by A. Joachim Glage
Everyone knew these names, savored and despised them . . .
"I feel like I’m only really happy when we’re already halfway gone," he said . . .
THOSE WHO KNEW THE precocious villain Dagmund Sandvik would not be surprised to learn that he never pleaded for his young life, not in the presence of the fat-necked judge who condemned him as a rapist, nor even to his killer, Corlin Armey (the infamous lifer known among the prison population as “the armadillo” because of his name, yes, but also because of his pointed face and gray complexion and thrust-forward shoulders and long, dirty claws), not even when that hulk crept into Dagmund’s cell with a makeshift knife. No, Dagmund did not plead for his young life even then, though he did politely implore Corlin not to slice him up:
“Please, just choke me. I promise I won’t fight back.”
Corlin Armey, who’d been inside for two decades already and had murdered more than one rapist in his time, had never before heard such a request, not from any of his victims (either in prison or out). He obliged the boy nevertheless, and choked Dagmund from behind with an arm around his neck and a hand pressed down upon the top of his fair scalp. This was fortunate for the armadillo: had he choked the boy from the front, he would have witnessed—and later been haunted by—the spectacle of a red-lipped smile, which lingered on Dagmund’s face even after the imperceptible moment of his death.
There is courage, and then there is resignation to fate. Dagmund Sandvik—who in truth was no rapist, though we’ll come to that—knew a little something of the former but a great deal of the latter.
A MILD SPECIES OF villainy flourishes in the small towns of Connecticut; it is a form of celebrity, too, inasmuch as its misdeeds are dutifully recorded—if not faithfully then without much need for embellishment—by the fleeting mythologies of gossip. Local infamy of this type attaches more often to a name than to a face; the evildoers in question, after all, are far more likely to be whispered about than seen. The notorious Artie Jay, for example, built a sizeable fortune in the eighties with his string of arcades and sweet shops in Westport and Fairfield, establishments which proved irresistible to the children in those towns, bringing decay to their minds and teeth alike and infuriating their parents who first raged and then organized and finally swore to banish Jay from the state (naturally they failed at this). Artie Jay was secretive and few had ever seen the man in person (his motives in catering to children, as a result, were assumed by many to be impure); it was widely rumored he was obese. Then there were the D’Angelos of Redding and the Riccis of Southport, restaurateurs who seldom appeared in their own establishments but whose families were rumored to be “connected” (you dared not make a fuss if the pasta was too tender). Erica Arbor in Danbury crashed no less than five Porsches while drunk but never lost her license thanks to her family’s influence (which also kept her photo out of the papers). The spiteful and mysterious Tom Shah opened the first, and still the only, sex shop in Wilton—profitlessly, as it happens, and to much outcry, though he kept the place open to humiliate his detractors, if not to demean that spiritless town more generally. Everyone knew these names, savored and despised them; they were spat, not without reverence, like curse words.
In the placid hills of Ridgefield, the name everyone knew was Sandvik.
The Sandvik brothers, to be exact—that brood of blonde-headed hoodlums who lived over the old post office and were always brawling in bars, often with each other. The word “brood” is no flourish: collectively that’s what the Sandviks were called by the townspeople, in part because of the mysterious way they multiplied—there were eleven of them at last count, or rather ten after Dagmund’s murder—with no evidence ever surfacing of their parents’ existence; they took shape spontaneously, it seemed, as fully-formed pale children, as if from out of the snow (it always was in winter that their ranks suddenly increased).
The first two Sandviks, Stig and Frode, appeared in February, 1982, twelve and thirteen years old, respectively. Somehow they managed to take up residence in the loft above the derelict, soon-to-be-closed post office on Dill Street (formerly a rail depot for a long-since abandoned line; the gleaming post office on Catoonah Street meanwhile had already opened for business).
“They say they’re from the arctic,” one of the postal clerks said to a wide-eyed Mrs. Sparrow (piano teacher and grand gossiper). “But really they’re just from Norway.”
“Where are their parents?”
The clerk shrugged.
IN THE AUTUMN FOLLOWING their arrival, Stig and Frode both enrolled as freshmen at the public high school, and both were expelled for fighting three months later. They became prodigious car thieves. As they were fair and underage, they remained free of the town’s suspicion.
The next winter two more Sandviks inexplicably joined them in the loft, Harald and Geir, eleven and twelve years old, respectively (stealthy lookouts and pickpockets, those two). Nine-year-old Jon materialized the following year; he was angelic and could cry on command (a diversion which all innocent souls found irresistible).
“My guess is there’s some tired queen-mother in Norway pumping them out, sending them here,” Officer Valker said to the local police chief. “Should we contact child services?”
“Yeah, we’ll get around to it. They seem to be taking pretty good care of themselves in the meantime.”
Over the next decade the number of Sandviks in the loft more than doubled. There came first the largest and the oldest of the brood, Sigurd, seventeen and already massive at the time of his arrival. He was a good-natured brute for the most part—slow, square-faced and gentle-eyed—though he became an implacable ape when angered or drunk; more than one jawbone was shattered by that giant in the saloons of Ridgefield. To the town’s astonishment, the next brother to appear, forty-nine months after Stig and Frode first came, was Knut, Stig’s identical twin who, in those intervening years, had become an accomplished thief in his own right (proof, perhaps, that the destinies of twins, like entangled electrons, remain intertwined even when distant from each other). After that came ghostly Lars, all but mute; and then Erik, with the long eyelashes that made him beautiful and the bony fists that made him good in a fight.
There were others; we needn’t list them all.
Finally, in 1993, five-year-old Dagmund arrived.
Short little Dagmund: slight of body, round-cheeked, stone deaf on the left side; both a cherub and the mutt of the Sandvik brothers, and the fairest—a pale rat among wolves—with wispy white-yellow hair he himself chopped into comma-shaped hemispheres which went swooping past his ears and halfway down the back of his neck, but which he kept trimmed well short of his brow (a curious habit that made his head appear lopsided, as if a misadjusted wig had once stuck to his crown and then refused to budge). As though offended by the bright hues of his hair, Dagmund’s eyes, which were a drab green, tended to squint.
Dagmund the imperious, the wise: already by the age of fourteen—likely because of his voracious reading and strange intelligence—he had become the leader of his fair brothers, who, upon his command, promptly cleaned up their acts. They began to confine their thefts to well-planned operations beyond the state line; they no longer brawled in public.
Clever Dagmund, Dagmund the gifted: it was he who first introduced to his brothers the notion of paying off the cops; he had scarcely reached his teens, moreover, when he dreamt up the Sandviks’ most lucrative crime-operation, involving the intimidation of a local pharmacist and the sale of his grossly overpriced pharmaceuticals to grossly over privileged college students in New Haven. Eventually some of the pills they sold were Dagmund’s own concoction—he picked the science up rather quickly, after stealing a decent pill press, once he determined that the clientele was interested less in the quality of the high than the variety. At Yale everyone wanted to be able to boast of having the “new” pill, the trip that no one else had experienced. Accordingly, Dagmund would invent exotic histories for his drugs there on the spot: “This here is the Venus Flytrap, from Tokyo, first time in the States. Think Quaaludes mixed with shrooms, but lighter. Got voices in your head? They’ll sing in unison. Honestly I don’t even know if you can handle it. Then again, I probably wouldn’t sell these to anyone but you. . . .” The desire for exclusivity—Dagmund learned to cater to that insipid greed before he learned to drive a car.
Unwholesome Dagmund, the fetishist: when he first became sexually active, at the age of sixteen, he asked his girlfriends—he’d had three in short order—to pretend to be asleep during sex. Like many boys, however, Dagmund had miscalculated his desire, and gradually came to find such fictions unsatisfactory. He realized he wanted to be asleep too, or at least partly so. “Somewhere between sleep and wakefulness is bliss,” he’d say, and he eventually required that half-conscious state in order to climax at all. To that end, Dagmund devised a drug cocktail for himself, a combination of modified depressants and Viagra; he found himself drawn, too, to alcoholics, to girls—like the prodigy Ela Ruby, that scholar—who preferred having sex while very drunk. Come on, let’s get blitzed. I wanna feel weak with you.
Ela Ruby liked it more than any of the others. A mighty drinker, she often would postpone even the lightest foreplay until she was well soused. Sometimes she fell asleep during sex, and Dagmund would gently squeeze her hip until she awoke again. Actual sleep went too far, even for Dagmund.
“I’m in that place,” she’d mumble softly. “Come find me.”
Ela Ruby was older than Dagmund but just as precocious. She had completed her Master’s thesis on baroque German literature—a four-hundred-page tome on the Trauerspiel, a rejoinder to Walter Benjamin’s preeminent book on the subject—before the age of twenty;* now, with time well on her side, she elected to take a year off before returning to New Orleans to complete her Ph.D. During that year off she went to live with her mother in Ridgefield, where she met Dagmund Sandvik.
They met accidentally, outside of a pizza parlor near the Danbury mall. Dagmund mistook Ela for the buyer he’d arranged to meet.
“Jenny, right? Vicodin’s seven bucks a pill.”
“Not Jenny,” Ela said, smiling. “And seven bucks seems pretty steep.”
Dagmund laughed. “My apologies, I was supposed to meet—”
“Jenny, right. I think we’ve established that.”
“Ooh, you’re sharp. Not gonna call the cops?”
“Nah. Got any good chill pills?”
Dagmund felt something like electricity in his teeth when, as he looked Ela in the face, he noticed her sleepy, half-closed eyes. He did not finally fall in love with her, however, until the following exchange, which took place several months after they began dating:
“I feel like I’m only really happy when we’re already halfway gone,” he said, measuring out his pills for the night. “But then it gets fuzzy. What kind of happiness is it, if you can never be sure it really happened? I sometimes think all happiness is just wishful thinking.”
“Wishing’s not so bad,” Ela said without skipping a beat. Dagmund’s mouth fell open and his eyes widened at the innocence and intelligence of that response. Ela continued in warm, almost pitying tones. “It’s like that passage in Schopenhauer: we think we’re romanticizing the past, viewing it with rose-tinted glasses because some part of the past seems lovely and perfect to us now. But no! It’s only now that we can see the past as it truly was, without all those stupid subjective anxieties and concerns we suffered when we were in it. Only now when we’re far from it, do we see it for what it objectively was.”
Her words grieved Dagmund at first, for he knew he could neither fully accept nor refute them, but he reckoned he could at least make believe he agreed.
“You’re right,” he said, smiling. “I should have more faith.”
“Come on,” Ela said, extending her long leg for Dagmund to admire. “Gimme a pill. I want to feel weak with you.”
DAGMUND WAS EIGHTEEN when they arrested him. The police had waited a month; Ela Ruby was still in a coma and it would make the prosecution much cleaner if she would just wake up or die. Finally the decision was made to prosecute Dagmund for sexual assault in the first degree; a murder or manslaughter charge could be filed later if needed.
“Clearly the loon drugged her,” one lawyer said to another in a cluttered state office. “Had his way while she was out cold. Must have a fetish for it.”
“Yeah, seems that way considering the stash they found. I never knew there were so many different types of sleeping pill. He’s probably been doing this for a while. I guess he got the dosage wrong this time.”
ALL HUMAN DESIRE, to be sure, refines itself over time, and this is especially true of boyhood longing; for while it is a fact that a very young boy is scarcely impressed with the differences between his body and those of girls (all of Freud’s greatest errors, by the way, stem from his failure to observe this), and while the heart of such a boy remains mostly unfocused, and smolders with inexact desires, for the greater part of childhood (oh, the shapeless, smoke-like want of youth!), the day does finally come along—and yes, perhaps it happens just as quickly as that—when some additional flicker of energy from just the right cluster of brain cells flashes like a flame through his head, and at just the right moment; a new acuity has taken hold of him; fine-tuning in the optic nerve retrains his eye; he’s quicker now to focus; his hands and jaws—those grasping parts—have grown skillful and precise, the fingers have strengthened and the canines have taken a finer point; hormones surge like ferocious spiders; blood flows get redirected, new confluences form, and all at once he begins to distinguish—and indeed to extract for the purpose of passionate contemplation—certain minor details about his female classmates’ bodies, their hips, for example, which, he now observes, flare out more noticeably than do his own, at which point a boy like Dagmund will suddenly grasp the significance of that figure-eight gesture his howling older brothers sometimes make with their paws when an attractive woman walks by (that lewd imagining of her shape); and then even words themselves begin to take on new meanings as they get recolonized by this fresh perceptual awareness, and even ugly words like “flanks” and “rump”—the young and bookish Dagmund had come across these in a volume of Virginia Woolf’s love letters and had found her use of them incongruous at first—come to mean something new and pleasurable in his mind.
But these are still just generalizations. We have not yet told why, for example, of all of Ela Ruby’s infinite qualities, it would be especially that one—her “sleepy eyes”—which would first seize Dagmund’s interest. We have not yet told why the feeling of languidness should have become for him so complicit in sex that he would routinely resort to drugs to accomplish its effects.
As it happens, not destiny but that more contingent thing fate—we may also call it by its other name chance—had a hand in it.
On a Saturday in mid-autumn in 1995, Dagmund, then seven years old, was trudging alone in the woods looking for something to climb, not far from a soft-pittering brook which ran north-south about a mile-and-a-half from the loft. (It was nothing unusual for a Sandvik boy to be seven and alone in the woods). The air was unseasonably warm and there were loud crows and red leaves in the trees. Dagmund smelled something smoke-like and heard muffled voices and then a peal of laughter coming from the east. Without deciding to, he set off in that direction.
Dagmund crouched silently in the half-light beneath a black birch tree and looked intently across the stream to the opposite bank. There in white, glinting daylight, below the screeching crows, he saw two boys and a girl, teenagers, lying together on the leaves with their limbs entwined and their clothes flung aside in a pile; three silvery bodies, like fish, whose kisses and strange embraces and dire glances at each other all seemed to Dagmund to be bizarre and lovely and yet also somehow full of death, as did the languorous moo-like moans they made, their heavy-lidded eyes—to the young Dagmund the three of them looked half-asleep, as if a weakness had befallen them.
How many ways Dagmund’s sexual imagination could have gone awry! Coitus out of doors, ménages à trois, even the trees or the crows might accidentally have been sexualized on that momentous day. Instead, a single abstraction clung to him: the notion that sex and feeling weak were somehow one and the same thing.
Culture and language, to be sure, would conspire with young Dagmund’s thoughts to solidify this idea: people “slept together,” a sensual individual might be said to have “bedroom eyes,” desire made one “weak in the knees.” Dagmund moreover was mesmerized by the older Hollywood movies in which limp or wilting damsels offered their necks to swaggering men to be kissed; he often recalled the fantasy tales of love and slumber from his childhood; even words like “swooning” and “succumbing” and “sensuality”—all these became charged with the same magical essence in Dagmund’s brain: the idea that sleepiness somehow lay at the heart of sex, that in the highest human bliss there waited to be discovered—like some half-smiling deity—the beatitude of a perfect and luxurious drowsiness.
All these things stayed with Dagmund, though not wholly consciously; and what is a fetish, anyway, if not the past sticking to a person in a form that is not quite memory?
He would soon forget what he found that day, the people he saw, what they were doing; he would remember, instead, only the world all around them. He would remember, for example, the clear sky, so blue and empty it seemed to him marvelous he didn’t fall right up into it; he would remember the brook and the sounds of the birds and the damp red leaves crumpling like construction paper beneath his shoes. He would remember, also, that scent which had led him on—that burnt-leaf smell he had confused at the time with roasting chestnuts, but which, many years later, he would re-identify as marijuana.
He would soon forget what he found, the people he saw; but this does not mean that something of their image did not stay with him afterward. It stayed—for the rest of his life in fact. Just not in the shape of a memory.
Memory, after all, is not the only form in which the past reappears. The past can appear without our recognition, can linger unnoticed all around us, like a scent we can no longer smell though it clings to our bodies, though we breathe it in and are unconsciously affected by it. Likewise, the effects of an idea sometimes long outlive the idea itself, as when, upon waking from a vanishing dream, we continue to feel dread, as if the fiend we invented in our sleep but then forgot the moment we awoke were still with us. In the far future our collective conscience may still suffer from the feeling of being judged by God, even though History will already have renounced—or even long forgotten—the whole idea of the divine. Sometimes effects such as these are constant yet undetected presences in our lives.
Dagmund Sandvik died in prison at the gray hands of the armadillo on a Saturday in the autumn of 2009. No funeral was held. The loft above the old post office on Dill Street by then stood empty; the Sandviks, that brood of blonde-headed hoodlums, had long since moved away.
* Reproduced here is an excerpt from the introduction to Ela Ruby’s thesis (a response, one may be certain, to Benjamin’s own famous prologue):
It may be, as Benjamin boldly puts forth, that the idea of the tragic or the comic, or even of the Trauerspiel itself, has all of the reality (Realität) and the denseness (Dichtigkeit) of the plays themselves (Osborne quaintly translates these astonishing nouns as “consistency” and “substance”); but whether one glimpses the truth of this declaration or not, the remarkable idealism held within it—enough to rival Hegel’s!—should make us marvel. Is the idea of the tragic genuinely every bit as “real” as an actual play? As real as Hamlet?
There is courage, and then there is resignation to fate.
Coitus out of doors, ménages à trois, even the trees or the crows might accidentally have been sexualized on that momentous day.
A. JOACHIM GLAGE lives and writes in Los Angeles, where he is also sometimes an attorney. "The Idea" is the seventh installment in a series of fictions Glage is writing on the topic of human happiness (and its unsuspected evils), the first six pieces from which have appeared or are forthcoming in issues of Santa Monica Review, The Kentucky Review, Philosophy and Literature, F(r)iction, The Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Driftwood Press.
The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.
—Cervantes, Don Quixote
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