In the Absence of Beatrice

by Damien Venuto, University of Kwazulu-Natal (South Africa), May 1, 2008

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Prologue

Crippled by the weight of buildings which reached beyond heaven and choked by a thick black cloud, the Earth limped through another rotation. Beneath this band, brown had replaced blue and tender green had been replaced by cold unrelenting grey. At the foot of a crumbling grey colossus sat a man. His red eyes scanned the area, lagging like a computer running a programme that it wasn’t made for. Each breath was separated from the last by the time it would take the old traffic light down the road to change. The inescapable silence was broken only by a low hum in the background.

Dante’s Story

Dante awoke but his eyes never opened. He turned onto his back which started to itch as it touched bare mattress. The tiny sheet had again shot off the edges and it now lay in a bundle at his feet. He rubbed his back over the mattress attempting to find a comfortable position. He opened his eyes and stretched his frame until it felt as though his bones would cut through the taut flesh. He yawned and his lungs ignited. He coughed ferociously, but the coughing only egged on the burning. With a quick twist, his knee made a heavy thump on the cold floor. Saliva splattered everywhere as he tried to get up. His stomach muscles twisted and his throat burnt as it filled with steaming bile. The sinews in his arms flexed and strained as he lifted himself. He hopped across the floor on his right leg; his left leg was still in the wiry clutches of sleep. As he bounced, his heart beat in his temple and his arms guided him through the narrow passage to the familiar humming noise.

He stood before the machine and put his left leg on the floor. The limb felt as though it had just been removed from a cast, he transferred his weight to his right leg and bent his knee slightly. This position felt quite natural to him. He coughed again but breathing was easier in front of the machine. He checked the gauge to see if his oxygen bill was up to date. The glowing number on the digital meter continued to increase every second. Below the increasing number was a letter Dante had not seen before. The letter ‘C’ had been replaced by a ‘D’. He struck the machine. He dropped to the floor and sat under the humming that continued incessantly. He brought his knees up to his chin and folded his arms over them. He rested his head on his arms and looked at a long crack which ran underneath him through the floor. As he placed his hand on the cold concrete he felt a chill tickle the hairs on his arms.

With a flex of his defined tricep he was up. He walked through the dark room. His steps echoed and the hairs on his arms once again became erect. He stopped for a moment and looked at the dusty pair of surfboards which rested against the wall in the opposite corner of the room. The white beauty had become rat-tooth yellow and the bright colours on the big wave gun were concealed by a thick coat of dirt. An intricate cobweb connected the boards to the corner of the roof. He opened the front door and lifted the newspaper. The headline read “Downtown O2 Supply Degraded”. With a shake of the head Dante threw the newspaper into the bin as he entered the kitchen. The kitchen reeked of wet egg. Pans, plates, knives forks and one cracked glass littered the basin. Dante’s stomach churned and he walked back through the living room where the boards sat patiently. He glanced at the boards again, he thought of the last time and his eyes burnt. He sighed quietly and moved back into the suffocating passage. With every step the humming noise softened and his diaphragm became heavier. He turned left and stood before the bathroom door. He put his hand on his chest and breathed in deeply as he entered the room. The basin was speckled with the same rat-tooth yellow attributable to the board. He put his hands on either side of the basin. His knuckles went white under the weight of his upper body. He turned on the hot tap and as the water trickled slowly into the basin he looked into the mirror. He ran his right hand over the patchy scraggly beard which covered his cheeks. He closed his eyes and looked down into the steam which pushed through the patches in his beard. He rinsed his face. It burnt. He repeated this three times before looking into the mirror again. This time he saw no scraggily face, only a vague image behind the misted mirror.

He went into his bedroom and pulled on some clothes which were strewn across the floor. The feet of the bed tore across the grey concrete as Dante moved it into the lounge. The sound became a spined insect in his ear and a spasm down his neck. He tried to shake off the torture but continued to push the bed until it was lined up underneath the oxygen pump. He went back to the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. He removed a syringe and a small glass tube of clear fluid. He slid the needle of the syringe into the tube while he scratched his left leg with his right foot. As he pulled back, the fluid sprinted to the back of the syringe and sparkled off the front of the plunger before settling in its new habitat. Dante sat on the toilet. He pumped his arm twice and his veins shot up like the contours on a three dimensional map. He chose the largest mountain and inserted the needle into it. With an easy thrust of the thumb the clear fluid slipped into his body.

Ants ran through his body as he felt his blood change. He looked at his watch, it was 11:30. He would have to be back behind closed doors by 13:30. He left his room. He walked down the encased corridor. He passed three other apartments to his right and on his left was a grey wall approximately one and half metres high. The distance from the top of the small wall to the roof was completed by Perspex sheets. The thick clear sheets blocked out all sound and not even gale force gusts could penetrate the silence encased within the corridor. He spiralled his way down a flight of stairs.

As he walked towards the tightly sealed door, the white of his teeth was accentuated by his dark beard. He pulled hard on the door, stopped, pulled again. It would not budge. He shook his head and pressed the button to the left of the door. With a pop, the suction was released and the door that belonged on an industrial refrigerator, opened.
A few steps before him, was another refrigerator door. His smile disappeared. It was wedged between two walls and a low roof. Dante inched his way into this small dark room. He held the door behind him open for as long as he could. His palm became slippery against the door before he finally released it. The door sucked closed behind him. He stood in the room unable to see the refrigerator door in front of him or the one behind him. His breaths became shallow and air only moved in and out through his nose. He smelt himself. His clothes stank of yesterday’s perspiration and the room stank of today’s. He readjusted his hands three times as they slipped down the choking walls. A green light ignited and spat acid into his eyes. He put a damp hand over it, sucked in a deep breath and pushed the door open. He used his left forearm to protect his eyes from the slight glare. A page attached to the ancient community notice board caught his attention. In thick, plain, black print the page said, “Scrupin’s Oxygen Company Needs Your Hidden Brilliance… Come in for an Interview Now… No Appointment Required.” He released the breath and looked to his left where he saw the gatekeeper in his small Perspex dome. He took a shallow breath of the air which tasted like a factory and quickly exhaled it.

The gatekeeper’s red eyes lagged across to him slowly. Dante mouthed the words “morning Peter.” The robotic words “Morning Dante,” crackled back to him through the two-way intercom wired to the perspex dome. Dante moved towards the dome and leaned into it. His one hand rested against it so that he could speak through the intercom. “You can’t keep pumping that nitrogen into your blood. It can’t be good for you ol’ Friend.” said Peter in his electronic voice.

Dante shook his head, looked at the floor and chuckled slightly before saying “Nothing would break my heart more, than to lose out on these intimate conversations.” A smile cracked the old man’s face. Talking to Peter was always a very slow process. Every word he uttered was in time with the ancient rusted traffic light. Dante squinted to see the dull light change in the glare. He stroked the creases next to his eyes and sighed as he looked at the old man. Dante rested his head against the dome still watching the light, but trying hard to keep his lead coated eyes from closing. He checked his watch and looked back at the light. His eyes closed for a second too long and he was startled by the electronic voice.

“Seriously the air out there will kill you; you must find peace in what you have.”

“What? In the D-grade shit that they are pumping into our lungs?”

“Yeah well, it could be worse. You could be anywhere else on earth.”

“I’m tired Pete, I really am. I don’t want to wake up anymore. I want to stay with my dreams. I want to be in a place where boards don’t have to rest dustily against my cracked wall. This world has forgotten me.”

“You need to want to survive. Listen to this old stupid man and let him teach you how to find your heart again. Listen carefully Dante.” The intercom started to crackle.
“You … to….” It crackled more until there was nothing.

Dante lifted his arms and flipped his palms to the black clouds, which still somehow gave the glare passageway to his eyes. He shook his head and cupped his ears in his hands. He waved to Peter, turned and started walking away. He looked back and saw old red-eyes strike the intercom, but he never heard the blows. He walked along an empty concrete pavement which held the hand of an empty street. The only sound Dante heard was a light breeze which stroked the buildings. The breeze blew from behind and pushed him onwards. He walked and walked. The scenery remained constant. Each new street was a repeat of the last. Only the names of the buildings and the roads changed. Fatigue massaged his upper legs. He just carried on walking still driven by the offshore breeze. He saw the bench in the distance. His strides became longer and faster.

When he arrived at the bench he looked at his watch. It was 12:17. The bench still had the words “locals only” etched into it. You would only be able to see it if you knew where to look. Dante always looked at it and smiled each time without fail. He breathed in deeply. He held the air in his lungs for as long as possible, before he coughed it out. His tongue tasted of chemicals and he spat. He ran his tongue across his upper lip and sat on the bench in the style of the locals. He placed his buttocks where the back should rest, and his feet where the buttocks should rest.

He sat and stared. The water washed up against the shore and took some sand with it as it washed back. He looked beyond the shore at the great walls which crashed in the deeper water. Each wave was different. Some peeled so slowly from left to right that an artist would have had time to paint the perfection. Others broke rapidly from both sides before coming together in the centre, closing out quickly and exploding. Every time a perfectly running piece of liquid perfection appeared, Dante would stand on the bench in order to see the entire wave. The beach was littered with signs which made it impossible to follow the wave. The swimmer impaled with a black pole and the thick hazard sign were both bound by the same prohibition. This was accentuated by the words underneath every picture. “NO SWIMMING!”

Underneath one sign was half a board. The foam which jutted out of the broken fibre glass had been smoothed by the wind. The offshore kicked sand up against it. Dante smiled as he looked at the board. He imagined how a large perfect swell had broken it. He could not even fathom why it was so beautiful to him. It was so much more than just another ruined item. In that piece of foam were thousands of rides each one more perfect than the last. Dante’s heart lay in that board even though it was not his. His mind became lost in thoughts of crowded days in warm blue water.

With a sigh, Dante looked at his watch. It was 12:45. He would have to hurry. He stood up and watched one last wave. It closed out. He turned his back on the ocean and started to walk back to the place where he lived. The voice of the offshore breeze could now be heard more clearly. It blew thick chunks of rancid air into Dante’s mouth. Every step was complimented by a cough. He walked with his head to the floor and pushed hard against the wind. Fatigue tore into his legs, but he pushed on. A yellow page blew towards him and clung to his leg. He attempted to shake it off, but it had wrapped around his entire leg. He removed the page and read what it said. The heading of the flapping page was “Final Testament.” The page’s first line was “I hereby bequeath my entire estate to …”

Dante threw the page into one of the many empty waste paper bins placed along the sidewalk. He carried on walking. He looked up. In the distance, glare reflected off the clear perspex dome directly into his eyes. He looked to the floor again and pushed on.

He arrived at the community notice board and pulled the advertisement off it. He waved to Peter who took no notice of him. His tired eyes and crusted hands were still focussed on the intercom. Dante pushed the green button and held his breath while he tapped his foot on the floor. His last few breaths made him feel like he was trapped in a burning building. He tapped his foot faster. The door popped open. Dante rushed into the small room with the wind’s swiftness and closed the door behind him. He waited while a buzzing extractor removed the poison from the room. The green light spewed fire into his eyes and he pushed the door open. He took a deep breath of the D-grade air and walked up to his room.

As he walked in he put the advertisement down on the floor beside his bed. He fell onto the mattress and bounced several times, before his face settled into intimacy with the pillow. Behind his animated, flickering eyelids appeared the clips of his dreams. He slept unmoving until the next day. He awoke. His eyes opened instantly. Sleep had injected concrete into his neck. He got up slowly. His neck cracked through a slow rotation. He pushed his head down as far as it would go. It could not touch his chest, but he saw the page on the floor. He drove his fingers into the muscles which kept his vertebrae in place. Some of the concrete crumbled but most remained. He walked to the open front door and collected the newspaper which sat upon the dirty welcome mat. The headline read “Indian Population Extinct: Growing Concern.” He folded the paper and shoved it into the bin as he moved past the rotten kitchen. The lid of the bin was wedged open like a pelican that had choked on a fish too large to swallow.

Dante stopped in the lounge. He admired the boards again. He walked right up to them. His finger moved over the gun and left a striking yellow trail. He closed his eyes and let the vivid images take over his mind. The blue skies were equalled only by the clarity of the ocean. The air was fresh and the breakers had a calming effect on his mind. He opened his eyes and stared at the yellow trail again. He turned his back on the beauties and left the lounge.

Dante ran his hand across his beard and moved towards the bathroom. As he moved down the narrow passage, his lungs became heavy again. He did not look at himself in the mirror before opening the cabinet. He removed his razor and started running the warm water. The mirror started to mist up. He burnt his face with the warm water again and applied soap to his matted cheeks. He slid the blade into the beard. After every stroke he had to rinse it. Hair speckled the yellow basin as well as the floor. Every rinse of the blade was accompanied by a wipe of the misted mirror. With every stroke the blade became heavier. The muscles which ran across his forearm were in a constant flex. He shook the strain out of his arm once in a while. When done, the mirror became the portrait of a face painted in a pastel red and complimented by crimson drippings. With a grimace his face was wiped using his shirt. He left the bathroom and went into his room.

Coughing bounced off the walls and moved throughout the apartment. He rummaged through his clothing until he walked out the room with a small grey bundle under his arm. He pulled the bedding off his bed and opened the bundle onto his mattress. The jacket and the tie were placed underneath the collared white shirt. He was already pulling the dusty creased pants over his legs. He slipped into the rest of his bundle and went back to the bathroom. He sat on the toilet lid and slid the needle into his veins. His brain spun in his skull and the room became liquid. As the room solidified he got up and left building. He walked past Peter and waved at the old man who still struggled with the intercom. He walked up the road away from the abandoned beach. The old man twisted his neck and stared at Dante as he walked into the distance.

He came to a grey building which resembled all the others. In large green print the name read “Scrupin’s Oxygen.” Dante entered the building in the same manner that he had to enter his own building. A massive foyer was exposed to him. Large white tiles were puzzled together across the entire floor. The air was A-grade. It became a lozenge to his sore lungs. He stood in the centre of the room and looked all around. The ceiling, the floor and the walls all stood in white unison. Each of Dante’s breaths was deeper than the last. There was a large table but the seat reserved for a secretary was vacant. He looked around a little more and found a series of arrows which led him up a flight of stairs and into a broad corridor. He continued to obey the arrows until he came to a massive ebony door. The door was simply labelled “SCRUPIN.”

He knocked and the door slid open. For such a large door it was surprisingly light. Dante snuck his head around the corner like a stray cat seeking scraps. A massive man in a perfect black suit stood at a perspex window, gazing at the unmoving back of a grey building. His shoulders heaved as he coughed and grunted. “Mr Scru… Scrupin?” quavered Dante. The man turned around and smiled broadly. He had no neck and his shoulders were as broad as the massive mahogany desk before him. With a soft white hand he summonsed Dante. “Morning son,” said Scrupin in a salesman’s voice. He grunted again before saying “Come take a seat.” Dante walked towards the great desk and sat in the chair placed before it. Scrupin sat down after Dante. His enormous stomach pushed the desk into Dante, but he made no apology. He opened a drawer on his side of the desk and rummaged through some articles that Dante could not see. He eventually slid a yellow form across to Dante with a pen.

“Just sign in the area where it says eyewitness. Silly formalities nothing serious. Don’t worry son,” explained Scrupin. His speech was punctuated by a series of grunts and snorts. The heading of the page read “Final Testament.” Dante’s eyebrows moved slightly out of place, but he put the large silver pen to the paper. As he did a small squiggled snake appeared on the page. He scribbled what he thought his signature was, over the serpentine figure. He passed the page to Scrupin who shoved it back into the drawer without even glancing at it.

“So,” said Scrupin with another nasal grunt. “Why is it that you decided to apply for a job at my company?” Dante’s eyes widened and he sat quietly staring at the great man. “C’mon boy I know you’re not a mute. I heard you stutter something earlier,” spat the colossal man with another collection of grunts and snorts.

“Well -” said Dante.

“Yes?” retorted Scrupin.

“I guess I just need something to do. I need something to help clear my mind and let me feel again.”

Scrupin stared at him. His eyes became a dark cloud and his jaw clenched so hard that Dante could hear his teeth grind. Scrupin took a deep breath, this time he did not cough, snort or grunt as he breathed out. He began: “It is your breed of lowlife that grates me the most. Not only do you waste your own life, but you come here to waste mine as well. Do you even know what we do here? Let me give you the first lesson you’ve probably ever had, you ignorant cretin.” Dante’s hands went white on the arm rests of his chair. He shuffled, but was unable to get up.

“I save lives here everyday. The air you breathe is the product of my endeavours. Even the drugs that keep you on the street were made here.” His large milky hands shot against the desk and became red. “While you rot away in your little apartment we are finding new ways to prolong human existence.” As he spoke his enormous body heaved. Each time he heaved the desk moved closer and closer to Dante. Each word Scrupin uttered immobilised Dante more. He now sat with his hands against the desk waiting for the next heave. Scrupin continued, “The entire Indian population is extinct and you are looking for a new pastime. Grow up you selfish little bastard! Since you don’t understand, let me elucidate your good fortune to you. You are living in the only place that still holds human life. Do you know what it must have been like for all those less fortunate than you?” Scrupin paused for a short while. The most dexterous butcher could not have sliced through the tension. Dante moved his chair back slightly, but Scrupin heaved again, this time his eyes were violent.

“Imagine burying your sister, then your wife, all your daughters and finally your sister’s children. You then sit and wait to die, knowing that there is no one left to bury you.”
Scrupin stopped and started coughing. It came from the deepest place it possibly could and spluttered out over the desk. Dante waited for a further assault. His heart pounded with fury. As Scrupin’s fit worsened, Dante rose. He pushed the chair back and it fell to the floor cracking a white tile. He walked past the chair but did not pick it up. He stopped at the door and looked back at the man. His eyes shot disgust at Scrupin. He left the building as rapidly as he could.

Dante walked to his building, numb. He looked straight ahead of him. His thoughts were blank and his hands still trembled. He walked past the gatekeeper without even looking at him. When he entered his room he undressed and lay on the prickly mattress. He did not even flinch. He just stared at the ceiling. He thought that he should perhaps wipe away the blemishes. He thought about how long it would take, and about what would wipe the stains away best. He thought of how it would look once it was restored. He thought of the kitchen and the smell. He sniffed but smelt nothing. He looked at the machine above his head and realised that he had not even noticed the incessant humming sound. He realised that he hadn’t eaten in several days, but did not feel hungry. It became darker and the ceiling faded. He did not close his eyes. He lay there the entire night, conscious, but not.

The next morning he sat up straight. He looked at the boards in the corner. He slid himself to the front of the bed and put his feet on the floor. He stood up and walked over to the boards. He ran his right hand over rat-tooth. The dust sucked the moisture from his hands. His teeth were exposed and he ran to the bedroom. He returned as quickly as he left. He had a tiny item in his hand. He lifted rat tooth and pulled her from the corner. Cobwebs followed him to the bed. He placed the surfboard on the bed next to the small item. Dante ran his hands over her, remembering when and how each ding was formed. He collected a damp cloth and stroked her gently removing the dust. She would never be white again, but at least she had been relieved of the dust.

He reached over and took the small item into his hand. He looked at it and smiled as he read “Sex Wax.” He unwrapped the wax and rubbed it onto the board. The section that he rubbed became white. The smell of vanilla moved off the board and throughout the entire room. He looked at the board and was satisfied. He rose and went to the bedroom again where he simply collected a pair of board shorts. He went into the bathroom and emerged clad in the shorts. He stumbled slightly and his shoulder hit the wall of the narrow corridor as he walked back to the lounge. He lifted the board off the bed and held her under his arm. She was heavier than he remembered. He angled her through the door frame making sure the tail and the nose did not hit anything.

He ran out of the building. He waved to Peter and the offshore blew him along the silent streets to the ocean. In the distance he was certain he could hear Peter’s voice crackle through the intercom, but that did not slow him down. He ran past the bench and all the signposts. He put his board down on the sand. The goofy-footer attached the leash to his left leg. He lifted the board. His heart beat like that of a virgin before her first time. He walked slowly into the warm water. He lay on his board and started paddling. He pushed under several waves before he was finally in the right spot. He sat on the board and appreciated the way his face tingled as the wind slapped against it. The water running down his face tasted of chemicals mixed with urine. The only sound he heard was that of waves crashing. The brown ocean was like a massive unsteady magic carpet. The passing swells pushed him up and settled him into a lull again. He sat looking at the horizon waiting for the right one.

A large swell gathered momentum and moved towards him. It jacked up and Dante paddled. The sinews in his arms strained. His triceps and shoulders pulled his cupped palms through the water. His heart pounded, his eyes went wide. He dropped down and with his weight on his right foot, he drove into the wave. He stepped into a glassy broken bucket of euphoria. He weaved his way through the wave, just escaping the curling mist of the barrel. He kicked out as the wave came to an end and sank back into the water. His head rose to the dark heavens and a smile which no wipe-out could erase, appeared. It became the perfect surf. Each time he paddled out to a new wave his chest became heavier. He ignored the burn because each wave held a moment that rendered everything else irrelevant.

Epilogue

The gatekeeper sat in his silent dome. The humming noise had ceased that morning. He still took the regulated breaths, but less frequently now. His head dropped to his chest twice. He lifted it each time. The third time it did not rise again. A yellow sheet of paper blew against the dome, but the eyes that lagged from side to side were no longer open. Above the grey colossus which he once guarded, the black clouds started to lift and the thick band became less defined. The earth breathed, it sighed and started a new rotation.

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