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Excerpt from

Spencer Dew

A child' s mind exaggerates events, plucking moments and images from their contexts, dipping them again and again into the wax of memory, where they are turned into monuments or monsters. There is no meaning to childhood, but we make it so.

Stuart Decker drips with rain, watching the winter sky, metallic, twisting and curling like a guardrail at an accident site. Stuart Decker, amateur occultist, occasional pedophile, professional vendor of antique pornography – lithographs and etchings mainly, but some photographs – knows well that the images of childhood do not melt away, but are imprinted, eternally. The stories told to us then become our myths, our sea of significant facts and narratives, out of which we must construct everything that is, later, to come.

In home movies, Stuart Decker remains an infant, swaddled like a girl in panty cloth, saccharine and floral, his bindings matching the wallpaper, the wainscoting, the doorjambs, yellow onto the very ends of yellow. He was a foster child, adopted out of a sense of dissatisfaction – or so he felt and then believed – with the two daughters the couple had naturally birthed. “We always wanted a boy,” his new mother told him, hugging him close, her chin pressed to the top of his head, her scent – one of desiccation, powdery, a chemical attempt at floral – enveloping him in stifling warmth. Here began an association of comfort with suffocation.

Night after night, he watches these home movies, with a hand mirror, clinching the muscles of his face, teaching himself not to cry. Among the group with whom he meets on Friday nights, Stuart is the most marked by such surface emotions, the most prone to weeping, to feeling faint. He does not, like the former priest, feel pity, but he suffers from regret and regret' s stronger double, a sort of ill-defined nostalgic longing, a desire for a different past, or for the conscious option of alternatives, always stretching backwards and forwards in time.

Friday – some Friday, any Friday, every Friday – Joe wheels into the kitchen, chewing on an unlit cigar, a cigar which will remain unlit until, much later, the book is removed from the table. He brings out drinks on a tray attached to his chair; he does not let his guests open the refrigerator door. They meet here, Friday after Friday, because Joe is the only one of them who owns a whole house, complete with a basement, from which muffled sounds are sometimes heard. Joe is a former policeman, retired early by the force after a series of minor infractions and larger suspicions. Frank, who drinks fortified wine, is a defrocked priest, unique among the friends in his devotion to penitence. He has been transformed, in his terms, by what ruined him. He wears turtlenecks, so all that his friends can see of his extensive branding, scars, and self-inflicted tattoo work are the marks on his hands, his face. The fourth friend, Wally, is a formless lump, flatulent and addicted to candy, which he eats most often in novelty gummy shapes, spiders and worms, coffins, skulls. His theories of race possess extreme nuance, arguing that the Irish – no offense to the priest – are non-white, technically, a sort of botanical anomaly, closer to plants than to beasts. He is a Negro, which he holds up as an example of his objective interest in this research; he, like the Irish, can have no part in the Kingdom, should it be established. Currently, he feels the last best hope would be the Finns, a true white country, pungently blooded – Finland, thick with an uncorrupted and self-generated people, hailing from a gene pool of ice and incest. Wally lives with the remains of his sister, dried, tied together with string. He has taken to drinking vodka shots, to raising the glass and saying, “kepis.” They are the only friends any of them have.

Stuart Decker thinks of each individual consciousness in the universe as a sieve of flesh, synapses, hair. We forget more than we will, in any given instant, ever know. This matters to Stuart Decker. He senses a secret submerged there. He thinks of things he has forgotten as a chronology of gaps, blank frames. He sees a girl on the bus home that reminds him – the way she checks her nylons, at the knee – of a guardrail, blown open, frayed at the ends. He clutches harder to the pole, wipes his nose on his sleeve. The bus passes a school, the sound of children playing. Stuart forces himself to look away.

His is a life straddling the atrocious and the smutty. He studies, through a magnifying lens, images of amputees from the Crimean War. He stains, with a whimper, the glossy pages of a toy store catalogue, little girls in plastic playhouse castles. Like his three friends, Stuart disavows a belief in normal morality. Frank has a complicated explanation about the Godhead, hierarchy, and human politics. Wally calls it an invention of the Catholics, period – with no offense intended. Joe calls it bullshit, shutting the fridge door quick, before Stuart can quite make out the shapes inside. Yet something, still, remains wrong with his life – if not immoral, at least incorrect, ultimately unsatisfying. His desires, plainly, are never, once he fulfills them, what he wanted.

Thus he turns to the films, preservative-treated memories.

In his dreams, every night, without fail, he finds himself a child again, taking a tour of a cheese factory he' d seen, at six years old, on a family outing to the Wisconsin Dells. These dreams defy decoding, or so he tells himself, waking sweaty, nauseous, and hard. All he knows is that it feels like the black eye he' d once been given by a particularly quick and viciously resistant six-year old girl: a slow ache just under the stabbing pain, a constant shame barely below the waves of spiked, visceral recollection.

The yellow tongues of a highway, little Stuart playing that game, half-asleep, his head against the window, imagining scythes of increasing size, slicing down the trees, the fences, the cows and cows and after a few minutes of nothing but cows, the hills, too, rendering a new, flat, topography. Little Stuart in his Sunday suit, short pants and polished shoes, with buckles, a cap that strapped, via a slim elastic band, around his chin. The guardrail—

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