Tower Zero, Part 2 - Brian Shaughnessy - Harmony Hill
Today the afternoon sky is a cloudless pale blue brilliance. High above the sun beats down, in scorched bronze waves, a blazing de javu. Beads of sweat have made my skin slick and taste familiar in unexpected ways; heat and salt calling up phoenix memories of long ago dog days. Of course every summer is hot, and in the mostly paved places all of them hold days brutal as this, but today makes me think of that Pascal quote The Magician loved so much, “The heart has its reasons whereof reason knows nothing.” Today makes me think of straight razors, and a summer spent burning to cinders, and of something else he once said - well, actually I had said it to him, that night in June (or was it July?) when we first met. There, beneath stars made brighter by the drugs in our veins and more beautiful by the night’s anamnesis, he asked me, with a gesture that swept across us and the heavens, if it had a purpose.
I told him purpose was something inflicted. “Tonight has no purpose,” I said, “so we could make it mean anything we wanted to. Anything at all.”
I said that to him, meaning only that those words had issued, awkwardly and with some confusion, from my mouth. That night I chalked it up to the drugs or the booze, but by the time November’s crows had come home to roost I had begun to think that some words belonged to The Magician no matter whose tongues and lips had shaped them.
For a moment everything feels meaningless. The richness of that memory vanishes and in the hollow it leaves behind there is only the question, “Why am I here, hiding from this heat, sucking up the grocery store’s free air conditioning?” Jesus fuck, I hope this doesn’t mean I’m getting old - and then - I am thinking of another night, the one where I asked The Magician to teach me magic. Deep in the woods, out by his favorite rock formation, he stood behind me, put his arms around my neck, and squeezed. When I struggled he whispered reassuringly, “To fight is good, but right now…trust me. Try to relax. I promise, this is what you asked for.” And so I let myself slip into it; by that point I’d pissed away countless nights staring at a razor or a bottle of my mother’s pills, and so I thought, “What if he kills me?” I mean, I knew he wouldn’t, but if he did? Back then, a part of me had wanted that too. His arms lifted my head till all I could see were the clouds that had devoured the stars and the moon opening like a great maw. Eyes wide and breathless I let The Magician feed me to the sky and it was cold and dark and terrifying; it was the sound of a thousand midnight angels falling…
…it made me feel whole for the first time. It wasn’t corny like “Oh! I’m fixed!”, that kind of salvation is always ephemeral - is always bullshit- but instead of feeling pulled in a million directions I felt directionless, and that was freedom. I could go anywhere, or everywhere, or nowhere. I was free of purpose. Pregnant with meaning. There in the celestial belly the fullness of The Magician was waiting for me; not just the boy in the woods choking the air out of me, but every awful, terrible, beautiful thing he had ever done or ever would do. As all of those things he stood before me wearing a garland of roses; a beast soaked in blood, waist deep in a pile of corpses that all wore his face. And in his hand there was an ember
“This is the secret of magic. It cannot be taught. It must be remembered.”
Kneeling before him, in among the carcasses and covered with their filth I could see they only wore his face as a mask.
“This is as far as I can take you, all that will follow is for you alone.”
He put the ember in my open mouth - Fuck!- it hurt like hell, the whole of my rotting self a eucharist, a lifetime of pain, confusion, terror, joy, and beauty condensed into a single burning coal. I wanted to run from it, but when I tried to spit, I swallowed. Collapsed. Convulsing like a drowning fish atop the pile of corpses I understood that it was all me, every last body on the pile was me.
When I came to, some pain lingered, but it was a good pain; the post soreness of an existential workout. All of us had been defined by some kind of pain when we landed in The Kingdom. Pain, he said, was the path to The Kingdom, and by that he had always meant more than just the traumas that had brought us there and bound us together. We were better off after arrival, you know… with each other, but I don’t think we healed each other exactly. Though, sometimes it felt like we did. I don’t really know what value healing has anyway. Any world is an open wound, and while life lingers we will always bleed, but we did change each other, and that was something. Some of us, like me, like The Magician, we were trying for more; to build a world apart, something so bright and beautiful that it would burn away the world which had come before it once and for all. That promise, that potential, bound up in our stories, is what is sealed in Tower Zero.
I think of these things now, because of George. George had been my next door neighbor back then. I probably should have known him better than I did, but he never seemed soaked in red, and those days that’s what it took to get my attention. Still, we had a lot of friends in common even if we were never very close, and it had bee through a phone call from one of those old friends that I had learned about his death. The call came too late for me to attend his funeral, but honestly even if I could have, I wouldn’t have gone. His being dead wasn’t exactly why that call came in anyway. After the funeral George’s little sister had started looking up his friends, asking about the old days, asking about Tower Zero. I told my friend to put the word out, that if anyone saw this girl again to make sure they sent her my way. That was five minutes ago, and now I’m staring across a shopping cart at George’s mother.
“Elise Santos, is that you? It’s so good to see you after all these years! Oh my, you don’t look a day older than yo did high school.” “Oh, hi, Mrs. Manis, thank you, yeah, it’s been forever. I just heard about George actually, I’m so sorry for your loss.” “Thank you dear. The house seems so empty without him, but the Lord gives me strength to carry on.” There is something phony about the whole exchange and I think we both know it. My sympathy is a formality. This is how adults talk about unpleasant things and realizing this elicits a wave of anxiety and nausea. I should be better than this. Her excitement over bumping into me is a mask to disguise an agenda which will no doubt be nauseating in its own right. I really want to ask her about her daughter, mostly because I don’t remember George having a sister…. maybe she was just a baby back then? Whatever the case, someone snooping around Tower Zero was significant. Awkward small talk unfolds between us like the slip of paper her trembling hands have fished out from her gigantic pepto-pink handbag. Stretching over the cart which had been keeping us at a comfortable distance, she offers me the paper and at last we’re at the meat of it: “This was George’s, but I think you should have it, you and he always shared an interest in - well I think you’ll see what I mean when you read it.”
‘It’s weird, it’s like I can actually feel the scars forming on my liver. It doesn’t feel bad exactly. I’ve been reading up on OBEs and astral projection. When I die I want my soul to go to the tower. That’s where my perfect day lives.
When I drink it feels more like my memory. When I’m sober it’s too much like somebody else’s story. The heat dancing off Genevieve’s pool and my sweat soaked shirt sticking to me… I wanted to go swimming so bad. Just not bad enough to take my shirt off. I’m still not sure if I was more afraid of them seeing the welts or asking why I’d gotten them. When Z and his crew came around the corner my heart stopped. He was so gorgeous, so masculine, and so hardcore… about everything. Watching him shout conversation up at Michelle, who as usual was holding court from the balcony, I kept wishing he’d take his shirt off.
All day long the older kids had been giving me shit about just sitting there, sweating balls two feet from the pool. Mostly it was good natured, but one of them, I can’t even remember his name, just that he always had it out for me, yelled “Hey faggot! Why donchya get in the pool ya fuckin’ homo?” I winced, the welts feeling suddenly fresh, and in my head my father was screaming, “No son of mine’s gonna turn out to be a fuckin’ queer!” Then all at once Z and his friends were screaming and swarming. I couldn’t tell if Z decked him, but I like to imagine he did. Z’s uncle was gay, and I know that’s why he did it, but I blushed imagining he was protecting me. All these boys were cussing and pushing and shoving….and I hate to admit it, but it kind of turned me on. Michele broke it up and half the boys left while Z and his crew stayed. Z came over and slapped me across the back in a gesture meant to be friendly, but the pain made my eyes water. He pulled my shirt up over my head…anybody else and I would have pulled away. He leaned in over my shoulder and whispered, “You don’t have to be ashamed here.” I know he was talking about my father’s beatings, but even so….it was the most perfect afternoon.
I never told Z I was in love with him. I never even told anyone I was gay except for the strange little punk rock girl I met by the edge of the woods later that day, and to be honest I’m not even sure she was ever real. I hadn’t seen her since we moved away from Harmony Hill, but then she started showing up again, right after the doctor told Ma I had cirrhosis. Every night she sits in the old rocking chair and stays with me until I pass out, listening to my stories. She calls me big brother sometimes. Makes me wonder if she knows she’s not really there. Maybe she’s from the tower? My perfect day was one of the keys. Before the magician told me he wanted me to hold one of they keys I had never really liked him very much. He was mean in a way that Z wasn’t, even if he was never mean to me. Maybe I was just jealous of all the time he spent with Z.
The day he gave me the key he kept saying over and over that I had to confess every detail. It was like he knew I was holding something back. But I couldn’t tell him I was gay, or about her and what it felt like to to say it out loud to someone for just once in my life without fear or shame. I had to tell everything, he said, or the key could be lost forever and the tower would be useless. Before I die, I have to tell her to go find him and tell him the rest of the story.’
“Jesus Christ George…” Looking up at the old woman I wondered what the shit it had been with all those mothers letting their husbands and boyfriends beat their kids. Maybe that’s why she looked ten years older than she really was, guilt can do that to you.”Why exactly are you giving this to me again?” “I don’t know Elise. He loved you kids so much, so I thought maybe you should have it.” She was lying, and she was good at it after all those years of pretending everything behind closed doors was fine. I recognized her tell though, same as my own mother’s every time she swore she wasn’t using again: a faint nervous twitch at the corners of her eyes.
Shoving the page into her crossed arms I decide to call her on it, “There’s something you’re not telling me, and I’m not taking this from you until you tell me what it is.” Her tired shoulders slouch in resignation.”You’ll think I’m crazy.” “Well, I already think you’re a bitch, so what’s crazy on top of that?” Her face locks into that middle class affectation of shock these women always muster when younger people swear at them; as if they wouldn’t make a sailor blush the way talked about their husbands’ or their husbands’ best friends’ cocks. Running her hands down the front of her blouse in a gesture meant to convey she was attempting to regain her precious composure she cleared her throat and continued, “Well, I suppose you’re right to think so poorly of me, but I did the best I could Elise.” I just look away from her sad excuses.
“He’s still there.” she says. “What do you mean?” I ask. “George. George is still there in the room where he- in the room where I found him. Sometimes I hear someone moving around in there, or I hear singing…it sounds very feminine, but then he was” - she pauses to make a limp wristed gesture- “And then the other day I found that note on the bed and…” her voice trails off as if she is expecting me to finish her thought. Tearing a blank sheet from the sketch pad in my backpack I scribble down ‘Friday 4:30pm Harmony Hill’, and shove it into an envelope from the nearby rows of greeting cards before handing it to her. “Don’t open this. Put it on the bed the bed where you found George’s note, and one other thing: if you ever see me again, turn around and walk the other away.” She rushes off, cart shaking and rattling from her effort to escape the anger in my eyes. She turns the corner, leaving me alone in the aisle with one hand balled up into a fist and the other holding George’s letter.
For a lot of us, like George, Tower Zero was about the past; a sentiment that only seemed to get more true the further time’s undertow dragged us from the The Kingdom’s shores. Things were simpler then and so we think, “Those were the best days of our lives.” But when the tower was built we swore a pact, that those days would not remain the best of our lives. The Magician had met his future-self once, out in those same woods where I discovered the secret of magic; he spoke of it the way people talk about meeting the devil at crossroads. The story had always seemed innocuous to me, typical bro talk about girls, and honestly I don’t even remember the details. Years passed before he ever recognized the messenger for who he was, but he had always felt that the whole thing was in some way a message about the future, or from the future; a promise of a possible destiny:
“Strange and beautiful. A terrible glory. The way there is through our past.”
Whatever else we might have been, he knew we were also just kids and that the world we stood apart from was in a position to take The Kingdom from us whenever it wanted. I knew it too, even back then when anything felt possible, even us against the world and coming out on top. Still, whenever he talked about our inevitable twilight, there was never resignation in voice, instead his eyes would do that thing they did anytime he was hatching a plan…light up like the fires of hell calling sinners home.
“I think I know a way Elise, but it’s going to hurt - but that’s ok - I think it has to.”
And then, there it was: I had missed something…. When The Magician spoke of The Kingdom it was as a totality, not just the kids, but the things we saw and did, the stories that had brought us there, and all the little things that make a place yours, things so subtle or secret you’d never share them aloud; he drew no distinction between any of these, for him they were all part of the spiritus loci. That is what Tower Zero was about and that is why he had the kids put it to a vote. Did you want a stake in what we had or not? Would you miss it if it vanished? Would you do anything to get it back if it did? You had to be willing to give your soul over to The Magician as a down payment to prove for once and all time that you were of the tribe, that is what the vote was about.
The Magician always thought George was a coward, and there wasn’t much he hated more than a coward, so it surprised me when he brought George up to the mound to make him into a key. Now it was clear…a hallmark of our tribe’s magic was temporal displacement, like him meeting his future-self, it was a byproduct of the machines we built, like the Newcomen II which was used to lay the tower’s foundation. What George had written was that The Magician had given him a key, or that The Magician had wanted to turn something George knew about or had experienced into a key. He hadn’t actually turned George into a key like he had with the rest of us. Had The Magician known George had somehow come across a key to Tower Zero before it had been built? Known somehow that George would die before it was time to unlock Tower Zero?
What was it he had said to George that day? “Never be afraid of pain,” The Magician told him, “pain is the path. You must follow it all the way to The Tower.” What would he say about George now, if he knew George’s secret? Would The Magician say he had he followed his pain or that had he given up? Would The Magician declare his perfect day was forfeit for keeping a part of his story secret and nearly costing us everything? Or, after all was said and done, would he declare that George had earned his place in what was to come by not taking it to the grave?
Back beneath the bright heat and bird-less sky I push tentatively at the blacktop with my foot but there is no give. That summer, when The Magician and I had been lovers, it had been so hot the streets grew soft and if you stood still too long the blacktop would melt the soles of your shoes. Years later at a coffee house in Salem, I reminded him of the time he had set someone’s tennis shoes out in the sun as a practical joke and he laughed so hard he started crying. Shaking his head at the sun he proclaimed that it had been us, our radiance, the secret fire of our magic that had scorched their world and made reality melt around us. When he said it, even knowing he hadn’t meant just the two of us, I was that girl again, so desperate and so in love. In the most important ways I am still that girl, still a faithful warden of Harmony Hill’s secrets. The Magician is a shadow now, it’s only safe to watch him and then only from a safe distance. If I get too close I am afraid it could break him for good. It’s been so long now that some might wonder ugly things about the reasons for his absence, but he is still out there, following his path to Tower Zero; a heart perpetually breaking, a lock longing for its key.
Friday 4:30 Harmony Hill.
Please let this be it.
The long awaited Harmony Hill by Brian Shaughnessy will be published by Weaponized in October 2012.