PEN/O.Henry 2011: “The Black Square” by Chris Adrian, originally published in McSweeney’s

It was one of the advantages of his present state of mind, and one of the gifts of the black square, that he could say things like this now, in part because his long sadness had curdled his disposition, and in part because all his decisions had become essentially without consequence. He wasn’t trying to be mean. It was just that there wasn’t any reason anymore not to say the first thing that came into his mind.

Therapists have long said that those who’ve decided to commit suicide – who’ve picked a method and date and have firmly made the decision – experience a kind of peace that is in fact an ironic warning sign. Henry experiences another aspect: the little censor in his head, that editor that tells us “no, don’t say that” can take the week off. I have some experience with such a mindset. An illness which disarranged my electrolytes to the point where I was reading the ceiling and hearing TV characters talk to me over the IV pump left me without my little editor and without concern about replacing it. I didn’t get mean. I just told people when they were hurting me and refused to allow them to continue. And I told a couple of people how pretty they were (which I think was more discomfiting than the refusals). These are not things I normally do when in the custody of medical personnel. Fortunately, it only lasted a couple of days. So I’m not surprised Henry turns into another person on his way to the black square.

The black square is a mysterious spot on Nantucket which seems to be some kind of doorway into oblivion. Things go in but don’t come out. Scientists studied it for a while, but came up empty and gave up. It becomes a kind of Niagara Falls (do people still jump off Niagara Falls, or do they stick to the Brooklyn Bridge?), a destination for those looking for a way out. They don’t think of it as suicide. “By entering into the square you could express your disdain for the declined world, so far fallen, to some people’s minds, from its potential for justice and beauty, as effectively as you could by blowing your head off, but instead of just dying, you might end up someplace else, someplace different – indeed, someplace full of people just like you, people who had leaped away from their own declined, disappointing lives.”

Henry is headed for the black square because his lover, Bobby, left him for another. He’s tried to live with the loss, tried a lot of therapy and techniques, and he’s ready to… he’s not sure, but at least it will be something different. He’s got Bobby’s black lab with him. He meets Luke, who is also gay and also is headed for the Black Square and also has a black lab with him. That, I think, is the essence of this story. Is Luke (the apostle Luke was a physician, a healer, or what passed for one back in those times) some kind of doppelgänger returned from the other side? Maybe just a bounce-back of a thought? In any event, they have a good afternoon and evening, and in the morning… well, you’ll have to read the story.

This was another story from McSweeney’s issue 32, the “Near-Future Cities” issue, along with “The Netherlands Lives With Water,” “Memory Wall,” and “Raw Water.”

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