Saskatchewan by Angela Woodward

“I need to get off the phone,” I said. “Lizzie’s waiting for me. I have to take her to get shoes. If you’re still feeling upset, call me back in two hours.”

I thought two hours was enough for her to settle herself, and I was surprised when the phone rang and it was M. again, going on as if there had been no intervening time, about the incredible noises her housemate made when she did the dishes, crashing the silverware against her plate, even taking extra silverware out of the drawer and hurling it into the sink, in the early afternoon when M. had just sat down to compose.

“You should ask your friend to ask her to move out,” I said, but the friend who had lent her the house was unreachable in Europe. He, also a composer, had gone to the Czech Republic with his Czech wife, leaving M. his Saskatchewan house to use while she worked on a commission from the Japanese Broadcasting Company. She hated writing for shamisen and shakuhachi, but it was expected of her, because she was Japanese, and so of course had to embrace her nationality in her music, she couldn’t just write the sound of the wind and the waves but had to translate it into the tones of nationalistic folk instruments so that her audience would feel assured of their Japanese-ness, that they were okay being Japanese though the Japanese were fuckers, so bad, you wouldn’t believe, can you believe it, what they had done, what they had written, what they had carried out, the kind of music and art they promoted, their crimes and corruption, their lies and deceptions, their politics, their newspapers, really, Angela, can you even imagine how evil they are?

Well.

It didn’t matter. Not only was the young student the composer with the Czech wife had also left in the house with M. making M.’s life unbearable with her ungodly noise, but a bum had taken up a station against a wall across the street and was watching the house. She had seen him pissing on the wall. Can you imagine? she asked me. Every time she went out, if she didn’t see the bum, she saw the stain of his piss, and smelled its stench. Now he was following her. One day she got on a bus, and it started to rain. A woman, also Japanese, had loaned M. an umbrella. She had gone to her house the next day to take the umbrella back, and they had had tea.

I wanted the address of this kind Japanese woman who had been kind to my Japanese friend, as I didn’t see who could help her and she was obviously in the midst of a breakdown. “You have a friend John in New York, right?” But she wouldn’t tell me John’s last name. He was an old guy, timid, she actually hardly knew him. I remembered that he worked for one of the music publishing companies. He might have edited her work, if composers have editors. But he probably would not have been up to advising me on what to do with M., how to get her out of Saskatchewan. That’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t see how she could stay there in that house with the student and the noise and the bum that was watching her. I didn’t know what she might do. She had told me such funny things about herself. She had done an earlier commission for the Japanese Broadcasting Company, and had taken her elderly mother with her to the fancy concert and fancy reception. She had bought an elegant dress, but she didn’t have a bra to wear under it. She never wore one. So she put bandaids over her nipples.

What an extraordinary person she was, and how kind to me. I considered her a real artist, and myself just a craftsman, a skilled artisan with good work habits. She had a brighter spark than most of us, and I knew her for two years before it occurred to me that her luminosity centered in mental illness, in these aural hallucinations and fears of persecution. The bum, she told me, had put devices in the walls of the Canadian composer’s house. He was listening to her, and probably passing information to the Japanese government. Only then, when her fantasy was so obvious as to be cliché, did I think that she was schizophrenic. All the time I had known her, she must have been this way. She had complained endlessly about the director of the residency where we both lived when we met, who rolled her office chair across the wooden floor, making an ungodly racket when M. was trying to write. “Fucking Denise,” she said. “Can you imagine?” This was the sturdiest piece of her frail English vocabulary. Everything started with “Can you imagine?” Then “fucking Denise,” or “fucking Shostakovich” or “fucking Finale,” the troublesome music software she was compelled to use by the string quartet in Berlin who had commissioned the piece she was working on then. Before, she had written by hand on staff paper, but they wanted her to use fucking Finale so they could read it. I had tried to help her call Finale’s technical support, fucking technical support, who didn’t understand the rhythmic figures she was trying to write, their complexities, can you imagine, the bar line wouldn’t come down in the right place, the fucking software was dumbing everything down, fucking Finale, fucking software, fucking Berlin.

She had been married once, she said, or as good as. Something had happened, and she moved to New York alone, knowing no English at all. He had had a girlfriend after her, who was wicked and manipulative. He drank a lot, had gone to bed drunk, and there had been a fire. The girlfriend had saved herself, and not gone upstairs to wake him. He died. He was a writer, and a well-known one, but she never told me his name. I would have liked to read something he wrote, something imbued with her spirit. Once, she said, some artists she was working with had cut down a big tree, and they held a concert in the forest where she blew through its hollowness. She had written for monks, an oratorio that went on for hours. Even the monks were just barely strong enough to hold out through such a long piece, she said.

A different friend, a sane one, told me about an experiment at her school’s family science night, where people sat down at a table, one arm on the table, the other in their lap. Where the other arm might be was laid a realistic rubber arm. The subject, looking down at the table, saw two arms, one their own, the other this fake rubber one. Then my friend, the experimenter, would do something to the rubber arm, like hit it with a mallet or stab it with a knife. Sometimes, she said, the person shrank away, and seemed to feel the pain in the fake arm as if it were real. Other people could bang away at that fake hand and laugh. She mimed striking the rubber limb with a rubber mallet, but I was already almost under the table, crying and cringing. I felt in my real hand the pain in this fake hand that was being narrated to me by my friend, the blow on the fake hand having happened days earlier, in another place, to other people entirely. None of my limbs had been engaged in this malleting or stabbing. It could have happened to me, though, couldn’t it, that someone might strike my hand, and I would flinch and scream and beg them not to do it again. I as good as had a bruise already, could feel the blood streaming onto the table, could see my tendons laid bare by the brutal attack.

I couldn’t leave M. alone in Saskatchewan, prey to her fantasies of being followed and recorded, smelling the piss, tortured by the clatter in the sink. Our phone call went on for an hour solid, until I made my fake excuse about my daughter’s shoes. The second call was just the same. She hadn’t calmed in any way. I would have to go there and rescue her, however that would work. We had once gone to Wal Mart to buy socks. It took hours. She went back and forth across the store, comparing the women’s socks to the men’s socks, tearing the packages illegally open so she could feel the thickness of the cotton. I was there to get anti-itch cream for my chigger bites. I would have been in and out in twenty minutes on my own. M. kept pointing out cheap clothes I could buy, a hideous black blouse that would not show dirt. “Good for teaching,” she said, meaning that I should wear this to work, where I was undoubtedly an ugly drone. Often she told me I looked nice, or at least okay, telling me what colors she thought suited me, and that simple things looked best on me. She seemed to imagine me at my teaching job as some other woman, stooped and shy, in a ruffled collar and puffed half sleeves. That woman would never marry again, and would fritter away her talent on her talentless students. I refused to buy the blouse, to even touch it, but as we crossed the store again to feel the socks through the packaging again, she found it again, still optimistic, the rag, that I would take it home with me.

I didn’t know how to rescue her from Saskatchewan. I didn’t know what city she was in. I was by that time teaching again, and finding the wherewithal to leave suddenly for Canada to calm down my friend did not go over well with the dean. Why was I responsible for her? the dean asked. I wasn’t related to her. I was in fact the person who answered the phone, and let her talk for an hour, then call me again. It wasn’t much of a friendship. I was merely the most convenient receptacle for M.’s madness. Her condition had nothing to do with me. I didn’t want someone like that living with me, did I? Was that what I was proposing? To make her dependent on me? He wouldn’t forbid me to go, but he wouldn’t consent to it. I had lowered myself immeasurably in his estimation by even considering doing anything for my friend. People who became deans, it seemed, had a hard sheen to them that allowed them to deflect other people’s difficulties. That was in essence what made someone a good administrator, this exoskeleton, which I so clearly lacked.

The experiment with the rubber hand had been used as an entertainment at the family science night, but its implications were supposed to be a kind of hope for those with amputations and prostheses. If the mind could be tricked into believing that a fake hand in front of it was its own hand, then the mind could possibly eventually learn to control a replacement limb, to treat a man-made concoction as its own. This assumed that the one with the prosthetic had a kind of empathy for the apparatus, was willing to adopt it. My friend of the family science night had described to me people gleefully smashing what looked like their own hand, bringing the mallet down and laughing at their imperviousness to the blow. I would have been good at manipulating a prosthetic hand. I would treat it like my own, take care of it, even if it was ugly, and bitter, and made of gnarled metal. No matter how repulsive my prosthetic hand was, I knew I would feel what it felt. I would understand its longing to be like the other hand, and to feel flesh, to pet rabbits, to shake with firm confidence the red mitt of some dean or president or chief or salesman. I would take to heart its fears and nightmares, always under threat as it probed the world, so unprepared. I would comfort it. I would fly to it. I would protect it.

 

 

 

Angela Woodward‘s collection Origins and Other Stories won The Collagist 2014 prose chapbook competition and will be out from Dzanc in 2016. Her novel Natural Wonders, also forthcoming in 2016, was the winner of the 2015 Fiction Collective Two Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. She is also author of the collection The Human Mind and the novel End of the Fire Cult.