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Mr.Darkness is the story of the strange demise of House Grigsby — an exceptionally ordinary family living in Manhattan in the previous century — as told from the perspective of Mina, the daughter Grigsby, who sees her life as a movie projected across a dark screen.
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PART ONE: THE PERSONAL FLYING MACHINE
- YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS
Youth is a cliff. You leap, and repair the broken bones later.
When you’re older, you draw the map, retrace your steps and find the cliff’s edge, only to wonder:
Would anyone ever jump if they knew how far down it went?
I jumped, once.
I’m broken in unseen places.
My name is Mina and I lived in your world a long time ago, back before symbiogenesis, a word my father taught me.
Once it happens, my father wrote, it never lets you go.
You may have heard of us, the Grigsbys. There’s some unfortunate fame attached to our family crest.
Howard – my father – was meant (by fate and inclination) to write fiction but ended up being a teacher. He made up words (at times) so I was never sure which were precisely real and which were not, or even if he used them the right way.
He regularly spewed mouth-stuffing words like symbiogenesis and I had to figure them out for myself or quiz him endlessly about meanings. He even manufactured new words, stitching together one called “dungeous,” which had something to do with dungeons and dung and unguents, and another called “febrilliance,” describing the quality of mad genius that arrives as a fever in the middle of winter – preferably February — and never lets you go.
He began suffering from a debilitating and dungeous febrilliance when the muck came calling.
About my father:
“The Right Honorable and Unrepentant Howard Grigsby” — as his obituary read, which he’d typed out on near-transparent onionskin paper using the smudged and sacred Underwood Champion typewriter rescued from his boyhood in Pumpkin Hill, New Hampshire, a million miles from our place in lower Manhattan – “of the once-prominent but accursed New England family, taught chemistry at an uptown prep school for the over-pampered and under-prepared children of privilege though he’d once dreamed of becoming either a famous novelist until he met Melanie Walthorp of the Susquehanna Walthorps or was it the Hokendauqua Walthorps? Regardless, this Howard person foisted the ignoble and nigh-disturbing name of Grigsby upon her. They raised two remarkable children who no doubt have already changed the world for the better and invented personal flying-machines that will send them soaring beyond the clouds.”
Howard made obituaries for each of us by the time I’d entered third grade. We were not allowed to look at any of ours, only his and our mother’s.
When Leo asked him why he typed all of these up, Howard said, “Death is assured, Leo. Once you accept that fact and look it in the face, everything else is a cakewalk. Most Lopsiders are surprised by death, but no Grigsby in his right mind in New York City is going to be. Prepare for the possibilities, you brilliant son and,” glancing at me, “wise daughter. Prepare for the possibilities.”
Our father truly believed that an unheralded disaster might happen whenever you set foot out of bed.
He kept a bundle of the obits in a suitcase in the upper reaches of the hall closet; carbon copies were stashed in his desk at the school where he taught “just to have on hand in case a bomb goes off in the basement and we’re all blown to smithereens.”
Howard was sure a bomb would explode someday. This unnerved me as a child because it actually happened when I was little, not far from our building when radicals blew up a townhouse over in Greenwich Village.
After that, Howard talked openly in public about bombs and The Bomb, the bomb-makers-of-the-world, the Hippie Conspiracy, the Orwellian Keystones, the insidious and commonplace Sherwoods and dangerous Nottinghams, the Raging Radicalites, the Reactionary Lopsiders and the White Collar Drugoons – all of whom were going to blow us to kingdom come one day, believe you me.
He spoke of explosives frequently enough – to waiters, to clerks in bookshops, in line at the movie theater — that my brother Leo became convinced our father’s name must command its own bulging file cabinet at the FBI.
When Howard mentioned the symbiowhatzits word, not a single ounce of the old bravado and bluster remained in his voice.
“To get through life you need a shatterproof heart,” he said. “Mine’s made of clay. I’m devolving, sweet pea, day by day, back to the muck – and oh, what a muckety-muck it is.”
“What about the word?”
“Symbiogenesis happens,” he said, “when two become one. But it can degenerate, too. It’s the deal you make with life. Back to the slime with you, says life. But you know what? It ain’t so bad. It’s what you’re born from.”
He said the word again. Sounds like a made-up word, I said. Look it up, he said, and then grumbled about being too worn out to keep his eyes open.
Symbiogenesis. When two become one.
But there’s more to it than that. Let’s rewind.
The past is a darkened theater; you wait for the movie to come up.
There’s this one scene from when I was small, innocent, ignorant, unimportant, unaware:
- IN THE ZOO OF LIFE
Three of the four Grigsbys went down subway stairs after a museum day.
My older brother Leo raced ahead, two steps at a time, no fear, the splendid boy who resembled our mother in face (peaches, cream, eyes of delight) and hair color (blondish on the edge of angelic), a blur of gray sweater, the bluest of jeans and bright unmuddied sneakers.
My father hung back with me. I approached each descending step as a unique challenge and held, white-knuckled, to the railing. My terror of falling derived (Howard told me) from a tumble I took at the age of three.
I felt the world itself would slip out from beneath my toes.
And it might: the lace of my left shoe hung, undone, ready to trip me up.
In the zoo of life (Howard often said) Leo was a bird – a sparrow, perhaps — and I, a mouse. Your brother leaps and soars and you skitter back to your corner.
But before my brother’s head exploded from the compliment, Howard would turn to him and say, “But sparrows can be annoying, too, so don’t go overboard on all this leaping.”
In that same zoo, my father seemed the impossible love-child of meerkat and eagle, with a Roman general’s face atop a long neck. His eyes earthy brown, his nose a disruptive promontory. Somewhat comical ears showed themselves under thick hair that had grayed prematurely from a once-deep black. On his chin, there was always some scruff, because he often forgot to shave in the morning.
You’ve never seen such a wonderful face in all your days.
Howard grabbed my free hand and squeezed while others brushed past us. I was thrilled with his touch – something about the museum and its cavernous halls and bones and mysteries had overwhelmed me. I could imagine falling down every step that lay ahead, leading down to the trains.
But my father’s hand clutching at mine.
His fingers, warm as toast.
I tried to imagine not falling and the hideous coat I’d had to wear that day because of a bullying and icy autumn wind — and why couldn’t we just take a cab home?
I didn’t know that this would be one of the last moments of my innocence.
Awareness of innocence is loss of innocence, our father wrote down in his famous unpublished novel.
You live in Eden only so long as you don’t know that Eden exists.
We didn’t live in Eden back then.
We occupied a cozy, slightly-cramped, perfectly-nice six-floor walk-up with bad heating and no air conditioning at the tail end of a dicey part of lower Manhattan at a time in history when much of lower Manhattan was pretty damn dicey.
But none of this mattered because we – the Grisgbys – were a spectacularly special family, having escaped a curse.
Our branch of the Grigsby clan sideswiped fate when my father moved to New York City. He cut all ties to his stuffy, stodgy and unwholesome New England relations, all of whom were named for mythological characters. Hypocrites! Fisher cats! Ruthless and rude guests who flip tables on you! Using sweet words and petting you until their leash becomes a noose and they throw you on your back and tear out your insides, all of them rascals and charlatans, moneygrubbers and prevaricators!
But we escaped it all — and why? We rise above, we have the personal flying machine of hope and love and those three unassailable, immutable laws that are the glue of the social contract. Why, Hammurabi, Moses and even Ben Franklin never put it so simply!
These were among the famous Sunday sermons – which had nothing to do with church or Sunday. They happened mostly when either my brother or I were about to break an unassailable and immutable law of the universe.
Our father fell into the Biblical cadences of his lecturey voice to make sure We. Un-der-stood. Ev-er-y. Sin-gle. God-damn. Word.
“Lie, cheat, steal – my family did it all for generations. You may as well piss on yourself as do that. But we’re breaking the tradition. You can cuss a blue streak, you can tell me something abominable right to my face, you can reach in my wallet and take cash right in front of me, you can bring home straight Fs and I won’t bat an eye, but if you so much as tell a fib for reasons of killing the truth, take something that’s not yours without permission, or use crib notes in class or write answers on your hand or copy someone else’s answers because you want to ace a test — you have just fucked us all for another generation and possibly double-damned any future generations, too.”
Later, I’ll tell you more about the whole issue of using foul language in our family; it was a tradition. But now, back to Howard:
“It’s a blight on the crop of existence, and you’ll feel it and it’ll spread like – like – like,” and here he searched his brain bank for a word that we’d need to look up in the dictionary later, “like pellagra and we’ll have you to thank when everything falls apart. Better to flunk out. Better to starve. Better to feel the sting of a whip on your back. Better to hide in humiliation in a hole in the ground. There’s more honor in it.”
And then he’d add – every single time — “A little luck doesn’t hurt, either.”
We were luck personified, what with our cozy, slightly cramped, perfectly-nice home and our stunningly, achingly beautiful mother and the sunlit brilliance that was Leo (named for Da Vinci of course) whose recent I.Q. test had come back with a score of 1,000 or more (I guessed), and the multifaceted misfit me and all the movies we watched, museums we hit, record shops we ransacked, bookstores we overran — and the way we had more freedom than most children our age.
Life, our father taught us, was to be spent.
“Some families hoard days and keep them under lock and key,” Howard said. “But not us. We, the New and Improved Grigsbys, get out, we don’t let anything tear us down, not rain, not snow, not stupid people.”
Saturday was meant to be filled up with adventure until it overflowed. Let’s rush here, there, grab a hot dog, a pretzel, laugh at jokes, stare at people, make up tales of wonder, travel the museums of the city for as far as our legs could carry us, talk about millions of years ago as if it were more important than that very morning.
This particular Saturday, during a post-Natural History Museum high, we chattered about extinction, dinosaurs, woolly mammoths and things that vanished but could they be, my father asked us, still here? Unseen? Somewhere no one had yet looked?
Waiting for our homebound train, Leo practiced his newly-famous Tyrannosaurus Rex imitation. I battered my father with questions about the coelacanth I’d seen.
“Meen, it’s not Koala-canth,” Leo said, stepping away from his T-Rex. “It’s See-luh-canth.”
“Your brother’s right.”
See-luh-canth, See-luh-canth, I said in my mind ten times over as I remembered the exhibit with the strange fish with its odd tail that was rounded and creepy, and that sea-monster face with nasty teeth.
“There are probably coelacanths everywhere,” Leo said, as if he genuinely knew this for a fact. “In the river. In the sewers. Coming up through the toilet to bite you.” He slapped his hands together and wriggled them like a fish in water.
Howard shushed him and told us to look around. “Your brother’s only half-right. Dinosaurs of the future might indeed walk among us.”
“Like a Bronchitis-saurus?”
(“Brachiosaurus,” Leo corrected me.)
“Maybe. Or just things that never evolved. Or possibly a Lazarus Taxon.”
“More a whatzits,” Howard said. “A weird creature we thought was just a long-extinct fossil but then it shows up later. Alive. We find out it’s been here all along, maybe hidden or just unnoticed. We’ve been arrogant to believe it was ever gone. Like your coelacanth.”
“Like Mina,” Leo said, doing his T-Rex again.
“But everything already got discovered,” I said, ignoring the boy-genius beside me.
“Not on your life,” Howard said. “We don’t know the half of it. There may be earths beneath this earth and skies beyond the farthest skies and people within people. Imagine that. Even in a place like this, Lazarus species could be lurking in disguise.”
Leo made his usual obnoxious comments about my collection (“She wants to find one of those Lazaruses and put it on her shelf with all the other fucked-up whatzits,” which was genuinely not far from the truth at that particular moment) and my father regaled us with the brief story I’d heard a million times about one of our mythological cousins and “dinosaur pawprints” in New Hampshire granite because (according to the gospel of Howard) “New Hampshire was once the beating heart of prehistory.”
I let their chatter harmonize with the hums and thrums from people around us waiting for the subway, across whose faces I panned and tilted my eye-camera in case I might spy a lobe-finned fish somewhere among them reading the New York Times and wearing a crisp white shirt and fat lemon tie.
That’s when I first noticed the boy with the stain on his face.
There were certain people you avoid looking at for too long when you wait for the train. This boy was one of them.
He stood in front of a movie poster that showed a handsome man grasping a beautiful woman in a lip-lock.
He wore a faded sweatshirt with pulled-up hood, under which brown pine-needle hair thrust out.
The unblemished part of his face was pale. The purply discoloration began just above his left eye and flowed — an amazon river — from eyelid down. I imagined it ran all the way beneath the sweatshirt.
I wondered what the fossil of him might look like.
Beside the boy, an old lady sat mumbling in a wheelchair.
My father called her Miss Havisham in honor of a “a lady who caught fire between the pages of a book.”
We’d noticed her several times before, always in the same place.
“Glad to see she’s out and about,” Howard said when I pointed her out.
Miss Havisham wore faded ribbons entwined in her limp, gray hair. If you got too close, you could hear her mumbling and if you drew even closer, she’d talk about someone coming to meet her and she had to look her best for the dance. When you looked in her eyes, it made you want to cry.
“Why doesn’t she ever go home?” I whispered.
“This may be her home.”
“People live here?” I said, slow to understand. “What about her family?”
“Some people don’t have families,” Howard said. “Or anyone who cares. And – in this elevator world of Lopsiders — if you ain’t goin’ up, you’re goin’ down.”
“Poor Miss Havisham,” I whispered. In a second, I’d created her entire life as an elevator dropped twenty stories, which left her somewhere in the vicinity of a hundred years old, with unmendable legs at the subway station.
“You’re not really sad for her,” Leo said, reading my thoughts. “You’re sad because now you got to think about her. You never in your entire life ever thought about anybody but Mina Grigsby.”
“Leo, enough,” Howard said. He reached in his pocket, pulled out a couple of dollars, told me to hold out my hand.
My fingers closed around the crisp bills.
“She can probably use it,” he said covering my hand in his, making me feel toasty again. “Don’t be afraid.”
“Yeah, she only bites if your coat’s ugly,” Leo said.
Why did I have to be the one?
I stepped over to the wheelchair without looking at Miss Havisham’s face. I pronounced coelacanth in my head. My hand trembled as I held out the money.
“Here,” I said.
Havisham chattered to herself, picking over the ragged blanket on her lap. I caught the words “dance,” “he’ll show up,” and “my escort,” but the rest was a jumble.
The stained boy stepped between us, looking at my curled-up fingers as if he were hungry.
“It’s for her,” I said, ready to swat him if he so much as touched me.
The boy drew his hand along the dark side of his face. The purple color turned greenish as his fingers pressed down against the skin. Something changed in his face then, something seemed lizardy about him, or maybe even coelacanth.
My father called out my name.
“Mee-nah,” the boy repeated, as if it were a foreign word. “Don’t be afraid.”
In that moment, his skin became translucent. Something glowed beneath; a firefly lantern came up and then died again.
In my head, the word: Lazarus taxon, even though I couldn’t say it out loud.
I felt as if the world around me was nothing but shadows and everyone else was a thousand miles away.
The boy darted toward me, a jack-in-the-box. I took a deep breath. The stain, his pine-needle hair, his hood, his gray eyes — all of it — hovered in front of me as if I were in the first row of a movie theater and everything on screen had grown gigantic.
I saw a creature beneath the skin of his face, something terrible and dark and twisting within a soft light. An odd curiosity made me want to reach out to touch him where the light came up.
Less than an inch apart, nearly eye-to-eye, his lips parting slightly, my vision blurred.
The word kiss came to mind.
“Afraid,” he whispered.
The light of the world began blinking. It was like watching one of those old silent movies, where people don’t speak even when they move their lips and they live in black-and-white and they flicker strangely whenever someone moves as if there’s a blank spot of pure and blinding light between each frame of film.
Time resumed, the film ran, color and sound exploded, and the boy drew back as swiftly as he’d moved into close-up.
Leo shouted a warning “Hey!” the way he did whenever someone got too near me. His voice brought me to the surface: the boy, the poster, the old woman in the wheelchair, the subway station.
The sound of an incoming train; the rush of wind as it approached.
I tossed the money on the old lady’s lap. Skittered to my father’s side. Grabbing his hand, I tugged him toward the platform’s edge and didn’t look back even after we sat down inside the train.
“You see it?” I asked my brother.
In my mind, I ran through a dozen words to describe what I thought I’d experienced.
“The Lazarus whozits.”
“Taxon,” the genius said. “Lazarus Taxon.”
“The one with the scar thingy? What, was he a coelocanth? You see his tail? Because they all have tails, those little monsters.”
“He tried to kiss me,” I whispered so quietly I was afraid Leo wouldn’t hear me.
“You’re funny,” Leo said as if I were not funny at all. “Well, Mr. Lazarus Taxon probably recognized you as one of his long-lost Taxon cousins. After all…” He didn’t need to mention the rest of the mean and false story he liked to tell about me.
“I am not a Taxon,” I protested. But I suddenly imagined myself with round fish-eyes, a green-gray coelacanth with a lobe-finned tail and the ability to crawl from water to land.
My brother (barely noticing my furled eyebrows and intense glare) turned away and began debating (loudly and obnoxiously) with Howard about who would win in a battle between a Tyrannosaur, a pack of Troodons and a Raptor.
It was the first time I wondered whether my head was screwed on right. I grew nauseated while I sat there, feeling every lurch of the train as it rounded curves, imagining Mr. Lazarus Taxon, the way he looked at me and said my name, the stain on one half of his face.
What had glowed under his skin? Had he meant to kiss me? Why would he do it? Who was he? What did he want?
Everything seemed less solid.
The scene would’ve ended there, if I hadn’t looked around at other people on the mostly-empty train.
I noticed a girl sitting far down at the end of our car, all by herself.
I was almost afraid I’d see another face beneath her skin, too. I was seized with a brief but intense sense of panic. I no longer felt as if I were inside my own body.
I nudged Leo and tilted my head in the girl’s direction.
When the girl noticed us staring she turned to face the window, covering the side of her face so we could see nothing but her wavy brown hair and the back of her hand.
She got off at the next stop.
“That girl looked just like me,” I whispered to Leo as the train sped us homeward.
“She did?” he said as if he hadn’t noticed anything unusual. “What if she’s you and you’re not who you think you are? I mean, you’re very convincing playing the part of Mina, but are you really my sister? What evidence do we have of this?”
I floated outside myself. I didn’t even think I walked right anymore; I loped; I paused; uncomfortable in my skin; I looked down at my untied shoe and did nothing about it; my ignition didn’t quite start fast enough.
I suppose I was at that age where you always over-imagine and then wonder for the rest of your life what was real and what was not.
You imagined it, I concluded in that particular moment.
I became certain of this the more the minutes ticked by and the ordinary world of what’s for supper and can we get Channel 4 if we twist the antennae around and who forgot to turn off the hall light all materialized once the comforting walls of home surrounded me again.
The sense that something else lurked under the boy’s face began to seem silly, yet I couldn’t shake my memory of it.
Childhood contains its own insanity. Your mind spins through film clips of the stranger who is you:
Drawings you made in school of half-bird, half-machine animals. Two scary movies last month when the TV worked. The crazy thoughts you had when the lightning storm woke you. Dinosaur exhibits and skeletons and dioramas at the museum and obscure and difficult words for them and your stupid thoughts when you heard about coelacanths. A man in Central Park who terrified you because he sold hand-puppets with loopy eyes. The grease blotch on the kitchen wall that you and Leo made more real by naming it. The strange words in bubbly letters scrawled on the subway tunnel walls when your train whizzes past. You begin to believe you travel through the house late at night when your body stays behind in bed.
The flash of memory cuts between all these strange moments while you just sit there and listen to your mother or walk over to the counter to pour yourself a cup of milk and you know you’re just a kid and you know that you’re wrong and everyone else is probably right, but you have a moment when you think: what if they’re not?
What if I saw a firefly lantern under the boy’s skin? What if he is a Lazarus Whozits?
The stained face with its strange glow fused with a brief memory of standing on the grass in a city park watching another child hold up a glass jar full of fireflies on some summer night.
The flashing of fireflies like stars inside the jar, and then the boy’s face again, the diffuse light beneath his skin.
It was as if my mind tried to make sense of it all while switching channels.
I went to check my collection of beautiful broken things, all of which stood safely in a row on the small shelf over my white-with-gold-trim dressing table upon which I mainly kept my seashells and very little involved with dressing.
I picked up each little ceramic nothing, turning the Dutch boy left and right to check to make sure the chip where half his head had come off still was in the correct place; rearranging the little dog and cat and pig, each with paws or hooves or ears missing; the glass swan bottle topper that was cracked in a way that was perfect as the entrance to another world of Great Glassland; and then the other three, which were some headless figurines I’d found together as they’d escaped their executions by leaping into the trashcans near the Polish diner where Howard liked to take us for his Sunday afternoon excursions of potato pancakes and sausage.
All of them seemed in their usual spirits and nothing from my off-kilter almost-kissed world had tampered with them.
At the kitchen table between forkfuls of mysterious casserole, I asked Howard about Lazarus Whozits again and he explained the term as best he could while my mind ran the film of the boy in the subway and the girl on the train. Each time I rewound to those moments, I believed less and less in my own original memory movie and began to see lobe-finned fish swimming in a lake of fireflies from which a boy with half a face arose.
You could add special effects to rememberings.
What I thought I’d seen became preposterous by bedtime. At that point, I figured I’d imagined everything except for the threat of kiss. The world was made up of walls and blankets and pillows and photographs on a wide dresser and traces of my mother’s perfume as she sat down at the edge of my bed with an unlit cigarette in her hand.
When I calmed down enough to think I was just batshit like my mythological grandfather and had better hide it from everyone or risk being put in some asylum, I asked Melanie — my mother — about kissing and boys. What it meant, was it scary, what did it do to you, why did people say ‘give me a kiss,’ and what were you giving and was it always about love?
“Why you want to know?” Melanie said. “Something happen?”
I mentioned the movie poster of the kissing couple. Not officially a lie; parts were just left out.
“Well sure, in movies, that kind of kiss means romance.” My mother came over and sat beside me. “But it’s just make believe. You know how you cry in movies? Whether they’re sad or happy?”
She put her arm around my shoulder and pressed her cheek against the top of my head.
“It’s because you know life is never going to be as good as it is up there on the damn screen.”
My mother combed her fingers through my hair.
“Same way with love,” she said.
These sequences of memory go dark when I think too much about them.
Few of them ever burst into a blizzard like the famous February day when House Grigsby met the beginning of its demise with the first hints of the dungeous febrilliance to come…
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