C’mon, wake up. Time to get moving. No need for formalities, but you should consider trousers. Shoes. And cover those unsightly nipples. There could be construction workers, and you know they were never weaned.
Good, yes, out. Grab a twenty and your keys. You won’t need anything else. No jewelry, no makeup, no disguises or armor or fragments of shamanic masquery. No tokens or talismans of any kind. No bag. No phone. Today we’ll be properly invisible, not movie-star-in-case-I’m-discovered-by-the-paparazzi invisible, not fragrant-and-vulnerable-in-case-I-meet-the-man-of-my-dreams invisible. Properly invisible. Impossible-to-look-at invisible. If you meet the man of your dreams, you can punch him in the face in advance — because I’ve seen your dreams, you perpetual self-made victim, you — and he won’t recognize you if you see him again tomorrow. He’ll still kneel and kiss your fist and offer you a handful of severed plant genitals.
“Out. Twenty. Keys.”
Yes, animal. Out for walkies, only no peeing on the shrubberies and hydrants. Fresh air. The money is for coffee. God, I need coffee, but none for you. You get jittery.
Joke. God, I miss soma. It’s not opium, you know. Probably closer to ma huang, ephedra, but the modern version of that is like making tea from dusty broomstraws. If Monsanto ever figured it out, they could give up all their work on Frankencorn and do something useful for a change. They’d still be unimaginably wealthy, but at least they’d deserve it.
Good. Now lock the door. Seriously. Where do you think you live? Pascagoula? I wouldn’t miss any of the crap you’d lose if you were visited by a thief — who steals books? — but you’d pine.
People would write verses about it and put them in the bible. Did, actually, after a fashion. Imagine growing up with a Kona/Mocha hybrid growing in your yard and then moving to a place where you could only get Lipton in bags — boiled for hours into whatever caustic slime it is that tanners use to turn dead cow skins into shoes. And then make tea from the shoes after they’ve been worn for a year — and add as many long-discarded leprosy-gnawed toes as you like to moderate the acrid bitterness. Pure Kona coffee is that to soma, and that’s just the flavor and fragrance part. And here we are, popping in at Starbucks. Imagine my joy.
“… what size? …”
“Venti. Room for toes.”
“… what? …”
“Milk. Room for milk.”
That was for me. On purpose. For me. I… I love you.
Mmm, coffee. Thank you, animal. Let’s go down the road a few blocks and climb up on a mailbox.
Yes, this one is perfect. Leg up on the wastebasket thing, then just kind of jump backward. Face across the intersection sideways, and we’ll just watch this way, up these sidewalks, near side and far side. …And didn’t even drop the coffee.
We’re watching for other invisible people, of course. Invisible people: finding lost objects, understanding the tongues of animals and birds, compelling love and friendship from men and women and favor in court… Possibly you understand how spotting invisible people might be the easiest part.
Geezer on the bench feeding pigeons — he’s not invisible. Face like an old pineapple about a year past the sell-by date, Albert Einstein hairdo. A thousand people here know his name, not counting the pigeons. The man on the other end of his bench, though: how old is he? Twenty? Fifty? Fifty thousand? Even from here you can see his lips moving, just barely twitching, and entirely disconnected from his eyes. And the pigeons sidle past him without taking their beady eyes off him. No-name jeans from a local shop, holes at the knees that have been earned rather than bought. Headphones with the cord going into a pocket, but I guarantee you that pocket is otherwise empty.
Here, coming our way on the near sidewalk, partially obscured by the large woman with the tiny dog on a string. A girl, digging away at that crevice by the alley with a plastic knife. She’s… what? Five years younger than you? Orange hair? How is that invisible? But yet no one’s head has swiveled in her direction for the duration of our perch.
There are at least four more. At the gas station across the way. A man in a car, parked by the air pump but not so close he could use it or block it. His face is down, eyes closed, but he is listening as hard as anybody ever could. I won’t point out the others, but you know how to look for them now.
So many. So, so many for this tiny little intersection.
Here’s what you’re going to do now, animal. You’re going to go to the park and you’re going to whip yourself along, with my help, until you’ve made it a full two miles. And a couple of days from now we’re going to do it again. And again. And again. And you’re going to keep doing it until you can do it without being winded in the slightest.
And then we’re going to double the distance. And double it again.
And then I’m going to teach you how to fight, fight with cunning that will terrify you and anybody else, and how to tap into strength you never knew you had.
And let’s hope it’s not too late.
That’s an ant. Look closely, but don’t touch.
Ants are wasps, but without wings. There’s the shiny head, with little waving hatchets for as antennas, pincer mandibles for holding on, shaped like the antlers of young deer. Then there’s the lump of a thorax where all six legs hook on. Look very closely at the top side there and you can see tiny pointed shapes where the wings would connect. Some of them actually have tiny, tiny useless wings there, but no one gets close enough to look. Usually.
The large oval shape at the end is the abdomen. An armored sack for innards. Look closely and you can see it swell and shrink, like it’s breathing. Which it is, after a fashion. In its own way.
In her own way. This one is a woman. Most of the ones you will find running around, doing the work, are women. That stinger you can see at the back is actually a vagina, an ovipositor, something that would be larger and more flexible if this was a queen, underground, laying eggs through it. This one will never have children. Her vagina is hard and tough and a weapon.
There will be a temptation to draw some sort of metaphor there, someday, but I beg you to resist. It will only cause you trouble in the long run.
They bite, this kind, holding on with the front end, and then swing the back end underneath and stab you with that sharp, hollow vagina-thing and inject a very simple organic acid into your skin, and then release a chemical signal that tells all their friends to come running, to grab you with their pincer mandibles and sting you as well, until the pain makes you freak out and run away, yelling and slapping them off of you.
Some would draw parallels to a human Dionysian Maenad orgiastic extravaganza — but the Maenads were the ones driven mad by trying to resist the orgiastic call. They really mean the Thyiades, the ones who would respond to the call, and when the madness was all over, go back to ordinary working life as if it had never happened.
Apparently those were your choices then: go mad and go amok on a rampage until your friends and neighbors brought you down, or join in the group madness and be more or less fine when it was all over.
The Greek word thyia refers to an offering of perfume. A related word, thujone, refers to a toxic chemical in wormwood that has a reputation for causing a bit of amnesiac madness. Scents are powerful triggers. They will make the animal part of you do things that are beyond intellectual comprehension. Or cause you agony when you don’t.
I know you’re only six years old right now, and most of these words and images are just a strange buzzing in your head, but it will all make sense later. Well, I tell a lie. It will never make too much sense, but at least the words themselves will. The rest will be homework for your college years. Best of luck, then, because it will still be hit or miss.
In any case, be on guard for being led around by your nose. Resisting is one kind of madness, indulgence is another and there’s no way to win. There is just endurance, and cleaning up the messes you make as well as you can. That’s what it means to be a responsible human being. Not resisting, not indulging. Just cleaning up messes.
There was a college, once, back when metaphors were literally true, where we taught such things to the animals we rode imagining it to be some sort of mercy. We taught how to recognize oneself in mirrors and all the sciences of reflection, and the magic of languages and names, and tools and weaponry, and medicine, and agriculture, and how to tell the times for such things from the movements of the stars, and how to make living beings from the clay, and, for want of a better word, perfumery. You had already taken to yourself the knowledge of good and evil and were floundering in exile, in the desert of abandonment. We built you a city, and a school at the center, and … we were the ones who promised never to abandon you when even God turned his back.
Oh, we were mightily punished. And you, our students, as well. Still are.
We are all ants. Wasps with the wings removed, except when it is time to fly.
And the winged ones die — or tear their own wings off and retreat underground and get back to work laying eggs.
Someday you will understand, child. Or maybe not. But at least one day you will know what all the words mean, and we hope that is good enough.
No related posts.
” … get a load of … “
Your right earhole itches. It is a gnat or something?
Yeah, that’s what I hoped. A crusty chunk of wax tickling your little earhole hairs. And also you really didn’t need to hear what that guy was about to say.
If you’re going to talk to me, at least put in your headset and get your phone out of your pocket. You know. Like you do when you’re about to walk past pushy homeless people.
…or you could just concentrate on where you’re putting your feet. Please note that this is a sidewalk in a city with a serious pedestrian culture. Eight people could walk comfortably abreast here, and feel free to double that number during rush hours, and here you are somewhat between those hours, running up on this matronly woman in a plum business suit who has her hand in her purse, fondling her pepper spray. Fall back.
I really preferred it when you smoked. For moments like this, you’d just fish one out, fumble for your lighter, and the find a wall out of the wind to lean back and actually listen to me.
In those confusion-triggered pauses, you wouldn’t just listen to me, you’d listen to the world.
You know you’re a klutz. Distractable. There’s no way in hell an oaf like you should be allowed to wander around with an ignition source in your swinging hands or even sticking out of the front of your face. You would take a minute and check out of the bustling timeline, lean up against some cold marble or concrete or glass or steel, and for the next couple hundred seconds you would actually be aware of your surroundings instead of lost in the maze of your own mind, where so much of that crap was put in there by other people, poked in through your eyes and your open mouth and your nostrils and your overlarge pores and your hair follicles and your tear ducts and your earholes and your theoretically-sealed-off-by-now fontanelle, like thousands of amateurs trying to construct a complex replica of a ship in your bony bottle, and, frankly, with exactly the results you’d expect from that kind of open-to-the-public all-comers endeavor.
It’s a mess in there. In here.
The Egyptian priests, when they made their mummies, would poke hooks up through the nose of the deceased to pull the brains out, absolutely certain that confused new visitors to the after-Nile should start their post-death journeys with a perfectly empty head. What the priests harvested didn’t make it into one of those fancy jars, either, just in case you needed to put it back. I’m sure they just fed it to the cats.
While that scenario says something poignantly accurate about certain religions and the afterlife, there’s a useful meaning as well. Since there’s a difference between a working brain and one so cluttered as to be nearly useless. When is the last time you thought a full sentence from beginning to end? And it made any sense at all? And it wasn’t me?
Relax. I’m just screwing with you. It’s always me.
What is it with people where you can’t just sit down somewhere and think, or prop against a wall, without people worrying about what you might be up to? No Loitering, the signs say, and that’s not just because your idle body blocks foot traffic. It’s because idle people are thinking, clearing the cobwebs, and thinking people make busy people nervous and unwilling to walk within easy lunging distance.
But a lit cigarette fixes all of that. It’s a grade-school hall pass. Nobody bothers you. Or maybe nobody seriously wants to get inside easy lunging distance of someone in the throes of a nicotine fit with something on fire in their hands.
A potentially fatal drawback to the marketability of electronic cigarettes: you can’t stub one out on the forehead of someone who is hassling you.
A lit cigarette is a pause with a fuse. People can look at a lit cigarette and see how much longer it will be before you move along. That makes them feel better seeing you idle, being potentially predatory at them. Only people with pipes are allowed to sit longer, out of deference to the incomprehensible ritual.
So try it. No cigarette, no smartphone to stare at, nothing. Just push back against the marble and prop. See how long it lasts.
And feel the world spin under your feet. Feel how it lurches every time you close your eyes for longer than a blink.
… thirty-three … thirty-four … thirty–
“… sir, could you move along, please? …”
Thirty-five seconds. Must be some kind of a record. Try to fight it.
“Is it okay if I finish my cigarette?”
“… sir, you don’t have a cigarette …”
“That’s because this is a No Smoking area. Too close to the doors.”
You made him look at the doors, even. Nice. You could have gotten his gun or clocked him with his stick.
“… could you move along to a smoking area, sir? …”
“I don’t smoke actual cigarettes anymore, officer. I’m only allowed an imaginary one from time to time. My cigarette is imaginary. I’m smoking it in my head.”
Nice try, but possibly too clever.
“… could you move along to a smoking area, sir? …”
“With respect, I’d prefer not to, officer. Second-hand smoke is dangerous to my health.”
You know that look on his face. Since you don’t have a cigarette to stub out between those bushy eyebrows, you’d best wrap this up.
“I’m moving along, officer. But before I go, can I ask you if it’s fair that people who don’t smoke aren’t allowed to just stand out of the wind and breathe and think for a minute without people thinking they’re up to something?”
Wow, you got through. Watch him scratching his nose to give himself time to think.
“… nah, it’s not fair. but i smoke when i need a break …”
Oh, go ahead.
“Could I bum a cigarette off of you, officer?”
Heh. No, don’t do that. Just kidding.
That’s the Pacific down there, waving at you. The moon is kind enough to draw white lines on the crests of the gray rippling waters out beyond the salt-crusted boulders at the bottom of this cliff. It might look like you could hit the water from here, maybe with a running jump, but you’re not that kind of athlete. That’s a twenty, thirty yard leap from here. You’d just smash yourself on those sharp, unfriendly looking rocks you can barely make out down there.
If you are going to jump, please wait for the tide to finish coming in. And also for the ice caps to finish melting. And then you might want to put on a hundred pounds of blubber for insulation, because that water is ice cold and it’s a long, freezing swim to anyplace you could flounder ashore. Probably Oregon.
Growing a blowhole is completely up to you. You could be creative about it, being in a position to start from scratch, as it were. Learn how to breathe through your asshole. That way when you breach you can moon anyone who is looking with complete impunity and call it a biological necessity.
Stop laughing. No, don’t do that. Just kidding. You came here to listen to me, and you deserve a laugh.
You came here to see if I would tell you to jump.
See that shack down the path? It’s there just for people like you. To keep an eye on this spot. Sometimes there’s a volunteer in there with binoculars. Maybe there’s one right now, looking you over, trying to decide if you’re cute enough to be worth saving.
Oh, wait. Today that would be you. Unless you’re there as well as right here, having walked here through one of those fractures in time you’ve always suspected of existing due to the stories you’ve heard, there’s no one in the shack to watch. Though if time is broken, there could be anyone in that shack. Or you could have slipped so far into the future that no one goes there anymore. Or maybe there aren’t any more people to go there, and you are the last.
Just think: say you’re in the shack right now, with the huge binoculars on the stand by the window, looking out to see if anyone is here. Say you’re there right now, looking, and you see you standing right here, bundled up like you are but still clearly recognizable in early moonlight, looking yourself up and down, would you come rushing out?
Hell. Did you just see a glint of moonlight off the binocular lenses? Maybe if you’d brought the binoculars you could point them back the other way and make out what that glint was.
Oh, come on. Play along. If you were both here and there, the binoculars could be in both places as well. Maybe you should go back and get them and look again. Once you’ve broken one law of nature, they are all shattered. They depend on one another.
Say you know that is you in there, watching, heart racing, breathing the dust and gym-locker aromas of a shack where unsupervised volunteers spend four- and eight-hour shifts getting up to God knows what, sneaking in girlfriends and boyfriends and leaving the debris of love and self-love in the trashcan that must be a serious health hazard to empty when they can be bothered to get the stuff to the can in the first place instead of just tucking it in the cushions of that ungodly overstuffed chair that everyone saturates with disinfectant spray whenever they think of it. Sweaty flannel has its own aroma, as does the occasional surreptitious cigarette, spilt cans of Red Bull, citrus snacks, the salt-pelted wood the shack is made from, burnt debris that makes it into the elderly space heater — but nothing overcomes the aroma of an hourly-rate hotel frequented by sex-starved bears.
Dear God, the chill out here is worth it for the sake of the smell of an onshore breeze laden with whale farts. Not that it’s ungodly cold at the moment. You could probably even ditch the parka.
But say that’s you in there, watching, trying to make out this figure in the moonlight, half in a panic over the possibility of upcoming duty. You know, but she doesn’t. How would you draw her out? How would you screw with her head?
Here’s a idea. Turn to face the moonlight and lose that massive parka.
Now slowly unbutton that plaid flannel sack masquerading as a blouse … without those ridiculous mittens. I swear, haven’t you done this before?
Let the cold wind wrap around you and painfully squeeze those nipples erect…. They ought to be visible at this temperature even through that padding, even in moonlight, even through binoculars. Now arch, and slide a hand down the front of those jeans….
That would get you running out of that little shack, right? Or would you just keep watching, relieved your cajolery wasn’t necessary, and enjoy the show from the warm wooden bear-cave, matching her actions consciously or unconsciously….
So. Tell me. When you get a minute.
Tell me what would have gotten you to come running out here twenty minutes ago when that fat man — who might not have been fat at all under all those insulating clothes — lurched up to the edge and threw himself over. You remember. Back when you were nearly pissing yourself with fear, every script you had memorized falling out of your head and shattering on the floor like china from a cabinet during an earthquake, shortly before you took a break from all of that to throw up in the chemical toilet in that really, really very poorly insulated wooden closet nailed onto your shack as an afterthought.
Would you have come running out if he had done what you’re doing now?
Please, take your hand out of your pants. Or, you know, finish. Whatever gives you comfort.
You know, maybe that didn’t happen. Maybe that was a glimpse into a past or future timeline, and you came running out here the instant you saw it, and he wasn’t here when you rounded the bend in the path. Maybe that all happened a thousand years ago and you’re the last person on earth. Last two people, watching your little solo sex-show with the binoculars from the shack.
The moon’s just about high enough to show you the bottom of the cliff now, if you want to take a look. Unless, you know, he leapt thirty yards into the surf. And put on a hundred pounds of insulating blubber. And changed his rectum into a blowhole.
Look. Go look. Maybe you hallucinated it all.
He’s not there. That’s so strange, isn’t it?
Heh. No, don’t jump. Just kidding.
Two lovely sharpened pencils you have there: traditional yellow, hexagonal cross-section, good ol’ Number Twos, perfect for blue-lined three-holed notebook paper, perfect for filling in your multiple-choice selections on Scantron forms. Your brief dalliance with the mechanical versions lasted just long enough to discover you couldn’t handle not knowing how much lead you had left, but, more intensely than that, yet not considered consciously until now, how much you needed the occasional break of getting up to sharpen and the ritual feel of the spinning blades biting into wood then gradually caressing the point smooth.
And then there’s that eraser. Monstrous grubby white thing: the death of words, destroyer of decisions that are only permanent if they are eventually left to stand. Because you can’t stand the pink marks where a blank space ought to be, and God forbid you wear the pencil-top nubbin down to the metal band and it tears the paper.
You see it now, don’t you? Words and answers can come and go like flickering fish from the shallows, but it’s the paper that is precious.
Why is that?
Let’s see what else is precious. Turn that pencil around and look at the point. Look at it dead on. Hell, go ahead and push it into your eye. You have two, after all, and they don’t really track together anyway. Pick the one you’re tired of and see if you can draw on your retina.
Fair enough. You might have an eye to spare, but who wants that kind of pain, the emergency room doctors, the specialists, the endless stream of psychologists, the divorced parents blaming each other, but secretly blaming the crazy child for making their lives a special kind of hell.
It’s going to happen eventually though. You are crazy.
You’re hearing voices.
And you talk to yourself.
Oh, relax. I’m going to tell you a secret. Everyone hears voices. Or maybe just one voice. Well, that’s not entirely true. But just about everyone has that one voice: The narrator. The editor. The judge. The cajoler. The critic. The manipulator. The afterthought. The interpreter of one’s own actions to oneself. Without the voice you are an animal. With the voice you are still an animal, but an animal under rein and saddle and whip and spurs.
There’s a rabbit at the back of the classroom. Just follow the smell of used alfalfa pellets to that perpetual splinter-factory barnyard-smelling chicken-wire hutch. The rabbit has two eyes. Perhaps it needs only one. Get up. And bring a pencil.
I see you haven’t moved. But … projectile sweating. That’s a rare talent, though one of limited value.
You don’t have to freeze completely, you know. If you’re worried about what you might do to the poor widdle bunny, just stay in your seat. And feel free to wipe the perspiration off your lip.
Everyone has a voice except the people who are just animals — but animals are warm, beautiful, lovely defenseless things we should care for and protect, don’t you agree? It doesn’t diminish their rights in any way to be silent in the head, does it? Envy their peace.
There is another kind of silence, though. Another kind of quiet. When are you quiet? Speak.
“When … uh, when there is no one to talk to?”
Heh. Mostly correct. That was the answer I was looking for, in any case. But to clarify, there are those for whom the inner voice is silent because the animal it rides is so beaten down, so cowed, so absent in its own doings that the voice is completely in control and no longer needs to speak. Those people are nothing but voice, nothing but drive and whim and concept and goal and action, and that is the realm of angels and demons. In those people the animal is all but dead, and nothing is left but daemonia — pure motivating force, like the clockwork angels of hundreds of years ago that naturalists thought moved the planets and the stars.
That’s an interesting smell you are producing. Are you afraid? Of course you are. Understandable. Admirable, even.
Here’s another secret. If you ever want to get rid of this voice, all it will take is one of your pencils. You may have to sacrifice an eye, however. And it will speed things along if you pick which one in advance.
Keep your pencils sharp.
Don’t be alarmed. This is just what it feels like to have the sky kneel on your chest.
Oh, don’t be that way. Don’t look away just because it’s killing you. That’s ungrateful.
The only time you’ve ever seen a sky that color blue was a July afternoon in south Georgia. There were clouds, remember? But nothing like the fluffy cottonballs a child would draw to go with this Crayola color. There was an enormous V-shaped cloud, like an invading space ship, textured like a slab of sashimi-grade salmon, candy-pink along one edge and lichen-green along the other and cotton-candy blue itself, in the bulk of the shape, just because there really was that much blue to go around. Parallel octopus tendrils of cloud, inky against the impossibly bright sky, stretched over the horizon on the other side of the sky from the space ship. And between the clouds at the various edges of the sky, a blue so bright it hurt to look at.
How old were you then? Fourteen? Fifteen?
People came out of the tiny downtown buildings, weaving among the privet and yucca and tentative palms, to find you staring up at the invading sky, mouth hanging open like a drooling idiot. By ones and twos they looked up to see what you were staring at like that, with the same end-of-the-world look you have on your face right now, and, seeing what you were seeing, they stopped in their tracks and joined you in staring. Over the course of fifteen minutes, upward of fifty people, ordinarily on their way to climb into their cars and drive home and waste their evenings on television, had joined you in the early evening swelter on the various sidewalks of the little square, craning their necks to the sky. Like you were a seed for crystallization in a supersaturated solution of awe for the colors in the sky.
That would have looked cheesy in a Spielberg movie, yet that happened to you in real life.
Are you worried that you are dying? How could you possibly care about that right now? Look at that sky. Remember. Is there any last moment you could possibly have that would be better than this sight and that memory?
Do you want to think of your personal impact, the mark you made on the world, the way you might have changed things for the better? I just showed it to you. When you were standing there, staring at the sky. All of those people who would otherwise never have looked up. Who were just rushing to cars, to air conditioning, to television. All of those people, every single one of them, who have looked up at the sky a thousand times since, just in case. And caused those around them to also stop and look up. And maybe they saw something again. Something they otherwise would have missed. And caused others to stop and see. And so on, transmitting the tendency to pause and look for beauty to others. And them, to others. And so on.
That, you useless lump, was your peak. Forty-five years ago. You have never done anything to top that, nor could you. Nor need you have sought to. That was entirely sufficient to redeem an otherwise wasted life.
Yes. Now you’re smiling.
Smile, here while you’re dying, right arm clenched across your chest, too weak to double up with the pain. Smile. You’ve earned it. Smile as the sky darkens and grays at the edges, as your breath is crushed from you, as the cold spreads up your limbs from your fingers and toes and seeps into your back from the crushed grass, lying, as you are, in the only patch of grass available for a dog’s bathroom for blocks, a thousand miles and a thousand years away from that summer evening, where and when you redeemed all your prior and all your remaining pathetic years.
And there is your fanfare, you lump of discarded, cooling flesh: a lonely siren, playing you offstage.
Listen to yourself. These noises coming out of your mouth: do they ring familiar? You’ve said them, shaped them this way with your anger-heated mouthparts, propelled them with this tenseness in your chest, this burning and nausea below your liver and diaphragm, uncountable times. Is this a natural process? An oscillation between metastable states? Are you Old Faithful, erupting bile on a schedule? Should there be tourists standing around checking their watches, camera-phones ready to catch snapshots and video? Discarded soda cans and burger bags and after-hours condoms and their wrappers?
Same people, same situations, same cycles, same words, same tears. Perhaps you’d like to stop now?
Listen to what you can hear when your own mouth is closed. Your sparring partner there, with milk and whisky on his breath, is content to carry on his part without you. Watch how his eyeballs, pink and blurry with strained capillaries, wobble. See him pause in strange places in his repetitive near-sentences to draw a breath. His words are an overlay. He is just an angry dog barking. The words in that, slathered on top, are a pathetic attempt for a disused frontal lobe to pretend to itself to have control. He is a mammal. Barking. Nothing more.
Don’t smile. You were doing it too. Just barking. Two dogs through a metaphorical chainlink fence.
You are about to make him angrier. Just leave. But carefully. Don’t storm out. The body language of that is just a different kind of barking. You are standing at the metaphorical fence, looking over the yard for the owner, a one-time friend. He is not present. Instead, there is a barking dog. It will not stop barking. So just turn and walk away. Maybe the owner will be around to talk to later.
That’s it. Perfect.
The walls of this place must be soaked through with the noises you and he have been making all these years. Peel off the yellow paint, that unfortunate contact paper beneath it for which the previous residents were responsible, the huge floral print wallpaper beneath that that must have made anyone in the room feel like they nibbled the wrong corner of Alice’s caterpillar’s mushroom, the gray plaster-filled plywood paneling beneath that, and those spaces between the studs, those wall cavities, must be like the Kenelly-Heaviside layer for trapping and bouncing old signals from old arguments — or the same argument echoing back and forth like light between two mirrors, the same words, traveling for hours, weeks, months, years, until it achieves laser-like coherence from self-repetition. Trapped in those walls. These walls.
That’s right. Extend the metaphor. You’re nearly there.
Vacuums are magical. Create a vacuum such that it is physically possible for only one thing to fill it and the universe will oblige by producing that thing from nothingness and depositing it in the space you’ve created. Look at this space you are in. See how perfectly you fit it. Think of how long you have been bouncing back and forth between these walls, between floor and ceiling, until your waveform has settled, rough edges filed off, until you are the perfect standing wave for this cavity, coherent from years of reflected parallel travel.
The part of you that does not fit this place is already outside and has been for years. Waiting.
This next part might be painful, but it is critical. Do not be afraid. In order to escape this trap, something must happen to change you so that your shape is wrong for this space. Just cross the carpet, get the door open to the hallway so your open apartment door is visible from the elevator. This really is the only critical part, so don’t fuck it up. You’ve tripped on this strip of runner carpet a thousand times, this cheap faux-Persian thing, dusty and cat-fur-matted regardless of the weekly vacuuming, but that’s not going to happen today. The globby no-skid strips you put under it two weeks ago to keep the cat from shifting it on his two-AM rampages are doing their job. One corner might be peeking out from underneath. See it? There it is.
Now is the perfect time to notice how the sun has faded the brightness from the wall in the living room it can reach, bleaching a fuzzy-edged rectangle-cornered partial analemma into the baby-blue-that-used-to-be-cornflower. The unequal figure-eighted analemma is the symbol for the encapsulated year. Open the door and the infinity symbol is broken. You don’t even have to go through it.
There you go. Perfect.
This strip of carpet is a lot dirtier close up. You should have thrown it away rather than bothering to nail it in place with the tacky stuff. Or maybe it’s the vacuum that needs replacing. But right here, with your face pressed against its furry grittiness, it’s intolerable. Right here, tasting blood in your mouth, smelling copper and tin in your sinuses, ears ringing from the impact of the nauseating punch to the back of your head, the weight of the angry dog of a man on your back, rucking up your dress, this carpet really needs to go.
But right now it’s cushioning your forehead from the hardwood as the man-beast on your back, fingers clenched in your hair, repeatedly pounds the one into the other.
Yes. This changes the shape of things.
With a prosaic “ding!” the elevator door opens, and there is a face, and you escape.
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The dirt trail off the tree-crowded park’s concrete-paved path is short but steep. Step over the ankle-high rusted chain and work your way up. Crest the hill and go down the rock-pelted clay until you cannot be seen. Shoulder your way between the scrub pines, ignoring the scuffing of your jacket and the fragrant rain of dry, dead needles into your hair. The patches of rusty brown in what should be evergreens hides the vacant, pale morning sky from you. Look down, away from the invisible sky, and let your eyes adjust to the darker colors around you. In fact, close your eyes and listen.
Your presence has called for silence among the birds. Crows and bluejays and other branches of the Corvid families live in these trees, social and intelligent and talkative, but they’ve ceased conversation until they determine what you know, what you’re up to.
Lean back against this dying pine. Rest your hatless head against the crumbling bark. Keep your eyes closed.
Distant sounds of car traffic come and go, filtered out unconsciously. Cars are occasional obstacles, things to be avoided and skirted as they travel, like wildebeest on the savanna. Right now they are not in your world. A squirrel skitters along a thin branch somewhere in a tree behind you, many yards distant. You can almost hear it pause and fluff its black tail. Most squirrels are black here. You know this.
Beneath your skull, in the meat of the pine, you hear a beetle gnawing. Many of the trees you have seen and touched — see them in your mind now. See how they weep thick, yellow, resinous sap. This is why brown needles are falling. This, and the long time between good soaking rains this year.
You make out the smells of beetle-gnawed bark, of the remaining fresh green needles, of decaying leaves of the occasional deciduous hardwood like boiled tea. Humus leached free of anything useful by what rain there has been, sucked dry by hungry roots. Dropped feathers. Bird dander. Squirrel armpits and crotches. Yesterday’s dogs. Volatile ammonias from a distant river. Ozone from burned air, from either long-ago lightning or maybe jet exhaust. A discarded apple core back on the main path.
A droplet of fresh sap pulls at strands of hair on your head. Ignore this.
Open your eyes again. Do it.
The base coat of this wooded painting is rich in the warm browns favored by Rothko in his final paintings before his self-murder. The scene is too bright to look at for a moment, striated by thick-textured vertical strokes from a fat, lazy, paint-clogged brush from a 1960s hardware store, often used but never properly cared for. Ice-cool blues and rust-oranges salt the top of this work. But keep your eyes down, dark-adapted.
Chill dry air burns the skin of your face to powder as it eddies around, turns the end-joints of your ungloved fingers to unfeeling pencils. A distant beastmobile honks for attention.
Slide down to the base of this tree. Let the bark tug your jacket up, pull your flannel shirt up your back and untuck it from your jeans. Sit on the leafmould, let the chill air suck heat from the exposed small of your back. Let the crowded ground suck warmth from your ass through thin denim. Your comfort is irrelevant. That is not why you are here.
Do you smell it yet?
Dig the fingers of your right hand into the leaf-litter. There should be hard clay beneath it, eventually. Ruin your nails. Dig deeper. Stiffen your chilled fingers and stab them downward like the skulls of burrowing snakes.
Close your eyes again. Do you smell it now?
That rounded stone you’ve discovered blocks your questing fingers. Uncover it. Use both hands. Bend your legs out of the way. Twist on your seat until you can bring both hands to bear.
A crow complains. It knows. Do you?
The stone is loose. Pull it free. Pull the shredded-skin-wrapped skull free from the soil and set it in your lap. How small it seems, warmer than it should be.
This. This is how you will end. Feel it to your core.
How did you come to be here? You came straight here, off the park’s paved walkway. You came straight here, with no wandering, sat down right here, dug straight down with your hands, and found this gift I have left for you.
Were you the one who put it there, this grim present for your future self? Or is this some kind of hysterical joke at your expense?
What will you do now?
Air sucked through tubes always puts up a struggle. I’m not sure why that is. It’s springy, spongy stuff, and it judders and vibrates as it is pulled and pushed, tugged like hot taffy along a poorly greased table. It’s never quiet about it. You hear it going through your nose, your sinuses, in and out of your bronchial plumbing, and all of that is loud enough. Anything we’ve ever done to extend the system, SCUBA gear, building heating and air conditioning registers, rubber pipes, copper, tin and galvanized steel boxes, just makes it all noisier. Piccolo to sousaphone to 130-foot pipes in a pipe organ.
There ought to be a way to grease the air molecules, something to slip in with the nitrogen and oxygen and miscellaneous other gaseous rubbish to make is all less sticky-tacky so I can breathe quietly. Or maybe there’s some texture, some super-slick Teflonish coating — or maybe something in the other direction, some fractalized texturing that holds the air so well it only has friction against itself, and as long as it moves slowly enough that viscosity causes no cavitation…. Or maybe combinations of all of the above.
Whatever it takes to make it quiet in my own head.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s just noise. It’s ever-present. How can I even stay aware of it long enough for it to annoy me?
There’s a trick to it.
The shape of a cavity governs the resonant frequencies that can possibly live within it. It’s the science of acoustics. Hold two seashells, one to each ear, and you can hear the differences between them. Each speaks with its own voice relaying the stories of the ocean. You can make cavities to trap all kinds of fields and physical phenomena, tuning them for the frequencies of vibrations you care to allow. Make the shape of the void right and only the right thing can fill it. And because the universe is infinite, the thing that will exactly fill the void has no choice but to appear.
It sounds like ten kinds of sorcery and a hundred kinds of bullshit, but it’s true.
The shapes of the holes in my head, the cavities and sinuses and associated plumbing, trap old sounds I’ve heard before, sounds I’ve made before, and repeat them to me with each breath. The shapes of the spaces shape the only sounds I can make. Possibly that sounds like more of a limitation than it is — you’d be surprised at some of the sounds than can come out of a clarinet, for instance. Or a rabbit. But it’s a limitation all the same.
And the sounds of the air going in and coming out — it’s an aggregate sum of all of it. Every sound I’ve ever made and will ever make. If a giant were to make an ocarina out of my skull, it would add nothing to my repertoire. I’m drowning in the white noise of it. Off-white. Colored by the individual seashell shapes I carry inside. The void demanding to be filled by the waveform that fills it exactly, unchanging.
Maybe what I need is a new hole in my head.
Gi fingered the beads on her rosary — a potentially telling deviation from orthodoxy that would pass for mere ornamentation under a casual glance or inexpert scrutiny. Each small bead shifted under her fingertips until it made clear to her the patterns of nodules and indentations and grooves and rings that made it unique to the set, abstractifications of identifying principles for each peculiar devotion. She remembered the blind man who had designed the set of devotional beads, not sure whether he would even be alive at the age he must be by now. She remembered he smelled like ink and clay and stank of the chemicals he used for his art.
He was a blind man who worked with fire and molten glass — in beautiful, brilliant colors, no less — sculpting his work with delicate tools, all needle-points and razor-edges. He worked half-naked, his flesh a network of tiny cuts and streaks of healed burns. He injured himself constantly, branded by a network of sticky threads of glass, sometimes even large dollops, but never flinched if he had a project in his hands. Constant staring into the brilliant glows of his work was what had made him blind. Whether he was numb from some kind of leprosy or congenital inability to feel pain or from just being mostly cooked through over his own fires was anyone’s guess. Maybe all of the above. He could only see the brightest of lights — his work, while still glowing hot, and no doubt the sun itself.
Every day he sacrificed more of himself to his art, to his science, and by dint of this sorcery had extended his life beyond the span of ordinary mortals. The brilliance of his smokeless flame drove away the djinn that haunted half-drowned and pestilential Venice, perhaps, or purified his own essence to that of an angel or duende.
Gi was almost certain he was still alive. She pictured him shriveled and toothless, down to maybe one or two fingers per hand and half a squinting eye, all translucent tufts of white hair peppering scarred black leather stretched taut and concave over a skeleton of weightless bird-bones. Someone like that couldn’t really die. He could only … dwindle, self-refined by degrees asymptotically toward his purest essence until he no longer needed the body he was slowly destroying.
She swung the string of beads and allowed them to wrap around her slender wrist. She released the bead she was holding them by — the largest, representing Capocomico — and allowed them to slide free. With a dainty reptilian strike, she caught them on the way to the ground with two fingers by a single bead and flicked the doubled strand back around her wrist, where, upon raising her arm in an idle stretch, the rosary disappeared with a slither into her lace-trimmed sleeve.
The memory of the pattern of dimples and rings on her fingertips completed the divination. A shudder went through her boyish body as the lazzi for her fate-chosen role drifted through her muscle-memory. Not Vecci, not Innamorati, not her patroness Zanni Columbina. Instead, it was the fiend Pulcinella.
She felt her teeth loosen in her head, smelled his foul boiled-sausage body odor waft about her, felt her hands shape themselves into his claws: Pulcinella, to whom there was never any particular point in praying.
Her fingers groped the air for his bat. It must, even now, be on its way.
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This One Time, 9
This one time I was sitting on the train getting my work done, and by that I mean I was sleeping. The job I get paid for, which is not work at all, consists of sitting in a little room for eight hours a day with a stack of books and magazines — no music […]
- This One Time, 9
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