Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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SHJ Issue 1
Spring 2010

In the Company of Angels
[An excerpt from the novel]

Thomas E. Kennedy

Chapter One: A Car Door Slams

The first time Nardo saw the woman with eyes of blue light he woke from a dream in which the angels had forsaken him. He bolted from beneath the covers and huddled in the corner of his bedroom. It was dark. He did not know he was in a new land.

Through the window he could see stars trembling in the clear black night. It might have been the sky over Valparaiso. He listened for the sound of a car door slamming shut, footsteps on the wooden staircase... But there was nothing. Just tires sizzling past on the roadway and two or three young men talking loudly on the lake bank, staggering home from a Saturday night serving house. No angels. No woman with eyes of light. But he had seen her. Her gaze was cut into his mind.

Slowly he became aware of the sweat that soaked into the underwear he’d slept in, that wet his scalp, his temples. And the pain, of course. In all the usual places. Teeth, joints, head. Within.

But no one was coming up the stair. For here he was now. Far away. Delivered. And that, anyhow, was something. The angels had kept their word.

He remained crouching there for a long while.


Even if you live to go out and tell this, Nardo, no one will believe you. Do you think they will? No one will. No one outside of this room will ever believe the things that happen here, and the more you try to tell of what happened, the less they will believe. To make them believe, you will have to edit, to distill, to tell only the tiniest little portion of it, and when you tell only the tiniest little portion, why then they will be inclined to think, after all, perhaps there was a reason for this, perhaps the police sometimes need to employ certain means and measures.

This was the frog-eyed one speaking, the worst of them perhaps, one of the worst. He spoke quietly, meditatively, pausing to puff on a cigar while Nardo hung by one foot and one hand, and Frog-eyes pushed him, like a swing, holding an imaginary conversation in which he pretended first to be Nardo — ‘Let me tell you,’ he said to the imaginary person Nardo was supposed to be informing about this, ‘Let me tell you what these animales did to me, listen!’ — and then he would reply, playing the role of the person Nardo was to have been telling, ‘Oh come now, you can’t mean this, surely you exaggerate. What do you take me for? This is too bizarre really...’

Then he interrupted himself. No, my swinging friend, he said and gave another push. Nardo could hear the cartilage that held arm to shoulder creak and pop. No, it will be worse than that. They will not even say nothing. They will seem to listen to you with the face of great sympathy and say nothing, but in their little heads... He circled his forefinger at the side of his own skull. In their little heads they will be thinking, This man is full of the shit. He is nuts. That is what they will think of your tales, my swinging friend. No one likes the little boy who tells tales out of class. And he removed the cigar from his lips and smiled, and Nardo began to scream even before the glowing tip pressed against his nipple.


Chapter Two: The Place of Screaming

We had come so far. Yet any further step began to seem hopeless. He sat across from me, perfectly still, body aligned with the sharp angles of the chair, so immobile his face might have been cut from a brown paper bag: two eye slits, a rectangular mouth that said nothing. Watching him, I became aware of the chair he sat in, how rigidly he conformed to its severe lines. I thought of a chair I had seen the weekend before browsing with my wife in a department store, one with gently curving arms, a molded seat. Light and comfortable to sit in, springy. An Arne Jacobsen chair of deep lacquered green.

Alfonso Laurencic, who designed torture cells for the Spanish Republicans — the so-called ‘cells of color,’ had claimed that red was stimulating, blue relaxing while green evoked melancholy and sadness. I did not agree. The green of that chair was full of peace, of quiet hope. It was expensive, too. The center’s finance department could never approve its purchase. I decided I would pay for it myself. Perhaps it would help him to release the sorrow in his body, to set free the poisoned emotion coiled within him.

My gaze moved around the office, alert to other possible subtle obstructions, but the colors were soft and cheerful, the green of the potted palm calming to the eye, the bookshelf lined with multicolored spines of books, the dreamy Chagall prints on the walls.

The silence continued. I watched him. He was dressing with more care now I had noticed. No longer the dark, colorless garments, not black or grey or brown, an indistinct mix, like spillage, shades and styles that seemed to suggest a desire to be invisible, clothing that seemed to say, I am no one. No reason to look at me. No reason to see me. Now he was neat, elegant even. A shirt of deep clear blue, squarely knotted brown wool necktie, dark green Irish tweed jacket with hand-stitched lapels. And his arm, unfrozen now from its bent immobility, hysterical paralysis. That has been our triumph. It seemed to me he must have been fully aware of the progress we had made together, but still he sat there and stared at nothing, motionless.

What question could I pose to break the ice of his posture? Why did you scream? It was in the grip of that screaming, that terrible screaming those weeks ago, that he began to flail his arms, clawing at the air with both hands, reclaiming the movement of his paralyzed arm. A dramatic change. I had been trained to consider dramatic change suspect, but this was a genuine, and seeming permanent, dramatic change.

I still did not know what he had seen, what memories had induced his screaming. He told me so little, just bits of it, glimpses, some few details, the man he called Frog-eyes, who closed the door on his hand. He had had to invent names for them all, because it was not permitted for detainees to know the names of their keepers. Frog-eyes. Tweedsuit. Flatnose. Moustache. Frog-eyes was the one Nardo had had most contact with, and slowly I began to feel I knew that nameless man. I felt in myself a desire not to know him, not to witness. The thought occurred to me that were I to look into Frog-eyes’ face, so to speak, were I to come to know him, the knowledge would sear me like acid.

I thought again about something one of the other survivors once told me in response to a question I posed about what had been done to him. You do not want to know the answer, my friend, he said to me. Just to know the answer to this will damage your soul. Maybe forever. Better change jobs. Become a fireman. Save people from burning rooms; it is safer.

But I had to return to that place with Nardo, the place of the screaming, had to help him relive those memories. I was afraid, too, but I had to go there with him.

‘How is the arm?’ I asked. A circuitous approach.

Without turning his eyes from the nowhere on which they were focused, he lifted the once-dead arm, extended one finger, flicked it against his cheek, as if shooing a mosquito, lowered it to the wooden arm of the chair again.

I waited. He waited.

‘Tell me where you are, Nardo. What are you thinking?’

His eyes contracted visibly. He saw something. I could see that he saw something far away from us but alive still, inside him.

‘Tell me, Nardo.’

But he said nothing.

—From In the Company of Angels, Bloomsbury Publishing (2011)

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury