Departments

Three Horror Stories

I.

“I’m sorry, sir. You can’t leave. The building is under quarantine.”

“Quarantine? For what? I feel fine. Just calm down. You don’t have to point guns at me. What is the welding equipment for?”

II.

“Honey! I’m home!”

“Honey. I’m home.”

“Very funny. What’s for dinner?”

“Very funny. What’s for dinner.”

“Honey, is something wrong?”

“Honey is something wrong.”

“Stop it! Jesus, honey, stop it!”

“Stop it. Jesus honey stop it.”

“Look at me! Honey, I’m right here. Look at me.”

“Look at me. Honey I’m right here. Look at me.”

“Stop it! Stop it, stop it, stop it!”

“Stop it. Stop it stop it stop it.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with you.”

“Honey, where are the kids?”

III.

“Thank God I found you. I don’t know what’s happening. All my things are gone. My keys don’t work. Let’s get out of here. Let’s go home.”

“I’m sorry. I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”

Regret

Evil is the bad things that happened. Regret is the good things that did not happen. Regret troubles us more. Evil is bad in itself, not because of the things that did not happen instead; but we value what might have been more than what was as absolutely as we value the lives of children over the lives of adults. What happened is finite. What did not happen is infinite.

If harboring regret is weak then we are all weak. We shame regret in others, because we have no way to defy it in ourselves. Meanwhile regret reigns. Dreams beguile hope; fantasies beguile regret. The distinction matters because regret is stronger than hope – hope is finite. Love or money always come into it somehow. But less often as, “This will get me rich” or “This will get me laid” than as “It is not to late to succeed” or “It is not too late to be loved.” This is nontrivial. Hope only wants; regret has something to prove.

There is something heart-softening, something miraculous, about the repair of a regret, about a second chance. We stand naked before these incidents. Forget cures and escapes. A miracle is whatever repairs regret. And even then, even with the miracle, regret can still win. Too much time has been lost. It is too late anyway.

There is a poignancy to cosmologies which transcend regret – say, reincarnation, or the quantum theory of many worlds. We could be born again. We could have been born before. All the connections and chances we recognized but did not make, did not take, they were real – we missed them this time around, but we have made them before, we may take them again. There could be more than one of each of us, flickering above neighboring peaks in one eternal unresolved chord, near as the backs of one another’s mirrors – all arrayed, some strangely better, some strangely worse, some only strangers – but at least one, surely at least one, who was lucky, who was helped, who did not have to, who found a way.

But regret is not for escaping. The worst man is the man without regret. As far as philosophy purges regret, philosophy is bad. Ancient philosophy, the kind that would have us make philosophers of ourselves, is moving and useful, yet there is something in it not quite worthy, even somehow seedy: and this is because it does not recognize or accommodate regret. Here is Polonius. Here is a man learned, wise, crafty, with good taste in poetry – but he lacks regret, and this is enough to make him ridiculous.

Regrets are the broken circuits of actions. There they lie, loose and fatal as wrecks of power lines after a storm wind, still electric. Think of actors, finding in themselves the other people they might have been, getting to know them, putting them on. Think of music – music, after rhythm, runs on regret. (Thus the ancient enmity of music and philosophy.)

Regret is a shadow theodicy with an unknown god. Heaven, the very most that can be hoped for, promises to unite you with your loved ones; but not with the ones you should have loved, not with the ones who should have loved you. Regret is too large a part of this world to be salved by another. The veiled being who afflicted us with regret remains silent. Without evil we could still be ourselves. We are made of regret.

The South

In order, my first observations of the South. The stupendous clouds, like levitating icebergs. The jumble of wealth and poverty. I had seen mansions and hovels, but I had never seen a mansion, a hovel, and a clipped suburban lawn, all along the same mile of highway. The rarity of winter clothing – at temperatures when Northeners would bundle up, Southerners persevered in shorts and T-shirts, as if taking notice of the cold would only encourage it.

I have not gone much farther. I have become a Louisianan, but not really a Southerner. Of course being a Rodriguez helps with that. Here I pass for native unless I bother to deny it; but of course Rodriguez is not so happy a name in the rest of Dixie.

Comparing Louisiana with the South is tricky. Which Louisiana do you mean? Broadly speaking, all Louisiana is divided into four parts. The northwest, the watershed of the Red River, was settled by Americans of the same Scotch-Irish stock as the rest of the South. It is something like East Texas. This is where rock and roll happened. In the less south southeast, the Florida Parishes (Percy’s Feliciana) were settled by the English, and are something like Mississippi. This has been at times the most violent area in the US, host to multigenerational blood feuds. In the southwest, Acadiana was settled by Germans and Acadians; and in the very south southeast, Barataria (including New Orleans) was settled by the French and Spanish. (This is where jazz happened.) These last two regions are both culturally unique to Louisiana and very different from one another. Chances are, when you think of Louisiana, you are thinking of them: aristocatholic decadence and europeasant uninhibition.

But even allowing for regional variation, the interests of Louisiana were never quite the interests of the South. Again and again Louisiana has sacrificed for the South, and the South has taken. In the long view the relationship between Louisiana and the South has the shape of an unhealthy marriage: on Louisiana’s side, all passion and devotion; on the South’s side, something between tolerance and contempt.

In 1864 Louisiana was the wealthiest, most splendid state in the Union; four years later it was the poorest and most desperate, forever. “Often rebuked, but always back returning.” Mississippi, for example, resents Louisiana for stealing the spotlight during Katrina. When they talk about it there is a subtext something like this: We had it bad too, but we didn’t squeal on national television. We hearty salt-of-the-earth goodmen took our knocks, gritted our teeth, and rebuilt while those weirdo slacker heathens whined and sat on their thumbs. One might object something about the different challenges of rebuilding neighborhoods that were swept away in a night vs. rebuilding neighborhoods where the very ground spent weeks steeping in poison; but who can fight myth?

The Civil War is history to Northeners, yesterday to Southerners; something northerners learn about in school, something Southerners learn about at home.

In this respect I am an atypical Northener. Growing up my best friend’s father was a Civil War re-enactor. I know the smells of campfire and canvas, of wet wool and black powder. I think Battle Hymn of the Republic was the first song I ever memorized. I am reflexively blue the way Southerners are reflexively gray.

The contradiction in my feelings about Louisiana and about the South is clearest when I look at the war. I have no quarrel with Sherman, the bugbear of the South in general; but I personally dislike Butler. True, the war was particularly bad here – things went on in the Florida Parishes under Butler’s blind eye that read more like Apocalypse Now than Gone With the Wind – but there is no real basis for this distinction; it is simply emotional.

Still, I am not a Louisianan by birth. As an outsider I have to recognize that Louisiana is part of the South. The distinctions are many, but they are only distinctions, not differences. If I want to understand Louisiana I should understand the South better.

Survivors

Reading in another language poses a recurring doubt. An image, a turn of phrase, an expression pleases you. Is it original to the author, or is it a commonplace of an unfamiliar tradition? Corollary: a minor writer within a tradition may be a major writer in literature generally, if there are no other survivors. (Even the first entrant to the mainstream from some tributary looms as better writers within that tributary never can.) No novel so trashy, no polemic so petty, no puff so creepy, that if some cataclysm obliterated the rest of the accomplishments of our civilization, it would not impress itself on our posterity. In any living literature there is something in common that counts for nothing from within, and everything from without. Lemma: greatness in writing requires you either to enlist an otherwise hidden tradition and impinge with it, or to imply the presence of an alien tradition, to bring some hidden weight to bear behind the cutting edge.