Best of the Net 2014  



The Brothers WHAM!


The Voice of Fortune

It’s easy to assume that when people hear George Michael sing and sigh, “that’s a voice that can raise the dead,” they’re just complimenting him. It’s not a compliment. It’s true. I experienced it. His voice is an alarm clock urging all dead within hearing distance to rise.

It was a little over five years since I’d died when his voice penetrated through the soil and my casket’s lid. My bones started clanking, reforming, growing solid. The coming together shook loose the ant colony that had burrowed into the cardboard. It ejected the maggots and broke off the long-ends of my fingernails. Flesh grew back. My face became firm again and my eyelids filled out, thin and crepey. I heard the satisfying slurp of my spleen growing back crimson and full. My heart played a cadence and then returned to a steady rhythm. Rapids of blood flowed from it, making my body whole.

I pushed out into the darkness. As I tunneled up, stronger than I had ever been in life, especially near the end, I felt my muscles working in striated unison and knew definitively I was alive. I’d spent the last years lying in beds, vomiting into toilets. It was a time spent reading the pauses when doctors and nurses looked at charts and learning how to understand glances interchanged between my primary care physician and the specialist brought in for consultations. My parents began speaking to me like I was a child not only because I was on heavy medication, but because fear had caused them to reduce me to the version they best knew how to take care of.

The few people I’ve told about this asked me how I knew to tunnel upwards. How did I have the strength? I’ve told people I don’t know. I’ve made up things about beams of light, a supreme knowledge guiding my reformed thoughts. That’s not true. I heard a voice singing, “Guilty feet have got no rhythm.” It was the first thing I’d heard in years. I followed the sound. I’m not sure if I was strong or if the graveyard staff was just very poor at packing in the dirt over graves. I’m not sure if the question even matters.

Around me, other dead were also tunneling. We emerged, sight igniting again as if vision was just a finicky match. I expected, having been raised Christian, to see a world filled with devastation. I remembered my death. My body had felt — I was too weak to check — as if it were leaking. I thought: Am I dying? I had gone home to die. I knew I was dying, I had decided and the doctors agreed that I could take no more, but I was still surprised when it started. The nurse was downstairs talking to my mother. My father had gone to the grocery store. He was buying the ingredients to make me chicken soup. I’d woken up to see him crying in the doorway, tears dripping into his beard and pooling and plunking off its long black and grey ends as he watched me. I wondered if he thought I’d died in the night.

“I’m hungry,” I said.

“Really?”

“Really.”

“What do you want?” he asked. I’d never heard my father’s voice sound that way. He sounded as if I’d given him a million dollars.

“Will you make me your chicken soup?”

His chicken soup recipe was passed to him from my grandmother when I was born. He was going to teach it to me when I had kids.

My father nodded. “I’ll go right now.”

He forgot to shut the door. I heard him say with excitement, “Nicky’s hungry.”

And before he came home with the garlic, the carrots, the thyme, I was dead, cooling in the bed.

I expected to see the earth ablaze, meteors booming into hills, lava erupting from the ground. Dragons roaming the hillsides and crushing trees, a panther with six tails devouring men out of their cars. A grasshopper maelstrom rushing toward me. I expected to be sucked straight up into heaven. An angel would be waiting for me and the other chosen to give us details about how we were supposed to make the world a better place with our new lives. Instead, I looked around and saw other confused people. My grandfather, younger than I had ever seen him outside photographs, rushed and embraced me.

“You died? But you were so young,” he said in my ear. He clasped my left shoulder with his now strong left arm when the hug was over, refusing to let me go.

The saxophone solo from “Careless Whisper” played as the group of us studied the world. The sky was so blue and the cumulus clouds were so white that it made me want to go to the beach and throw a Frisbee. A bee buzzed lazily around our heads. Some of us studied the clothes we were buried in, ill-fitting and formal. Others bent over to look at their headstones and the inscriptions engraved on them. I was too dazzled by how good everything smelled. The world smelled of fresh cut grass and like a family was having a cook-out.

A young man approached us, shovel in hand. An older man followed him wearing a khaki cap and matching coveralls, shaking his head emphatically.

“I told you not to play George Michael in here,” we heard him say. They quickly turned off the boom box. The older man pressed a button and the tape deck opened. He took out the cassette tape, put it on the grass, and stomped on it.

“Will we die again?” a young woman asked, her face grey with dust, her large brown eyes framed with mud.

At that moment, I didn’t care. I had never expected to see sunlight again. Wind lay its fingers on my bald head. I had not been wearing shoes in my casket and the earth felt cool beneath my toes. I was more optimistic than I’d been when I was alive. I thought, even ten minutes of this was enough.

The two men looked at each other. One of us sang the words, “guilty feet have got no rhythm,” under his breath, as we waited.

“We have no idea,” the old man admitted.

I shrugged.

“Let’s go home,” my grandfather suggested. He took my hand and we walked out of the cemetery, where the other dead too far away from the boom box to be awakened still slept beneath the tombstones and decayed in their mausoleums. The others followed us as if they thought we were going to lead them to their old homes as well. We walked on the sidewalk, none of us speaking. Light pushed through the leaves, the shadows of branches across our faces. I promised myself that I would buy all of George Michael’s records if I ever got the chance. I would buy old Tiger Beats and pull out all his pictures and put them in heavy, gold frames. If he was still alive, I would write him a fan letter, thanking him for the gift of his miracle voice. My grandfather sang under his breath, “never gonna dance again, the way I danced with you.” He sounded like a creaky car door. Sparrows scattered as our procession turned onto my old street.


The Foxes’ Blessings

When Wham! was finally allowed to enter China, proud to be the first outside group permitted to tour there since the cultural revolution, they were greeted in the airport by a welcoming crew of two. They had expected hordes of fans holding be-glittered signs, clutching teddy bears and wilted flowers to offer up in a froth of anticipation. They were used to tears streaming down round, teenage cheeks, people fainting, and a sea of hands, their nails painted neon yellows and pinks, surging toward them to communicate all the desires that repeated listening to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” had engendered.

The crew was a man and a woman both holding signs that read “WHAM!” The woman was beautiful: Andrew would try to write poems about her later. He described her as “hair like the bottom of the ocean/gorgeous/surround you, drown you in its beauty.” He would try to sing the lines, but could never find the right rhythm.

The man was extraordinary. His features changed from moment to moment. With one breath, he was a tall man with broad, strong-looking shoulders and arms. The next, a short man with light brown skin that looked both firm and soft. George Michael was used to keeping the want off his face, but as the man moved and changed from a tall Chinese man with well-toned biceps to an Englishman with a gap-toothed smile and long blond hair, it was a struggle not to let a grin slip out and to keep his eyes from growing soft and liquid. The man’s shifting appearance seemed to George Michael as if it were a tangible reminder of all the desires he had ever felt and desperately tamped down in his quest for fame. He attributed his perception of the man to too much time spent sitting in padded seats while sipping champagne, to the guilt he had felt before he left when Pat said she loved him and he kissed her, hoping she found the wanted reply on his lips.

“My name is Henry,” the man said.

“I thought you were Chinese,” George Michael replied.

“It’s just an easier name for you to pronounce.”

Andrew was too dazzled to ask the woman her name.

“My name is Wenling,” she said.

Wham! blinked in unison and felt as if they’d awoken from a deep sleep. The airport was gone, their entourage had melted away, and they stood with Henry and Wenling in a large room filled with musical instruments. Later they would notice the plush carpet, the silk pink-and-white striped couch, the gold velvet curtains hanging over the windows, but for them it was the drums and pianos and keytars shining and waiting to be played. Thinking in unison, Wham! understood this as a reward for their hard work. Diplomats told them they were doing a great good by agreeing to go to China. They were making the world a safer, better place by singing and dancing for the people. Wham! had begun to believe that their songs were not just songs, but that they were guarantees of a new, optimistic world. When they were finished examining the musical instruments, they turned to Henry and Wenling and understood they were destined for them. They would be their secret-keepers, their preachers, their teachers until the end of time.

They stayed in the room and the bedrooms that branched off it for what felt like many years. In the beginning, Wham! wrote song lyrics together in their usual fashion. George Michael did all the writing and then asked Andrew, “What do you think of this?” They played chess with pieces made out of marble and silver and shared secrets as they moved their knights across the board.

“I’m gay,” George Michael said to Andrew as if he had not noticed Henry was a man. It was the first time he had said the words aloud and the effort made his esophagus feel small and pinched.

“I’ve known,” Andrew said. He did not look up from the chessboard.

“Do you think Simon knew?” George Michael asked after a pause. He enjoyed the fact that Andrew did not react, but accepted his revelation as if he had said, “listen to this melody.”

“Probably.”

Wham! was happy and full with love. Everything they truly desired, once thought, was brought to them. They were married to Henry and Wenling in a simple dual ceremony within months. Consumed with love and relaxation, neither considered leaving what they came to think of as the apartment.

After many years, Andrew realized that while he loved music, he loved comfort and money more. He spent more and more time with his wife, the two talking and lying together in a great mosaic-tiled Jacuzzi tub. Wenling taught him Chinese and was charmed by how awful his accent truly was. They floated in a soup bubble of intimacy and whenever he remembered those moments, Andrew thought he could see them as if he were standing across their room and the air around their heads always seemed to be diffused with honey warm light.

Inspired by Henry’s love and the stability it brought, George Michael was more productive than ever. Lyrics and melodies poured out of his felt tip pen. As George Michael wrote, he felt the honesty in each snap, each word, and was moved by the person he had become. Lying in bed, wrapped in Henry’s warm arms and feeling Henry’s penis snuggled tight against the small of his back, George Michael would sing love songs and his voice would be warmer and more charming than it had ever been when recording Make it Big.

Eventually, Wham! realized that, despite everything, they missed their old lives. By then, they had lived a long time in this space. They had grown paunches from ice cream and little exercise; their hair glinted silver at the temples and grew thinner in the back. Henry and Wenling had always known their time with Wham! would be short. After Andrew spent a day talking about how he had found and then eaten the world’s most perfect chips and George Michael realized it had been a week since he had written anything new, Wenling and Henry knew it was time to send them home. They wished their husbands goodbye and a great life. They kissed them and thanked them for the time spent together.

“Close your eyes,” Wenling said.

Andrew and George Michael opened their eyes to see the Beijing airport. They were young again and surrounded by handlers. A group of stern-faced government officials stood across the hallway, waiting for them. They understood what had been years to them had been a fraction of an instant to everyone else. They had never wept before—they had cried and sniffled and sobbed like people whose lives were mostly happiness—and it took all their strength to not fall to the hallway tiles and dissolve into a miasma of grief.

***

That night, George Michael would sing and he would dance and he would put on his small leather gloves and play the tambourine. He would watch as the people in the crowd who dared to dance were dragged out into the night. He would look out at the blank-faced people as he performed and would begin writing the words to “Faith” as he thought of Henry. He would think of the years spent getting to be the person he always wanted to be and try to think of them optimistically as a gift to sustain him. He knew he was back to pretending and lying and understood that wanting to live forever in that apartment with Henry would eat away at him. Willfully, George Michael retreated back into the clutches of his great ambition. He looked out into the crowd and thought, “You will all help me hit platinum.”

Andrew, as always, would be happily overshadowed by George Michael. He would be at their performances in body only. Soon, he would retire to Monaco and live in a large mansion to avoid paying income taxes. He would gather books of Chinese folklore to read while sipping sixty-year-old scotch and, although he would tell no one, he would come to the conclusion that for a brief time in his life, he had been married to a fox spirit. His nights would be spent dreaming of foxes running away from him: pointed faces with ragged teeth, a flash of orange and white.


The Coliseum’s Prediction

You were a boy who everyone noticed. It wasn’t that you were extraordinarily handsome or smart. You never told any funny jokes in class or threw stones at the mangy neighborhood cats or even bragged about football exploits as you walked home with your best friends. It didn’t matter. Some of the other kids called you “Shark Teeth,” so you rarely smiled, concealing the pointy edges behind your thin, pink lips.

Wherever you went, it felt as if every building had a set of large, dark eyes hidden in its fa├žade. When your back was turned, the eyes would open and take in all the details. They would note if you were wearing the jeans starting to fray in the left knee, if you had finally lost your front tooth left center, or if there was purple paint still smeared on your knuckles from art class. When you turned to meet the eyes head on, you would only get a glimpse before they closed fast and became windows with geraniums growing on the sills, chocolate brown awnings, and stone gargoyles. They would sometimes become people who would cross their arms and ask, “What are you looking at?” You never told anyone about the eyes, knowing they would either laugh at you or give you a concerned look.

You felt the eyes most when you sang or whistled as you walked home. They were large and uplifted when this happened. You could feel them welling with feeling, the way you could feel the rising, tangy happiness behind your parents’ faces, eyes bright with emotion, stress lines smoothed out after a good meal or an afternoon spent at the cinema.

One day while walking home alone, you felt as if someone wanted to tell you a secret. You looked around at all the buildings in the crisp October air, you looked at the people, and even the birds rustling from tree to wire. It was the type of day when you would sing to yourself, “fun and sunshine, there’s enough for everyone.” You could sense the pause in the air, the moment that hangs between someone offering a pinky to be hooked by your own and the admission that follows. You wanted to yell, “just say it,” but knew it would only make you look crazy. The farther you walked, the more pressure mounted. You felt hot and cold and as if the sidewalk was a boat pitching across waves.

“You look terrible,” your mother said when you made it home. It felt as if it had taken hours to walk up the stairs to your apartment above the Laundromat. She set down her cup of coffee and beckoned you close. She touched your forehead and, shocked by the heat, gasped.

You were sent to bed instantly. Nestled next to Paddington and sweating through the sheets, you imagined your mother bringing you great chunks of ice shaped like swans and statues. You understood you were very sick. You thought you might be going to the hospital soon and wondered what it would be like. You had not been in the hospital since you were a baby.

“It’s a place where people will walk in and out of your room and look concerned. They will stick a needle in your arm and glass beneath your tongue,” a voice said.

You looked around the room, expecting to see another child. You looked at the white walls—your parents did not encourage decorating—and looked again. Out the window, it was a rare, nice October day. Everyone you knew was in the park, kicking a ball around and picking up great bunches of red, yellow, and brown leaves to throw in each other’s hair.

“You are not feeling well,” the voice said.

It surprised you. For the first time, you understood that the end is always present. You knew this. The medicine that you weren’t even sure you’d taken, your brain fuzzy with heat, desperately tried to cool you off. Your mother stirred a cup of tea and wondered if she should only give you water. Your father walked through the restaurant he worked at and watched the prep chefs peel and dice potatoes, the wait staff preparing the dining room for the dinner rush. He thought about all the things he would do differently if he ran the restaurant and thought about how nice it would be to have something like a restaurant to pass onto you when you were all grown up. And you in your bed realized that life is transient. You understood now that your goldfish was not living it up in the ocean. It was a body decomposing in the sewer system.

***

The buildings arrived. Your room was torn out of the apartment building and lifted higher up into the air. Big Ben had grown arms and stared at you with his great clock face, the fish and chips shop around the corner, the sweet shops two blocks down, the newsstand, the grocery and apartments and houses surrounded him and stood behind him, and behind them, buildings you had seen in picture books: the Empire State building, the Coliseum, the Eiffel Tower.

“You are not dying,” the buildings said in unison. Their voices were a screech of metal, a clunk of stone, the squeak of glass.

You could not respond. Their eyes were large and overwhelming.

“You are destined to write and sing and dance,” said the buildings.

You smiled.

“You will see the world,” said the Eiffel Tower.

“You will bring great joy,” promised the Coliseum.

“You will sell more than twenty million copies of your first solo album,” the Empire State building said.

You looked at their strange black eyes and wished you could leap into the future.

***

“Honey?” your mother asked. She held a spoon as if it were a magic wand and pointed it at the tea steaming on the bedside table.

“I’m going to be a famous singer,” you said.

Your mother did not laugh. She thought of her years spent angling arms in precise motion, the feel of her body leaping through the air, the tulle of a tutu. Spotlights on her glossy, dark hair. She wondered if ambition was something like dark hair and height that could be inherited.

“Have some tea, Baby Bird,” she said.

You reached for the glass, thinking of the Coliseum’s kind eyes and the words “twenty million records.”


–Megan Giddings (from The Masters Review)





***