The Enchanted Man
The Enchanted Man
She was able to open the box as soon as the shipping company left because the children were still in school. He was bundled in bubble-wrap like a mummy, and when the wrappings came off, he looked just like the catalogue promised: He had dark velvet britches, a green jerkin, and a blouse with billowing sleeves. His blond hair fell across his face and he was handsome in spite of an overbite. A nimbus of light floated around him.
There was a square of cream-colored paper tied to the bubble wrap with a black velvet ribbon: Hello, it said, My name is Lars and I come from an undisclosed castle in England. If you follow the instructions, I am yours forever:
Mist me twice a day.
Do not probe, fondle, or startle me.
Keep me in low light.
Never kiss me anywhere.
Keep me hidden from your family.
It was sent courtesy of the online mail order house called The Wondrous Traveler and before she decided it was a general message sent to everyone, she was unnerved to think that an online mail order house knew she had a family. Even so, it magnified her fear that a pervasive consciousness recorded everything she bought online, including her copy of The Secrets of NASA, which she’d been amazed she could order although she had only wanted to see pictures and if she was ever asked would say the same about Lars: Photographers could justify almost anything.
Small children with their mothers were riding lavender-colored plastic bicycles on the sidewalk and a few mothers waved. She shut the front door and dragged Lars and his box to her studio, a small room next to the living room. It was a hodge-podge of computers, digital cameras, tripods, various cameras, barely-used developing trays and chemicals. The space was so cluttered and the box so long, she was afraid it might look like a casket. But once she put it in front of her worktable, it looked like a shipping crate. Thank god she still had blackout curtains. She put them up and looked at Lars.
His body emanated light—a little like marsh light—and this cast the room in an underwater haze so objects went in and out of focus. She could see a glowing blanket, phosphorescent papers, an illuminated wastebasket. According to the catalogue, enchanted people accrued this light because they hadn’t done anything for at least one hundred years. The catalogue said this was the same people consumed every day—lavishly, unthinkingly, so by the time they went to sleep it was all used up. Now and then one could see a nimbus around babies when they were sleeping.
When she confirmed her order by phone they had explained about the light all over again. There were no animated voices. And the real voices had been kind. What color hair did she want? She chose blond. What country would she like? She chose England.
At dinner her husband, whose name was Bradford, said:
You just got something from The Wondrous Traveler again, didn’t you? Is it one of those garden hoes with fake rust? Or a banyan-tree birdhouse from Guatemala?
He was drinking wine from a special wine glass with a long bowl that let him concentrate on the aroma. The children, Justin and Philomena were picking at their food. Philomena was fourteen and her hair had one bright orange streak—so bright it looked like it was one fire. Justin, who was sixteen, stared in a way that reminded her of movies about psychic teenagers who disassemble factories with their third eye.
How do you know I got anything?
Bradford said she’d left wrapping paper on the porch and she realized she’d forgotten to get rid of evidence.
Actually, she said, I ordered a new table for my studio.
She and Bradford looked at each other irritably because they often had different ideas about spending money. Philomena and Justin knew the look. When it passed, Justin said:
Do you know how chickens are raised?
Yes, she said, but it’s not a discussion for the table.
Especially when we’re eating one, said Philomena.
Well they cut off their beaks, said Justin. And when the egg-laying chickens have males they just put them in a bag and grind them up for compost.
Gross, said Philomena. She pushed away her plate, siding with Justin.
And actually, Justin said, they don’t even call them chickens anymore. They’re so genetically altered the breeds are given numbers.
That’s an urban legend, said Bradford.
Urban legend my ass, whispered Philomena
You are so not with it, said Justin.
She looked at Philomena through her orange hair and smoke-colored eyeliner, and Justin through his stare and mangy beard. She could see nothing of what they’d once been.
Bradford put down his wine glass.
Did it ever occur to you that your mother and I actually worked to pay for this chicken?
Philomena shrugged. Justin said:
The chicken worked harder.
After dinner, she sat in the living room reading the brochure that had come with the package. It had a section called Frequently Asked Questions about Enchantment, which she put inside a newspaper:
Q. What is enchantment?
A. Enchantment is a state of such prolonged sleep the enchanted person isn’t part of the world. This is why enchanted people—in the unlikely event they wake up—are always the same age they were when they were first enchanted.
Q. What causes enchantment?
A. Contrary to popular belief, enchantment isn’t the result of an incantation or spell. It always comes from a powerful ill-willed glance from one pair of eyes to another. This glance shocks them. So they travel in other realms.
Q. Who is able to enchant
A. Anyone who is miserable and/or vengeful: For example— from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy—we know it can come from evil tutors who didn’t like their students.
There was a copy of The Anatomy of Melancholy in the living room and she got up to get it. Bradford, who was playing Mah Johng on his portable computer near the bookcase, asked what she was doing.
Just leafing through Burton.
Just leafing through Burton? No one leafs through Burton these days. No one ever did.
She didn’t answer, opened Burton, and found nothing about evil tutors. Maybe the version was abridged. She continued to read the brochure:
Q. Can enchantment happen to me?
A. No. The last recorded case was in 1867.
Q. How do you know it can’t happen again?
A. Because there are too many waves in the air to sustain the power of evil eyes. Radio waves, satellite waves & cell phones are among the things we are allowed to mention as examples of such waves.
This would have made Bradford happy because he was launching a project to supply people all over the world with cellular phones. The tag line was “Just connect,” which he’d taken from E.M. Forester. She’d recently said, thoughtlessly, that no person in Uzbekistan would understand what that meant, and Bradford said they’d understand instinctively because connection was always happening in the air. She looked at him now, deep in Mah Johng. It had become his way of relaxing. Once he’d taught college English, then got tired of not making money. He looked back at her, she buried herself in the brochure, and was reassured when it said all kinds of people ordered enchanted men ranging from executives to florists. Enchanted women were rare. They usually stayed in their castles.
After she finished reading she went to her studio, which looked more like her old darkroom because of the curtains. It was brimming with light and a sense of calm: Paperweights looked like submerged stars. A crumpled grocery list could have been a diamond. She wondered if Lars had achieved a state of wanting and needing nothing. If this were true, nothing she said to him would matter. After she made sure the blackout drapes were in place, she leaned over him and whispered:
I love you.
Lars stirred. The light stirred with him, flickering over the blinds and a vintage lamp. She noticed he wore a codpiece and wondered what scullery maids he’d found in the hay, what princesses in curtained beds. She remembered she wasn’t supposed to kiss him and ran her lips a few inches over his mouth. It wasn’t kissing: It was tasting light.
There was a knock on the door. Philomena said she was sorry about the chicken, she knew they had to eat. A moment later Justin knocked and said the same thing. Sometimes, without warning, they were kind. She almost wished they wouldn’t so she could dislike them permanently and give up any hope that they’d be nice again. She spoke to them through the door.
The fourth time she came upstairs to bed Bradford asked if she’d drunk a gallon of water because she kept going to the bathroom. No, she said, she just couldn’t sleep. He pulled her to him and said she felt like an armored car because she was wearing her sweater and jeans
Let me help you take them off.
No, she said. I ‘m tense and cold.
Are you pissed because I talked about the table you ordered?
No. But the wedding I’m doing is depressing.
Bradford sighed. It was an old subject. They’d never gotten married because their previous weddings—two for her and one for him—had ended in divorce and one more seemed like a bad omen. It was a decision they’d both made; but from time to time, never at the same time, one of them had regrets. It appeared to be Bradford’s turn and he said to her:
Let’s get married.
I don’t see how we could. Everyone thinks we are.
We’ll tell them we’re really not.
Philomena and Justin would get upset.
Then just the two of us. At City Hall.
That doesn’t sound festive.
But would you like to get married?
She couldn’t bring herself to say she would like to, anymore than she could bring herself to bring up persistent grievances that scratched at the back of her mind, when it was Bradford’s turn to suggest marriage. She wished she could distract him by telling him about the decline of enchantment because of so many waves in the air and sighed instead. He stroked the back of her neck. She thought about Lars.
Lars began to talk on the third day, after she had tasted the light above his lips for the sixth, or maybe the seventh, time. The light was fluid, ephemeral. But she must have tasted one time too many, because Lars sat up and said, in a loud clear voice:
I am real and ready in my heart.
Real and ready in my heart.
Then he lay down again.
She tried to get him to repeat what he had said, but he closed his eyes and seemed to be in such a remote state she could call it neither sleep nor enchantment. She put a blanket over her worktable to block his light and developed pictures she’d taken of a recent wedding, where they insisted she not take digital pictures “for old time’s sake.” The bride rose from transparencies and then the bridesmaids with enormous bows and three sets of parents with strained smiles. When she was finished, she came out of the blanket and looked at Lars. He was sitting up, gesturing toward her bookcase.
What is that? he said.
He looked puzzled.
Something like a candle.
All through that day, Lars pointed at things in the studio and asked what they were. She brought him a piece of paper, a coin, an onion, a book, and herbs from the garden. At one point she noticed a pocket watch in his jerkin and asked him what it was for. He looked worried and said he didn’t know.
At dinner Philomena and Justin talked about free-range chickens. Justin said they weren’t really free, and Philomena said you had to log onto a special web site to find out which eggs were okay to buy.
Thank God we’re not having egg salad for dinner, said Bradford. He was drinking Sangiovese from his special wine glass and unhappy because a country that committed to cellular phones didn’t exist anymore.
How come? said Justin.
It split into different countries, said Bradford.
But doesn’t each country want phones? said Justin.
Now they’re part of some other country that already has them.
That’s because the world is fucked up, said Philomena.
That’s not a word for the table, she said.
Jeeze, said Philomena, it doesn’t mean what it used to.
Then what does it mean? Bradford said.
Like totally out there and bad, said Justin.
Dinner turned into a fight about the phrase fucked up. No one noticed when she went back to her studio, where Lars was coursing in unknown realms. She sat beside him watching the light play over the blinds. Suddenly he opened his eyes and said:
What are shoes?
She was wearing black suede flats. She took one off and handed it to him.
Shoes, said Lars.
Yes, she answered.
And then she saw Bradford standing in the door and realized she’d forgotten to lock it.
Jesus Christ, he said. So this is what you’re hiding.
Who is that? said Lars.
My husband, in a way.
What is a husband? said Lars.
That’s what I’d like to know, said Bradford.
A partner, she said. Someone to live with.
And hide things from, said Bradford.
It’s not what you think, she said.
Then what is it?
An enchanted man. He lived over a hundred years ago.
Enchanted, my ass. He can talk.
Just a few words. And only now and then.
So it’s come to this. You’re in love with someone who’s not even real.
Maybe none of us are.
Listen, Margaret, I don’t want to get into metaphysical stuff with you. Every day I go into the world and pitch these phones. And what am I really pitching? Connection. That’s what I’m pitching. And now and then some CEO breaks down and tells me how lonely they are and have to go home to frozen dinners by themselves. I believe in my product so much I reach people at that level. And you bought yourself a sex doll.
Please, Brad. He’s not a doll.
What is he then?
Under some kind of spell.
I explained. Enchantment.
As if to illustrate her point, Lars lay down in his box. He closed his eyes and a nimbus of light floated around him. Yet he looked less like an enchanted man than a dog that knows he’s been banished.
You have to get rid of him, said Bradford.
It’s not that easy.
He doesn’t know how to cope in the world.
What do you mean?
He’s from a different century, Brad. He can’t take care of himself.
Then I’m leaving.
What about the kids?
They can’t cope either.
What does that mean?
They can teach him how to manage without coping.
She followed Bradford upstairs, where he pulled a weather-beaten suitcase from the closet and began to pack at random, throwing in one of their pillows. Then he stopped packing, sat on the bed and put his head in his hands.
Jesus, he said. I thought you loved me.
She wanted to say she did, but something was in the way, something she couldn’t remember, followed by things she could—like Bradford not including her in his stock options because they weren’t married or bugging Philomena and Justin to play a team sport when one liked running and the other aikido. More things occurred to her and she didn’t notice Bradford had finished packing until he slammed the suitcase on the floor.
Why won’t you get rid of him? he asked.
I told you: He doesn’t know how to manage.
Why did you get him in the first place?
I could make up a thousand reasons, but I really don’t know.
I hope you figure it out.
Bradford drove off in his old Mustang, leaving her the better car. She went back to Lars and talked to him, telling him she didn’t want him to be upset. His eyes were closed and he didn’t answer. She sat with him through the night and came out of her studio to make breakfast for Justin and Philomena.
Is Dad really gone? said Justin.
Only for a while. We have some things to work out.
Like the guy in your studio?
No one’s in my studio.
Sure there is, said Philomena. We saw him last night during that blowout. And your blackout curtains are up. We thought you had a boyfriend.
Well I don’t.
Bradford came back a few hours later with unkempt hair. He called in sick and lay on the living room sofa in a sleeping bag.
I’ve never called in sick before, he said. I’ve never called in sick a day in my life.
Brad, listen. We’ll work it out.
I don’t know.
You don’t know? And you call that working it out?
No. I mean—we’ll find some way.
Some way? What the fuck do you mean?
Soft sounds came from the studio. Lars opened the door,
My God, he can walk, said Bradford.
I’ve never seen him do that before. I swear.
What do you think I am? A moron?
No. Not at all.
Well you act like you do.
Bradford walked over to Lars, who looked fragile standing up, like wheat waving in the wind. And what do you think? he said to him. Or are you a moron, too?
Lars looked at Bradford, as though he were watching something far away.
I’m sorry I made you sad, he said. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
Bradford sat on the floor and wept. Lars took the watch from his pocket and pressed it. She heard a buzzing sound.
What are you doing? she asked.
Calling The Wondrous Traveler.
To tell them I made someone sad.
People get sad, Lars. It’s a part of life. You didn’t do anything wrong. You don’t have to call them.
I made a promise, said Lars.
She pleaded, but Lars shook his head and lay down in his box where the space above his head throbbed with light. She said his name many times but he was either enchanted or pretending to be, and soon she got a phone call from a man speaking on behalf of The Wondrous Traveler. He said they understood she was having problems with one of their products and were concerned. She said she wasn’t having problems.
Well I think we should see the product ourselves. And it would be better if he were alone tonight, and you left the window open.
She said she didn’t want Lars to get cold and spoke softly so Bradford wouldn’t hear. But the voice went on with such authority she took down the blackout drapes and opened the window. Then she helped Bradford upstairs.
Margaret, he kept saying, this is our undoing.
No it’s not. We’ve gotten through worse things.
I can’t think of anything worse.
She was going to list all the things, but Bradford said he wasn’t able to hear them. She put the pillow he’d packed on his side of the bed and brought him a pot of tea.
That night she slept on the couch in the sleeping bag. She wanted to go to Lars, kiss him, hold him, and tell him she was sorry she’d woken him: But she was afraid she would excite him or one of the Wondrous Travelers would choose just that moment to come through the window. All night, she listened for sounds and heard nothing except the house settling into its foundations. But in the early morning Lars and his box were gone. All that remained were a few pieces of bubble-wrap, the instructions, and a note that said: We are sorry this product was not completely satisfactory. You can expect a full refund according to our policy of return within 30 days. Sincerely, The Wondrous Traveler.
She threw everything away, except for the sentence that said Lars would be hers forever. This she cut out carefully and taped on the wall. Later she might burn it, tear it up, or leave it in a corner of her studio until it was strangely lost, the way things disappear when they haven’t gone away.