Ambulants

By Bruno George

Kroll’s hands lay slack on the table as if he meant to abandon them there. I wondered what an investigating judge was obligated to do about a man like Kroll, and whether, in calling me to this cafe, the judge now shirked her duty or bent to it. 

The cafe was still shuttered against scorching daylight, now dimming. Soon the night markets would open: divining beetles, sea-petroleum, delicate bottles of attar of orange. A skink without a tail darted up the wall. 

“You’re very quiet,” the judge said. “Have I mistaken myself in you?”

The judge needn't have worried; my autobiography of Kroll would not lack color or incident. Kroll had traveled, and that could go into the book, as could the melancholy of the packet-boat, and waking cold and disconsolate in grimy pensions. A stranger here, Kroll had been overcome by “a disease of the will,” as Kroll had called it. I wondered whether there still issued from Kroll some few of those small, threadlike goings-out which could be called hopes but are actually something subtler and more various, largely hidden, hardly coming up to the bearer’s awareness; we are all of us burred with them; they lend to our souls a kind of slubby nap against which others stick or glide with pleasure or aggravation, other people, also projects, objects, events of a certain order. This napped or ridged surface of ourselves is delicate as the flanged underside of a toadstool. It is subject to collapse, in certain lives. It is crushed.

 “You appear to have depths,” the judge said. “But don’t wear them out. No one likes talking to someone who doesn’t like talking.” 

“I am new to this city,” I said. 

“That can’t be helped, can it?” said the judge. “Immerse yourself; recollect; report.”

From outside came the shouts of water-sellers and lottery-foreseers working the knots and queues of stalled autobus traffic. 

“We know where you’re staying,” said the judge. “You’ll be contacted about payment.”

Kroll rose from the table. 

“Am I expected to begin now?” I asked. “How?”  

*

We kept pace, Kroll at first wavering as if to consult my pleasure in choice of paths. Then he struck a tangent off the ring road, uphill from the harbor and the nighttime souk, along a narrow street lined with corrugated-metal shacks and dead-fronded jacarandas. The book could begin here, with Kroll marching uphill as toward a destiny, perhaps to perish in some strange and somber way. Or let it begin later, on the downslope, as I followed Kroll along a dirt path that ended on a litter-strewn canal-bank. 

The open secret of the so-called sparrows’ meeting place was in all the guidebooks. Some of these particular sparrows looked runty or otherwise plain, as if in flagrant spite of their legend. I hoped this meant the bar was low enough for Kroll to join in—I so wanted to see him hailed or even merely slapped—but he lingered on the edges of the group. The sparrows had come here to play a complicated game. There were no monomaniacs among them; instead, the sparrows had inherited a picture-language, a dramatics, which they wielded with scorn. What mattered was not to declare oneself, nor to lose oneself, but to be seen to operate the picture-language with disdainful ease, the better to gesture to still other schemas, other contents: rich, inexpressible, well known. By twos and threes sparrows would depart for the dark. Gravel skittered down the scree. 

Kroll lingered, forcing me to linger, too, in appearance even more furtive than Kroll. I looked down at a puddle; I thought about fetid water’s integrity as a body, its durable skin. I could not stand to look up from the puddle and see Kroll: his dumbshow of awkwardness, his further dumbshow indicating that this awkwardness was only a costume, that underneath lay passions like anyone’s, like everyone’s. Most painful to me was Kroll’s apparent pride in having concealed from the sparrows what was in truth not at all concealed: that his awkwardness was hateful to him, that he himself was hateful to himself, and that he hoped—in this he was still young—to be proven wrong. It was not sophistication that separated Kroll from the sparrows, or not only. 

Kroll edged closer to a group standing around a trash-barrel fire. Like Kroll, I braced myself for his rejection. How could the sparrows not notice his incompetence, his shocking lack of address? I watched instead their indifferent tender welcome, Kroll’s dazed and beaming gratitude. I told myself that what the sparrows seemed now to give would soon be withdrawn, proffered just this once and then no more, that Kroll did not see this but I did: one day soon he would find it difficult to recall this happiness, though he would never forget it so thoroughly as would the sparrows. To recall happiness is to realize that you are without it, bereft. 

Kroll opened his wallet. He held out a folded bill or maybe a visiting card. I came closer.

“I am not a mystic,” Kroll said.

No one replied. 

“I am not an adventurer,” Kroll added. He shrugged his shoulders and spread his hands wide in demonstration of his innocence. One sparrow snatched at his hand and another took Kroll by the arm. In the dark, Kroll and the sparrows took up the customary poses. Was the picture-language really as limited as this? I stretched myself out on the ground next to Kroll; at once the posture yielded me its idiot thrill but it seemed to say nothing to anyone else. No one engaged me; no one stepped on my head. And yet a convention of the autobiographical genre requires me to furnish this account with sensations. Gravel pricked my palms; I shivered; the earth smelled vegetal, marine. Nearby, a soft sound, as of a nightjar’s rustling wingbeats. Listening to Kroll shriek and mewl, it seemed to me I could stay like this always, in Kroll’s noisy proximity, envious and grateful, when one of the sparrows leaned down and whispered in my ear, “Enough for you.” I stood up and tried to brush the filth from my clothes. Kroll was gone. I thought of asking the others if they’d seen which way he’d been headed. Ship’s horns sounded in the distant harbor. Someone lit a pipe of dense and crumbly kif and we passed it hand to hand, cupping the ember. 

*

The next morning, as I came out of my hotel, I noticed several men loitering across the square. All were men of one type, Type Kroll: indrawn, bowed, dressed in serge despite the heat. I was sure I recognized Kroll among them. With a single glance back at me, the man who must have been Kroll set off down the twisting street, toward the casbah or the funicular or some other vista as yet unknown to me. 

I watched him go. 

I bought myself a tiffin of boiled cashews and returned to my room. Let Kroll look to himself today. Much of the autobiography would consist of scenes à faire: Kroll pays the asking price for pirated video cassettes in the bazaar; Kroll, at the butcher’s stall, stands mesmerized before a flayed sheep’s head black with crawling flies; Kroll goes to the pier to watch the divers plunge down and bring up lumps of sea-petroleum (the water sluicing off their seal-slick bodies, the shock of their ulcerated hands); Kroll lingers in an ancient and desacralized temple, gazing up at the bone-white vault of the ceiling. These pleasures of travel initially disappoint, but, considered autobiographically, each reveals an edifying mortificant: the bitter lure of novelty, the picturesque immiseration of the global south, the hollowness of the self. This much was as good as written already. 

I worked until the shadows had long since lengthened and the lottery-foreseers were again calling out in the street below. Of the projected scenes and their accompanying skein of aperçus, something less than I’d hoped had written itself: Butchered head. Vault. Slick body, black with flies. I was not disappointed. I read the words as Kroll would have; I felt Kroll’s delight on recognizing his own story.

My room had no proper desk; to write, I had slouched in the only chair, a wicker throne woven in the local style. Now my back ached as if I’d been beaten. Everything in the room, even the latticed wicker, radiated heat. I stood at the window, hoping for the cool of evening to come lapping in. Above flat rooftops of staggered heights, the last remnant of the gloaming had taken on a humid, chemical radiance, a darkness tinged with green and violet, as if malevolent spirits had botched the granting of a childhood wish: to breathe the air of distant planets. I touched my forehead to the windowpane. It was warm as blood. Out there, a figure hung from the glass: conjoint, pendant, peering in at me. I raised my hand and I felt a shudder, a lag, in our doubled motion. 

There was a knock at the door. Before I could answer, a woman swept into my room, dispelling phantoms. She had with her a pair of snorting, gasping dogs; their eyes bulged and their tongues lapped the humid air. 

“I am Ndidi Morchiladze, daughter-adjutant to the judge,” the woman said. 

“Daughter-adjutant?” I asked. 

“Don’t let’s stand on ceremony,” she said. “Show me what you have so far.”

“I haven’t written anything yet,” I said. 

“Have you not?” said Morchiladze. The dogs flopped down at her feet and lay panting. 

“The judge mentioned payment,” I said. When a lie is not ready to hand, I temporize. The Kroll-book would have to arm itself. The weak exotica I had concocted—sorrows, vistas, subtle perceptions—all this could lend Kroll only so much cover. Then too, it was not lost on me that the judge knew only one verdict. How else would a judge judge? It might be best to set Kroll loose in the book as nothing more than a plurality of positions, a series of discontinuous Kroll-functions. 

“Don’t overestimate your faculties; you are not tasked with prophesy,” said Morchiladze. “Your memoir has only to fill in some forensic gaps; let us see events from the perspective of this ‘Kroll.’” 

But why always Kroll, I wondered. I might just as well write about somebody named Schropf, or Dozhd. Or Majeroni. 

“Your book will be a dagger in the head of anyone who thinks they can wait the judge out.”

Morchiladze yanked her dogs to their feet. To the accompaniment of a strangled wheezing, she stalked from the room. 

*

I believe that Schropf must have foretold his own death, often, and not only boastfully and foolhardily. Dozhd and Majeroni would have recounted the expropriations and the liberations, the sheltering for weeks on end in borrowed apartments in the ugly new-rise blocks. The flight under assumed names, the beginning of the long wait here in this tropic land. And then Schropf would say that he’d seen another of their countrymen today, another today, as if following them. Schropf had foretold, too, the un-worlding pain of it, and the quailing irrectitude of his murderers, the police. He’d known that he would have to prop them up at the last, hew them to their duty as executioners while they larked and giggled and pitied themselves. 

Schropf had been mistaken in much: there had been no extradition, and consequently no long walk through fog-shrouded streets of home; no eerie quiet in which to gather the necessary equanimity; no faint scent of the city market (salt-cod and cut flowers); no face glimpsed at a slate-roofed gable window, eyes downcast in scorn or love. 

The death of Dozhd had gone without saying: as Schropf, so Dozhd, all their life.

Just before he bolted I made Majeroni promise never to tell anyone how I let him escape: loping, zip-tied and bloodied, over the garbage-strewn plain, unaware how his white shirt shone in the van’s headlights; dragged back, stumbling and sobbing, laid down among them, face-down, like them. How the vault of the sky must have wheeled above them all the long night through; like sleepers, they could not know it; like dreamers, they only thought they woke. 

*

Kroll and I walked along the canal. Snake-birds perched on fence-palings, drying their outspread wings. Kroll had broken cover just after dawn, sauntering out the doorway of a shebeen. I could have caught up to Kroll right then, or at any point since. I hung back. The gravel towpath became a broad cobblestone causeway; we were nearing the city proper. 

The morning was already hot. I had gone without sleep, keeping watch for Kroll’s emergence from the shebeen. Outside, I had had to imagine the scene within: the conviviality of submerged hostility, the slow and fumy self-poisoning from wood alcohol, the dancers and the sharpers and the barman all wrecked on kif and shine. 

By dawn I felt leached of life, parched and hollow. 

“Kroll,” I called out. He might be prevailed on to slow down. 

The morning air was close. Sweat dripped down the small of my back. I felt, rather than saw, a slackening of my perceptual field, followed by a suffusion of dreamily parti-colored spots. I lurched; a wall of ground rushed up at me. 

“Kroll,” I said again, but it came out softly, murmured into the ground. The mud beneath the paving-stones smelled vegetal, marine. By the time I had struggled to my feet once more, Kroll had put quite a distance between us. To gain on him, it seemed to me I had to command my legs with an undue deliberateness, inwardly telling each in its turn, “Go, go.” This effort of mine was registered by that steadfast inhabitant of the pilot-house we all carry high in the crown of our head; he took up residence there the moment we learned to speak; he is no pilot at all, he has merely been on watch all this while, aware of all that comes and goes within the dome spread out beneath him. Thoughts and feelings have been the least of it; he is keen; he registers all subtle, all barely detectable motion: faint tremors, ghosts of abandoned longings, pale shadows that flit by. Now, after long years, he knows us so well he can predict what we will do next, and what in turn will happen then, but he never intervenes; he will not so much as issue a timely warning; he is like a doorman who neglects to tell you that you have had a caller. If only we could prise him from his stronghold.

I shouted Kroll’s name. He seemed to hear me, even at such a distance; he halted without turning around. 

I called out again: “Kroll! I know you, what you are. Confess your aberrant tendencies: mysticism and adventuring.”

I did not know Kroll, what he was. But what other gambit did I have, what appeals did I know how to make, other than imprecations? Perhaps I was the judge’s creature after all. 

Kroll walked on. The canal passed under a bridge and Kroll vanished in darkness. Traffic streamed over the bridge under a brightening mackerel sky. I could see nothing in the darkness beneath the iron vault of the bridge, and nothing beyond that. Kroll might have already walked on. Soon Kroll would make himself part of that rushing world, lost to me for good. Soon, or already, lost to me for good. I hurried. 

“Kroll,” I said as I came into the shadows. I stood still. It was cold in the sudden dark; the air smelled of canal-borne pollutants and whatever ichorous algae survived them. I was afraid I might not be able to resist the temptation to hurl myself into the black water that sluiced and rushed in the dark. I made ready to enjoin Kroll once more to confess to mysticism and adventuring. 

“Kroll,” I said again.  

“Kroll,” said Kroll’s voice in the dark. 

I took faltering steps toward the voice. Space pressed in on me. 

Now I saw how to write Kroll’s book. It would not in the least resemble the one the judge had commissioned of me. To attain the greatest dispersion of Kroll-functions, to array them in unforeseeable constellations, I would have to seize the inhabitant of pilot-house in his stronghold. What he knows, what we will know as soon as we take hold of him, is the discontinuous: the ghosts of urges and recoilings (pale shadows); and how people pressed themselves on your mind and even your heart, before they revealed themselves for what they had been all along, phantoms, nothing but phantoms; and the way we used to sense, while in the grip of fever, that there was another schema behind the schema to which we thought our thoughts appealed. And more than that, the Kroll-book would be written in the language of the pilot-house, which shares not one word with our own.

Kroll did not see the ground rush up at him this time. Gravel pricked his palms; he shivered.

 

Bruno George works as a freelance editor and ghostwriter in Seattle. Under another name, his writing has appeared in Conjunctions, Birkensnake, and elsewhere. He has a terminal degree in literature, for which he wrote a dissertation on French novelist Antoine Volodine.