It seems that this story is actually happening and that I am one of the characters in it. I am at a vacation resort—rattling fan palms, turquoise harbors, chickens everywhere (crowing, making fretful clucks)—and a gigantic golden cloud is making its way toward us across the ocean. This cloud, gleaming sublimely in the vacation-bright sunshine, is death—but not just death; it is the end of the world. No one seems to know what brought this cloud into being or why the world is ending, but there is no question: When the cloud finally rolls onto our shores it will be as if none of us, and nothing we have done, seen, heard, or believed in will have ever existed.
Apparently, I am on vacation with my secretary (although I know neither her name nor the nature of the business we work in), but I am passionately in love with the farm girl up the hill, who sells us chicken eggs. Her name is Pelagea, and her eyes are exactly the blue of a vacation-blue sea when the sun is not yet even a rose possibility in the east. She slides her red-tipped fingers under chickens and removes the perfect ellipsoids of their eggs, which she gives to me in a wicker basket. We have met once or twice in the night, and, although I am not entirely sure what went on between us, fevered and fragmentary images from those nights relentlessly pierce my thoughts. I can’t stop thinking about her.
The strange thing is that this story is being written by Chekhov. Every now and then he is there and I can talk to him. “Anton Pavlovich,” I say, “why are you writing this story? It doesn’t make any sense.” But he just looks at me as if I am the one not making sense. He averts his shoulder and hurries down the sidewalk. He wears a brown velvet jacket, and is much smaller than I had ever imagined he would be. As he rounds the corner, chickens cluck and turn ill-coordinated circles in his wake.
I am on the beach with my secretary. Our faces are yellow tinged from the golden cloud, which is still many miles distant, hardly more than a brassy blurriness between the sea and sky, and seeming to move on a different wind than the one driving those galleon puffs of white (yellow tinged on one side) above the turquoise sea.
My secretary seems a nice girl. She is about twenty-four, I imagine, and I am forty—which qualifies me as “old” in a Chekhov story. I like my secretary. She is generous spirited and a little sad. Even when she laughs there is just the faintest hint of sorrow in her cola-brown eyes. She is nice looking too: Her hair is also cola brown, shoulder length, surrounding her face in appealing arcs, dips, loops; and her figure (bikini clad) is a minutely puffy version of petite. She looks as if she would be very comforting to hold in the night. I still can’t remember her name, however, although I am much too embarrassed to say so, given how well we know each other—or, at least, how well she knows me. She seems, in fact, to know a great deal about me. She knows, for example, that while we are lying on the cream-colored sand, my wife, Olga, is undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer.
“I know you are worried about her,” my secretary says tenderly. “I can tell.” She rests her fingers on my forearm and looks me in the eyes—the sadness in her own eyes accumulating in such a fashion as to make her seem courageous and wise; clearly she has already endured considerable hardship during her brief life. “You don’t have to feel bad,” she says. “On my account, I mean. If you feel that you have to go back home and be with her, I’ll understand. Really. You don’t have to prove anything to me. I can see how miserable you are.”
Her words are shocking to me on a number of levels. The first is that I have no memory of Olga, nor of being married. And, in fact, I am not wearing a wedding ring—although there is a pale, hairless band at the base of my left ring finger. But what shocks me most is that I would abandon my wife at a moment when she must be enduring incalculable pain and fear, and that I should have chosen to so betray her with a woman who—whatever her many merits—reminds me of nothing so much as an orphaned chipmunk, and whom I am betraying, in turn, with Pelagea, the farm girl up the hill. Can I possibly be so two-faced, hapless, and cruel? How have I allowed myself into this intolerable situation? How am I going to get out of it?
My secretary kisses me on the cheek. “I love you,” she says. “Nothing can change that.”
Perhaps it will come as no surprise to hear that, with such awful realizations circling like leering jackals inside my brain, I am incapable of speaking.
I do notice, however, that my secretary has overplucked her eyebrows. They seem to have been drawn by a carpenter’s crayon, and the skin around them is pale, stubbly, and swollen looking. In fact, her nearly bald brow ridges make her look as if she once took a beating in a boxing match … and maybe that’s it. Maybe the reason she seems so courageous and wise is that she was once in love with a man who abused her.
With this thought, another leering jackal joins the circle inside my brain: If my secretary could love a heavy-fisted brute, then maybe I am part of a pattern for her; maybe she is drawn to me precisely because I am such a loathsome specimen of humanity.
I can’t meet her eyes. I am looking out at our doom glinting yellowly on the horizon.
“Why do you think,” I say at last, “that the end of the world should look so beautiful?”
“Because it is death,” she says, with a wise and courageous smile. “And death is a part of life.”
“But it is not a part of life. It is the antithesis of life. It is the erasure of everything we live for, everything beautiful, desirable, sublime.”
“And of everything hideous, despicable, and cruel,” she says.
Once again I am incapable of responding. My secretary smiles poignantly, and I want to run from her as fast as I can. I want to fling myself into the surf. I want one of those enormous toothpaste-green waves rising every few seconds out of the turquoise sea to sweep me up to its foamy crest and smash me down onto the pebbly beach bottom.
My secretary’s hand is still resting on my forearm, which she gives an encouraging squeeze.
“Without death,” she says, “there can be no beauty. Death itself is beauty. Because it is perfect. Because it can’t be changed. You can see that, can’t you?”
“Anton Pavlovich,” I say, “this is a preposterous story. It is utterly unlike anything you have ever written—”
“Nonsense!” he says. “Must literature pluck only pure grain from the muck heap? Shall none of our trees have yellow leaves? Preposterous, indeed! If you can find a single banker’s daughter in one of my stories who cannot easily trade places with a cart horse, I will hang myself on this spot!”
I search my memory of Chekhov for a banker’s daughter, but none comes to mind. Then I realize I can’t remember any of Chekhov’s stories. Is it possible I have never read him? Is it possible that I know him only by reputation?
We are on the beach. Chekhov is lying on a brilliantly colored tourist towel, illustrated with arching palms and leaping dolphins. His swimming trunks match the towel so exactly it is hard to tell where the trunks leave off and the towel begins. His skin is the color of Ivory soap, and his body is virtually hairless, except for a wiry black nest between his pectorals. His only adornment, apart from his swimming trunks, is his pince-nez.
“But that’s not what I mean,” I say at last. “I only mean that in this story … Well, as the protagonist, I guess I do feel a little funny saying this, but—”
“What makes you think you’re the protagonist?” says Chekhov.
“Uh … I just assumed—”
“All of my characters make that assumption,” says Chekhov.
He snatches a Kleenex from the box beside him, works something around inside his mouth, and tongue-shoves it into the Kleenex, which he releases to the breeze. All down the beach, carnations of crumpled Kleenex tumble over sand humps. Most of the Kleenexes are cloud white, but some are dabbed red.
“I hope that’s a lesson to you,” Chekhov says, although I am not sure whether he is referring to his previous statement or to the Kleenexes.
Before I can think of a suitable response, Chekhov has sprung from his towel and is trotting down to the water. Without troubling to remove his pince-nez, he high steps through the sliding foam and dives into the toothpaste-green maw of a cresting wave. He emerges sleek and white from the far side, and proceeds to plunge and leap dolphin style from one wave to the next, as if he were stitching them together. After a few moments he saunters wetly back up the beach, his pince-nez still in place and drip free.
By the time he has resumed his position on the tourist towel, I know what I want to say: “What I mean is: Why are you even bothering with a story like this? With all of your genius, I don’t see why—”
“Why, why, why!! Why are you always asking me why?” Chekhov is so incensed by my question that he sits up on his towel and gesticulates wildly with both fists. “Life is too short for why! I never trouble myself with why! And I never have a clue what I am going to write until the words are already trailing behind my pen. Why can’t you understand that!” He is shouting now. “Why can’t you leave me alone!” His white face has gone purple and his eyes are bloodshot. “I don’t have time for such stupid questions! I have a living to make, in case you haven’t noticed!”
I am sitting on a wooden stool under the heavy roof of Pelagea’s house. Pelagea is on the stool beside me, and we are holding hands. Coals make soft clinks in the huge white oven, tiered like an early skyscraper, that takes up at least a third of the room. The heat is unforgiving. Pelagea’s grandmother is perched on the dark house’s one elegant piece of furniture: an oriental divan entirely covered with Persian carpets, much like the divan that once graced the office of Sigmund Freud. She is lumpish, dressed entirely in black, and her potato-shaped feet do not touch the floor.
I believe she is talking to me, but the words she is using seem drawn from a language boulders might grunt to one another in the lonely middle of the night. I understand not one syllable.
The grandmother has lapsed into silence and Pelagea is looking at me incredulously. After a moment she pinches her brow and lowers her chin in a manner that indicates I should answer her grandmother. I can only hope that the bafflement on my face will make the nature of my predicament clear, but it seems to have the opposite effect. After a prolonged silence, an indigo spark of irritation flies off Pelagea’s magnificent eyes, and then, smiling at her grandmother, she says to me, “New Jersey, right?” As my vocal apparatus continues in its state of paralysis, she adds, “That’s where you …” She shrugs, frowns, and lowers her chin one last time. It is clear that I am now entirely on my own.
“Yes,” I say. “New Jersey … I grew up in New Jersey. On a farm. Like this one. Well, not exactly like this one. We didn’t have chickens. Or eggs. Or cows either. And we didn’t really grow anything. Except grass. And weeds. In fact, it wasn’t a farm. Just a farmhouse. Or a farm-style house. In the middle of a suburban development. All the houses were identical, in fact …”
I stop there, not having a clue what to say next, and having wholly fabricated everything I have just said. I have no memory of my childhood, and only the dimmest idea of what New Jersey might be like.
Pelagea’s grandmother is delighted, though, and shows her delight by laughing and loosing an avalanche of boulder-speak in my direction. She hops down from the divan and duckwalks over to the samovar. Returning to our side of the room, she offers me a tea in a gilded glass, and a silver tray heaped with sugar cubes and topped by tiny silver tongs.
Pelagea is smiling too, but looks cold, despite the stove’s unforgiving heat and the tropical weather outside. When I meet her eye, she looks away.
Her grandmother offers her tea, but she shakes her head: no.
Later, Pelagea and I are in the moonlit yard, chickens roosting in the dust on every side of us, making plaintive burbling noises in their sleep. She lifts up the skirt of her dress, takes my arm by the wrist, and places my hand flat against her bare belly.
“Do you feel it?” she says.
I feel her body warmth. I feel her belly’s convexity and its drum tautness. Perhaps I feel the tiny tremblers of her digestion.
“Feel what?” I say.
“Deeper,” she says.
“Inside. Can you feel deep inside?”
I feel her extraordinary beauty. And I feel the effect her extraordinary beauty is having on me. I see the mushroom paleness of her skin in the moonlight. And I see the elbows of her pelvis casting their deltoid shadows just above the elastic of her underpants. Then I feel how very pleasant and easy it would be to slide my hand down just a bit. And then I think that maybe this is exactly what she meant by “deeper.” But then, as I angle my fingertips so they might make their passage beneath the elastic of her underpants, she lets go of my wrist.
“It’s too late for that!” she says, turning away in disgust.
Chickens squawk, outraged at their interrupted slumber, as she darts across the yard and down the long hill to the beach.
I am all by myself beside the black mass of her heavy-roofed house. Even in the moonlight the cloud out at sea is golden. It looks clearer, I think. And maybe closer. Yes. Closer. Very definitely.
In the early morning a golden mist of insecticide billows from spritzers on the back of a golden tank truck, and rolls across the lawn of the vacation resort, murdering mosquitoes and filling our throats with an acrid sweetness. My secretary and I have snorkel masks on our foreheads and flippers on our feet. We are waiting for the van to take us down to the beach.
I gesture at the tank truck with my chin. “Why are they even bothering to do that, with that cloud out on the water getting closer every day?”
“What else are they going to do?” my secretary says. “It’s not like anything’s going to stop the cloud. And they can’t just sit around and mope. Think how crazy that would make them feel! And besides, doesn’t the fact that everything is going to be taken away make everything seem precious?”
“Even bug spray?”
My secretary is smiling one of her wise and sad smiles. She winks at me, but then a tear dampens the peach down on her minutely puffy cheek, and I do my best to believe that her tear is only an allergic response to the insecticide.
I am sleeping next to my secretary. Her sleep breathing makes a noise like a feather being drawn first one way across broad-ribbed corduroy and then the other. But I am also hearing another sort of breathing. It is Pelagea’s. I look over, and her head is resting on the pillow beside mine. She stops breathing and places her index finger across her puckered lips. I have no idea how she has gotten into the bungalow. The doors are all locked. The windows are shut and fortified by festive ironwork. I place my hand on that webby spot between Pelagea’s pelvis and ribs, and then I slide my fingertips around and down. Her lips are against my ear and her whisper sounds inside my head. “No,” she says. “You can’t possibly do that. Not here.” But she is wrong. I can’t control myself.
In the morning my secretary looks rested, but perplexed. We are sitting at a table on the vacation-resort patio. I am on my fifth cup of coffee. I can’t touch the eggs on the plate in front of me. Their very smell revolts me.
“Penny for your thoughts?” says my secretary.
I can’t even meet her eye.
“Action is character,” says Chekhov.
“That’s not true!” I say. “I would never do these things you have made me do. That’s not who I am!”
We are in the vacation-resort bar, and international vacation-resort bar music does its tinselly percolation in the space between invisible speakers. Chekhov does not look well. His skin has gone fatless, and hangs off his bones. It flaps a bit when he moves or speaks.
“But it’s not just me,” I say. “It’s my wife, Olga. She’s dying and in pain, and I’m not there. That’s not right.”
“Why do you care?”
“She’s my wife!”
“Actually …” Chekhov falls silent. A thunder-green storm cloud crosses his brow, and is even visible in his eyes. Then he says, “Well, never mind. That’s neither here nor there.”
“Answer my question,” I say.
“Why am I here when I should be with my wife?”
“You answer my question: Why do you care?”
“She’s dying, for Christsake! What kind of a ridiculous question is that?!”
Chekhov looks bored. He takes a sip from his mojito, then says, “You haven’t had one single scene with her. You don’t know what she looks like. You don’t even know whether she deserves your love. For all you know, she may be cheating on you with every actor in Moscow.”
“Maybe. I’m still thinking about it.”
“But she’s got cancer!”
“So what?” says Chekhov. “She’s not dead yet, so she can do whatever she pleases.”
Clearly I have reached an impasse. I take a new tack. “But what about my secretary? She’s the kindest woman I have ever met, and she has already suffered so much! And then there’s Pelagea! What about Pelagea? I am passionately in love with Pelagea, but I never know what she is talking about! Why have you gotten me into this awful mess?!”
Chekhov shakes his head wearily. “It’s always the same.”
“What’s always the same?”
“You people,” he says. “My characters.” He dips his thumb and forefinger into his drink, pulls out a mint leaf, and starts to chew on it. “You always imagine yourselves to be impossibly virtuous, impossibly boring, and utterly unbelievable.”
The mopers are in the shanty bar down by the harbor. They are the usual denizens of such places: the loud and lobster faced; the grinless twentysomethings, halfway between keg-party blackouts and a twelve-step program; the grizzle-headed losers, happy that near senility has liberated them from all expectations; the terminally isolate, whose gazes anchor in the middle distance and never budge. None of these people are actually moping over the golden cloud, of course, but some of its radiance is reflected in their shifting or shiftless eyes, and lends a certain nobility to their grunts, shouts, and guffaws.
I am well into my second margarita when I hear a surge of murmuring in the corner. I walk over to find Chekhov at the center of a crowd. He has shrunk to half his normal size, and is lying, eyes closed, in a half-size bed, with the covers drawn up to his goatee. He is wearing seersucker pajamas and the rattling of his breath in his throat is indistinguishable from the rattle of a water-clogged snorkel. His chest heaves slightly at the end of every breath, and the insubstantiality of his stature and of his bed makes the crowd around him seem composed of giants. Perhaps I myself seem a giant to those opposite me, though I can’t rid myself of the feeling that they are all much bigger than I am.
“What’s going on?” I say, but their murmuring continues without the faintest alteration that might be construed as a response. I have no idea what they are saying. More boulder-speak, perhaps. But their voices are so soft, I can’t even tell.
“Excuse me,” I say, and repeat my question. Then I try again: “Excuse me.” Then, a little later and a little louder: “Excuse me.”
In the end it is Chekhov who answers, but without turning in my direction or opening his eyes. “I’m in a coma.”
“Are you dying?” I say.
“I don’t know. It’s hard to tell.”
After that he is silent, and no one else ever seems to hear my questions.
I have discovered two entries in my cell-phone contacts list: “Home” and “Olga.” As I have no idea what I have told my wife, I plot out a variety of apologies that I hope will cover all possibilities. The main reason I am calling her is to say that I will be catching the next plane home. There is one problem, however: I don’t know where home is—which means that, somehow, without revealing my ignorance, I am going to have to get her to tell me.
Moscow? I wonder. Did Chekhov mean I live in Moscow?
The bungalow is spinning around my skull; my fingers are greased with sweat, and my heart is going “dum dum dum” in my ears when I hit the “send” button for one number and then the next. But the result, in each case, is identical: three punitive screech tones followed by a message informing me I have reached a “nonworking number.”
I stagger out of the bungalow into a paradise of sideways-gliding pelicans and foot-long caterpillars, and can’t figure out why my failure to get through to this woman I have never even set eyes on should leave me so heavy of heart and head. It is all I can do to keep from falling face-first onto the sun-blanched sod strips of the lawn.
The golden cloud looms higher over the palm forest surrounding the vacation resort. Does that mean the cloud is closer, or only that it has gained altitude? It is very definitely more resplendent, however, and seems no longer merely to reflect the brilliance of the tropical sun but to have a luminosity all its own. I begin to wonder if my secretary might be right: Can the golden cloud actually be beauty itself? Is it possible that perfection is exactly and only equal to zero? And would that mean that what awaits us out there on the water is not so much our undoing as our purification?
I am snorkeling, and seem to be alone—at least for the time being. I am listening to the hoarse hee-haw of my own breathing, the tick of tiny bubbles beside my ears, and the muted squeegee squeak of my flippers as I coast past reefs that seem half fungus extrusions, half crud-encrusted moose antlers.
All the fish are neon yellows, blues, greens, and turquoise—turquoise especially; pink too—except for the backward-skimming squid with tinfoil eyes thumbtacked at the base of their wiggle-finned heads, and their clumped-together tentacles trailing neatly behind. And those fish that look like rocks: cavity dwellers, with blunt faces and jaws fanged like staple removers; pocketbook-shaped bottom-feeders, piloting their rigid bodies with fins like insect wings. And the fleets of surface-sucking abstract fish, like so many infinity signs, or like the stainless-steel car ornaments favored by fanatical Christians. Endlessly. Everywhere I look. Every instant: creatures utterly unlike any I have ever seen before. Poking, darting, plunging.
As I flipper in and out of coral cul-de-sacs with my hands extended, I feel, for the first time, as if I am truly in a world imagined by Chekhov. This is all too fevered to be real, too intensely vivid and enveloping. There’s genius in it, though. I can’t deny that. Only an extraordinary mind could have cooked up a world so visceral, so phylogenetically elaborate, and yet so blatantly impossible.
I hover under a quicksilver sky. When I dive, almost all the sounds go away—at least after the last bubbles have glugged out of my snorkel—and it becomes harder to distinguish that part of the world I think of as myself from that part which is the water through which I am moving. When my ears start to hurt, I hold my nose, force air into my sinuses, and then can dive a little deeper. After I have done this two or three times, I feel as if I can go on forever.
The world keeps growing darker, bluer, simpler. As depths open in front of me, I slip into them—because it is so easy. Because there is nothing to stop me. Why not? I keep thinking. Why not? Although every now and then it does occur to me that it may not make much sense to keep on doing something merely because I can.
It is only when my hands are another variety of the gloom into which they are extended that I realize I have gone too far and for too long. The need to breathe is now suddenly so ferocious I feel that, were I to yield to it, I would gasp myself inside out. The quicksilver surface has become only a pale disk, flickering far overhead like the mouth of a well. As I watch, it recedes, then recedes some more, until it is less like the mouth of a well than a coin tumbling heads over tails to a well’s bottom.
I want to rise, but I seem to be sinking ever deeper under the water. And that is when it occurs to me with something like certainty that I have come, at last, to the end Chekhov is imagining for me—and has been, perhaps, from the very beginning.
Then everything changes. I am no longer on the sea bottom, but belly-up on the surface, a full moon whitening the fog smears on my snorkel mask. Has Chekhov had second thoughts? Has he made a revision? Or is it that he has been sinking ever deeper into his coma, and has now, finally, just this instant, died? If that is the case, and—as seems evident—I have not ceased to exist myself, does that mean I am no longer ruled by Chekhov’s imaginative predilections, that I am finally free to lead my life as the person I actually am?
I right myself in the water and, bicycling my flippers in the cold and dark, slide my snorkel mask up to my hairline. A breeze blows over the restlessly fragmenting valleys and peaks of the waves. It cools my face. It fills my lungs with salt sweetness, and my head with lucidity.
I haven’t gasped. I haven’t turned inside out. I’m not even panting.
The golden cloud looks even higher than it did this morning, and it covers one quarter of the whole sky, though maybe that is only because I am closer to it out here. It is motionless, in any event, like a stilled tsunami, or like the pomaded forelocks of a brass-blond giant.
Someone is calling my name—or what I think is my name. Only now do I realize I have never heard my name spoken before.
I reverse in the water and see a pale figure on the beach, waving. At first I think it is Pelagea, but then it seems clearly to be my secretary. Another figure arrives, and this one too seems to be my secretary, or Pelagea. Then there is a third waving figure. Could she be Olga? All three figures are standing together on the beach, jumping up and down, and shouting my name.
As I swim toward them, I become afraid. I have no idea what it will be like to be in the presence of all three of these women at once. I have no idea what I will say, or what they might say to me, or to one another. I only know that, if I am not wrong, if these three figures are who I think they are, then this is a moment I cannot avoid, a moment in which the whole of my future is waiting.
Other people have begun to arrive. First there are ten or twelve; then instants later thirty, maybe forty. They swarm onto the beach, from both ends and over the tops of the dunes. They are running. Leaping. The shadows they cast are so profoundly black they seem cut out of the sand they wobble over. But the people themselves are brilliantly illuminated, at first, it would seem, by the arc-welder white of the full moon, but eventually by the softer, yellower light of a dawn. It is not dawn, however. The sky beyond the beach palms remains star pierced and blackout black. But the yellow light grows ever brighter, ever more intense, until the people clustered on the shore, jumping up and down and waving their arms, begin to look like the individual flames of a conflagration.
I can no longer tell which of the figures on the beach are the ones I thought might be Pelagea, my secretary, and Olga. All I can do is keep my eyes fixed on that place where I first saw them. Sometimes I rise so high on the sea, or sink so low, or I slide so far to the left or right, that it is hard to be sure I really am looking at that place where I saw them, or even to know whether I am actually drawing closer to the shore. I just keep swimming. I have no choice. My arms chop and my flippers oscillate, and a swaying path paved by flecks of yellow fire flickers between where I am and where I want to be.
The most recent book by Stephen O’Connor is the short-story collection Here Comes Another Lesson (Free Press).