Robert D. Kirvel
Robert D. Kirvel, a Ph.D. in neuropsychology, is a Pushcart Prize (twice) and Best of the Net nominee for fiction. Awards include the Chautauqua 2017 Editor’s Prize, the 2016 Fulton Prize for the Short Story, and a 2015 ArtPrize for creative nonfiction. He has published in the UK, New Zealand, and Germany; in translation and anthologies; and in two dozen U.S. literary journals, such as Arts & Letters. A collection of 22 interrelated stories, Predisposed, is slated for publication in London during 2018. Most of his literary works are linked at https://twitter.com/Rkirvel.
Passion at Daybreak
Exercise yourself then in what lies in your power—Epictetus, The Manual
Despite the inexcusable hour, neighbors rejoice at the racket from an exterminator van pumping poisonous cocktails into a building local news hounds would have little difficulty recognizing. From one side of the mobile unit on which a mammoth bedbug is painted, a hose spills through an aperture to snake onto pavement and trail across the sidewalk. Beyond an entry and up one flight of stairs leading to a door marked 2C, a portly man in coveralls removes his half-mask N95 respirator and guides the supply line back out to the street.
Across the pavement, a passerby pauses at the café–bakery. He seems to stare into the distance as dawn advances to gold. A woman waves a panicky arm at the exterminator, now curbside, as if to flag him down though he is not ready to leave the scene. She yanks the front of a blouse to expose her midriff and points to grape-size welts, crimson and unyielding to the touch. She yells above the din.
“Do these look like bedbug bites to you?”
The exterminator tilts his head and toggles to the “off” position the compressor switch and pump. A mechanical roar reverberates and fades.
“No, lady. You might ought to see a doctor though.”
Apartment 2C, in which a single invertebrate no longer writhes, is the location to which forensic investigators had been dispatched the previous week for several purposes, including identification of a “foul odor” (reported by residents of the building and neighbors across the street), subsequently determined to be cadaverine, a chemical with the composition C5H14N2 recognized by the informed for its mephitic aroma as one of several benign byproducts of decaying organic matter. In the case of 2C, decaying matter sloughing from a human corpse. That of an 83-year-old mother bedridden for years. Cared for by her single son. Or so acquaintances assumed, but, in fact, left to starve on her mattress then stew for weeks in her own—as gleeful reporters applied the euphemism—“filth.”
Now the pedestrian enters the neighborhood bakery that is flush with the fragrance of oven goods and angles toward the take-out counter, squeezing sideways between close-set tables where loners stare at smartphones and a pair of roughnecks hunch over coffee mugs. The new customer is a young man, neither handsome nor unattractive but shorter than average and possibly of slender build, although the galabeyah hand-sewn by his grandmother obscures details of his physique. The coffee drinkers mumble an exchange in tones that he either cannot—or prefers not to—encode. He places his order at the counter as one of the seated men questions the other at a volume none can fail to hear.
“He’s prime, that one, Harley. Ain’t that prime?”
“Pure-breed idiot knows all about camel poop. Knows how to smear camel poop on that dress of his and make it all fancy.”
“Got the nose for it, Harley.” The tough guys snicker.
After settling the tab and collecting his takeaway, the young man must pass en route to the door the same table. The beefier of the two seated individuals feigns a yawn and extends both legs into the aisle.
“What’s your problem there, sweetheart?”
The young man clutches the takeout, his expression that of someone abruptly returned to planet Earth after a starship journey. He shakes his head as if to clear airspace and steps over the heckler’s ankles.
“Sir, I don’t have a problem.”
“Hear that? He don’t have a problem ‘cept for the big attitude. Ya catch that tone, Harley?”
“Damn hostile for a camel lover.”
As the door closes behind his back, unfiltered sunlight breaks the horizon to assault the exiting customer’s retinas. He is startled by a backfire from the exterminator van as it departs but interprets the sound as an explosion, which, in turn, conjures the struggles his parents faced in their arid homeland, one step ahead of turmoil that could take a turn for better or worse, good or evil, with no apparent logic. He half encodes disembodied voices—collective moans and snarls—of the city that is now home, and his heart thuds not at coercions implicit in moments past or present but with expectation of something ahead that drives him down the sidewalk as if demons were in pursuit or a savior beckons from the future. After racing across intersections, he rotates a key in a lock. Taking the stairs two at a time, he unlocks an apartment door that swings wide to admit strains of a soprano aria from a pre-recorded radio broadcast. Puccini’s “In questa reggia.” In this palace.
His pulse does not settle as he sinks into a chair. Now, in this refuge, he leans toward the computer monitor and opens an AutoCAD file to access work in progress. Breath comes faster at the thought of what he is plotting, dangerous imagery that has charged his spirit since leaving the apartment minutes before—or, truly, since awakening to the predawn light—an ongoing mission inviting blood to surge under the skin.
Only this matters now. One conceit.
The image on the monitor fires his imagination as it morphs into a three-dimensional structure. It is an undertaking worthy of mental and emotional focus because no one has imagined its like before this morning. He greets his partly formed innovation as a friend in the making, organic architecture as art, a theatre in celebration of humankind, half resident in computer memory and half still evolving in his mind. A breathtaking detail shivers toward realization with strokes on the keyboard, each manipulation of a mouse reaffirming originality as an enterprise that warrants passion in an arcane world.
© 2018 Robert D. Kirvel