jason christoper hartley

December 23, 2009

Fevered Theatre, Severed Heaven Here

Filed under: Short Stories — Jason Christopher Hartley @ 3:07 am

Seymour sat with his legs crossed, knee over knee, at a small table at a French bistro on a New York City sidewalk under a deep blue awning that did little to shade him from the sun as it was early enough in the morning that it shone in his face, making a warm summer morning a little warmer. It would be a hot day. He silently repeated to himself, in reverse alphabetic order, the nine things he knew the girl would be interested in: theophany, taxonomy, pseudepigraphy, midrash (halakhah vs. aggadah), historicity, exogamy, etiology, eschatology, anagogy. He glanced at his watch again for the ninth time in less than seven minutes. He was glancing at his watch at an interval of almost exactly once every forty-five seconds. It had been six minutes and forty-five seconds since he sat down. As the sun slowly ascended the powder blue sky, he worried that if the air temperature rose two more degrees, he’d start to sweat. Or rather if the air temperature under his shirt surrounding his torso (which was several degrees hotter then the ambient air around him) rose two more degrees Fahrenheit (he approximated), he’d start to sweat. He wasn’t overly concerned with sweating under his shirt or even on his face for that matter—it was summer in New York City after all—it was the fact that his palms would be damp when he shook the hand of the girl from the magazine whom he was supposed to meet here six minutes and forty-five seconds ago. His arms were thin and sinewy and his shoulders narrow, but his hands were strong. When he was nervous (which was most the time), he had a habit of shaking the hands of people he met with an over-firm grip that, on occasion, caused the recipient’s knuckles to crack. He had since remedied this habit by concentrating entirely on his hand during introductory handshakes and uttering to himself silently, “Fevered theater, severed heaven here, gnarled knelling czar” which had a calming affect on him (especially when he thought about the leading silent consonants of the three trailing words) which helped him keep the pressure he applied to no more than five pounds per square inch, not the unchecked twelve to fifteen p.s.i. of the past. No one liked the feeling of a damp palm against their own, and Seymour knew that even if he nonchalantly wiped his against the leg of his trousers as he stood up to greet her, she’d notice the wiping motion, if only subconsciously, and this would give the impression that he was wiping something unpleasant off his hand, another universal psychological turn-off—that the person you’re being greeted by is a filthy person, one who must constantly be wiping his hands free of foreign matter. He knew the volatility of a first impression. He also knew that popular culture had conditioned people to fixate on making a good first impression, something he had concluded was virtually impossible (his awkward social encounters were legion) to do in a single instance in real life without a sword or being a celebrity. What was of greater statistical importance (by two orders of magnitude, by his figuring) was simply not making a bad impression. People are easily repulsed, he had determined, by biological fluids, starting with perspiration and saliva, followed by mucus and urine, then finally bile and feces. Blood was harder to categorize. In the city where diseases without cures flourished, blood ranked with bile and feces on the repulsion scale, but in suburban America it fell under the middle category, associated with bloody noses and nose picking. In rural America, where people dealt with livestock and performed manual labor, blood was as common as sweat, and often just as sterile. In New York City, blood was a universal contagion; something that had been transmuted from being essential to life to being a threat to it. But blood didn’t concern Seymour now, just sweat. The kind of sweat produced by anxiety. Anxiety that would be present despite the air temperature. Damn it, he thought. He’d be sweating regardless. He’d wasted—yup, he was good at intuitively keeping time—a full forty-five seconds now, pointlessly worrying about air temperature as a function of time when he was already sweating, and still would be when the woman arrived. He realized the futility of the moment he was in. He stopped worrying, it was already lost. He closed his eyes, tilted his head back to an angle such that the plane of his face was perpendicular to the rays of the sun, and imagined the woman he was waiting for (whom he hadn’t yet met) as a child. She wore a peasant dress, was sitting on the ground under the shade of an enormous old tree, engrossed by the acorns she held in her hands that she’d gathered with another young girl her age. She looked happy, content.

The Nut Gatherers, by French painter William-Adolphe Bouguerea (1825-1905)