Empathy

Laurence Klavan

Who was he now? Ragnar had been able to be anyone, everyone. That was his trademark, his talent, his “brand,” as the obnoxious new parlance went. He was the author who could evoke all kinds of individuals—men, women, and children, every race, creed, and color, as the idiotic old parlance went. He could even get inside the heads of animals: Kiernan the Corgi was his most beloved creation—“We Are All Kiernan,” the translated French headline hollered; that was how completely he brought that dog to life. “Empathy” was his middle name, the internet bellowed: He was Ragnar “Empathy” McMullens, which was shortened to “Empath” McMullens and then to “Path,” his nickname narrowing until he was a straight line that led into the souls of others.

Well, not anymore he wasn’t. That’s what had been decided by…who? Some vague, invisible institution of the air, the “zeitgeist,” as the annoying timeless parlance went. It said that Ragnar had no right to be anyone other than himself, that the souls of others were theirs alone to express and were unavailable to artists who, without even asking, had absconded with them. His latest book advance had been returned, his contract ended before it began, his career over after decades without his having failed, with him only overstepping boundaries he had not even known existed.

So, who was he now? No one. Ragnar had so completely identified with other creatures that he had subsumed his self in them, like sugar that merged with and melted in their tea, and no longer existed as a soul. Even a ghost had once been alive: he was not even an apparition but a non-entity, as big a nobody as dumb old death. How could he express himself when there was no one there to be?  

“Ragnar McMullens?”

The woman handing out name tags didn’t wait before she stripped off the backing and pressed it to his chest as if awarding him the medal of his identity. For the first time in years, he had left the city to attend a family function—a memorial service, no less—for, disallowed to work, he was unoccupied and felt and suffered from his solitude (Ragnar had seen two marriages end due to his very absence of presence and, at forty, had no kids).

She’d spelled his first name with an “e,” not an “a”: Ragner.

“The N is silent,” he said, puckishly, knowing that it left him at least on paper as “Rager,” which amused him (though if she pronounced it “Rah-ger,” that would kill the joke and mean nothing). This woman didn’t answer and simply steered him to the reception room of the church (he’d purposely arrived too late to see the service), where she abandoned him to strangers.

To virtual strangers—relatives he’d barely bumped into for decades, so engaged had he been with his work. The cousin in question, the corpse, to be exact, was someone with whom he’d grown up but hadn’t known as an adult. He’d only been invited in a mass email.

Ragnar saw guests glance at his name tag and squint, trying to place him in their pasts—or their Kindle libraries, he dared flatter himself—and always come up blank. (They didn’t even know Kiernan the Corgi? he wondered. Ragnar remembered that his family—both nuclear and extended—had been anti-intellectual, essentially illiterate, one reason he had fled.) He was left to awkwardly eat hors d’oeuvres—salmon and parsley on a cracker—biting down as if through the layers of the Earth, the crust to the core, to bury himself, then clapping the crumbs from his hands to deny he was dead and eavesdropping on those around him whispering…

“In the woods.”

“What?”

“That’s where she met him.”

“Oh.”

“It’s a surprise. She seemed so…”

“Mousy?”

“Exactly.”

“I guess you never know whose motor will run fast.”

“The mother, too.”

“You mean…”

“She’s the angrier. Of the two.”

“Interesting.”

“Shh.”

The two people—women in their forties—turned and caught Ragnar leaning in to glean their gossip, a cracker snapping in two between his fingers and both halves cascading to the carpet. They moved away after sneaking a peek at his name tag without recognition.

The women had continued a story being mentioned in low tones by other mourners. Using his retired storytelling skills, Ragnar pieced it together: A modest teenage girl in the family had been sneaking away during the pandemic to meet a local boy in the forest. Her parents had been appalled to find out, the mother (modest herself, Ragnar thought) reacting the most violently. The event had disturbed the dull equilibrium of his uninteresting clan, providing something exciting—alive!—to discuss during this celebration of death.

Soon Ragnar saw that the philistine nincompoops to whom he was barely related were glancing to the side, to one corner. Ragnar zeroed in on who secured this spot, half-hidden in the near-distance. He deduced it was the scandalous family, arguing in hisses: a gawky, coltish, about-to-be-beautiful teenage girl; her still stunning, much shorter mother, on the far side of forty; her once-handsome now bleary, paunchy, and unattractively balding husband, who had beaten his wife in the race to reach fifty by two years.

Studying them, Ragnar suddenly felt sick. At first, he feared it was a nasty reaction to the possibly spoiled salmon. Then he recalled that he had barely eaten the hors d’oeuvres and actually swallowed only one. The sensation was something else: an internal purging of his empathy, so strong that it sent it springing out of him, boing-ing into the blue.

His empathy landed behind the eyes of the teenage girl, Belinda (he immediately knew her name). She was bolting from beside her “Mom and Dad,” Hethe and Bruce, angrily exiting the church on newly long legs that took her at shocking speed into the parking lot. There, from her tiny disco bag, she retrieved a phone she had refused to relinquish to Bruce and Hethe. Chopping her thumbs on it with the skill of a Gyuto knife artist, she called Weyworth, the boy whom she had met (and kissed and touched and felt and loved) in the forest, both still obediently and erotically masked.

After a few sweaty seconds (it was hella hot, as the kids used to say, with no trees on the asphalt and no cloud in the sky), she held Weyworth in her hands. A skinny ginger, he was in a large square, as out of breath as if he’d run there to see her, as he had every time to the woods.

“I thought you’d never call,” he said, he panted.

“I couldn’t get away,” Ragnar as Belinda said. He was bemused that the boy wouldn’t have known why. “It is a memorial service, you know.”

This meant nothing to Weyworth, who kept uttering words as hot as he looked, as wet as his upper lip, where perspiration was puddling (Belinda felt much cooler, though outside: He seemed to be in his bedroom, in his bedroom closet, it looked like).

“Your hunger makes me feel both fond and queasy,” Belinda as Ragnar said.

Weyworth had been in mid-promise of pleasures yet to come. “Sorry?”

“It’s endearing in some ways and a little arousing but horrifying in others,” he as she told him. “Your need.”

A painting moving in his frame, Weyworth blinked for a while.

“Well, that’s a little condescending,” he said.

“No, it’s not,” Belinda who was Ragnar said. “I said you were endearing.”

“That’s what’s condescending. Like from a distance, a great height. Don’t you…feel the same way? You seemed to in the forest.”

His voice broke piercingly, and Ragnar thought he saw the phone screen crack. It might as well have, for his empathy squeezed inside it, then inside Weyworth. Ragnar spelunked the funky cave of the closet, where Weyworth had hidden spunk-encrusted shorts from his mother (or his maid? The closet wood was walnut). Then he attached himself to the boy’s brain like a spider’s web upon its wall.

Freed of Ragnar, Belinda belatedly perceived how Weyworth had criticized her. Super-sensitive and already on edge from her recent encounter with her “Mom and Dad,” she burst into tears. The girl’s hands trembling, her image shook on the screen the boy clutched as if she were enduring an earthquake (which she was in a way, emotions being so explosive for one her age).

‘I can’t believe you’d say that to me,” she said, through phlegm-soaked static. “It’s so…mean,” and the last word was barely audible.

Ragnar thought: she’d been the one unkind to Weyworth, or at least Ragnar had been, when he was her. Yet this wasn’t what he-as-Weyworth said, which was…

“It’s touching and funny to see all your emotions.”

It took Belinda a second to reply, and her grip of the device steadied. “What?”

“There are so many emotions bursting out of you, Belinda. They’ll never be as easily released again in your life. Your pain, your joy, your love are so lubricated. Enjoy them—now, now!”

As opposed to Weyworth, who had grown more animated in his virtual cell, Belinda appeared to ice over.

“That is very creepy,” she said, sniffing back the last drop of emotions he’d mentioned.

“Well, I don’t think so. High praise!”

“It’s like something a pervert teacher would say, leaning over your shoulder in class or something. What are you now, a strange, sick, forty-year-old man?”

This gave Ragnar and Weyworth pause, which he took, saying nothing.

“I think we shouldn’t see each other for a while,” Belinda said.

What? After what we had this week?” Ragnar thought it was the right thing to say, but it was too late.

“Maybe my Mom was right about us. Anyway, they’re both here. Goodbye.”

Belinda disappeared, replaced on his device by corporate logos multiplying and crawling like cockroaches across the screen. Then Ragnar himself disappeared from Weyworth, the boy starting to sob, too; Ragnar popped out toaster-style by his thin, shaking shoulders.

Belinda’s parents did indeed stand behind her. Hethe’s heavy makeup and Bruce’s burgundy hair color were starting to shake, bake, and cake in the sun. Their daughter stalked off, literally and figuratively, out of their hands.

“Well, there she goes,” Bruce sighed, licking up a bead of his own salted water.

Ragnar’s empathy now slid behind the wheel of Hethe, as it were, handed the keys to her cranium. She turned and took it out on her husband.

“What,” Ragnar/Hethe said, “you’re just going to stand there and accept this?”

“Belinda’s a teenager,” Bruce said, backing up a bit verbally. “You were once that age. We both were.”

“You identify with her too much,” Ragnar as Hethe blurted out. “You forgive her everything because you can’t separate yourself. You can’t grow up and be the parent. You’re clutching at Belinda to keep young. That’s not love, that’s not fatherhood—that’s pathetic!”

Bruce reeled a bit, unused to words this direct from Hethe, to any interpretations from her. Sweat popping and bubbling like boils on his pale brow, he waited to speak, long enough for Ragnar’s empathy to jump on and into him, grabbing the reins of his runaway stagecoach.

“Well, at least I’m not so bitter about my youth,” he/he said, “that I want to prevent my daughter from having a better one. You didn’t have pleasure—you can’t have pleasure—so why should Belinda? You’re more of a jealous loon than someone’s loving mother!”

Hethe was startled by this taut attack from her flabby husband. Steamed in more ways than one in the exposed and pitiless parking lot, she yelled:

“I just want her to be safe!”

“Well, I just want her to be free!”

Neither Bruce nor his handler Ragnar was prepared for Hethe’s swinging her purse—which had a long enough leather strap to lasso—at his mouth, to shut it forever. The action sent Ragnar flying from Bruce like a flea off a spanked spaniel, far enough away that he couldn’t catch the continuation of their marital exchange.

He landed blocks North on an actual spaniel, a King Charles, whom he made bark at and bite his obnoxious owner, now yanking him too hard by a leash clipped at the neck, when…

“It should be at my waist, you idiot!” he growled and snapped at the human, scared by the sudden savagery of his beloved twelve-year-old, Sweetstuff.

 

The dog was the last place Ragnar’s empathy stopped before it returned to its host. Ragnar felt himself swallow it back down, emitting an uncomfortably loud burp once he’d accepted it.

He stood on the threshold of the church, front door open, half in and half out, artificial air cooling his behind, the world’s natural furnace burning his face. He knew who he was now. His self was judgmental, harsh, insightful, maybe a bit nasty but brilliant, and so beyond bland societal standards. Someone had died (uncle, cousin, whoever), but he had been reborn as Ragnar: Ragnar again existed.

Ragnar walked to the car he’d called, a Lyft or an Uber, either one soaring above others as he did now (from joy, not superiority). In the parking lot, he passed a family—father, mother, teenage girl—at their earthbound Audi, fighting amongst themselves, crying and castigating, calling each other new names as if knowing each other for the first time. Ragnar observed them, which is what he did so well. Before he forgot this whole experience, he felt for them. Then he entered the car and the next path of his brilliant career.


About the Author

Laurence Klavan has had short work published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Conjunctions, The Literary Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Beloit Fiction Review, PANK Magazine, Failbetter, Stickman Review, and Anomaly, among many others, and his collection, 'The Family Unit' and Other Fantasies, was published by Chizine. His novels, The Cutting Room and The Shooting Script, were published by Ballantine Books. He won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His graphic novels, City of Spies and Brain Camp, co-written with Susan Kim, were published by First Second Books at Macmillan, and their Young Adult fiction series, Wasteland, was published by HarperCollins.  He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics of Bed and Sofa, the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theater in London. His one-act, "The Summer Sublet," is included in Best American Short Plays 2000-2001, and his one-act, “The Show Must Go On,” was the most produced short play in American high schools in 2015-2016. His Web site is www.laurenceklavan.com.