Harp & Altar
Tom Andes

Leopoldine Core

Jason Snyder

Tom Whalen
The Invitation

The Invitation
Tom Whalen

A dinner invitation arrives from my sister. I ignore it, stay at home, read a little Dostoyevsky, hours reading Dostoyevsky, which book doesn't matter. I sit in a wooden rocker beside the window, outside the buses pass up and down the street, no passengers, it's cold, the light fades, I read on until I can't see the page. It's likely that she won't call, it doesn't matter. The teacher said, You can never read enough Dostoyevsky. I don't know why I believed him, I had no reason to believe him, he'd done nothing but torture me, he tortured all the students. No, no, no, he said; I shall entertain no questions today, he said; that's a stupid question, he said; wrong, wrong, wrong, he said. I don't know why I trusted him then, but I heard him say one can never read enough Dostoyevsky, and years later I am still reading Dostoyevsky, still following the advice of this thoroughly despicable teacher.

I walk in the park, the same park I always walk in, the park where I as a child first exposed myself to another child and for a while, months if not years, we would meet, I and this child who was far prettier than I, and expose to one another and the air our respective organs and proceed to touch and, after a respectable passage of time comparable to that of an old-fashioned courtship, receive from one another oral gratification. No longer do I dream of the blond-haired child nor have I ever gone in search of its grown-up form as I walk in the park beneath the canopy of the oaks upon the ground softened over the years by the feces and feet of ducks.

I ignore her dinner invitation because I do not trust my sister, have never trusted her or my parents, not since what I shall call the debacle of my youth when inevitably I would embarrass myself or my family by patting the neighbors’ German shepherd (my parents had warned me) and having to be taken to the emergency room for a tetanus shot; by saying the one thing, whatever the circumstances, guaranteed to embarrass my family; by once beshitting myself (I had told my mother I did not have the flu when I did) at a birthday party for the child I adored from afar; by vomiting in my plate on my sister’s sixteenth birthday . . .

I read until I can no longer see the pages, then go for a walk at dusk in the park. Herons squawk in the cypress trees, a bundled-up jogger veers around me, the trees pull the light from the sky, a few geese glide past on the water. The moon is not out, the sky lavender going to gray to charcoal. Every evening the same, the seasons interchangeable. Sometimes I'm hot, sometimes cold, mostly I'm indifferent to both. The geese, the herons, wood ducks, mallards, muscovies with their bronchial wheeze—every day the same, the muck on the water, the joggers, a squirrel falls from a tree, a branch creaks, sometimes parents with their children toss bits of bread to the water fowl, the children squeal or cry or try to brain the birds with sticks. I sit on the bench, thank god I inherited my father's overcoat, stare at the algae-coated water, the green scum, plastic bags, condoms, cans, an ant pile, but it's too cold for the birds, most of them would have flown away had not their wings been clipped.

The invitation was formal, that is, in it I read nothing personal, a perfunctory invitation. I would have asked for nothing more, I have low or no expectations at all, as the case should be. I am grateful, nonetheless (why did I write nonetheless?), for my father's overcoat, even though, rifle them as I may, I find in the pockets no gloves, no gloves to warm my hands and conceal their liver spots, gnarls, crevices—but conceal from whom? At which question I would have laughed out loud to the trees or ducks or sky, had not—but those words had not I do not like. Words come to me of their own accord. I read, all day I read until I can read no more. A man paces up and down a room, in the parlor lies his dead wife, vague outlines, perhaps an event or two, a man with thick black side-whiskers, yes, I remember that in a novel or story. I pace up and down my apartment, sit down again, read a little more Dostoyevsky, I can't help it, it soothes me, though I don't remember everything I read, the words come of their own accord, whether I am reading or not. Ducks wobble past me, I don’t know what I’m reading on the bench, someone sits down beside me.

The teacher said, And do you know why it's impossible never to read enough Dostoyevsky? We did not answer him, we knew better than to answer this teacher. Because, he said, he knew what a fool he was. Sometimes only a fool, Dostoyevsky wrote, succeeds in becoming anything. And that's why, the teacher said, all of you may become something important in later life. Your lives, the teacher said, they're not your lives, they've already happened, your lives have already happened, the teacher said, and what you think will be your future is really your past. The man beside me on the bench says nothing, and I continue to hear words in my head, befuddled perhaps by the cold, by the extra cup of tea I know I should not have drunk but always drink anyway, I am compulsive, that's what I've been told, it's what my sister told me her doctor told her to tell me, befuddled as well perhaps by her invitation which in no way should have troubled me and by all the words I'd read that day. Then I went out to take a walk in the park.

The teacher said, You don't understand anything I say and in that lies my freedom, in that lies my superiority. Though you may mock me behind my back as you will, the teacher said, none of you have the courage to mock me to my face. And he was right, none of us did. We were only thirteen, we could not respond to him, but later I remembered to read Dostoyevsky, and for years I have read nothing but Dostoyevsky—a girl rolls a hoop down a crowded St. Petersburg street, I don't want to write anymore, A novel must have a hero, So I went on dreaming—and the man sitting on the bench beside me says nothing. I hear him breathing, see the puffs of his breath in the air. I do not look at him, I do not want to look at him, I imagine he wears on his head a hat, I imagine he wears a thick overcoat with a scarf and hat, and I wonder if he can hear what I'm thinking.

I receive an invitation, the first in years from my sister, I do not answer it. Why should I answer a dinner invitation? I read until I can read no more, the light fades, I rise from the rocker, pace up and down my apartment, take a walk in the park, watch the ducks tuck their beaks into their feathers. The words come of their own accord, sometimes I remember them—From then on, events took their own course. Sometimes I say the words aloud but do not know what they mean. The man sitting beside me bestirs himself, places a hand on his knee, an ungloved hand shockingly white. I do not say anything. I don't want to look at this hand, this grotesquely white hand, but I cannot take my eyes off it. White as a cake of soap, white as paper. I turn away, stare at the trees in the darkness. I do not move from the bench. I could get up from the bench, but I do not. I sit on the bench, the man sits beside me. Neither of us should be here. We have no reason to be here on this bench, I want to say. It's cold, it's dark, the joggers are all gone home, only the birds still flutter about on the bank or on their island. I want to say it's not right for you to sit down at this time of night on an occupied bench. That was altogether inappropriate, unless, sir, you have some business with me, the nature of which eludes me. But I say nothing. Shadows with unknown sources slip in and out of the trees. It’s also altogether inappropriate for me to be here. I should be in my apartment, in my rocking chair, reading, but instead I am on this bench at night. I should be home drinking a cup of tea, but then when I do arrive home it will be much too late for tea. I should never drink tea past seven in the evening. I stay up for hours, I cannot sleep, I write, I cannot sleep or think when I drink an evening cup of tea. I cannot read or even sit in my rocker and read after I've drunk tea in the evening. Do not drink tea in the evening and expect to read Dostoyevsky, I say to myself, and the man beside me says, Yes.

His voice broke the silence but now the silence is all the more. No one can speak in this silence. It holds us. We do not move. I have nothing to say, I think. Instead I recall how the blond-haired child and I would meet every day, every day we would meet in this park, near the restroom we would meet, or under the bridge, on winter days like this, bundled up. We would fondle one another every day, even on days such as this, or especially on days like this when no one was around, when no one would see us, we would hold each other, seldom did we say anything. I don't remember anything we said, rudimentary exchanges, nothing more, no doubt. I would tell my mother I was going to the park to feed the ducks, but never did I feed the ducks, had no intention of feeding them, would fling the bread crumbs in the nearest trashbin rather than feed the ducks. We would meet under the bridge, or if the park was crowded, sit on a bench for a while, saying little, for we had nothing to say, as now the man on the bench beside me and I have nothing to say, though he broke the silence, why I don't know.

I receive a dinner invitation I will not answer. I read a little Dostoyevsky to distract myself. I take a walk in the park, sit on a bench, someone sits down beside me. Night, when it finally comes, slips over the sky like a glove. As I read White Nights or The Eternal Husband or the diary, the book doesn't matter, the family rocker creaks. The teacher said one could never read enough Dostoyevsky. Nothing else of value did he say, only this, and I remembered it. I've never let a day go by without reading, if only at random, a little Dostoyevsky, a page here, a page there. The trees spread their shadows in the darkness, a hand could disappear in the umbra and never again be seen. Not the hand of the man beside me, not that hand which I refuse to look at anymore, pale hand, pale, papery skin. He has nothing to say to me nor I to him, only his meaningless yes. Nor will I respond in any way to my sister’s invitation. I walk in the park, the man beside me stirs, the herons call to one another, I read until I can no longer see to read anymore. How many times have I sat on this bench and no one joined me, no one ever so discourteous, so thoughtless as the man on the bench beside me, who awaits, I am sure, some response from me. But in my father’s frayed overcoat I do not take the bait, I ignore the overture, I have nothing to say, whether or not he wears a hat or gloves. I pace up and down my apartment, morning, late afternoon, night, I walk in the park, the joggers veer to the opposite side, the green muck on the bank, the duck shit, stale bread, stale cold air, night without stars or mind, him breathing beside me, pale puffs of breath. Perhaps, I think, he wears glasses, but I will not look. The cold holds us. We have no business here, we both know this yet do not move. He sits only a few inches from me, yet neither of us moves nor says anything, for we have nothing to say—not about the girl with the hoop, the man in his parlor, the party where I beshat myself, my family, his, nothing, the geese, the condoms, the cypress trees, the teacher, It was a figure he knew very well. But why, then, didn't he read Dostoyevsky to us? Because, he said, you wouldn't understand a word of it, none of you will ever understand a word of any of this, not now or when you're grown-ups, adults, so-called. You will understand nothing because inside there is nothing. Whatever was there, if anything, has been sucked out of you, each of you, you and you and you and you are nothing, have nothing, and in later life will be nothing, though in your eyes you will be important, yes, be sustained by the nothingness of your importance, the teacher said, and one year later he hanged himself from his basement rafters.

No, the man beside me says, or I think he said. Was he actually addressing me? What effrontery, I wanted to say, but said nothing, only listened to him continue. It doesn't matter how you see yourself, he said, his voice soft as a woman’s. In the end it doesn't matter at all. I am sure you agree. I would not have sat here beside you otherwise. Who else would be sitting at night, I thought, he says, except someone who agreed with me. Of this I was certain, and your silence confirms it. You desired that I sit beside you, though you have resisted all along this desire, but, dear sir, you yourself know that how you see yourself is less than a trick of the eye. The night tells us nothing nor does it hide anything. We come out at night because we think we can hide what we are to ourselves, but to ourselves we are even less than we are to others, and to others we are nothing. And again your silence confirms what I am saying, that you yourself called me to you though I have nothing to say that you don't already know. To you I am a voice in a coat and hat, a voice with a pale hand. I do not terrify you, I enthrall you, you sit enthralled in your silence. I sense how much you want to stay on this bench, not return to your home, your family, should you have family. You'd prefer to stay here in the cold with me, and though we have nothing to say, I assure you we might pass the night here in pleasant enough conversation, if only because at base I understand precisely what you are.

Sir, I said and looked at the man on the bench beside me, who I noticed was a good decade older than I, pale hands in his lap, dark, plastic raincoat, no hat, head as bald as the palm of my hand. Sir, I repeated, but then I could say no more, the night allowed no words, so I laughed, a short, high-pitched Ha!, rose from the bench, and left him without even a nod goodnight.