Three words, allegedly, written in Sharpie on his bathroom mirror: CREMATION, NO FUNERAL.
“Shortest suicide note ever,” said a girl standing beside me at the river’s edge, staring into the flames. “That’s so Cyd.”
The shortest suicide note is none at all, I thought, and that was so Cyd, so much so that it made me shiver. Since his death I’d been feeling him in the air, in my head, in strange rhythms of speech and thought that I told myself were merely part of how my mind made sense of such a devastating loss.
“And of course his parents couldn’t even respect that,” said a friend, to the first girl. “Funeral and burial, both tomorrow. Assholes.”
“Isn’t that what we’re doing?”
“This is a memorial. It’s different. No speeches. No church.”
I’d arrived late. Delayed leaving New York, and then again in Albany’s snarl of steep crooked streets. By the time I got to the bonfire the sun had set, and it stood out against the river darkness in a way that made me somehow colder. Sure, it was ablaze right now, bright swirling fire against the blue–black sky, glorious and unstoppable, but come morning it would be cold embers and we’d go about our business like it never happened. Cyd’s death had hit me harder than I’d expected. I wasn’t in the mood for metaphors for mortality.
On dumb animal instinct, I took out my phone and started trawling for a fuck buddy.
“Here,” some random man–child said, handing me piece of paper the size of a playing card and the thickness of a business card. It showed a photo of Cyd, half–awake in rumpled sheets, smiling sleepily, sexily. On the other side, a Cyd quote (“Sometimes hot boys make me so angry, and sometimes they make me so sad.”) and the years of his birth and death.
“Do you have one for me?” the boy asked.
“A Cyd Card.” He laughed, seeing my bafflement. “Guess it is kinda weird. Our friend Ted? He runs a print shop. Asked everybody to email him our favorite Cyd picture and quote, and he’d print up a bunch for folks to mix and match. Kind of a bonding thing, get people talking to each other.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m in from out of town. I didn’t…”
“No worries, man,” he said, chunky and bearded and eminently fuckable, and hugged me. “Thank you for coming.” He handed me five more of the same one. “Now you’ll have some to trade.”
I wanted to ask about the photo. Who they were to each other. The thought that they might have been lovers made me crazily, achingly happy for both them. But the boy was wandering off in search of more Cyd Cards.
Cyd was the kind of boy you wanted to put in your pocket. Hug and never let go. Pet and feed. His neck was only the littlest bit too long, his hair a thicket of red–brown curls. When Cyd smiled you knew he was unstoppable, his crazy ambitions and deranged dreams could not help but become realities. When he frowned, which was far more frequent, you saw precisely how cold and hard the world was, how certainly it would shatter him. Cyd was my friend and he shot himself in his bathtub. Fire–infatuated Cyd had dreamed of self–immolating, but he chose the more considerate and clean–up–friendly exit.
“You’re Kelvin, aren’t you?”
The girl in front of me was stout and standing too close, dressed in camouflage and leather, her hair immaculately bunned.
“I’ve seen your picture like a thousand times. Cyd was forever re–posting your shit.”
“Nice to meet you.” I extended my hand.
She ignored it, but sat down on the bumper of my car beside me. She handed me her little bottle of bourbon. “I’m Link.” She flashed me a pixelated wrist tattoo of the elfin Nintendo game warrior of the same name. “Link’s my last name, but I like it more than my first. So. Kelvin. You finally made it up here.”
I took a lot of her bourbon before answering. “Yeah. I…” And I had nothing further to say on the subject of my longstanding failure to ever come visit, a failure that had become something of a joke between Cyd and I, a joke which was now a source of some considerable recrimination, a joke she clearly knew, because when she took the bottle back she said:
“Do you think maybe if you had ever bothered to come visit, or be there for Cyd in any of the ways he needed his friends to be there for him, maybe we wouldn’t need to be here today?”
Rage was my first response, a bubbling–up in my belly that was buoyed by sadness and alcohol, but I figured that was the one she’d been going for. Cyd knew a lot of belligerent ladies, to hear him tell it, and it’d be just like one of them to try to pick a fight at his memorial.
And anyway she was right.
And anyway, I needed to know. Half of why Cyd’s dying hurt me so much was the wondering whether Cyd hated me as much as he had every right to hate me. And if anybody knew, it’d be Link.
“Yeah,” I said, holding out my hand for the bourbon. “I kind of do.”
Better scholars than I have theorized that the title character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is Jewish, or Black, and passing. This interpretation is appealing—it deepens the book’s critique of the American dream—and the text contains nothing to prove the matter one way or another.
But in this paper I propose to take the analysis several steps further. It’s my contention that The Great Gatsby, written in 1925, when National Socialism was still an obscure German political party and Hitler’s Mein Kampf had not yet been published, is in fact an allegory for the Holocaust. I contend, moreover, that in 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald—or someone close to him—had firsthand knowledge of the events of the Final Solution because they suffered a rare psychotic disorder whose symptoms included a kind of visionary time travel, much like Dostoevsky’s epileptic seizures providing him with moments of ecstatic illumination.
Cyd and I met at a lit theory conference. Disinterring Derrida or Posthumously Post–Structuralist or something along those lines. By then I was 35, over a decade past the last time I swam the heady waters of High Theory, but I went because a semi–famous professor of mine was giving a talk. As his student I’d been dazzled at the deep truths he’d been able to wring from shallow texts. Re–reading him before the event, and listening to his lecture, I was startled at the impenetrable language, and saddened by what I found in the few sentences I could penetrate. Lit theory, which for my whole college career had seemed a sort of minor magic, now held only banal and useless truths written in a tongue I no longer knew.
Cyd, on the other hand, was 25, going for his doctorate, endlessly gushing about all the same things I’d gushed about at his age. We met at the bar, we knew people in common, we bonded in that way gay guys do when they are the only ones. And he’d actually read an article I’d published to some small notoriety—“Cumdump Semiotics: The Gay Art of Embracing Abjection”—back when I’d been young, swift, able to speak the language, make the connections, see the substructure.
For Cyd it was sexual, that long weekend welded at the hip. I see that now. For me it was nostalgic. Cyd’s energy, his passion, his vulnerability all took me back to the boy I’d been when I was his age. Not so long before, chronologically, but seeing Cyd giggle I realized I’d aged out of all proportion to the years.
Sunday night, after an endless overcrowded dinner and a whole lot of loud raucous arguments among twenty–odd people—some silly Cyd thing I couldn’t follow from my end of the table, about The Great Gatsby being science fiction, I think, or a warning from the future?—we were returning to our hotel rooms and he got off the elevator and said good night and then turned around as the doors were closing and stuck his leg in.
“I want to come up to your room,” he said. The doors slid open. His eyes were on mine. Cyd had beautiful eyes.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I said.
“I’m not drunk,” he said. “You won’t be taking advantage of me. If anything it’ll be the other—”
“No, Cyd, I’m sorry.”
“Is it because I’m trans?” he asked.
“What?” I said, and “No!” I’d known he was trans, and filed the information away as irrelevant—or had I? Who knew what my brain got up to, left unattended.
“Lots of gay guys get grossed out by vaginas.”
“What? No. Sorry, Cyd, you’re adorable, but I need a friend in my life more than I need a fuck buddy.”
It was a line I’d used before, but Cyd was too young to spot that. His face crumpled for a split second, and then he smiled. “I need a friend too.”
He kissed me, and we hugged, and he smelled so good, and then he was gone.
I didn’t know why I turned him down. Later I’d spend an awful lot of time wondering. That night I didn’t give it a second thought. I spent hours scrolling through hook–up app profiles, all beards and muscles and wolf smiles and tattoos, an endless line of bodies, like fence posts that penned me in, noticing for the first time how old they made me feel, until at the end of it all I felt too sick to my stomach to go get fucked by anyone.
He went home to Albany. I stayed in my city. And for days I felt it in my heart and in my head, in my gut and in my knees, the full–body pain of withdrawal from Cyd, a pain I hadn’t felt since high school crushes thwarted, the sweet joy I’d misdiagnosed as friendship and could only now recognize by its sting. It had been love. Love was what I felt for Cyd, but already my mind was spinning excuses faster than a spider weaves a web—he lived too far away, the age difference, we were both bottoms.
Only much later, when Cyd was dead and I met Link and she made me delve deep into my own reasoning, did I wonder if maybe part of it was fear of losing face, of calling Cyd up and saying “I changed my mind about wanting a friend, what I want is something more.”
When Nick and the gardener are carrying Gatsby’s soggy corpse from the pool, and they find the body of his murderer a little ways off, Nick reflects “The holocaust was complete.”
While it’s true that the word “holocaust” was indeed part of the English language long before it earned a capital H when applied to the Nazi slaughter of millions, a computer–aided statistical analysis of texts over the course of the past century show that its usage prior to 1952 was vanishingly slim. The only other time it appeared anywhere in print for the entirety of 1925 was in a Popular Science article, to describe a forest fire. And while we could have a mere case of a writer overly fond of his thesaurus, the rest of the book doesn’t bear out that harsh judgment.
Gatsby’s death is a metaphor for the extermination of the Jewish people, but it’s bigger than that. It’s a parable of genocide, of every genocide, of the fact that such monstrous crimes take place while the world watches. No one loves Gatsby, not really. No one considers him their brother. No one lifts a finger to help him. They enjoy his parties, they drink his moonshine, and they abandon him, and they don’t care when he is butchered.
“I’m sorry,” Link said. A new bottle appeared in her hand, gin this time. Cyd’s drink. Cyd had juniper berries tattooed across one bicep. “I shouldn’t have said that to you. That was a dick move. I’m not in a good place, Kelvin.”
“No,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Did you know Cyd got his arm broken in high school? Jumped by five bullies.”
She smiled. I had taken the bait. “You didn’t know anything about Cyd, did you? All you two ever talked about was books and theory.”
“That’s not true. We talked about lots of things. We talked about what Cyd wanted to talk about. He liked talking about books and theory.”
“He liked it because you did. And you never cared to ask about his real life.”
“You don’t know me, Link,” I said, mildly. Talking to Link provided a purgative, masochistic pleasure. Link was bad medicine. I needed to feel bad. I had failed Cyd, due to some twisted flaw inside me, and until I found and fixed it I’d continue to fail people.
She sighed dramatically. I decided I liked her, for how deeply she’d loved him. And I realized I needed her. Just like she needed me. We were both broken up and dealing badly with a post–Cyd world.
“No. No I don’t. Because I don’t care to. Just like you didn’t care to know that Cyd had night terrors, or practiced aikido, or had a weird polar bear fixation that bordered on the sexual, or—”
“Is it true they didn’t bury him yet?” I asked, and she seemed happy to be interrupted.
“What? No. Funeral is tomorrow.”
We watched the fire.
“Cyd was obsessed with fire,” she said. “He said he was made out of fire. Fire in human form. He said all human thought is fire, and once we realize that, we’ll be able to control the fire. Share thoughts, see the future, the past, that kind of thing. He said that’s what mental illness is, or some of them, anyway. He said it was contagious, said one person could spark the fire in the mind of someone else, maybe even lots of people. He had this whole theory about the Stonewall Uprising being ‘the first public demonstration of the supernatural phenomenon that has been called collective pyrokinesis, multipsionics, liberation flame…’ Some bizarre bullshit he read in an unpublished oral history that’s been circulating in academia for thirty years.”
“Cyd was crazier than a soup sandwich,” I said. “You know that, right? I loved him, but he was a lunatic.”
She stood, and walked toward the fire. I followed.
“Cyd wanted to be cremated,” she said.
“Cyd wanted a lot of things.”
She took a long time before she said, “I know where his body is.”
“You’re not serious.”
Link laughed, stooped to pick a stone from the edge of the fire circle. Threw it into the river. Standing between the fire and the water I could feel myself coming unmoored. Infected. By Cyd. His most deranged ideas felt perfectly rational there, then. “He was working on this massive book,” she said. “A treatise that was going to be the vector for the infection. Change human nature forever. Did he ever show you any of it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “He shared some stuff.”
“And he had that crazy Great Gatsby thing.” I could hear the alcohol creeping into her voice, into her grief–shattered thoughts. “His family are such assholes. They asked me to come to the funeral home, bring some old photos from when we were kids. I knew I shouldn’t go, but I went anyway. They kept using his girl name. Place was full of pictures from before he started to transition. A couple dozen Cyds from twenty years ago, in dresses, looking miserable.”
It had never occurred to me that Cyd once wore another name. I watched the water. Tires caked in river–bottom muck lined the shore. Behind us the city smelled like tar, nicotine, duct tape. Albany was every bit as depressing as I’d expected it to be. How’d you last as long as you did, I thought, before offing yourself? Even better—why didn’t you just fucking move? Surely the unknown you faced packing up and moving to a new city was less frightening than the unknown you faced when you shot yourself in the head… Loud distant braying laughter startled me out of this train of thought, which was just as well. A suicide sparks a thousand questions, and none of them has a satisfactory answer.
I handed her a Cyd Card. “Got one for me?”
“This is Rick’s,” she snorted, inspecting the card. “He gave Cyd HPV.” She flicked it away into the darkness. Wind carried it waterward. The air had an edge to it, now.
“You want to see the emails?” I said. “The long detailed correspondence where we talked endlessly about all kinds of things? So you can see that we actually were friends?”
“Yes,” she said. “I want to see them.”
I called them up on my phone, handed them over. I wanted her approval; wanted her to turn to me and say, You really were a good friend, you really did do everything you could, Cyd’s decision had nothing to do with you. I watched her read, anxious about what she might find, but not too anxious, because I never said anything too terrible to Cyd, never confessed anything scandalous or shameful. Which maybe meant she was right about me and Cyd.
“Holy shit,” she said, long minutes later. “You wrote ‘Our job as readers is to find the scientific formulae for survival’?”
“Sounds like something I would say.”
Link produced her own stack of Cyd Cards. In the photo he was arguing with someone outside the frame. His arms made martial–artist moves in the air. On the back, attributed to Cyd: “Our job as readers is to find the scientific formulae for survival.”
“That little thief,” she muttered.
Link started to cry. Her tears finally tugged my own out of hiding.
Meyer Wolfshiem, Gatsby’s business associate, a receptacle of loathsome anti–Semitic stereotypes seemingly meant to make Shylock look kosher, has a legitimate business front for his many criminal enterprises. It’s called the Swastika Holding Company. And while “holocaust” would have had no meaning to Fitzgerald’s readers, “swastika” would have plenty—a harmless, faddish symbol with faint whiffs of Orientalism and occultism.
But no contemporary reader can fail to find something ominous about this association of odious anti–Semitism with a swastika. One needn’t accept my admittedly outlandish theory of Fitzgerald the Time Traveler to be unnerved. Wolfsheim is the archetypal Evil Jew, the one the Nazis invoked as justification for genocide. While many readers have decried Fitzgerald’s apparently uncritical invocation of these stereotypes, their juxtaposition with the swastika is the key to understanding them for what they are: an illumination of the role that even “harmless” popular culture cliches play in large–scale oppression; the way stereotypes and demonization can coax the broader public into acquiescing to even the most catastrophic endeavors.
A bottle broke. Someone turned up the volume on one of the car stereos blaring Cyd’s favorite radio station at us. Something from one of Albany’s lesser colleges, sounding like a mental institution taken over by its inmates, like punk fucked disco. Someone laughed. Lots of people were laughing, treating this like a party instead of a chance to celebrate someone who was dead.
So many of them were beautiful boys, butch magnificent monsters. Cyd and I clearly had the same type. Their bodies gleamed in firelight. Broad shoulders, big forearms. My stomach hurt from wanting that, from not being that.
Everywhere I went, everything I did, it was the same. Bodies mocking me. Undying unchanging superhuman bodies extending into infinity.
Link and I talked. About each other, some. She was an indie–music–mag photographer. She had shit to say about every weird grindcore or folktronica or Krishnacore song that came on the radio. Her snapshots made and broke careers in Albany’s tiny exuberant scene. Mostly we talked about Cyd. The Cyd she knew was invincible and all–knowing, superhuman, hated by a fake and flawed world because he was destined to one day destroy it. Her Cyd fought a hard fight and lost. I liked her Cyd a lot.
My Cyd was small, fragile, unfit for survival, and most importantly, I now saw, a projection of my own failings. I saw Cyd as damaged and parochial and naive, stuck in a stage of youthful enthusiasm that was appealing but exhausting, because to admit that I was in love with him would take me too far outside of too many comfort zones.
Those things are awful, he told me, once, when I mentioned I’d been averaging three brand–new one–time sex partners a day thanks to some new app. Just another way to reduce human beings to things, objects.
Ummmm… isn’t that everything? I sent back. Next you’ll be trying to tell me you think capitalism is awful. The internet. The iPhone.
I do, he said.
You poor thing, I typed, and then deleted without sending.
“Let’s go,” I said, to Link.
“Go get him.”
She stooped to grab the canister of gasoline from beside the fire and stalked off.
The Great Gatsby is a book obsessed with race. As much as its old–money protagonists zealously cling to the customs of class and behavior that separate them from upstarts like Gatsby, so too do they see racially Other boogeymen and –women lurking in every shadow, objects of spectacle and portentous omens.
“‘Civilization’s going to pieces,’ broke out Tom violently.”
[An aside: Tom’s violence is the violence of patriarchy; later, Nick will see that violence surface again when he “matter–of–factly” breaks his mistress’s nose. The nose–breaking, like the racist ranting, goes unchallenged by Nick, our passive stand–in].
“The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proven.”
Tom cites a book, The Rise of the Colored Empires, which is fictional, but which connects to the very real history of racist American pseudoscience. American eugenics, in fact, which evolved from our own legacy of racism and the status quo’s desperate and constant need to explain away the atrocities on which it was built, went on to shape Nazi science.
“This idea is that we’re Nordics. [… ] And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization—oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?”
Tom’s “Do you see?” is important: he has offered his racist worldview to Nick, and is soliciting Nick’s endorsement. He presents Nick, our stand–in, literature’s most passive witness, embodiment of a world that watches ugliness unfold and does nothing, with the rationale for the Holocaust, and asks Nick to agree. Nick attempts to distract us (“There was something pathetic about his concentration…”), but one wonders whether he would have had the courage to demur from Tom’s genocidal philosophizing. Nothing in this book gives us any reason to believe that he would. Maybe he didn’t say “Yes,” but he certainly didn’t say “No.”
“We shouldn’t be driving,” Link said, eyeing the road like a math problem she’d probably get wrong. By now the bare tree branches were invisible against the black sky above us.
“We shouldn’t,” I said.
“I treated him like a god,” she said. “I made it my mission to make up for all the bullshit abuse and hate and transphobia and disrespect he’d experienced in his life. I loved him, but I put him on a pedestal, and that’s a terrible place to be. I don’t blame him for jumping off of it.”
So. That was there, in the air between us: why Link blamed herself. It should have made me see more clearly, grasp the arrogance and dishonesty inherent in both of us claiming responsibility for Cyd’s death, but instead it made the moment more weighty, steepened the sense that Link and I had been destined to make this drive. Plus we were tearing down those country roads without a moon. I’m a city boy, and that degree of darkness felt prophetic, weighty, fated.
He’d call me, late at night. He’d sob. Sometimes his voice would cease to sound human, and roar like a forest fire heard from far away. I’d find a book or video game to focus on, because to give him my full attention, to truly open my heart to his hurt, would be to risk contracting it.
In those moments, as now, I’d know he was right. Some sicknesses can leap from mind to mind like fire spreading.
But here’s the thing: I could feel him, after those calls. Blustering against my mind’s defenses like wind against an old barn. Cyd wanted in. I’d lie awake looking down at Manhattan and feel his mind moving.
“Cyd wasn’t my messiah,” she said. “That was my mistake. Just one more misfit prophet without honor in his own land.”
I figured I’d earned the right to give her some shit. “Cyd was a person,” I said. “That’s all any of us are.”
“Bodies,” she said. “Bodies stacked like firewood. Cyd said that’s how I’d know he was free, was safe, had broken through. I’d get a vision of bodies stacked like rows of logs, waiting to be burned.”
Weird chills went through me.
“Funny,” I said. “He told me it’d be a bird, breaking free of a burning room. Flying away. That’s how I’d know he’d broken through. Was free.”
“You’re a fucking weirdo, Cyd,” she said. “And here we are.” The car passed a house that was indistinguishable from all the other houses on the street. She kept going, parking far away enough to not attract attention.
“This is crazy. You know that, right?”
“It was your idea.”
“I don’t think it was,” I said.
“Cyd was skinny,” she said. “We can carry him out to the car together.”
“All this way? You overestimate my strength. And probably your own.”
We laughed out loud in the silent dark.
Gatsby is Other, whether or not we accept the theory that he is Jewish, or Black, or A Metaphor for European Jewry, or—to go with what the book actually says—Working–Class–Turned–Nouveau–Riche. He is welcome in the world of the Toms and Daisys only as long as he’s willing to play by its rules. And its primary rule is Assimilation. All signs of difference must be erased. But difference can never truly be erased, and when Gatsby refuses to accept the dishonesty that characterizes upper–crust marriage, that’s when he must die.
For middle class Jews in Europe, Assimilation seemed like the answer. Become like the people who hate you, they believed, and they will stop hating you. Many of them believed that right up to the moment when the gas chamber door clanged shut behind them.
“They’ve got to have alarms on this place,” I said, whispering in the cold still air. “A security system.”
“We’ll see,” she said. “How many people want to steal bodies?”
“The alarms would be for necrophiles, not thieves.”
“We should have parked closer,” I said. “You watch too many movies.”
The walk felt long. I asked a lot of questions. About Cyd, and what he’d say about me. She answered minimally, monosyllabically. How could she be so dense, not to see what I needed to know: how Cyd really felt about me? He loved me, sure, but you can love someone and still hate them. I had failed him at every opportunity. He’d be right to hate me, but did he? What had he said about me, to her? What did she know? Why couldn’t she just give me the answer I needed, without needing to be asked? Why couldn’t she read my mind? What was the point of this whole madcap drunken ill–advised road–trip–slash–criminal–enterprise? I felt our grief at war, hers and mine, two monsters dueling.
“What was the deal with you two?” I asked, insight flaring like a struck match.
“Deal?” she asked, after a pause precisely long enough to let me know I was nearing a nerve.
“State the nature of your relationship,” I said, in deep–voiced mock–legal, laughing so it would seem like a joke even though it was not. “Were you two ever a thing?”
“Cyd only liked boys,” she said, “sexually and romantically. As you of all people very well know.”
“I know what Cyd liked,” I said. “What about you? Were you in love with him?”
“I loved him,” she said.
“Did you ever want more?”
Silence. Rage swirling just below the surface. Ah, so we don’t like others talk to us how we talk to them.
“Seems to me like being in love with your best friend, in a fundamentally unreciprocal way, would be a great way to keep from ever having to go out and find a real relationship, put yourself in a position where you might get hurt. Am I right?”
“Who the fuck are you,” she said, “to only come when it’s too late, and spend five minutes here and think you understand anything about Cyd, or me?”
Come on, I thought, hit me. Hit me as hard as you can. Tell me something that will break me down the middle. True or not doesn’t matter. Punish me.
What a pair we were, me and Link, two strangers getting off on hurting each other, a feedback loop of double–masochism.
With great difficulty, I pulled myself back. I didn’t know Link. Provoking her into lashing out at me was a selfish strategy, even if she had started it. I had no idea how it might hurt her.
But I did know what I was talking about, because it was the inverse of my own heartbreak–avoidance strategy. Instead of a sexless one–sided marriage to Cyd, I had an oversexed parade of one–time hook–ups with strange men. Both did the job well. Both kept us safe by keeping us alone. Both locked our hearts up tight.
“Even if it’s true,” I said, laughing, after his latest late–night long–distance attempt to explain his time–traveling Great–Gatsby genocide–pre–allegory theory, “how did Fitzgerald get this ability?”
Cyd said “Zelda Fitzgerald was insane, yes?”
“I know he had her institutionalized,” I said. “Lots of men considered women crazy for objecting to being treated to shit.”
“That doesn’t mean she wasn’t mentally ill as we understand the term now. Most mental illness is a response to oppression, the brain attempting to defend itself from a reality it can’t process.” A keyboard clicked, then Cyd read to me: “Here’s from one of his letters. ‘Zelda now claims to be in direct contact with Christ, William the Conquerer, Apollo; the stock paraphernelia of insane–asylum jokes.’ Anyway, F. Scott loved her. He did her wrong a thousand ways, but he did love her. And love opens up all kinds of doors. All kinds of things can come through. Zelda died in 1948, when the institution caught fire. I told you we’re all made of fire. I believe Zelda broke through to some higher understanding of reality, and returned to our primordial state: flame. In 1948 she knew all about the Holocaust, all about everything that would happen between her and her husband, and time means nothing to fire. Fire stands outside of time. She traveled back to the 1920’s and split his rational eggshell mind, told him everything. That’s what broke him. Knowing what would happen ruined their relationship, drove him to drink, helped him write the Great American Novel and hide the Holocaust inside it.”
“You sound crazy,” I said, but I was close to crying, from the happiness in his voice, the passion, the youth and energy, like hearing myself, some euphoric younger version of me, like the wires got crossed and a phone call came through from fifteen–years–ago Me, like time travel was possible, like Cyd was right about everything, and I felt my mind–door creaking in its hinges, helpless to hold out any longer against the hurricane of Cyd, and at the earliest polite possible moment I made a hasty excuse and hung up, and fled to the piers, where men waited in shadow to ground me in my safe rational doomed mortal flesh.
Darkness made the house bigger, a hulking wall of blacker black against the sky.
Link’s movie–watching served her well: she wrapped her scarf around her fist, effortlessly smashed a window in the door, reached in, unlocked it. Opened it. Entered. No alarm. No sirens.
I’d been hoping for them. A reason to run away. There was none.
This is where fear gripped hold of my heart and made my guts shrink and my limbs go limp, summoned feeble protests to my lips, Hey, no, let’s not, this is stupid, let’s go back to the bonfire, but Link had already passed from the dark of the night to the deeper dark of the inside of the house.
I followed. I always did. I couldn’t help it. I thought of them, the boys around the fire, the men down by the piers and on the hook–up apps and the high school soccer team. Good soldiers all of them.
“Some funeral home owners live in the same building,” I said.
“This one doesn’t. I was just here this morning. Come on.”
I followed, free will abandoned, ego erased. What an arrogant fool I’d been—acting out of guilt, not grief. Thinking about myself, instead of Cyd. We went down hallways, down stairs. Into rooms.
“Oh my god,” I choked.
He lay on a table, naked. No sheet. Wounds bare. Head shaped all wrong.
I didn’t want to look. I looked.
“Damn,” Link said.
Guilt fled. Grief flooded me, now, hot raw wet spurts of it, the love of Cyd and the knowing I’d never see him again. His smile and his smell. The conversations we’d never finish. Sorrow split me open, cracked wide the barriers I’d built between myself and the truth.
I have saved the weakest piece of my argument for last. It is weak because it is easy. It is easy because it is so broad that it teeters on the edge of platitude, of meaning nothing because it means everything.
After Gatsby’s death—when “the holocaust” is “complete”—when Nick is trying to round up mourners, he visits Meyer Wolfsheim and is angry to learn that the old bootlegger will not be attending the funeral.
“Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead,” Wolfsheim says. If he is attempting to chastise Nick, he fails. Nick is too dumb to see his own epic moral failings. He cannot examine his own massive culpability in Gatsby’s death. Even many readers are blind with regard to Nick’s crimes. As we so often are with regard to our own.
But here, of course, is the moral of the book. Its indictment of Nick—of a world that allows atrocity to happen. Of we whose weaknesses, and even our strengths, cause suffering we cannot imagine.
Our job as readers is to find the scientific formulae for survival, to glean from art that life has meaning, that suffering has purpose, that we are more than our bodies, that we can learn from the past, that we as individuals and as a human family, can become Better.
“We shouldn’t be here,” she said.
“This was the stupidest fucking idea ever.”
“We can’t take him,” she said.
“No,” I said.
“We should get the fuck out of here.”
Eventually, she turned to go.
“Wait,” I said.
From a table, I took a pair of bone shears. Immaculately clean, heavy in my hands.
“What are you doing?”
“We have to honor his wishes. His family won’t.”
Eyes averted, I took one finger. Apologized to his body.
Cyd didn’t bleed.
We went back to where the bonfire had been. On the way we stopped for two books of matches and two extra–large to–go cups of what Link swore was Albany’s best coffee. I believed her, because it was disgusting.
Everyone was gone. Embers glowed in the pit. Wood was still stacked beside the stones that formed its boundary. She and I arranged logs clumsily.
“This was Cyd’s,” she said, producing a purple handkerchief. The banality of its modest paisley made my eyes well up all over again.
I handed her his finger. She wrapped it in the handkerchief, placed it atop the logs.
We struck our matches. Fire sparked at the pinched tips of my fingers. From her jacket pocket she produced a zine, one that contained her photos. We lit it, stuck it under the logs.
Cyd burned. I shut my eyes. Light exploded, spilling out to fill the sky and swallow me. I let myself see. I saw: everything.
Link and I surrendered our minds to the fire.
“… you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body…”
Tom Buchanan, or at any rate the butch handsome eugenicists he was based upon, is dead now. All those Jazz Age beauties are buried, or so old and shriveled and feeble that the memory of those days can only bring them pain. The body is a prison. Lust and sex seem like freedom, but they are the human prisoner embracing its cage.
The Holocaust is not an aberration. Not some monstrous accident. It is the inevitable climax of the Western worldview, of the Industrial Revolution, of the Age of Imperialism, of a society that reduces human beings to bodies to be exploited.
Creation and destruction are inseparable aspects of what we call civilization. The same society that can and must produce the Great American Novel can and must also produce genocide.
Flames surged higher, sucked up time and space again. I let them whisk me away. I smelled Cyd’s cologne, and human flesh burning. I saw an insane asylum in flames. Death camps, black crematoria smoke. The sour taste of Jazz Age bootleg whiskey.
None of this was my imagination. It was real, all of it. Human thought was fire, and Cyd’s had kindled inside my head.
I saw my own death, Link’s. I saw centuries pass. I saw centuries past.
I saw bodies, stacked like firewood. Every man who’d ever fucked me, all of them fuel for the crematoria. Like me. All of them weak, flawed, dying, doomed.
“A bird,” Link said, in another universe, her hand grabbing mine. “I see a bird. Breaking free of a burning room.”
“Cyd was right,” she said, seconds and millenia later.
“About everything,” I said. “It’s all true.”
“He knew,” she said. “Knew we’d find each other. He told me about your vision, and told you about mine. If we hadn’t met, hadn’t talked, what we saw wouldn’t have meant anything to us.”
“He saw it,” I said.
We didn’t cause Cyd’s death. If anything either of us could have done would have saved Cyd’s life, not even Cyd knew it. Not even he could see it, among all the pasts and futures he could see.
When we lose someone, we see their death in terms of ourselves. That’s not some egregious sin. Neither one of us were monsters, as much as it might have made us feel better to imagine that we were.
The fire burned so bright, and we stared into it so hard, that we didn’t notice the sky above the Hudson going from black to grey.
“If Cyd was here he’d say you look like shit,” she said. “Although he’d look worse when he said it. And he’d say it knowing that.”
“You look like shit.”
“Yup. We look like shit.”
“What do you do, in the big city?” she asked. Our teeth chattered.
“I used to be part of an arts collective,” I said, and did not add Back when I used to actually do things. “Now I manage an art gallery.”
“Really?” she said, tilting her head to one side and then the other. “Any spot on those walls for some crime–scene–style black–and–white photography of a small city’s incestuous punk rock scene?”
I laughed. “My gallery is stupid. The rich lady who owns it only likes big weird installations full of rusty antiques and shit. But I know some other spots.”
Link pulled a cigarette from behind her ear, and looked intently at its tip. And then she looked up, embarrassed, and smiled before shoving it back where it had been. She didn’t need to be embarrassed, though. No one was watching. If anyone had been, they’d never have guessed she believed for a moment she could summon up fire out of nothingness. Only I could see that, and I knew she was right.
We didn’t talk after that. We watched the fire. We watched the sky. We drank coffee. Steam rose up from our cups like clouds, like smoke, unceasingly.
(Editors’ Note: “Bodies Stacked Like Firewood” is read by Erika Ensign and Sam J. Miller is interviewed by Julia Rios on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 14A.)
© 2017 by Sam J. Miller