The following is from Lynne Tillman's collection, The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories. Tillman is the author of five novels, four collections of short stories, two collection of essays and two other nonfiction books. Her novel No Lease on Life and her second essay collection What Would Lynne Tillman Do? were nominated, respectively, for a National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction (1998) and in Criticism (2014).
Madame Realism’s Torch Song
The other night, as he sat near the ﬁre in Madame Realism’s study, in the place where chance had made them neighbors for a period of time, Wiley said: “Things go on we don’t know about. They happen in the dark, metaphorically sometimes, but maybe you don’t want to talk about dark stuff now.”
“Marilyn Manson,” Madame Realism said, “told someone on MTv that Lionel Richie was the heart of darkness.”
“There’s the light side. But it has a shorter life.” Wiley struck a match.
“It sparks, ﬂares, burns, burns out.”
He turned from the ﬁreplace, where he was watching the ﬁre, to her. Wiley looked grave or intent. Madame Realism felt strange, the way she often did. She hadn’t known him very long, and, for a moment, he spooked her. Then he returned his attention to the hearth.
“Fire’s positive, negative, amoral, not capable of reason, which reminds me of something…”
“Are you going to tell me a ghost story?” Madame Realism asked.
Wiley’s large, almost childlike eyes were a silvery gray, like his hair, but his irises were ﬂecked with brown and yellow, and especially when the ﬁre caught them, they luminesced like a cat’s. He stoked the ﬁre, and it leaped higher into the air.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” he asked.
Tonight Wiley’s manner or words or tone or bearing bordered on the dramatic. Did she believe in ghosts? She felt ghosted. Ghosts had a place in her vocabulary. Did it matter if they existed? She expected to be haunted by her past, and bodies kept turning up. Wiley might be someone who knew her differently from the way she knew herself, or he might be someone she once knew, disguised. His voice soothed and disquieted her. It was oddly familiar, but then lately everyone seemed familiar, which was a benign kind of horror.
“You and I are sitting together, talking. We came here to get away, and far off, in a place you’ve never been, or at home, something is happening that could undermine your plans, a lover is slipping out of love, or someone is scheming against you.”
Madame Realism noted to herself that she’d found a dire soulmate, another paranoid. Wiley nodded circumspectly or as if he’d heard her thoughts.
“We have very little control, all our small plans can be overturned in…”
He snapped his ﬁngers. It was an old-fashioned gesture. His ﬁngers tapered elegantly at the ends. In another life, he might have been a Flamenco dancer.
“In politics, nothing is really hidden. In your life, if someone moves faster, or decides to play hard ball, or has a scheme and you have a small role, or you’re a bystander, or an obstacle, your life changes. We’re ants, or tigers, or rats, and we run from one place to another, avoiding or ignoring what’s probably inevitable. Something, an enemy, could just…”
Wiley tended to ﬁnish his sentences with his hands, and this time he moved his left hand in the air, drawing a line through the space in front of him.
Madame Realism focused on the ﬁre, because his eyes were becoming impenetrable, like colored contact lenses. She stared into it, seeing and not seeing, hypnotized or lulled. His words and pauses were the soundtrack to its chemistry.
“But it’s important to let things develop, even in the dark, because surprise is like ﬁre—positive and negative. So I like found poems and objects, and this may be crazy, but I make things disappear, just to ﬁnd them. I study ordinary actions and reactions and all kinds of innocent signs. The collision of uneven things provokes a third element.”
Wiley clapped his hands together.
The ﬂames burned indifferently in the ﬁreplace, and Madame Realism thought of alchemy, which usually never came to mind. There was a time, she supposed, when art and science were indivisible and the place where they fused might have been alchemical.
“Do you love ﬁre?” he asked.
“I don’t know if I’d call it love.”
To herself she proposed: Imagine life without fire. But she couldn’t. The world was raw, endless and empty. She got no further.
“I’ve considered pyromania,” she went on, “but I don’t know what it’d be in place of, unless there’s an inﬁnite parade and you could love millions of different things. Would pyromania substitute for heterosexuality? I could be attracted to men and want to start ﬁres and see them burn, while watching handsome men put them out.”
Wiley stared at her now, with open affection. She thought about the true marriage of opposites, attraction wedding repulsion, and a headline: Pyromaniac is a Fireﬁghter.
Earlier she had started the fire that glowed now by twisting single pages of old newspaper into rodlike forms and placing kindling on top of them, arranging the thin sticks of dry wood into a configuration she’d never tried before, but which Wiley had employed, effectively, when Madame Realism first visited him. He was, in his words, “originally a country person, adept at firebuilding.” His wife had disappeared two months or years ago, Madame Realism couldn’t remember now, and he didn’t say more about it or her. He went about building the fire, patiently teaching her his surefire method, which she hadn’t yet perfected.
“What matters to me,” Wiley said, “is the subtle experiment. It appears insigniﬁcant but breeds results no one would expect. Unexpected results from ordinary things are wonderful.”
Not unwanted pregnancies, she thought, and poked the ﬁre, which was alive and raised its red-hot head quickly. She always wondered what ordinary was. She always thought she would remember which was the best technique to start a ﬁre, but she didn’t. She didn’t write anything down; she relied on memory. She didn’t like tending a ﬁre; she was easily distracted. She didn’t like having to watch it to make sure it kept burning.
“I don’t want my illusions to protect me,” Wiley said, warming to his subject. “I need to protect them. I have to distinguish between fantasy and evidence, the world outside me. I want to produce fantastic things and control the things I make and do, but I also don’t. I’m caught in that drama, a two-hander, but they’re my hands, so I’m playing with myself.”
The double entendre dropped plumply at her feet. Wiley didn’t seem to notice; he was inside his own theater. Madame Realism hesitated.
“I don’t want to be manipulated,” she said.
It was an ugly word, but she pronounced all its syllables distinctly. Then she added: “But sometimes manipulation is fun. So maybe that’s not true.”
Tonight the fire caught easily, but she didn’t know why. Yesterday she had placed the kindling in approximately the same way, and it hadn’t. There was a blazing ﬁre now when yesterday the ﬁre had died out, because of the wetness of the wood or a slight difference in the conﬁguration of the kindling and small logs with which Madame Realism always began or because she had become absorbed in other matters. Maybe she’d forgotten she’d started a ﬁre.
“That’s the battle,” Wiley said, seemingly out of nowhere or out of no place she was. Was he thinking about manipulation? Or ﬁre?
“What I love most I can’t control,” Madame Realism said.
Like conversation, the immediacy of it, and how she never knew why it had started, what its necessity was, where it was going to end up or what its lasting effects might be, if any. Conversation was ordinary, but it was also an unforeseeable element that allowed for eruptions in the everyday. Madame Realism saw herself vacillating inside the grid, with other creatures, temporary set pieces on a chess board. She often wanted to leap into the corny unknown. Something about Wiley and his wondrous eyes—Renaissance orbs—encouraged that longing. But escape, she’d been told a million times, was impossible. It also had predictable forms and outcomes.
“In ordinary encounters,” he went on, “we expect people to hold up their end of the bargain. If you or I did something strange at dinner, didn’t pass the salt, or if you didn’t answer a friend’s ‘how are you?’—something as nothing as that—the whole situation would become tense, people would get angry, and all you’d done was not respond.”
Madame Realism considered responses, his and hers, and the ﬁre’s. A ﬁre dies out, when it’s not tended, not responded to, but it could do the opposite; it could spread rapaciously, but if she were in the room, she’d notice it, because the heat would become overpowering. I’d sense it, she thought, though sometimes when Madame Realism was working or on the telephone, she did not notice something that could, if not checked in time, hurt her. a ﬁre might spread quickly and overcome her. If she didn’t escape fast enough, she could be badly burned, maybe suffer grotesque disﬁguration, requiring costly surgery to return her face to relative normality—normality is always relative—though not ever again to be pretty or even attractive. Or she might die.
Madame Realism didn’t know how much time had passed. A minute. Maybe more. Wiley waited quietly for her to return. His having come from the country implied reserves of patience, to her. But Madame Realism hadn’t asked which country. Still, farmers everywhere wait for eggs to hatch, crops to ripen. Wiley seemed an unlikely farmer. She knew little about him; he could be anything. She wondered why his wife had left him, or if she even existed; she wondered if he missed her and still wanted her, if he would forever, no matter what her response to him was now. When Madame Realism was no longer in love, her lover’s eyes, which in the middle of an exacting passion she could not leave, whose every glance she scrutinized to discern greater meaning and which she thought unforgettable, when she was so far from any feelings of love or lust as to make recollection or meaning impossible, her lover’s eyes and every other aspect of him lost interest, as if he and they had never been capable of exerting it. Bliss metamorphosed into disgust. In that sense, love was an experiment with unexpected results. Relationships were unpredictable. She had been told, by men, that men were more generous or more practical than women and could easily have sex again with anyone they once loved. She didn’t feel she could ask Wiley about that, yet.
He bunched up a sheet of newspaper and placed it nonchalantly near the ﬂames; it might catch if the ﬁre moved its way. Then he dropped a chocolate-covered cherry into his mouth and straightened its crinkly gold wrapper on the slate ﬂoor as if he were ironing it. She liked the smell of clothes being ironed but wasn’t sure if she liked that gesture and questioned how much meaning to give it.
“A ﬁre changes all the time,” he said, in an ordinary way. Madame Realism now watched it like a movie, whose characters she invented. She sat closer to it, wanting everything in close up. She tried to feel what she believed she was supposed to feel near a ﬁre, heated by its quixotic ﬂames.
The ﬁre changed, but it also stayed the same, a blur of blue purple yellow orange red. Ephemeral, shifting, restless. With just a sheet of newspaper tossed casually onto it, it roared approval and grew bigger. She liked watching it, but it could also become boring, tiresome, the way anything could, especially when you were older and more in need of novelty. Sometimes she found herself feeding it like a child, until she lost interest, which she shouldn’t if it were.
Wiley stood up, brushing off his black jeans. “Do you think about beauty?” he asked.
“Sometimes, but I’m not sure how,” she said, feeling a little melancholy, the way she did on her birthday. Beauty was the point, and it was pointless, too.
“Is your ghost story about beauty?” Madame Realism asked. “Beauty’s a ghost that haunts us,” Wiley said, comically.
Then he hunched his back and extended his arms, spreading them wide like the wings of a bat or an angel.
A ﬁgure of loss, she thought.
Together and apart, they looked inward, or at the hearth, and wandered silently into the past. The greedy ﬁre, meanwhile, consumed everything.
“What ghost are you?” Wiley asked, ﬁnally. “Everyone dead I’ve ever loved.” “Beautiful.”
After the ﬁre died, what remained were traces of its former glory, ashes and bits of coal-like wood. Wiley and Madame Realism walked outside, into the cold night. They went in search of shooting stars and other necessary irrelevancies.
From THE COMPLETE MADAME REALISM AND OTHER STORIES. Used with permission of Semiotext(e). Copyright © 2016 by Lynne Tillman.