Dec 312010
 

helwig1

Here, yes, oh yes, two New Year’s poems by David Helwig, lines from which should be repeated at midnight and can/should be burned into your minds henceforth: “…every one of the dead lived, and every instant of their time rang like this, ours, now.”

David’s work has graced these pages from nearly the beginning (nigh on a year now–the NC first anniversary is January 11), including his poems “La Rentrée” and “Stars” and his lovely translation of Chekhov’s short story “About Love.” I am never sure whether or not to reintroduce people here again and again. Many of you know who David is–old friend, prolific writer of everything, Order of Canada, founding editor of Best Canadian Stories, new dog owner, generous contributor to Numéro Cinq. The rest of you read the new poems and look at his earlier pieces. These poems happen to coincide with the very recent arrival in my mail box of David’s latest book, a collection called Mystery Stories.

Happy New Year!

dg

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Impromptus for the New Year: December 2010

1

In a brilliant patchwork of greens, moss, lichen, leaf
shed brightness on the damply haunted winter day.
Thin black twigs prick the dimly opalescent sky
over a gloom of woods where the roaming black dog

yips and flushes a snowshoe hare, white in phase with
the cycle of the year’s darkening, useless pale
winter fur in desperate flight across the un-
seasonable snowless landscape, grey trunks, branches,

conifers hung with grey-green strands of old man’s beard.
A sodden winter too is an incarnation,
where tremors of time occur, scant, slack, offering
what is least likely to burn, a flame in damp wood.

All vision shivers in the accidental gaps
of early twilight on this narrow long path,
as the black dog races out of sight. Silence, like
a pause in music, offers stillness and resolve.

We have posed calendars against infinity,
the major and minor scales and counterpoint,
that law of two remaining two, being one.
It is said that the wise travel to map their return.

Detail defies the approach of incoherence,
like our numbering of days. Moss, trees, lichen
recite a winter creed: every one of the dead lived,
and every instant of their time rang like this, ours, now.

2

Morning sunlight falls on the eventual snow,
and the dog stirs, black upon white, in the maze
of thin spruce, the path tracked and retracked by the night’s
dance of hares, and my old legs climb over a fallen trunk.

How many generations long is a long life?
Do we count by decades or some definition
of attitude? Has love a new way of being?
You are, she said, better at questions than answers.

Blown snow and bright ice, the young trees bend low
under the weight of it. A fox has left fresh tracks.
To be wild is to be hungry, short-lived, cold, wet,
breeding desperately to salvage the species.

Ask the young to explain. The lively black puppy
leads me through the new snow of her world, obeys,
though she can outrun me on any footing.
The cold wind sings in the bright air all around us.

—David Helwig

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Dec 292010
 

 

Here’s a lovely, exotic What it’s like living here essay from Renee Giovarelli who graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts last summer. Renee travels the world for an NGO involved in reforming land and property rights. But she also writes urgent, passionate essays about the places she visits. Her essay “The Bad Malaria Shot,” which she presented at her graduate reading in the summer, was a finalist for the Wasafiri 2010 New Writing Prize. Renee is one of those students I’ll always regret not having had the privilege of working with.

dg

What it’s like living here

from Renee Giovarelli in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

 

The Apartment

I don’t notice what it’s like living here when I’m here.  I sit down to write about place, and I only recall conversations.

I’m at a small wooden blue built-in table in someone else’s apartment kitchen.  The kitchen is small but bright, full of the high-desert sun.  Sitting here, writing, with no kids, no husband, no groceries to buy, bills to pay, dogs to feed and walk, bird cages to clean, I am a different person.  I will only live in this apartment for three weeks.  But while I’m here, I will work, I will write, and I will spend time with friends.  I will not juggle anything else—only those three things.

When I come to Bishkek to work, I live in someone else’s apartment—never the same apartment, it depends on who, in the network of friends and relatives of my co-workers, needs the money.  This time I’m on the fifth floor of a Soviet-style building, which could be any building in the city—no elevators, uneven stairs, the smell of cooking mutton in the stairwell.

For these three weeks, the owner and her family have moved in with a relative in the same complex–one building over.  There are three buildings, all five stories high, all facing a common yard.  The yard is dirt with a swing-set and a few benches.

“It’s not going to be that clean,” Zina says.  “They’re Kyrgyz.”

Zina’s Kyrgyz but she calls herself a marginal.  She blames the uncleanliness on the Kyrgyz’ nomadic ways.  Zina is my interpreter and friend.  She found this apartment for me.  The apartment belongs to someone she knows, but the connection is never made clear.  I will pay forty dollars a night to stay here, and after three weeks, the owner will have enough money to take care of her large extended family for months.  The owner will owe Zina a favor—the Kyrgyz accounting system Zina calls it.

Continue reading »

Dec 232010
 

dawnraffelDawn Raffel. Photo by bill hayward.

I discovered Dawn Raffel through her stories in The Brooklyn Rail. But then I heard her read at The Brooklyn Rail anniversary reading and that sealed the deal. Here is a piece from her memoir in vignettes, The Secret Life of Objects. She has a short story collection Further Adventures in the Restless Universe (see the amazing book video at the bottom of the post) just out with Dzanc Books earlier this year, and she is also the author of Carrying the Body and In the Year of Long Division. It’s a pleasure to be able to present her work to NC readers.

(The photo was taken by bill hayward, part of his Bad Behavior project. Coincidentally, bill took the author photo for my novel The Life and Times of Captain N. The Bad Behavior project, as I understand it, consisted of giving subjects—artists of various sorts all—a huge sheet of backdrop paper and a bucket of black paint and letting them act out. The results were/are amazing. See above. See some of the photos on his web site, or buy the book. Hell, buy everyone’s book! It’s Christmas.)

dg

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The Moonstone Ring

My future husband bought the ring in India in 1981 with the idea that he would give it to the woman he married.  Besides, he said, when he presented me with the ring in 1984, it was only $15. The ring is silver with a moonstone flanked by blue gems. It was not my engagement ring—that was a quarter-carat perfect diamond. Anyway, the moonstone ring was too large. My fingers at the time were a child-sized four.

I took the ring to be sized. During the three days it was at the jeweler’s, the 400-square foot apartment my future husband and I had just bought together in Chelsea was burglarized, and my jewelry, including the few pieces I owned that had belonged to my grandmother, was stolen. All I had left was my engagement ring, which was on my hand, and the moonstone ring in the shop.

In a few months, I also had a wedding band, and over the years my husband bought me jewelry, in part to make up for what I had lost. I rarely wore the moonstone—even properly sized, it seemed too big, too serious. Years went by; we moved from one apartment to another and out of Manhattan and had children.  The diamond fell out of my engagement ring, never to be found, though the kids had a field day looking for it, pulling the cushions off furniture, sifting through the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag. I took off that ring with its empty prongs and thought about wearing the moonstone in its stead but by now, my knuckles had thickened and the ring was too small. So I returned it to the jeweler to be made bigger, only to be told it could not be sized again without destroying it.

The ring sat in my top drawer for more than a decade.  During this time, a man in our small town opened a jewelry booth inside the liquor and soda store across from the takeout pizza joint, and I would occasionally browse while I waited for the kids’ slices to heat. One day I was looking at a pair of earrings when someone dropped off a ring to be sized. “Do you do that?” I said. “Sometimes,” he said. I brought in the moonstone-and-blue-gem ring and he looked at it and said he thought he could enlarge it, despite what the more established jeweler had told me. Sure enough, he did.

So now, 29 years after my husband brought the ring from India, I wear it next to my wedding band. Those sapphires, the jeweler said, with some surprise, are real. The band slides over my knuckle and the ring fits fine.

—Dawn Raffel

See another  excerpt in The Brooklyn Rail.

YouTube Preview Image

 

 

 

 

Dec 212010
 

 Jay-Eckman

Once upon a time, sermons were a vibrant literary form, not to be forgotten.  This is a Christmas sermon delivered by my friend Rev. John Ekman (we once or twice went downhill skiing together, now we meet at the gym from time to time) five years ago at his church in Saratoga Springs, New York. John often  preaches from “extended notes” or thought points, but this Christmas sermon is the full written out version (for an example of the thought points alone, see a second sermon which I have appended below).

I use “extended notes,”…what you received is what I would call FULL text. Some preachers go from memory…I can do that for a short piece but not for 12-15 minutes. I usually go on the shorter side: “The mind can not absorb what the butt cannot tolerate.” Other preachers would read their sermon from a text like I have sent you. And others (that would be me) use notes where “the unnecessary words” have been taken out and the speaker is left to supply verbs/adjectives, etc. My method allows me to take a quick look at a “section” and then make eye contact with the congregation as I have then “re-memorized” a short script.  I’ll send you an e.g. and you can pretty much tell what I am saying just by looking at key words and supplying your own connectors.

John’s text reads as a kind of poetic argument. His mix of typographical emphasis and parentheticals is rhetorical, meant to be spoken; it reminds me of the essays of the Black Mountain poet Charles Olson (see “On Projective Verse”). John’s message is earthy, comic and highly political, but political in the way the Old Testament prophets were political, critics of their own culture and time, critics of the effete and useless rich and their shallow piety. His socially engaged Christianity seems a far cry from the family values Christianity we hear about on Fox-News.

For another example of a sermon at NC, see Hilary Mullins “Hear My Call“.

dg

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“We Feed Horses in the Hopes that the Lowly Sparrows Might (eventually) Benefit.”

(Luke 1: 47-55, Is. 61:1-4, 8-11.)

A sermon by the Rev. John Ekman, Presbyterian/New England Congregational Church, Saratoga Springs

 

I. Folks who run ad campaigns know that they’ve got to change the message and rework the images, or in the case of the lottery alter the game in order to keep interest up. Failure to update for public consumption means death to the product. Buick tried this with “It’s not your mother’s Buick.” [Of course it--still--was your mother’s Buick!] The NYS lottery has gone with King Kong. I guess there’s not much marketing value in the Lion King.

II. In matters of our faith story there is a danger (actually a severe danger) that by growing so familiar with the Biblical images the message loses its power to change and transform us. The meaning of the story becomes lost in the mundane commonality. “Frankly: we’ve  {just} heard THAT story too many times.”

III. The FACT is that our biblical faith is pretty radical stuff. In fact the Bible ought to come with a warning, “Dangerous to your sense of well being and comfort.” The Bible should say, “Use with caution. Drink plenty of water if you believe you’ve ingested too much of this product.” The Bible story should be toxic to our common assumptions and it should actually alter our understandings of life.

IV. Take Mary’s song in Luke. The Magnificat, when set to music is a wonderfully artistic creation. BUT look at the words! Radical. Totally disquieting and discomforting. If you live in poverty in the third world you can find solace and hope. We, you—I—the very comfortable—should be dismayed!

“Pull down princes from their thrones. Exalt the lowly. The hungry go away full…the full empty.” OUCH! There are lots of refugees along the Gulf Coast or in Darfur or in Gaza who will have trouble putting food on the table. What are we planning for Christmas dinner?  “Please pass the stuffing—again.”

When we actually read the text and really seek to comprehend the meaning, the lovely notes of the Magnificat should fade into unabridged message of terror.

V. Let’s move on to Isaiah. Surely, we say, it cannot be worse than Mary’s song? Jesus got into big trouble reading this passage in his home town. I reckon if you’re a prophet you ought to be from somewhere else! Isaiah’s story says:  “Gods spirit is upon me. Good news to the poor. I mend the brokenhearted. I free the captives. I hate robbery. I love justice. I despise all wrong. This is the year of the Lord’s favor.”

VI. Actually the year of Jubilee (or the year of the Lord’s favor) never did happen as Biblically stated. It was too radical! Supposedly the year of Jubilee was a time when all debts were to be cancelled…the land returned to the original owners…and the entire society would start over again. The slate would be cleaned. Life, hope, opportunity and promise would all be renewed. Jesus said, “This time is now!” That’s radical stuff!!

For us this should be another Biblical OUCH! In the year of Jubilee your credit card debt would be cancelled—I guess that is good news for lots of Americans. But it is only momentary good news! The Biblical finger is always pointing (back) at us. Let’s face it, our comfort pretty much comes at the expense and discomfort of others!

We like cheap lettuce. Our salads come on the backs of underpaid, illegal, stoop labor. [If we do not understand that practical lettuce growing business truth…we aren’t paying attention.]

VII. I’ve got to be honest. This is not the Christmas message that I (or you) came to hear. We like bright lights, expectant children, familiar hymns and family gatherings. That is what Christmas is all about! We prefer the comfortable and dulled familiarity to the conscience prodding awareness of God’s searing truths.

VIII. The birth of Jesus is about a Jew so radical that he had to be murdered. The wonderful children’s pageant of today ends with the agony of Good Friday. Conspiracy and state killing was the only rational protection of the status quo. And Jesus said, “It is finished.”

IX. My reading of the Bible leads me to believe that God actually cares about ALL people. God wants ALL creatures made in the divine image to have a chance to achieve the fullness of their humanity. In the end this desire of God is good for us! Society and the world benefits when ALL are able and encouraged to contribute.

Who knows what discoveries and inventions lie unearthed because millions of human minds are wasted, ignored, starved or murdered?  BUT advantage and opportunity tend to flow up—not down the social ladder.

X. Today there are vast chasms between the rich and the poor, between those lacking opportunity and those having it all. This bodes ill for society’s and the world’s long term health and viability. In the end we need each other healthy and contributing…not angry and destroying.

XI. Most often politicians come from the privileged classes. Our laws and tax breaks benefit thems that has. This is not in the long term good of our nation…but it is the “way of the world.” What’s common in politics is not the way of Jesus. It is not the radical Christmas message!

XII. Let me speak personally. Kristen has worked very hard to get where she is. We are proud of her. She has spent lots of time studying for written exams and oral medical boards, when her friends were out doing pleasant whatever. Kristen also has parents who know the value of education and are willing to sacrifice to do what is good for their children. [Lots of you feel the same about your kids. Your experience and pride echoes Judy’s and mine.]

XIII. Let’s be honest. Few of us, including Kristen (or our John or Wendy) got where they are by their own efforts. We all had parents or teachers or employers or friends who were looking out for us, giving us recommendations or opening doors. Most people do not have that advantage. In today’s North America the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and lots of folks who think they are in the middle class—aren’t!

Trickle down economics really says, “Lets feed the horses and hope that the lowly sparrows eventually find nourishment in what the horses leave behind on the road.” It doesn’t happen. There are too few horses and far too many sparrows, and what flows from the rich doesn’t bring employment to those below.

XIV. Think about the scriptures today. Why should the rich get a tax break they don’t need so that other folks can do without? Among well moneyed special interest groups in the DC beltway you get the perception that the “Greedy are needy and the needy are greedy.” We feed the horses and hope that the lowly sparrows benefit from the droppings.

XV. This is not the story you came here today to hear! We like our spirits lifted at Christmas time. Bright lights, expectant children, familiar hymns, the gathering of family. But the Christmas story is so much more than that. The story is about God’s justice and inclusion. Think of Mary’s song and Isaiah. Theirs is a story about God’s passion for the poor. It is a radical story that ends with (a) murder.

AMEN

[This sermon was preached in Christmas of 2005.]

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{just} Sit and Wait

A sermon based on James 5:4 to 10

I. Don’t talk drive. Judy retaliates doing crafts/word puzzles. Lately “talking books.”  Bought two ½ price Rocky River. One good—one really bad. One good : “Jesus Dynasty,” B. scholar Jim Tabor.

When knee jerk think early Christianity=PAUL. After-all 7/14 letters to churches NT written by him. Moved serious antagonist to chief protagonist for faith.  Much pop thought dominated character Paul. BUT theme “Jesus dynasty” basically members Jesus immediate family REALLY took over nascent movement/ from Jerusalem guided through early years following Jesus’ death.

Story/scholarship worth $3 change cost me—better $9 spent Victor Frankle.

II. According Tabor: “Jesus dynasty” JAMES written by THE James: brother of Jesus/ first leader of church/among first thrown off tall building/beaten death club or stoned -courage lead  viewed “power” unpopular/threatening movement. JAMES (good Jews was) stresses two “faith issues.” ONE became unpopular w. later Jesus followers…OTHER been constant theme.

III. First-the somewhat unpopular/always contentious. (P) For Jews (acting on best beliefs) faith incorporated ACTION.   Judaism at best not so much “proper belief” as “ right action.” [Not lot heresy trials among Jews.]

IV. TORAH doc. be lived…not set ideals spoken of sanctimonious/warm tones. (P)  Letter JAMES not easily favored candidate admission to our Christian NT. (P)  Martin Luther “Justification by FAITH—not works” called JAMES “epistle of straw.”…JAMES talking justification/getting rt. w. God by works!

I-AS many you-like JAMES.  (P)  “ FAITH W/O WORKS IS DEAD.”   OR You say you have faith….show me your faith apart from your works….by my works…I show my faith.” (P) Makes sense. (P)  For me: concrete/real…actual parameters of action by which give life to my faith.

V. JAMES second strain DID into Christianity. (P) THEOL. HOPE end times. In hard times/Jews felt “couldn’t get worse” HOPE attached God’s arr. kingdom. [Much lesser feeling—like frustration w. inability Washington “do right thing” –esp. when that “right” complex not easily agreed on. Need God come down straighten mess out!]

VI. Read B. hist.—look US today…”more change-more stay same.” ARE people conscience who wealth—{also} lot people “live very very well” seem feel NO sense social obligation (except themselves-expanded extravagance own comfort.) JAMES no stranger prophetic diatribe: “ Laborers mowed your fields—you cheated them. It you condemned innocent-killing them.”  {More change-more remain same!}

VI. That desperate context 1st C. hoped “Kingdom of God.” (P)  James says, “Wait for Lord’s coming.” God’s REFORMATION ACTION  in REAL time/Kingdom happen on this earth…maybe {even} Jesus thought happen before all disciples died.

VII. Worked sermon struck me “juxtaposition.” One hand JAMES: Faith-works go together…so get out there and work. Other hand {almost} passive waiting for God make things right.

VIII. Read Middle East-much Jewish political analysis. Piece Falk-Jewish/UN official Gaza typical. Realize Israel estab. fact. Real people live there. Realize pressure among Jews for Israel’s creation came Western/Christian violent anti-Semitism. Way too many Christians sat hands/lent hands to Hitler’s diabolical efforts.

IX. Whether giving Jews homeland in “land cousins” wise—open question. [Many State Dept. time wondered wisdom!] What’s interesting—ORTHODOX JEWS felt “faith depended” God set time tables Jewish return/Jewish safety.” (P) Any human effort estab. state w. political-armed means betrayal faith in God.

X. JAMES (is Jewish) similar bent. Reminds “patience Job” {wasn’t very patient till first-last part booked added}…counsels same quiet/purposeful waiting for real/structural change-come on God’s time.

I. Today two extremes. Bumper Sticker: “Don’t worry God’s in Control,”—lead social irresponsibility: Global warming no big deal—God take care of it.  (P) Other extreme (I happier w.) “God no hands but ours.” (P) We created in God’s image. Have capacity love/care. Estimate future consequences; sense what works-doesn’t…AND {an} enlightened conscience should tell us “what’s obviously fair.”

II. Neglecting laborers (white collar workers) mow fields…firing them/denying fair wage/excluding medical care/taking away HOPE so “few” obscenely richer—neither fair nor safe for society.  Recipe misery-disaster.

III. Question is: Do wait patiently Lord—as James says JOB did?  OR is our responsibity: DO faith-take action-human good/social well being? (P) Obviously I have my opinion… AMEN.

[This sermon was delivered Dec 12, 2010]

—John Ekman

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Dec 202010
 

C. M. Mayo is a former-student-turned-old-friend. We met years ago when I taught at the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute at Skidmore College. She was working on a story collection called Sky over El Nido which eventually won the 1999 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She is a tremendous story writer, a travel writer, a translator, editor and novelist as well as an indefatigable teacher of writing. She is from northern California but has lived much of her adult life in Mexico and Washington. A visionary publisher, she started her own magazine, Tameme, specializing in translation of writing in English into Spanish and vice versa, an amazing cross-border cultural and literary project.  This excerpt is from her historical novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, named a Best Book of 2009 by the Library Journal. Based on a true story, the novel focuses on the heartbreak and tragedy of a half-Mexican, half-American toddler adopted by Mexico’s childless Emperor Maximilian and his wife Carlota. Maximilian was a hapless Austrian archduke parachuted into Mexico in the 1860s to stop the endless series of revolving-door governments, revolutions and social chaos. Even as things begin to go badly, Maximilian refuses to give the child back to his parents. Eventually, Carlota goes mad, and Maximilian is shot by firing squad. And the child…? Read the book.

dg

from The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire

By C. M. Mayo

 

March 4, 1866:  RÍO FRÍO

The Belgians had enjoyed their visit to Mexico City immensely. Although it had not gone unremarked (feathers had been ruffled) that Maximilian had remained in Cuernavaca, and that certain senior French officers had not attended the entertainments, in all, they judged their mission a success. They were proud of Charlotte— their own princess— “swan of our Old World gifted to the New,” as one of their members toasted her, after having imbibed a few too many cups of champagne (and made some tasteless remarks about ‘our ginger-colored protegés.’) Also, they had seen an exotic land; they’d had a true-blue adventure and their steamer trunks and valises were crammed with the souvenirs to prove it. Of the delegation, no single member was more satisfied, more inspired, more, well, overflowing with joie de vivre about the whole thing than Baron Frédéric Victor d’Huart.

An intimate friend and officier d’ordonnance of Charlotte’s brother, Philippe, Duke of Flanders, Baron d’Huart might have been described as dashing had he not developed a paunch and double chin. Since departing Ostend in late January, he had been unable to follow his regime of fencing and hunting. The crossing had been brutal. For days, frigid gales had tossed the ship like a firkin in a tub; some feared they’d be shipwrecked off the Azores. Unlike the others, confined to their cabins with nausea, Baron d’Huart, who often joked that he must have had Viking blood, had gone on eating and drinking without pause.

By the time they docked in Veracruz, he had consumed prodigious quantities of foie gras, bonbons, and champagne. And in Mexico, well, was there anything more delicious than a humble taco of beans with this marvelous sprig of an herb called the epazote? And he indulged in the candies— dulces de cacahuates, the cigar-shaped camotes, lime-skins stuffed with sugared lard, and the almond nougat “buttons” soaked in honey— baskets of candies had been left in his quarters, replenished each day. At the farewell dinner at Chapultepec Castle, under his cummerbund, he’d had to leave the waist of his trousers undone.

The round of balls and dinners had been intense. All of the Belgians, and especially Baron d’Huart, had been limp with relief to finally get out of court dress: the coats bristling with decorations and epaulettes, the clanking swords, the hats with feathers. This morning, for this first leg of the journey home, he’d thrown on his roomiest breeches and favorite deer-skin jacket.

He is riding up top with the driver, who wears a sombrero with the circumference of a buggy-wheel. Baron d’Huart had started out wearing his sombrero— a loosely woven one, not so big as the driver’s but the biggest they had in that labyrinth of an Aztec market— but once the coach had climbed to altitude and the air turned chilly, he’d exchanged it for the poppy-red cap he wore for grouse hunting in the autumn.

It is late; their coach has just departed from the inn at Río Frío. The sun having fallen behind the trees, the road is bathed in the blue shadow of the brief, disconcertingly brief Mexican twilight. Baron d’Huart throws his shoulders back and fills his lungs with the pine-scented air.

Que fresco,” How fresh, he says, eager to practice his Spanish on his companion.

The driver, throwing his lash, makes no reply.

Continue reading »

Dec 182010
 

Darryl Whetter is a poet, story writer, essayist, novelist, scholar and book reviewer—a man of letters. He’s also a politician—ran as a Green Party candidate in the last Canadian federal election. He has published a story collection, A Sharp Tooth in the Fur, and a novel, The Push & the Pull, of which dg wrote: “Darryl Whetter’s The Push & the Pull is a brash, vibrant, melancholy, sexy, and finally uplifting book about a mesmerizing father, the son who can’t tear himself away, and the women who make them grow up. Whetter is intoxicated with language. He writes like a dream in a quick, urbane, and witty style. His women are gorgeous independent creatures; his men are large and infuriating; and when love happens it’s explosive, passionate, and grand. A lovely first novel.” These poems are from a new manuscript (others have been published, see links at the bottom) that orbits around the grand themes of evolution, plate tectonics, the slow rhythms of geological change, and the vast throw of history from the beginning of things.

—dg

 

Spiral Jetty

 

art lost, fed
into the land,
a basalt fiddlehead
curled into Utah’s ruddy
Great Salt Lake.
a whirlpool of rock stopped
in salt water so algae-dense,
the colour of blood one year,
rosé the next

a 1500’ coil of entropy,
nearly 7000 tons
of indifferent rock
laid in a drought.
loaders and dump trucks
the size of (brief) dinosaurs

then water levels rose again,
reclaimed your boiling
curve, made it a briny Brigadoon,
unseen Atlantis of the salts.
an intentional fossil

or John Cage’s
Organ2/ASLSP (as slow as possible)
a constant drone
half hum half
squeal in patient
German air. art
slid into the time capsule
now Joggins. with the wide
stage of your rock
beach and mud flats, the wet
curtain of your twice daily tides
you can offer
intertidal art to the world,
make a fossil
among the found


Continue reading »

Dec 172010
 

gary-in-stars

Here’s a fine poem (with appropriate photo accompaniment) by Gary Moore, poet & playwright. Gary’s play Burning in China, about his experience teaching in China at the time of the Tiananmen massacre, had a two-week soldout run the New York Theater Workshop’s 4th Street Theater in August. It’s a pleasure to publish his work here.

dg

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WHAT I WANT

To walk home singing to the stars
Their tipsy light not enough to show the way
But more than I need to know I’ve got to belt it
Cry it
Break it open and pour all that love up so high
Up so high Oh my girls in hoop skirts
That no human can down it
And look: the fires tiny and grand standing far in the dark
The way they called us as children
Charged our hearts with our lovers on bridges at night
Lit our orphan’s cold way from our mother’s dead hand
And now heedlessly whirling their immovable waltzes
Bright with blessings we give them to give us again and again
They say, Make it home lover, make it home and come back
The way we will tomorrow
Scattered in the black and ashine with immortal light

—Gary Moore

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Dec 162010
 

Here’s a lovely “What it’s like living here” piece from Robin Oliveira, former dg student, Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA graduate, winner of the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and author of the novel My Name is Mary Sutter. See Robin’s amazing book tour diary published earlier on these pages.

For a complete list of “What it’s like living here” texts, click here.

dg

What it’s like living here

By Robin Oliveira on Cougar Mountain, just outside Seattle

You live on Cougar Mountain, the first mountain on the right as you leave Seattle. The children—your reason for moving to the mountain—have moved out, and yet you cling to the house in which you raised them, unable to let go of the memories. Cougar Mountain hovers between wilderness and civilization. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night to yapping coyotes surrounding and terrifying some poor mammal they then eat. Before they die, the animals cry, a sound so human you leap from your bed and peer out the window. Black bears sprawl on the hillside behind your house, watching passing cars. Startled deer wander in the former meadows houses now occupy. They seem puzzled, these animals, incapable of altering their patterns in the face of encroachment. One day, on a bike ride, you gut out the steep climb from Puget Sound to the top of Magnolia, a hill long ago urbanized. A cougar has been spotted in the park, where for days, the fields of tawny grass camouflage him. You wonder what ancient memory has led him back into the city. You are sad when the park rangers capture the animal. Where do they take it? You don’t know. Maybe to your mountain, where the historical society exhibits pictures of the old days, when men hunted cougar for sport, then hung them upside down and posed beside them. Another day, flames shoot above the red cedar and Douglas fir behind your house. You turn on all the hoses and water the roof while your husband and neighbor attempt to douse the advancing fire. The flames lick thirty feet high; you breathe smoke; embers fall onto your shoulders and into your hair. Then the fire trucks arrive and unleash a spray of white foam that in two minutes extinguishes the blaze.

Now that the children are gone, you have all day every day to work. In your office, you turn on a sun light to ward off S.A.D., seasonal affective disorder, which struck you down about the middle of the nineties, fifteen years into your interment under the drizzly menace that is the Pacific Northwest sky. With the fake sunlight bathing your retinas, you write. Ten thousand luxes a day are the prescription for your well-being—about thirty minutes worth—but you indulge and keep the light on all day. When the real sun breaks from behind the clouds, you play hooky. Microsoft money has littered the mountain with mansions of ridiculous dimension, but you climb on the paths above them, through preserved corridors of wilderness, where it is still possible to meet a cougar or a lone coyote, so you carry a stick. You climb until you see the fingerling glacial lakes that strike northward and the snow-topped Cascade Mountains, coolly indigo against the eastern sky. To the west, the Olympic Mountains shimmer jagged against the western horizon. If you had a pair of binoculars, you could see the Space Needle floating beneath them.

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Dec 152010
 

 

Herewith a novella by my old friend Christopher Noel. Chris was teaching at Vermont College when I arrived (eons ago). He was something of a young legend  with a dramatic and melancholy past who could move an audience to tears or laughter when he read. In my mind, he will always be part of that place, especially Noble Lounge, packed with students and faculty, the condensation dripping off the windows, winter outside, and Chris. It’s a pleasure to publish his work here and remind us all of old times.

—dg

/
 

This is my last word on the subject. I guess you could call it a kind of affidavit, if what I witnessed so long ago still falls under the category of crime.

Today is Maggie’s birthday−she’d have been sixty-five−and my daughters have stepped away briefly from their own lives and families to travel here; for the first time in years, it’s just the three of us. We’re having a quiet day, forced inside by rain, eating well, talking about the distant past, trying to conjure their mother, getting distracted by our pleasure in the now. We don’t even look at old photos, because that routine has felt played out long since. To celebrate their arrival last night, I made a vegetable beef stew, very ambitious cooking for me, and now we’re emptying that pot for lunch. Freya and I sip red wine, but Justine, pregnant with her third child, only water.

“So, Dad, you going to jump right on that report this afternoon?” Freya asks me, winking broadly and reaching for a slice of rye bread. “Or should we throw you in the Homework Slammer?” She wears her brown hair clipped short these days, and last spring she and her husband finally went for Lasik surgery, so she looks more different than ever from her twin, who keeps her signature blue-framed glasses and hair halfway down her back.

How constantly surprising they are to me, my girls, and I don’t mean because of their beauty and their gifts, though I confess I’ve never quite gotten used to all that, either, and must hand all credit to one Margaret Ellen Hutchins. I mean instead their immunity to self-pity; I also mean their perfect knowledge of me and the light touch with which they apply it. If I become, for instance, as I often do, maudlin and self-indulgent about my past and my solitary lot in life, one of them will laugh, “Grind it finer, Dad. Grind it finer,” while the other will beam a compassionate silence that lets me hear more clearly my own sorry tone. They’ll both look at me in a way, from a particular angle, that rules out pity at the same time as it takes my troubles more seriously, strikes nearer my center, than pity ever could. They are simply with me, these women, more than anyone else on Earth. More even than Maggie, my once and only wife, who has not merely faded over time, which I expected, but has continued to fade, gaining momentum.

“I know,” I tell Freya, “I did promise myself I’d write the thing today.” And I promised Professor Claude Estes, historian of science and medicine at the University of Oklahoma. How he dug up my name I’ll never know, but for the past seven years he’s been working on a book that argues for the existence of the White Center, a place that the years have elevated—or demoted—to the status of myth. The professor insists my perspective is indispensable, which I do not doubt. The book’s completion, apparently, awaits only my reluctant chronicle.

“And it’s not exactly procrastination weather,” Justine points out, clinking glasses with Freya and me. She double-palms her swelling belly and yawns, the theoretical notion of procrastination leading smoothly into the concrete tug of an afternoon nap.

In the matter of this project, the girls have surprised me once again. I frankly thought they’d recoil when I finally informed them, this morning, about Estes’s exposé. Instead, the news hit them like a kind of external ratification, as if up till now our experience in Honduras might have been a three-way figment. Freya even held up her wrist to show us the small, pearly scar from the spider monkey attack.

Before she waddles off down the hall to the same bedroom she slept in as a girl, Justine clears away the lunch plates and Freya sets my laptop before me, flips it open, turns it on, announces, “Yes, it’s into the Slammer for you now, Dad. Make it happen. Make us famous!” Then they both cruelly absent themselves, Freya borrowing my car keys with a sly smile and roaring off toward town.

Thirty-seven years ago, our first date began with a nervous Italian dinner at which I downed far too much Chianti and pasta pugliese. Maggie and I then made the lucky mistake of attending a film called Daughters of the Dust that featured people living on a South Carolina island who still speak Gullah, an African dialect. They speak it on the beach; they speak it on front porches; they emit lengthy monologues; they speak it on the hoods of old cars. Mostly, it is plaintive women. The movie, as I recall, has no particular plot except for the speaking of Gullah; they often speak it up in trees, at dusk.

After maybe forty minutes, I began to lose consciousness, but when I noticed Maggie’s head bobbing around, too, I got to giggling at her struggle. We hung in there for another ten or fifteen minutes, sort of enjoying the challenge and feeling like a team, but when yet another speech got underway—this time inside a gently swaying dinghy—we agreed to abandon ship. I was nearest the aisle so led the way. The theater was very dark, so I didn’t realize at first what my kneecap had connected with so hard, the head of a sleeping man, pitched backward over his seat. “Ow—Ow…OW!” The gentleman rose to confront me, hand pasted to the back of his skull. I apologized profusely, of course, and, still dazed, he allowed us to slink away.

It was during coffee afterward, as we reminisced already about our Bonnie and Clyde past and then Maggie began to talk about teaching, that I encountered, as though for the first time, the mind/body distinction. As in a parlor trick, her obvious physical qualities receded into an illusory shimmer while her mind took center stage and said, Ta Da! As she spoke, I watched her brown eyes shifting intricately and decided that they formed a dialect the very opposite of Gullah and that they were simply loaded with plot, with consequence. She told me, for example, why she liked to read Greek mythology aloud to her eighth-graders. “If kids hear a three-thousand-year-old story and can point to classmates whose personalities match those of the characters in the story, that’s a giant first step. Or say a girl can recognize her own power over guys in the stare of Medusa, she might be a little less likely to think she just invented it.”

“And get carried away?”

“Exactly right, Stephen. She can possibly get a glimmer of a humbling context, not become so…sort of…drunk on herself, so distracted.”

Speaking of humbling context, I soon lost any confidence I may have accrued during twenty-eight years on the planet. While Maggie picked at a slice of pecan pie, I expanded on some point having to do, I think, with the minimum wage and tried not to notice how the parlor trick now neatly reversed itself—her sweet, distracting contours rushing back into the spotlight. The more I mourned my chances of ever glimpsing, without a telescope, this woman without her clothes, the more I wished I were yammering in Gullah; at least then it wouldn’t be entirely the fault of my mind when, any second, she’d begin again to nod off.

As I described it later to my friend Nathan, I felt I had been struck in the head by a pillowcase filled with concrete and feathers. “Mixed?” he said. “No,” I said, “both simultaneously. Like it’s full of concrete, and then on the other hand it’s full of feathers, the softest down.” “Oh, that’s real logical.” Nathan didn’t feel this way about his girlfriend.

In Maggie’s car that same evening, however, she took mercy. I still have no idea how it could have happened. She leaned in to me and squinted as if assessing some lesser figure from myth. “Oh, I think this one likes to kiss.” “You don’t say,” I answered. “It’s true!” she said, and then she proved it.




Now, through the lens of the professor’s book about the White Center, what I have written suddenly humiliates me.

Grind it finer, Daddy.




The events in question are thirty years past. I will do my best to stick only to the facts as I experienced them. I will try not to get side-tracked by irrelevant material.

It was the stormy spring of 2001, plentiful with water spouts, and I had just received my degree in Business Administration from the University of South Florida. My wife Maggie was pregnant with twins and felt so cooped up by the weather that whenever we could, we took walks along the beach. Often we could observe, far out to sea, those slender cyclones cruising silently back and forth. Maggie once said, “Look, Zeus is stealing from Poseidon,” and so I had to tease her for sounding pretentious. But sometimes the sun would come in at just the right angle and turn a spout silver, and then even I could not help seeing metaphysical significance. We took it personally, accepting the grace of our days.

The day of the suspicious sonogram, however, the world held no such displays, only a low ceiling of gunmetal gray and a surging surf that kept dashing our ankles. We’d just come from the doctor, who informed us that now three objects competed for space inside Maggie’s abdomen, the two fetuses and a dark mass attached to the wall of her stomach. Since she was due to give birth in just five weeks, the decision was made that whatever the results of the biopsy, surgery must be postponed.

The mass turned out to be malignant, my wife was induced ten days early, Freya and Justine arrived flawless and pink, the mass was removed, and for more than four years, cancer became as mythical in our minds as Poseidon, Zeus, and Medusa.

I had taken a job as liaison officer at a large ecotourism concern in downtown Miami. We put together packages to Central and South America, and so I was always winging off to one pristine site or another to reinforce existing good will or to forge new company ties.

Three times already, I’d taken my family to Belize, just a seventy-minute flight southwest, where we’d begun to establish favorite family haunts in the island town of San Pedro, with its streets made of talc-fine dust; emerald water; bulky land crabs everywhere underfoot; iguanas hiding motionless on palm trunks; an open-air arcade that the girls called “The Catch-It Place,” where among other games children could win a prize by tossing a rubber ball to a spider monkey twenty feet away accurately enough for him to catch it, if he was in the mood; and, on our latest visit, a seven-year-old boy named Ernesto who kept a blue heron behind his family’s cinder-block house, the bird standing much taller than himself. Freya asked if she could touch it, Justine hanging back, but the boy shook his head, and pantomimed a broken arm.

When I got the phone call I was in Quito suffering from altitude sickness. Maggie’s voice was twice-muffled, by distance and by my clogged eustachian tubes, and she put the news across flatly. When I stumbled through the door nine hours later, it was her five girlfriends who greeted me, explaining that she’d taken several Ativan and conked out. They cried with me in the kitchen, and this brought my daughters downstairs, blinking and insulted by light. I carried them back to their beds and succeeded in placing the focus on my early homecoming and my pleasure in holding them. Freya asked why I’d been crying, and I said, “Because I’m just so happy to see my girls, that’s why.” Though they are “identical,” her hair is slightly darker than Justine’s—even today, at thirty-five—and she’s got more of her mother’s jaw line, too, sharper, bone nearer the surface, whereas Justine came away with my lower lip, how it curls down a bit, not the whole thing, like a pout, just at the rim between red and non-red skin. “But you never cried before,” Justine pointed out, taking up the baton, “sep when you go ‘way.” And so I had to admit she was absolutely right, that she and her sister had caught me and scored big points. They applauded themselves in the dark.

By the time I returned to the kitchen, Maggie had joined her friends at the table and was picking at a drumstick of cold Kentucky Fried Chicken, face hanging close to the plate. Looking up, she seemed for a moment almost embarrassed to see me, then snapped out of it when I rushed her. Now it was her friends’ turn to feel awkward, and they faded into the living room, Sandra taking the greasy white bucket.

“The doctors know a lot yet, Stephen,” she said when she could get her mouth clear of my chest. It was the same thing she’d told me over the phone, and that during her annual MRI, spots had shown up on her liver. She now specified, “They found six spots on my liver.” Her words were so slurred by the tranquilizers that at first I heard “sex pots.”

“I know, Maggie, I know. We’ll talk more in the morning.”

“Who even really believes they have a liver?” I tried to lead her toward the stairs, but she broke free and wove toward the living room, where Sandra thrust a chicken breast into my hand, a gesture that seemed crass for two seconds and then quite ingenious. The crunchy food tasted like round salvation.




Seven months later, we left our oncologist’s office with nothing at all, nothing but one word, “riddled,” which struck us both, sitting petrified in the car, as appropriate—yes, we’d been handed a riddle, and it boiled down to another single word: “What?”

The previous week, our girls had turned five. “Mommy’s gun be jus’ fine,” Freya had announced, balancing on her head a newly unwrapped model dolphin she’d picked out down in Belize. The group of neighborhood children nodded blankly at her.

Maggie rolled open her window and asked me to drive to the beach. She removed her wig so the breeze could blow dry her fuzzy, sweaty scalp. When we passed by a Dumpster, she asked me to slow down and then tossed the wig into it. Freya had hated the thing because it was lighter than Maggie’s real hair, making Justine instead look more like Mommy.

At the beach, our thinking came back to life by shifting to a more manageable riddle: “How are we going to tell them?” Maggie listed against me, knee-deep in ocean foam, she paler than the foam, and so thin. Advances in chemotherapy had minimized nausea, but still the poisons didn’t exactly spur appetite. She’d lost thirty-eight pounds since starting the megadose treatments the day after Kentucy Fried Chicken. The body I had come to love even more after it produced our daughters, the same one Maggie had blamed for “going south,” for remaining soft in the middle and depriving her of her youth, had winnowed itself down now to that of an anorexic twelve-year-old.

“They’ll never understand it, of course,” I said. “No one would be able to absorb this, not even the wisest old person.”

She squatted into a sheet of incoming water and turned her bone-built face up to me; this meant she had to look almost directly into the sun, but she lacked the energy or heart to squint much; this made her seem to be flinching while trying not to flinch—a sort of default bravery frightening to behold. “Stephen, I can’t believe you said old person.”

“I know, Mag, I know.” I knelt to her level and she sat lower, but the water pulled away abruptly, excavating her sand and sending her lower still. “I knew it as soon as it came out.” I pulled her to her feet and we kept walking in the direction of our usual turn-around spot, a stone jetty about a mile down the beach. But after twenty-five yards she swung us back toward the parking lot. We had no words to fill the journey anyway, even if she’d had physical means. The sky was aggressively blue. Seagulls slid sideways on the air in order to confuse us about the nature of progress, crying out in their hollow burlesque of misery.




When the pilot of the little twin-engine plane unlatched and popped its door at the airstrip in San Pedro, Belize, we let the girls go ahead of us, watching them climb carefully backward down the aluminum steps, then turn to run, arms lifted into the plush afternoon air, through a shortcut they’d learned last time, a brief span of pebbles and sawgrass leading to a sunny side-street. Freya beat Justine by inches to the yellow hibiscus tree. They wore identical cornflower blue sun dresses that they called “our Pedro dress,” the only articles of clothing they permitted to match; Maggie’s new head scarf was the same color, which the girls found hilarious.

I helped my wife down the steps, then went back for her wheelchair, another new development. Unfolded, it held both rider and, in saddlebags, our light provisions. We’d had to get away from the draining sympathies of home, but planned to remain here on the island this time no longer than necessary, maybe a day or two, only until inspiration visited us with right language.

Ernesto’s blue heron was not in the yard anymore. Crushed, Freya and Justine held out hope that the bird was simply indoors, sleeping. The boy, having grown taller in just a few months, emerged from his home with a half-eaten russet mango in his hand and mimicked flight, then told me, “A veces regresa,” which I conveyed to my girls: “Sometimes, he comes back.”

The wheels of Maggie’s chair did poorly in the dust of Asuncion Street. As I pushed and yanked her toward our rented cabaña, land crabs clacked into view, still wary and militant after one hundred million years of survival, eyestalks tensile. In the past, Freya had often enjoyed taunting these creatures, to make them assume battle posture, to make herself feel mighty, to make her sister scream, but in the wake of Ernesto’s news both girls were now shaky and downcast. They’d been talking about the injured heron constantly for months, all through their mother’s diminishment.

There are land crabs in Peru as well, though these are sleeker and prowl the sidewalks in quick, tight battalions. I’d curtailed my travel schedule but could not suspend it. While in Lima recently, I’d learned from a magazine that scientists had unearthed a dinosaur skull high in the Andes that showed unmistakable signs of a brain tumor. An older man sitting nearby in the bar, with coarse gray hair and remarkably gentle eyes, apparently noticed the condition of my own face as I stared at the fossil’s photograph. He came over to join me, introduced himself as Elias San Jimel, a medical doctor, and then listened patiently to my description of Maggie’s illness, drawing information out with highly specific questions. After maybe fifteen minutes, I paused for breath and to finish my beer; he placed a hand on my shoulder and spoke quietly into my ear: “Occasionally, Señor Mills, we must look to nature with fresh eyes, without blinders. Believe me, the truth can go unrecognized for long centuries.” I nodded gravely, envisioning only the poor dinosaur. Then, San Jimel leaned back and invited me to attend a traditional midnight Mass with him in a little wooden church outside of town. I did so gratefully, laying aside for ninety minutes both my misery and my unbelief. I found the Latin liturgy, chanted in the middle of the night, strangely soothing.

A crab rushed Justine, its business claw extended, so I swept her up and she sobbed against me, at which point Maggie, frustrated, stood from her wheelchair and pulled it herself the rest of the way to our cabana, not far but leaving her spent and flat in bed for the rest of the day, in a haze of pills.




First thing in the morning, we reported to our traditional breakfast spot, a little pavilion at the end of a dock with palm-thatched roof and no walls. Everything seemed normal, except for the chair, bumping along the boards. Maria behind the counter was thrilled as ever to see the twins, and she lifted them one by one, plucked them each a banana from a bunch hanging on a hook. The tourists hadn’t discovered “Maria’s” yet, or didn’t like its limited accommodations; one had to perch on a bar stool or else sit at the edge of the dock itself. Occasionally, warm waves would cover our dangling feet and send miniature geysers up through knotholes in the wood around us. Today, though, the Caribbean was tranquil and we took our usual places, Maggie and I book-ending the two girls, all of us holding our paper bowls of egg-ham-and-pineapple jumble.

The water was so calm, in fact, that we could see right down through it to the bottom, maybe twelve feet deep, where scarlet fingerlings pecked at a pale dome of brain coral; a school of neon blue tetras shifted this way and that in unison, their silver bellies glinting at moments; among rocks dressed in swaying green vegetation, pygmy lobsters zipped backward and stopped to spar with each other; and a solitary clownfish—much larger and more poised than the rest, bright yellow with blue polka dots and an elongated, downsloping face that ended in a comically tiny mouth—described a square course, again and again, around an upright frond. Whenever a cloud passed over the sun, all this activity would disappear, and then the puffs of breeze were enough to chill us in our light jackets.

“Freya, Justine,” I said, and they looked up. “We have to tell you something about Mommy.” We’d finally worked out the words in the middle of the night, but Maggie said she couldn’t be the one. “She won’t,” I pronounced, “be able to stay with us much longer.”

They blinked. Freya nodded. Justine checked back with the fish at the bottom and then asked, “She’s gun go home without us?”

“No, see, you have to understand. When a person…” I strangled.

“I’m just too sick now, girls,” Maggie said, in strong voice, draping an arm over their shoulders. “I wish I could tell you something different. The doctors tried everything in the whole world, I promise you, I just didn’t get better, that’s all.”

Justine shrugged free of the arm and dumped her food into the ocean. Fingerlings rose to the surface and gulped grains of rice.

Freya had not stopped nodding. “You have to die,” she said matter-of-factly.

“That’s…yes, everybody has to—”

“Can we still go to The Catch-It Place today?”





That night, after seeing my family finally crumble into sleep, I slipped out and found a quiet nightclub, stationed myself at its dimmest corner table with a glass and a bottle of Jack Daniels. This had been the worst day of my life, worse even than the day last week when Maggie and I had heard “riddled,” because today we’d had to watch this same truth vanish harmlessly and then reappear a thousand times on the faces of our daughters. We’d kept them busy and fielded their questions so deftly and with such equilibrium that I half expected we’d be presented with an award from some anonymous and caring witness. For the first time in Freya’s life, the spider monkey in the arcade caught her throw but then flung the rubber ball back at her, and then the twins melted down, shrieking, sprinting out onto the white-bleached street and into the midst of a band of inebriated tourists laughing in Hawaiian shirts, reflector sunglasses, straw hats with plastic fruit dangling from the brims. When one of them, a girl in her twenties with a noise-maker in her hand, had patted Justine on the head and told her, “Hey, Kiddo, get back to me when you’ve got some real problems,” I understood that we were all alone.

After my third drink I began to feel…what? Not resignation exactly, but something like a sensation of being more firmly seated inside helplessness, as though I could learn eventually to be at home here.

A broody, middle-aged woman had been eyeing me since my arrival, and when she stood, approached, and asked to join me, I thought at first she was up to something slinky, something that, once she knew my circumstances, she’d cancel with mortified contrition. She introduced herself as Sylvina Urbana and I slid a chair out for her, preparing my bombshell with a certain relish. She lit a slim brown cigarette and dropped a bomb of her own, though I didn’t initially recall the name Elias San Jimel, not until she mentioned the midnight Mass in Lima. She herself was not a doctor but “una químico vascular,” a vascular chemist, and a colleague of Doctor San Jimel’s in Honduras. As soon as she stated this, I remembered that indeed the man had told me he was not Peruvian; he’d been in country for some conference.

“Sí, pues” she said, smiling, tweaking the flap of her ear with one hand and adjusting her rimless, oval spectacles with the other, “una clase de conferencia, muy coverta, para compartir información entre personas similares.”

An under-cover conference? I poured myself another drink and asked the woman how she’d found me, “y porqué?”

“Mira,”she said, taking a deep breath and starting to go again for that ear flap, but interrupting the gesture. “The doctor was much moved by your situation,” she continued, still in Spanish, “and we have been following your wife’s progress through our connections. You see, Señor Mills, we never intercede unless a patient is terminal. Our facility is located just three hundred and ten kilometers from here, in Honduras, and we exist for cases precisely like your…like Maggie’s.”

I was more than half drunk now, and her words had begun to take on a dreamlike cast, so I allowed myself to pretend I was in a movie. This was quite a relief. By her leave, I took and lit a cigarette, then, exhaling smoke, delivered a line with a straight face that the real Stephen Mills could never have pulled off—the Spanish equivalent of…“Okay, I’m listening.”

Sylvina didn’t crack a smile either. Our smoke mingled. I sensed that her life consisted of such cloak-and-dagger encounters, when, of course, she was not in pursuit of those pesky enigmas of vascular chemistry.

“You see, Señor Mills, we can cure her.”

The movie projector burned a hole through the celluloid and the film snapped. I pounded both fists on the table, knocking over my glass of whiskey and drawing hooded looks from throughout the club. But without alarm, my stranger-tormenter drew from her bag a cell phone, flipped it open, hit a single button, and handed me the unit, which I accepted because even an angry dog will sniff a sudden treat. The voice on the other end was that of Doctor Elias San Jimel.

Twenty-five minutes later, I snapped the phone shut and returned it to its owner across the table. I did not cry during the ensuing silence between me and Sylvina Urbana; I had already done so three times shamelessly on the line with the doctor, making him wait me out.

Back inside our cabaña, after floating there from the nightclub beneath searing constellations I could swear were fresh experiments, I sat and watched my three loved ones sleeping, trapped still inside the previous world, suffering under its old laws. If everything I’d heard tonight was true—which only meant, after all, that each of the medical procedures must be as feasible as advertised, as straightforward and, frankly, even modest—and if, then, the procedures could be performed in sequence within a world-class operating theater by surgeons who had apparently achieved the desired result so often it had come to seem routine, then as much as I resisted this conclusion out of fear of seduction, there was simply no room for doubt. Maggie could be saved.

As though she were beginning to suspect by osmosis her immanent reversal of fortune, my wife’s breathing sounded robust, heroic, yet against the pillow her head seemed connected to her body by a slender stalk, and her face, after the day we’d seen, after the year she’d been through, resembled that of a seventy-five-year-old, after a life. The skeletal contours of her body, under the sheet, reminded me absurdly of the morning three years earlier when Maggie had noticed in the mirror her first gray hair. “Oh, so it’s me, too,” she said.

Meanwhile, in the other bed, under their sheet, Freya and Justine clung to each other, arms and legs urgently entwined, just as they had for months now, ever since their mother began losing weight and losing hair—since long before they knew that they knew.

I decided not to wake anyone right away, much as I trembled, radiating information, information such as the fact that as soon as the first rogue cell traveled to Maggie’s brain, the treatment would be impossible. In four hours, at dawn, I’d need to rouse them all anyway, so that we could get to the beach in time to meet the helicopter.




I’d had no inkling how extreme were the mountains of northern Honduras, just forty minutes south of flat coastal Belize. Of course, I was always glad to see, anywhere in my travels, that logging and agribusiness, and the North American ecotourism industry (the meal ticket for me and mine), had not yet gotten around to spoiling all vast tracts of land south of the border. Sylvina sat beside me this time, but given the thundering rotor just above our heads, lacked the power of speech. She tapped my knee and jotted “2700 metros” on her clipboard−roughly nine thousand feet—then raised her eyebrows to encourage admiration.

Directly across from me, Maggie’s eyes sparkled at me like a double-dare, her mood revolutionized since our morning talk, her energy so thoroughly restored, that I wanted to call off this whole hideous stunt and schedule another MRI, suspecting spontaneous remission.

The girls were giddy, too—though we’d mentioned nothing of our destination or its purpose—and looked particularly striking today in their Pedro dress, bathed in early sunlight, belted in like the rest of us but bobbing inside their straps, each tugging at one of their mother’s arms and chattering words up at her that were so far from audible she could only laugh and touch their lips like someone discovering life all again.

When we’d hurried to the oceanside at five-thirty, these two were happy enough with the novelty of an early adventure, and to be able to witness a sunrise spread wide with every hue. But when a drab, camouflage-mottled machine dropped without warning through a salmony cloud and proceeded to actually land thirty feet away on the beach, when Sylvina smiled out the side door and beckoned us to climb aboard, they entirely forgot to be afraid, trotting merrily toward the unknown.

Now it seemed too late, somehow, to reconsider, though something in Maggie’s transport failed to take me in. Still queasy from hangover, I ran my fingers through my unwashed hair and returned my eyes to the concave window as we skimmed low over a range of icy peaks, bordered on either side by dense jade jungle.

The alarm clock had murdered me at five. Not only was the world I woke into not the fabulous new and weightless realm I’d entered the night before, it seemed to have lost value even by comparison to our family scene at the dock. At least there, we were all thrown together inside a shared emergency, cloaked in a kind of fateful nobility, whereas here, I was intending to introduce a concept that would strike chaos into our unity, probably hurling us in four different directions of response. Furthermore, the concept itself now sickened me, appearing every bit as repulsive as it had once seemed elegantly divine. In the bathroom, I vomited thickened whiskey.

By the time Maggie joined me, using the doorknob and counter tops for support, mumbling something about catching the first plane back home, I had recovered somewhat. I locked the door, dispensed for her the various powerful medications, which she swallowed, and then helped her to sit down on the toilet. Kneeling before her much as I had, in a supermarket, to propose marriage, I closed my eyes, steadied my breathing, and just plunged ahead, delivering the scientific pitch as convincingly as I was able.

I don’t know what I expected—maybe that she would be insulted?—but I never expected what I got. Maggie let out a gasp at the point when, as they had also with me, the details suddenly gathered to a critical mass and she recognized the startling conceivability of the thing. But it was not the gasp that astounded me, or not this as literal respiratory event; it was that her entire being partook, she gasped forward, lunging for me, bowling me over backward onto the cement floor, because I represented the idea, and the idea represented, well, no less than a chance at…everything again. Embracing her there on the floor, rolling from wall to wall within the bathroom, I felt in her bones only a breathtaking absence of ambivalence. Her decline had been so precipitous, our ordeal such an ungodly whirlwind, who’d had time for any “stages of grief,” for any leisurely arrival at the calm pool of “acceptance”? In retrospect, how could I have doubted that my wife would inhale the rhapsody whole?

As we flew further over the rugged Honduran interior, the girls still flounced in place, Maggie still permitting them, adoring their futures, I suffered disturbing flashbacks. On the Internet, seven years earlier, I’d happened across an underground documentary unearthed from 1971. It chronicled a short-lived experiment in “isolated-brain research.” American scientist Richard White had surgically decapitated a capuchin chimp and kept the head “alive” for fourteen hours atop a rather primitive-looking pump. Appearing before the camera in nerdy black horn-rimmed glasses and red-splattered scrubs, the young doctor explained—in the hurky-jerky manner of on-line video—that for months he’d been syphoning off and storing the monkey’s own blood, and now this is what the apparatus used to “feed” the brain. He then took the viewer through the physiology of the operation by using an anatomical wall chart and wooden pointer. “After all, only two major vessels service the organ,” he’d said, smiling stiffly. “The carotid artery carries oxygen-rich blood to the brain, and the jugular vein conducts the depleted blood back down toward the heart. It is quite a simple matter, actually, to sever the spine of the animal and to connect these vessels to our synthetic tubing, and in fact some day the very same procedure ought to be possible with human beings. The surgery will even be simpler with people,” he concluded, gesturing with an open hand, “because the structures involved are much larger than those of our tiny friend here.”

Mounted on a gray metal box, the head appears both alert and ancient, alert because the eyes keep darting around intelligently, curious about laboratory surroundings, blinking, following Doctor White’s index finger, and ancient because the swollen tongue continually thrusts out through the lips like that of an old man who is off his rocker. Otherwise, the facial muscles are slack beneath dark, leathery skin, forming no expressions, but those round eyes are filled with animation, and blinking. At several moments, Doctor White takes pity on the creature and very gingerly dabs with a tissue at the nostrils and upper lip, to clean away a bit of discharge there, as though generously extending this kindness in case his patient may be experiencing the slightest discomfort or embarrassment.

Shortly after this footage was shot, as the web site text informed me, governmental medical ethics authorities had shut his laboratory down and barred the scientist from further animal research. For years, as well, they had successfully suppressed the film.

The next day, I made my friends watch. Joe cracked, “Hey, yeah, that’s his brain child, get it? His brain child.” Nathan pushed his tongue out again and again, a joke he then reprised, because it spooked me, for weeks. But his girlfriend, Melinda, who had a black mole on her cheek, became very quiet at lunch. “You know, though,” she finally said, “when you really think about it, what’s the huge deal? I mean, we can transplant hearts and livers and lungs and kidneys, etcetera. If you were going to die—like if you had multiple-organ failure?—and they said, ‘Well, come on in and we’ll just replace all those bad parts with healthy ones,’ you’d totally do it, right? So why not—I mean if ya had to?—like transplant your whole body?”

Nathan stopped chewing and stared at her. “Who said anything about transplants, weirdo? That chimp’s just a head.”

She and I fell out of touch after Nathan broke up with her, and I’d forgotten this little speech of hers until my cell phone conversation with Doctor San Jimel at the nightclub; and then, at many low points during our subsequent odyssey in Honduras, thoughts of poor Melinda came to my aid again, she and her mole, thoughtful Melinda, who had died in a fiery car accident. After Nathan called her a weirdo, she’d made an oh-don’t-mind-me gesture with her hands and laughed. “No, I’m just saying.




Our chopper set down in a narrow clearing. Into the peculiar lull after the pilot killed the motor, Sylvina called out, in English, “Welcome to our home! You will, I promise, like it here!” She took Maggie’s hand and the women exchanged a mutually infatuated gaze. Then, beaming at me and my daughters, she tweaked her ear flap again, this time to signify how fuzzy our hearing would be for a while.

We all unbuckled and helped each other out and down onto firm ground. Maggie, who hadn’t even bothered to ask her wheelchair along for the ride, stood without wobble for the first time in weeks, gripping the twins’ hands, sniffing the cool, high-altitude atmosphere and surveying the terrain of her chosen sanctuary. Not far off, looming just inside the jungle shadows, a pyramid commanded our immediate attention. It rose only maybe fifty feet, wrapped in a hatchwork of vines, and looking much the worse for wear, with no clean lines remaining, more like a mound of rocks, its top badly blunted, its descending tiers hardly discernable anymore—a decrepit version of the famous Guatemalan ruins at Tekal, to which my company sent vacationers with a taste for ancient mystery. This monument was flanked by two massive stone heads whose faces peered at us from the gloom with weathered, coarse features; one wore a sort of wistful expression, the other a vengeful sneer.

“Cabezas de los Mayas,” Sylvina said. “Tienen mil quinientos anos.” She leaned toward me confidentially. “Creíamos que señalaron un sitio apropiado, no?” An appropriate site? Well, at least they had a sense of humor, these scientists.

Justine broke down crying and even today’s Maggie couldn’t lift her. “Is it those heads?” I asked her in my arms. She nodded, whispering, “That mean one,” then hid her eyes against my neck. Freya, however, wanted to go check them out, as well as a troupe of spider monkeys that had just appeared among the leaves and branches above the pyramid. She’d pulled her mother several feet already when our pilot, Emanuel, announced that he was going to restart “el pájero,” the bird. Sylvina thanked him warmly, as did Maggie and I, and then she ushered us off through knee-high ferns in a different direction from the ruins. As we marched, and still with Justine draped over me, I assured Freya baselessly that we’d come back to visit the heads very soon. “And the monkeys,” she demanded.

“Ay, no!” Sylvina laughed, nearing the mouth of a pathway that, I could see, twisted downhill through broad-leafed vegetation. “Los monos te encontrarán, y pronto, chiquita!” I translated and Freya skipped ahead, grasping the forefinger of this new best friend and leading the woman into the bush.

And then, we were all enclosed by the shade, the steamy heat, and by the rapturous aromas of loam and nectar. Behind us, the helicopter churned into action again, its stutter quickly swallowed by the sky. Before us, the pathway curved and began its descent. The more our hearing returned, the more the jungle came alive around us, like the soundtrack of stock tropical birdcalls that we played as background music in our Miami office. High above, in the sun-favored canopy, pastels flitted everywhere, and Freya added her own shrill chirp to the chorus when a howler monkey, an infant clinging to her back, leapt across a yawning span between two branches. Blood-seeking insects, though, also appeared and grew thick in our faces, a feature we tended not to promote to clients.

“No es muy lejos,” Sylvina specified over her shoulder, but I noticed that the journey had already been too far for Maggie, who stumbled beside me, tripping over a root. I put my daughter down and took hold of my wife, helping her along as though carrying a rib cage through space.

“I’m sure they can bring a stretcher for you, Mag.”

She brushed the notion aside, huffing rapidly, and even refused my arm. “Not if…not if this is the last for me, this walk.” Justine halted in her tracks and glared up at her mother; after all, yesterday’s disclosure was old news, dubious now, the girl having slept since then. “I mean, Stephen, let’s be honest, right?” This made tears not come to my eyes but instantly be there. Maggie reached and palmed Justine’s back, where it was left bare by the sun dress, then with one good slap killed a trio of mosquitoes on the girl’s too-red shoulder (we’d completely forgotten sun screen), making her yelp. After this, my wife had to stand bent for a while, hands on thighs, finding her breath. Up ahead, Freya and Sylvina waited patiently for us. “Smell this air,” said Maggie, walking on her own again, sweeping her arms before her. “Feel this. I hope it’s miles.”

But it wasn’t miles. The facility’s entrance snuck up on us within five minutes—an anonymous green door partially obscured by foliage and recessed into the side of a hill rising boldly above us. “Señora Mills, Señor Mills, beautiful niñas!” said Doctor Elias San Jimel, opening the door and graciously speaking English, as in Lima. “Please accept my welcome, on behalf of the entire staff, to the White Center!” Dressed in an incongruous dark suit and tie, he embraced my wife and then me, shook my daughters’ hands, charming them almost painfully. Once inside the facility, we felt air conditioning hit us like a glad tiding, and the doctor’s attire made a bit more sense. Maggie relinquished her earlier campaign without a struggle, lowering her light self heavily into a wheelchair presented by a nurse. I took the handles and San Jimel conducted us at a casual pace down a sterile-blank corridor, trading pleasantries with Sylvina, Freya and Justine, assuring the latter that yes, plenty of peanut butter and jelly and chocolate milk was available here, in the cafeteria, and that no, she would not be forced to share her food with monkeys. When Freya asked him point-blank, “What are we doing here?” he glanced back at me, nodding when I shook my head.

The man was still just as likeable as I’d remembered, damn him—warm-eyed, buoyant, with smooth brown skin and an immediate smile; aside from his steel-gray hair, the only mark of advancing years was that one shoulder, when he walked, was hiked slightly higher than the other. I didn’t recall this from Lima; if anything, though, he seemed even more expansively humane than when we sat side by side in that hard chapel pew. Yet I found myself, now and for the next several hours, seeking in him an untrustworthy glint, hitch or inflection, some ready means of alienation that could allow us to quit the place on moral grounds, to escape this “cure” and perhaps somehow, by retroactive extension, the whole grisly cycle of events born of a routine sonogram. Nor could the facility complex itself, built here so impressively into the earthen heart of this remote hillside, quite be described as any mere, and dismissible, chamber of horrors.

On the other hand, the post-operative patients to whom we were introduced certainly did, at first, make our skin crawl. After Sylvina led Freya and Justine away to a playroom with juice and cereal, after a private breakfast with our medical team, an orientation affair at which the doctors became, by dint of professional enthusiasm, enormously specific as to impending procedures, such that Maggie was unable to keep down her mushroom and tomato omelette, and after we were coached not to expect the recovering patients to stir, their mouths to speak, their faces even to twitch, we were conducted to the convalescent ward to meet one Harold Fasulo, from Green Bay, a retired jeweler, and his sullen, tight-lipped daughter Ruth, a woman who would state only, several times and in monotone, “pancreatic cancer, inoperable,” and, “Mom says she won’t stay married to no melon.”

When San Jimel pulled up the blanket, we learned that this pasty-faced Midwesterner was now firmly affixed—by means of fading Frankenstein sutures—to a tawny, well-hewn male body, that of a twenty-four-year-old Mexico City construction worker who’d been beaned by a falling girder. It was strange to see so much of this sad form—clad only in underpants—and to wonder what, in the new order, must become of modesty. The recipient of the body conveyed to his attending nurse via blinks that he did not at the moment wish, with whatever advanced equipment, to communicate with us. Then, he just lay in his bed gazing up at us abstractly, if rather companionably, every now and then rolling his eyes toward and away from his daughter, as if to mean, “Hey, don’t listen to her, she’s never been happy.”

“What’s that?” Maggie indicated a black plastic device, like a drain catch, embedded just above the sternum.

“Permanent esophageal shunt,” said San Jimel, grinning as though this were a joke, though it didn’t sound like one. “It’s where the feeding tube is attached twice a day, for only ten minutes. Believe me, nobody’s getting fat and lazy on this diet.” There it was; his group of colleagues laughed dutifully.

We noted that the man’s chestnut hair had come back in, wispy though it was.

“Oh, yes, yes,” said the anaesthesiologist, Burt Larkin, one of the few Anglos we’d met on staff. “You can expect significant regrowth within five weeks.”

“We call it a fringe benefit,” San Jimel tossed in, colleagues this time merely frowning. “And you’ve got a luxurious full head there, Maggie. I’ve seen pictures.”

“Well, thank you, Doctor,” she said.

“‘Elias,’ please.”

Herald Fasulo began to drool, and his daughter Ruth tended to him with a washcloth.

Of course, I couldn’t help flashing again onto Doctor White’s simian victim, its quick eyes, that endlessly thrusting tongue, the delicate wiping of its nose, although I did find myself placated by the fact that supposedly, at least, this patient here could anticipate many years of thoughtful living.

Rosa Villanueva, the staff psychologist and a dead-ringer for a Latina Sally Field, outlined for us the “re-integration scenario”: when a patient has shown steady metabolic functioning, and then has mastered two challenging skill sets, both governed by the eyeballs— “facilitated speech” and wheelchair manipulation—then she or he is discharged and may simply return to previous life, able to pass in public quite easily, if properly dressed (with tasteful neck scarf), for a standard quadriplegic.

I asked why patients couldn’t speak or move their faces, like Christopher Reeve. “That’s because Chris’s spinal cord was ruptured beneath the seventh vertebra,” Villanueva replied, checking with her boss, who gestured for her to go ahead and field this simple medical query, “whereas we have to make the cut higher, beneath the fifth vertebra, before inserting the titanium rod. This interrupts more of the neuromuscular signals.”

“Esperamos—excuse me…We hope someday to cut lower,” said San Jimel, “but this presents many difficulties from the standpoint of re-attachment.”

Maggie nodded, as though to remind herself she still could. Then, I saw her preventing herself from reaching for her own neck, probably suspecting that this would seem a lowly reaction.

“You will notice,” the Director continued, “that Stephen Hawking cannot use his natural voice, either, or control his facial muscles. His disease has progressed too high. Si levanta más, él nos debe llamar!” Everyone chuckled at what must have been a very old joke around here, the famous astrophysicist as prospective client—everyone except Ruth Fasulo and, of course, her father. We thanked them both and waved awkwardly goodbye. The daughter held my eyes with hers for a beat too long, lifting her lids too high at me; I’d seen plenty of her.

I pushed my wife back out into the hallway, noticing for the twentieth time the lack of natural light in here, and I asked why the facility had to be built underground.

“Absolutely no choice in the matter,” San Jimel said, and then explained that although construction was underwritten by major off-book funding from benefactors in countries where such research was deemed unconscionable, “What we’re doing would cause a world-wide outrage. Militants would find us and demolish the place in a heartbeat, if they could. Even the Honduran government has no idea we’re in here. Stories leak out, of course, but nobody puts much stock in them because we have gotten good at putting out disinformation, making the whole thing sound like science fiction. Not difficult to do on the Internet. For example, last month we stirred up a rumor that a facility has been discovered in Uruguay in which the heads of former Nazis have been sustained for decades on the bodies of Jews.”

Since basic information was up for grabs, I asked why no one had raised the issue of organ rejection.

“Oh, this is a fascinating thing,” Armando Cuello chimed in, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Really fascinating!” He was a journalist from San Diego, a short young man in casual khakis who’d been till now keeping to his strict role as observer, standing off to one side, hands in pockets. At breakfast, San Jimel had introduced him as the man given sole outside access to the facility and now busy writing the definitive book, to be released when the time was right. The suddenness of the outburst, and then its velocity, made the staff stand aside and give him his daily moment on stage. “The brain, you see, is the only organ that is not susceptible to rejection, as Richard White himself discovered back in the 70s. I recently interviewed him in Philadelphia. He’s seventy-two years old now and not too healthy. But he didn’t seem bitter about having his work suppressed, which I found surprising. He’s visited down here twice, when the place was first getting underway, but that was before I came on board.”

“He was very flattered, believe me,” San Jimel added, “to learn that it would be named after him. I told him that his only mistake was being thirty years ahead of his time.”

“In Philadelphia,” Cuello resumed, “Richard told me that the lightbulb first went on when he was a third-year resident and learned what changes the body goes through during starvation. Do you know about this, Mr. and Mrs. Mills? Would you like to hear?” He asked us, and indeed, by now we were well hooked. “It’s genuinely amazing. The body literally eats itself—first its fat, then its muscle, and then it moves on to the organs, its own vital organs, gradually devouring them for fuel. Every single organ, that is, except for the brain. All of the body’s resources and functions in extremis converge onto one overriding goal, to protect the brain, to keep the blood flowing up there.” He tapped his temple. “Doctor White told me, ‘I suddenly realized that the very design of nature already isolates and privileges the brain above all else. I simply decided to take this truth one step further.’ Isn’t that, um…”—he laughed self-consciously, making eye contact with San Jimel for the first time in a minute—“I mean, isn’t that something pretty terrific?” Cuello raised his palms, dipped his head.

San Jimel said, “Remember what I told you in Lima, Señor Mills. We must look to nature without wearing blinders.”

Down the hall in the next recovery room, we met Jacob Stein, a Massachusetts university administrator who, we heard, had nearly succumbed to prostate cancer before a professor in the medical school slipped him a phone number. When I say “met,” I don’t mean that we actually shook his hand, or rather the hand he had been dealt, that of a woman, a Columbian rancher who’d been kicked in the head by a horse. We waved and spoke our names, conveyed our honor.

Mr. Stein’s eyes rolled toward us in a delayed and approximate manner. After less than two minutes, our attention seemed to weary him and he fell asleep. “Jacob here has been experiencing some depression,” Villanueva informed us, off in the corner and sotto voce, “but only because his family refuses to participate in his recovery, or to take him home.”

“They’re not even down here with him?” I asked her.

“No.”

“Is it because he got a woman’s body?”

She paused. “It was the only donor available at the time.”

My wife relaxed into her role as today’s star student in San Jimel’s traveling teach-in; he even relieved me of wheelchair duties, filling Maggie’s ears from behind, as our group advanced from room to room, with a steady stream of success stories, including follow-ups on patients’ current productive lives six, seven, eight years “out.” I began to take the journalist aside and pump him on other matters. I found out, for instance, that the White Center was linked to an extensive network of hospitals throughout Latin America, and that in fact the reason our pilot Emanuel had lifted off so hastily from the field by the pyramid and stone heads was that a potential donor body had become available this morning in the city of San Salvador—a young man who had run afoul of a drug cartel and been shot through the eye.

It had begun to dawn on me—even on me, not the most politically astute of observers—that all of the benefitting customers seemed to be well-to-do North Americans, while the bodies—employed as portable, organic life-support systems—came from poor countries to the south. I started to recognize, in fact, a certain disconcerting parallel between this plundering of Latin American bodies and my own ongoing qualms regarding ecotourism and mentioned this to Maggie on the sly, but she only rolled her eyes at me—practicing for the rest of our life?—and said she’d be glad to consider this difficulty afterward.

“Families of the brain-dead person,” Cuello explained while we peed in neighboring urinals, “are paid the equivalent of five thousand U.S. dollars in exchange for the body.”

“Ah,” I said, “to help assuage any guilt over the fact that they could save several people in their own country instead of one rich foreigner.”

“Correcto,” he said, zipping up and crossing to the sink. “And any Catholic guilt about desecrating the body. We have a joke that this place isn’t called the White Center for only one reason. Hey, maybe after my book comes out, we’ll be swimming in cash and can get into pro bono work, rescue a brown head for once.”

I joined him at the mirror, recognizing there the self-referential quality of this last comment; his dark eyes were antic, though.

“And think of it this way, the family might be making possible the next Hawking, who incidentally I really want to write the foreword. His people haven’t returned my calls.”

Outside the bathroom, we found an empty corridor, so we had to follow Maggie’s distant laughter, a sound that did not, I noted, thrill me automatically. The hallway looked no different from all the others until we passed a sole exception to bland sterility, one I’d just as soon not have seen; a small table against the white wall held a glass bowl of water, and floating on that water, a great big red bloom, some ripe and sticky jungle flower.

“It’s called a God’s eye,” said Cuello.

The last convalescent on-site, a Susie Stafford, was here with her long-term partner Jessica. Together, they ran a public relations firm in Atlanta. Susie had developed a rare wasting bone disease that had turned her long bones to mush, yet sitting before us now in a flower-decorated wheelchair and Florida Marlins baseball cap, she seemed nothing but reborn, effortlessly and gratefully, thanks to the reliable metabolism of her new host body, that of a chunky Brazilian waitress, dressed smartly in its own former favorite outfit, yellow blouse and clean white skirt, whose own brain had been destroyed by stroke.

Through diligent labor, Susie had learned to control her eye movements precisely, in order to maneuver her chair, scooting around the room, and to produce staccato sentences through voice-synthesizing software, emitted with five- and ten-second delays between the syllables while she located the wanted letters on a keyboard visible only to her through a pair of remarkable spectacles resembling sleek welder’s goggles lit purple from within and cabled to a computer. Jessica, a petite red-head, sat squeezing her hand for moral support. “Good to meet you,” clicked a pleasant female voice; “Care to dance?”; “May I recommend Elias for all your head-transplant needs?”

Though I joined in with the delighted laughter at the bedside, the financial angle struck me. Naturally, the issue hadn’t even occurred to me before now, but needless to say, no insurance policy will cover what does not officially exist, and the costs of the venture started to spiral in my mind. Wheelchair and communications equipment alone must run well into the six figures, and that’s on top of the surgery and medical care here underground. Back in Miami, there would be decades of home nursing care to afford. I wondered aloud whether, if my income weren’t so high, Doctor San Jimel would have pursued our “case” so fervently.

“Oh, probably not,”said Cuello. Within another long, featureless hallway, we lagged again behind the group, noticing, at last, the aromas of lunch. “But then again, as soon as he got back from Peru, I remember him telling us about you and your wife, and I doubt he’d had the chance to check out your finances by then. The man’s no mercenary, he’s committed to his calling. He’s a practicing Catholic, too, extremely serious, which may seem hard to square with this line of work. I’m devoting an entire chapter to the soul.”

And when I raised some of the same concerns to San Jimel himself, he disappointed me yet again by failing to disappoint me. “Claro que si, Señor Mills,” he immediately conceded. We had just entered the bustling cafeteria, I resuming charge of Maggie’s locomotion; her blue-scarfed head, weighted now with so much saving knowledge, swayed back against the soft rest, reminding me fondly of Daughters of the Dust. I spotted Freya and Justine over at the salad bar, where Sylvina was helping them to construct perhaps the world’s first peanut butter and jelly tortillas. Standing on either side of her, they hadn’t seen us yet, and their small matching profiles, upturned, concentrating, tinged with sunburn, made me so frantic with love that I lost all interest in politics and barely heard the doctor’s response, though he said I was right. “Tienes razón. La situación social es intolerable. Encontramos el mundo como encontramos el mundo.” Of course, they find the world as they find the world, how else? “Perfeccionando nuestros métodos en la única forma posible.” No, only this: be perfect with us, preserve this family, this unique form. “Esperamos la igualdad en el futuro. Hola, Sylvina y niñas!”

Spilling dollops of grape jelly onto their mother’s lap, our children stood at the wheels of her chair and leaned against her, chewing, listening politely to our latest news.

“And so Mommy is going to be all right,” Maggie told them. I sat across the narrow table from my family, savoring a cheeseburger with extra slices of pickle. “She’s going to have an operation that will save her life. Do you know what I’m saying?”

“Good,” Justine said, nodding.

“Yeah.” Freya sucked chocolate milk through a straw. “Good.”

I caught myself questioning the sufficiency of their relief until I remembered that by the age of five they could recognize a fairytale when they heard one, like the doozie they’d heard yesterday at the dock.

“But I’ll be a little bit different,” Maggie said, not eating. “I’ll still be me, I just won’t be able to do all the things I used to do. It’s going to be a lot for you girls to get used to. For us all. We’ll have to be very patient.”

Freya said, “We will, Mom. Like I’ve been waiting to go out ‘n’ see the monkeys?”

“Patience, my young friend,” said Sylvina, tweaking Freya’s ear.

After lunch, we were shown to our accommodations; it was about time! They resembled a plain hotel room, with two double beds; better the funding should go into neurology, I supposed, than decor. Maggie took a hard nap while the twins and I watched her and quietly celebrated her survival by flipping through color photos of past survivors, stacked on the bedside table next to a gilt Bible. We sat together on the other bed. I tried to censor on the go, quickly shuffling to the bottom of the pile any shots that revealed too much skin, too much contrast between flesh and flesh, displaying a person sitting in his garden amid flowering bushes, Pekinese on lap, one working at her computer, and another rosy-cheeked old man surrounded by beaming loved ones. All client faces were, of course, stiff masks, which lent even sanguine scenes a similar, desolate cast.

“Oh,” said Justine, despite my editing, “Mommy’s getting a bran-new head?”

“No, no,” I said, scratching hers, “that’s not quite it. See, she’ll keep her same head.”

“So she can talk to us,” said Freya. They nodded at each other, proud of themselves and their mother.

“Well, actually, her voice will be kind of different. A machine will have to talk for her. And like you saw in those pictures, she won’t really be able to smile. But you’ll know she’s smiling and laughing underneath. I’m only telling you this because you need to know and because I know you’re big enough girls to hear it. And look how brave you’re being.” I stroked the sides of their faces with my thumbs. “Just Mommy’s eyes will be able to move, and her eyes will still love you both so much.”

They nodded doubtfully, rearranged their legs on the bed, pulled pillows into their arms. Freya said, “But she can still kiss us, right?”

“Well, you can kiss her.”

In unison, they pooched out their lips, frowning. Justine started to sniffle, which made Freya burst into furious tears; and yes, I swiped their noses with Kleenex.




At four-thirty in the afternoon, Maggie was awakened and wheeled away from us, taken down to the nerve center of the facility, where she was to be put through a lengthy round of diagnostics to confirm terminal status; here was in effect that second opinion we’d somehow failed to seek, too convinced and undone by the first, by those riddled X-ray negatives. Also, her brain had to be found clear of involvement, or at least provisionally clear, even the most sophisticated scans being unable to rule out the presence of a single malignant cell, or a hundred, that would rapidly grow into lethal tumors. This is the reason—as we’d learned only toward the end of today’s crash course—that people with metastasizing cancers were not eligible for full-body transplant without first undergoing a probationary period on mechanical life-support, that is, attachment to a much-advanced edition of Doctor White’s 1971 blood pump, a system capable of re-oxygenating and cycling blood to sustain healthy brain-vessel “perfusion” indefinitely, not just for hours. So, after all, we wouldn’t be getting the young man from San Salvador, killed by drug lords.

Although this new element meant I could defer for a while learning how to cozy up in bed to a strapping male body, I was furious at the deception. The interim bypass pump was a little wrinkle the doctor had skipped over during yesterday’s cell phone talk, and one that had certainly made no appearance during our visit to the convalescent ward.

“Oh, but listen, you’re in excellent company, believe me,” San Jimel had told us. He said that in fact, the majority of the sixty-three patients treated during the ten years of full-capacity work here at the Center had fallen under this same safeguard requirement, all except the occasional severe burn victim and those suffering from degenerative nerve or muscle conditions such as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy.




When the twins and I returned from the cafeteria—spaghetti dinner and strawberry ice cream, during which Sylvina promised to take Freya on a monkey trek first thing tomorrow morning, we found that Maggie had been duly installed, groggy, back in bed. Justine ran over to her but seemed disappointed to discover beneath the blanket nothing but the very same body, pale has-been, that had birthed her. Luckily, this struck her mother quite funny, and Freya giggled, too. “Mommy won’t be able to chase us and catch us!” “Mommy won’t be able to yell at us anymore! Mommy won’t be able to feel if we tickle her.” “Hey yeah, or even if we poke her…like this!” The high-pitched game soon devolved into a venomous spat between the sisters, slapping each other and falling into tears, so I took them through their bedtime routine separately. They dropped off in the same bed without demanding stories. I guess they’d heard enough, thank you.

When my wife and I were finally alone again, we tried to confront monumental reality. We agreed that if everybody turned out like that Susie from Atlanta, this procedure would soon sweep the world of the terminally ill. I scored a gratifying groan for suggesting that Maggie might become even more expressive than Susie if we could program the voice-synthesizer to translate her eye movements into the Gullah language. Her laugh, this time, made me want to rejoice, as though it meant we had already passed clean through the ordeal.

I reminded her what a relief it would be not to have to react to everything facially anymore.

“Well, yeah,” she said, “they say it takes four times as many muscles to frown as it does to smile.”

“And really, smiling’s pretty hard, too.”

“Plus, even better yet,” she said, “I could request the body of a horse. I knew there was a reason I’ve always been drawn to shape-shifters in Greek mythology, it was a premonition. I’ll be the world’s first genuine Centaur.”

“Oh, Honey, we’d never be able to afford that wheelchair.”

“No, they’ll put those titanium rods in my legs and castors on my hoofs, you’ll pull me around by a rope.”

“Then you’ll dare your eighth-graders to lose concentration when you read to them. And our girls can ride you!”

You can ride me, too, sir.”

After checking on their breathing—steady, though still vaguely pissed off from the fight—we tried to make love, but Maggie was too dry, her hands too weak, and then her own breathing betrayed her. She asked me to touch her and touch myself, which I managed to sustain for a couple minutes before she began to cry. She said it was because I was being too cautious, treating her body like it was already gone, so I tried to do better but the way she flinched I could tell the pain was back; it would radiate out from her belly and through her limbs like shock waves, or, she’d said, like the sensation of giant fingernails on a giant blackboard. I jumped up for her pills and a glass of water, then she cried for a while longer, and I held her.

“Don’t go to sleep, Stephen.” She sounded panicky. “Let’s not go to sleep, okay? I want to talk. And touch.”

I had to break the silence that followed. “Maybe we can use the body of that horse that kicked the Columbian woman.”

“No, I’m being serious now. What are you thinking?”

“I have about eighty-five conflicting thoughts.”

“Pick one.”

On the issue of the interim bypass pump, I told her I felt cheated by this late notice, and that I resented even just the term “probationary period”—as though a head mounted on a cold chrome apparatus ought to feel it’s in trouble with the law. She struggled onto her side and took hold of my face. “Listen, probably they don’t make a big deal of that part because if they did, people would bolt, and they’ve got to ease us through. Let’s calm down and think, Stephen. I’ll be doing a lot of that soon, huh?”

She released me in order to execute a grand stretch, arms and legs poling out, suffused with electricity again, but this time benign, her back briefly arching as in sex. I tried to resume that mood until she collapsed onto her back and started kneading circles into her forehead with the knuckles of her first and second fingers. “Okay, let’s go over this again. What’s the difference, really, machine or body? It’s not like I’d feel the new body, either, or be able to move it. The only advantage is what Elias told me. I think you were talking to that newspaper guy when he said it. After the transplant, people sometimes report looking at their reflections and feeling almost whole again.”

Hyperventilating, I felt suddenly claustrophobic inside my own rattletrap system, mobile and still self-connected though it was. I reminded myself that after all in the beginning it was the mind of thisMargaret Ellen Hutchins, very distinct from the body, that I’d fallen for. “I mean, everything about this is so far beyond my imagination, anyway,” I said. “How can we possibly get a grip on it? Just when I think I’ve got it…”

“Remember those water spouts, on the ocean?”

“When you were first pregnant.”

“I mean, just…weren’t they beautiful?”

“Mmm hmm.”

“I keep thinking of those, when the sun would hit them and light them up. I dream about them all the time now.”

I decided what a good idea that was, to dream about them, and I stood on the beach by myself and spotted one way out to sea, a slim tornado standing tall and electric in the sky, flicking its tail like a bright whip on the waves, but Maggie poked me in the ribs. “I said don’t. Stay awake.”

I rubbed her legs and squeezed her feet, each toe.

“You know when you’re sitting in a theater seat and it’s a good movie?” she said. “You get so wrapped up you forget to move for a while? Then you realize your butt and thigh on one side are totally numb, I mean totally.”

“Yeah,” I said, “you feel with your hand and there’s really nothing.”

“It’s like you’re feeling dead flesh, all null and void, and you didn’t even notice it fading away. But the weird thing is it’s okay, not scary, you know?”

“Kind of peaceful.”

“Mostly, when that happens, I just feel interested that my flesh can just check out like that. I don’t panic or really mind the numbness, or even the idea of…what if it were to spread? It’s like I’ve always understood very clearly that my body’s just a thing, anyway, and now here it is proving the point all casually, with no fanfare.”

I rolled her over and scratched Maggie’s back, making sure to cover all the nerve endings. “But still.”

“I know,” she said, stretching again, a minor encore. She was quiet for a minute. “It’s just a tiny bit less impossible to imagine than leaving you three forever.”

The idea of numbness took us down another path, to The Simulation. Here was another step that San Jimel had neglected to cover until the end of the teach-in. Apparently, in the early trials, too many heads had gone insane due to the shock of so much change all at once, and with no opportunity for second thoughts. The day before surgery, the patient is given an injection that paralyzes and anaesthetizes the entire body except for the eyes. The wheelchair is then concealed behind a partition shaped so that the head appears to float by itself, stationed before a mirror and made to confront this picture for a full hour. If the heartbeat remains steady, the eyes calm and responsive, a “conversation” then takes place with Villanueva, consisting mostly of “yes”/ “no” blinks but also including already Lesson One of facilitated communication, the patient fitted with those glasses that can translate the minutest pupil shifts into letters on a keyboard, a virtual image of which the wearer perceives as suspended in space at a comfortable distance.

Maggie’s Simulation was to take place in the morning; only when she’d weathered it would she be allowed to make her final decision. “I’m not sure, Stephen,” she whispered into my ear, her pronunciation wandering with sudden exhaustion. “I really almost wish I couldn’t back out. I keep reminding myself of water spouts and theater seats. For some reason, those two in combination work wonders.”

“I’ll be right there with you,” I said, but Maggie was asleep, one leg bent and hoisted over me. I glanced to the other bed, expecting to see my daughters still combining forces in that fierce embrace of theirs. Instead, Justine slept alone under the blanket while Freya…Freya I located tucked into the far corner of the room, lying in a fetal position on the cool carpeting. I went and transferred her back where she belonged, beside her sister, then rejoined my wife, carefully reinstating her leg on top of me.




I was dreaming of my old friend Melinda—her mole had turned into cancer and spread across her face, yet she was being quite philosophical about the whole thing—when the knock came on the door, timid but persistent. I stumbled out of bed, threw on sweat pants and t-shirt, and opened to a green-bathrobed woman I couldn’t immediately identify. “Ruth,” she whispered, “Ruth Fasulo, from earlier.” Oh yes, daughter of Harold, the jeweler from Green Bay; her pinched face had relaxed some, and she now wore her brown hair loose, kind of a rat’s nest. “I’m sorry, Mr. Mills.” She drew me out into the hall, and I eased the door shut behind me. “I knew if I stopped to get dressed, I’d never make it here. I just ran out of my room. I really do apologize for this, but I have to tell you something.” She’d already uttered far more words more fluently than during twenty minutes in her father’s recovery room, and so in my fog this is what I focused on. I rubbed my eyes and leaned against the wall, trying hard to be polite to a fellow-traveler. “Okay,” she said, “it’s just this. Yeah, right, ‘just.’ My father, who you met?” I nodded. “Well, okay, he’s…blind.”

“What?”

“He never recovered his sight after the operation. And not only that—most of them come out blind. Did you meet Jacob Stein?”

“They said he was depressed.”

“And guess why.”

“His family won’t come down, because he got a woman’s body?”

“Oh, they were here all right. Finally went home last week. They stayed as long as they could stand it, and it didn’t have anything to do with the donor’s gender. They had absolutely no way to communicate with Jacob. Like my dad, he can hear, and sort of points his eyes toward the voice. And yeah, he can blink ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ once for ‘yes,’ twice for ‘no,’ but let me tell you, that gets old real quick. His pancreatic cancer is cured, I guess you could say, but when I ask him if he wants to live, he always blinks twice without hesitation.”

“But why? Why blind?”

That I don’t know for sure. San Jimel assures us it’s merely psychological, ‘hysterical blindness,’ and will go away. He says that so much is riding on vision for these patients that the circuits get temporarily overloaded, though of course he can’t provide any case studies of people recovering their…” Ruth started to cry and I gave her a hug, putting aside for a moment my own limitless outrage. “I mean,” she said, “I’m not sure how big a problem this is, how widespread, you know, but I have a different theory. I think it’s what happens when you go against Nature, when you cut the spinal cord and take off the head, y’know, the goddamn head—it’s just a wild card, or like Pandora’s Box.”

“Shit, I can’t believe this.” I slid to the floor. “Shit, shit.”

She sat beside me, tucking her robe around her. “I know. I hate to be the one to—”

“Wait, though.” I lifted my head again. “That Susie woman, she was—”

“Oh, Susie, sure. She’s like their poster child. Not blind, great attitude, and I bet they took you to her last of all, didn’t they?” I nodded. “Yeah, it’s so you’ll remember her best. Same reason they don’t let you rest till you’ve taken the tour, so your resistence will be low and you’ll be more blown away. Dad and I were. Susie’s been inside here like two years, I’ve found out. She and Jessica make quite a tidy living for themselves. They’re in the public relations business, you know. Must think they’ve died and gone to heaven. When new folks aren’t around, she speaks through the machine like an auctioneer. You know, none of those phony pauses for hunt-and-peck.”

I couldn’t draw a full breath. “So why did you play along before?”

“Dad and me? What choice do we have? It’s not like they’re holding a gun to our heads, but we are under their care and kind of stranded out here in the middle of nowhere and hoping against hope it’s true about ‘hysterical blindness,’ so I mean we just pitch in when they bring a prospective family by the room. Though I guess you noticed I didn’t do such a bang-up job on the promotional front!”

I laughed, and it felt good.

“Mom never said that thing about not staying married to a melon. I tend to ham it up just to annoy the staff, because they have to keep a straight face, except when San Jimel’s got the stage. The last people, I told that Dad was paying me eight dollars an hour to dab his drool. Since he’s been in recovery, going on seven weeks, you’re the third family through here. Oh, I saw your twins in the cafeteria, so beautiful. Mr. and Mrs. Stein and their son were the second, and the first, well, the first was a man who later embolized and died on the bypass pump, waiting to qualify for a donor body. Peter something, I think. But you’re the only person I’ve come to like this. Figured it was high time.”

“But aren’t you kind of, I mean…” I glanced toward the ceiling.

“Oh, like they’re bugging the hallways? I don’t think it’s quite that bad. Strange as it may sound, I think San Jimel’s heart is in the right place. His reach just exceeds his grasp, that’s all. Probably in twenty years he’ll get the Nobel Prize. ‘Course, I might change my tune when I wake up tomorrow morning with a new head. Like your wife’s!”

I toppled onto the floor in grim hysterics, even though Maggie and my twins slept just behind that door. And although I had no way to absorb such an encounter, and zero notion what use I would think to make of these revelations, I thanked Ruth for them nonetheless, and sincerely, gave her a hug, then send her back along the hallway, bathrobe flopping at her ankles, to sleep the sleep of the just.

And then, I went wandering. I had to. I wanted to take concrete measure of the place, this time under no imposed orchestration. Reaching the widest corridor, I quickly determined that this was not some grand labyrinth too intricate for a person to navigate alone. I made tiny scratches with my fingernail in the plaster corners at this corridor’s oblique turns and, when soon I lapped myself, estimated the route to be a simple hexagon maybe a quarter mile in full, with narrower tangents running outward at regular intervals. Not until, however, I’d selected one of these nondescript offshoots, proud of my orienteering prowess and judging, in some jag of exhausted logic, that I’d relocated my own “home” street, did I understand I’d mastered nothing. At the end of the passage, rather than door #21, guarding my family from the rest of the truth, I encountered a staircase proceeding to the left and upward. Like a two-dimensional creature abruptly entering a third, I shuddered in setting foot on the first step, then the second, having somehow assumed that the entire White Center must be laid out on a single plane only. The sound of Latin prayer drew me upward.

Christe, audi nos, Christe, audi nos
Spiritus sancte, Deus, miserere nobis

Hear us, Christ? A striking stained-glass door greeted me at the landing, its panels glowing dark red and in the exact shape of the floating flower I’d seen this morning in the hallway. At the center was a small circle of clear glass, which I leaned to peek through. I found that indeed the room was a modest chapel, ablaze with scores of candles and packed with wheelchairs, twelve of them, different sizes and heights but organized in three rows. The heads were facing front, away from me. Because the words were being sung out in that Roman Catholic style, and echoing richly off the chamber walls, I hadn’t recognized the voice.

Sanguis Christi, in agonia decurrens, in terram, salva nos
Sanguis Christi, sine quo non fit remissio, salva nos

Blood of Christ, in agony something, in the earth, save us? Elias San Jimel stood at a simple pulpit in a pleated maroon robe, arms raised, eyes closed, face bathed in rapturous candlelight.

Sanguis Christi, levamen laborantium, salva nos
Sanguis Christi, pax et dulcedo cordium, salva nos

Blood of Chris, relieve our labors, save us. Peace and sweet heart? The man was conducting midnight Mass for his patients—my watch read 12:17—but the congregation did not exactly participate actively, and perhaps they understood the invocations as sketchily as I did. I heard footsteps approaching along the hallway below but couldn’t stop watching San Jimel’s impassioned delivery. Beside his left hand, when its beseeching palm would open low, stood another glass bowl whose contents I couldn’t identify, unless they were poached eggs.

Spiritus sancte, satura vacuum nobis
Audi noster voce, acceda noster caput
Caput Dei, caput Dei!

Fill our vacuum? I was yanked firmly from the door and hustled downstairs, and then Armando Cuello and I were making tracks back along the hall.

“So will you be putting that in your book, too?” I asked him.

“Between us, you should have been the investigative journalist, Mr. Mills.” He smiled, releasing me to walk on my own. “Okay, so I’ll grant you, our doc’s a bit eccentric. But tell me, what enthusiast would refuse a captive audience? Seriously, though, these folks are stuck here—their families have all cut and run, abandoning them. They live upstairs, away from the other patients and prospectives, and the doctor ministers to them spiritually, too, as best he knows how. Without him, these poor souls would either be dead by now or in great physical agony.”

“They are blind?”

He tossed me an admiring glance.

“I have my sources.”

“Well, in that case, yes, they do all suffer from this one complication, which many loved ones cannot bear. But the patients can hear, they can blink ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ San Jimel is trying to, you know, make a virtue of necessity. Whenever I’ve pressed him, he swears the worship services are voluntary, that faced with the choice whether to attend, they all blink ‘yes.’ Wouldn’t you?”

“Not if I could choose books on tape instead.” We hit the main corridor and hung a left. “Will Jacob Stein, who I assume is Jewish, be taken upstairs too?”

“Not if he blinks ‘no,’ he won’t. Well, strike that—he probably will have to go up if his family stays away. But he won’t be forced to attend Mass. He’ll have nowhere else to go and he’s got to live somewhere. And keep in mind, too, science requires a research pool, a viable opportunity to study any side effects associated with the treatment.”

I noticed one of the scratches I’d made in the wall, but couldn’t remember what it was supposed to signify.

“You’re quite the company man, Mr. Cuello. And do you concur with the diagnosis of ‘hysterical blindness’?”

“Oh, not for a minute. It’s organ rejection, plain and simple.”

“But you—”

“What I said earlier today was that the brain is not susceptible to rejection, and this is true. What I left out of my presentation was that the eyes often are.”

“Aren’t they considered part of the brain?”

“Semantics, Mr. Mills.”

“Doctor White’s chimp was looking around the lab.”

“Yes, and that’s why Jeronimo was chosen for the documentary. One sighted subject out of seventeen, not bad for back then. Today, we’re batting somewhat higher.”

Too boggled for fresh anger, I just ached for the bed containing my wife and tried pathetically to recognize familiar landmarks in this setting blank of landmarks. “So what was the Latin? I couldn’t catch it all in that inflated voice.”

“Oh, you know, it’s usually about the precious blood of Christ…may it bring relief to our suffering, ease our burden, and may He hear even those trapped in profound silence…the ‘still small voice’ and all that. In the last part just now, he’s asking the holy spirit to fill the void within, and may the head of God come near to these afflicted heads. And as for my book, no, I am being extremely selective with what to include.”

“Well, that’s your forte.”

For the first time, I’d apparently made Cuello angry, which gave me pleasure. He shut his eyes and dipped his head for several paces. “How do you think I got this job? We have to pitch the thing at just the right angle, or else we explode.” This image let him breathe easier. “It’s kind of like a rocket trying to enter Earth’s atmosphere.” He glanced at me with some of the old playfulness in his eyes. “I’ll confess, I sure wish I didn’t have any restrictions, there’s so much more to tell. Off the record, San Jimel once told me that next to his medical work, nothing brings him more joy than being priest to all these needful souls, perhaps saving them, yes, but at least imagining that they are gravitating toward God, holding intimate, unknowable conversations with Him, head to Head, you might say.”

“So I’ll bet he actually prefers unbelievers, doesn’t he?”

“Well, he does feel that being radically reduced to a brain and a pair of ears tends to address the problem of pride, yes.” Cuello chuckled at himself. “It reveals to the person a finitude, an absolute dependency, that’s been the case all along but was obscured by what he calls ‘our distracting embodiment.’”

I had nothing to say to this, although it brought up my first date with Maggie, my vivid recognition of the mind/body split. In an unwelcome juxtaposition, I also saw an image of Doctor White as blood-stained deity.

Finally, Cuello delivered me to door #21, where he lowered his voice. “My advice to you, friend, is not to read too much into what you saw up there, not to let your mind become melodramatic, though I agree it’s sort of a turn-off. This is not some dungeon—you’re free to take your family and go home, but then you know what the outcome will be. If you stay here and go through with the surgery Maggie will escape an excruciating death. And she’ll definitely not end up in San Jimel’s flock, either, because you and your daughters would never abandon her.”

“Mr. Cuello,” I whispered, “what was in that bowl up on the pulpit?”

The man had clearly hoped for this question; he licked his lips. “Remember when I told you that Richard White was not too healthy? Well, technically that wasn’t a lie. In fact, he passed away five months ago. Heart trouble. He refused to consider full-body transplant, though of course we offered. But we did receive an interesting package in the mail not long ago—his eyes, which he donated to us as a sort of good luck charm. A morale booster.”

He gave me a brisk handshake, then turned and left me alone.

Inside the room, I couldn’t even begin to piece together the implications of what I’d just learned. I resolved to tell Maggie everything when we woke up. For now, she slept as if compassionately entombed, as if above us lay only dirt, only bugs, rocks, and as if tomorrow meant only resurrection. Freya, though, had returned herself to the corner, curled, thumb in mouth. Never had a grudge between these two lasted so long. When I lifted her from the floor, I realized that no, it was Justine this time.




I slept straight through the morning’s hubbub, and when I returned to consciousness I was alone. Maggie had been rolled off already to her Simulation; she’d left a note on the back of one of the promotional glossies: “Couldn’t wake you, I’m being brave, twins went to jungle with Silveena, join me when you can honey.” Both girls? I learned later that Justine had protested at the idea of being, as always, left behind by her bolder sister, at being called—there was more slapping and scratching in the hallway—a “stupid ‘fraidy,” and so she, too, coached by her mother, had chosen to be brave and venture forth.

After peeing but without brushing my teeth, I stumbled from the room and buttonholed an orderly, who was able to guide me to the correct sector of the complex. In the Simulation Room, my wife’s wheelchair had been fitted around with a beige plastic half-cone, her chin and jaw resting comfortably on its cushioned horseshoe summit. Nurses bustled. Maggie had evidently, by now, received her injection; when we saw each other in the large wall mirror, her features remained frozen and dull, which frightened me terribly despite my expectation that it would frighten me terribly, and in this vacuum I tried to make my own face two-fold livelier. Interposing myself between her and the glass, leaning with hands on knees to meet her level and staring into eyes still filled with vision, where mind and body converged and conversed, I said, “I think this one likes to kiss.” She blinked rapidly, her face blanching of color. “You don’t say,” I said. The old courtship dialogue blared with artificiality, and not the humorous kind, but did I stop? No, I hammed it up. “It’s true!” I recalled an instant too late that she’d be lacking all sensation, and by the time I removed my lips from hers and pulled back, I saw that tears spilled from both eyes, later drops overtaking earlier down her skin, burning flesh-tone trails across sunken tallow.

A nurse handed me a box of tissues and I used them on Maggie, then on myself.

I was grateful when the door swung open, even though it was San Jimel striding in with his wide, healing smile, red flowing robe replaced by white smock. “Well, well, Señor Mills, glad you could make it. ¿Una noche difícil?” I didn’t think Cuello had mentioned anything to him, so instead of acting on my impulse to shatter those bright teeth, I took the hand he offered. “Your wife has tolerated the procedure quite well, though I can see you’ve had an emotional reunion. In fifteen minutes, Rosa will be around to introduce the communications equipment. Then we can find out how Maggie is really getting along inside there.”

“Sounds good, Doctor,” I said, though my voice sounded hollow in my skull. Again, the door popped open, and there stood Sylvina, her hiking clothes torn and muddy, her face scored with scratches, oval glasses kicked to a slant. “Se me perdieron,” she husked. “Se me perdieron.”

“¿Quiénes?” said San Jimel.

“Las gemelas. Ellas se cordierron.”

Maggie didn’t need to understand Spanish; her eyes were wild in the mirror, her dead lips luffing with hard breath.

San Jimel grabbed a syringe off a counter top then turned to me, seeming genuinely shaken. “La Simulación esta terminada.” He filled the syringe with clear fluid. “I will slowly bring her out of paralysis now.”

“Now, Maggie,” I said, going back to her, “you heard the doctor. By the time this next injection takes effect, I’ll be back already with the girls.” My eyes were just inches from hers again, but this time I was in full possession of my words. (Behind my wife’s head, San Jimel had pulled Sylvina into a corner and was giving her a stern lecture: ‘Necesitas encontrarlas inmediatemente. Ellas nos pueden revelar!’) “I love you so much, Mag, and we’ll talk about everything then. You just concentrate on getting your body back. Yes?” Her eyes did calm slightly and she blinked once for ‘yes,’ but flitty, unconvincing. “Good,” I said. I held my index finger up and she followed its motion as I pointed first to my left eye, then to my right. “I’m going to go out and find our daughters now, you understand?” She agreed, with more composure this time. On my way out, though, I made the mistake of glancing back; in the mirror, her tears had returned, the doctor’s needle entering the wasted, hanging flesh of her upper arm.

“¿Sylvina, que pasó? How could they have ‘lost you’?”

Though she sped me along toward the outside door, the woman was too upset to answer me at first. “I looked for them for an hour.”

“What? Why the hell didn’t you come get me?”

“They were fighting like wild peccaries. I kept having to separate them. I didn’t understand what was the problem. They wouldn’t tell me. Y entonces…” Turning a corner, she tugged at her ear flap and tried to straighten her glasses. “Then, they ran off in two completely different directions. I didn’t know which one to chase first. Before I knew it, they had both disappeared.”

I just couldn’t absorb the story she was telling me—Justine choosing to be out there by herself? Past conflicts between the two had always come from some particular flash-point, an object of dispute, like a toy, attention from Mom, a piece of food. I asked Sylvina what they said to each other.

“Nada, nada. Only yelling and hitting,” she said. “Y mordiento. Ninguna palabra.”

No words? Biting each other? Again, I tried to picture the scene but, when we reached the front door and passed through, my picture became immediately obsolete. The jungle itself was so much taller and hotter than I’d remembered, hopelessly intricate, opaque. Being inside for even these twenty-five hours must have atrophied my senses, or my imagination. Now the odors and shrieks of crazed life engulfed me and I couldn’t think how to search, where to turn first. Now I pictured jaguars, lethal snakes.




“And bugs, too. Don’t forget about the bugs, Dad. It’s less dramatic but they totally swarmed us on top on that pyramid, ‘specially those tiny iridescent purple ones. I remember those. That was before the monkeys arrived, of course.” Justine has brought me a tomato and cucumber sandwich, sets the saucer down, then a cup of coffee. She peers over my shoulder at the computer screen, her huge belly brushing and pressing at the slats of my chair.

I twist to look up at her, rubbing my neck. “Thank you, dear. I didn’t even hear you in the kitchen.”

“Looks like you’re almost finished here.”

“Getting to the end. Where’s your sister?”

“Don’t know. She’s not back yet. Wouldn’t even tell me what she was going into town for. Some kind of secret.” Since I haven’t objected, she keeps reading the screen, even reaches and flicks to previous pages. “Why, Dad, you’re being so thorough. This should definitely put the whole business behind us forever—again.”

“Very funny, Jus. I’m at the part I’ve never been able to explain quite right.”

“I know, me neither, but of course I was five when it happened.”

“That always boggles my mind. I think of you guys as filled with wisdom. Except for the hellacious fighting.”

She stands up straight, sighing. “I do remember that. I suddenly couldn’t stand the sight of that girl, wanted to hurt her, and ditto from her side. I have no idea what we’d done to each other to deserve it. Then we found each other in the jungle and huddled together on the pyramid.” Justine lays her hands on my shoulders. “We were starting to believe you’d never find us up there. Those long-armed maniacs had no trouble at all.”

Spider monkeys scampered up the jumbled stones and harassed my daughters mercilessly till even Freya hated them, and lashed out. Besides heavy antibiotics, the bite on her wrist required only five stitches, though the scar has never faded entirely.

“But who’d believe you two would wind up back at the landing site?”

“This is where the bird comes in, Dad.” Justine massages my shoulders. “You weren’t going to forget about him, were you?”

“No, but I’m not going to include that piece, either.” I bite into my crunchy sandwich, take a swallow of coffee.

“What?” She punishes me by abandoning the massage. “Ernesto’s blue heron’s the only reason you’ve got two daughters alive today. Otherwise, we’d have kept wandering farther and farther apart.”

While we searched, shouting the names, getting pricked, stung, rope-burned by vines,

Sylvina tried to win me back with further information. We’d decided not to split up because already a dozen others or more had filed out of the facility right behind us, and it was best to stay in pairs. “We treat the monkeys like royalty around here, always have. Never harmed or used a single specimen.” To me, though, the creatures soon became malicious shape-shifters; everywhere I looked, howler monkeys and spider monkeys, rather than my children, authored the only small-body movement. I couldn’t even remain convinced, moment to moment, that Freya and Justine might not indeed have taken to the trees, and my eye kept tricking me, dressing the animals in blue. “It’s in honor, you know, of all those that were sacrificed in Doctor White’s laboratory.”

Even though I know the answer, it’s been years since we’ve played this game, so I ask Justine, “Now, let me get this straight, you mean to tell me that that heron flew all the way, nearly two hundred miles from the coast of Belize to act as your personal animal guide?”

“If it wasn’t him it was a perfect copy,” she says, taking a seat opposite me at the table, helping herself to the rest of my sandwich in six successive bites. I guard my coffee cup. “Even seemed to have a bad wing, but he led us to the helicopter clearing. If we invented him, it was only because we needed him so much. Either way, there he was. He had to spiral back a few times till we both made it through the woods and found those ruins, then saw each other. We totally forgot what we’d been fighting about. We only knew one thing.”

“I knew it, too, the moment I spotted you,” I say, “perched up there, clinging to each other in your dirty Pedro dress.”

“Oh, yeah, that.” They’ve never worn matching clothes since, except on a lark.

“I didn’t dare admit it to myself, but it was the looks on your faces, like you were going to throw up.”

“We felt so horrible, Dad.” Justine blinks into space. “Not scared by the monkeys anymore. They took off as soon as you showed up. We were sick about what we’d just confessed to each other.

“Yeah,” says Freya, “we think it was the heads that put us over the edge, made us realize. ‘Specially that one, the miserable expression on his face. Before we climbed the pyramid, we stood there in front of it, just staring up.” I’d honestly forgotten this part. “It looked to us like pure torture.”

Back in our underground bunker, Maggie pulled the girls into bed with her and they all rolled and cried and laughed a lot. I felt like the odd man out until they wearied and Maggie resurfaced, gazing up at me from a sudden still place.

“When I was in that Simulation,” she said, “it was like all the worst nightmares of my life all wrapped into one. And that was before Sylvina came in the way she did. Seeing you was terrible, Stephen, terrible, terrible, even though I’d been so hoping you’d come. It was the way you tried to bridge the gap. And then to find out the girls were lost.”

I nodded, letting distance stay strange between us.

Lost, too, was the entire facility, though I didn’t know it until Professor Estes eventually found my phone number many years later. This disappearance is why he wants to chronicle the existence of the White Center; he says he can’t allow the conservatives to write the history of the controversy and shut the claims down as hollow legend. Armando Cuello’s book certainly never hit the shelves; I kept track. Is he still working on it within a relocated facility, still pondering what to include? Apparently, less than two years after our departure, someone blew the whistle—was it Ruth Fasulo?—but the various agencies and bounty hunters that descended on the Honduran jungles came up empty. The region is just too vast, us helicopter-riders lacking specific points of orientation. You might think the pyramid and the heads would make the mission simple, but it turns out the territory is dotted with hundreds of similar structures. And say you could locate the right clearing, what then? I’ve often thought about that front door, green, recessed into the hillside, and I’ve pictured Rosa Villanueva—for some reason it’s always her, the Sally Field of Maggie’s would-be rehabilitation—pulling shut this door onto an echoing, evacuated clinic cave, then concealing it behind simple palm boughs before running to join San Jimel and Sylvina at the clearing, for the last flight out.

We hear my car pull up in the driveway, then nothing. I see Freya’s sitting inside, staring through the windshield. We go out to her. The rain has stopped and the air down here is calm, though a high-altitude gale is tearing the clouds to pieces, revealing blue. We knock on her window, startling her, and she lowers it. Her eyes are bloodshot and sort of ashamed to see us. She closes them and pushes them deep with thumb and forefinger. The scar must be on the other wrist; funny I can forget which.

“See, I had this whole plan for Mom’s birthday. I’d get her a beautiful cake, and we’d put sixty-five candles on it, and light them, and blow them out for her. When I got there, I wanted to say something, you know, to have them write something in icing, something personal, an inside joke, like a little wink at her. But I couldn’t think of what to say. I drew a blank. I can’t even wink at my mother? If we’d convinced her to live, she could wink at me. I kept thinking of you instead, Daddy, if it was your birthday, and like a hundred ideas came to mind. I tried to burrow down deep and really give it my all. I guess I haven’t even tried that in years, haven’t had a reason. I just stood there in the bakery and broke up. People must have thought I was crazy, I’m sure you’ll hear about it. I leaned against the wall and sobbed. How could I bring back a cake with nothing written on it, or with some kind of cliche best wishes? Then, I drove around for hours, past all the old landmarks from our childhood, Jus. And I couldn’t put Mom in any. She wasn’t there now, and she wasn’t there back then.”

“I was off in a different world altogether,” Maggie said from the bed, still holding the twins. “You can’t imagine it. I wasn’t with you, I wasn’t with them.”

I kept reminding myself loudly, mind and body, mind and body, mind and body, as different as two things can be. I kept checking Maggie’s eyes, where I’d first discovered this, and they still confirmed, with their hopping light, Yes it’s true. I said, “But people can learn to get used to any—”

“They learn something, I guess.” She glanced left and right, from one shouldered girl-face to the other: smudged, stung, jungle-marred. “I realized that being…being post-mortem must be better, I hate to tell you. Then at least I might, we don’t know, I might be able to be with you in another way. I might surprise you. Anyway…” She made up more code. “I’m saying that if not for these…living beings, Stephen, I’d never undergo what I’m supposed to.”

There was a long period of silence in the room. Freya stared at her wrist, wrapped in a white gauze bandage, one spot of blood showing through.

“We knew exactly what she was saying, when she told you her feelings.” Justine opens the car door for her sister. “Didn’t we, Freya? It was the same thing we’d told each other in the jungle.” She helps Freya up and out, and we shuffle toward the house empty-handed. I have the ingredients for an Italian feast, all set. And another bottle of wine.

“Actually, Dad,” says Freya, “we’ve always been so grateful she said it, but we didn’t have the right words till she asked us, so we just lay there in her arms.”

“For the longest time,” Justine breathes, opening the front door.

“Till she somehow felt we had something to say and pulled us together on top of her.”

It’s always been like a faithful tape loop in my head, much as I wish it would fade—Maggie asking them straight out, “You want Mommy to get a new body, right?”

They said, “No.” They said, “No.” At the same time, they looked at her and then carefully, as if for a test, they pronounced the word.

“She just held us then,” says Freya, shutting the door behind us. “And you know what, though? She didn’t stay with us after she died. We were ready. She didn’t find any way to come surprise us.”

“Or else,” Justine suggests, “she only surprised us by how well she stayed away, how absolutely away.” She eases herself down onto the couch, catches her breath. “Besides that last trip, I can barely remember her.”

We arrived home in Miami by sunset of that same day.

Thirty-nine days later, at four o’clock in the morning, Maggie’s best friend Sandra called us from sleep, and we reported to the room, to help a woman hurry slowly out of life.

—Christopher Noel

/
/

Dec 142010
 

 In Minneapolis they just had 17 inches of snow in the last  24 hours, a record. Thus a “What it’s like living here” piece from Adam Arvidson in Minneapolis is particularly timely. Perhaps it will be the last communication out of the city til spring. Adam is one of my current VCFA students, a brilliant science/nature writer who has contributed several fine craft essays to NC in the past few months.

dg

What it’s like living here

from Adam Arvidson in Minneapolis

Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions, whereas other colors are not.  They are psychological spaces; red, for example, presupposing a hearth releasing heat.  All colors bring forth specific associative ideas, tangible or psychological, while blue suggests, at most, the sea and sky, and they, after all, are in actual nature what is most abstract.

– Yves Klein


 

 

Winter

You meet a girl.  A local girl.  They all seem to be local girls.  You trudge through the snow between her apartment and yours in the middle of the street, because the sidewalks are unreliable—some already cleared by ambitious homeowners with powerful snowblowers, many still buried in the drifts.  You don’t think it strange anymore when the first snowfall of the year happens in October.  The public radio station devotes a whole hour to discussing the impending event, and listeners call in to ask when the earliest measurable snowfall occurred or what was the most snow the city ever got in October.  You learn that talk about the weather isn’t just small talk here; it is a well-researched discussion, full of personal opinion, documented theses, and bold predictions.  You surprise yourself by enjoying that October snowfall, the way it hangs in the trees still spangled with the yellow and orange of autumn, the way it lays on pumpkin patches like a blanket on a bed of marbles, the way the people immediately commandeer it for their own fun: the making of six-foot snowmen, the strapping on of actual skis to replace the versions with wheels that the die-hards have been training on for weeks, the dangerous racing on sleds down the park hills toward the not-yet-frozen creek.  You marry the girl. You snowshoe with her under the gnarled bur oaks in the park near the house you bought together.  She pauses, smiles, her winter coat bulging at the middle with your first-born. You drive past the lake near your house on the way to pick up the new storm windows you ordered, and you are struck by the blackness of the water—a bottomless void in the white world.

Continue reading »

Dec 132010
 
T-34C

My first diagnosed seizure occurred in the cockpit of a Navy T-34C Mentor, on a formation flight over Pensacola, Florida.  I was 23.   Another pilot flew ‘lead’ that day, and I was the ‘wingman,’ which meant I  flew by staring straight at lead’s plane, judging distance and spacing by markers on the other fuselage and by constantly adjusting altitude, airspeed and direction to stay in formation.  We flew tucked in close, less than ten feet away, wingtip to wingtip. We were practicing a ‘turn-away,’ a maneuver where, on signal, the lead would bank sharply away and I would follow instantaneously and  in synch, maintaining tight spacing throughout the manuever.   Lead’s orange wing was so close to my cockpit that it seemed almost reachable.  I don’t remember a signal from the other pilot.   I don’t remember his plane turning away.   All I remember was coming to, his descending wing drifting rapidly away in the hazy sky, and the bellowing voice of my Marine instructor screaming at me over the intercom.  Something about me being ‘fucking nuts.’

(You can read the abstract of my case here, in an article published  by the flight surgeon who diagnosed me upon landing.)

I recently started re-reading The Pugilist at Rest, by Thom Jones, a collection of stories I read during my first semester at VCFA.   The titular story deals with the training of a young Marine during the Vietnam War.  The narrator goes through boot camp in San Diego where he assaults an abusive recruit-classmate with a rifle butt.  The narrator then ships off to Southeast Asia, survives a ferocious battle by faking his own death and receives medals for false heroism while the real hero lies dead on the battlefield. The narrator returns from the war and struggles with reintegrating into post-war civilian life.  We learn that Jones’ narrator suffers from epilepsy (as did Dostoevsky, as Jones himself does) and the story ends with the narrator preparing for an operation on this brain to help alleviate the symptoms of his disease.

The story has an odd structure, with scenes interrupted by historical and philosophical intrusions (about Greek boxers, Schopenhauer, Dostoevsky, etc.)   The eponymous pugilist is supposed to be Theogenes, a gladiator and Greek boxer who fought his opponents (to the death) while chained to a stone.

There’s a long passage in Jones’ story about the aura of seizures.  He’s thinking about his own disease and about Dostoevsky.  As a person who’s had epilepsy for almost twenty years and experienced far too many of these auras, I found this passage to be uniquely compelling:

“The peculiar and most distinctive thing about his epilepsy was that in the split second before his fit—in the aura, which is in fact officially part of the attack—Dostoyevski experienced a sense of felicity, of ecstatic well-being unlike anything an ordinary mortal could hope to imagine.  It was the experience of satori.  Not the nickel-and-dime satori of Abraham Maslow, but the Supreme.  He said that he wouldn’t trade ten years of his life for this feeling, and I, who have had it, too, would have to agree.  I can’t explain it, I don’t understand it—it becomes slippery and elusive when it gets any distance on you—but I have felt this down to the core of my being.  Yes, God exists!  But then it slides away and I lose it.  I become a doubter.”

In my experience, the aura sneaks up randomly—there are no precursors, no triggers that I can identify.  It feels like the most intense déjà vu imaginable, beginning as this prolonged sense of recurrent action, almost like a vivid memory.  In those weird seconds as the aura passes from something subtle to something more sinister, everything that’s happening—every sight, sound and sensation—seems to have happened before in the exact same order and sequence.  And here’s the kicker for me: the future feels predictable too, as if I know exactly what will happen next.  Then the aura shifts, and rises into a more and more intense, almost crippling feeling as the déjà vu spreads and becomes more pronounced, mixing with darkness, with a sensation of fear and gloominess.  In “The Pugilist at Rest”, Jones describes this as the “typical epileptic aura, which is that of terror and impending doom.”  But these darker sensations blend in delicately for me.  As loopy as this may sound, as I experience the aura, it feels life-altering, epiphanous, expansive and eerie all that the same time.   It’s both terrifying yet inexplicably peaceful.

I feel no panic in these moments, just dread and calm mixed together in an unmixable cocktail of lucid emotions that take over, then, almost as quickly, let go.

One of the more vivid of these auras happened to me about two years ago.  I was running on a deserted road in Spain (where I was living at the time).  The run felt normal and I ran that road a lot.  Nothing seemed off-kilter or indicative of any somatic disturbance.  Then I noticed the beauty of the trees along the road.  This sounds like bad poetry, I know, but that was my first sensation: “Man, those trees look beautiful.”  And the sun shone brilliantly, and the sky appeared crisp and bluer than I’d ever seen it.  The asphalt road bent around to my right and a guard rail separated the road from a low wash filled with reeds.  The moment felt dreamy, but entirely sensuous too. Like hyper-reality.  Seconds later, overcome by an intense emotional feeling of having lived through this exact experience before—the trees, the reeds, blue sky, sunshine, pavement and the curving guard rails—a wave of physical symptoms hijacked my body.  My knees went weak.  I began to sweat, then my body went cold,  then started sweating again.  I felt nauseated and light-headed.  I knelt down along the side of the road and tried to shake it off.  There was the oddest feeling  that something dramatic was about to happen, something almost indescribably sad but predestined, too.  Jones’ dread and doom here.  Then the aura simply receded.  The sensations passed completely in a minute or less, and all that lingered was a slippery sense of uncertainty over what had just taken place.  I even managed to finish my run.  As if nothing had really happened.

I would not, like Dostoevsky or Jones, trade ten years of my life to re-experience these auras.  Though I agree about their ‘slipperiness’, their ‘elusiveness with distance’, I’ve experienced them enough times that I do not long for repeat performances.   The auras I’ve experienced (and the seizures that sometimes follow) have not triggered any great religious awakenings in me.  I heard no voices of the gods, saw no window into heaven or hell. To my knowledge, I’ve never been accused of being possessed by a devil.

And I’ve been lucky.  Medication seems to manage my symptoms quite well.  And while it hurt intensely to be told at twenty-three that I would never fly again, I can look back at that moment (even at the screaming, cursing Marine instructor!) and feel thankful that my seizure happened when it did, and not out at sea or on final approach into the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier.

A long time ago, I read all of Dostoevsky’s works.  I became obsessed with his novels and stories and the critical work on him.  I’m proud to say that I even managed to read all 5 volumes of Joseph Frank’s incredible biography of the Russian author.  Few writers have a more compelling life story than Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky.   He suffered intense anxiety over his epilepsy, constantly afraid that it would strike him at any moment.  These were the days when epileptics were closely associated with mental patients, whereas now there seems to be a more clinical, medical sensibility about the disease (as, quite fortunately, there is about most types of mental illness).  Epileptics were shunned from polite society and confined to mental hospitals.  I imagine Dostoevsky worried that his disease would ruin his writing career.  Of course, his disease went almost untreated in the nineteenth century.  For Dostoevsky though, the attacks were often portals into his fiction.  This has never been the case with me.  I’ve never even written about the sensation before now.

Epilepsy has been called the “Sacred Disease.”  It’s long been associated with demonic possessions and spiritual visions.  Paul of Tarsus was said to have suffered a seizure on the road to Damascus which he took as a religious vision.  Muhammad may have suffered seizures; Joan of Arc, Joseph Smith.  I imagine that a religiously inclined person might feel some ineffable divinity in those moments.  I do not, but I can’t fully convey or describe what they do feel like.

I didn’t get up this morning to write about any of this.  I wanted to offer up some of what I’d been reading and seek suggestions from others on NC about good reads for the upcoming holidays.  Funny how these things work.  Toward the end of Jones’s story, he says this:

Good and evil are only illusions.  Still, I cannot help but wonder sometimes if my vision of the Supreme Reality was any more real than the demons visited upon schizophrenics and madmen.  Has it all been just a stupid neurochemical event?  Is there no God at all?  The human heart rebels against this.

-Richard Farrell

(All quotes are from The Pugilist At Rest, by Thom Jones, 1993)

Dec 112010
 
The Author

(Photo and makeup by Jonah Glover)


Jonah hasn’t been himself lately. I don’t know what’s up. Maybe he’s a little tense about school. (No animals were harmed or mistreated in the production of this photo.)

dg


Dec 102010
 

Here’s a fine “What it’s like living here” piece from Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate Glenn Arnold who lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where it goes to -40 in the winter and there’s more oil than in Texas. Glenn took the photos of himself and the art gallery. His son Craig Arnold shot the street view, the refinery and the gorgeous cityscape down the valley.

dg

—-

Merge Right (or Left)

I’m on my way to see the play Studies in Motion, the true story of Eadweard Muybridge, the man who more than a century ago tried to stop time through experimental photography, but couldn’t stop the tragic entropy of his own marriage.  As I sit in my car, alone again, waiting to merge in a construction zone, I remember the essence of an old joke. An Edmontonian stuck in traffic comments to his friend that it’s a nice place to live, and will be even nicer when it’s finished.  This frustrating and seemingly endless road construction hints at a deeper truth.  The city is always building, always inventing itself, but it’s never clear what it’s trying to become.  There is always progress, but what is the goal?

The city is confused, juggling multiple and conflicting personalities.  Edmonton is isolated and extreme.  It is the northernmost, major city on the continent, and on a map, it sits apart from the other Canadian cities that huddle around the American border.  My life has been filled with long, contemplative hours behind the wheel, the endless patchwork of farmland and prairie mesmerizing me as I try to get somewhere, maybe to see her, maybe someone else.  This sense of isolation is fed by the severe climate: temperatures typically range between -40C and +30C.  People here have a sense of grim survival, gladly spreading their blankets on the flattened grass in Hawrelak Park in July, battling mosquito mobs, just to absorb a little of the solar radiation that will be such a rare commodity later in the year.  In deep winter, the sun is a weak orange orb, low in the sky, limping across the horizon for barely seven hours a day.  In my days as a cubicle drone, sunlight was only a vague dream.  Now it’s a little better: my office has a window that provides me a thin hope that I might survive the coming darkness.

Continue reading »

Dec 102010
 

Barnes

This is a stellar first for Numéro Cinq, a full-length original novella by Toronto writer Mike Barnes. The novella’s heterodox (and liberating) structure includes footnotes and photographs. Mike Barnes is the author of stories, novels, poems and a gorgeous memoir about his own descent into madness and recovery. This novella, too, deals with madness. It is an intricately structured rendering of madness and memory, a mix of hallucination and dense, concrete realism, which only makes the phantasmagoria of illusion all the more poignant. This is an amazing work—supremely intelligent, coolly self-analytical, eerie, melancholy, revelatory and terrifying.

dg

/

Capture

/

Food in dreams appears to be the same as food when awake, but the sleepers are asleep, and receive no nourishment. 

—St. Augustine, Confessions Book III

On a spring afternoon in 2007, I was lying on the couch in my living room reading Simon Schama’s Power of Art. This chapter was an essay on Picasso’s Guernica. As I read Schama’s account of the German planes appearing in the sky over the Spanish town on April 26 1937, something caused me to look up from the book. The objects of the living room, clearly outlined in the spring light, seemed altered somehow, stark yet dubious along their edges. Not quite familiar, either as themselves or as an arrangement of objects. I had a sense of items poised in a museum, absorbing my attention while contriving to escape it utterly. Clear and hunkered as they were, I couldn’t quite see them. I realized the date was April 26 2007. The same day as the Guernica attack, exactly seventy years later.

The bombers had appeared in the sky at 4 p.m. I looked at the homemade wooden clock on the end table. Hand-sawed and painted yellow-green, it has the shape of a tall, slim house with no windows and, at its base, a little red door askew on its hinges. The hour hand had dropped below the eave on the right, two thirds of its way toward the crooked little door. The big hand pointed straight up into the peak of the tall roof. It was 4 p.m.

For a long instant, like the sustained vibrations of a musical chord, past and present collapsed together like the two ends of an accordioned paper figure. Or more than two: the moment thronged with splintery harmonics. Stretched out, the two sequences–the destruction of a town, which became the subject of a famous painting, which became the subject of an essay; and (reversing things) my reading of the essay about the painting about the destroyed town–were separated by the innumerable twists and folds of seven decades. Then somehow, with a speed that gave me vertigo, they shut up tight together, without a wafer of space between them.

They overlaid each other like clear transparencies. That was part of the vertigo. As if the intervening seventy years had suddenly gone sheer and negligible. Like wandering (I was looking at the house-clock again) in a building made of glass. A glass construction polished to such speckless transparency that things that ordinary walls and floors and ceilings would keep at a distance could suddenly loom, merge and blend.

But there was movement in that image. There had to be. In part to account for the lurching, jittery sense I felt lying there. A sense of caged turbulence–wild whirling bounded by absolute stillness–like the frenzy of snowflakes inside a glass-globed paperweight.

A dance, I thought. In a dance you whirl through space without ever leaving the dance. At a given moment someone may be across the ballroom, or right next to you, or in your arms–these positions and others can repeat and alternate. All of these thoughts and comparisons, none of them quite right, none of them completely wrong, could go on without any disruption to the dance itself. Perhaps they were even part of it. A step, a style of stepping, however ungainly, that I could claim and recognize as my own.

For if the pure exhilaration of this kind of dancing has always come with close echoes of apprehensiveness, it is not just because of its weightlessness and the transparency of its figures, those unmoored glassy possibilities that bring havoc just as easily as redemption to the world of solid sense and obscurity. It is because, once finding myself aswirl again, I have never had the slightest clue when or where or how the dance will end.

__________

After that there was nothing for a few days. Then the first transmissions, widely spaced. The number 70. Lines and circles scratched in dirt. My grandfather. These could be core signals or peripheral or preliminary, perhaps to test or clear the line. There was no way to tell at this point. I knew by now to do nothing but wait.

__________

In July 1963, John “Jack” Green, my grandfather on my mom’s side, died suddenly of a heart attack, aged 70. I was seven, almost eight, at the time. Ever since then, his death, as Mom described it to me, has been the model in my mind of a good death. The sort of swift and summing exit not granted to many. He was a gentle, churchgoing man, worn but not broken by working a Saskatchewan wheat farm for fifty years, including the worst years of the Depression. His father had been one of the first eastern settlers to build on the land outside Moose Jaw. On the last day of his life, my grandfather came in from the field to have lunch. He was still vigorous, still active in the pattern of his days.[1] “I feel tired, Maudie,” he said as he settled into his chair. “I’m just going to close my eyes for a bit.” When my grandmother came back from the kitchen, he was gone. Sitting with his eyes still closed, his hands still folded; no signs of pain or panic. As if, having reached his Biblical allotment of threescore and ten, he was permitted to depart peacefully, like a ploughman who has faithfully cut the long furrows back and forth in a vast field and can now, having reached the far corner, leave the implement and slip into some nearby shade for his rest.

But similes, like everything else, depend for their meanings on the frame that bounds them, on how far they’re allowed to go. Meaning is a bonsai operation. If the ploughman image is permitted to extend even slightly, there is, for the one back in the farmhouse, the matter of the abandoned plough, which must be dealt with, and the mystery of the vanished labourer. My grandmother, Maude, whose maiden name of Bastedo reveals her Spanish ancestry, had to wait eighteen years to follow Jack. She sighed sometimes, more often as the years passed, “I’m tired. I want to see Jack again.” Or, “I’m ready to see Jack.” Her hint of exasperation at the length of the vigil she was being taxed with in no way contradicted her legendary Christian faith, cheer, and kindness to others. It made these qualities shine even brighter, as the foil of stoical resignation in which these gems sparkled. She continued shopping and cooking for the sick; volunteering at the church; visiting and telephoning and writing her seven children; sending each of her two dozen grandchildren a card with a note of love and a green dollar bill on our birthdays–these are only a few instances of her charitable heart, which was energetic and constant. Her death was as sudden and in-stride as Jack’s. Literally in-stride in her case, as her heart gave out while she was walking home from church, struck down, as Jack had been, while active, while attending to what she loved and believed in. She had called all of her children on the telephone the night before. The first time since Jack’s death, they realized at the funeral, that she had phoned all seven of them on the same night. Several of them had heard her say, “I’m tired, I miss Jack,” as close to a declaration of impatience as she came. The yoking of “tired” with the certainty of a glad reunion makes of death a falling asleep, but also a waking into the better world that her faith assured her would be waiting. Leaving a muddled waking dream, which, even to someone of Maude’s devotion, the cheerfully executed but repetitive rounds of her long widowhood must have seemed sometimes, to awake in a perfected dream, lucid and permanent.

I remember, on that spring night in 1981, crossing the kitchen to where Mom stood with her back turned after replacing the phone. She faced the corner, her shoulders furled with the start of grief. Then, my only thought was to comfort her as best I could. Now, though, looking back, I think beyond this to the story she would soon begin murmuring, of the closure of her mother’s long vigil, like the dangling end of a long necklace or locket chain that had finally found its clasp. And I think, too, of my own situations in 1963 and 1981, and find differences and parallels, which sometimes switch about and become each other. At almost-eight, in 1963, I was about to enter Grade 3 in a new home in a new city. Eighteen years later, I was living in a small room downtown (I had walked up the escarpment stairs to have dinner that evening), washing pots in a kitchen by day, writing poems by night. I wrote and read and walked much of the night, sometimes skipping sleep to have a last coffee near the kitchen before my shift started at 6 a.m. I wrote on average several poems a night and mailed them to magazines around the world, which in turn mailed almost all of them back. More than happy, I felt awake. Finally awake–as if my whole life before psychosis had been a fever dream I tossed in, a swampy swirl of lulls and jolts which had to accelerate to a climax before the fever could break and my eyes open.

Grandma Green was the last of my grandparents to die; her death closed the clasp of that generation. Grandpa and Grandma Barnes, residents of an Ottawa nursing home, had died, a few months apart, in 1977-78. I was in hospital at the time–often catatonic, I have been told and have no reason to doubt–and remember nothing of their passing. When I was discharged finally, in 1979, those two elderly people I visited as a child were simply not there anymore. The photographs of their gravestones declared an absence without making it real. It was as if, while I was “away,” my grandparents had been abducted by aliens and whisked to another planet. That was the way it would have happened in the sci-fi books I devoured in my early teens. Interplanetary agents might have been left behind to plant evidence explaining the disappearances. Such stories no longer held allure for me. For some years now I had been living a life replete with inexplicable transports and lacunae. The aliens were here, their work was everywhere. Except that I no longer believed in aliens. Or perhaps it is truer to say they no longer interested me. Their myriad crazy doings had exhausted me into indifference. I was drawn now to “realistic” authors, though their realism was for me a risky realm. Authors who wrote of characters whose lives evolved by discoverable cause and effect, linked chains of relationships and events, remembered as a chronological continuity–these authors, who were in the majority as I discovered, wrote tales no less fantastic than those of Heinlein or Philip K. Dick, but for far higher stakes. Those stakes were nothing less than the establishment and maintenance of an order of ordinarily fathomable life. An audacious goal. A hopeful and necessary one, it seemed to me, crucial and heroic. At other times I found it deluded, craven, even obscene. My reactions to realistic fiction were extreme because its stakes, for me, were extreme. They were, in fact, ultimate. I needed to believe, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that my own life followed discernible patterns, that events happened for reasons and that similarly solid people with their own evident trajectories–rather than phantoms whose visitations were random and unknowable–intersected with it. That personality was more than a series of poses or mirages, persuasive and evanescent. My favourite authors gave the devil his due. That is, their fictions allowed for unexplained personal obsessions and drives, random and even magical occurrences, but they incorporated these irruptions into a skein of narrative causality. Knut Hamsun, Brian Moore, J.G. Ballard, Isaac Singer. Emotions like meteor showers; fluctuating spells of death and apparitions of the virgin Mary; the world’s cities sunk in deep lagoons, a car crash love cult; dybbuks and succubi and eunuchs mad by the full moon–but between these marvels, admitting but also denying them implicitly, the linked words and phrases of plausible action, reaction, sentence after sentence, page after page. The world of sense; of linked, constituent parts. A tractable creation. A submitted one.[2]

The pine tree. Chedoke Public School, when I started there in the fall of 1963, first placed me in a Grade 2 classroom instead of Grade 3. We had moved to Hamilton in the summer and perhaps my records from the old school were mixed up or delayed. In any case, what cracks Mom up when she tells the story, which she finds both appalling and hilarious, is the interval of several days during which I kept silent about being in the wrong grade. When I did speak up, I burst into tears, all my throttled misery spilling out at once. But she finds curious the time when I kept stumm about my demotion. Taking my seat in the out-of-date classroom, conscientiously completing last year’s work. She finds that remarkable. I find it typical, and an augur of sorts. I would have kept quiet partly from timidity, but also from a conviction, which dates back as far as I can remember, that all powers are completely arbitrary. Unaccountable and inexplicable, they do with you what they will.

That was certainly the case on the playground, which seemed to me an extreme classroom, its rules warped to multiply thrill and terror. Behind the school stretched a plain, vast to my eyes, of patches of stubbled grass surrounded by hard pale dirt pounded flat by hordes of running feet. “They’re coming!” the cry went up, as we played Red Rover or British Bulldog in the grassiest, softest-for-falling area; and across the plain, as we stood gaping, a dust cloud roiled toward us, like the dust of a prairie stampede. We milled together, like zebras or antelope before a lion attack, and then, just as in the animal documentaries, scattered in all directions as the bullies converged to pick off their targets. I was seldom damaged, except collaterally, when a whole storm of bodies crashed together. I was middle-sized, with a middle expression: neither big nor small, bold nor visibly afraid; not ostentatiously “different” enough to constitute a challenge or an obvious victim.

The most different person was never attacked. Neither by the bullies nor by their whimpering victims, who often, in the aftermath of an assault, turned on one another. Everyone seemed to understand on an intuitive level that extreme difference breeds strange powers and entanglements, magical complications that transcend the laws of physical force. To cross far enough over was to be inviolate, though at the price of utter isolation.

Paul Tamburlaine. What do I really remember of him? I don’t want to stitch him together with imaginary threads. Watery, rather expressionless eyes, pale gray infused with the faintest blue. A wide gash of delight, that split his face at odd moments, for no apparent cause, exposing a wet red mouth and large crooked teeth. Thin arms with large clumsy fingers. A slow, lurching walk. I remember more of him than I thought; he is coming into provisional focus. His most obvious feature, so obvious that after a while you seldom noticed it, was his greatly enlarged head. Bulbed at the forehead and behind, it suggested the shape of a light bulb with his face in the narrowing part. His swollen head, still swelling, was the result of a fall from a tree when he was younger; that was the story that circulated.

Paul sat or stood at the perimeter of things. He seemed content there. His desk was at the back of the Grade 2 classroom, moved a few inches closer to the corner so the teacher could squeeze by when checking the other students’ work. Colouring with a box of crayons is how I remember him spending his time. He was larger than a Grade 2, and perhaps older by a year or two; Grade 2 may have been only a convenient spot to keep him, or perhaps it was the place he’d been when his accident had arrested his progress. Outside, he stood by the sidewalk at the far edge of the playground, scratching, with a stick he’d found, things in the dirt. He watched us at times, that sudden grin baring the lurid mouth, but usually just stood with his head down. He could talk, and reply to simple questions, but he rarely spoke or was spoken to. His voice was unnervingly high-pitched; there was a screeching note, a hint of frenzy, present even when he was speaking quietly. From time to time, a new student would invite him to join a game. By the firm shake of his head, No, it seemed he had been told not to play, perhaps because of further risk to his head. He was often away from school, for medical appointments we were told.

For a time, Paul was my closest companion. Not at school, where such a blurring of categories would have subjected me, not Paul, to violent censure. Paul seemed to understand this, grinning my way only slightly more often than before. But his house was on the way to mine, and I often went to his yard after school. My parents, if they noticed this at all (they were busy, their fifth child on the way, and I was already an expert evader), might have construed it as a way of adjusting to a new milieu. Paul’s mother (I never saw or heard of his father) was more concerned, parting the front curtains to peer out at us. Calling sometimes, “Pa-ul?”, whereupon he would go inside for a few minutes and then rejoin me.

Our minutes together–or hours, since they seemed timeless–were some of the most peaceful I have ever spent, and even to think of that short autumn launches me on a wave of nostalgia. Curiously, since those intervals were almost completely wordless, it is most often while writing that I approach the same borderland of poised stillness, a kind of scooped-out expectancy, that makes me think of Paul. Though his mother may have wondered at my motives in befriending her brain-damaged boy, I was simply drawn to him. I liked his otherness and his quiet occupations. I liked his silences and the occasional grating cries that punctuated them. They meshed with my own most natural inner cycles of revery and happy accident, and many years later they would return to me as early prefigurations of my notion of sanity as a perpetual guerilla action, raids on incoherence.

A big pine tree dominated Paul’s front yard (I assumed it was the tree he had fallen from), its bushy sweeping branches shading half the lot, creating a cosy grassless circle of needles and dirt around its base. Paul would be in there, among the sun-and-shadow patterns, drawing marks with a stick. I stood nearby, watching him. The things he drew were always the same. Or they were meant to be, I think, since his physical awkwardness and the resistance of the dirt sometimes skewed them out of shape. They were the same symbols he drew everywhere. (Except in class, where he crayoned clumsier versions of the generic landscape we had all learned: sun, cloud, grass, tree, house.) He drew a stroke across from left to right, then a longer stroke down starting at the first stroke’s right end. To the right of this first figure, he scratched a circle, concentrating hard to do so without lifting his stick. Of the three strokes, the circle was hardest, often wobbling out of course around a stone or hard clump of dirt. The resulting shapes looked roughly like the number 70. But only roughly, since the angles of the first two strokes and the size and position of the circle were so changeable. They could also look like the number 10, since Paul sometimes dug his stick in hard, grinding it back and forth fiercely, at the bottom of the second stroke.

I’m thinking of Paul’s marks as numbers now, to describe them. I don’t remember doing so at the time. They were just Paul’s marks. They were his voice, really, more focused and more personal than those strangled yelps he emitted. Milling with the other students at recess, before or after the bullies had attacked, I would look across the schoolyard plain and see Paul at the edge, head down, drawing with his stick. It was comforting to know what he was drawing, as if I was there while standing here, and especially, to know that he was drawing. The tasks of school had already thrown the rest of us into an oppositional sloth, an ostentatious indolence to counter our enforced diligence, but Paul had escaped this teeter-totter of rote and recoil. He was always busy in his own world, etching his intentions upon it, like the much younger child the rest of us had already left far behind.

Fights between bullies, which happened once or twice a week, took place against a red brick wall at the back of the school. I almost said were staged, since this wall of bare, chipped brick, its putty darkened with graffiti the janitors couldn’t scrub off, was the perfect backdrop to the spectacle we watched from a crowded semicircle. The combatants were sealed in between the brick and the packed onlookers. Usually it was two of the minor bullies fighting, perhaps to settle a dispute or advance their standing; we knew nothing of the inner workings of the gang. Every so often, though, as the climax of a cycle in which the minor fights were epicycles, the two main bullies fought, a treat that was announced in excited whispers for days beforehand. Moose and Hackney exchanged places regularly as leader of the bullies. The fights were real: flying blood and snot and curses, smashing fists and feet; but their prize seemed more symbolic than real. The one who was not leader afterward was his close subordinate, almost equal in power of command, and was alone in being immune from the leader who had just narrowly defeated him and whom he would soon narrowly defeat…an endless cycle. Endless, at least, until they turned sixteen and could finally leave Grade 8 where they had strutted and fought for years. Moose and Hackney. They were like contrasting types cast for a western, interchangeable as villain and hero, but visually distinct for the viewer’s convenience. Moose short and broad and blond, Hackney tall and skinny and black-haired. Both wore nosepicker cowboy boots, for clicking and kicking.

Standing among the youngest students at the rear, I would look away from the din–from the back it was mostly an auditory event, a tumult of screams and thuds and the special crunches that brought deep-bellied groans of pain and appreciation–and see Paul over on the edge of the playground, his stick dangling from his hand, watching us. Or watching the place where the noise came from; his posture seemed attentive but not curious. His position looked so peaceful. Occasionally a car passed behind him, the only motion on those streets of silent bungalows. At some point–I don’t know when it started or in what terms I conceived of it then–I understood that Paul was the most powerful person in our school. I don’t know if it was a thought, I don’t know if I had thoughts then. Year later, in my sci-fi phase, I might have imagined Paul directing the proceedings, all of us, with thought-beams. It might unfold that way in a Twilight Zone episode, the nobody on the margins who was actually the alien in command. But this was far less conceptualized; it felt like simple recognition. It was also a longing, an intuitive attraction to Paul’s weird and singular privilege. Bullies traded places; Paul kept his. No one bothered him: not students, not teachers, not even the principal. Bullies, I noticed, even Moose and Hackney, slouched past him as if he wasn’t there, feigning obliviousness instead of inflicting it. Sometimes when they passed Paul I caught a confused–almost a lost–look on their faces. Those looks disconcerted, and hinted at something thrilling. Their power fell away from them in an arena in which it had no meaning. I couldn’t begin to understand any of this. At that age all motion, all awareness, was merely magnetic: I never decided to move, only felt myself moving, creeping toward some things, inching away from others. Things and people approaching or receding told me I was moving.

Whatever this dawning revelation was, about Paul and about power at the margins, I knew enough not to tell it to anyone. I kept it close and secret, something to nourish and prove my allegiance to, much as a sorcerer might add each new herb he collects to a bundle tied in a leather purse that he hangs inside his clothes, next to the private heat of his body.

Sometime that fall, Paul left our school. He may have lived at home for a time without going to any school, because I have a few memories of passing his house and seeing him standing near the pine tree with his stick. I didn’t stop anymore, and he didn’t raise his large pale face as if he expected me to. By then, by processes occult to me, I had been absorbed into the normal life of school where I was beginning to excel.

Paul was gone by that late autumn day when a great adult excitement communicated itself to us and we were let out of school early. Everything seemed chaotically off, festively traumatic, like a daytime Halloween. Kids milled around in unusual knots, a goofy boy with red hair ran around at top speed shouting, “The King’s dead! The King’s dead!” We waited for our mothers to pick us up, even those of us who normally walked home. Some of the mothers in the station wagons were crying; two of them got out and hugged each other. Paul is nowhere in the scene, but some essence of him clings to what I recall, blended with my activities as if I had absorbed him, as if we were now one person. Lying on the living-room floor for the next two days in front of the television which was never off. My parents smoking and talking in low voices. They talked mostly about the king with the huge head, and the little man who had killed him. By now, of course, I knew the facts behind the redhead’s leering cry, “The King’s dead! The King’s dead!” But his version, like a peasant’s shout in a fairy tale, still seemed truest. Black horses, one riderless; cannons; the avenue thronged with weeping subjects; the beautiful veiled queen: what were these but the trappings of a dead King? Lying on the floor with my paper and crayons below the hanging smoke, I drew a version of Moose and Hackney, but the colours and proportions were wrong. Plus, I couldn’t draw a gun. Then, at some point, I got another idea from the pictures on TV. The bullets that blew the king’s huge head apart came from high up in a corner, so far away that the little man in the window with his gun couldn’t be seen, a man in a tie had to draw a circle around the spot. And then when the little man himself got killed, again it was by an arm coming out of the corner. My first three months at Chedoke Public School, and Paul in particular, had prepared me to understand this. The adults were always talking about the man in the middle, but all the real power was over at the side, almost out of sight in the corner. That power could blow a king’s head off, snatch a prisoner from the arms of big policemen. From time to time, I glanced up warily at my parents. They seemed utterly absorbed in the TV accounts, never hinting by a look or comment that they doubted them. Didn’t they know the power was at the margins? Or did they know and pretend not to? Both possibilities unnerved me, and I ducked back down into my drawing, shrinking my world to paper and coloured wax. Finally, I found a way to hint at what I was seeing. It didn’t convey my understanding but it gestured toward it. I filled in some patches of gray and white, mixed with bits of beige, in the middle of my page. It looked like a muddle of ragged clouds, a jigsaw fog. Then, over in one corner, I put a long black bar, with a short red bar coming out of it–like a figure in black with a red hand, or gun. I made the red and black lines as strong as I could, pressing over them again and again until they gleamed darkly. I kept redoing the drawing, changing the sizes and configurations of the centre shapes and the corner figure, trying the latter in different corners for instance. I could never get it quite right, but I liked the general effect. It was the kind of thing I wanted to do more of.

ideas-of-reference-page-15

Next I became aware of my watch malfunctioning. By “next” I mean not just the next step in a sequence but the next signal from the same transmission. If you are making your way through a forest, the way may be easy or hard, but neither case is like coming upon a cleared path laid out in a direction that beckons you. And if, a little later, the path breaks down, petering out on rock or becoming choked with deadfall, then pressing forward in what you construe to be the same direction is nothing like the way opening suddenly underfoot and up ahead so that you find yourself on the clear and shining trail again.

My watch was breaking down, but not all at once and not completely, which for a while prevented me from repairing it. I would notice it was running two minutes slow, then an hour later, another minute. Okay, I thought. Would set it to the radio and check it six hours later. Perfect time. Two days later, still perfect. A bit of dust inside the works? The next morning it would be five minutes behind (it was never fast). This was in early May, soon after the Schama/Picasso overlay, and I took it to be part of the same dance with time. It was an instinct that kicked in about certain symmetries coalescing, which led me to issue myself mental reminders: Take note. Stay alert. (“Stay frosty,” a movie marine would have growled.) I started keeping my watch in my pocket, it was less unnerving than having the uncertainty on my wrist. I asked people what time it was. People I was meeting. Then strangers. Most replied politely, but a few gave me sharp looks, this beggar bumming time instead of coins. The results stayed variable. Right on the dot. A minute off. (It was never fast.) A half hour behind–now we’re talking! Dead accurate for the next four days. Always this nagging little drama, this stutter-step from a Beckett notebook: breaking (or?), must break (or?), stagger on (…or?). When I finally took it to a jeweller in a mall, it wasn’t because the watch had definitely died (though what would that mean? it had lain dormant for up to an hour–why not a year?), but because I was sick of the space it was occupying in my mind.

I stared at the glitter of expensive watches under glass while the sales clerk finished with another customer. She frowned when I stated my problem. One of those natural young Mediterranean beauties–big dark eyes, chestnut hair, slim, she would have stopped your heart drying her hair after a shower–who had smothered herself in makeup and floral scent. She limped in her stiletto heels. Why do that? I thought for the thousandth time.

She came back and told me that the battery was fine. I was prepared for that possibility, though still a little surprised. A cleaning? I inquired. No–she gestured at the door behind her; I saw a little man, bald, bent over a cluttered desk–he said it was fine, no dust. I stood there stunned, my not-dead watch in my hand. The hand she laid on the counter had inch-long, curving nails the colour of Wite-out. Did I want to buy a strap?

All the transferring between wrist and pocket had cracked the old strap almost through. Her father–some shared liquidity in the eyes when he turned to her–attached a new brown leather strap to my failing but not failed watch. For a few days it kept perfect time.

__________

The laws of breakdown. Its code. Which you must on no account violate if the breakdown is to be yours (and of what use would another’s be?). Perpetual vigilance is required, the paradox of rigour amid crack-up (which is in fact no paradox but a necessary condition). What you don’t want above all, the worst betrayal–of the process, of yourself, of life even–is a botched breakdown. One of those tape-and-glue stumble-ons that can simulate recovery, functionality, can even, with a protraction that a Torquemada might flinch from inflicting, extend themselves into a slow-motion suicide lasting seventy years or more, “sadly missed.”

No. (That much you know.)

Eventually the watch will stop. Or you will smash it: that seems daily more likely. Beyond a stopped watch will be…no time or new time. But not fractured time. Not these splintered and dissolving minutes.

Beware of watch-repairmen. Tinkerers. Parts-replacers. Let the watch break.

(And yet no way to tell, from the first slip-slidings out of time–or the first noticing of them, for who remarks on a few dropped seconds?–how long it will take a watch to break. Days? Weeks? Years? More time than a lifetime affords?

To smash, crash, stop. And become…time-less, bare-wristed? Or tell time true, anew?

Or be tinkered back to passability? Fiddled with and spit-shined by the old, bald man?

No way, ultimately, to know.)

__________

During my first year at university I dwelt in a kind of twilight state that I called a waking dream. This state was so strange that I assumed it could not last long. Yet it would last another three years and lead not to the death or awakening I expected but only to long-term hospitalization. It wasn’t like a dream, not really, but it wasn’t waking life either. Perhaps “waking dream” is really the best way to describe it. Precisely imprecise.

I had trouble telling the time. Clocks and watches told me one thing, but my eyes told me another. It might be noon but the colours were leaching from things and a grainy veil drawing over them (early on I’d blinked and rubbed my eyes a lot)–as if the world had been sketched with almost-dry markers, then photographed out of focus, then a machine had blown in fine gray specks, sand or soot, that floated and sank–I piled up the scenarios that could conjure the faded, sleazy dregs I was seeing. And it went the other way too. Out walking at 3 a.m.–I took these epic tramps to try to exhaust myself into sleep–I’d pass another night trawler and see features shining in a boom of light, pinned under a glare in a Dali desert. Sometimes despite myself I stopped and gaped, startling the other into a jog, glancing back over their shoulder. And I looked about for the streetlight or passing car responsible for the light-burst. But there was nothing. I was standing on a darkened street, the footsteps pat-pat-pating away.

I tested my eyes in the mirror. Even if something wasn’t seriously wrong with them, maybe I’d developed a tic of staring and then squinting; my own lashes could be those grainy veils I seemed to be peering through. It was only a slim, desperate hope, which I didn’t really believe. Otherwise why did my guts knot as I approached the medicine cabinet’s mirrored door? I’d learned to wash and brush and shave without looking up except in slivers, spotting the part I needed to clip or dry. Now I looked straight on, eyes open. Black. That was the first thing I noticed. My eyes couldn’t be called brown, even dark brown, anymore. Black buttons, with a plasticky gleam; sunk in gray puffy folds. But they were open. And still the light from the forty-watt bulb flickered up and down, like someone twiddling a dimmer switch. The face in the glass frightened me. It was a mask behind which great error was occurring. Sometimes I thought of the error as evil. There was a moral dimension–that somehow I had chosen this–that I couldn’t shake.

For long hours, twisted in the sheets of my roominghouse bed, I lay in a swamp void of volition, twitching my hand or foot to be sure I wasn’t actually paralyzed. I had left my parents’ house abruptly, taking my shaving kit and a few clothes. Not just to be free of them –I was 18–but to find a quiet place where it could happen. I felt a shame about what was coming and for as long as possible I wanted it to happen out of sight. Some animal instinct for the time for crawling away. I never lost the sense, even when the turns got frankly terrible, that there was a knowingness, some cruel wisdom, guiding the process. Something ancient knew all this, perhaps had coded it through millennia, and had procedures even in the midst of chaos. That kind of thinking irritated the interviewers later. They wanted me to say it was all bad, all symptom. Pathology to be chucked while I steered toward health. And I couldn’t, quite. It wasn’t stubbornness, nor courage–I was terrified. Sickened and disgusted and mesmerized by dread. But to give up all glimmers of knowing, of sensing landmarks and direction–where, what, would that leave you? Even in the blackest mangrove swamp, sunk there on a moonless midnight, you had to claw-squelch-flail-inch toward something–you couldn’t just hang there. Why couldn’t they see that? I’d stare at them they must have written), really trying to figure it. But that was all up ahead.

For now I was nothing but symptoms. Such a profusion of them it paints a false, too orderly picture to give these examples. Symptoms like an anthill, boot-strewn: cognitive, affective, behavioural. Physical, metabolic: hair texture, skin tone, digestion–all wacko. A total stone[3].

Except that I didn’t use the word symptoms, not to myself. It wasn’t my word. It was something more like travel, a process unfolding. And so close I didn’t need to name it. A secret knowledge that I grew to call a pregnancy. A pact. An interior pact of tremendous vitality. Vitality and risk, a doomed cellular glamour. Soon, I’d think. We’re almost there. It’s coming, not much longer. It’ll be bad, really atrocious…but then it will be over.

All these steady mantras to get me past the moments.

There were gaps. Blink-outs. There must have been, because I’d find myself somewhere–in a park, on a street, in a room–with no memories of having got there. I’d think back, hard. Like a math problem. Standing in a park. Winter. Snow, stars. Back…the coffee shop. Low light but not dark, more like dusk. Hours ago, then. An hour or two at least. What else? Try! Nothing. A blank spool between then and now. I wasn’t there. Not in my own memory. Where was I then? (Where am I?)[4]

I didn’t invent The Autopilot, I said testily, one of the rare times my voice rose, in one of the offices later. (The pen scratching its evidence, the pissy prim posture.) I simply gave a name, an obvious name, to something that needed one. Someone–Something–was moving me from A to B. A phenomenon. It matters, so you name it. Right?

When it wasn’t rinsed by radiance–the Illuminations were becoming less frequent, something settling down, locking in–the world looked wretchedly dirty. Grime spattering the window glass. Streaking the walls, the floor, the ceiling. Hanging in filthy webs, putrid decaying streamers. Everything was grime. I was grime.

I’d forget to eat for two days and then shovel down a pot of Kraft Dinner at 4 a.m., gobbling it over the filthy stove. Wander along wondering seriously how I could be feeling so cold, whatever happened to the warm blood of youth and could I really have lost all muscle tone that fast, then notice, like a sign posted in the corner of my eye, an icicle, and then another notice, my red T-shirt, bare arm. February, I’d remember. And sometimes burst out laughing at such times, not always crazily, sometimes just a really warm chuckle at how goofy it had all got. What rich meaty veins of antithesis you have, Grandma.

I knew enough to steer clear of people. I moved through McMaster’s campus like a ghost through a fleshed town. I was especially afraid of meeting former classmates, afraid they’d try to talk to the smart affable guy they’d known and we’d both feel weird, so I found a lot of back alleys and unused stairwells, kept my head down. There was a system inside things, I found, a sort of parallel architecture that allowed you to stay invisible and still get where you needed to be, ghost routes so dependable they seemed as planned as washrooms. I assumed I looked awful, a real ratbag out of Dostoevsky’s notebooks, and was shocked sometimes when a normal-looking person gave me a smile or a nod, chatted to me in the coffee line. Was it all invisible? I couldn’t believe it for long. Especially, I worried about the two dimensions meeting, inner and outer, ghost and flesh–I imagined something like the matter/antimatter cataclysm in Star Trek. Even a slight leak could cause a lot of local damage. I think it may have happened once. There was a girl–very intelligent-looking, with kind eyes and a large hooked nose–I kept running into. I’d catch her giving me these sad, strangely pointed looks; searching glances, as if she knew me partway and couldn’t figure out another part. I started seeing her more and more, and the looks became more intense. Meeting them with what I thought was a neutral expression, I would see her jerk away suddenly, as if she had burst into tears or was about to. This went on for a time, the tension of our meetings mounting, and then–I don’t think I called them transmissions yet–some pictures came into my head. She is looking up at me, we are dancing a slow dance, just circling slowly in a crowd, she is smiling, her eyes warm, and I feel the dampness of her blouse where I am holding her. Her name flits near, like a word on a passing radio, and then is gone. And then her face again below me, in shadow, in a bed, she is holding the covers over her breasts and I see the white glow of her chest, a dark flush at the base of her throat. She is frowning slightly. She looks puzzled, angry. She is trying to figure out something that is hurting her. Where am I? I must be beside the bed, from the angle. That was all. But now that I’d seen them, the pictures stayed, strong and consistent. And they made a kind of story that went with her stricken, resentful looks. Had we really met at a pub, gone to her room? And then I’d forgotten the night, forgotten her? How awful. There was real damage here. The gaps so complete, anything between them possible. And no way to tell her, no way to explain. She’d have to be with me, all the way in, sharing our lives. And I was far beyond that (or before it, below it, really). It did flicker in my mind, a flitting hope like her vanished name, which for a short time made our chance meetings even more charged. Stay away from people, I told myself. And then I stopped seeing her, we never met again. I still think about her occasionally, wonder what really happened. Where she is now and what she made of it then. The pictures separate and distinct as ever. Still no name.

I knew I had to quit university, had to make it official, but I still dropped in to classes once in a while, read the odd page. Showed up for exams, handed in papers–I must’ve, because my transcript lists low Bs, the subjects passed. I don’t know whether that proves how little Arts programs were asking even then, in the mid-70s, or how ripped my academic muscles had become by senior high school, so that I could coast for a long time while they turned to flab–both, probably. I recall almost none of it. If interrogators put a gun to my head and ordered me to write down everything I remember from my first two years of university, only true memories no lying, I couldn’t fill a page. Not with school memories: classrooms, teachers, other students. Things I read. They didn’t happen. Not if memories equal events, they didn’t. The coffee I just made happened more.

One note on the page. No date. A philosophy class. The grad student, a tall beard, is trying to impress us with first-year conundrums. The tree in the forest. How do I know I know. When he gets to the one about the Chinese philosopher who dreamed he was a butterfly, and ever afterward wondered which he really was, man dreaming butterfly or butterfly dreaming man, the students chuckle drily, an emission of mild irony. That rouses me. I say something to the effect that obviously they’d never had a sufficiently compelling dream. No other storyline had ever tempted them. Something like that; probably in a rusty, too-loud voice, since the heads jerking around is a sharp image. I must have been slouched in a back corner, the Raskolnikov seat reserved for the shitbird who drifts in once a month to sneer at the proceedings. The beard shoots me a look of appreciation: a baby Nietzsche I can nourish? Then a cold remorse and shame washes over me, like a cup of icewater I’d tried to dash in people’s faces and it had blown back in my own. I feel awake for an instant, really awake, and think, What are you doing here? You don’t belong with any of this. Get out, get out, get out. You’re way past due.

The dream of Liesl Annerkant. 1970. Grade 10. I look back on it as the zenith of my school career, because even though my marks climbed even higher in the next two years, some dispersal must have started too, it seems likely, for it all to fall away so quickly in Grade 13. Yet I know nothing of the timing, and only a little about the process. But a view of something that you know is about to break does not look solid; some awareness of the breakage seeps back into the earlier frames; you have to snip out quite a bit of infected film to get a shot that feels reasonably solid. And so, by subtraction, I arrive at the solidity of grade 10: a compact coherence, packing my bones and spirit tight together. A real good boy, young man. I have two close friends, we play Risk and penny poker. Sip whiskey, trade jokes and insults and sex fantasies. I join the euchre tournament in the cafeteria. Play road hockey behind the Salvation Army. I make the football team, not first string but I get in a few plays. None of my marks is under 80 and I am getting 98 in Math.

Liesl Annerkant, two rows over, is getting 100. She hasn’t made an error yet. Not one decimal out of place. Her perfect string creates a delicious tension in the room: Can she keep it up? Mr. Brieve, who has a sense of drama, draws out the moment when he hands back tests, approaching her desk with a blank face that kills us, not grave, not anything. We squirm. And then he slams down her paper, slaps it like a high-five on wood, face up with the three big perfect numerals circled in red. And a cheer goes up, it breaks out of us: “An’ she can!” The best we have been able to do with her awkward German name. And Liesl, not shy but not a gloater, lowers her head, peers with a frown like factoring at her own perfection, there is nowhere else to look, while two spots of rose glow on the back of her long, slender neck. She is beautiful. I can’t introduce flaws just to keep the picture interesting. Full-breasted, slim-waisted, long-legged; with a stern, straight nose that makes me think of Athena–and wheat-blond hair, long and centre-parted. And nice: not overly friendly, but always patient if someone needs help, smiling when you pass in the hall. Just an achingly good, achingly gifted girl. A perfect girl. Why shy from the word?

And, curiously, nobody seemed to have it in for her. Not even the girls. All the nastiness that ten years had taught us, all the endless petty battlegrounds that were school–something, her sheerness it must have been, lifted Liesl clear of all that. You didn’t hear catty remarks about her. You didn’t hear horny ones either. She was better-looking by far than any of the girls we lusted grimly after, degrading them in our convoluted jokes–but she didn’t enter our minds that way. It would have been like mating with another species. It must have been a kind of loneliness for her. This sphere of spotless admiration and goodwill that she floated in, untouched and untouchable.

In the dream Liesl and I live a long, rich life together. We share a small house. There are no children. My work is bureaucratic, some kind of applied science in an office, but Liesl’s gifts are still leading her to the heights. She is a star of pure mathematics, and a highlight of our days is her describing some exciting new aspect of her research as we make dinner together. Both of us frowning, and then laughing helplessly, as I try, and try, and finally fail, to follow some obscure point. Such talk! Of a depth and richness, a variety and constancy, that I have never imagined in my waking life. Pet jokes, gossip, even boredom, stale topics that bring aggravation, sharp digs. The whole shared life in words. Sex is there, delicious interludes, but even it is secondary to this consuming conversation. The dream’s resources are those of a master of exhaustive realism. No quirk or oddity ever feels imposed upon a scene, but none is overlooked if it is intrinsic to it–everywhere is the enthralling wealth, the minutely observed texture of the life we have together. If that life is so much richer than any I have known, charged with a shining meaning, it is because I am finally in life, draped in its fabric, attentive to every thread. I was conscious of this in the dream, without being conscious I was dreaming: This, this, is it, I thought, with gasping gratitude. This is how you do it. This is how it is. There is pain. Of course there is. Nothing is missing. Illness, heartache, disappointment. Betrayal, bitter words, tears. We even age convincingly, in tandem but differently: my hair thinning but staying mostly dark, Liesl’s going steely gray; me growing paunchy, soft, while she becomes leaner, almost gaunt. I comfort her in those moments, more numerous as she ages, when her confidence falters (“An-she-can!”). She comforts me wordlessly, with a look or touch.

Always, uniting all the multitudinous scenes, is our talk, the guiding current, this river of achieved communion…murmuring in the bedroom’s dusk, rippling and splashing in the yellow kitchen after work, pooling in wide silent bays…carrying, in all its sparkling surfaces and turbid depths, our whole vast history onward toward something unseen….

I awoke and lay very still in my bed. For a few minutes there was nothing but a sense of suspension and well-being, a warm bath of utter contentment. Then, in tiny increments, I began to be aware of other feelings, doubts and confusions like small stinging insects that were dragging me back into another, lesser reality. The dream was so alien to my real circumstances, my life as a 15-year-old boy. Which, in the wake of the dream, did not seem more real, only more threadbare. Like emerging from a long opera to hear some of the same tunes played on a kazoo. My rocketship bank on the bookcase, a gift from an aunt some years ago. The sounds of my parents downstairs. It seemed heartbreaking to be dropped back into this, cruel for the dream even to have shown itself to me.[5]

Questions helped a bit. I could cling to the dream aura a bit longer through them, prevent it from receding too fast. How had a lifetime, two long lives, been compressed into one night? The best answer I could come up with (for the reality of the dream was too absolute to question) was that I was living that life in a parallel universe, where none of the same laws, including those of time, applied. (The aesthetic answer I would hazard now, that the dream director stuffed a scene so convincingly that it summoned others in its train, did not occur to me then.) Perhaps I could return to it. Do my time in this one, quietly, trying not to jar the portal, and slip back through. Perhaps even tonight.

Rain that had frozen during the night had coated the trees outside my window with ice, the trunks inside clear columns, the twig ends hanging in clear glassy bells. Light pulsed back from the crust, like clear shellac, on the snow. Liesl was out there somewhere, dressing in her room. I didn’t know where she lived. Was it possible she had not experienced the same dream? No. Telepathy at a minimum was what we’d shared.

Downstairs my parents were eating their toast, sipping their black coffee. Not talking, which I was grateful for. I got my cereal bowl and took my place. Holding on to the dream’s spell was a fragile effort, more precarious by the minute. But their silence and small noises, clinks and scrapings–they were suspicious, too. They brought back doubts I had had at the time of Paul Tamburlaine. The dream’s momentousness so filled me that I knew I was changed utterly. Could they really be oblivious of that or were they pretending to be? Were they actors or automatons?

I crossed an open field before I reached the streets around the school. The freezing had formed that perfect crust that allowed me, with delicate steps, to walk on top of it, on a film between ground and sky, above a piled fleecy whiteness that my occasional plunges through let me wallow in. In hollows where the water had pooled and the ice was thicker, I took three quick steps and went gliding, sailing, finally quite weightless. The air was still after the storm. Still as the inside of a bell.

In Math class Liesl was bent over her work as usual, giving no sign. The thin mockery of school life had prepared me for the moment, easing, in what seemed a self-betrayal, the pricklings in my stomach. Getting back was going to be more difficult, I saw, more occult. I would have to be vigilant. Who knew when I would return to the Reality Dream? (Never, as it turned out, at least not in the same form.) In the meantime, like a desolated scientist, I noted the differences between the dream and so-called waking life, to the radical disparagement of the latter. The discontinuity of time, moments like beads without a thread to join them. The confusion, the lack of purpose. Like a bunch of lolling, empty-headed actors who, out of sheer boredom, sometimes improvised inept little skits, then fell to dozing again. The adequate, undramatic light. The tinniness. The threadbareness.[6] I tried to summon a knowing cynicism, but when I thought of the dream I felt sick at heart. It faded only very slowly, leaving a residue of longing and bitterness that was acute for a time and fitful for a long time after that.

Curiously, I took less notice of Liesl after that. I had known–would know?–her somewhere else, but things were different here. As a notion that she was a figure from the future crept into me and took silent hold, her present self, a premonitory figment only, dissolved.

Over the next two years I sank, half deliberately, into a dreamy inwardness, a lush romanticism that kept an active gregariousness around it like a hard shell protecting a creamy yolk. Piano playing was the natural art form to express this. For years I had practiced my Conservatory lessons diligently, but now I poured myself into music, composing song after song. Having artistic “leanings” but no proper medium was a problem that had nagged me for a long time,[7] but I felt I’d solved it now. Visual arts had been my first love, but past the colouring stage, my utter lack of talent was prohibitive. With music I had at least manual dexterity, good rhythm, a so-so ear; I thought with the engine of a blinding work ethic I could whip these raw materials into something. I wrote sugary melodies over minor descending chords, often with an arpeggiated introduction that showed off my speed. My pride in them was only occasionally pricked by a suspicion that they resembled other songs; greater musicality would have recognized their progenitors instantly. When I presented one of these songs to my first girlfriend, inscribed in black pen on musical notepaper and played on an accompanying cassette, her birthdate its title, she was moved to tears. My adoration of her intensified, mingled with, inextricable from, a sense of my own omnipotence. Later, after playing it dozens of times to myself, I felt a bit disdainful of us both. Aside from the occasional oddity, such as a mournful and repetitive elegy for Charlotte Corday, my other kind of song was pure noise, waves of crashing discords, that I found particularly inspired and strangely relaxing. No one else enjoyed these, though, and, worse, some people thought I was joking when I played them. When the house was empty, I felt a strange exultation, a kind of energizing alarm, in sending my sugar pops and my clashing tumults billowing in alternating waves that finally cancelled out in exhaustion and a surfeited peace.[8]

ideas-of-reference-page-31

The conference room. (1978?) The murk parts and I see knees, in blue jeans, almost touching larger knees in brown cords. Fog slides, the hole widens.

Slowly, I raise my eyes. Silver sun buckle. Oh, oh. Big gut and chest, in blue checks. Now the face. A huge one, scowling. Walrus moustache, long blond shag. Oh, oh, oh.

38, he says. The name already past, I missed it. He’d been a steelworker, a millwright. Is now a doctor. A psychiatry resident. It is all barked out in a deep, almost-growl. In-my-face, like I bumped him in a prison yard. Do I understand?

I nod, careful to put nothing in my eyes. No matter how much danger I’ve kept time with, he is taking me further back, back to first recognitions. To straight power and the eagerness to use it.

Still–because he’s new?–I ask him about something I saw recently.

“Do you see a ghost now?” He grins, smoker’s teeth. Looks from side to side, puts big knuckly hands up beside his ears, wiggles his fingers. “Hello? Am I Caspar?”

The conference rooms are unbelievably tiny. No more than closets really. Two chairs, a quarter inch between the knees, and the walls right there. Smaller than the smallest elevator. Like a womb you share with another fetus for an hour. Who had thought of it? On occasion, with the right person, the intimacy can be thrilling. To Rose, whose perfume fills the space, I said it was like two soul-moths, the wings grazing. She blushed and said you could say that. More often it is tense, fraught. Both of you talk rapidly to fill the space. And then, not infrequently, there is this. Two animals sewn into a pirate’s sack. I zoom in on the ridges in his cords, the woebegone furrows between them.

“Give me more of that,” he growls, chin angled up.

More of what? We’d been sitting in silence, the soup curdling in. “Hello?” I hear, and throw myself further into it, wading into the tough talk like a surf that will wake or pulverize me. “What about–?” And I ask him about some events over the years, the ones I’d come to call transmissions. Though I don’t use that word with him.

“Ideas of reference,” he says.

Ideas of reverence,”[9] I murmur. Clearly enough that I hear the difference, but not loudly enough for him to catch it. Echolalia and Perseveration are words that appear often in my chart. Pat, a fat nurse who likes to start things, showed me one night.

Now he’s standing, his ass in my face. A juicy fart would be the perfect ending. He turns the doorknob, lets it roll back. Turns. His crotch at my eye, baggy brown pleats. I do a zoom and walk awhile in the furrows, turned earth, up and down. I look up. Moustache ends hanging out of red, hair, ceiling. Sometimes the goop clears when I least want it to.

He gives me a hateful look, a glare that promises he will make me a special project. And I think he must have followed through, because suddenly, very suddenly, like a rip of cold air, he is nowhere near me, ever. I see him standing down the hall, though not with his hands on his hips, not glowering. Not even looking up. As if he’d been yanked off me by someone very stern. Like someone just windmilling into someone on the ground, a teacher hauling him back by the shoulders. Rare, for all the bullying; the two people had to match exactly, like dancers. I don’t know what all might have happened between us.

__________

I answered a knock on the door. Summer, early fall, 2007—afterwards I told myself to write down the date but I forgot to. My hair was greasy, I hadn’t shaved or washed lately. It had been maybe a week since I’d left the apartment. “Good evening,” said an elderly, pleasant-faced man. He didn’t stare; no doubt he met all kinds, knocking on doors. A middle-aged woman stood beside and slightly behind him; she smiled politely. The man said he was from Elections Ontario. He had bright eyes magnifed by thick lenses, and was bald save for a monk’s fringe of short white hair. During my enumeration, he paused when I gave my birthdate: August 15 1955. He looked up from his clipboard with those large bright eyes, and extended his hand. “August 15 1929,” he said. We shook hands warmly.

I watched him walk down the hall with his younger lady companion. Feeling buoyed by the brief encounter, floating in it as in warm saltwater where I need barely move my limbs. I watched them almost to the elevator. They did not knock on any other doors.

I understood him to be an emissary, an angel calling me gently back to myself.

__________

On October 29, a song came into my head insistently. I hadn’t thought of it in years, but now I heard it constantly. It was a song from my early childhood. I heard my mother’s voice, clear and warm, but I couldn’t see her face, she must’ve been behind where I lay.

I had a little nut tree,
Nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg,
And a golden pear;
The King of Spain’s daughter
Came to visit me,
And all for the sake
Of my little nut tree.

I wrote down the words–the voice stopped singing then–and pinned them to the black foam board that covers a third of one wall of this room, from near the floor to above my head. The area involved is about 30 square feet. The notes on the transmissions since April covered the black completely, layers deep in places. I had to push the pin hard to make the new one stick. Looking at the mass of cards and pages and Post-Its and magazine photos and newspaper clippings, I felt a mixture of security and mild dread. Like someone who has filled his pantry and fridge with groceries but knows that at some point it will all have to be cooked. It will be big, I thought. Long. It wasn’t so much the number of transmissions as it was the gaps between them. What about that? I wondered. Imagine a flurry of telegrams about an event and an equal number of messages from someone who writes you at long intervals. Which would be harder to describe: the event or the relationship?

I punched “I had a little nut tree” into Google and saw a black-and-white picture of Catherine of Aragon, one of those northern Renaissance portraits I find so frustrating and moving. Their blend of awkwardness and sophistication, as if talent is coming into focus randomly, is what you find in paintings by gifted high school students, which convey an external likeness guilelessly, without any trace of a peculiar inner life. “The characters in the nursery rhyme,” I read, “are believed to refer to the visit of the Royal House of Spain to King Henry VII’s English court in 1506. ‘The King of Spain’s daughter’ could be either Princess Juana or her sister Catherine of Aragon, daughters of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The princess in the nursery rhyme was probably Catherine who was betrothed to Prince Arthur, heir to the English throne. Arthur died and Catherine married his younger brother, King Henry VIII. The first of Henry’s six wives, she was discarded by the King to make way for Anne Boleyn, whom the common English people called ‘The Great Whore’.”

The song had a second verse I hadn’t known. My mom had never sung it.

Her dress was made of crimson,
Jet black was her hair,
She asked me for my nut tree
And my golden pear.
I said, “So fair a princess
Never did I see,
I’ll give you all the fruit
From my little nut tree.”

__________

On November 2, I parked my car on the west side of the grounds of the former Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital. The buildings are being converted to office space for other social services. The work is proceeding from east to west, and the old brick buildings I parked beside, some of the original asylum buildings, are mostly deserted. I seldom run into anyone apart from an occasional dog-walker as I roam the wide grassy grounds. I strolled with my digital camera, looking for the right kind of tree, in sunlight, with dirt around its base. It was mid-afternoon and I kept glancing up at the sun. Waning as autumn advanced, the light was hardly ideal for taking pictures, but I felt myself slowing down, and before the solstice shut-down, which I knew would come early this year, I wanted to shoot some versions of the marks Paul Tamburlaine had made, which had been in my mind every day since April. I found a stick to make my marks, and I found two trees in different areas. A pine tree, with low bushy branches, in moist soil thick with fallen needles. And a maple tree, with no lower branches, in a circle of pale, cracked dirt. Neither was ideal but each had features I liked.

The shut-down started soon after, and went remarkably fast. Inside of a few days I could only read magazines, short articles with pictures, and soon after that nothing at all. I couldn’t follow the words with my eyes let alone understand them. If I got to the end of a sentence and tried it again, it was as if I was encountering it for the first time. Wisps of meaning clung around some words, but then dissolved into jots and squiggles. I stopped trying to read. Took as much time off work as I could. It is so much like that scene in 2001 when HAL’s circuits are pulled one by one. One function less as Dave Bowman moves along the row. The process might be even more radical now, the ruptures in functioning more extreme. All that’s really changed in thirty-five years is my reaction to it. I fight it less. It’s a small, huge change. Still I panic and flail sometimes, lashing out like a disturbed sleeper, especially if I’m asked, or ask myself, to think decisively. (And in those instants of flailing I see how easily, without this modicum of understanding, the panic could transmute to pathology, to diagnosis and treatment, to catatonia or worse.) The best I can manage is to let go and allow myself to sink into this gray, weighted dream, like one of those divers being lowered into the dark, their senses sheathed, looking so cumbersomely languid as they take their slow-motion walks, tottering in dark fluid, giant babies on the ocean floor.

It lasts about six weeks. Thoughts of suicide come and go. I try to watch them calmly–these particularly dark, jagged-edged clouds–and remember that they have passed before. The amnesia is still almost total. But that almost is a giant gain. Dimly I remember that I have been here before. Entered and left. I remember that there was another side, without remembering what it was. I keep the space I wait inside small, tiny as I can. Drinking (too much, which is the enough I need), watching movies I have seen before. The Sopranos are a godsend, 86 hours I can visit and leave at will. The car with music is also good, this womb-corpuscle filled with The Clash, “Spanish Bombs” on Repeat, down Duplex to Chaplin Crescent, travelling slowly up the bloodstream of Avenue Road, very late or very early (they are the same), when no one else, or only the occasional other, is awake.

__________

One reliable source of comedy is to tell people exactly what you remember. True, it can cause suspicion among people not accustomed to considering single frames slashed from a narrative. It’s not something they permit in themselves (or which, by now, is perhaps even possible), and their eyes imply you are holding out on them: You went to Paris and you remember a Coke? An orange table? But for others–sometimes easy to spot, sometimes found by surprise–there is, after a bewildered look, a bark of laughter, which sounds like pure relief, when they find that the main feature has been cancelled, something has overexposed or underexposed all that lavishly mounted celluloid, the projector’s defective lamp has burned it white or left it black, and so you chat in the empty theatre lobby, the scheduled entertainment replaced by a wall sconce casting a muted oval, or the serial number plate of the popcorn machine and a corner of last month’s poster pinned by a staple.

Even so. I’m haunted by the suspicion that I’m only trying to make a virtue of necessity. Don’t most people remember their lives? It’s not a question of elapsed time. My memories of my first trip to Europe, in autumn 1975, were no more abundant or coherent–I don’t remember more abundance or coherence–thirty years ago than they are today. If I stopped relating to people the fragments I recalled, it was because their reactions could no longer distract me from the question behind the fragments: Where was I during my trip to Europe? Was I by then sunk so far into dream that events vanished as soon as they happened, except for a few vivid flashes that jolted me awake and laid down durable traces? Or was it waking life that had become character-less, lacking an executive agent that would preserve tracks firmly? Depression is known to interfere with attention in numerous ways, including this one: perceptions reach the way-station of short-term memory but fail to be committed to long-term storage. Experience penetrates no further than the file clerk’s desk at the end of the day: Everything In Everything Out. Just these few I couldn’t find homes for, boss.

Except–isn’t there another possibility in that image? An overlooked one?

Can’t find a home; not, there is no home. Think of the difference. “Don’t look for a story in symptoms,” one caseworker said. But where else would you look? Piece it out. Over the years, you laugh along with everyone: Four months in Europe and that’s all there is? But maybe that’s all there was. If you keep remembering the same few things, isn’t that the opposite of random? Isn’t it possible that those snippets are what happened? Are at least stepping stones to story. Like the pebbles Hansel dropped when nobody was looking, the ones that lead through the dark forest home.

      • The chess park. Germany. Green grass for the dark squares, the light ones sprayed white. The chessmen stand thigh-high, like milk cans with handles on top to move them. A platform at either end, steps up to it, the player lounging on a chair with armrests. Calling out moves. Men beside the board, smoking, drinking coffee or beer, lift the piece and walk it to its new square. Or carry it off the board. The taken pieces on either side huddle like interested dwarves. A game ends, a lifter takes the loser’s place. I think of Hackney and Moose. I am out in Paul Tamburlaine position, by a shade tree off one corner, watching.
      • Giantism. Frognerpark, Oslo. November: solid gray skies, cold. Wandering among the life work of Gustav Vigeland–The Human Family, says a plaque in English. Huge figures in gray stone, the same gray as the sky, depicting men, women, children, singly and in groups. Massive gray limbs and torsos, simplified faces. Gray. The gorgons’ wasteland. …Here there is a gap, eine Lücke, a fugue state probably, since there is not even fog or the dead-spool sense of elapsed time. It is the next instant, but I am far away. No idea where or how I got here. Panting, chest heaving–from running? Shirt soaked with tears, which are streaming down my face, off my chin. Vast faces blooming in the sky, luscious colours. Weeping harder at the relief of colour. Line of people against a brick wall, the faces blurred. Keep staring up. Recognition comes seeping back: Liz Taylor. Rock Hudson. James Dean. Giant. Film. Another gap, eine vollständige Lücke
      • In a hut at the tip of Sognefjord, a room with bunk beds. Playing cards at a table with three other travellers, a man and two women. At dawn the mail boat will take us up the fjord to the sea. My friends have headed south, to Paris. I am to meet them there in a week. They were reluctant to let me go, after Oslo. I’m all right now, better, I need to get my confidence back, etc. Really it was the instinct to crawl away. I don’t want witnesses for what will happen next. The other man, a balding Ottawan, quips to the plump brunette: “If I told you you had a nice body would you hold it against me?” Her thin blond friend shoots me a look out of robin’s-egg eyes: Can you believe him? From the angle at which I receive her glance, fractionally more acute than it should be, I realize that I have left my body and am positioned ahead and to the left of it. The difference is very slight; perhaps I have not left it completely. The smudge in my peripheral gaze, to my right and just behind me, is myself, my body. I check my position relative to the other players. Everything accords with the new coordinates. The brunette to my left slightly closer, the angle also sharper. The man, directly opposite me before, now slightly oblique, and slightly closer. I watch my hands play cards; they play as usual, though they look different, viewed from an angle never seen except in photographs. Later, in bed, the civil servant and the brunette snoring in tandem, a soft voice from the bunk above asks me to come up and massage her back. No, I tell her. Come up and rub my back, she says. No, I repeat. On the boat the next morning, the three stay in the cabin with the mail sacks. It is bitter cold. I stay outside, pacing the frost-slick deck. Through the window, the blonde shoots me a stricken, wet-eyed look. On the next pass, I see her hunched over, shoulders shaking. Her friend hugging her, consoling. The civil servant gives me a wink. I see my hands unzip a plaid sleeping bag, exposing a long white body, very thin, the hip bones prominent. Is it possible? I have no answer. I am back in my body now. Frightened, I visit the captain in the wheelhouse. I make chattering small talk. He shrugs in his heavy wool sweater, murmurs, “As high above, so deep below.” Gesturing up at the rearing cliffs and down at the icy blue water. The fjord, so narrow, must be immensely deep; though it is 10 a.m. and we are halfway there, the sun has not even cleared the precipices yet.
      • I run, train station. A commotion. People crying outside. Inside. Everyone crying. Wailing, sobbing. Tears streaming down the newswoman’s face. The front page solid black, an old man’s white face in the centre. Hamlet’s father. But the face too undistinguished: bald, puffy-eyed, sag-cheeked…bureaucratic. Franco ha muerto. And in Madrid, everywhere we go, we cross the line that snakes for miles through the city, people inching forward to see the generalissimo in his coffin. Part the human curtain to go inside–bar, hotel, museum–and part it again to step back out.

__________

When my watch breaks down for good, in early May, I find a repairman in the neighbourhood. I wait a few days, I don’t know why. It is not a matter, after all, of waiting to see if it will start again–a process that could be drawn out indefinitely–but of knowing that it is broken. How could I have forgotten that?

Y Phung Watch Repair, on Yonge Street, is one of those cubicles of space behind the small windows you glance up at from the street and wonder what goes on, who lives, behind them. I climb a wide stone staircase with oak handrails, the stairs bowed in their middle from the weight of climbing bodies, thousands of them, over decades.

The repair shop is a tiny model of economy. Like a cell in a hive. The repairman works at a cluttered desk, just enough floor for his swivel stool to move back two widths of itself, wooden shelves and compartments on all four sides stuffed with parts and order slips. A dusty window looks out on the smart shops below, the corner of a blue crane constructing a condo in the distance. How long, tinkering with time, has he seen them come and go?

I hand my watch through the window. The hands have not moved from 2:22. He sits on his stool and I sit on a plastic chair on my side, my knees grazing the partition. After a time I stand up and watch him at work. Through the window over his shoulder dust-blurred views of spring shoppers, faces hurrying in the sunny street.

A feeling of peace suffuses me. As if I am sunk in a warm bath sipping an espresso, the body limp and soothed, the mind alert. I wish I could prolong the moment and imagine paying to watch him work, ostensibly as research for a profile I will write. Recently I did such a profile of a painter friend, a write-up of the month I spent watching him work on a portrait, but in this case it seems too weird. Shyness stops me. (Though this desire, to get close to people as they work, grows ever stronger. I often find myself standing near the silver-haired produce manager at Longo’s as he discusses fruits and vegetables with customers, feeling calmed and utterly absorbed.)

He recommends replacing the works with a Japanese model that is not the original but will work at least as well. I agree and ask unnecessary questions to prolong the encounter.

He writes his guarantee in black pen on the back of his business card. May 17 2008. Citadel. Miyata 2035 replaced. 1 year warranty.

He wears three watches on his left arm, and glances at one or all of them to set mine. He hands it to me. The hands still say 2:22, but the second hand is running again. I stare at it until it ticks over to the next minute.

Down on the street I stand on the pavement in the sunlight. People pass in either direction, walking briskly, intent. Spring again.

Let’s go home.

It is the last transmission, I think. Or know rather, as with the stopped watch. This dance with time has ended.[10]

__________

I came back from Europe in December 1975, sure that it would be over soon. The ruptures were becoming too frequent, too long-lasting. Disjunctions that had been intermittent for years were settling in, like a graft that finally overtakes the shoot, or a tumour that envelops an organ. Metaphor roved constantly to suggest something that eluded words. Slippages, I called them. Windows; then, doors. One day I would reach The Door. The Door would shut behind, or I would wander too far away and not be able to find it again.

It had to be soon. My job, as I saw it, was not to hasten it, since it was coming to meet me on its own schedule, but to avoid unnecessary delays. That thought obsessed me: how to let unfold, how not to impede. This waiting was the most painful and fantastic feature of the process. How was it possible that, for years now, I had been slipping in and out of phase, finding myself in one world then another, or increasingly in a gray milky interzone, while still retaining as much ability to function as I had? I knew that functioning was the enemy, it was the only thing I was sure of. Breakdown, absolute cessation, was needed. But it couldn’t be rushed. It was the culmination of necessary stages; so how–besides this horrible waiting–to arrive at it?

Of what was coming, it, I had not much notion. Like another universe, it couldn’t be imagined from where I was. I assumed it would require my death–a death of some kind. The biography I had known, myself as a person, was approaching a termination. That was all I knew for certain. What, if anything, might begin on the other side of that line was as unknown as the life of an egg and sperm cell approaching each other.[11]

I worked a year at Stelco, in the coke ovens. Surviving so many narrow scrapes underlined what I already knew: accidental death was not what was approaching. The charge car, the prow of a black ship, loomed out of smoke and I dove, so close it clipped my airborne boots. That happened many times. A man was crushed to hot jam between an oven and its huge door. People gave me pills, coloured capsules, and I took them, standing between the billows of purple-green gas and the roaring columns of flame. Inevitability grants immunity. When the destination is unalterable, “digression” loses all meaning.

I smelled a strange, elusive smell, a bit like burning hair. I realized I had smelled it faintly for months, maybe years, but it was stronger now. Showering and showering didn’t remove it. It hid in my nostrils behind the soap. The scent would disappear, then return. A brain tumour? I had heard of such a symptom, I thought. But no, it would not be that.

I switched universities, going to York in Toronto. Maybe it was there. Maybe I had to move around, meet it somewhere. I rented a damp and moldy basement apartment in Willowdale. The Geists, my upstairs landlords, argued incessantly night and day, an opposition so unrelenting it seemed incredible that a couple still in their thirties had achieved it. Hiss to squabble to tirade, a radio tuned to all-hate all-the-time. I made a small plywood table and spray-painted it lime green, my lungs stabbing for days afterward from the fumes in the unventilated space. Dinner was always tuna stirred into Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, heated and served over Uncle Ben’s rice.

As at McMaster, I attended classes fitfully. I would take my seat in the back, the professor looking up in surprise, then spend the class trying to remember how I’d got there: a bus ride? walking? Nothing. Words ran together, blurring into a gray paste that put me to sleep, but sometimes they popped clear in luminous relief. The Autopilot wrote essays and exams. My seminar leader, a graduate student who resembled a young Ayn Rand, detested me and my work, her grimaces and sarcastic comments making this so clear the other students looked away in embarrassment. She gave me C- and C+ on my two big papers. Put-downs in red ink filled the margins. But those essays had been done, not by The Autopilot, but by myself in a luminous phase, excited and buzzing with ideas. That is what impelled me to do what I had never done in seventeen years of schooling: complain, take it up with the instructor. The professor looked at the papers, frowning. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s not right. But we switch sections after Christmas”–she raised her eyebrows–“if you can hang on till then.” She gave me A+ on both essays I wrote for her. After the first, she took me aside to say it had nothing to do with restitution, making up for, she wouldn’t do that; and, after a half-page appreciation at the bottom of the second, on Marvell’s “The Garden,” she broke off to say, “Really I am filled with admiration.”

Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

A vista, a prospect, opened up, another way, just for a second, until I remembered the other thing waiting for me. Like conversing with an attractive woman, an interlude in a coffee shop, before remembering you’re late for dinner with Mrs. Geist.

In German class the professor told me I had been nominated for a Goethe Institute scholarship. I could study in the Black Forest for the summer, if I wanted. Considering it for a day or two, I tried to squint inwardly to see The Autopilot, whom I knew only by his actions. Usually I resented him as the master of useless delays who was dragging the process out, inflicting greater pain. But now I had to wonder: Could he be part of it too? He had done the work that won the scholarship, obviously. Could that mean–

Yes, I decided. Maybe….

It will happen in Germany, I thought. Feeling more and more certain.

The blue pool. Blaubeuren, where I stayed in the summer of 1977, is a small town in the Black Forest region of southern Germany, in der Nähe von Ulm, as I learned from locals to situate it. Its chief attraction, the source of its small tourist economy, is the Blautopf (the Blue Pot), a large round pool of deep-blue water fed by a spring that is a relic of the last ice age, when the Danube flowed from Ehingen over Blaubeuren to Ulm. The water is so clear you can see down 20 metres to the bottom, down to where the sides begin to slope like a funnel; it seems you are seeing deep into the earth. A cornucopia of deepest blue. It is the last day of January as I write this, the coldest day of the year so far, and the sky is a pale porcelain echo, thinned and faded over thirty years, of the limpid sapphire I remember. Yet the colour behind my eyes is the same. And I can still hear the gasps and groans wrenched from people seeing it for the first time. Each new visitor would circle the viewing walkway, a rather brutal construction of slatted gray steel, before settling on a spot, always at the maximum distance from anyone else present, to lean on the metal railing and stare into the blue depths.

I checked into a Gasthaus recommended by the Goethe Institute, where several other international students were staying. Frau Kächele, the proprietor, was a crisply pleasant widow whose constant soft humming seemed to emphasize the silent efficiency of her house, like the overhead buzz of a power line in a still summer field. The Autopilot was also working efficiently, and my two months of German studies constituted the most sustained attention I had given to schoolwork in several years. Finally, I felt I understood The Autopilot’s role and my resentment of him vanished. I had overestimated his powers and underestimated his importance. He had a job to do, vital but limited, and almost completed now; he receded in my mind as a cog, about to become an anachronism. His function had always been implicit in his name: he would be switched off when he needed to be. I had blamed him for delays but he had no such powers. Perhaps, like a good clerk, he even facilitated matters above his station, clearing the decks so that the key players could operate. These now stepped forward and announced their names. I was allowed to know some of their functions. More would become clear to me later, during the fall. I had the impression of a (perhaps ironic) play before the play, in which the actors introduce themselves and give précis of their roles, then bow and disappear to wait for their cues.

More dependable lighting helped my studies. Now that the fluctuations in my visual field had eased, I realized how badly they’d hampered my concentration. The light was even now, though a bit too bright. When I awoke at 6 a.m., after a few hours sleep, the light in the room matched the light beyond the window; full and shining, like noon. After classes ended in the afternoon, I took a very long walk, in a different direction each day, trying to tire myself out enough to sleep that night. Whether walking or studying, I felt so tireless that I took breaks at intervals I assigned myself rather than from actual fatigue. This bubbling energy, constant like the Blautopf, was strange but highly pleasurable, even thrilling. I tested it sometimes. Dropping to the floor beside my bed to do fifty pushups, then, after a minute getting my breath back, repeating the set. I had to do many sets before my arms began to wobble. Hitting that wall was hard work, and a bit unnerving, so I stopped trying.

The social life with other students was easy, and problematic. Visiting with them in cafés or their rooms, I was talkative, even ebullient, cracking jokes in the fractured mix of French, German and English that we used. I was aware of contributing more than my share to the comradery. That, too, made a welcome change from recent years. There were slippages, though, as if The Autopilot–if it was The Autopilot–wasn’t as reliably programmed for social encounters. At the morning break, Edwin from the Philippines, or Carlos from Peru would approach me grinning, eager to share a laugh about the night before. And I wouldn’t remember anything about the joke they told again, even though I was often credited with having made it. When I laughed along with them, sometimes catching shards of recollection that could have been half-confabulated, spliced from other meetings, they looked uneasy, perhaps because my face was briefly a complete blank before these routines kicked in. It wasn’t drink; we sipped tea more often than beer, and besides, alcohol had as little effect on me as pushups. After a few weeks, they invited me along less often, and when they did, I begged off on the excuse of studying. Top marks, I said, were a prerequisite for continuing my program back in Canada. They nodded sympathetically; most of them were vacation-students, children of businessmen whose firms had clients or suppliers in Germany.

A fixed part of my routine was multiple daily visits to the Blautopf. Usually I was alone–the students didn’t return after their first day–and this was always true on my first visit in the morning, killing time before Frau Kächele opened her breakfast room at 7. The ends of the metal walkway didn’t quite meet; it was an incomplete circle, like a horseshoe. At one end, under a peaked roof, was a painted diagram of the spring and pool, what we could see above-ground and the aquifer and channels we couldn’t see, below. On a shelf below this were brochures with photos of the blue pool and the town, and a write-up in three languages of the Blautopf and its Urquelle, or secret source. Across from this, at the other end of the walkway, was a shed with a padlocked door; I assumed it contained the controls for the sluice gate on that side, over which the pool brimmed and splashed to form a stream.

One morning, the door to this shed was open, and a little man with a huge head was standing with his back to me, turning a wheel. The proportions of his head and body, and the disproportion between them, were extreme. His head was half again the size of a normal adult head, but his body was the size of a five-year-old’s. He did not look like any dwarf I’d ever seen. A stiffness in his posture suggested age, or injury, but the tiny wrists and hands poking out of his sleeves–the only part of his body I could make out in his baggy clothes–looked smooth and babyish; yet they were turning the wheel, which was fully half his size. He didn’t give any sign he knew I was there, but I was sure that he did. I felt a prickling in my stomach, a spiny tickling. Still, despite my unease, I went about checking for perceptual distortions, as I had been doing for years. I moved to various places on the walkway, but his proportions didn’t change. They weren’t due to any trick of light or perspective I could discover. It was strange how he never paused in his work. His unhurried constancy was one of the queerest aspects of a sight I was finding more and more oppressive.

From a point midway around the walk, I stared down into the blue pool. Its colour changed in three distinct stages, without gradations between them, like the layers in a Jell-O dessert: a swimming pool green near the surface, then a darker aquamarine a couple of metres down, then the deep sapphire of the bottom half of the bowl. When the guidebooks talked about the piercing blue they were really talking about the layer at the bottom. I looked up and saw the tiny man standing beside a tree, looking at me. He was well back from the pool, I couldn’t make out his features. Just the large pale oval of his face next to the tree. He had one of his hands on the tree’s trunk; a pale smudge, like a moth that had landed on the bark. Neither of us moved. I thought of a gnome in a Grimm’s tale. Then I thought, with a gush of nostalgia that brought me to the point of tears, of Paul Tamburlaine. I felt a sudden intense longing not just for Paul but for a time before him, for my earliest childhood, for the years I had a few scattered memories of and for the time before that, the first long blank wave, unknowable to me, that had spent itself at Paul Tamburlaine, he stood like a marker at the end of it.

I turned and walked quickly away. Though I stayed away from the Blautopf a few days, and approached it cautiously the next time, I wasn’t really afraid of seeing The Regulator again. I had a strong sense of the rhythm of occurrences, whether they were likely to be singular or repeating. And though certain events were predominantly visual, they struck me as a kind of proto-language, utterances that were both sufficient in themselves and part of a larger pattern. In this case, he had said his piece.

The course ended in late July and the students dispersed to their home countries. I stayed on in Frau Kächele’s house, sometimes the only guest, but more often with her usual trade of two or three tourists. My walks lengthened prodigiously: 15, 20, 30 kilometres and more. Partly it was to fill the time that school had filled, and partly to try to find the elusive tiredness that would make me sleep. Sleep had shrunk to about two hours a night. One night I miscalculated and walked out too far to make it back before Frau Kächele locked the door at midnight, so I kept walking and entered her breakfast room at 7 a.m., as if just coming downstairs from a refreshing slumber. After that, I stayed out every three nights or so, enjoying the different look of places in the dark, though I avoided the blue pool, from an instinct that The Regulator would not permit a nighttime visit.

Frau Kächele seemed as crisply pleasant as ever, but one afternoon she knocked on my door and asked how long I would be staying. I was lying on my bed with my hands folded on my chest, a half hour daily quiet time I had imposed on myself since I was sleeping so little. I said I wasn’t sure but not past the end of August, since I had to return for school. “Ist mir egal,” she said smiling, but her eyes looked cold. <Mir egal was an expression that puzzled me. Literally, it’s equal to me (either way), it doesn’t matter; but when local people said it, usually in a chirping voice with averted eyes, it sounded more like: I don’t give a shit. Or: Fuck you. She closed the door and walked away, humming. Her humming sounded louder now, perhaps because the house was so quiet.

I planned my trip to Dachau to last three days and to involve as much walking as possible. There would be two huge tramps at either end, with a train ride in between from Ulm to Munich. I had a list of cheap hotels and Fremdenzimmer, but I thought it more likely that I would make do with naps on the train and by the side of the road, which turned out to be the case.

Dachau itself did not make a deep impression on me. The former concentration camp had an air of terrible sadness, but almost worse, it seemed completely evacuated, abandoned despite its visitors, as if history had utterly spent a place, used it up and moved on. I reached it on foot after walking out from Munich and, without intending anything dramatic, I found myself walking along the former train line, its ties and rails half buried by wan, sickly grass. Ahead of me, I saw buses parked and people staring in my direction. I felt self-conscious, and mystified that I was attracting their interest. As I walked around the display, I noticed a woman, pale, with short gray-blond hair that curled in front of her ears like commas. I had seen her before; she was a guest at Frau Kächele’s. Now, she appeared on first one side of me then the other, then right in front of me, her position changing with a suddenness that seemed impossible unless I was gapping out again, going somewhere between her appearances. What’s more, I always saw her face in profile and in a strangely flattened perspective, as if she were the Queen on a playing card. I moved around in my checking way, but her face kept its angle and flatness with respect to me, yet without any apparent movement to counter mine. The faces of the other tourists looked normal, though they blurred if I stared at them. It was like a scene constructed with only one reliable element, the rest ad hoc and liable to dissolve. The lighting was dim too, I noticed now. Far dimmer, that grainy dusk, than even discreet museum lighting should allow.

I went outside to escape it. I walked off the tarmac of the parking lot and sat down by the train tracks I had walked in on. It was a hot August day, the insects buzzing. I opened my notebook and began describing a coffee shop I had been in yesterday. These notebooks had been part of both trips to Europe, a traveller’s accessory, but I wrote in them only sporadically. I had no interest in keeping a diary, and though for years now, since giving up the piano, I had regretted the lack of an art form in my life, I knew that writing could be no substitute for music or, especially, painting. The sentences I took down were like captions, notes in lieu of the scenes I wished I could paint in luscious oils. Sometimes this note-taking had a side benefit, though. Once described, a Vision, as I called the most vividly recurring scenes, would become more muted; its colours softened and I saw it less often. This damping tactic, which I was half ashamed of, seemed regrettable but convenient. Another benefit of the notebook was that it gave days that were very gappy a more solid feel; I could flip back through the pages of blue ink and feel the described scenes connect to each other in a way that made me feel more solid, minimizing the spaces between the entries, which amounted really to most of the time, and privileging these recorded instants. I had always known books to have this property, of course; I had used it very consciously in the last few years. A very tattered week, a mixture of fog and gleams, could be held together by the simple block of Crime and Punishment: the holding of it in your hand, an appreciable chunk, and making your way through it, chapter by chapter. It was just a surprise to find that my own words could serve the same purpose, and do so, I was beginning to suspect, even more efficiently.

The Gray Lady was walking through the field, well away from me and from the tracks. She was wearing a white blouse, untucked. When a breeze filled it briefly it gave the effect of a nightdress. I heard words, and cocked my head to the right to hear them better.

a doll drifts through the high grass
seeking a little girl

I didn’t like the words when I read them back. They didn’t satisfy as description and they didn’t satisfy as poetry. On the other hand, they were what I had heard. I liked that, that connection. It made me feel more of a piece. As if there was more to me. I wondered if such a connection could be honed, sought out. But then the thought bored me, or it discouraged me so deeply that it became boredom. The dream of art had been a long and intense one, a hope I had retired with great difficulty. I didn’t want to reawaken it.

On the way back, after walking for several hours, I stopped by the side of a road and looked out over a wheatfield. With a shock that seized my heart in my chest, I realized I had reached The Door. I was standing right in front of it. It came as a complete shock because I had been walking along dully for hours, listless in mind and spirit. Times over the years when I have tried to describe what followed, it has always come out wrong and has led to unpleasant, sometimes drastic consequences. Depending on the listener, my account has been understood as a mystical vision, a psychotic hallucination, or simply a terribly vivid dream that I mistook for waking reality–each listener has responded differently, though in all cases vehemently, the description has been accurate to that degree. So having erred so often in trying to describe the indescribable, I will say only this this time. Two mistakes I’d made were clarified instantly as I gaped at what was before me. I had worried that I might not recognize The Door when I saw it. What if, with all my gaps and fogs, I missed it somehow? Now I realized there had never been any chance of that. The Door’s singularity precluded it. It was like nothing I had ever seen or imagined–like nothing but what it was. Also, I had always assumed that when I got there it would be terrifying–but its reality was utter, radiant joy. This was not an expulsion, it was pure admittance. (Terror and expulsion, I would learn, were simply the other side of joy, the same radiance bent and scattered.)

Still, for all the pulsing jubilance whirling inside me, there was a moment when permission was asked and granted. I felt it clearly. It was like the moment in a marriage ceremony when the conducting official spells out the meaning of the coming union and the participants must perceive the articulated conditions and consent to them. In some quiet place within a storm of celebration, I was reminded that there could be no return from this point–and reminded that I had long known this, so there could be no question of being duped in a frenzy–and, to the extent that I was still capable of choosing, I chose freely, feeling myself enter.

(Was it a real choice? Even when I have cursed myself for making it, I have had my doubts. I imagine someone stuck in a dim puppet theatre who sees a panel in the wall slide open to reveal the bounty of a city street in sunlight; while he is gaping at the scene, a voice reminds him that he is free to forego the dangers outside, the door can be slid shut and the jerkings of the marionettes in the dusk resume–in what real sense is that a choice?)

At some point I fell down and, it seems, lost consciousness for a time. Throughout the experience my eyes were under great strain, struggling to follow an onrush of rapidly changing colours and forms as well as shifts in scale and depth of field. A flattened, sky-wide frieze of huge geometrical forms, rectangles of electric blue and rhomboids of liquid gold and chocolate brown, would give way abruptly to a close-up of seething molecules, these gold-tan corpuscles like the fat globules in a rich gravy, rushing and jostling under a sheer tubular skin. The only constant was the wide open aperture, as if my pupils were dilated to the maximum, flooding my eyes with light (while keeping all views sharp as an acid etch), until finally–it might have been a minute or an hour later–the electric blue began to tilt sideways, slowly at first and then more rapidly, whorls of dark fur narrowed the visual field in spiral bands, like the sphincter of a shutter closing, I felt myself tipping in the direction of the blue, and felt, in a muffled, distant way, points of my body thump as I blacked out.

When I opened my eyes, I saw fuzzy white-gray shapes and thin green columns. They started next to my eye and went into the distance. Slowly, I realized they were pieces of gravel with grass blades growing between them. It was a relief to see such plain, familiar things. They rested me, and I lay on my side a long time looking at them.

I got up carefully. My shoulder and knee were throbbing where I’d hit, and my right ankle was tender, but nothing seemed broken. I made my way slowly along the side of the road, on a strip of pale dust between the road and the gutter. I felt subdued. A bit stunned, and very sober; aware that, at the moment, I needed some time that was as uneventful as possible to recover. I walked in the direction of Blaubeuren, keeping my head down, watching my feet shuffle forward raising little puffs of dust that settled again.

I was a while realizing I wasn’t alone, and probably hadn’t been since Dachau. Raising my eyes from my feet, I saw that the rustlings and flittings I had taken for birds were in fact the rapid movements of The Gray Lady, appearing on one side of the road then the other. She wasn’t walking or running through the high grasses but rather hovering and flitting just above them, with erratic flutterings reminiscent of a butterfly’s. I took her in in glances, guided by a new sense of economy not to study her too closely. She had the waxy, flattened face, the playing card profile, about the size or just a little smaller than a normal head, with a body of about the same size below it, gray-white and vaguely bird-like, with two stubby appendages that did not look like wings or arms and in any case didn’t move in her dartings. The Gray Lady. There seemed a danger in using names that made all the Players sound like humans, even those who were clearly not. I told myself I should guard against it.

I walked along with my head down, thinking about that. The Gray Lady left for a time. Then she was back, a startling blur right beside my face. Seeming to sense my fright, she moved farther away–her manner of movement weirdly fluid, as if she were sliding on tracks in the air–and keeping pace with me, just visible in the corner of my right eye, she started a conversation, or rather resumed one it seemed we were already having.

Not as you are. It was a woman’s voice, soft and low, but with a buzzy undertone, faintly machine-like.

I can’t wake up.

No.

I can’t get back.

No.

I’m only awake when I’m bored. It sounded odd as I said it, yet it seemed true.

I recounted some instances in support of it, which she listened to without comment.

You can direct this to a degree.

How?

She didn’t answer, and receded from my sight, so that I thought she had gone. Then she was back, sliding up almost parallel again.

By coming back? I asked.

Going back.

From here?

That’s the past already.

We talked in this way a while longer, a cryptic-companionable exchange that relaxed me even as it confused me slightly, and then she dropped back and I knew somehow that she would not appear again on this walk.

I entered Frau Kächele’s house furtively, trying to get past the breakfast room and up the stairs without being seen. On one of my recent walks I had lost my watch, but I knew that it must be after 7, though perhaps not long after. Frau Kächele would rather you missed breakfast by hours than minutes, so there could be no question of your punctuality.

But Frau Kächele herself was sitting at a table, smoking. Smoking was not permitted in her house–signs were posted to that effect–and I had never seen her smoke. Yet she was taking the deep relaxed drags of a habitual smoker, smoke drifting around her head, an ashtray heaped with butts on the table. She motioned, with her usual chilly courtesy, for me to take the seat across from her.

“You’re not–” Suddenly I could not remember the German for “humming,” though it was one of the first words I had looked up in her house.

“Humming and smoking, they’re the same, ja?”

I laughed and said that, though I had never considered it before, that sounded exactly right. I was relaxing in this exchange, relieved to feel the tension I had always felt in my landlady’s presence beginning to dissipate. It went beyond relief to a sense of complete well-being I felt suffusing me, a fellow-feeling I had not known for a long time. A gaiety, bubbling in my chest, at the certainty that human beings, even dissimilar personalities, could always find common channels to flow and mingle in. Frau Kächele was smiling with tightly pressed lips, as if at a joke she could barely suppress.

“Liesl?” I said, in a voice hushed with wonder.

She smiled openly, but did not answer directly the intuition that had flown into my head. “I came to Germany a long time ago. You know that perfectly well,” she said tartly.

It was true, I did seem to remember having heard that. It was one of the million things I had known and then forgotten.[12]

She now caught me up on the missing years, which, she regretted to say, had been consumed mostly with a battle against ill health. Her face, puffily middle-aged and crafty more than intelligent, did not resemble Liesl’s at all, but in one of the amazing scenes in the dream, one I remembered very clearly, we had been sitting side by side on our couch, peering at our pictures in the high school yearbook and marvelling with rueful chuckles at how thoroughly the years had misconstrued our looks. She suffered from a rare medical condition, she explained to me, which complicated her life with a social ineptness she could only manage by means of steretyped routines that limited and made predictable her interactions with people. To put it bluntly, she was missing her amygdala, or rather it was so atrophied as to be useless. The amygdala was the almond-shaped organ in the brain that enabled the recognition of fear and anger in other people’s faces. Without a timely sensing of these negative emotions, a person could not help but step on toes constantly, speaking and behaving inappropriately and driving others away.

I interrupted to say I knew of this condition, I had read of it.

“I know you know of it,” she said with her un-Liesl-like brusqueness. “That is precisely why we are talking now.”

When she had finished her account, including many unsuccessful medical treatments, and her deliberate choice of a lifestyle that would allow for busy interaction without involvement, a kind of hiding in plain sight, I expressed sympathy for all that she had been through, and admiration that she had managed it alone.

“Bestimmt nicht!” she blurted, straightening with affront. “Ohne meinen Mann….”

Following the gaze she flicked to a side table, I had an inkling of what I would see a moment before I saw it. The tiny legs, like sticks in a child’s pants, with miniature workboots at their ends, dangled between the chair edge and the floor. Thankfully, The Regulator’s head was hidden behind the Speisekarte Liesl supplied for those who wanted something more than the continental breakfast that came with their room.

“All he does is eat,” Liesl said fondly, with a drag that burned a third of her cigarette.

Along the counter near The Regulator stood the three wicker baskets of rolls and foil-wrapped cheeses and various jams, none of them looking as if they had been touched. Looking back at his table, I noticed a notebook and pen beside one little hand.

“I don’t want to be a writer,” I said, with rising revulsion.

Liesl shrugged, butting out her cigarette. “Who does?”

A little after that, I reached the trimly typical house, with its white stucco walls, green-trimmed windows hung with flower boxes, the small square of shorn grass enclosed by a low, black, wrought-iron fence. I opened the front door as quietly as I could. The house seemed empty. The breakfast room cleaned up and set for tomorrow’s breakfast.

As deserted as the house seemed, I mounted the stairs carefully, trying not to make the slightest creak. At the turning was a mirror and I took a full look from close up, something I hadn’t dared in years. The front of my T-shirt was streaked with brown and green, ground-in horizontal smears, as if I had been rolling back and forth in the dirt. At my temple and along one cheek were crusts of dried blood and pitted places, from the gravel.

This is it then.

The face in the mirror nodded grimly, then grinned. The expressions, especially the contrast between them, struck me as vile. I spoke sternly, as to a child beyond its depth.

It will be bad. Worse than you can imagine.

The face didn’t respond.

In my room, I sat in the straight-backed wooden chair. The other pieces of furniture were a single bed and a nightstand. I should get home, I thought. It should happen there. My return ticket was still in the front pocket of my green army pack. There were a half dozen objects, plus a change of clothes on the closet shelf, that needed to be put back in it. It would take me five minutes. It seemed like there should be more to do. It didn’t seem right somehow that I could snap my fingers and transplant the operation to another continent. That incongruity bothered me more than any other I had experienced lately.

I closed my eyes, my hands folded in my lap. It had been three days since I’d last slept, discounting catnaps on the train. Yet I felt a peaceful, bubbling energy flowing through me, around me and through me, as though I were immersed in a light electric current, humming like a tuning fork. I felt a fleeting fear of my own lack of fear. A momentary spike of awareness, far too slight to inspire action, that recognized utter lack of apprehension as a very bad state. A very dangerous one. The thought popped like a bubble, subsiding back into the morning’s froth of well-being.

What seems the strangest, most unnatural thing, I thought, studying the perception like an unusually coloured pebble, is that I still don’t feel tired, I can’t get to where that is. Sleep is now a foreign country, and I can’t get there from here.

—Mike Barnes

/
Mike Barnes is the author of Calm Jazz Sea, shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, Aquarium, winner of the 1999 Danuta Gleed Award for best first book of stories by a Canadian, The Syllabus, a novel, and the short fiction collection Contrary Angel. His stories have appeared twice in Best Canadian Stories, three times in The Journey Prize Anthology, and won the Silver Medal for Fiction at the National Magazine Awards. He lives in Toronto.

/
/
/

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Once he sent me an arrowhead he’d found in a furrow. Busy as he was, he took the time to nestle the artifact in cotton in a little box, and to write a description of how an Indian hunting buffalo might have lost the arrowhead many decades, even centuries, before. It was a perfect arrowhead: notched at the base, whitish as with frosting on one side, semi-translucent on the other. For years it was my most prized possession: kept close in its box on a shelf, where I could observe and fondle it daily. One day it disappeared. Stolen, obviously. Those around me speculated about the small number of suspects who had access to my room. But I, though I mourned the loss, had no interest in the thief. Already I knew that there were holes in the fabric of life through which things slipped unaccountably-reality a sieve whose mesh gaped frequently before compacting  I barely thought of the theft in human terms. When I did, conjecturing who might have robbed me, I felt, more than anger, a kind of queasy cosiness. Certain thefts, like spontaneous gifts, constitute an increase in intimacy, an unasked-for gloss by others on our lives. Ordinary rip-offs and pilferings, even online “identity theft,” are not the activities of the Close Thief, as I came to call the arrowhead stealer. This Thief does not acquire, but proceeds from, intimate knowledge of who you are, what you value most. I have lost three possessions to the Thief: the arrowhead from my grandfather, a beaver skull I found on a beach, and a German edition of the poems of Charles Bukowski that, apart from a tourist brochure of the Blautopf (see below), was my only tangible connection to the time I spent in Germany before going insane. In each case—instances spanning about a dozen years—the Close Thief went for the artifacts I clung to most dependently, vestiges of a vanished natural and personal history.
  2. In those early days out on the street  my writing diet was more omnivorous than my reading one. Mixed in with poems on rivers and rain, scrambled eggs and streetfights over strippers, were more fantastic productions, flowering visions that jolted me awake and were elaborated in rapid scribbles over three or four pages. One I remember described the huge winged creatures (whose name I have forgotten), tentacled like octopi, who raided our dimension to suck the life force from humans through their eyes; the people one encountered on the street, most of us in fact, were the remains of their depredations. Where to send such a poem but to the antipodes, as far from home as was geographically possible? But Poetry Australia, though they had previously accepted a short poem synchronizing the flowering of a hawthorn tree with the life of Heinrich Himmler, returned this one without comment.
  3. Doing drugs brought temporary relief and then a longer sadness. Acid, mescaline, grass, hash: they gave reasons for  things to be altered, though even so the alterations were milder. And others to be altered with—though they would not be altered in the morning. Would just be grumbling about coming down, reaching for the Cheerios. People naturally assumed I was doing  more drugs—at a glance I might have passed as a stoner—but the small relief wasn’t worth the loneliness, and I was doing them less all the time.
  4. Absence seizures, more common in childhood and caused by a mild impairment of the interaction of the thalamus with cortical gray matter, produce a momentary clouding of consciousness, as when one stares at a bonfire or blank wall. They correlate with brief but abnormal patterns of neuronal  firing that may originate in the intralaminar nuclei of the thalamus. But departures on the time scale I experienced them—hours, occasionally days—would have to be called fugue states, I think. Even a series of absence seizures over a short time would presumably leave some fragments of recollection between them.
  5. To this day I wonder whether the dream was a valediction to normalcy, to fitting myself satisfactorily inside the world with other people—or a prediction, a reassurance from some deep source, that that was my home and, after straying very far, I would return to it? A goodbye to, or a promise of, eventual sanity?
  6. The dream as 600-thread-count sheet, which, while not more real than a cheap sheet, may convince one fortunate enough to sleep on it that this, really, is what sleeping is. It wasn’t that life in the dream was better than my life awake; it might have been worse. Petty disagreements, even tearful and cruel quarrels, were frequent in it, as were episodes of sickness and loss, wild barren grief. What made the dream so heartbreaking was its vivid continuity, its sense of a life solid and dimensional—slice into it from any angle and you would find the same stuff, the same rich meat. My sorrow, which amazed me scarcely less at the time than my dream, may have been my intuition, as yet inarticulable, of the chasm opening up between that meaty seamlessness and the ghostly discontinuity, luminous fragments with dead air like test pattern static between them, that life would soon become and must already have begun becoming. The dream was a cry for wholeness, for solid earth from one sinking into quicksand. It was a sumptuous film created to counter a dread of scissored frames.
  7. Facility at mimicry and a persevering work ethic hid for a long time the nature of any individual talent I might possess, and despite my best efforts they still obscure this, especially when I am working too slowly. Working at top speed, for all the problems it causes, is a way of keeping my instincts out ahead of the various learned programs that stand ready to check and supplant them. Having abilities that were slightly above average in several areas made it difficult to find a true direction. Over and over, I found myself too proficient to give up, but not talented enough to  gain real confidence. In a road hockey game, if twelve boys were available for teams, I would be picked fourth or fifth—too early to squelch hope and too late to firmly nourish it. Likewise, many expressed pleasure in my songs, a few marvelled at them; no one asked to hear them.
  8. The musical limitations that prevented me from recognizing my pop songs as derivative, and hearing that my noise was really just loud bad harmonies, were typified by a mistake I made in mathematics, sister of music. Mr. Brieve told us of the unsolved problem of trisecting an angle, a longstanding math conundrum with a prize offered for its solution. With two friends I worked all one heady night solving the problem. We had the solution ready on a side blackboard the next morning. Mr. Brieve, with a smile he quickly suppressed, pointed out that although we had done good work in trisecting the line we had drawn between the angle’s two rays, we had forgotten that an angle comprised, not a line, but the degrees in a circle’s arc. As the leader of the group, I was most embarrassed. I might be  getting 98, but in mathematical terms I had just demonstrated a tin ear. Liesl, passing by on her way to her seat, smiled good-naturedly. Brilliant as she was, she was not even a snob.
  9. A certain class of synchronized movements, more intense than coincidence, has for me the character of  with a stronger and infinitely more accomplished partner. If you accept this stranger’s outstretched hand, and try to follow steps that are fleeter and more subtle than any you know, you may find yourself swept into a ballroom of  opulence, where you catch glimpses of jewels and finery, fantastic faces, that you can hardly believe exist outside of dream. Following such a lead means  the utmost pliability and quickness of response within yourself: it is the willingness to be led, the eager abandonment to command that lends to feet so ardent to mimic grace, grace itself. The dance lasts a second—an eternity. It is only when you find yourself again, breathless, in the seat you once occupied, that you perceive the last wonder of the dance: it took up no span of your life and yet occurred within it; it spun you nowhere yet you are not where you were. A number of such paradoxes are folded tight inside one marvel, which you will carry like a locket at the centre of yourself, the astonishment and rippling curiosity of having danced with Time. Often the first chord of the music, the unknown hand stretched toward your table, resembles mere coincidence. Indeed, if it is regarded as such for more than an instant, the perfumed hand vanishes. Ardency is the first requirement in a partner.
  10. If I ever glimpse the true subject of a piece of  writing it is only a fleeting recognition; in fact, that fleeting glance tells me that I have reached the end of that project. The moment is like the gesture of a mysterious and recurrent partner at the end of a masked hall, who just as he is stepping into the night, face half turned away, lifts his mask for an instant, as if to say, mischievously, This is who you kept sensing nearby, in all that swirl of sound and figures…Are you surprised?—or else to offer some hope of a faster recognition when we meet again.
  11. At times I thought the death approaching would land me in art, the life of an artist I felt destined for but barred from by lack of ability. I had a facility with words, an ability to spin fantasies that made people laugh or wince, but I did not connect verbal production at the poles I practiced it—wildness of talk, tameness of school essays—with literature. The novels I read were controlled hallucinations, not staccato bursts of whimsy or dutifully stitched reports. I had read a bit on lucid dreaming, and I thought that art in that sense might end my confusions. I would not wake up, but like the lucid dreamer, I would develop the ability to enter my own dream with the paradoxical semi-control that is sometimes reported as a voice saying: “This is a dream. You can direct this.” I did not see a prospect of waking once and for all, nor of  ending the confusion between waking and dreaming,  but art might offer a middle way: a way of infiltrating dreaming-waking with enough form that it acquires a richness of meaning irrespective of its ultimate reality. Though I came to discount lucid dreaming and even despised myself for believing in it, I now see that it offered a viable analogy. A rough blueprint that I have spent the last  years stumblingly refining.
  12. A continual surprise in writing is the shaping power of the forgotten, partner of the remembered. Another (the last?) stolen by the Close Thief, forgotten until a late revision of this, was my paternal grandfather’s gold pocketwatch.
Dec 092010
 

In the last years of his life, Rilke wrote hundreds of poems in French. Not widely translated, they continue his meditations on and imaginings about the things of the world but in the fresh expression of this adopted language. Marilyn McCabe is poet and essayist and an old friend, part of “the Greenfield Crowd,” a disparate and rowdy group of writers, painters, cellists and cross-country skiers loosely based in Greenfield, NY (though Marilyn actually lives in Saratoga Springs). Laura Von Rosk and Naton Leslie, who have both appeared on these pages, are part of the group. Marilyn has published widely, including an essay in VCFA’s own magazine Hunger Mountain. With Elaine Handley and Mary Shartle (two more members of the Greenfield Crowd), she published a collection called Three Poets on Themes of Love, Death, and Sex. It’s a great pleasure to be able to introduce her here.


from Vergers (Orchards)

Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke

Translated from French by Marilyn McCabe



1

Ce soir mon coeur fait chanter
des anges qui se souviennent….
Une voix, presque mienne,
par trop de silence tentée,

monte et se decide
à ne plus revenir;
tender et intrépide,
à quoi va-t-elle s’unir?


Tonight my heart makes sing
the angels who are remembering….
A voice, close to mine,
lured by too much silence,

rises and decides
to never return;
intrepid and tender,
with what will it unite?

Continue reading »

Dec 082010
 

This is Mary Stein’s critical thesis, hot of the press, as she says. It’s part critical essay, part personal essay, one writer’s adventure in the art of reading as much as an exploration of the technique of absence in Amy Hempel’s stories. Would that all readers could be as curious, open, intelligent and humble. Would that we could all have such readers.

dg

This essay was really selfishly motivated––I was basically just trying to figure out why I had been so obsessed with Amy Hempel, and now I have a 30-page half-answer to that question. I also like to think I belong to the “reality” camp, and while writing this, it was clear the essay experienced a crisis of identity, and I had resigned myself to a mildewy fate in the basement in College Hall. More than anything, I just wanted to figure out a thing or two about artful craft and about my own creative process…

—Mary Stein

 

Another Way to Fill an Empty Room: The Voice of Amy Hempel’s Aesthetic

By Mary Stein


 

“Here’s a trick I found for how to finally get some sleep. I sleep in my husband’s bed. That way the empty bed I look at is my own.”

(“Nashville Gone to Ashes,” 20)

One may not notice the loneliness of an empty room until you place a small desk and chair in its corner.

Amy Hempel’s words are the desk and chair that sit in the corner of an empty room.

It is no secret that Hempel’s stories rely heavily on aesthetics. For Hempel, construction is of utmost importance: She intends her stories to start from and arrive at a particular destination, approaching each story with knowledge of its final line. In her stories, what is not present becomes just as important––if not more important––as that which shows up on the page.

Return for a moment to the image of a room sparsely populated with furniture: In the emptiness of a room, a reader may view herself in relationship to the space that surrounds her. (I called the room “lonely,” whereas the narrator of Doris Lessing’s story, “To Room Nineteen,” may have called it “salvation”). If that same room is filled with objects and people and pictures and doors to other rooms, a reader will be more likely to view all these objects in relationship to one another. Regardless, the role of the reader in relationship to a story is clearly important as it is with any text. We are entering some Bertolt Brecht territory of the relationship between the roles of the audience (readership) and the art (text)––how a reader becomes an inextricable part of what she observes, diminishing the possibility of pure objectivity. Of course, we don’t read stories in hopes of objectivity. But the risk of using economic prose to write narratives as spacious as Hempel’s is that these stories will more likely foster speculation: There is literally more room for a reader to project his or her own interpretive slant on a story.

Continue reading »

Dec 072010
 

I met Russell Working years ago when he was at Yaddo, the art retreat just across town from where I live. Now Russell is coming to teach at Vermont College of Fine Arts. In fact, we’re running a workshop together during the winter residency (and Rich Farrell will be there for his last VCFA workshop).  Russell won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for his first book The Resurrectionists and then spent six years as a freelance reporter in the Russian Far East and the Middle East. His fiction and humor have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Zoetrope and Narrative. This story is taken from his 2006 collection The Irish Martyr (the title story won a Pushcart Prize). I wrote a blurb that went like this: The Irish Martyr is a powerful, brave and dangerous book that takes us to the borderlands where religion and geopolitics rip apart the lives of ordinary people. These are stories about torture, decapitation, rape, kidnapping and trafficking in women and babies. They are about men and women caught in the meat-grinder of history, caught between trying to survive as human beings and the vicious tools of dogma, ideology and greed. Russell Working knows the dark corners of the world, he knows the personal underside of the news stories we have become all too accustomed to seeing on our TV screens. He writes straight from the heart, with a moral indignation that is palpable.

dg

Slava

By Russell Working



Every life, Dr. Tamara Rudyakova believed, is determined by a few fateful moments comprising but a blip of one’s allotted years on this planet. At such times the entire future hangs on the decisions one makes; everything else is mere consequence.

Case in point: a few minutes’ conversation with a child beggar one Saturday in late August of 2002, midway through Tamara’s third decade, or “halfway to the grave,” as a colleague had cheerfully toasted her on her birthday last month. There was a whiff of golden autumn in the air, when the trees yellow on the hills of Vladivostok and whitecaps blossom on the Sea of Japan and the weather, in this gap between the summer typhoons and late October snowfalls, is on its best behavior all year. That afternoon, Tamara was hobbling across the Vtoraya Rechka market, where the produce of the dachas crowded the stalls: onions and carrots and bunches of dill and filthy potatoes the size of a child’s fist. An outdoor market is not an easy place to negotiate on crutches on a busy Saturday. She carried her purchases in a daypack slung from her breast to keep thieves from raiding it from behind as she queued, and other shoppers thumped her crutches with their duffel bags as she sculled through the throng. A butcher with an ax hacked a frozen side of beef into pieces, and a flying chip of bone nearly blinded her.

She was halted by the scent of muskmelon. Nearby, a Korean farmer sat on a stool beside a pyramid of cantaloupes buzzing with gnats. From one of them he gouged out a wedge for a woman to sample. Tamara could almost taste the hot sweet summer flesh of the fruit. Perhaps she could fit a cantaloupe in her pack, but did she really want to lug it, along with everything else, up the hill and five flights of stairs to her apartment on Kirova? So she stood there for a moment and simply savored the smell, reluctant to surrender the associations of youth, of a time when she was able to walk without crutches, of the collective farm where in Soviet times university students had been compelled to help with the harvest and where she had made love, for the first time, to her ex-husband, Filipp, then a fellow medical student. But then, having detained her, fate drew her gaze toward a small boy sitting by the entrance to the corrugated steel building that housed the clothing market.

Strange to say, his face alone set her heart pounding. He had longlashed eyes, pursed lips, an upturned nose, and ears that were pinched inward at the top. He appeared to be a rather small five, and in his jeans and Star Wars T-shirt, he was as grubby as the homeless Roma and Tajiks who passed through the city every summer. Yet with his blond hair, sunburnt face, and blue-gray eyes, he had the same Petersburg complexion as Tamara herself. Propped beside him was a cardboard sign decorated with an icon of an infant Christ and the Mother of God, along with the words, “in the name of Christ, kind people, spare some change for an orphan.” The boy had aroused the pity of other shoppers, it seemed, for he had accumulated a small pile of coins and ruble notes in a candy box, to the envy of a babushka panhandler nearby, who cursed him and told him to go find another place to beg, this was her spot. But he ignored her, his attention was elsewhere. A few meters away, a woman was selling pit bull puppies from a cardboard box, and the boy was riling them by tossing pebbles at them while their mistress was preoccupied chatting with a friend. He threw with his left hand. His right hand was hidden in his pocket, but even before he pulled it out, Tamara knew with a sickening prescience what she would see: his thumb and forefinger were missing. Nevertheless, she gasped when he reached to collect a pebble in his three remaining digits and transferred it to his left hand.

Continue reading »

Dec 052010
 

Diane Schoemperlen is a good friend, a novelist, short story writer, editor, and winner of the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction (1998) and the Writers’ Trust of Canada Marian Engel Award for an author in mid-career (2007). In 1995 dg and Diane edited the annual Coming Attractions story collection for Oberon Press in Ottawa. Technically inventive and exuberant, Diane structured her first novel, In the Language of Love, on the hundred words of the Standard Word Association Test.  She writes poignant, emotionally articulate fictions which yet have a foot in the camp of experiment and formal play. The story published here appeared in Best Canadian Stories (edited by John Metcalf, Oberon Press, 2008) without the collages under the title “Fifteen Restless Nights.” This is the first time the text and visual elements have appeared together the way they were intended. They make a welcome addition to NC’s growing collection of off the page and hybrid works. And it’s a huge pleasure to introduce Diane to the NC community.

—dg

 

On Making Collages

My interest in collage as an art form began twenty years ago when I was working on my first novel, In the Language of Love (1994). I chose to make my main character in that book a collage artist and, in doing research on the art of collage, I became more and more interested in creating some myself. I began with relatively simple pieces, hung them on my own walls, and gave them away to friends. I actually sold a few too. It was not a big leap then for a writer to think of putting collages in her next book. I had become very interested in the interaction between visual art and the written word, the different parts of the creative brain involved in creating the two art forms, and the similarities between collage and my written work. So my next book, Forms of Devotion (1998), was a collection of short stories illustrated with black and white pictures that were actually images from earlier centuries that had since gone into the public domain. This book went on to win the Governor General’s Award for English Fiction that year. In the following years, I published several other books, none with illustrations, but for all that time I was collecting all kinds of things that might someday be used in more complex collages. To be honest, what held me back from actually making the collages was my anxiety over what my agent and my editor were bound to say about the impossibility of actually publishing them. Finally I put aside my anxiety on that front and decided to do them anyway, without worrying about whether or not they would ever be published.

As with the stories in Forms of Devotion, sometimes the story came first and other times the pictures. In this particular case, I had the story first and created the collages later. The entire process of putting them together is done by the old-fashioned cut-and-paste method, one little bit at a time. This is very labour-intensive and more than a little time-consuming, but it is immensely satisfying. I don’t use PhotoShop or anything like that. The computer is important in the process though, as I use my scanner to copy anything that I want to preserve in its original state, and also to resize anything that doesn’t fit in the spot where I want to put it. The computer also allows me to reproduce anything on a transparency when I want to use that for a special effect. Some of the paper bits and pieces in the collages were purchased expressly for this purpose, while others were found by accident or searched out on purpose. I have also incorporated some three-dimensional objects, such as eyelets, sequins, stars, fancy paper clips, an actual watch face, and a piece of old jewellery. I also use felt pens, coloured pencils, and rubber stamps. I am especially fond of maps, both new and old, and have used these as the backgrounds for each piece.

—Diane Schoemperlen

 

I Am a Motel

by Diane Schoemperlen

 

ONE

 

All day driving west. The highway liquefies in waves of heat, dissolving over and over at the horizon.

VACANCY.

Pull in.

ALL ROOMS INCLUDE.

Check in.

AIR CONDITIONING.

Unlock the door.

Half the window is blocked by an air conditioner that generates more noise than relief.

KING BEDS.

Royal blue bedspread shiny and slippery.

Blood-red carpet matted and stiff. Leave your shoes on. Sleep in your socks so your bare feet never have to touch it.

A pattern of cigarette burns on the carpet between the two blue beds. Try to discern shapes in them the way (in another lifetime) you used to make shapes in the clouds.

Running away from home.

In fact, there was no running at all: no thudding of feet on concrete, no ducking behind hedges and parked cars, no leaping over white picket fences, no sweat dripping down forehead or torso, no grasping, no grunting, no vicious dogs drooling and panting in hot pursuit.

There was only the smooth steady purr of the car engine.

There was only the cryptic message stamped across the bottom of the mirror: Objects Are Closer Than They Appear.

There was only driving and caffeine and smoking and singing along with the car radio.

There was only ending up here.

DIRECT DIAL PHONES.

Nobody knows where you are.

Stare intently at the phone anyway, willing it to ring.

Here you are nowhere.

Here you are no one.

You thought you would like this more than you do.

Continue reading »

Dec 052010
 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne.

To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.

————

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.
– Semisonic, “Closing Time”

On this, the last for now of my studies of Montaigne’s motifs, I thought it fitting to discuss his dislike for succinctly wrapping things up. It makes sense, then, that the last of Montaigne’s Essays is also the least singular in topic, and the most far-ranging in scope. And it’s also interesting that the first in order of Montaigne’s Essays, written more than a decade earlier, is titled “We Reach the Same End by Discrepant Means” – even then, when his essays were generally shorter and more singular in topic and theme, he was pushing the singularity of individual experience as the most important facet of truth (a notion much less popular in the late sixteenth century than it is now). This is perhaps one reason he’s now accepted as the fountainhead of the form – he put the “personal” in the personal essay.

That I am ending my Montaigne series on the fourth entry, one short of the promised five, only serves to reinforce this point – one cannot predict where our own experience will take us, or for how long, which Montaigne essentially says in “On Experience,” the final in his Essays:

I, unconcerned and ignorant within this universe, allow myself to be governed by this world’s general law, which I shall know sufficiently when I feel it.    (374)

Personal, learned experience as the only conveyor of truth is an idea Montaigne examines playfully through much of “On Experience”:

Oh what a soft and delightful pillow, and what a sane one on which to rest a well-schooled head, are ignorance and unconcern…Is a man not stupid if he remembers having been so wrong in his judgement yet does not become deeply distrustful of it afterward?…To learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing: we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads. (375-376)

With this we come to perhaps an important attribute of the personal essay, and nonfiction in general, which sets it apart from the novel for instance, which serves its reality in a delineated framework, as Nabokov describes in “Good Readers and Good Writers” from his Lectures on Literature:

We should always remember that the work of art [Nabokov is referring to the novel here, specifically Madame Bovary] is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. (1)

This, to me, is one of the great pleasures of the novel – at the end of a great (or even good) novel, one feels a sense of loss at having finished it, at leaving the fictional world it’s created. But unlike the novel as Nabokov describes it here, the essay never ends at its end. There is always another essay to write, as long as there is another human to write about human experience, continuing to assay and refine our collective understanding through the individual thought and expression of that understanding. Closure, then, is not something essayists, and essay readers, try to find in the essay, but rather what they try to escape.

This brings us, again, back to “Of Experience.” In it Montaigne ponders verisimilitude and enstrangement (“Nature does not makes things ‘one’ as much as unlikeness makes them other: Nature has bound herself to make nothing ‘other’ which is not unlike”), gives opinions on law which seem to predict Locke’s, ponders whether truth is watered down in interpretation and fragmentation, of course contemplates himself extensively (herein lies the line, reacting to Aristotle, “I study myself more than any subject. That is my metaphysics; that is my physics.” ), repeats his distrust of medicine he began in earlier essays, and stresses the importance of habit in sleeping, diet, and bowel movements.

I’d like to focus the last of my commentary on the last 20 or so pages of the essay, as Montaigne weaves a few threads together here, providing a thematic crescendo for both the essay and his Essays, without ever acknowledging an end to his work. For 10 pages, he directly alternates a rather lighthearted discussion of food, class and serenity with a frank meditation on his own aging; some highlights:

I have decided never again to run: it is enough for me if I can drag myself along. Nor do I lament the natural decline which has me in its grip – no more do I lament that my lifespan is not as long and massive as an oak’s. (404)

There are men who groan and suffer for want of beef or ham in the midst of partridge! Good for them: that is to be a gourmet among gourmets: it is a weak ill-favored taste which finds insipid those ordinary everyday foods…The essence of that vice consists in failing to enjoy what others do and in taking anxious care over your diet…let boys be fashioned by fortune to the natural laws of the common people; let them become accustomed to frugal and severely simple fare, so that they have to clamber down from austerity rather than scrambling up to it. (405-406)

God shows mercy to those from whom he takes away life a little at a time: that is the sole advantage of growing old; the last death which you die will be all the less total and painful: it will only be killing off half a man, or a quarter…Everywhere death intermingles and merges with our life: our decline anticipates its hour and even forces itself upon our very progress. (407-408)

A man who wants a regimen which serves him must not allow it to go on and on; for we become conditioned to it; our strength is benumbed by it…Thus are men undermined when they allow themselves to become encumbered with restricted diets and to cling to them superstitiously. They need to go farther and farther on, and then farther still. There is no end to it. (410)

Perhaps I should apply Montaigne’s advice to my quoting, though I might like to continue further with the juxtaposition as his two intertwined conversations dovetail into a beautifully rendered exposition on the last few pages of Montaigne’s philosophy of the essay’s, humanity’s, and time itself’s boundless nature:

I who boast that I so sedulously and individually welcome the pleasures of this life find virtually nothing but wind in them when I examine them in detail. But then we too are nothing but wind. And the wind (more wise than we are) delights in its rustling and blowing, and is content with its own role without yearning for qualities which are nothing to do with it such as immovability or density. (413-414)

This meditation gains a great splendour by a comparison of my condition with that of others. And so I pass in review, from hundreds of aspects, those whom fortune or their own mistakes sweep off into tempestuous seas, as well as those, closer to my own case, who accept their good fortune with such languid unconcern. Those folk really do ‘pass’ their time: they pass beyond the present and the things they have in order to put themselves in bondage to hope and to those shadows and vain ghosts which their imagination holds out to them – the more you chase them, the faster and farther they run away…so too your only purpose in chasing after them, your only gain, lies in the chase. (421)

*            *            *

Albert Goldbarth’s “Griffin,” like Montaigne’s “Of Experience,” is more interested in connections than endings. Like Joe Brainard, who was a visual artist first and a writer second, Albert Goldbarth is not known primarily as an essayist but as a poet. I haven’t read any of his poetry, but that presumption surprises me, especially since the Wikipedia on him entry notes his “distinctively ‘talky’ style,” which could also be said about Montaigne. I discovered Goldbarth while reconning TheDiagram.com’s “hybrid essay” contest last year; I had no idea what a hybrid essay was, and TheDiagram recommended that anyone who, like me, wasn’t familiar with the loose formal requirements of the form read Goldbarth’s “Griffin.” So I did.

The griffin, or gryphon, is a mythical lion/eagle hybrid, and Goldbarth uses it to explore the beginnings and endings of things – relationships, civilizations, boundaries – using the Griffin’s own lack of a clear, defined type or species as the archetype of transcendence – in being two things at once, it is neither and both of them, and something more than either:

And in fact the griffin and all of its kin – all of the hybridizedopposites, from real-life hermaphrodites to the fabled goat-footed people of northern Scythia and the dog-headed tribes of western Libya – hold a psychological value. They lead us through the horrors and astonishments of realizing that all of us lead dichotomized lives, and all of us…are the stuff of amazing weddings, some metaphorical, some literal. (22)

The essay, a meditation on convergence and divergence, floats associatively through time, space, and tone. Starting with “This seems to be the summer of com-, recom-, and uncombining,” Goldbarth introduces the reader to his friends Arthur and Martha, who are recently separated. Arthur has moved out and Goldbarth is taking a walk with Martha, who is telling him about Arthur’s stated need to find himself. Throughout the essay Goldbarth recounts the jolt this separation gives to the stability of his circle of friends – they had, after all, merged Arthur and Martha linguistically, calling them Marthur and Artha. In a moment of especially close self-examination Goldbarth, speaking of his friends, intimates a sense of the role of the nonfiction writer that echoes Montaigne:

Ah, yes. If only friends were characters, whose lives abide by authorly rules of beauty and whose suffering could, at the very least, be explained away in those acceptable terms. But I’m at a loss for advice, now, here, in the park, as the light and the branches deal out the scenery of our friendship. (10)

Goldbarth also explores the erotic poetry of Catullus and Ovid in an attempt to contextualize his friends’ breakup, but also to explore whether it’s ever possible, or advisable, to completely merge oneself with another:

So: what is and what isn’t a proper coupling? We could say that the definition of those two states is what a culture exists for. (5)

Besides the Griffin, Goldbarth explores some more popular myths – Adam and Eve, vampires, werewolves, Springsteen’s New Jersey – in an attempt to justify and/or nullify humanity’s tendency toward wedlock, and its attendant fear of death. This makes me think of Olympia Dukakis’s famous interaction with Danny Aiello in Moonstruck, when she asks him why men chase women – he evades the question by alluding to Adam’s missing rib then finally, when she continues pressing him, he says, “I dunno. Maybe because they fear death?” “That’s it!” she says. “That’s the reason. Thank you – thank you, for answering my question.” Of course, her question was also her answer. I bring this in because Goldbarth spends a substantial portion of the essay exploring our connections with each other as attempts to connect with something greater than ourselves, something that perhaps is as conflicted as we are:

Maybe a people’s God is required to be so whole, and his people so unreservedly pledged to a mimetic wholeness, only because some last remaining intention-node in the back of the brain suspects that in reality the Creator of this universe is conflicted in his own wants and intentions. To suspect such a frightening thing is to need immediately to deny it, with every atom of our zealousness. (37)

I’m listening to Bruce’s song “The River” right now, from the album of the same name – by a strange coincidence, they’re playing it at the coffee house while I’m writing about an essay that devotes multiple pages to Bruce’s Jersey mythology. Like many of the songs on the album, it’s about an unhappy marriage. In the climactic verse leading into the last chorus, the narrator remembers taking his wife to the reservoir in the summer before their discontent:

At night on them banks I’d lie awake
And hold her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me, they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?

Perhaps I’ve gone a little off topic. But perhaps not – perhaps, by diverting from the stated topic, I’ve attempted what both Montaigne and Goldbarth do. Allowing free rein to thought is, perhaps, an escape from the beginnings and the ends – a chase after the thoughts that will escape into the ether if they don’t cross the boundary, as Lou Reed once said, of the lifetime between thought and expression.

—John Proctor

See also Part One of the series.

Part Two.

Part Three.

Dec 032010
 

This is Natalia  Sarkissian’s second “What it’s like living here” piece. The first brought us the shocking news of her son’s illness. This one delivers the aftermath, hope and dogs and gorgeous cityscapes from Milan.

dg

What it’s like living here

By Natalia Sarkissian in Milan

December, 2010

Dear DG:

You ask about Nick, his heart, the operation. He’s pretty much himself again; kids are resilient that way (their mothers and fathers less so). We’re picking up where we left off before we put everything on hold. Not easy these days with life everywhere often a challenge:


“Camera da Letto” means refuge

The alarm rings in the pearly gray of morning.

White sheets—from a transatlantic trip to Macy’s in Boston—slide like silk as you stir, your dreams of sand and sun on the Sound dispersing with the squeal.

You reach out an arm. You fiddle with a button. Silence ensues.

You blink in the shadowy room. Then you light the alabaster lamp from Volterra, the one you bought on sale years ago when Rinascente department store revamped and unloaded merchandise—60% off. Now a milky glow shines encouragement on your side of the bed.

Don’t move quite yet. Study instead the India-ink drawings of cocktail parties and frivolity facing you—the ones you sketched when you were twenty and going to be a painter. Then contemplate the alcove where your desk sits piled with papers, the old dresser loaded with a tower of books. You’re a mother, a part-time translator, part-time English teacher and when time permits—writer—now. A translation project (small) awaits. A lesson plan (a doctor wants to converse in English for an hour) awaits too. Not much money, but at least it’s some. In the afternoon you’ll do homework with Chris. And then there’s that novel you’re writing.

Sigh, and say, “first things first.”

Kick the sheets back.

Slip into your jeans, your t-shirt, your sweater.

Turn off the light: a mound still snores gently under the white sheets from Macy’s.

Tiptoe: the mound, in the old days (how many months of joblessness is it now?) used to be up first, shaving and showering before a day directing strategic sales in a large multinational. Now, if roused, the mound remonstrates.

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