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Short Story

Understanding Sartre

A short-but-disturbing story by Mark Richardson.

Dear Sally,

My girlfriend and I have been together six years. She has recently returned to college. I am a blue collar guy who barely graduated high school. She’s asked me to read a book that she says is very special to her. However, this book – Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre – is written in some kind of fancy, Einstein language. Any advice?

Rocco, Brooklyn, NYC

Rocco read the letter again. Of course, he’d read it fifty times that week, just amazed at the fact his words were printed in a national magazine. Up until then his proudest moment had been making a ninety thousand dollar tribute payment to Anthony Sciorra, the most feared of all the New York bosses. But that morning was different. After hearing the news, Rocco thought immediately about Marcia. She would be heartbroken. Seeing as she’d left early for college, Rocco scribbled a note: “Heard about JPS. Gone to Houston on business. Back in a couple days. Love, R.”

Driving to Numchucks, a wiseguy bar downtown, Rocco shook his head as the news of Sartre’s death was read out over the radio. Inside, he broke the news to the others.

“Jean-Paul who?” said Paulie, scrunching up his face. “Was he a friend of ours?”

•••••

It was dusk. Ginger trotted briskly in the direction of the small tent, tucked away at the very backend of San Forda. Suddenly, a hand appeared out of the darkness and grabbed Ginger’s wrist.

“You don’t know what’s in there. It’s awful,” pleaded Elizabeth.

“That’s why I want to go.” Ginger wrestled free of Elizabeth and stepped up to the entrance of the tent.

A man stood charging thirty pesos to see the show. “No no no. No ladies allowed.”

The man noticed Elizabeth standing in the shadows. He spoke to her in Spanish. Ginger realised Elizabeth was apologising on her behalf. Eventually, Elizabeth dragged Ginger away by the hand. Behind them they heard heavy tribal drumming coming from the tent as the Dog and Pony Show began.

“He said if he’d let us in the police would close them down,” Elizabeth later told Ginger.

They were lying next to each other on Elizabeth’s bed. Ginger stroked Elizabeth’s hair as she watched her lover of two years furrow her brow in frustration: “Is this it for us? The end of the line, as you Americans say?”

Ginger sat up. “I don’t have a choice.”

Elizabeth sat up also. She kissed Ginger’s shoulder. “Yes you do. Your land is the land of the free isn’t it?”

“Not for people like me.”

Later, on the road, Ginger cruised comfortably through border control. For the past year she’d regularly made the journey from Texas into Mexico and back again. Ginger tried to imagine what the Dog and Pony Show would really be like. She had a nun fetish and hoped the women, who belonged to some wacky Catholic sect, wore the full sisters’ robes. But it didn’t really make a difference, as Ginger had missed her opportunity.

Ginger turned on the radio. As the hour struck four, the news headlines were broadcast. Jean-Paul Sartre had died.

•••••

By the time the taxi arrived outside her parents’ home, Ginger had decided not to travel to Washington. The whole intern thing was a sham. Her father was a judge, her uncle a senator. She wasn’t prepared to be just another spoilt rich kid prancing around Capitol Hill. Packing her bag, she thought about calling Elizabeth. But Elizabeth liked surprises. Walking round the family home, Ginger thought about her parents and siblings having a great time in LA, on vacation – without her. She particularly hated the grand family portraits. Why had she smiled on those occasions? Sometimes she hated herself for such things.

Inside the cab, Ginger noticed the book sitting on the cab driver’s dashboard – Understanding Sartre.

“Didn’t he just die?”

“That he did,” said Rocco, without even needing to ask Ginger who she was speaking about. “A real tragedy, too.” He’d bought the dumbed-down guide in an Austin bookstore on the advice of Sally, the agony columnist.

Nothing more was said on the matter.

Hours later, as he covered Ginger’s mouth with a rag, tears formed in Rocco’s eyes. “Calm down. Your uncle wants you to know he’s still going to make the monthly donations.”

This message was intended to reduce the potency of Ginger’s blackmail. Since she’d turned sixteen Ginger had insisted her uncle make hefty donations to a rape crisis centre in Austin, otherwise she’d call the cops and his political career would be ruined with one simple phone call. Ginger happened to curse at this injustice just as the bullet pierced the soft skin covering her forehead. Microseconds later, as the bullet splintered her skull, Ginger managed to conjure up one final mental picture of Elizabeth. Then everything went black.

After finally understanding Sartre, Rocco managed to block out the events of that day. But when all the anticipated ‘missing daughter of a Texas judge, a senator’s niece’ news stories failed to appear, Rocco did some investigating. Turned out she’d written a final farewell letter, telling the folks she was running away to Mexico where she’d be free to pursue a lesbian lifestyle. This really didn’t sound like the Mexico Rocco had ever known; but he could only wonder at what kind of arrangement might have been made between the two of them.

•••••

The final two days it still hurt to breathe, but Jean-Paul didn’t feel the pain. Not only was he being kept comfortable in his coma, but he really was somewhere else entirely. It was a huge tent made from blood-red sheets. It was night. Light came from a huge fire in the centre. Round this fire was a stage on which women, some of whom were dressed as nuns, performed a variety of sex-acts with animals (mostly dogs, goats and horses) for the entertainment of an audience. Jean-Paul was sat amongst the crowd, which encircled the stage.

But it went on for days… A never-ending series of sexually-gross performances. Eventually bored, Jean-Paul stood up and walked in the direction of the exit, but was blocked by a large man who guarded the exit and refused to let anybody past. Jean-Paul shrugged and sat back amongst the audience. So this, he realised, was death. He noticed that he no longer had any bodily concerns: he grew no hair, never needed to piss, at one point realised he wasn’t even breathing, didn’t need to sleep or eat, had no compulsion to smoke or do speed… After the first couple of weeks, a girl across on the other side of the tent sparked Jean-Paul’s interest. Less Spanish-looking than everyone else (except himself) and the only woman in the audience, she had bullet wound traumas to her head and chest, a suitcase at her side, and her eyes constantly searched the crowd for something or someone she would, Jean-Paul presumed, ultimately never find.

© Mark Richardson 2005

Mark Richardson is a final-year undergraduate in Philosophy at the University of Dundee.

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