“The Anatomy of Solace (Does Marie Antoinette Need Glasses?)” by David Cotrone

Aug 19th, 2010 | By | Category: Prose

“The Redcoats are coming! The Redcoats are coming!”

“What?” the newcomer asks. “The red what?” 

“The Red Coats. You know, Redcoats — the British soldiers: the Regulars, the King’s Men, the Lobsters, the Bloody Backs, etc. etc. etc.” 

“But why?” 

“Why what?” 

“Why are you yelling? Why are you trying to warn me about…the British, you said?” The newcomer pauses and kneads his hands. “I mean, they don’t seem that bad.” He does a quick scan of the area. “And I don’t think I see any here.” 

“Oh you’re wrong. You’re wrong. Look. Over there.” Paul points to a gruff, grizzly-bearded man wearing a tatty turtleneck. The man is bent over a bottle of Maker’s Mark. 

 “Yo, Ernest! Er-nie! Ern-dog!” 

The bearded man pretends not to hear Paul’s cries. 

“Hemingbaby, Hem-dog, Hem — oh fuck it. Mr. Ernest Hemingway, sir, good sir, please tell this man your heritage. He doesn’t think you’re British. What an insult, huh? Just tell him. Go on now, tell him.” 

“I’m not British,” Ernest says, gazing straight ahead at an object that’s not there. He blinks — perhaps involuntarily — and looks down at his hands on the table. “I’m…not British.” 

Paul turns back to the newcomer, ignoring what just happened. 

“Look, I had one job during my time, and I did it, okay? And I’m pretty damn proud of it. I mean, sure, I was a trusty blacksmith, a decent silversmith, but I was best at messaging. Harking. Heralding. I’m surprised ‘revere’ hasn’t been made into a verb — oh wait. It has,” he chortles and nearly collapses under his own weight. He doesn’t seem to notice or care that no one else is laughing.  

“Wait, hold on. Just hold on. What are you talking about?” the newcomer asks. 

“What in the blazes — Does everyone have to formally introduce themselves around here?” He sticks out his hand. “Name’s Revere, Paul.” 

“Oh…hi,” the newcomer says. “Mine’s Carl,” he adds, extending his arm slowly towards Paul’s. 

“Wait, wait, wait. Really? That’s all I get? Oh hi,” Paul says in a high-pitched voice, talking with his hands as if they’re sock puppets, “my name’s Carl. Dude, I’m Paul Revere. There’s even a poem written about me. It’s nothing great, but still, I haven’t heard any poems written about you, or about anyone named Carl, for that matter.” 

Carl stares at Paul. He doesn’t know what to say. 

Hel-lo, anyone home? Paul. Revere. Ring any bells? Or maybe, maybe, light any lanterns?” Paul seizes with laughter and slaps his knickers. Tears well in his eyes and a couple roll down his face. He wheezes and chokes on what could be a hairball. 

No one else is laughing. 


Where are we, then? We are in a place in which souls (or people whose souls project physical images, at least) congregate. Some of these souls (i.e. the ones we’ve met thus far) did not coexist on earth: Paul Revere definitely didn’t breathe the same air as Hemingway, and trust me here — trust your reliable old narrator — neither Revere nor Hemingway lived in the time of Carl, about whom we’ll hear more in due time. So, ask again: where are we? Heaven? No. Hell? Wrong again. Purgatory? Yes. We’re in purgatory, folks — the place souls go to dine, where they wait for God knows how long (no, really, only God knows how long). Here’s the kicker, though: just because you’re in purgatory doesn’t mean you subscribe to the idea of God, so things can get a bit dicey. Those who believe wait for the opening of the royal gates with cheer, while others sit with postures that embody everything that was ever glum or morose. Is there a beatific and ethereal beyond? Is there salvation and redemption after life in purgatory? The residents don’t know the answers. With faith, uncertainty, or dejection, they wait.  

There’s no concept of time. Inhabitants don’t realize that there’s no concept of time. That is to say, they don’t realize that they don’t realize. They forget that time was ever a thing. 


There are no stars in purgatory. It’s impossible to perceive how odd and seemingly unnatural this is unless you’re there to witness it yourself. There are, however, chocolate chip pancakes. 

Turn to your left. No, wait, a little back to the right. There. Stay where you are. Perfect. Now look straight ahead. See him? At the counter a mid-sized man with an earring in his left ear. He has a severely receding hairline and the hair he does have juts out to the sides. He also has a fine-trimmed beard. Today he is wearing a short-sleeved jersey — the number 12 printed on the back — from when he played first base for Motley Crew, one of purgatory’s intramural wiffleball teams. Above the number and right below the neck is his team nickname, expressed in black bold-faced letters: THE TEMPEST. The man is stooped over a stove, shifting his weight between his feet. The man is William Shakespeare. 

“That’s just how I like ‘em,” William says, in a voice that could be interpreted as an impersonation of a deranged scoundrel. “Good and thick, nice…and…fluffy.” He whips the batter with frenzy. “Oh yeah, just like that.” 

See? Even here: pancakes. As you know, on earth, William had a son, a son he saw only frequently due to faraway business, a son who died at age eleven. So here, William pursues what he missed at home: a chance to share a meal.  

“He must be mad,” Carl says to his companion, a woman with freckles and brown eyes. 

“A little creepy, if you ask me. A little too focused on those cakes,” the freckled woman says, with a voice that can only be described as nasal. 

“Cake, who said cake?” asks a woman who looks up from her newspaper, spectacles sliding down to the end of her nose. Lately, this woman has been obsessed. Until the mention of cake, she had been engrossed in gleaning an understanding of current affairs, triumphs, and tribulations. She had been inspecting the newspaper’s print so closely that she was squinting even while peering through the frames of her glasses. 

“Oh! You startled us there, miss. Didn’t even see you,” Nasal Companion says to the woman with the newspaper. 

“You’re new,” Newspaper Woman says to Carl. “I can tell.” 

“Yes, somewhat, I think,” Carl says. “Yes.” 

Carl is still adjusting to this place’s peculiarity. He was onto something when he described Shakespeare as unsound in the head. He was really onto something.  

“Mhm. Anyway, I couldn’t help but noti-” 

“Marie! Marie! Are you there? Marie!” someone shrieks from across the space. 

“Hmm? Anne? Ms. Boleyn is that you? I’m over he-” 

“Ah, there you are,” Anne says, approaching the scene, eager for attention she never obtained from her husband. She’s eager for companionship, for acceptance, mostly. She speaks to the woman with the newspaper. “Oh! Marie. Ms. Marie. Antoinette. Look at me right now — oh look at me, darling. Your nails! Oh, look at your nails. They’re beautiful. They’re perfect. They’re so regal.” 

“Oh, these old things?” Marie chuckles. “Thanks. You’re a doll.” 

All four turn toward the ruckus at the stove.  

“Ha, yes, yes, ha-ha yes, just like that, come to Willy, come to ol’ Willy,” Shakespeare says, tossing chocolate chips into the batter. 


Carl, the newcomer to the purgatorial vista, is not intimidated by the slew of once famous figures that now occupy the space — his neighbors, so to speak. We have met only a few: Paul Revere, Ernest Hemingway, William Shakespeare, Marie Antoinette, and Anne Boleyn. All residents seem to mingle with relative distance. There are no egos. There are just as many common citizens as there are famous. There are no reputations. No one resident seems to have the faintest idea of what another accomplished, performed, or ruined while on earth. Perhaps it is not so peculiar then, that Carl did not recognize Paul Revere. Then again, Paul acted like he commanded respect; he seems to have remembered his past life. (He’s also a bit of a douche.) Residents — Paul especially — can remember their own doings, but that’s it. It’s as if they lived in a vacuum. Their minds have been blotted, wrung out, bleached. They are the remains of themselves, now only distinct, individual memories. 

Carl. You’ll be like him, of course. Surname-less Carl. But worry not. The residents, notable or otherwise, are not even considered people. Remember: they are souls, souls that project images, images of what the souls believe they look like. 


“Pass the salt?” Wolfgang Amadeus asks, peering across the table. “Ludwig…Ludwig,” he says, banging on the table’s surface with his left hand, sending vibrations through the wood. 

“Hmm?” Ludwig asks. 

“The salt.” 

“Uh, oh yes, I’m fine, thank you. How are you?” 

Wolfgang meets Ludwig’s eyes with a blank expression. 

“Sorry,” Ludwig says. He lifts his hand to his right ear and extends his index finger, twirling it around a few times.  

“It’s all right, quite all right, but please do pass the salt,” Wolfgang says, pointing to the shaker. 

“Ah yes, of course.” 

1 a.m. December 5th, 1791. This is a time and date Wolfgang knows well: the hour of his death. It was fever that did him in, he thinks. He’s not quite sure. What he does know is that he was pulled from earth before he could complete his final opus. This in itself is enough to drive Wolfgang mad, enough to make him yearn, enough to make him feel incomplete. 

But what’s more? Requiem was the title of his unfinished work. This is no coincidence. Mozart, like you, was — and still is — concerned with how he would be remembered. Actually, no, it wasn’t so much self-concern as it was care for his labor. And so he now wishes for his work— the object of his excessive ardor — to above all, endure. 

And so Wolfgang tries, dinner after dinner, to consult with Ludwig, for Ludwig sometimes speaks of his musical past. It’s with zeal that Wolfgang inquires: Have you heard? Do you know? Are you familiar with what I’ve left behind? And it’s with constant disappointment that he comprehends: Ludwig cannot hear. 

“Oh look, everyone, the musician’s table,” Paul Revere says to no one in particular. “Look at me, I’m always talking about my fancy music.” 

Dinner tonight is served per usual: a buffet (the entrée is chicken parmesan). Revere loads up his plate, heads over to the drink dispenser, and fills his cup with chocolate milk. He starts back toward what he sardonically referred to as the “musician’s table.” 

“Fifth symphony? More like fifth case of syphi-” he stumbles and drops his milk. It puddles on the ground and he tries to act casual. 


But how, you ask, can there be dinner in purgatory when there is no such entity as time? For instance, can an ache such as hunger materialize in this place? Well, yes. Pains transpire and deformities are present. Afflictions occur. Just look at Ludwig — he wrestles with deafness. He does not possess any alternate means of communication (e.g. sign language). Even Marie Antoinette, the lovely damsel we met earlier (she was reading the newspaper, remember) needs glasses. And Hemingway, poor Hemingway, sits aloof and disconnected, alone with himself. 

One cannot outrun pain and distress here. One can only confront his or her demons. But is it the same, you ask, is a physical malady (e.g. deafness) the same as an interior burden such as isolation? The answer is no. And yes. While all afflictions are different in scope, they boil down to a common denominator: comfort. Rather, the search for comfort. No, a further qualification: the actual acquisition of comfort. In other words, all torments can be remedied by — you guessed it — finding comfort (which, as you know, is much easier said than accomplished).     

This place is a lot like earth, then, don’t you think? That is, this whole business of not having to subscribe to the idea of God, the occurrence of suffering, etc. Yes, this place is a lot like earth, but it is not earth. Recall the planet. There, a full-functioning person is aware of the people around him. She has an awareness of histories, of “human impacts.” Here, interactions just aren’t the same. And remember, there aren’t any stars. So, you ask, what does it all mean? 


It’s time to sleep. Carl follows the crowd of souls to the residence hall, a vast building that looks inviting, yet chilly. Once inside, Carl can see a trace of his breath. It’s not like a puff of smoke emitted from one who drags on a cigarette, and it’s not something one would exhale if traversing the Arctic tundra. It’s more of a subtle breath that hangs in front of your nose, enough to notice, enough to signify something bigger than breath itself. 

“Here you go, sir, wouldn’t want to wake up shivering.” A maintenance man hands Carl a blanket from what resembles an oversized pantry. 

“Oh, thanks. Thank you,” Carl says, holding the blanket to his chest. He unfolds the blanket and inspects it: fleece. 

“Looks good to me,” a woman with short red hair says, giving Carl a playful thumbs-up, a wisp of white air drafting from her mouth.        

He, nods, smiles, and refolds the blanket before following some of the crowd upstairs. There are no nameplates or placards or anything in the way of identifying to whom each room belongs. There are no distinctions between male and female floors. There are only single dormitories, rooms that aren’t quite big enough for two. There are no doors. There are no doors in all of purgatory, for that matter. They aren’t necessary, as purgatory’s “weather” is categorized by a perpetual state of tepidness. And somehow, the primal emotion of fear (in the earthly sense) is not a factor in the existences of these souls. There is no worry of intrusion or invasion. Here, locking a door in the name of protection would be worthless. 

So even without doors, the temperature is static, the same outside as it is in. Except, of course, recall that the residence hall is “chilly.” This is true. For the residents, it’s inexplicably cold in there. They (Maintenance) are looking into the problem. They’ve been looking into the problem for quite some time, actually. In their last report, they said they couldn’t find any glitch with the facility itself; they don’t think there is one. The raw air, they’ve speculated, must be a product of the residents’ own devices. If the souls are projections of themselves, then what they feel is also part of this projection, and so they are cold because of what’s within them. They are all cold not because of an exterior force, but because of an interior discomfort, a chill that cannot be remedied by a thermostat or blanket, a frost way more potent than temperature. Keep this thought with you. Later, you’ll learn more.    


After a fierce interior debate, Carl decides to claim a room. No one seems to care about his choice. It must be okay, he figures, to sleep here for the night. The room itself is rectangular; two of the walls are painted a shade of tan and the other two are white. There is a window that overlooks an expansive sort of back yard. Placed in the center of the field of trimmed grass is a fountain that spouts four arcs of water, an arc for each cardinal direction. There is also a volleyball net that could work double duty, probably, for badminton. 

(Excuse me, may I…is this…is this on? I don’t — it — okay, thanks. This is your fact-finder speaking. Yes, hello. How are you? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude on your alone time with Carl. He’s so endearing, isn’t he? With his innocence, his uncertainty, his newness to the purgatorial space, to the abeyant scene. Anyway, I just wanted to inform you that the volleyball net is indeed used for badminton. There’s a league that convenes on what would be Tuesdays on earth. Shakespeare runs it. He’s a bit of an intramural junkie. All right, on with the narration.) 

The room’s ceiling is also white, but not the white of a postal service truck. It’s more like cream. A baroque chandelier hangs from the ceiling. The full-sized bed is adjacent to the wall with the window and there are two pillows placed at the bed’s head. The sheets look new, or perhaps they’ve just been cleaned. There is no comforter though, just the fleece Carl still holds in his hands and against his chest. For the second time now he unfolds the blanket, now laying it across the bed and smoothing the wrinkles out of the surface. He sits on his bed and peers out of his room. Unfamiliar faces pass by his doorframe. He still doesn’t understand the system. It is unclear whether a soul’s room remains his or her permanent residence or if sleeping location alternates nightly. 

“And well hel-lo to you miss,” he hears Paul Revere’s voice boom through the hall. “Care to join me in my quarters? Or perhaps I can join you, hell if I give a damn,” he hoots. 

His query receives no response. 

Perhaps you should know that while on earth, Revere was married to a fine young woman, Sarah. After she died in childbirth, Revere married again — a woman whom he buried. Count it: two wives lost during one lifetime, something that could turn anyone bitter and unsavory. 

“Playing hard to get are we? I know how to play that game, no fear. Learned the rules myself in a little old thing called the Boston Tea Party. Ever hear of it?”         

Still no one responds. 

“Well, of course you have,” he sniggers. “Now don’t make me dump any tea without your fine company if you know what I me-” 

“That’ll be it for you tonight, Paul,” an authoritative male voice interjects. “Off to your room now. Off to…” the voice disappears down the hallway, as does Revere.           

The light dims into darkness. Carl changes positions; he goes from sitting to lying down, eyes toward the ceiling. He wonders if all souls rise to meet the next day, and if they do, what is he dealing with here? What kind of operation is this, exactly? The powers that be must boast some sort of omniscience if they know when to repower the lights. He briefly considers the idea of hidden security cameras. He feels alone, here, alone with himself. The walls close in. The only difference between Carl and Hemingway is that he’s not bent over a bottle. Instead, he’s wrapped in a fleece that may or may not even belong to him. 

He sits up and looks out the window. The fountain is still punctuated by four arcs of water. He wonders if there is a water source somewhere, feeding the fountain, or if the same water is recycled. He recycles thoughts in his mind. He recycles his past life. He doesn’t know if he should have regrets or not. He slows his breathing, tries to catch his breath. He’s dizzy. He had always avoided thinking about it on earth, thinking about meeting death, returning to the space he occupied before he was born. He covers his eyes with the palms of his hands. His forefingers touch the top of his forehead. He wonders if he’ll progress from this place. He breathes slower, allowing a methodical three-count between each breath. He wants to stop feeling so saturated. He wants to move on. He closes his eyes. He doesn’t know why he still feels alone.        


Just as it was on earth, Carl wrestles with himself when the lights are out. Residents of the purgatorial space are forced to spend time alone, with themselves and nothing more, with their memories and with their wants. They cannot fix time. They must accept what has happened. Most souls succeed in this acceptance. The degree of acceptance, on this level, isn’t the issue. It’s not the hard part, so to speak. Understanding the move to this place is just the first phase, the first step. It’s already been done for them; they were laid to rest and then woke up here. 

As for Carl, perhaps he’s been here all along. He’s always felt this inner chill. On earth, he avoided it, the act of tackling his demons. He had thought about it late at night, trying to fall asleep, staring at the bottle of pills on his bedside table, his bedroom that seemed more than small. Perhaps his inner insanity drove him onward, propelled him further into a world he didn’t want to accept as his. He was askew, tipped off balance, cast into a distorted, unknown light. On earth, he was afraid. 

And so here, in this solitary dormitory — in purgatory — he must spend time with himself. The white of these walls has replaced the white of his bedside container. He must stay here until he’s completely warm. 

Here’s what will happen when he’s ready to move on: upon exhalation, his breath won’t be visible. The real challenge, then, is becoming perpetual. Not perpetual in the sense that motion is a constant; rather, the aim is to acquire continuous warmth of heart. 


Carl is lying in a bed in a residence hall in purgatory. He shivers. Outside, there’s a fountain spouting water in each of the four cardinal directions. There’s a baroque chandelier hanging from the ceiling, but it’s dark. He doesn’t know what time it is. He doesn’t even remember the concept of time. It all seems infinite. 

Imagine this: you’re in a tall building and there’s a fire. You can stay where you are and reckon with the flames or you can jump from a perilous height to the ground below. Look at it this way: you can try to confront the smoke and ember, look the yawning blaze straight in the eye, all the while unsure of what the result might be. Or, you can jump — let the ruins of your psyche dissipate in the downdraft — allow your pieces to scatter on the pavement. Acceptance or loss. Recovery or demise. Which of the options do you choose, which procedural method do you select? The idea is that here, in this place, you don’t have to decide.


David Cotrone is from the relentlessly historical town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. He is currently a student at the College of the Holy Cross. Regrettably, his name is not a palindrome.

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