James thought that he might try to sleep with Madeline today, but he would not, because he didn’t really want to, except that Madeline might finally make him feel like he had touched another person, that they had touched him back; but since he didn’t know her name, Madeline wouldn’t feel the same, nor would she sleep with him today, though Maddy was, in her own way, like James, which is to say, she was like all of us.
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
Before he could think to sleep with Madeline that morning, James dreamt of an enormous tower that spiked into the sky: Each colossal floor was stacked askew upon the other, the lower floors the color of baked brick, of river slime, the ones above, hooked teeth of their unfinished arches, shone red as if the sun had broken open like an eye and spilled its blood upon the spire.
This is a scene: James had a dream, then woke up in his bed.
Imagine James’ face is well-proportioned like an actor’s, his ears just where a magazine would argue human ears should go, his eyes aligned correctly to his ears, properly spaced, lips an attractive distance from the chin, and all the rest of him comprised of everything you would expect.
He was struck by the fact that the first thing he’d thought was so terribly strange. And yet it had to have come out of his own mind.
Watch JAMES cross STAGE to WINDOW.
The clacking sound of window blinds, the sight of the white sun. He looked down on the street. Two cars turned left in the same lane like ducks on a grey pond. James turned away, but let’s look on: downtown, a river, long suspension bridge under construction.
And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
James thought again of Madeline, the way she tried to talk to him, though he had nothing interesting to say, not that she said interesting things herself; but then in the shower, he thought of the tower and concluded that dreams were enormous deformed organisms leapt from the mud of one’s subconscious mind, that the images of things without their meanings were more terrible in their meaninglessness, and that in spite of Madeline’s bright smile, he hadn’t really thought of her before this morning—and, lo, did James soap the hair around his genitals; and, lo, did the tower recede in his mind; and, lo, did James ignore the perpetual death of all things, and don’t we all.
And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
WORK, grey building four blocks from APARTMENT:
Madeline, who’d worked just down the hall from James since just last week, leaned awkwardly against the wall of his grey cubicle and asked, “How did you sleep?”—an inane question, to be sure; but she’d just wanted an excuse to look upon his flawless face, to conjure up the image of his body next to hers, their bodies perfect in her mind, their sexes perfectly aligned, not thinking that, the thought unkind, both he and she would see, almost immediately, the myriad flaws, however hidden or discernible, that rendered both grotesque and naked even then, as Madeline would feel some moments after that.
James stared at his computer screen and aggregated all the calls and texts to nine-one-three-four-one-three-nine-four-one-three between four AM, January fifth, two-thousand-and-sixteen, and nine twenty-five the night of February twenty-second, nineteen-twenty-two.
“Okay,” he said. “And you?”
I know. It isn’t great.
But Madeline was off: She told James all about how she’d rolled out of bed, already late for work, and opened her computer, ’cause she’d been thinking of this story all night long, and it was going to be great because she finally knew who her protagonist would be, and had he ever known, James, truly known, that feeling of knowing exactly who a person was?
James shook his head, said “No.” He slouched a bit and asked, “What’s a protagonist?”
Madeline ignored his question. She let her head tilt to one side and hoped that it looked cute. She asked her own instead: “What’s wrong?”
And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do:
His perfect body in black slacks, a crisp white shirt, shiny black shoes, soft socks, black belt and dark grey tie that matched his desk, file cabinet, computer on computer desk, padded cubicle walls, the color of the sky: James took in Madeline’s deep red heels.
His eyes followed a vein that ran along Madeline’s shin and disappeared into her knee, the left one scarred, James noticed then, the hem of her striped skirt exposing thickish thighs that pinched at Maddy’s seams, moderate roundness of a belly curving up from her form-fitting skirt, curve vanishing under the buttons of a shirt unbuttoned between her breasts, flat space above those breasts, visible collarbones, a small birthmark that disappeared under a blue lace bra-strap peeking out from Madeline’s collar, her small neck and her face.
“Nothing,” said James.
Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
And Madeline felt naked; but not because she’d watched his gaze, voracious, roving up her legs—until that moment, she would have died that he would look at her, that he might take her into himself through his eyes.
For now she had to think what it might mean if he did ask her out, which he would do some moments after that, so in the time between “Nothing,” and “Let’s get lunch,” Madeline relived her every heartbreak all at once—each time her optimism was mistaken for stupidity; her need to fall in love, not having real goals; her want for sex, a lack of self-esteem; all her desire, capricious naïveté—each moment passed through Madeline’s body like a knife, tightening along her skin, twisting her mouth into a bright fake grimace of a smile, so that when James looked at her lips, he was reminded of the grinning arches of the tower, of this morning, and of the thought that he should try to sleep with her today, so he said, “Let’s get lunch,” and there you go.
When it was time, Madeline logged out of her computer, but not before James saw the painting of the tower on her desktop; and though he paused to read her first name off her stack of cards, he didn’t think about his dream or recognize what he had seen, for neither he nor she are real, nor is this scene, nor was the one depicted on her screen.
Still she took up their coats, and both made for the door: Madeline ahead, head down, flying through the streets like any other thing borne on the wind formed by the force of every other displaced object, simultaneously wanting James to leave her side—to go off down an alleyway and to never come back to work, to never call, so that she could believe that he had died—and wanting him to speak to her, to put to words that thread, so singular, connecting them.
Which is to say, they made their way toward the river, and the action of their feet slapping the street was like this sentence, the sound resolving into brownstones in the background, resounding in the flesh of couples just like them, sudden appeared, now passing by, just like the footsteps of those others—the ones you’ve just created in your mind—vibrated deep inside of Madeline and James, creating ripples, imperceptible, along the surfaces of organs now suddenly, invisibly, within.
The rippling way the tower had exploded from the ground, the way her hair swung near her face: Madeline watched James’ eyes move up and down with every step she took; but when he saw that she had raised her eyes to his, he turned his eyes away from hers.
Which is to say, they turned a corner. Sounds. A row of restaurants. And James said, “Where,” and Madeline said, “Anywhere,”
Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth:
James pointed and, this time, Madeline moved her shoulders up and let them drop, and followed him inside, and let him take the table by the window, then sunk into her seat and sighed and brushed her elbow against his; and when he smiled, she thought his smile looked funny, so she said, “You seem funny,” but this meant nothing, for she could not have known that he was different then from any other time because they wouldn’t ever be again, so she had called it “funny,” which is what people do when they are sad beyond imagining.
They sat and watched the people walking by, each thinking separately that they might be the same as all the rest, in grey and black and white, at work, at lunch, a thread here, there, a bit of red, a fish, a bridge, but they would never know that this was all for you,
and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
Chris Cartright grew up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and lives in Savannah, Georgia.