Marc Hudson's stories have appeared in The Seattle Review, Qarrtsiluni, Echo Ink Review, Hot Metal Bridge and The Baltimore Review. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
When the leaves turn I think of Karl. When I met him he lived in an apartment over an antique shop in town. I was eighteen and had just come to the university to begin my studies. His apartment was a storeroom of sorts, cluttered with the overflow of wares from the shop below. Karl had charmed the owner into letting him rent the space. He had made a home of it, the disparate articles augmenting his larger than life persona. He hung tapestries on the walls, making up his own ridiculous provenance for everything in the room. He could recite these histories at will, straight-faced, lists of absurd details, names and titles of former owners, nonexistent craftsmen, tragic, apocryphal pasts. He slept on the floor atop a pile of blankets, among hulking sideboards and bureaus. At night he spun records on an old gramophone—thick, brittle disks etched with warbling voices. He bathed in a clawfoot tub, smoked incessantly, sitting in a window above the street. It was from his perch that he spotted me one morning as I walked along the street. My watch had stopped two days after I arrived and I was desperate to replace it. I don't remember what he said to me. The shop was closed. He took me inside and removed a watch from one of the glass cases. I never paid for it. I suspect he neglected to mention it to the shop owner. I still have the watch, though I no longer wear it. It has ceased to mark time.
His name is James Rathbone. He is a student in my class on critical reading. I approach him in the hallway one afternoon a few weeks into the term. I suggest a walk. It is a sunny day, the first after a week of unrelenting drizzle. We go along toward the canal. The air is rife with the smell of mold. The leaves have begun to drop. Old couples sit on benches. Mothers wander behind strollers. It is warm. I roll up my sleeves. How are you finding things? I ask.
Much as I expected, he says.
All settled in?
He would be a good project, I think—unformed, something of a challenge, just as I was when I first came here so many years ago. It is an obsession of mine, this desire to mold, to shape, to leave the indelible print of my thumb. The canals are full and green. The water is obedient, moves with weary fluidity; smells vegetative and conspiratorial. This section of the canal is referred to as Bradstreet, for the road which runs beside it. To some it is the queer quarter, though it was never the exclusive refuge of any group. It is safer than when I first arrived. Young men walk with their arms around one another's shoulders, or with hands tucked into each other's pockets. There are paths worn in the earth, radiating from the axis of the main walk, disappearing into the trees—trysting places. Roots have been burnished from the tread of feet, the coppery soil worn smooth.
James is a good student. The work comes easily to him, answers dance on the tip of his tongue; questions too, the lifeblood of the classroom. This is attractive, of course. Lack of curiosity is anathema. There is something of Karl in this—the most curious person I have ever known. I say this as one who has spent most of his life in places of learning. I buy a bag of popcorn from a vendor pushing a cart along the stones. We stop at one of the benches and feed the pigeons. The birds shimmer like oil. I wax nostalgic about the nobility of reflection and contemplation, deep thought. This is window dressing, an elaborate dance. I watch James Rathbone out of the corner of my eye, note the softening of his spine. I am careful not to overdo it, to drift into mirthless philosophizing. Such a role would be a stretch. The flesh has always been a preoccupation of mine. I could blame Karl, but Karl did not light the fire. It was always there, waiting for a puff of wind.
There's a lot of beauty in it, in study. Most people don't understand that.
Yes. It's a great, grand puzzle, I say. We're just here putting the pieces together. I scatter more popcorn. I'll let you in on a secret, I tell him. It is critical not to lose sight of the little things. I have told this secret to all of them, leaning in and looking into their eyes, taking them into my confidence. The various pieces are sometimes just as beautiful as the whole. The whole is complex. Complexity is not a bad thing, it's entirely necessary. But small things can be contemplated in their fullness. Take that pigeon, I say, pointing to one of the birds. Fantastic, isn't it—the glassine eyes, the sheen of its feathers, the little reptilian feet? It's a particle in the scheme of things, and yet, there it is. Like a jewel. I dip my hand into my pocket and remove a small cigarette case. Care for a joint? James Rathbone narrows his eyes. I light it, inhale, expel a plume of smoke and watch it drift away. It takes a moment before he accepts, a moment in which I imagine him pondering the implications of such an action. It is a small gesture, a first step, a building of trust. He takes the joint from my fingers and draws from it tentatively. I take it back, taste his mouth on the damp paper and shiver with joy.
Karl had no job that I knew of. Money found its way to him from somewhere. I imagined an estate, indifferent parents, servants. My floor-mates resented him—the casual jackets and expensive shoes, the self-indulgent smile, the cigarettes. He seemed to know everyone, took me around to cafes and clubs, to parties. My advisor sought me out for missing too many classes. I was exhausted. Books and study had been my lifeblood. I loved the musty, cavernous hollow of libraries, the competition of the classroom. My poor parents had labored to send me off, but I couldn't help myself. I was out every night, tunneling deeper and deeper into some brilliant underground. A whole world opened to me after dark, people and places I wouldn't have imagined from the confines of my dorm room. Karl let me borrow some of his clothes. Rake! He exclaimed, smoothing my lapels.
I was certain that I loved him. No matter that I had not yet been with a man. I had slept with two women by then. Two had seemed enough. My doubt was intrinsic. Still, it takes years to separate oneself from the strictures of social indoctrination. For me, sleeping with a woman was akin wearing a costume; uncomfortable, ill fitting. I chafed. The first had been a girl named Lisette. I met her while I was away at boarding school. She lived in town, the daughter of a butcher. Her father doubted me from the beginning. I could see it in his face, eyeing at me as he might eye some dubious piece of meat. When the two of us passed his shop he would stop what he was doing and gaze at us through the window. Sometimes he would raise his cleaver and squint, moving the blade just slightly, as if paring me away from his daughter. Lisette was voluptuous, pillowy. My classmates envied me. Few of them had girlfriends of their own. I imagined them at night, beneath their sheets, thinking of her. I wielded the object of collective desire. They wanted to know what it was like to be with her; the shape of her breasts, the taste of her skin, the sounds she made. They were awestruck. It thrilled me. They imagined what it was like to be me and I imagined them wanting to be me, to wear me, inhabit me. We spent hours kissing. It bored me. Her body seemed at once overburdened and incomplete. I was clumsy, but it didn't matter. We coupled in her attic, in closets, behind quince thickets and hedges. We met in a reference annex at the library, a small austere room with a solitary window that looked out onto a gray courtyard. I hoped that we would be caught, wished for humiliation, the sight of shock and outrage in some stranger's gaze. I would have taken this outrage and used it for my own purposes, seen it as a confirmation of my suspicions.
It was her father who found us out. Caught us. His was not the incriminating gaze that I had hoped for. His outrage was manifested in the clench of meaty hands, a boot heel imprinted on my naked buttock.
Audrey was the second of my loves, the pivoting point. We met the summer before college. She worked in the commissary at a little lakeside park where I served as lifeguard. She was slender and boyish, not overburdened with breasts and curves, reminded me of a greyhound, sleek and fast and sporting. She rowed around the lake each morning in a little skiff. We wrestled behind the changing cabins, sweaty against the mossy ground, the knuckles of tree roots hard against our spines. We parted as friends.
Karl had been with women. I knew about the women, could smell them on his jacket, beneath the dissipated smoke of his cigarettes. He would nod at some woman on the street. What do you think of her, he'd ask, teasing me. I never had an answer. He would laugh and throw his arm around my shoulder. We'll figure you out yet.
It was by accident that I found him out. I'd had a poem published in a journal, my first. The issue had arrived the previous afternoon. Two, in fact, one which I'd intended to give Karl as a gift. He was a late riser. The little apartment had an entrance at the rear of the building. He kept a key under a loose brick beside the porch rail. I entered the building and crept up the stairs. I was going to leave the book on the little stool he kept by his window. When I opened the door, I discovered a man kneeling, naked, his back to me. Karl was before him on his hands and knees. I caught his eye in the glass panel of a bookcase. The other man never saw me. I backed out of the room and closed the door, the journal still in my hand.
I stayed away from his apartment for days, spent my time deep in the library, seated at a dusty cubby with my head atop a stack of books, recalling the sight of his face in the glass, trying to imagine what I had seen in his eyes. I concluded that I had not seen anything at all. It may have meant nothing to him, libertine that he was. I was the brittle one, tucked away in a library, like some broken-hearted wallflower. Eventually, he found me. One evening I heard the plaint of the old boards, saw him moving between the rows of bookcases, his open pea coat brushing the shelves on either side of the narrow aisle. He spotted me, stopped, and then came to the cubby. His cheeks were red, his face unshaven. I had never seen him flush from exertion. Are you in hiding? He asked. All tucked away. Is this your cloister? Have you joined the order? He'd been drinking. His eyes were cool and glassy. I didn't answer. He took my face in his hands and kissed me hard on the mouth. Is that what you want? He slapped my face, glared at me and then kissed me again.
Why didn't you tell me? I said.
You never asked.
A few nights later he and another man were beaten by thugs in the park. They found Karl's body in the canal. The other man had run away. Karl had fought. They beat him with a tire iron and threw his body into the water. It was classified as a robbery, but I knew differently. For a long time I couldn't catch my breath. It was as if someone had set a stone on my chest. I disappeared into the pages of my books. It was weeks before I found the nerve to visit the antique shop. The shop owner let me into the apartment. There was nothing of him left there. His family had come and taken away his things. I looked under the furniture, searched all of drawers hoping to find some memento.
I invite James Rathbone to an art house film showing in an old downtown cabaret. He is fickle and elusive, not as pliant as I first thought. It has taken all of my energies to get him this far. My wit has been blunted, my meager reserves of charm depleted. The film is about two couples whose wives are old school chums. Tragically, both women die, and in the course of dealing with their grief their husbands become lovers. James does not attempt to conceal his boredom. He fidgets in his seat, sighs and gazes at the couples scattered around the theater. At one point he leaves without explanation, returns a while later with a box of candy. He smacks his lips and licks his fingers; offers me nothing. Don't you like the movie? I whisper. He doesn't answer. At the end, the two men part ways, their grief assuaged, or not, it is difficult to know. The film depresses me. They should have stayed together, don't you think so?
James looks at me as if I am being ridiculous. Improbable, he says. Two grown men turning queer after they've lost their wives.
That's a narrow way of looking at it, don't you think?
I thought you would appreciate it.
It's girls I'm into, you know.
I take this for a bluff. One has nothing to do with the other, I say. Love is mutable. Its manifestations are unpredictable. I thought you'd have an open mind about these things.
Is this some sort of plan then?
Plan? No. The classroom needn't be the sole province of one's education.
I drive to a cafe in a rough part of town. He orders scotch, wiggling two fingers in front of the bartender like some world weary master of the universe. “Scotch?” I ask.
What about it?
I order a beer. You've been with women then?
He sips his whiskey, looks around the room. A few.
I ask him what he likes most about them.
Their hair, he says.
What about their hair?
He shrugs, finishes his whiskey. You're buying right? He orders another. What does the university think of this sort of thing anyway?
What sort of thing?
Professors consorting with their students. I don't imagine it's condoned.
The university has a vested interest in creating a bond between its faculty and students.
Do you take all of your students out for drinks?
Some, I say. The promising ones. There's no need to tell him that this sort of thing is frowned upon. Likely, he's already aware. An affair with a student is grounds for dismissal, though I have never been reprimanded, or called to account for what I have done. There is something about a queer male that quiets the tongue; elements of revulsion and pity, condescension, even a desire to be regarded as generous or open-minded. Leave them to it, is the unspoken mantra. Let them go and rut. The less we know, the better. No one has ever broached the subject. My love life is a desolate plain peopled with grunting savages. My lovers are damaged goods.
There is a man strumming a guitar on a stool in the corner. His voice is coarse. I assume he is a patron. He strains to reach the high notes, the cords in his neck taut with effort. No one pays any attention.
This place is a gutter, says James.
Outside the streets are dark. A cold rain is falling. The fan in the console is broken, the car heated only by the meager bleeding of warm air through the vents. I suggest that we go to my house. He declines, sits with his face to the window, making circles on the glass with his fingernail. When I drop him off at the dormitory he exits without a word. I wonder if I have been wrong about James Rathbone. There used to be an effortlessness to these things, an easiness. I am out of practice. I feel like an old dog, skulking around, still eager for the hunt. I drive to the back of the dormitory, hoping to catch him at the door. I don't know what I might say. He is already inside. I honk the horn one time, but he is gone. At home I draw a bath and try to satisfy myself. Thoughts of failure keep intruding. I give up and think of Karl.
Three weeks after Karl died, I had gone to the canal, still grieving. I wandered past jugglers and musicians, dog walkers and love-struck couples. I inclined toward the trees. I had known for some time what went on there. It was common knowledge, though the details were murky. I was young, naive, had only vague impressions. Loneliness has a way of diminishing one's inhibition. Such was my case as I strode along, blind and wanting.
Looking for someone?
Yes, I said.
Come this way, he told me, starting down one of the footpaths that led to the trees. He was a little older than I was, sharp-eyed and knowing. I thought I recognized him from some of the parties I had been to with Karl. He had a fedora on his head, a few sizes too small, perched at a cocky angle. Each time he moved it seemed as if the hat might topple off. We walked a ways into the trees. The light was pewter-colored, the sun going down. I could hear the voices of walkers along the canal, the riff of lone saxophonist. He stopped walking. This should do, he said.
I looked around. You knew Karl? I asked.
I'm sorry, I said. I thought I'd seen you before.
You want to take or give?
He was rummaging around in his pockets. I've got some jelly, I think. I won't have it in my mouth. No offense. He pulled a little tube of petroleum jelly from his pocket. There we go. He tossed it to me. Heads or tails? What'll it be?
I stood, staring at the little tube. Is this how it happened, I wondered; anonymously, tucked beneath the shedding trees without so much as an introduction, the world a stone's throw away?
He was tugging at his belt buckle, the coins in his pocket jingling. His pants were at his ankles. Well then? The little tube slipped out of my hand. I turned and ran.
It was a few weeks before I found the nerve to go back. I wandered for some time, miserable, staring at the water. I thought of Karl floating along the surface, his clothes sodden, flesh swollen. It was dusk. I happened across him, the one with the fedora. He wasn't wearing the hat this time. He had a scarf around his neck, leaning against a tree smoking a cigarette. Take a walk? I asked him.
I'm sorry, I said. It was nothing personal.
He nodded, smothered the cigarette beneath his heel.
I returned again and again that summer to a revolving door of partners—nameless men who wore the pathways smooth to clench at other nameless men. The bracken was trampled. The earth absorbed their seed and yielded nothing. The trees remained silent.
I graduated from the university, moved away, came back. I fell in love and out of love. There are degrees of love. It is not always possible to fall to the deepest places. It is a rare thing, to drown. You can spend a lifetime trying. I took a job at the university, had affairs with students, attempted to relive something that never was, revisit that astonishing almost. I make a poor Karl. I lack his swagger, the ease with which he wore his skin, the rich deep channels of his character. I am flaccid and bookish. I walk the streets at night consorting with the dead. When I dream I find him again, smiling down at me from his window above the antique store. I wave to him. Karl, I say, and smile.