e r i c    m a r k o w s k y

Would you like to know the Truth?

Does God really care about us?

 

I’ve created a man to destroy him in six questions. He has no name yet and no description, but he has a condo and an on-again-off-again lover named Carla. He’s certain she’ll come back, because she always has. For now, he’s going to lie on the couch with a cool wet cloth over his face and plan his own inevitable immolation because this is what he’s for.

And what is Carla for? Maybe just to bear witness. Maybe Carla is there to love him or love something about him, or to remind me, after only his ashes remain, that I created a man just so I could destroy him.

 

Will war and suffering ever end?

 

Since Carla last left him, he has begun collecting religious literature. Not in any focused way, just whatever comes to hand: pamphlets about salvation and contentment, this week’s copy of Watch Tower, and those tiny black and white comic books about the consequences of popular sins like fornication, drugs, homosexuality, and videogames.

His collection started one day while he lay on the couch with a cool wet cloth over his face. He heard the knock, considered not answering, but he thought it might be Carla. It was a Chinese father and son wearing matching navy blazers. The father handed him a pamphlet with the title, “Would You Like to Know the Truth?” Underneath were six questions, some “of the most important questions humans have ever asked.” The cover showed a fiery sun setting beneath a burning bank of clouds.

The father talked, and the boy nodded, and then they left, leaving him standing in the door, staring at the questions on the cover of the pamphlet.

Similar pamphlets are scattered across his coffee table now, jammed in the magazine rack in his bathroom. His refrigerator is wallpapered with fliers picturing fiery sunsets and picnics of smiling parishioners.

When Carla returns, she tells him she plans to stay this time. She wears a gray sweater with a cowl neck that she knows he likes, and which she always wears when they try to reconcile. She stops in front of the refrigerator.

“What is all this shit?” she asks.

He tells her that since she left him he has become keenly interested in God.

“You’re such a liar,” she says. “Seriously, what is all this?”

He says it’s kindling.

“Don’t be a dick,” she says.

He asks if she would like to know the truth.

“I asked, didn’t I?” she says.

He hands her the pamphlet with the six questions and the fiery sunset.

 

What happens to us when we die?

 

He hasn’t been to work in weeks and hasn’t even thought about the students he no longer teaches or the Department Head whose e-mails he no longer reads. He closed his bank accounts, cashed in his 401k and paid all associated penalties. He cancelled his credit cards and his New Yorker subscription and his library card and a dental check-up scheduled for next October. He paid old parking tickets. He let his driver’s license expire. He ran magnets over his desktop computer and the laptop he borrows from the university. He burned his birth certificate, his social security card, and his passport.

Every day, Carla brings home groceries or takeout and tries to make him eat. He has a few bites, but as soon as she’s done he throws the leftovers away. She stops going out to see friends or visit her sister. She worries about what he’ll do if left alone. There’s no cable and nothing to read in the apartment except for his pamphlets, which she reads over and over, trying to understand.

“Are you protesting something?” she asks, “Or have you just lost your mind?”

He can’t explain it. He’s following instinct, but he doesn’t know where it comes from. He doesn’t know that the moment his fiery end became inevitable occurred before he even existed, and happened in my life, not his.

I was walking to work. It was a gray, grainy day, and the air was heavy with the scent of burnt or burning leaves. From that moment and that scent, my mind wandered to a fire and a man lost in that fire. I imagined his loss first, a thought which presupposed him and made him necessary. Only after his death did his life began to emerge, Carla and his condo and his collection of religious pamphlets. He was preceded by his death, he was conceived of as dead, and in this afterlife he’s going to burn himself alive.

 

Is there any hope for the dead?

 

Carla stays with him for three weeks before she can’t take it anymore. He drinks all the time. He eats nothing, chews on scraps of paper torn from his collection of pamphlets. He sleeps fitfully if he sleeps at all. He keeps her up at night. She makes him sleep on the couch, but she hears him shuffling around and mumbling at all hours. When he goes silent, she startles awake.

She packs her bags and announces that she’s leaving, for good this time. She wears a maroon turtleneck sweater, which she knows he likes and which she always wears when she decides to leave him.

He misses this most about Carla when she is gone: the way she looks when she has given up on him.

Carla is very beautiful. She has curly brown hair and green eyes and high cheekbones and skin as pale as water. When she’s stretched out beside him, her nipples float like pale pink bubbles on the surface of her body.

When she has given up on him, she looks so pale she is almost translucent, so that he can see straight through her to the solitude awaiting him without her. But that solitude is never more beautiful than when he sees it through her, and she is never more beautiful than when she frames her own imminent absence.

 

How can I pray and be heard by God?

 

It’s early spring, cold and wet, but he keeps the windows open at all hours. Damp breezes wind through his condo, rustling the pages of his religious pamphlets, tearing fliers from the refrigerator and gathering them in loose piles along the baseboards.

He has given up on clothes so that he can feel the wind between his ribs. Every few steps a cough rattles him from his neck to his knees. Each time, he feels he is about to fly apart, but he doesn’t.

He knows he needs fire to finish the job. He cannot simply disappear. He can only starve himself closer and closer to the limit of himself, deeper and deeper into the infinite divisibility of his final moments. But this limit is only a logical barrier. We cross the threshold of such vanishings everyday. Seconds pass away without leaving lingering decimals. Setting becomes set, fading becomes faded, and dying becomes dead.

There’s so little left of him to undo, but he can’t do it alone. He imagines Carla sitting at her sister’s kitchen table. He sees her staring quietly into a coffee mug, listening to her sister explaining why she’s better off without him. She looks longingly out the window, wondering what might become of him without her.

But this is pure fantasy. He has never met Carla’s sister or been in her kitchen, but he can see the scene as clearly as he could see through Carla when she left. Now her sister is sitting at the table with both of their coffee mugs. Now Carla is pacing across the kitchen, ranting about his faults, how he drank, how he never shared his feelings or clipped his toenails. Leaving him was the smartest thing she ever did, and she never should have second-guessed herself so many times. Now her sister tells her to forget him. Good riddance. They go on talking about him deep into the night. They refill their empty mugs with wine and start again on his coldness and his toenails.

He wants her to keep tearing him down. He cannot be undone until she finishes undoing him. He needs to be forgotten. He wants to tell her to keep tearing until there’s nothing left, but he can’t tell her anything. His phone has been disconnected for weeks.

 

How can I find happiness in life?

 

According to the paper, the fire began in the living room and spread from there to the rest of the condo. The furniture was piled in a pyre and the gaps were crammed with hundreds of pamphlets and fliers. There was no evidence of what caused the initial spark.

Carla finishes the article and removes the page it appears on. She carefully refolds the rest of the paper and leaves it on the table for her sister next to their mugs from the night before.

She doesn’t want to think about him, but she does. She wonders why she wasted so much time convincing herself that he was different, thinking he could change. Once she’d found his focus and his confidence mysterious. She thought he possessed a secret that he might share with her someday. But she had known even then that he would disappoint her, hadn’t she? The man she loved was a man she created, not the man she fought with and shared a bed with. She had made herself happy, sometimes for months at a stretch, by creating and recreating him in the image of the man she thought he could be, only to see that man destroyed again and again.

She grabs the matches from the stove, sets the story on fire, and drops the flaming paper in the sink. She watches the page curl in on itself, bits of ash flaking off the ends like residents leaping from a blazing building. She wipes up the ashes with a damp paper towel and wipes the corner of her eye with the shoulder of her t-shirt.

When her sister comes in the windows are open. There’s a thin rain falling outside. It’s freezing in the kitchen.

Carla’s sister closes the window. “You okay?” she asks.

“Burnt some toast,” Carla answers.

 

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Eric Markowsky is a freelance writer working in the Boston area. He earned an MFA from Emerson College and received a residency grant from the Vermont Studio Center for this coming winter. He is a contributing editor at chamberfour.com.


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