State of the Nation

We in the Republic are exhausted.

Our enemies have lain down their arms, leaving us suddenly without a national purpose.

Brown people are pouring over the border to take up work we heedlessly relinquish in our pursuit of leisure and sexual gratification.

Nights I drive down the coast road to the marshes at the mouth of the Tijuana River and park and watch them crawling across the border like insects.

The country is awash in brown people and perverts of all kinds.

The fat woman across the street (we are four storeys up) has pushed her bed to the window and lolls there naked, exposing herself, masturbating shamelessly with an assortment of household objects: salamis, broom handles, cat brushes, vacuum cleaner attachments, bits of broken furniture, aerosol cans, stereo albums, pizza cutters and cork screws.

Sometimes she simply lies with her head thrown back in ecstasy, holding the lips of her vulva open.

This is an electrifying development, let me tell you.

All of a sudden, I have an attention span again.

Prior to this, I often couldn’t think of a reason to go out or stay in (except at night when the sewagy, rotting smell of the Tijuana wafted me southwards along the coast road). Occasionally, I have stood before the door for hours on end, trying to decide what to do.

Now I race to get up before she does, shower and comb my hair, then dash down the stairs for a box of week-old raspberry Danish pastries, five pounds of salted peanuts and a dozen Mexican beers. Usually I am in position, stretched on my Naugahyde recliner in front of the window, before she stirs, before she thrusts the first dainty foot from beneath her soiled pink sheets.

Sometimes she waves.

On one hand, I keep a cooler for the beer, a carton of Marlboros, a slab of Irish butter, my pastries and peanuts. On the other, I have a large steel garbage can (I am a firm believer in design efficiency). I throw the trash— bottles, rinds, husks, butts, packaging, spent matches— into the garbage can, which occasionally leads to minor fires that annoy the neighbours but cause no more harm than a little localized air pollution and a mark like a storm cloud on my ceiling.

Once I woke up to find the hair on the left side of my head blazing like a fatwood torch.

One day we meet accidentally in the greeting card shop at the corner (I go there to read— I can’t get through a whole book anymore).

I’m abashed. I have nothing to say.

She says, Are you the guy with the telescope?

I nod. I am wearing a leather World War I aviator’s helmet with goggles, a white silk scarf, yellow shorts printed with nodding palm fronds and Birkenstocks.

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I don’t want to fuck you, she says. I want things to go on just as they are. You understand? Only I want to see you too. Everything. I have binoculars. I’ll watch.

A purulent musk assails my nostrils. Sweat pools in deltas under her arms, slides down the side of her nose like translucent snails.

Her eyes roll up in terror.

She flails the air with her arms, then tilts backward into an array of comic wedding anniversary cards and crashes to the floor.

I can see what effort this terse communication has cost her. This access of vulnerability has its own peculiar allure.

And I rush away in a panic, fearing nothing so much as love and the loss of love, worried above all else that, having revealed herself, she will now retreat into the spell of anonymity by which we all protect ourselves from hurt.

But things go on just as before.

Except that now I strip off and parade myself in front of the window from time to time and wave.

She no longer waves back. Engrossed as she is in her pleasure, she rarely has a hand to spare.

Then she tries to kill herself. She lets me watch the whole thing, ripping up sheets to tie off her arms, slicing her wrists vertically instead of horizontally in order to avoid severing the tendons, then letting the blood spurt in a decreasing trajectory over her thighs and sheets.

After a while, I call 911 and save her life.

One of the EMS guys vomits when he enters her apartment. From what I can see, she is not much of a neatness freak.

In the hospital, she mistakes me for someone else, someone named Buddy.

From internal evidence, I conclude that Buddy is her brother, that he disappeared twenty-two years ago after accidentally shooting a boy named Natrone Hales to death in the family garage. The boys were twelve at the time.

I have brought her a spring posy from a gift shop downstairs operated by a blind person who reads the money with his fingers. I got eighty-two dollars in change from a ten-dollar bill.

Presently, she begins to yell at me for going off like that, for never sending a postcard.

I say I called twice, both times on her birthday, and both times I hung up when she answered.

She looks at me. Her features soften. She says I called more than twice like that.

I say, yeah.

You look about the same, she says.

I tell her about the man who held me in a closet for eight years against my will, the time in the hospital, the girl I loved who died of anthrax, the accident with the car when I had no insurance and had to pay off the kid’s medical bills holding down three jobs and how he used to come around in that custom wheelchair and taunt me, about my time in Nam, my self-esteem problems, the hole in my nose from drugs, my bladder spasms.

What happened to your hair?

A fire, I say.

I say, I don’t think you really know me.

Oh, Buddy, Buddy, Buddy, she says.

I try to lie down beside her on the bed, but there is no beside her. I end up on the floor.

Why did you do that? she asks. You haven’t changed.

Who will you want me to be tomorrow? I think, as I leave, realizing that there is a mystery here, a truth about the nature of love, that we are always falling in love with some picture, that the real person eludes us, though he is always jumping up and down in the background, waving his arms and shouting for attention— someone has turned off the sound.

Mostly, I am afraid that with my luck the real Buddy will walk through the door at any minute now.

In Time magazine, I read that the Buddhists call this place the hungry-ghost world.

On the way out of the hospital, I ask the blind guy at the gift shop for change for a twenty. I give him a five and get forty-nine dollars back.

You made a mistake, I say.

He gives me another ten.

I don’t get down to the hospital for a week because I can’t figure out who I think she is, maybe just one of those multiple-personality sluts you meet in the bars these days, women who give you five percent of their souls and take no responsibility.

When I do go, she is sitting up in bed with a food tray. She has combed her hair, she’s wearing a pink nightgown, she’s lost weight.

Ominously, they have untied her hands.

She smiles and says, I’m glad you stopped by.

The voice of total insanity, I think.

I got something for you, she says, handing me a gift-wrapped parcel.

It’s a new universal remote for my TV and entertainment centre.

I nearly weep with gratitude. No one has ever given me a present before.

Then I recall that I’m not sure who I am supposed to be today.

She says, A year ago I was a nurse in Arizona. One day, an old prospector drove down out of the Two Heads mountains to drop off a ten-year-old Apache girl he’d bought and got pregnant.

He said we could do what we wanted with her. He just couldn’t use her now that she was pregnant. He’d have to go and get another.

The Apache girl didn’t even know she was pregnant. The doctors delivered her, then put both of them up for adoption— without ever telling the girl what had really happened to her.

I kept thinking about her, that this important thing had occurred without her knowing it, that somewhere there was another person closer to her than life, without either of them being aware of it. I imagined she must have been haunted by a feeling of something just out of reach, a mystery without a name.

I asked myself, What if, later on, she were to meet her child in the street? Would she just pass by? Or would she feel tugged toward him?

She stops talking for a moment, looks a little frightened.

I say, That’s exactly the relationship I have with reality most days.

She smiles again and says, I guess I cracked up. I believe drugs and alcohol were involved. They are most of the time.

You mean you’re normal now? I ask.

You’re not Buddy, are you?

I am out of there, a crushing weight on my chest— heartburn or love, I can’t tell which.

The blind guy at the gift shop is watching the local news on TV with the volume on high torque. A band of Yuma Indians on the border near Nogales has just sold its tribal land to the city of San Diego for a landfill and plans to use the money to start a casino.

We should put ’em on a boat and send ’em back where they came from, he says.

I ask for a Snickers bar and give him a five.

He gives me back four Jacksons and change.

I say, I can’t take this. You counted wrong.

Oh boy, he says. Just checking. I got burned twice last week. Called the cops. Eight of them got the place staked out right now, waiting for my signal.

Don’t die, I think, suddenly fearful.

I click back to CNN and catch the news from the Republic of Paranoia, where only victims are citizens with rights.

Hell, our army won’t even consider fighting a country where the people can afford shoes anymore.

I knew a woman once who said love is nothing but a mechanism for heat exchange.

She said, We are just roadkill on the highway to nowhere.

I click the remote and see myself as a slim young man with a future. I see my country, violent and innocent again, like a flash of sheet lightning in history. I see her cradling a child to her breast, the child feeling absolutely safe and unafraid.

I think, Sadness, sadness, sadness.

"State of the Nation" originally appeared in 16 Categories of Desire (Goose Lane Editions, 2000) and was reprinted in Bad News of the Heart (Dalkey Archive Press, 2003). The story is reprinted by the kind permission of Goose Lane Editions.

Contributor

Douglas Glover

Douglas Glover is one of Canada's finest writers. In 2006, Glover won the Writers' Trust of Canada Timothy Findley Award. In 2005, he was a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. In 2003, he won the Governor-General's Award for Fiction. He is the author of eight books of fiction and several books of essays, including The Enamoured Knight, his celebrated book on Don Quixote and the novel. He lives in upstate New York.