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A Keeper


Alan DeNiro

Tonight the woman who always calls, calls. This time she asks me how to divide a beggar and an arctangent. What could I have possibly said to her? I think she is a keeper. “Stop trying to mix the humanities and the sciences. And go to bed.” I nod to the phone and the phone clicks off. Outside, a noise sounds like thunder, though it could be a stray dog rolling a garbage can for shelter. I turn off my flickering bedside light (brown-outs, again, all over central Brazil) and tell the clock, “wake me at six a.m.,” attempting to sleep. I sleep.

An hour later she calls back. “But I can’t sleep. I can’t stand the fact that all across the Americas windows are opening and closing, opening, and I’m not looking out of them, all of them, all at once.” I have the vague feeling I ought to know her well; I can’t remember a thing about her.

I imagine her panting and wearing a white tie and a black suit and a round opal bracelet that monitors her position at all times when she takes lunches away from the sanatorium.

Hey, that’s cruel, I think.

I hang up again and move to close the window. I open the storm window again, I look out, and the sky just hangs there, like it’s balanced of the top of the plum tree. Or rather, the recreation of a plum tree, in quartz. The sagging plums used to be a strong violet but vandals scraped the color alloys off and sold them awhile ago. Long before I reached this tenement as a passing stranger.

I’m rooted now.


Brasilia is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. But wait, I do live there. I mean, here. My job feeds the bills. I am a painter in the King Juan Juan Center for the Arts. My body of work, like every other painter’s at the Center, consists entirely of portraits of King Juan Juan, which tend to adorn every third block of Brasilia, half the billboards, and most private and shared huts.

Because of the methane corrosion, I can say it is steady work.

That next morning I don’t concern myself about the call. When I was afflicted I did much of the same. The keepers are another pet project of our King. It’s a virus that makes slavish pets out of people, makes people want to babble sex and make sex babble. After time, it passes; side effects include utter amnesia. It’s what passes for mating in Brazil since Juan Juan’s reign began. To most, all other forms of sex appear boring. Everyone needs a keeper; I’ve had about four or five. Including, allegedly, the one who calls me and asks questions that can’t be answered.

Courtship is not easy cake to eat.

As I get ready, letting the kitchen sink brush my teeth, I see Clown Man at the tenement across the street, framed in the window. I don’t know his real name, of course. Here, as on many occasions, he’s painting his face in front of the window, peering into an invisible mirror. He could stare right at me, but he never does. His eyes are glass, corneas surrounded by red and green chalky paint. Then he nods to himself and leaves the window, his ritual complete, off to entertain or hustle or kill someone, or all three. In Brasilia, it would not be out of the question.


The Center for the Arts used to be a mosque. My studio is usually in the northeast minaret (they liked keeping the painters in them. Virtual imprisonment in the towers?), but architects re-paint every room every six weeks by royal decree, and today’s my painting day. I work temporarily in the main wing.

All my airbrushes have been primed by an apprentice, and the canvases are warm as well. Light gleams from an open square in the roof, and I can barely hear the triple decker buses and the carriages streaming through the thoroughfare, past the locked gates of Brasilia’s Yale campus.

The piece I have been working on is a potential masterpiece. It depicts King Juan Juan, darkly tanned, shirtless, wearing only swimsuit and socks, peering off canvas on a rocky outcrop. Beside the rocky outcrop, two courtesans sex themselves, the man’s head buried between the woman’s legs. The woman, actually, gazes longingly at Juan Juan on the outcrop. The gaze will take a long time to perfect, but I’m already pleased at preliminary results.

I fire up the airbrushes and am about to paint when Paula walks into the studio. She’s my boss, and used to be my wife, but a wife from a long, long time ago. How much I am attracted to her I can’t say. She silently moves towards the tightly stretched canvas and nods in satisfaction.

“The King would be pleased,” she finally says. Her hair is soft and fuzzy, like a platypus. “Are you ready?”

“I guess so.”

I spray out the lasered mist of paint, and she kneels down next to me, slips my pants to my ankles, and begins to service me. After about a minute, painting, I ask her to stop.

She looks up. “Why?”

“It’s beginning to hurt.”

“I’ll be gentler.”

“No, I mean, it hurts from the inside. Burning.

Twenty minutes later I’m in a doctor’s office, on afternoon leave. My name chimes. I go in and the doctor looks calm, like he could easily be a cricket instructor.

“What seems to be the problem?”

I describe to him the exact situation.

“Hm. Drop your pants.”

I do, although for some reason this is entirely more fearful than when Paula did.

“Hm,” he repeats. “How did you find this out?”

“My boss serviced me.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Your boss?”

“Well, I was painting a sexing, and a lot of curators have been heavily influenced by Carlonian lately, who says that the erotic must be heightened in the painter as much as the painting. But this is probably boring you.”

Instead he says, “I’m afraid that you have a curse.”

“A curse?”

“Yes, a curse in your member.”

I have no idea what he means but am somehow scared of it. “How? What’s going to happen to me?”

“Left untreated, you will probably feel mild irritation, the dementia, until you die. It’s a virus—”

“I thought you said this was a curse. And besides, there are no such things as curses.”

He gives that patient, patient I’m-a-doctor smile. “Well, our new manuals have a new ergonomics towards disease disclosure for doctors—I mean, shamen. We are urged to prescribe the most superstitious names and causes possible. It’s supposed to quell tension.”

I’m not quelled. “What do I have to do then?”

He looks at me, as if not sure on how to phrase a delicate question. “Have you been sexed with your employer before?”

“No, I mean, yes. But not for a long time.” At least I thought.

“Anyone else? Have you been with a keeper?”

I look at my veined bare feet. I am prone. “Maybe. Wait,” and I remember the woman who has been calling me lately, “yes, it’s very possible. So what do I do?”

He gives another smile, this time with a tinge of pity. “First of all, pull up your pants and put on your socks. Second, you need to find her. Only she can remove the curse, give the password to heal you.”

“In other words, I have to find out why she gave me the virus, and get a blood sample from her so that you can remove the virus from my cell system without killing me.”

He puts his stethoscope in a drawer. “If you want to put it that way,” he mutters.

I walk out to pay.

“Be careful; she may be a witch,” I hear the doctor calling out after me.


I call in to take the rest of the afternoon off, and I sit in a cafeteria on the west end (but Brasilia has no center, really), trying to envision a plan of action. But nothing comes to mind while chewing slowly on a piece of American apple pie.

Anyways, she calls before I can take another bite. “Where are you, she asks?” she says. Someone laughs behind her.

“I’m in the, um, Dresden. Where are you? I need to talk to you.”

A pause. “You are talking to me.”

“I mean, face to face.”

“The cheery cherry trees. It’s the cool fire of the month.”


“No, you listen. Did you open the windows of the Americas like I asked you to?”

This time, I’m the one who pauses. “No, but—”

She tones off. A shapely man comes in selling flowers and I buy nine dozen peonies.


“OK, OK,” Paula says. “It’s fine to take a couple days off if it’s a medical condition.” Evening time, and I find my way to Paula’s office in the Center for the Arts. Her office is in the third basement and smaller than that of most of her subordinates. King Juan Juan, of course, hovered behind her in paint. I think Jesse did that one. The King is giving his constituents a thumbs up.

“Though of course,” I say, wondering if Paula is snickering inside her head, “I have no idea where to begin.”

“Begin what?”

“I have to find a keeper.”

She begins to laugh through her nose and stretches back on her recliner. “Now I see what the problem is. How long has she been like this?” Paula was a keeper too, before she took up her lover and married. From what she told me (and she was never shy about these matters), she was one of the more passive I could remember. At least more passive than the ones on television.

“I don’t know. I guess I stayed with her once, maybe two weeks ago? It’s hard to say. But she diseased me.”

She hmms. “Why don’t you try the dog market?”

“I was afraid you’d say that.”


The next morning, smoggy, I am in the dog market. I really hate the dog market, and hate dogs, in fact. Luckily, the name is deceiving—there are more than just dogs here. It’s situated halfway between old Brasilia and what I like to call Brasilia Brasilia, or Brasilia squared, the Guyanese English section that I call home and work. The dog market is in a wide alleyway since it is, technically, illegal to traffic in smart animals. But no one enforces. The policia, I’m sure, are always looking for good dogs too.

So I put my credit card (light amber, which isn’t too bad, I guess) lightly against my belt, on the right side. The sigil of a serious buyer. I meander through the cages, many of them brown with rust, sift through the animals and their sellers with about a dozen others. A dachshund catches my eye because it has three. The seller peers at me, his entire forearm winking in aquamarine, less excited than his dog. I move on.

“Psst. Hey.” A woman about half my height motions towards me. She is in a sari but her skin is whiter than mine. “Yeah, you.” Talking isn’t really allowed, by house rules, but furtive whispering usually didn’t bring imprisonment. I look over to her, nod, hoping that will do the trick.

She motions me with a crooked finger to peek underneath a curtain covering a shape on the table. She pulls it up. Shapes, rather. Goldfish bowls.

With goldfish inside.

I almost, almost laugh, which would have gotten me thrown out at least. I stifle the chuckle and look at the seller with a grimace meant to show bewilderment. She gives an I-know-what-you’re-thinking look, and offers me a chip, which I reluctantly swallow. She pulls a wand from underneath her sari and touches the rim of one of the bowls. The goldfish inside squiggles up to the top, sinks down, and spins its tail a little.

Yeah, I’m talking to you. The augmentation, it seems, has finally trickled down to carnival fish. So are you going to buy me or what? At first, the goldfish all look exactly the same (well, gold), but upon second glance this one looks a little healthier, the scales a little brighter. The seller’s prize fish, then.

Well, are you? Impatient fish.

I’ll need you to find a keeper. In days.

The fish makes a blooping noise, which—I guess—is a laugh. You expect a problem? I’m the best. Let me show you. Come on. Keepers are god-damn trancy-dancy shifty whatevers anyways.

I meander back in the Dresden, with a coffee and cherry pie and a goldfish bowl on the lacquered table. I come here often enough, and tip well enough, that the cashier doesn’t ask about the pet, which is probably a health violation. I am a health violator.

Incredulous, here, with a goldfish worth two weeks pay.

“All right,” I whisper out loud. Even though I don’t have to speak, it is bizarrely reassuring to speak. “What do you need from me at this point? How are you going to find her?”

No problem at all. You infected from her? I nod. I’m not sure if it would pick up human body language but it does. Ouch. She must be needing you real bad, then.

“Then why did she ignore me the last time I called?” I hiss, a little louder than I wanted. A family of three from a booth across the restaurant looks up at me from their pancakes, in unison.

She’s playing a game. It’s all a game. That’s why she infected you. To make sure you come back. But she wants you to work at it too. There is no pleasure without pain.

“How long does someone stay a keeper?”

Who can say? It’s hard to tell. The goldfish—whose name I don’t even ask for, which would be ridiculous—swims in a tiny circle in the bowl. Usually after they mate, at which time they go normal. I think of Paula, cold in my flat’s bed and babbling. But not always. Never exactly works out the way people want. I don’t know. Are you ready then? I’ll find her, don’t worry.

“I guess,” I mutter. “What do you need from me?”

First, I need a sample of her virus, the little bit of titanium that’s itching your member. So, if you will . . .


You know . . . The goldfish possesses subtleties unknown in the fish world.

I sigh, a little embarrassed despite myself; I get a little cup from the water dispenser and enter the bathroom. The family, probably enjoying a day off from work rationing, stares at me. I don’t blame them.

The servicing hurts—hurts worse than the first time, a burning like a little dwarf star—but I finish it in the cup and walk out to my table. The family, blessedly, has left.

All right now. Good. Now dump it in.

I hesitate.

Go on! You have to do it if you’re going to ever get better.

I sigh and tip the cup into the bowl. The water gets milky and the goldfish swims around faster, even frenzied. After a half minute, when the water settles, he sploshes up, nearly out of the bowl. Can a goldfish be in ecstasy?

Great. I got the scent. So to speak. I don’t know whether to be relieved or frightened.

“So do I carry you around, while you . . . trace her?”

No, no, no. It’s going to be a lot easier for you. For me, it’ll be a bitch, but hey, it’s my job. It pauses. I want you to throw me into the toilet.


That’s the only way. The fastest. I swear, I’ll find her. All you need to do is sit pretty and wait. Then I’ll give the signal.

“Look, I mean, this is too weird—”

Do you want to help yourself or not? The fish sounds angry, even a little disappointed, in me. I’ll be jacking into the network at the same time, which runs parallel with the plumbing lines. Believe it or not. They’re like roads. I’m not going to force you, but . . . It trails off.

I breathe deep, pick up the goldfish bowl, and head towards the bathroom. The cashier is doing his best to ignore me and I know I can’t enter into the Dresden again for another year or two.

The toilet is dingy, small, and brown on the inside.

All rightey. Dump me in.

I slowly pour, and the goldfish whirls out, almost spinning.

Now flush. And like I said, I’ll give you the signal. Just wait.

Dutifully, I flush. I almost hear the goldfish laughing as it spirals down the pipes and disappears, but then I realize it’s the cashier.


So what do I do, when I find my life confused beyond description? I paint. Off the street, just in front of the gated, Yale commons I peel off a newspaper from the back of a vendor boy. I lay out the snake skin foil in my studio and dash off four quick Juan Juan portraits, the head only, all nearly exactly alike. I am my own forgery. The airbrushes have good pressure and the paint flows well from the tubes. A very productive morning. I look down at the newspaper, which I didn’t buy to read, just to cover the ground. Queen Abierta mysteriously sick—or detained? Analysts are confused. A flickering image of her, her lashes long as butterflies. Three Guerillas Hanged in Sao Paolo. Government accuses Bolivia of the sanctioning of terrorism. I weld the paint onto the canvas all morning. Paula drifts in and out occasionally, grunting, but assenting to leave my member alone, at least for awhile. Twice, though, I have to escape to the toilet room, doubled over in pain. A Dozen Keepers Killed in Illegal Black Mass, another column says. Court geneticists still hope to retrieve keeper fluid for reuse.

I don’t go home that night; I order out a gyro, eat at my canvas, curl asleep there, counting goldfish leaping over a fence instead of sheep.

The night passes slowly, like an argument. I wonder whether Clown Man has returned home. Most likely. I foggily realize that, most likely, I will die by the end of the week.

I wake up at about six. Peering at the painting, I notice something that wasn’t there when I finished the painting and drifted off.

King Juan Juan’s face is rubbed out, scumbled. There are enough lines of flesh to let the viewer know that it was a deliberate act. I must have arose in the middle of my sleep and done this, somnambulant terrorism against the state. If nothing else, this would finish me quick. King Juan Juan is a punisher. He funds the keepers.


I start, turn around; I’m suddenly heaving for air, as if my lungs are wounded by breath. “What?” I say.

No, look, it’s me. I found her. I found your keeper.

I pause, on all fours. “Where are you?”

You’ll never believe me.

“Where? Where?” I don’t need a goldfish playing games with me.

The palace of the king! Can you believe it?

“No. I can’t. There’s no way I’ll get in.”

Now, keep your pants on. Let’s say you get three wishes from me, overall. Let’s pretend. The first was, of course, finding the Queen—

“What did you say?”

Let’s say you get three wishes from me—

“You said the Queen. Oh no.” I get up and begin pacing the studio.

Look, stop your whining. It’s covered. Covered. Just follow my directions and I’ll get you to her.

“You?” It stops talking—thinking—for about thirty seconds, and I think, perhaps he has gone away.

Are you done complaining? it says at last. Are you?

“Fine,” I sigh.

Good. I’ve jacked into the royal schedule. There’s a way to intercept her.

“Inside the palace?”

No, not really. She goes to the Oleanders. Pack up. Bring a knife.


Three kilometers squared, gardens that never close, green public bowling green, hedge mazes, ice sculptures, kitty corners. The pleasure servicing park the King has given to Brasilia on the West end of town, where I can see the edges of the Rainforest Preserve, and the dull orange of cooking fires beyond that. I have taken the rail to the gate of the Oleanders. No vehicles inside, so I begin walking. Very early in the morning, so there are few strollers, revelers. A jogger or two and a couple stragglers from the night before, splayed in each other’s arms, trying to hide from passers-by but not really hidden.

So I stroll.

Aside from the trash here and there the park sparkles clean, like teeth. The sidewalks point in many directions, so I take the western one. Walk. The trees, upon further inspection, are glazed. Just keep walking west, a tiny voice says inside of me. That’s it.

The moon is so large I feel it can bend down and lick my face. Of course, at this point, I might have been becoming delirious from the illness. I see someone ahead of me on the serpentine path, ambling slowly. In a tattered but somehow jewelled cloak. The words of the doctor flash into me. That this is, perhaps, a sensible fairy tale. I rush up to her and spin her around. She doesn’t resist or run. Merely puzzled. A grotto of United States elms circle to the left and suddenly remind me of home. A pond within the ring of trees.

Her lips flush. Yes, the same as the pictures I have always, always seen of her. Her image is second to that of the King, and in fact on many state occasions where she could not attend, Juan Juan would carry an animated panel of her, attendant by his side, sometimes worn around his neck.

I suppose he loves her. Her roan eyes look at me.

“Hi, it’s you,” she says. As if I’m meeting her for a wine and I’m five minutes late.

“Yes, and I don’t remember—”

“You don’t really understand, do you? I mean, the world is too wordy. People take up too many words to talk about the most trivial things.”

“What should I say then?”

She shuffles her feet and kisses me.

“Yes, but,” I say, trying to calm myself. “That has gotten me into trouble.”

The queen laughs. She must be twenty years older than me and must be trained not to show it. “That’s the trouble with trouble. Once you feel you’ve got it licked, it goes off and jigs off with another. And you miss it.” It occurs to me that Juan Juan must have given her the keeper codes, the titanium injections, as a game, to see what might occur, how she would react, who she could snare.

“Look, I’ve something important to ask you,” I say, trying to soothe, soothe myself most of all. “I can’t remember you from before. I can’t. What happened?”

“What happened,” she says, trailing off. “I met your painting, remember? You painted dearie one. I’m sure you had his look. I met you here.” She points to the pool and the grotto. “There.” She takes my hands and I’m trembling. “Then I cast you so you fall asleep, and don’t remember a thing. And now you’ve found me again.”

“I’m sick,” I say in a low voice. “Something inside of you has made me sick.”

“You are sick,” she says.

I consider biting her and drawing the blood I need. How long do keepers usually last? Most times they resume normal life within weeks. Some years and some, never.

“Look,” I say, feeling desperate, “I’m the cross between a beggar and an arctangent. I am a parallel line about to intersect with a point which has no height, width, or depth.”

And the thing is, I believe it. I do. I never listened to keepers until now. Maybe the scrambling words and the sexing isn’t such a curse to listen to.

She looks at me, understanding somehow, with a glint in her face, even though I do not completely understand.

“I will see you again,” she says.

My Queen offers her arm.


The guards, I’m sure, are looking for me, combing out from the Center for the Arts. Not as much for the escapades with the Queen, but for the defacing of the painting. I have left the Queen to think and bandage her arm in the grotto, where she will return, I suppose, and eventually de-keep herself. What she will say to the King at that point? Who can say?

At this point, though, I’m running, hard, towards the west gates.

Hey, wow. I wonder if the goldfish’s body is dead, if it is just a presence now. You did well.

“Well, I have to find a doctor and hope I don’t die.” I don’t know if he catches the double meaning but it kind of laughs to itself and thinks to me No worries. One is meeting you at the gate.

“Come again?” A unicyclist careens down the opposite way and nearly kills me, which, I suppose, wouldn’t have been ironic, only moronic.

I’m saying, a doctor is there to take your blood sample, and there’ll be some other people too. To protect you, give you a new job.

I nearly stop, just then and there, from both exhaustion and disbelief. “Why? How is a goldfish arranging all of this? I don’t know—”

At this point, it might have gotten used to, or sick of commenting, on my complaining. All right, think. You go to the dog market to find an animal to find a keeper. I have been bred and engineered specifically for that purpose. Do you think we grow on trees like oranges? I can see the gate, vaguely, ahead of me, meandering closer. There are those who would like to make all the keepers return to normal, every one of them. People—who you don’t need to know—who want to exile the King. These are the people at the gate. Ah. Who are seeing you now. Do you see them now?

“I see them,” I say, and nearly lean and collapse against the hull of an armored truck, just past the open gate. A hand touches my shoulder, lightly. A man about half my height with darting eyes, leaning from the insides of the truck. “Get in,” he says, in a voice slightly deeper than that of the goldfish. I am ushered into the dark hull. It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the light; there are several others besides me. I am not too much surprised to find the woman in the sari from the dog market. On her lap is a wide, ceramic bowl with about a dozen goldfish, flailing in the shallow water, the shallow space of water.

“All right,” the short man says, leaning over me, as the truck chortles into life and begins to move west. “We’ll get you fixed right up.” I only realize at that moment that I have been broken all along. I mean, from more than just a keeper virus. More broadly broken.


Juggling took a long time to learn, even with the skill injections, but I’m getting better at it. I can keep four objects in the air now—and they don’t have to be plain round balls, either. Sometimes one or two knives, although not four. I don’t want too much with knives anymore. One time a child gave me three gravity balls, and they veered and veered when I threw them up. But I caught them and cycled them into the air, for which the boy was maybe awed, in a six-year-old kind of way.

The makeup and costume make my skin itch, but that just means I have to take cold baths in the morning and evening. And I get to stay in the city—the goldfish people make sure of that. Granted, I work on the opposite end of town from the King Juan Juan Center for the Arts, but maybe it’s better that way. The Queen, despite her promise, has never come to check up on me, though she probably would have a hard time finding me.

“Pass the cup, good folk, pass the cup.” I have a minor circle around me. I have them enthralled. But probably not for long. They will go home, forget about me, the juggler. They will suffer amnesia and live their lives, never knowing about my secret history or my identity. Which, in the end, isn’t so much of an affliction.

A man passes by me, with a briefcase, dressed in nearly identical costume as mine (though with a clown’s nose, and a strange pointed hat that I wouldn’t care to wear). As I juggle, feeling my heart taut with all the secrets kept inside there, the Clown Man pauses for a moment, and nods at me.

I have no idea whether he recognizes me.

Then he sets up shop on the other side of the block. He pulls out a few tiny objects from his briefcase—which I can’t make out, from this distance—and swallows them. Ten seconds later he tips his head back and breathes fire, wide into the air in a fan. The Clown Man stops and bows, and already those in the crowd start throwing their hard-earned coins at him.

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