Garrett Rowlan

IS AHAB, AHAB

I am Opal Thorndike and I’m not. I’m a sliver of self-consciousness that has never metastasized into her thoughts, if she has any. I’m inside her and inside a novel scribbled by an unreliable, maybe incompetent, narrator. It’s a protean world of typos. Eyes and hair change color from one moment to the next, stairs become elevators in mid-step, and streets disappear around corners. Opal never notices these things, the jumbled landscape of a careless creator; I do. I knew from my beginning that I was in word-woven world, fashioned by hasty description. The things that she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see gave birth to me, born in the residue of a reality in need of revision.

As is her marriage. In the front room, Chad stands holding a marble paperweight. Seeing Opal button her coat, he lifts an eyebrow.

“”Business,” Opal says. “Some papers I forgot to sign at the office. It can’t wait.”

“”It can’t wait at eight in the evening?” He frowns, wrinkling his low forehead into faint baffles. “Opal, is everything all right?” He waits, perhaps for her to confess an affair. “You haven’t been yourself lately.”

Meaning he hasn’t been getting any. For the last couple of weeks Opal hasn’t been in the mood. Part of it is worry over tonight’s encounter.

“”I’ll be fine,” Opal says.

Chad nods. His strong-jawed features are of a piece with the spacious living room and, past sliding glass, the calm, reflective swimming pool with its marble Poseidon beside the diving board. Opal touches the knife in her pocket, just to make sure she hasn’t forgotten the weapon, the kitchen blade she plans to sink into the gut of Jacob Maddox, the man she is going to see. Chad smiles. I wonder if she thinks about slicing him, just a little, make those handsome features crimp, or if there’s a little homunculus inside him, someone like me, thinking of slamming that paperweight, which he taps against the palm of his left hand, on Opal’s skull: Shake things up, shatter this elliptical moment, shows us who we are. Yet nothing happens, as always. We only move as our strings are pulled.

I feel the author rummaging in Opal’s head and squeezing out words.

“”Nothing’s wrong,” she adds. “I’m fine. It’s just business, that’s all, just some papers that have to go out tonight, without fail.”

Chad brushes his hand through his abundant hair, that same pointless gesture I’d always thought I’d take out, if I were writing the book I’m inside. Yet it’s not his hair he comments on, but hers. “You’re not the same as a blonde.”

“”After tonight,” she says, “I’ll be myself again.”

Dead, I’m thinking, but myself, seizing my freedom in suicide, after she kills Jacob Maddox. (Opal and I are in agreement on that one.) I hope I’m strong enough to will my thoughts into action, storm the palace of her consciousness, and have her kill herself. It’s a positive act, believe me.

She walks. The front door squeaks as she opens it and the sun hovers in summery apogee. Idiot, I tell the author, it’s supposed to be a winter night. Someone must have been listening to me, which happens from time to time, for the scene shifts, thank you, and the world is revised. The sun is dimmed, the full moon shoved onstage, and the sky inked. The Italian cypresses throw down narrow shadows as she approaches the car, which has changed models five times. Now it’s a Lexus. Inside, her reflection trembles in the rear view mirror that tosses back high cheekbones and large blue eyes, thick, tumbling blonde hair—it was black until a few days ago—and a mouth long and sensual. Opal doesn’t see a reflection, only a face to present to the world, or to Jacob Maddox in this case, whereas I see through her eyes a riddle, Opal as both a paragon and a puppet, phrases pinched into flesh.

She descends from her hillside house and drives west on Sunset. The buildings and grounds of UCLA recall another Opal, in a brief college sojourn, reading Moby Dick. Call me Ishmael. I think it was then I was born, this small bit of consciousness inside an imaginary character, that part of her that must have known that she was a chimera, clasped to an identity. Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? She must have nodded, reading that, maybe without even realizing it.

Is Ahab, Ahab? Am I, me? It’s an old question, complicated by a world that’s a fake. By its inconsistencies Opal should have known that she was inside a novel under dubious construction, its reality emended and deleted and moved by the ministrations of a cut-and-paste technique. Even father’s suicide was redone. First he blew his brains out, a graceless exit that she forgot (but I didn’t) in favor of the second, in which he jumped from a fashionable freeway overpass, Sunset and the 405. (Location, location: Father worked in real estate.) That death has haunted Opal, and me.

We pass the spot where he jumped and, on the 405, we head south and I recall how she/I left school to become an actress, appeared in three films, and at the age of twenty-five, retired, bought the boutique, and got married to a caring millionaire. Opal Thorndike has it all in a world writ on paper—or almost all, for she’s wants to be a mother and, almost thirty-one, isn’t one yet. As the author willed it, Chad’s semen is low in the tadpole department. She’s still without a child. She sometimes thinks that another man, or an affair, would give her what she needs.

Right now, however, her thoughts are on the death of her father. She wants revenge. I do too, and yet I want to honor it with my own demise. When she plunges to her death I’ll die too. When Francis Henshaw entered the picture, a week ago, Opal saw her opportunity. Francis, an old, minor associate of Jacob Maddox, had called, saying that a meeting would be worth Opal’s time. When Opal met Francis in the same Century City hotel that is her present destination he wore a suit, shades, and a fedora whose brim he nervously fingered across the table. “Relax,” she told him “Take off your head.”

He reached up, plucked his head off his neck, and put it on the coffee table with the hat still sitting snug across the temples.

“”I’ve got no love for Jacob Maddox,” the head said, speaking from the table while the neck pooled with brimming blood.

I called for rewrite, and it arrived. He took his head off the table and put it back on his neck, giving himself a little locking twist at the temples. It’s nothing new: Typos terrorize. I’ve seen the errors and the emendations. I’ve lived them.

Like everything else in her world, Opal Thorndike never noticed the fix. “Relax,” she said, “Take off your hat.”

Francis compiled. With his bald head secured to his shoulders, he leaned forward. He had unshaven cheeks, filmy teeth, and a pincushion nose. “Your father and Jacob Maddox did some business together, a long time ago.”

“”I know.”

“”What if I told you that Maddox was responsible for your father’s suicide?”

Opal blinked. “What are you here for?”

“”I want what you want.” He lowered his voice. “To kill him.”

“”And who’s Jacob to you?”

“”Family,” Francis said. His sister had married Jacob Maddox, he told Opal. Filled with remorse and cancer, she confessed to Francis, the week she died, that the land deal had been a swindle. “He knew the highway would be coming through that swamp, and that the state would pay many times per acre what he paid your father.” His head listed with a conspiratorial tilt. “It wasn’t just the money. You father trusted Jacob. He was betrayed.” The idea made Francis shake his head, which remained attached to his shoulders. “My sister was a fool too. She loved him. He abused her, took her money. My money, it should have been. The marriage was only for the papers.”

“”So why are you talking to me? Why not go to the press?”

“”There’s nothing you could prove. It’s only the word of a dying woman whispered to an old, bitter man. You want revenge you have to do it yourself.” He leaned forward. “I tell you one thing, some people in his organization wouldn’t be sad to see him go. And someone else wouldn’t, either. I’m talking about Vanessa Vanes.”

It’s to her that Opal now drives into the evening’s haze, blue and thick as carbon paper. Cars pass her on the freeway, each going to its own plotted assignation. I wonder if Opal has ever thought of swerving her car into the next lane, metal on metal: just to puncture reality: All visible objects, men, are but as pasteboard masks. That’s Ahab’s world and mine, and hers, but she doesn’t see it, but I’ll make her see it in the moment before she dies. Her attention right now is fixed on a sentimental freeway billboard for a health-care provider with a mother gazing in loving concern at a daughter. In moments like these she hears her own biological clock ticking.

The Overland off-ramp approaches. Taking it, Opal soon nears Century City, whose skyscrapers suggest taller, truncated structures. Passing the hotel, she sees the top balcony that is Jacob Maddox’s room, which she doesn’t know is the point of my planned plunge to freedom, following my impending coup of consciousness.

No heroine with everything Opal has would jump to her death. It will prove her freedom, her reality. It will be an existential act, a defying of the will to find the happy ending that her hack creator wants. Imagine his surprise—and I think the author is a “he” by the salacious way he has sculpted Opal’s body—when the character vanishes off the page. It will be freedom, proclaimed in a big bloody splash of self.

In the hotel’s underground parking lot, Opal takes from the car’s trunk a plastic bag with a short dress, spiky heels, and an envelope. With surreptitious glances, she changes in the back seat from her sensible slacks and blouse. Her body lithe and limber from the gym she attends, she manages the twisting and turning of this constricted dressing room. She gets out of the car. She enters the hotel. Five floors up, she knocks on a door that opens. “The money,” Vanessa says, and makes a quick count of the loot in the envelope Opal hands over. She doesn’t do anything for free. Not even betraying a lover.

“”We’ve only got a few minutes,” Vanessa says, closing the door. She’s Opal’s age, though her life has worn her around the edges, and her laugh lines are not from laughing. Opal sits facing a dresser mirror. Vanessa applies makeup, her mouth bowed in concentration.

“”Working together again,” she says.

She and Opal met in Opal’s third and last film. Later, Opal met and married Chad and established the boutique. Vanessa’s was an older form of commerce, and thus Jacob Maddox. The phone rings.

“”Yes, I’ll be up in a minute, darling.” Vanessa makes a kissing sound and disconnects. She touches-up Opal’s face and hair, already dyed blonde and cut to resemble hers. “You’re ready.”

“”You bet I’m ready.” Opal shows her the knife. Vanessa squeezes her hand.

“”Twist it for me,” she says.

“”Why do you hate him?”

Vanessa shows her the scar. “With the belt,” she adds. Opal nods, leaves, and takes the stairway up seven floors in case the elevator has a hidden camera. Catching her breath, she exits on the top floor and walks forty-seven steps and knocks. She turns, giving the fisheye her left profile. It’s the side where Vanessa has drawn the mole that along with Opal’s altered hair color and skimpy dress and scented bosom will be her passport to this room. The lock turns, the door opens. Opal enters. The hotel suite has a wide bed and an open, sliding glass door that gives onto a balcony with a waist-high railing and a view of city lights pressed against black. The door closes. From behind, Jacob touches her waist.

“”Vanessa darling,” he says. “I’ve sent them all away.” His cold breath, its faintly fetid air made medicinal by mints, curls around Opal’s neck. “You don’t know how long I’ve waited for this moment.”

“”Not as long as I have.”

Opal opens the purse and removes the knife, but as she is about to swing, a strong hand grabs her wrist. A young, muscular man in a blue blazer drives his thumb between the knuckles of her second and third fingers. Opal’s hand opens, and the knife falls to the floor. A second later, she’s thrown on the bed.

“”Opal Thorndike,” Jacob says, stepping around the young praetorian who has disarmed her. “You’re my favorite film star, a brief but inspiring career.”

As Opal tries to rise out of bed, she is pushed back.

“”Either you do what I say, or I’ll have you arrested for attempted murder. Vanessa will say how you came to her room and wanted to dress up like her. She didn’t know you had a knife in your purse.” He’s a tall, aging man, thin and almost wizened, wearing thick glasses over eyes that are round, almost bulging, carrying an aura both of avarice and self-contempt. “Really, do you think there is any other way you would have gotten up here alone, that is, if you didn’t have something I was interested in?”

“”What do you want?”

First, Jacob addresses the bodyguard. “Take the knife and leave,” he says, and the young man does, though with a last look back at Opal and a wink she doesn’t understand. The door closes behind him.

Jacob, taking a gun from his robe, tells her what he wants, and it’s the gun that really does the talking, and I wonder if some memory of Opal’s father’s first suicide—the gunshot in the shed—lingers, and presses her into obedience as Jacob tells her what he wants. Entering her, he mutters a string of expletives whose theme is female submission and which ends in a groan. Finished, detumescent, he reties his robe. He yawns. The gun he puts on the table beside him. “Your father was a fool,” he says. “Like father, like daughter.”

Wiping a tear off one cheek, she sits on the bed’s edge. It is a low point in her life. “He believed too easily, just like you.” Jacob scratches his nose. “Believing Francis Henshaw, the man’s an even bigger loser than his sister.”

“”And Vanessa?”

“”Once a whore, always a whore; which I suppose is true of you too.” His fingers make a dismissive gesture. “Get dressed and leave now.”

Opal rises from the bed. Soiled, humiliated, she looks at the balcony and I know what she’s thinking, a dash and a dive and she’d be free of the shame and disgust. Yet even I don’t want this, not this way, not seeing Jacob’s sleepy half-smile and clinical eyes as he watches Opal.

“”Whores like to wash up afterwards,” he says. “That’s been my experience. You can use the restroom, if you wish. It’s clean.”

She does just that, grabs her dress and purse and goes into the restroom so that he won’t see her cry, and after she closes the door she opens the purse and pauses.

She sees the knife.

She understands the bodyguard’s wink. She knows what to do. She pulls on the dress and walks into the room.

He sees the knife, picks up the gun. “Don’t make me. I’m planning to run for governor, the publicity would be bad.” He stands. “What happened to you is just politics in another context.”

She doesn’t care, not about anything. A rage has taken possession of her. She raises the knife and walks toward him. He points the gun at her and pulls the trigger. The hollow click surprises them both, and when the pulled trigger clicks a second, third, and fourth time without discharging a bullet, Jacob throws the gun at her. She dodges it. His eyes come alive with fear. She lashes out, the blade misses, cuts the air, cuts again and again, glinting slices like ribbons of light. He moves back toward the sliding glass door that opens onto the balcony, onto which he stumbles. He topples backward toward the railing as Opal slashes. He leans up against the railing. She points the knife at him, forcing his head back until his thin, gray hair hangs over two hundred feet. The yoga classes have done wonders for her flexibility and strength, and allow her to grab a leg and lift. Jacob’s head is tipped down at the fulcrum of the railing and he falls. He yells.

Then it’s my turn. I make my move. I can feel myself bursting through the threshold of her consciousness. I can feel my thoughts seeping into hers as she looks down and sees traffic crawl and people walk, leaving faint patterns on the plaza below, a kaleidoscope changing shape, moving except for the red splash forming on the circular driveway leading to the hotel’s entrance. “Did you hear his scream?” I ask her. “It was the shout of pure being. Now it’s your turn. You’ll be more real than the cement that breaks you.”

Opal doesn’t listen. She leaves the room. She drives home and broods. She passes her thirty-first birthday in two weeks, another childless year gone, another cake, this one made tasteless by guilt over Jacob’s death.

It’s then she realizes that she’s late for her period, which she thinks is stress over knowing she killed a man, but when the doctor says she’s pregnant she feels vindicated, even blessed. She tells Chad, kind, understanding Chad. As for Jacob’s death, a publicist will say, He’d been unhappy since the death of his wife.

Inside Opal’s body, inside Opal’s mind, I see it all just as she slides into the stairwell as the elevator bell chimes, indicating the arrival of security on the top floor. As she descends, the stairway continually doubling back, I feel her making a double helix, the geometry of genetics, the impression of the life she does not know yet is growing within her, and which signals my demise, the end of that private, little voice that says none of this is real.


Garrett Rowlan is a substitute teacher in Los Angeles. His stories are forthcoming in Cigale and Santa Fe Literary Review.

Print Friendly