All Things Bleak and Sordid

by Michael C. Seward

Appears in Other Voices #40

Francis is his own confessor. [I won't allow him anyone else.] He sits on the floor in front of the bathroom mirror and presses one hand against the cold glass. He looks into his eyes and whispers, "What are you afraid of?"

He notices things about his face: a scar on the upper lip, a mole on the left cheek, nose hairs. One ear lobe hangs lower than the other.

Over the weeks he begins playing with his appearance. He lets his beard grow, shaves it into a goatee, leaves long side burns. He has various parts pierced: ear lobes, nose, eyebrow. He lets his hair grow, colors it, shaves his head.

"These superficial changes won't change the fact that you're HIV positive." Janice leans forward on the edge of his tattered couch. [I have provided him a companion; their interaction might prove distracting.] Janice is the only other English teacher at St. Paul's Highland Park Junior High whom he's befriended.

"I'm sculpting myself," Francis tells her. "I'm my own canvas."

She shakes her head. "Kendall was totally pissed when you showed up with a nose ring and pink hair." Mr. Theodore Kendall—the imposing ex-football coach brought on as principal at Highland Park to establish control over the unruly kids and the independent faculty. He is black, opinionated and built. Francis had a crush on him when Kendall first arrived, but after Kendall's first two months—during which he enacted countless rules (students are not allowed hall passes during fifth period; teachers may not exit the building before 3:25) and enforced them relentlessly—Francis realized that order and discipline were much more erotic in theory (and maybe in the bedroom) than in a middle school.

"Fuck Kendall," he says. "He can't tell me how to look or what to wear." Though, in the right circumstances, Francis knows he would let Kendall tell him what to wear and, more importantly, what to take off.

A weekday afternoon. 5:00 p.m. After having corrected a batch of papers, Francis is heading out of school; his footsteps echo in the empty hall. Moans come from the boys' locker room. He cracks open the door: a musty, sweaty smell; white towels strewn about; steam billowing in from the showers. Lying on one of the benches is Kendall, wearing only a jock strap. Water glistens on his muscled chest and arms. He is rubbing himself, groaning. Francis gasps; Kendall's eyes jolt open. Francis stutters, "Um . . . I . . . Sorry." Kendall glares at Francis, points vehemently to the floor next to him. Francis steps into the locker room. Sweat beads on his forehead. Kendall stands up, puts a hand on each of Francis's shoulders and forces him to his knees.

"Don't stop," Francis pleads. "It was just getting good."

"I have other things to consider," I tell him. "What racial stereotypes are being perpetuated through the use of the black stud character? What are the moral and legal implications of the main character's not revealing his HIV status?"

He sighs. "I thought a fantasy was supposed to be a space where you got to forget your political and ethical concerns. Isn't that what makes fantasies so . . . fantastic?" He arches a pierced eyebrow.

I don't tell him that's why I cut the scene off. Why should my characters have more pleasure than I?

So I send him off to lunch with his mother, Constance. Someplace nice—white linen, good-looking waiters in black ties, everything a la carte—because Constance likes expensive and pretentious things.

They're enjoying their coffee—except she's having a cappuccino, the foamy milk clinging to her painted upper lip before she daintily wipes it away with her napkin, and he's having tea—with milk and sugar, the way he likes it: sweet and light. She sets her cup on the saucer with a clinking sound. "Are you happy, dear?" she asks, leaning forward, blinking her large brown eyes behind her designer frames.

He opts for the truth: "I'm tired of being unhappy."

"You expect to be happy with the life you lead?" She puts the cup back down and rubs her hands together, her wedding band clicking against the ruby ring she wears on her right hand.

He stares at her. Finally he says: "I've taken up photography."

"You think taking pictures is going to keep you alive?"

Francis starts shaking, and the narrator, desperate to erase the pressure he's so stupidly included, enters the scene, willing to do anything to prevent a repeat of the painful experience he'd had with his mother. I brush past one of the cute waiters and walk up to Francis, exclaiming: "Francis, old buddy!" I grab his hand and pump up and down. "How's Guinevere?" The two of them glare at me.

Constance opens her mouth, manages to ask: "Who is this?"

I spin around and throw myself backward onto their table, crashing coffee cups and dessert plates, staining myself and breaking the table. They get up, brush themselves off and leave in a huff.

Francis buys a camera and enrolls in a photography course. He spends most of his free hours taking self-portraits. His frequent trips to the photography school become difficult and cumbersome, so he asks Mr. Gustafson, his aging, well-dressed landlord, for permission to build a make-shift dark room in the basement. Francis spends thousands of dollars on the enlarger, chemicals, lights, filters and lenses. "No reason to save for the future," he muses.

In the weak afternoon light of November, Francis sits naked and huddled in a corner. The light from the window casts a shadowy line across his torso. Eyes shut tightly, he rests his chin on one knee. He snaps the shot with the remote he keeps in his left fist. [Is this plausible? Do you believe this?] He wants to recreate the image he sees in his head. He gets up, pulls on his robe and repositions the camera. How useful it would be to have someone there with him. How much easier to stand behind the camera only, while someone else crouches into the corner. He could concentrate on everything else and see the image. None of this guessing. What is his role here: photographer, model, subject, object or medium?

He lets the robe fall to the floor. He coughs. The cold isn't good for his health, but he moves to the corner and positions himself.

Click. Zhhh. Click. Zhhh. Click.

At this point in the story, where the rhythmic pounding of the keys accompanies the un-telling of the tale and the humming of the camera, a calico cat jumps into the narrative and curls into the patch of sun on the floor: green-eyed and faithful. It cocks its head at Francis, as if challenging the main character to deny its right to complicate the plot. When he doesn't respond, it yawns, drops its head, wraps its tail over its face and falls asleep.

Francis turned [past tense—this story is definitely over; it (or something like it) has been told many times]; he shifted this foot, moved that finger, opened one eye. He got a take of each possibility. A coughing fit interrupted him. He stood up, put on his robe, and lay down on the couch. The cat jumped up and nestled itself onto his chest; he stroked its fur.

Later, he attempted a few close-ups: the hand against the wall; his face pressed to the floor; the shadow on his torso. He wanted to capture himself on film: a collection of body parts that would, somehow, total more than their sum.

This story sucks, you're thinking. It's about AIDS and drag queens, but he hasn't made me cry yet. You want this story to make you feel alive. Like me.

Drag queens? Wait, you think to yourself, there haven't been any drag queens.

Enter Guinevere, in six-inch disco pumps, glitter make-up and a long blonde wig. She has creamy skin and penetrating eyes. She laughs too loud and talks too much. She scoffs at everyone, even as she calls them "dear" and "honey." But you know that her arrogance is just her pain scarred over, so you forgive her. And you love her, almost as much as Francis does.

For the first time in his life, with a green Mohawk and a short goatee, Francis went to a midnight drag show. He drank beer and stared at the girls, mesmerized by the thoroughness of their created selves and daunted by the precision and patience that they must have possessed to construct such works of art. He applauded each one madly, scrutinizing every stroke of rouge, every sequin, every carefully chosen high heel.

When the show was over, he remained at the bar, drinking. Guinevere sauntered over to him in her sparkling black dress and said in a husky voice: "What're you thinking about so hard? The meaning of your life?"

He smiled at her. "I spend my life trying not to think about my life."

She laughed, opening her wide mouth even wider. "Honey," she said, "any thought means you're thinking too much. Me?" She touched a hand to her chest. "I've worked it out how not to think at all, while making people think I'm absolutely lost in thought." She rested one elbow on the bar, put her chin in her palm and stared into the distance. Her lids drooped; her eyes grew dim.

"Perfect," he said. "You look really pensive, in the way that only a person who doesn't think about things can be."

She hoisted herself onto a stool. "Buy me a drink."

"What's your pleasure?" he asked.

"You won't get that out of me—not this early in the evening. But I'll have a Martini."

Francis ordered Guinevere's drink and introduced himself.

"Charmed, I'm sure." She held out her hand for him to kiss. She sipped her Martini, told him her name and added: "So, were you really thinking about your life?"

"Let's not talk about my life," he said. "It just accumulates around me, and I seem unable to do anything about it."

"Your life?" she scoffed, sprinkling her dialogue, like so many fags and drama queens, with italicized words. "My life is a tragedy in progress."

"How's that?"

She threw her hands in the air. "Look around you, for God's sake. We're in St.-fucking-Paul. Could this place be any more boring? The only thing that stops me from committing suicide is the variety of the monotony in my life. I keep wondering: what will bore me tomorrow?"

Like you and Francis, I fell in love with Guinevere. She comes into the room now—we moved in together months ago—and glances at the pile of stained clothes I've thrown in the corner. She moves to me and looks over my shoulder as I type. "I have," she sighs, petting the cat in her arms, "experienced many things in my life—all of them dull—and, now, you're putting them out there for everyone to see. These lines—they're even more tedious than the events they relate!" As if in agreement with her, the cat stretches its mouth in a yawn. "My life," she huffs, "sounds as dreary in the description as it was in the living."

I tisk my tongue and roll my eyes. I've learned: she can't not be tragic. And endless tragedy, as with most things in life, just grows fatuous.

At the bar, she told Francis to buy her another Martini. He did. "I suppose life is better than the alternative," she told him.

"Don't count on it," he answered. "Life is pretty much the same as death. Only with much more movement."

She laughed and raised her glass. They tapped their glasses together; she said: "To life."

What have these two got to complain about, I wonder, as they sit around in smoke-filled bars, catching a buzz and flirting with each other? It's my life that has me worried: my present keeps me stuck here at this keyboard, trying to erase my past. But all those little eraser rubbings get caught in my printer, and my future comes out a series of illegible dots and lines.

I could try the past perfect, but I know that it is neither.

Guinevere finished her second Martini, reached up a hand and touched Francis's green hair. "This," she said, leaning forward, "has got to go." He grinned and let her kiss him.

Francis started making poster board collages. He printed dozens of copies of one photo, glued them to a board at overlapping angles, then splashed red, orange, or florescent green paint over them: his face in black and white; his torso in profile, no head, hands cupped over his genitals; a close-up of his nipple—each image repeated, with different parts hidden by the paint. Somewhere on the piece he spray-painted a title: Exposure, Autobiography 45, Revelation or Identity #12. He produced poster after poster, throwing each new piece on the pile growing in the corner of his basement.

He went to newspaper dispensers, put in his change and took all the remaining copies. He cut out the headlines: Man Kills Family, Self; AIDS Ravages Africa; U.S. Economy in Record Growth. He pasted the same headline over and over on a board and glued on copies either of his own photos or of pictures from the paper (blurred likenesses of starving children, desperate mourners at a funeral, politicians making speeches). Again came the splashes of paint and the titles: Boom Times or Miracle Cure or Faith.

He liked comic books, too, especially images of heroes in compromising positions: Superman with a chain of green Kryptonite around his neck; Aquaman held fast on the beach, unable to regain the water; Robin about to be sawed in two as Batman watches helplessly, bound and gagged. Same motif—one picture many times, blotches of paint, and super-imposed title.

"I know what I'd do if I had superpowers." Guinevere stood in Francis's living room, clutching her pink robe closed. The fuzzy wrists and hemline waved in his drafty apartment. He was busy adjusting the settings on his camera. "I'd force men to fall wildly in love with me."

He lifted his head. "You can't force someone to fall in love with you."

"I'd force them to make love to me."

"You do that now—without superpowers."

She put her hands on her hips. "Are you calling me a whore?"

"Well . . . "

"I want you to know, Mr. Artiste-man: your calling me a whore doesn't make me one."


"No. My being one does. I can't help it: I've been cursed with a desire to please. It's what makes me such a good whore. Then again, I like the money. What's your excuse?"

"Who said I was a whore?'

"Everyone's somebody's whore." ["You know I'm right." Guinevere whispers in my ear. "You only write 'cause you hope someone will pay big bucks for these stories some day." She taps the screen. The cat meows, stretches out one paw. I keep typing. Another one of Guinevere's traits that has turned from amusing to annoying: cruelty, which always ends up less attractive in others than in oneself.]

Francis moved the tripod a few feet. "You ready?" he asked.

"As ready as I'll ever be." She dropped her robe.

He sucked in air through his nose. She had real breasts: perky, smooth breasts sloping from her neckline and rounding out with large female nipples. Yet below her waist, a sizable cock hung down. She was, obviously, taking hormones. Francis blinked several times, cleared his throat. Finally, he moved behind the camera and whispered, "What are you?"

Guinevere smiled demurely, leaned forward and stretched her arms out wide, jiggling so that her breasts and her cock shook. She looked into the camera and said: "Gorgeous."

"Look," Constance said, nodding toward a woman sitting two tables away, "you can see her roots." They were meeting in a trendy café, all tiny portions and high prices. In her smart skirt and jacket, black and cut close, his mother looked attractive. "I mean," her lip curled into a snicker, "you know she bleaches her hair."

"Maybe she does," he said, not turning his head to follow her motion. Was she embarrassed, he wondered, to be seen with him? What impression did he create with the clothes he'd bought second-hand: a ragged, oversized topcoat and a pair of ripped jeans, which were now splashed with paint and unwashed? His long face was unshaven.

"Well, you know it's not natural." She shook her head and clicked her tongue.

"What's natural?" he asked, brushing back his stringy bangs. He started hacking, thick and phlegmy. The woman glanced at them.


The cat jumps out of Guinevere's arms and bounds across my keyboard. I shoo it away. "Get out of here."

Guinevere picks it up gently. "No need to get hostile," she tells me. "It's only following your script."

Francis and Guinevere sat cross-legged on his cold basement floor, a barren room reminiscent of this space where I type away. They looked at the poster boards. "God," she said, "these are all so dark. I love them."


"I'm drawn to all things bleak and sordid."

"I was hoping my photography would make me happy."

"Happiness is overrated."

"Since I found out, I've been thinking about my past. I can remember times when I thought I was happy. Now I wonder: was I only fooling myself?"

"Is happiness any less real if it's only imagined?" she asked, then oohed when she saw a collage of Francis naked, lying sprawled on the floor, looking up at the camera.

"That one was really hard. I had to mount the camera on the ceiling and use a timer. I couldn't hide the remote anywhere."

"Let yourself be unhappy," she said to him suddenly, putting a hand on his knee.

He inhaled, closed his eyes. "But I want to be happy."

"Be both. Your either/or approach is so Reaganesque. My God, Francis: life doesn't work that way." She rubbed his knee and laughed. "In fact, life doesn't work at all."

Janice asked him out to a movie. "An escape," she told him. "Besides, we haven't done anything in a while." [Not since page two.] He invited her over to his place instead. He was becoming a shut-in, didn't go anywhere but work and home. Didn't really even want to go to work; he hated the way the kids looked at him, hated the way they felt sorry for him, all the while hoping he would miss more days—more subs for them. He also hated the way he hated them.

Janice eyed the clothes strewn about his apartment, the haphazard piles of photography equipment and chemicals. "This place is so dreary." She pulled open the curtains, and the frightened cat darted into the middle of the room and stared at them with wide green eyes. "Come here, Kitty." She maneuvered her way to the animal and picked it up. "You need to lighten up, Francis. Have some fun." She made room for herself on the couch.

From the tiny kitchen, he shouted to her over the coffee grinder: "That's easy for you to say." He stepped into the doorway. "For me, it hurts to have fun." He went back into the kitchen, clanked pans together, searching for his coffee pot.

With one foot, Janice pushed some of the clutter around. She put the cat down and bent over to pick up a shot of Guinevere. "Looks like you have been having fun." When he came back into the room, she held up the picture of Guinevere's naked body.

"Shit." He winced.

"How long have you been taking nude photos of . . ." She glanced down at the picture. "Girls? . . . Boys?"

Francis grabbed the photo. "Her name is Guinevere."

"And you're her Lance-A-Lot?" She laughed at her own joke.

He groaned, nudged her over on the couch. "She's just a friend."

"But you want her to be more, right?"

"Yes. No. I don't know." He got up to check the coffee, shooed the cat out of his way. "That's my problem: I want what I don't want; I don't want what I do."

"Welcome to adulthood." She patted her knee for the cat to come back to her, but it only eyed her suspiciously from across the room.

I sit here in this chilly room, and the computer screen stares back at me. The words (cat, body, friend) have no substance to offer me, nothing to touch. The objects they refer to elude me, leaving me with nothing but my keyboard and my fingers endlessly tapping.

When Janice left, Francis descended to his basement. He spread his creations around him, sat in the middle of a sea of photos, headlines, comics and splashes of paint. These pictures were the chronicle of his life—flat, poorly developed and monochrome, getting grainier and losing focus by the day. He laughed—just like him to have chosen the wrong medium for his life. "If I'd chosen sculpture," he wondered aloud, "would my life have been more than two-dimensional?" He sat in his damp basement beneath the single yellow bulb and thought how he'd wanted to shape those elements into a work that captured something more than an image. To reveal something beyond the surface, to show you the very things you don't see.

If he'd been hoping that these works would reveal something meaningful, then they were, instead, the record of his failure. This wasn't art—it was mediocrity, the self-absorbed meanderings of an egoist. He snickered again, said aloud what he imagined Guinevere might have said to him: "Could be worse—I could be documenting someone else's unfulfilling life."

Maybe his mother was right: his creative struggle wasn't about revealing his life—it was about controlling it and preserving it. Maybe he had been hoping to use his creations as artificial edifices to stave off impending death.

This story may be a failure, but it's all I have.

Francis will die in a hospital bed, his long hair splashed about him on the pillow. His eyes will bulge out—watery in his emaciated face—as the skin hangs loose from his skull. He will look like one of the children in his works. He will have had to take off from work, but Kendall will have turned out surprisingly understanding, telling him over the phone, a note of concern in his deep voice: "Take all the time you need." Francis will lie in a sterile, white room and stare out the window, too tired even to dream about sex with Kendall.

Your first perusal of the hospital scene satisfies your need for pathos. Then you suspect I've given myself an out—that tenuous future tense. Is this the future, or simply one possibility? Are you angry, feeling had? Being HIV positive is no longer a death sentence. With the new drug cocktails and protease inhibitors, some patients have had traces of the virus drop to undetectable levels. Experts in the field talk about living with AIDS, rather than dying from it. What about the politics of the plague? Are you wondering: How can he tell an AIDS story and not talk about demographics and economics? One more well-to-do white fag with access to the latest treatments trying to get you to relate! What about those being ravaged in Africa? What about the women with AIDS? Those with no health insurance? The rising number of cases of HIV infection in communities of color?

Well—fuck you and your concerns! You are, in the end, just one more character in my head. Besides, Ms. Tubulo told me in eleventh grade English that everyone has a story to tell. This is mine.

So you force us back to the ever-unfolding here and now: Francis, Janice and Guinevere sit in a popular coffee shop on St. Paul's Grand Avenue. Francis orders Earl Grey tea, Janice coffee. Guinevere gets a cup of hot water with a slice of lemon. The waiter sets their drinks down, and the three of them sip their drinks in an uncomfortable silence. Finally Francis says, "My mother loves this place." The topic of mothers animates them.

"My mother is incapable of telling the truth," Guinevere says. "She lies about everything; she tries to decide what it is that you want to hear and then tells you what she thinks you want. Take breakfast, for example. She may have eaten Cheerios and peanut butter toast. But when you ask her, she'll say she had a croissant with Brie and an espresso. Except she pronounces it expresso." Guinevere rolls her eyes. "I tell her she's going to kill herself. Do you have any idea how hard it is never to tell the truth?"

"My mother can't face the truth, either," Francis says. "Whenever anything happens that she doesn't like, she runs away. When I told her I was queer, the look on her face was like: Oh my God, this is so uncomfortable. I'd much rather be watching this on TV. She left town for two weeks." He pours milk into his tea, adds sugar. "A Caribbean cruise."

"My mother," Janice says, "can't shut up. Her response to every emotion is to talk. She's happy—she talks. She's sad—she talks. She's nervous—she talks. She goes on and on and has no idea when she's gone too far."

The three of them laugh, toast to mothers.

"What," Janice asks Guinevere, "do you think of all of Francis's changes?"

"He's just searching, poor thing," Guinevere says.

"Don't take him too seriously," Janice advises. "He takes himself seriously enough for all of us."

The two of them laugh.

"I'm right here, you know," Francis says.

"He gets so ugly when he wrinkles his forehead like that," Guinevere says.

"Tell me about it," Janice adds.

"Of course, "Guinevere explains, "just because he can get ugly, that doesn't mean I don't love him." She pauses for effect. "I don't love him because he never gives me what I want."

"At least you know what you want," Francis interjects.

"Poor Francis." Janice pats his hand. "He's confused about what he wants."

"Could be worse," Guinevere says. "He could know what he wants and not get it."

"Worse yet," Francis says, "I could know what I want and get it."

"No," Guinevere corrects him. "The worst thing in the world is not knowing what you want and getting it anyway."

Guinevere lies naked next to Francis on a blanket on his living room floor. They're surrounded by heaps of clutter. He nestles his head against her chest. Her wig is off, and their two bald heads glow blue in the moonlight.

Francis props himself up on one elbow. "Tell me something nice," he whispers. "Tell me I'm going to live forever."

She rubs a hand over his head. "Of course, darling, you're going to live forever."

His eyes grow excited. "Do you really think so?"

"Well . . ." She pinches his ear lobe.

"Well what?"

"If I tell you a lie because you ask me to and you believe me, who's the fool?"

"You know," he says, sitting up and staring out the window. "You could learn something from your mother. Some lies are nice."

"I'm sorry if I can't be as idealistic as you want me to be." She scratches her long nails gently down his back, tracing over the bumps of his spine. "Besides," she says, "this is the new millennium. Idealism went out with the Cold War."

"I feel," Francis ignores her attempt at levity, "like I'm just wandering around inside myself. And I'm lost." He looks at her, adds, "We should have used a condom. That was pretty stupid. And self-destructive."

"You just described my life." She pauses, then gets up, grabs a camera and snaps shots.

He puts his hands over his face, tries to block the lens. "Stop," he says. She tickles him; they laugh, mock-wrestling and falling back into the blanket.

"I really wanted Francis," Guinevere tells me from the doorway, to remind me that she's still there. "Too bad we never did hook up. Of course, when I read this now, I'm not so sure about my fantasy. It's not that engaging." She sighs. "Not even the wreckage of my dreams is interesting."

I've been typing for hours, and she dismisses my work in one breath. Screw her. I've seen her naked: her cock is not that big. "Why did you lie about my mother?" she asks. "She's not a liar; she knows how to say espresso." From the hallway, she adds, "Have you seen the leash? I want to take the cat for a walk."

"It's hanging on the back of the door handle," I tell her, hoping she'll take the cat and leave.

She does.

Janice and Guinevere are in his apartment, clearing out his things. If he gets out of the hospital this time, he'll move into his mother's spacious, suburban home. His clothes, CDs, television and photography gear they've packed into boxes, which they've piled in the middle of the living room, like large toy blocks.

Constance appears in the doorway, exuding style, dressed in jeans and an oversized wool sweater in a black and white pattern. She's wearing dark sunglasses, and her shoulder length blonde hair is pulled back in a simple pony tail.

"Enter Cruella DeVille," Guinevere whispers. Janice nudges her.

Constance moves over to a pile of boxes, rests one hand lightly on the top, sighs. "The moving van followed me. They'll be up in a moment." She removes her glasses; she's not wearing any make-up.

The other two stand up, stretch. They shuffle around the room aimlessly. When the cat peers out from behind a box, Guinevere picks it up, says, "I'm keeping the cat."

"Shit," says Janice. "His artwork. It's in the basement."

They find Mr. Gustafson, looking dapper with his graying temples and bow tie. He smiles at Constance and unlocks the basement, bows to her as she passes him.

"Over here." Janice heads for the pile.

Francis's mother picks up the top piece. "Oh."

"What'm I going to do with all this?" They've stored the boxes and equipment in the garage, moved his clothes into one of the spare bedrooms. Janice sits on the living room floor with Constance, his work spread out around them on the burgundy rug. Some of the pieces have gotten wet or moldy; some have warped. Most are salvageable. Constance picks up piece after piece, wrinkling her forehead, then laying each down. She caresses some of the pictures, particularly the close-ups of Francis's face. Others she quickly sets aside. "What will I do?"

Janice looks up from the board she's been admiring. "This whole thing sucks."

Constance remains silent, then mutters, "Thanks for helping."

"Do you mind if I keep this piece?" Janice asks. It's a long, thin board with a series of naked photos of Francis. In the first pictures he's raising his arms, tilting his head back, and closing his eyes. In the middle frame, his arms are held high over his head, his head leaning back, his long hair falling loosely about his neck and shoulders. In the final shots, his arms come down, his head falling forward, till, in the last picture, he stands with rounded shoulders and his head leaning forward, hair hiding his face.

Constance barely glances at it. "Keep it."

"Your mother doesn't know what to make of your work," Janice tells him. She sits next to his hospital bed, wrinkling her nose against the pungent smell of sterility. She rests one of her hands on top of one of his. He's stopped shaving (or rather he's told them to stop shaving him), and his meager face seems even more cavernous with the dark beard.

"She doesn't know what to make of a lot of things."

She slaps his hand teasingly. "This isn't easy for her, you know."

He is quiet so long she fears his mind has wandered. At last he says, "My mother has difficulty with anything that doesn't fit into her world."

"You have to admit that some of your work is a bit . . . disturbing."

He pulls his hand away, tries to prop himself up. "Is it?"

"Don't upset yourself."

He breathes in deeply; his whole body shakes with the effort.

For several minutes he lies with his eyes shut, while she strokes his hair, thinking he's fallen asleep. Then, still not opening his eyes, he asks, "What else did she say?"

It is her turn to take a deep breath. "She wonders why you're so obsessed with your own image . . . and why you have to be naked in all your pictures."

He laughs. "She's bothered whenever people reveal anything."

As Janice leaves, he asks her to turn off the light. The machines glow in the dimness; they beep and whir. "You're still afraid," he tells himself. He is afraid—of all he might be leaving behind and all that may or may not be ahead. But his fear is tinged with anger, anger at this illness, at how it mixes up death and sex, at how it taints every aspect of his life. It's there when he's happy, when he's sad, when he's eating, fucking, taking pictures, lying still. It complicates everything. And he is unable to pull things apart any more. He's pissed and scared and tired.

Guinevere is standing in the doorway, her face in shadow.

He sees her and breathes out calmly. "You came." He smiles gently.

"Yes." She moves to the bed; she sees his face and frowns.

"That bad?" he asks.

"No," she says. "That beautiful."

Those scenes are a lie. Even I can't leave Francis in that hospital. Truth is: I don't know his fate. Some newly developed drug might work wonders for him, even if it hasn't for me. Maybe he'll live a long life. Perhaps Constance will take his work to one of her art dealer friends, who'll be impressed enough to exhibit Francis's work. Maybe Francis will become famous, a millionaire artist. I can't say. Last time I saw him was when he came to visit me in the hospital.

I was lying in the bed, listening to the machines click and blip. He walked into the room, dressed outrageously: his hair in a brush cut with streaks of red and blonde; his face clean-shaven; his thin body hidden under a bright, multi-colored tunic/cape. "How you doing?" he asked.

"You think how I'm doing matters to me?" I laugh, easing into the present tense. Then I add: "I've been in more engaging plots."

"I hear you." He pulls a camera from under his tunic. "Smile." A light flashes.

When my eyes adjust, Janice and Guinevere are standing next to him. They look down at me, their faces in the painful expression that people get in hospitals and at funerals: a forced smile, half fake happiness, half real concern. This is what my life has come to—my own characters feel sorry for me. Guinevere strokes the orange, black and white cat that purrs in her arms.

"I hope you don't mind," Janice says, "but I invited someone you know." She points.

Standing in the door, in the flowered polyester blouse I remember so well, is Ms. Tubulo, my eleventh grade English teacher. "I'm not so sure about this paper." She holds up a copy of “All Things Bleak and Sordid.” "I don't think the topic is appropriate."

"It most certainly isn't." Kendall enters the room, causing us to jump with his deep voice.

Before I can defend my writing, Constance walks in, Mr. Gustafson on her arm. She says: "How's our boy doing?" She comes over to me and looms over my face. And before I can respond, she says: "He looks fine."

She steps back, and my own mother walks in, wearing the exact same black cashmere sweater that Constance is wearing. They eye each other skeptically; a flush of red colors their faces. My mother recovers first, walks over to me and kisses my forehead. "Hello, darling. How are you feeling?"

I want to tell her exactly how I'm feeling: scared that I'm dying and angry and happy that they've all come to see me and sad that I may never see them again. But I open my mouth, and I know how tired I am. I opt for the lie: "Fine."

But they can't hear my words. Guinevere has set the cat on the foot of my bed and started performing "I Will Survive." Francis is snapping shots of everyone. Janice and Ms. Tubulo are arguing over the appropriateness of the use of "I" in a paper. Constance and my mother are circling the room, carefully avoiding each other. Mr. Gustafson is torn, uncertain as to which of the stately women he should pursue. Kendall is staring at Guinevere, shocked, his mouth open.

I breathe in and try to take in the whole scene, but they start receding, drifting away from me in a white cloud. I reach out my arms to them, but they slip through my fingers, these people whom I create, whom I loathe and love, whom I long to control but never will.

They fade.

No. It is I who am fading, dwindling to nothing, even as my characters go on. The last thing I see before I completely disappear is the calico cat, blinking its green eyes at me. It sits on the foot of the bed, waiting for the denouement, relaxed yet ready to bound off at the slightest sign of danger.