I arrived at Siobhán’s new digs in late evening, after more than three hours of driving north through blustering gusts of cold air, along deserted Wisconsin state highways and country lanes, ringed with a seemingly endless succession of pale grey and weather-worn barns, silos and stubble fields of harvested corn, punctuated every 30-40 miles by the glistening plastic pillars of some shopping center, gas station or outlet mall. And while the sterile fakeness of it all might seem utterly foreign on the surface, I was soon reminded just how integral a part of this place’s heritage Death worship is. When I passed the familiar gloom of the Lac Butte des Morts^ fens, I recalled that this place used to be Winnebago country, supposedly the prehistoric stomping grounds♦ of Red Horn, the Ho-Chunk culture hero who freed the land from the tyranny of monsters hunting his people like vermin, and the native place of Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca, rival brother gods of the Aztec people who led their people from wintry Aztatlan in the north to their current patrimony in the Valley of Mexico. The White Man displaced most of those first nations people from this part of Wisconsin long, long ago, but in some ways the deathgrip of the old gods and monsters is stronger than ever.
“Oh, hi, Liam! C’mon in!” Siobhán greeted me at the foyer door of the shabby-genteel Victorian pile on Maiden Lane.**
“Uh, wow, I didn’t see you as the ‘dog-in-a-handbag’ type of girl, Shivvers ,“ I was trying to be cute, witty, sardonic—anything to suppress my shock at her drawn and wan appearance when she came to the door.
She shot back a weak, snarky smirk while wrestling with the little Chihuahua wriggling in her arms. “Yeah, well, it’s a long story. Take a load off.”
Oh, shit. Éamó was right. He’d tried to warn me but I never fuckin’ listened to him, and now I couldn’t do anything but play through. The scene swam back to me as I followed sullenly in her shadow into the sitting room.
Flash back almost one week ago: As soon as I’d hung up after Siobhán’s call my uncle Éamonn asked me with an unusual bluntness what I’d intended to do.
“Head up north. What else? She’s basically offered me a blank check to do renovations on some rich doctor’s summer house.”
“So just like that you said ‘yes’?”
“Well, what are my options? Winter’s coming on hard and I’ve lost probably a good three weeks of work with the downturn. Gotta make hay while the sun shines.”
“Think about it, boyo. Didn’t her voice sound a little uptight to you? A little clipped? Like the vocal chords were stretched to snapping? Don’t you think that merited a few questions? Like: ‘How long do you figure it’d take?’, ‘Just what type of work does he need done?’, ‘Why the Hell aren’t you living it up on the Gold Coast or getting ready to vacation in Vail?’ Does it really make sense to you that a party girl like Shivvers is holed up in the middle of Bumfuck, Egypt?”
“What? She didn’t sound that bad. Could have been the connection, or maybe she’d caught a bit of a cold—the weather is changing. Besides, she’s never done me a bad turn.” My thoughts now turned to her holiday card last year—a pickkie of her in a Colorado ski lodge, clad in a bear-skin bikini, posing with biceps flexed triumphantly and sitting astride an enormous stuffed moose head. THAT was the dominant image of her in my mind. I was constitutionally unable to even imagine a scared, uptight Siobhán, much less register any micro-decibel of doubt in her voice over a shaky cell phone signal. Still, Éamó did sound insistent . . .
“I’m not saying she has ever done you wrong. Just saying you should stop, look and listen a bit. Ask a few questions before plunging in. Wait for answers.” This old bullshit artist was serious and it caught me like a deer in headlights. Pulling an Obi Wan-style mind bender, he gave one final parting shot, “Yes, she’s a lovely girl, but you know a person’s judgment isn’t always what it could be when they’re stretched.”
And even now, while my consciousness flashed forward again to the present, with me taking a seat in a plush fashionable settee at Siobhán’s invitation, that last word echoed in my mind: “stretched”. That was a perfect description of her appearance now. No artful application of make up could conceal the dark rings of fatigue swelling under her eyes or the pale, hollow cast of her cheeks. Something WAS wrong and I’d committed myself to dealing with it for a matter of weeks at least—all without asking a single pertinent question.
But Siobhán’s mind was a million miles ahead of me on that curve. Gently setting the beast down on its little canopied doggie bed she rushed into the kitchen and returned unbidden to hand me a glass brimming with red wine.
“Yeah, I admit I’ve been a little short on sleep lately. I’m kinda keyed up to get settled in to the new situation, y’know?”
“Like the dog.” I thought I was being clever and disarming by starting out slowly, but Siobhán shot a tense glance back at the animal. Its eyes glared back at us with a weird green sheen from the flickering darkness of its throne just behind a covey near the fireplace.
“Uh, yeah, Pavlov# is a big part of it,” she said, launching into what seemed like a well-practiced recitation of a drama worthy of Dostoevsky. She’d had a grand setup in a Gold Coast suburb of Chicago, working as ‘au pair’ to a handsome, older ophthalmologist and all was well—until the shrill old bitch of a wife got to ‘imagining’ some kind of shenanigans afoot in the household. Siobhán kept her cool and made every effort to be above the board with the older woman, but she would simply not be placated. The old man clearly wasn’t able to ‘keep up’ his end, and in the end the best deal he could strike with the wife was exile for Siobhán in return for getting rid of the dog, which he never got on with. "Kept pissing in his shoes at night.”
I would’ve sworn that even the dog reacted with a dry little laugh at that last part.
“Well, at least this gives you some breathing room, time to make a few calls and pick up the pieces before you blow out of Dodge altogether. Soon as your pals in Vail or Saint Tropez can return your calls, right? The only awkward aspect might be dropping off the dog. But that’s hardly any big deal: ‘Wham, bamm, thank you, ma’am’.”
“Er, yeah . . . Say, would you like another glass of wine?” and without waiting for an answer she returned with another glass of the red stuff, filled to the brim.
She plopped down next to me on the settee. “Listen, there’s more than enough work to be done around this place, but it’s late tonight. And it’ll still be here tomorrow. So what’s the hurry? Let’s just relax some now and leave that kind of heavy talk for tomorrow, hmmm?” Her tone had segued into a warm, throaty purr that coaxed a blush of warm blood to my face. “I’ll turn on some tunes and you can tell me about your adventures since getting the boot by A-Visa or whatever her name was.” Waving the plastic magic remote-control wand, she activated her iPod’s playlist of mellow-mood tunes from the likes of Mumford & Sons and Iron & Wine.
She spent the rest of whatever I can still recall of that night seducing me, drink by drink, into unwariness, vanity and stupor. She laughed at all my shitty jokes, told me that I didn’t need Aviva anyway, and massaged away any tension that became apparent in my shoulders whenever I started to evince any regret about the way things had ended.
“Awww, you can do better than that, Liam. And you know what they say anyhow—“If it don’t fit, don’t force it.” I let out a low chuckle and then she got really bold; she physically drew me over to her on the couch, and began to gently stroke the back of my ears. That’s about the last thing I remembered before drifting out of consciousness—that and the weird fact that Pavolv seemed to take the gesture as a cue, and sprang out of his cubby and shuffled out of the room, his nails click-clacking on the kitchen tiles as he left.
It must’ve been shortly after noon when I woke up shivering—and alone—on the couch. Glancing around to get my bearings I felt kind of lost at first—the place had a cold, pale hollowness when viewed in broad daylight that was fundamentally from the psychic geography of the rich warm, brown-ness it radiated by last night’s fire. It seemed tidy and in good order, but cavernously empty as if nobody had really lived in the place for years.
Siobhán had exhibited enough class to throw a comforter over me and as I pulled it tighter, I began to mentally review the chronology of last night’s events; the wine, the music, the talk, the embrace—shit, did anything happen? I checked my junk. Nope all dry and packed as tight as if it’d never been brought out of storage. Damnit, blew it!
Before I could start to pity myself too much I noticed a light scratching noise coming from the kitchen that turned out to be Pavlov’s nails pouncing against the pantry doors. I pitied him; he looked just about starved, with the corrugated edges of his ribcage protruding though a hide pulled too tightly over him. So I didn’t even bother to check and see if there was any dog food in the place and immediately dug into the fridge and shot him a couple of wet hot dogs on the floor that he gobbled up greedily. Yeah, his mummykins back home in the Gold Coast would probably shit herself if she found out her baby was eating anything other than a precisely measured quarter cup of Doctor Parnassus’ Fat-Free Specialty Beluga Caviar Canine Mix, but fuck her and fuck her dog. Siobhán and I were only here ‘til we caught the next train out of Maiden Lane, which wouldn’t be long at all. Little did I know.
I spent the next hour or so doing my best to respect Siobhán’s space, and retreated to the sitting room to watch some low-volume television and waited for her to wake up and talk about a work plan. I’d brought most of my tool kit and supplies, including a portable drill press, table and jig saw, so I doubted that I’d need much additional stuff other than the lumber that I could only assess adequately after getting a tour of the place. But as one hour stretched into one-and-one-half and into two, my patience ran low and Pavlov’s eerie stare began to creep me out and I longed for some human companionship, so I started to roam the inhabited west wing looking for her room—which I found empty.
WTF? Did she pick up and leave camp altogether? I stormed out to my truck and immediately noticed the vicious crumple of the rear driver’s side quarter panel that turned in on itself into a dagger threatening the tire with a nasty puncture if I even thought about turning the ignition key. Stooping down to read a faded yellow Post-It™ note I saw her large, loopy writing:
“Oops! Sorry ‘bout the mix-up! Text you at 2:00!
THAT FUCKIN’ BITCH! Just then I heard the digital ‘plink’ of my phone announcing the arrival of a new text message. Must have hit 2:00 that moment.
“LM, U THR?”
“TLK 2 PVLV YT?”
What the hell was THAT supposed mean? “Talk to Pavlov yet?” Had she gone completely mad in this Wisconsin wilderness?
“Y. D’ U TLK 2 HM YT?”
I blew my top at this altogether and began shouting out loud to no one in particular. “No I did NOT talk to Pavlov yet! He’s a fucking DOG!!!”
From over my shoulder I heard the rejoinder: “Who the fuck is Pavlov? My name’s Paul. Paul Ryan.”
*Remember this bit? It’s allegory: a fictional narrative presenting in symbolic form actual events or persons intended to make rhetorical rather than strictly factual or historical points. Remember that when interpreting the events described here.
^ Actually Lake Butte des Morts—I changed it a bit to sound more exotically French. It’s the name of a small town in Winnebago County. Translates literally to “Lake of the Hill of the Dead”. Apart from some fishing, there’s nothing much to see here for the casual traveler but the low-lying shallow lake fens that stretch below part of I-41.
♦This stuff has only a rough, historical basis to it. It’s true that this is the native country of the Ho-Chunk (aka Winnebago) people, and that Red Horn was their mythology’s great culture hero—like Hercules to the Greeks or Cú Chullain to the Irish. And while I’m unaware of any strict canonical interpretation of his tradition, what I present here is only my rough re-imagining and is in no way to be interpreted as either recapitulation or violation of the authentic Ho-Chunk legends about him. Similarly with Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca. Some proto-archaelogists like N.F. Hyer thought that the legendary prehistoric homeland of the Aztec people, Aztalan, was located in Wisconsin, but I am unaware of anyone taking that idea seriously today. True there was definitely some kind of culture interchange between ancient Wisconsin and the Valley of Mexico—they both were centers of maize cultivation—but the extent and nature of that contact is far from clear to me. Far more important for the purposes of my narrative will be re-interpreting in the context of modern American politics the status of these figures as mythical hero, founding father and Death God, respectively.
** I chose the name ‘Maiden Lane’ for this house’s location because it just happens to be the name of a series of special-purpose entities established by the Federal Reserve Bank in Q3 2008 to deal with the liquidity crisis precipitated by the failures in the mortgage and insurance business, particurarly of two of Paul Ryan’s biggest customers, AIG and JP Morgan Chase. I’ll go into more detail about how socializing the cost of these failures has impaired the effectiveness of federal government later in the next installment of this series. But for now you might want to peruse the Wikipedia page description of their activities. I know it’s Wikipedia, but it is a fair high-level summary of the entities’ purpose, structure and timeline. There’s more technical stuff, like their financial statements, available here.
# Pavlov, the surname of the famous 19th century Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov, whose experiments with dogs established the notion of involuntary physical response to psychological stimuli. Etymologically it happens to be cognate with the English or Scottish surname “Paulson”—son of Paul.