp light, he can do what she says, requests. Or not. He says, What about our? A gust of wind just now, through the sweetgum’s leaves, a sound of old eternal applause. And he thinks: this tree will make this sound even after she is gone. Probably after I am gone, too. And she says, Don’t make me laugh Burns. Don’t make me cry. Already cried enough. I can do it in Oregon, it’s legal there, she says. And he says But we can’t go to Oregon, and she says, Fuck you, Burns, and there is another round of sweetgum applause, and it occurs to him that this fight is just like every other fight they have had three decades-running. Except it isn’t. The form the same, the content different. Sweetgum across the street rippling in night-breeze. Orange, very pale, oh, horrible, this is fucking horrible, you said, then, with both hands pressed to either side of your head. This is fucking horrible it’s fucking horrible, I can’t do this for you, I don’t want this for you. Please. On the stoop, you know what’s horrible is that part of you wants it. Part of Burns, actually most of Burns wants it. He wants it for her, but he doesn’t want it for her, too. He remembers Past-Burns, who first met Helen at a bar in Salina, Kansas, thirty-six years ago, when he was a young man and she was the older, not really that much older woman. Old enough to make the old man rise when she suggested he come back to her place. Now they are the same age, except Helen is about to be a lot older, again, for the second time. She said, Will you marry me, Burns? And I said, Shouldn’t I be the one to ask, and she said, Fuck you, Burns. That was thirty-five years ago. On the stoop it is not hard to remember, although few conversations stick with all their words. The years of conversations have collapsed. Images lay on top of images. Can you hear me, Burns? Can you hear us? I hear you. I hear you and it makes me weep. Don’t weep, no more weeping. Enough of that. We’re here on the stoop, we can see the sweetgum tree across the street. We have seen that tree every fall, both of us. Three decades of the sweetgum, old friend, old company, elder aid-to-thought, green in spring and summer, orange and pink by turns in autumn, naked in late-November until mid-March. Every year it puts on its clothes again. Leaves still up on the tree now, another week maybe till they fall. Last fall we didn’t know any of this. It was just problems with remembering, problems with words, a gradually sudden disintegration of memory. Detached from meaning, a disappearance of syntax, that’s how Helen explained it then, on a good day, the extinction of her inner syntax. Parts of thoughts just gone now. Trips to the doctor, first one. Then another. And now on the stoop the tree is orange. A little longer. Pale and brittle, faint applause. And she wants me to go to the drug store to buy. Razors and if I do I will buy cigarettes. A whole pack of cigarettes and I will smoke one right here. Or not. Not tonight. Cigarettes a stupid idea. Too old to smoke. She has to say she wants them, the razors. Again. Maybe two more times. Why? Is this some sort of test? How many times does she have to say it? A woman has to ask for everything, she said that once. Fuck you, Burns. I can hear her saying that. Fuck you, Burns. Best thing she says, Burns thinks. Better than I love you. I don’t want her to say anything else. Better stand up, go back inside. Knees hurt. Getting cold anyway. Inside. Quiet house. Burns crosses the wooden floor. Snaps every step. Up the stair. Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap. Carpeted hall, she wanted that carpet to keep her feet from being cold at night. I didn’t want it, wanted wood, and argued with her, but she won. How long ago? Always complaining about her feet. Now the door: turn slowly. Cold handle. Turned it slowly, no sound, shaft of light falls the hallway slanting across the head of the bed. Helen’s closed eyes, eyeballs moving beneath. Moving: dreaming. She’s dreaming. What’s she dreaming of. Bad ones lately when she does sleep. Burns hangs his coat over the chair in the corner. Her chair. Always annoyed, It’s my chair, she’ll say it in the morning, or would have if she. Keep your crap off my chair. Slippers off, socks off, hard to do without sitting on the bed, can’t sit on bed, she’ll wake up. Ask if I went, miserable obsessed woman. Whom I love to irritate. Belt undone, pants unbuttoned. Quiet zip. Thumbs hooked in underwear. All down at once, quietly, slide. Left leg out, right leg out. Here’s Helen-as-she-was, if only now. Helen as I want her to be. Untroubled. Untroubling. Pull back the comforter. Slide in very careful. Now she is asleep, she’ll stay asleep. Reaching hand across the bed. Empty fingers find old familiar thigh. Rest there. What will it be like when. What will it be like when Helen’s gone. She’s still here now, but she’s going. In the morning, rise, dress, and drive. The drugstore. It’s always lit too bright, aisles and other aisles under long strips of light. What’s the word for that kind of light? A long bright bulb. A tube. In public schools and their cafeterias, most memories of them. Incandescent not the word, that’s a regular bulb. Fluorescent: made with mercury. Helen moves and mumbles: Burns, I need to tell you about the animals now, she says, in her sleep voice. Painted this enormous bird. Today. Rooster. Many many colors, could tell you, she says, and ceases. Burns asks, Could tell me what, Helen? She doesn’t answer. He turns over and thinks of what, had she been awake, if she could have spoken, she would have told him, and shuts his eyes. Sees the rooster, vast, enormous. The bird’s one black eye stays on him in the dark, as she would have painted it if she. Burns? She says again. His name. Are you here Burns? Are you listen? I’m listening, he says. A rooster makes me up early every day, she says, and he knows she isn’t awake, she’s asleep after all—and, considering everything, talking very sensibly.
He is glad. But Burns can’t sleep. Because Helen keeps talking. She talks some more about the rooster. More about the rooster and painting, a few painters she likes, but also, Burns thinks, very charitably about some painters she’s always hated, like Vermeer. She can’t seem to shut up about Vermeer, in her sleep, and about painting, which she has quit, which she has sworn off forever, as being a part of her life that is over, but here she is, asleep, after not-sleeping four out of five days, and she slurs on and on, moving from Vermeer in a zigzagging line to colors, how much she likes them. Helen names all of the shades of blue she can sleepingly think of: indigo, azure, navy, cerulean, eggshell, ultramarine, aquamarine, turquoise, teal, teak? Teak. She hangs on teak, something has gotten into the list which isn’t like the others, Goddamn it, she says, teak isn’t blue, Burns, are you listen? Are you keeping track for me, she says. And Burns, in bed, on his back, beside her, whispers: Yes, I am keeping track for you, and Helen says, is teak blue? Burns says, No, teak is brown, it’s a kind of wood, and she says, Shit, and Burns whispers: Right. And Helen says: Shit’s brown. And Burns whispers: Most of the time, yes, but not always. Sometimes shit can be other colors. No kidding, Helen says, as if Burns has told her a delicious secret, and Helen lets out a snort, which is how she laughs when she really laughs, and Burns thinks that she sounds, for the first time in how long—he does not know, it has been a long time—that she sounds happy. Helen happy in her sea of blue, her gossipy sea-blue sleep. Is sleep blue? he asks. Very dark, Helen says. Dark blue. Sleep’s a dark blue. Once I painted a picture of sleep because I missed it so much, she says, but instead of saying sleep she says sheep, but Burns has heard thirty-six years of these night-time monologues, and he knows when she’s asleep she says sheep for sleep. He does not mind. Sheep’s the darkest blue, is what she actually said, Once I painted a picture of sheep because I missed it so much, she said. Sheep is the it I need the most. And then Helen falls silent. Her breath evens out. You reach a leg toward her. Slow and careful: bare foot meets bare leg. And you think: They are hairy. They are hairy legs, she wasn’t kidding. But Burns has always liked it when she keeps her legs hairy, which she did for many years, when Helen was in her French period, a good time for her, for both of them: they lived in this same house but spent almost all their time in the back yard, and Helen painted the yard, she painted the yard over and over, and then she painted Burns, painted Burns over and over, in the yard, she made Burns, despite his considerable hesitations about doing so, pose nude—he felt naked, and was—in the yard, which he did not consent to do until Helen helped him mend the fence and make it taller. She did not help him mend the fence, not really, but she observed him as he mended it, as he made sure it was as un-see-throughable as possible, and, finally, after still more protestations, he posed for Helen, nude, in the yard, and in the paintings she made she lent his pot-belly a degree of dignity, for which he was grateful. A good memory. Sometimes Helen-then wore a beret, she was the only person either of them knew who wore a beret, and when anyone mentioned it—which almost no one did, the people they spent the most time with were not stupid—she told them she had spent her whole childhood in south-central Kansas and if she wanted to wear a beret it was not any of your goddamn business because you didn’t grow up in Salina, Kansas did you? You didn’t even grow up in Topeka and Topeka is bad enough. Did you spend your summers in Oklahoma with your hick grandparents, who thought painting was about as good a way to spend your time as slaughtering a perfectly good horse? I did. And so if I want to wear a fucking beret, because I earned it, goddamn it, if I want to smoke a cigarette while wearing a beret, I fucking get to.That was back when Helen smoked in the house. How long ago was that? It had still been relatively normal (or at least not completely out of the realm of the normal) to smoke inside one’s own house then, Burns knew that, but he couldn’t remember the year, the summer she painted him nude in the yard. She had not forgiven him for banning the practice, mostly because he wanted her to quit. It wasn’t because of the smell. The smell in fact was what he liked about it. It made him feel young to catch a whiff of her cigarettes as he came up the stairs to her studio, that ancient acridity, she had smoked for what, ten, fifteen years after he quit? I should buy her a pack, Burns thinks. And I’ll have a couple. She might like that. And instead of sleeping, even though Helen was quiet now, he thought about this, kept thinking about it. Terminally not mentally, she’d said. He had wanted her to quit, he said, so they would both live and be old together. That’s what he told her. Quit smoking, Helen, and let us grow old together, and she had said, Fuck you Burns. What makes you think I want to grow old with you? He asked her if she had any other promising candidates in mind. And she said she had to admit she did not. Not yet anyway, she said. And now? Now he would be old. She would not. Despite her having given up smoking. So he could, he could, Burns could, buy her some cigarettes. And razors. He could buy those too, as razors were what she’d asked for, and her legs were hairy, he could have them waiting for her on the kitchen table in the morning. He’d worried she might want them for something else. But he no longer worried about this. They were for her legs. He would buy them, and cigarettes.
Burns found himself standing, extending one leg, and then the other, into his pants-legs. And now he slid one arm, and then the other, into a sweater, and pulled the sweater down over his head, over the protuberance of his belly, the belly Helen painted so well. It looked much better in Helen’s pictures than in the mirror, and it was, if anything, a much worse situation now than it had been when she had painted him in the yard, twenty, twenty-five years ago. Both arms through the sleeves of his jacket. It felt good to be putting on his clothes again, because he did not expect to put on his clothes again, as if he had been granted an extra hour of the day, by a higher power. Here, Burns, is something you can do, and here is another hour in your day in which to do it. Buy Helen the things she needs. All of Burns was behind this idea, and he liked this, the feeling that it was not just present-Burns but past-Burns, too, who wanted, now, in what felt like the middle of the night, to go to the drug store on the corner four blocks away, and buy razors, and cigarettes, for his wife, because he felt, with all this nocturnal discussion of blue, that he was onto something, that perhaps Helen was onto something, if only in her subconscious mind. Tomorrow perhaps he would bring the canvases back down from the attic, he thought, the canvases and the brushes, and place them, perhaps without telling Helen, back in the studio, where they belonged, and perhaps, yes, tomorrow, without telling Helen, tomorrow, he would go to the art store, and buy gouaches, as many shades of blue as they had, and bring those blues back, and give them to Helen, and lead her up the stairs, to the studio, he would gesture toward the canvases and say, Paint, and she would look at him in that way she used to look at him, one eye half-closed and the other more open than usual, and say, Okay, Burns. If you say so. The thought filled him with pleasure. His feet made their sockless entrances into the cool interiors of his slippers, and he made his way across the carpeted hallway, and down the stairs. His keys clinked softly in his hand as he searched for the right one to lock the house behind him. Okay, Burns. If you say so. Don’t ask me how it’s going. Just leave me in here and let me, for fuck’s sake, paint.
He drove down the incline of the night-dead street, coasted into the drugstore parking lot at the foot of the hill, parked, got out. He crossed from the darkness into the store. So bright his eyes hurt, as if the whole store was made of light, A fluorescent flared out of every crevice. Even the merchandise seemed to shine. No cashier in sight. He walked past rows and rows of beauty products, past cards for condolences and congratulations, until he found razors, arranged at-the-ready in discreet, knowing rows. He bought the least feminine ones that were still in the feminine section, teal-colored, accented with cream-colored grippings. He thought: Congratulations, Helen. At the check-out counter he asked for a pack of cigarettes, and as these were slid across the counter toward him, he was informed how much these cigarettes cost, the price so high he thought he could not have heard right, but then he looked more closely at the cigarettes, standing in their columns of red and beige and blue and green and black along the wall, and he thought, Damn, they must really not want people to smoke these anymore. On the way home he thought of tomorrow’s project, of the paints for Helen, the array of blues he would buy, of going up to the attic and bringing down the canvases and brushes. It still seemed like a good idea, but he was less confident now, because the sleep he had not gotten had begun to get to him, he now felt like a fifty-nine year old man who’d quit smoking three decades ago feels after buying cigarettes in the middle of the night. In the driveway now. The car no longer running. In the dark, with cigarettes and razors. He opened the door and closed it shunk behind him. He had not wanted a sack with his purchases but had been given one anyway, and now he reached into the sack and took out his purchases, wadded up the sack in his hand and walked over to the recycling bin, opened it, dropped the crinkly thing inside, and wiped his hand off on his pants-leg, first the back of his hand, then the front. He stepped onto the stoop, unlocked the front door, and entered the house. He set the razors on the kitchen table next to the cigarettes. And looked at them, the razors, and was pleased with himself, and tired. The cigarettes seemed embarrassed to be there, as if he had bought a dirty magazine, and what actually lay there, on the table in the kitchen for all to see, was not a pack of Marlboros but an issue of Hustler. What if, Burns thought. And he picked the pack up, and found his fingers still accustomed to the task: he pulled the cellophane tab all the way around the pack on the first try, and felt satisfied with himself. But the foil was trickier. It took two tries. He held the open pack to his nose and inhaled. Such a good smell, he had forgotten it, the aroma of Helen in her studio in the 1980s, all he needed was to squeeze out paint from a tube and crack open a can of paint thinner, and there you had it, wild-eyed Helen, saying Burns, the fuck do you want, I’m working. He found a box of matches in the back of the drawer to the right of the oven, the cardboard brittle from two decades’ decay. Should I go outside? No, Burns thought, this is my house, I can do what I want. No more stoop-time. Too old for that, he thought. He sat down at the table, with the razors on his left, the matchbox before him, the pack of cigarettes open on the right. A triptych, he thought. Hieronymus Bosch for the modern age, for late middle-age. Fishing a cigarette from the pack, thought: Too old for this, too, and he placed the cigarette in his mouth, and struck a match along the side of the matchbox, and the match caught and flared, and expelled an odor of sulfur, and in that sulfuric odor, too, was Helen. Helen-as-she-was. He brought the flame to the end of the cigarette, pulled smoke into his mouth, inhaled. Actually, Burns thought, exhaling, his head swimming—I think I’m just the right age for this. The smoke drifted toward the ceiling. He was in the 1980s again now. It would be nice to stay there for a while. But Helen would not stay there with him. She would stay where she was. That was good enough for now. Burns fetched a small earthenware plate from the cabinet, returned to his place at the table, and knocked the ash at the end of his smoke onto it. From here he could see through to the living room, and the window at the far end of it, and through the window he could see clear to the other side of the street, to the sweetgum standing there, with its turning leaves. Maybe one more week, Burns thought, before they fall.
Nathan Knapp most recently published a thing--it was made entirely of prose!--in The Times Literary Supplement. He lives and writes in Tusla. He's doing his best to have a good attitude about it.
Photo: Desiree Mason