Hemlocks laddered by pegs of broken branches.
Remnants of things I knew,
people I love, and can’t climb anymore.
The rings of this stump are the years I have lived.
Each pushing out from the one from before.
A shagbark hickory shingled by feathering bark.
Dead wood protects what is alive inside.
The burn of the forest allows the forest to grow again.
Fires break open what lies dormant beneath the floor.
I came to these hills to know myself.
I leave without a name.
Blind Betty says we’re underwater now. After two hours riding aboveground we go underground to cross some river is why Blind Betty says what she says. We are on this train to go visit some museum somewhere but they don’t say what for. Last time it was a bus they put us on and Blind Betty said the toxins were toxic and that if we breathed in our lungs would bleed out our earballs. They did up the floors so you could see yourself in them was the problem. I never see myself in the floors but they said I could if I looked. They say the floors shine like pool water like a mirror ball and that you can skate on them floors if you’re not careful. They put us on that bus so they could do this to the floors. Me I don’t know what good shiny floors are to blindsters or why they make me walk these blindsters around so they don’t trip over things and crack their heads open instead of someone else. They all of them gave me what for when Blind Betty cracked her head open that one time. This is not what we pay you for they said. I think I shook my head yes but I don’t remember ever getting paid by them even once. I think what it is I do here I do for free. I said this to Blind Betty once and what she said back to me was curse words. Thing about Blind Betty cracking her head open is she knows she isn’t supposed to walk without me there to walk her. I forget where it is I was when Blind Betty cracked her head open. I may’ve been out in the shed getting wood to burn. Sometimes they send me out to the shed for wood because they can’t send any of the blindsters to go do it. I don’t like getting wood because the wood has things in it like maggots or faggots or whatever it is Blind Betty calls them. Sometimes Blind Betty calls the worms faggots and calls me and Pity Jimmy maggots and sometimes it’s the other way around so you don’t know what. Pity Jimmy didn’t come with us on the train because Blind Betty says Pity Jimmy is sick and might die soon. People around here say Pity Jimmy was born the way he was and now I say it too. All Pity Jimmy does is rock back and forth like he is in a rocking chair standing up and snaps his fingers without making any snapping sounds. He also jerks his head around like there’s a gnat flying in his face. That’s why people say what they say about Pity Jimmy. Me it’s my job to give Pity Jimmy his pills after he eats in the cafeteria breakfast lunch and dinner. Blind Betty is the one who taught me which pills to give Pity Jimmy and in what order. She said it was her job before it became my job to do this. Blind Betty says if you give Pity Jimmy the wrong pills in the wrong order he will fall down and have convulsions and swallow his tongue and die. I don’t know this to be true but it’s what Blind Betty tells me. Blind Betty has fingered all the books on health and anatomy so she knows about these things she says. Thing about Blind Betty is you don’t know if you can believe her sometimes. Blind Betty is blind and blindsters lie more than regular people do I think. I’m not saying that all blindsters are born liars the way they were born blindsters but it’s something close to that. It’s because they don’t have to look anyone in the eye that makes it easy. So when I give Pity Jimmy his pills I don’t know if I’m doing it right or if I am killing him. I don’t know if Blind Betty wants Pity Jimmy dead or not neither. She hasn’t said so out loud but you can tell she thinks about it sometimes. This is why Pity Jimmy says she was born an agent orange of evil. Me I was born in the middle of monkey in the middle. All Pity Jimmy says about people is how and when they were born but he never says what it means. Pity Jimmy was rocking back and forth and snapping and jerking when Blind Betty told us about her baby brother who died. This brother was a retard that would spill milk when he ate his cereal for dinner and other retarded things like that. The way Blind Betty talks about her baby brother you wonder how he died when he died. She never tells us about that part only that one day he was dead and that it wasn’t unexpected. Blind Betty used to would make up this game for her brother about the underground world. That it was the opposite of the aboveground world and so if you were blind in one you’d be deaf in the other and so forth. Sometimes Blind Betty don’t make no sense when she talks but I like listening to her stories so I don’t say nothing about her not making no sense. This happens too when I ask her if she is looking forward to the museum. I think maybe this museum is a special one they have for blindsters. The kind of museum where you can touch things instead of just look at them. What she says back is all she looks forward to is September when the cicadas die. I don’t say anything to her when she says this to me. I don’t know who the cicadas are or why they die in September. This is when Blind Betty says we’re underwater now. Blind Betty doesn’t mention the underground world when says what she says about us underwater. I think maybe it’s because she doesn’t want to think about her dead baby brother that maybe her baby brother died in September and his name was Cicada. When she says what she says about us underwater it almost feels like we are flying down a roller coaster but not really. None of them blindsters put their arms up in the air and scream when we go underwater and neither do I. All I feel is my ears plugging up and then unplugging and I look over to Blind Betty who is fingering one of her Braille books like it’s nothing. I move my jaw like I’m chewing gum and watch Blind Betty finger two whole pages without stopping her finger even once. I can’t tell if her ears are plugging and unplugging like mine and I wonder if this can’t happen to blindsters because they’re blind.
(…the understanding here of course being that if the rope were to support the man’s weight the question would be answered, but if the rope was severed we’d have to find another rope, which given the expanse of desert and the lack of… oh hell, excuse me for a moment….)
Well. Look at you. What a pathetic shit-smelling collection of testicle-bags. We have been challenged, you worthless maggots, to dismantle and retire the remaining dummies and to see to it that no dummy ever again curses a plate glass storefront or series of storefronts with its inexplicable hideousness. And we will do that or we will fucking die trying, which by the way you’re all going to die trying. So let me inform you dildo-machines of the limits of your jurisdiction as members of this supposedly elite unit: You do not, not ever, ask or even consider the question, Who manufactured this dummy? or Why does this dummy exist? A dummy does not get a name or a nickname or a pet name. A dummy is not your dummy. A dummy shall not be referred to as willful or as hungry or as incompetent. A dummy shall not, in your reports or in your minds, be said to appear fatigued or to seem sad, or to be showing signs of submission. We will not use the language of suffering to refer to any dummy nor will we attach any innerness to a dummy’s outward physical deterioration which, by the way, you can expect to see a good deal of outward physical deterioration given the range of assaults these dummies have already endured at the hands of the preceding class of graduates from this fine and noble academy that has forever sullied its reputation by permitting a group of halfwits like this one to commence into God’s good grace. Any breech of these anti-intentionality protocols will be met with swift punishment. Test me, gentlemen, and you shall know for the first time in your pathetic miserable worthless lives the true meaning of pain.
Let me also be crystal clear about this fact: Our higher-ups shall never be identified and asking about our higher-ups will again find you face to face with pain. I look forward to your questions.
The dummies you have sworn to destroy have resisted many of our love-based weapons and they seem impervious to charm. The dummies have also seemed determined—oh, do you see what I just did, you worthless shit-mongers? The dummies have seemed determined. In fact a dummy determines nothing. It is a soulless collection of rubber organs and latex flesh and glass eyes that will indeed appear to see right through you though in fact there is nothing behind those chocolate brown irises, nothing worth loving or despising, nothing worth wanting to save. Nor would a dummy save you, even if it were not a dummy and even if these ground rules were lifted in favor of giving-a-dummy-the-benefit-of-the-doubt, because just look at you hopeless vaginal secretions, who knows how you even fucking got here. I guess Denny’s wasn’t hiring on the miserable morning you signed your life over to your Uncle. In my day the Academy was a hell of a lot more discriminating.
Now I see some of you gazing over toward the steel doors, maybe wondering, Why are these enormous steel doors necessary and why is it so fucking hot in here? I have even heard several of you there in the back mumbling about the doors and wondering why there is no discernible source of ventilation. To all of you I say shut your fucking mouths. We’re right on pace to get you out there dismantling dummies according to the timetable established by the higher-ups and yes okay just go ahead, just ask me about the higher-ups, I would fucking love it.
(And meanwhile in the barracks:
“… but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my five tours it’s that all questions lead down into a dark pit of increasingly dark-pitted questions. Where are we? Here’s a hint—these ain’t barracks. Hell man, we might just as well be on fucking Mars. C’mon, don’t bogart that thing.”)
The Greeks, gentlemen, had a word for the condition you have each exhibited and which condition served as a prerequisite for your recruitment into this once-prestigious shadow unit, and that word is “solipsism.” Solipsism is the belief, you ass-eating tampons, that no one and nothing in the world exists but ME. For you solipsists, even your higher-ups are inventions, phantoms conjured up by your own solitary minds and given by those same diseased and unattractive minds the powerful illusions of solidity and autonomy. Well guess what, you useless fuckpies? You are all right. Nothing is real and nothing exists except for you. And you. And… oh Christ, hold still a minute maggots, I’ve gotta take this….
(Hell yes I was explaining it earlier…. Look, if the rope breaks it doesn’t prove a goddamn thing. The only way to know for sure would be to hang it again. See? Unless you’ve got the time and resources for an infinite number of hangings… well what is there to “get,” Corporal? Jesus H. Fucking Christ, have him call me himself the next time. I’ll tell him right over the phone what he is. And guess what? Guess the fucking answer!)
Now where was I dimwits? Oh yes—you are right. There’s only you! If there were others, don’t you think that by now you’d have some proof, some definitive fucking proof, of a single other mind? You are right. And you are. And you. And you. And you mumblers back there who will have your fucking throats cut if you continue to disrespect the uniform, you’re right too. You are all correct to suspect the obvious: the world is not a world, or at the least the world is not the world that your lonely pathetic ramshackle minds have Genesised. If any of you cocksucking rodents were paying an iota of attention during the most vital portion of your Academy studies which were absolutely a waste of your time given that you were made to do one and only one thing with your flesh-skeletons namely slaughter dummies or be slaughtered trying but nevertheless, the unit on Descartes may have been of some vague cross-pollinatory use given the hellacious combat in which you are about to find yourself engaged. Cogito Ergo Sum, you hapless rectal suppositories, implies no other. What proof do you have that when you leave this room the room will go on existing? What makes you think that your fellow recruits, once sent on their various dummy-infiltration assignments, will go on living? I don’t mean living as opposed to dying, I mean living as opposed to fucking nothingness. It’s too hard to work through the details. Trust your old wise General who balances only one or two rungs below the higher-ups whose identities are to you as the apple was to that stinking garden whore: there’s only you and it’s good that deep down you have intuited that since the day you took your first bite of solid food and shat it out your diaper-hole. It takes some of the pressure off and of course dissuades the completely irrational tendency toward empathy which tendency is the only fucking reason the dummies continue to exist. Excuse me for a moment while I deal with some of my immense inner sadness that threatens to destroy me!
Talk Therapy (Operation Desert Haystack)
: In the dark with the music playing you might not even know. Its parts are soft, warm, lifelike. There are ways of telling, but in the heat of passion… well, there’s a reason the dummies have made it this far.
: But I’m sure it’s a person. She. I’m sure she’s a person like me.
: Certainty is a funny thing. It implies the possibility of being wrong. I was certain I left my car keys here on the desk, and yet no keys. I was certain she’d say yes to my proposal of marriage and yet despair and loneliness. I was certain he’d never lied to me. I was certain I knew the way. I was certain she was not—
: You’re trying to confuse me with semantics.
: Am I?
: Are you?
: Tell me about your mother.
: She was an alcoholic and I hated her with great intensity. She’s dead—you know that, right? My old doctor sent you my file?
: Did she ever abuse you, fuckwad?
: Excuse me?
: I said did your alcoholic mother ever levy her alcoholic rage against your extremely vulnerable and half-witted personhood?
: Doctor, we’re talking about my girlfriend.
: We were. Now we’re talking about your obviously-unfit-for-childrearing mother, who might also have been one of them. If she were not tainting the good earth with her decomposing component-parts we’d find out.
: One of them?
: Don’t be coy. I’m the doctor.
: Where are we right now? I don’t recognize this office.
: Your mother—did you ever have occasion to see her internal organs? Perhaps you watched the surgeons remove liver tumors while leaning forward in your armchair in one of those creepy observation-mezzanines, hoping she’d bleed out on the table?
: I’m sorry. I’m leaving now.
: You can’t. Unless the rope holds.
: Excuse me?
: Otherwise we’ll simply move to a second location deeper in the desert. Or you could sign now.
: Sign what?
: That door’s not even a door.
: You’re what we call a sympathizer. Only one step removed from an empathizer.
: Are you a doctor?
: Almost. I’m a Corporal.
: This is absurd.
Every Day is Recruitment Day
“Out in the world that is not a world 31 million Ugandans move through and around Uganda doing Ugandan things such as: curing coffee in enormous curing hangars; manufacturing cement from particulate stone-dust which inhaled in sufficient quantities results in painful and deadly lung lesions; shopping in open-air markets for light textiles and national delicacies with the hum and thrum of the crowd humming and thrumming and pickpocketing children aswarm; having sexual intercourse in houses, in tents, in outdoor locations both secluded and exposed (there are approximately 20,000 Ugandan adults engaged in sex acts at any given moment); urinating over the side of something or other; swimming in Lake Victoria or repairing pipes that carry Lake Victoria’s water to homes and industries throughout the country (the pipes are always rupturing in Uganda); climbing mountains such as Mt. Emin and Mt. Baker and Mt. Gessi so as to cross into other nations to do other things some of which you’ll find indexed in your Handbook of Unlikelihoods; building dummies at a rate that roughly sustains the population; dreaming of oceans; slaughtering livestock; dredging up minerals via deadly extraction techniques that some have claimed are destroying the world that is not a world in addition to killing miners in swift and hideous fashion; walking around aimlessly or, just as often, with aim; riding bicycles; sampling packaged snack-cakes delivered from more prosperous nation-states; sailing across Lake Albert; hugging mothers; burying fathers; sobbing beside commodes; repairing internal combustion engines or scrapping them (3 American cents a pound for scrap metal); reading fairy tales to children; whipping children with sticks; drawing in the dust with sticks; collecting a certain edible swamp-plant from the marshes of the Nile River watershed; making rope by hand from hemp; applying cosmetics (only the wealthy); holding hands on city streets; enduring epileptic seizures; staring in awe at the body of an enormous gorilla not shot by poachers but entirely intact and simply dead beneath the jungle canopy (seated and hunched over, dummy-like, at the waist); playing futbol; regarding pictures of the world’s tallest skyscrapers in a book plucked from atop a red and black striped blanket spread out across a makeshift table at a market on the outskirts of Kampala; eating rare confections at a party thrown by the brother of the President; trudging barefoot through dust so white it seems bleached; painting pictures of mountains and of endemic passion fruits; masturbating; slashing wrists open while relaxing in wooden tubs of warm water; dying of AIDS; changing diapers; cooking with matoke (some sort of banana-like starch); singing to children; choking on their own blood; arriving too late at ramshackle hospitals where the bodies are stored unrefrigerated among the egg-laying flies; eating nuts; writing stories about dummies; sampling for the first time an American milkshake, overcome with joy; firing AK-47 assault rifles into the air, into cardboard targets, into each other; spreading national pride through folklore via interpersonal interfacing; reading aloud from decade-old textbooks in the cramped interior of rural elementary schools; harvesting food from the ground or from the trees or from wherever they grow their fucking food; filling tires with air; hand-painting a sign advertising wares for a local business; operating a crane; and etc.
“Now you tell me, citizen: is this or is this not the most ridiculous fucking thing you’ve ever heard? Here’s a pen: sign your fucking name already. We’ll have you in Basic by the end of the day.”
“I’m not sure. But I think that maybe there’s only the camp and that it like, subsumes the world we reportedly arrived from. Which means—here man, like this—which means by extension that there are no dummies unless we’re the dummies. Which means by extension that dummies and non-dummies are all the same. Which means by extension that elsewhere in this camp—whoa! I’m really feeling that—that elsewhere in this camp there is a rally in which we are being pitched as the enemy dummies. Which means by extension that this is what we call a closed loop or a tautology. Which means by extension that you, my friend, are only ‘real’ because you’re here in my so-called barracks, bunking beside so-called me. The minute you vacate these quarters I’ll be forced to either A.) deny your existence or B.) slaughter the living fuck out of you. No it’s not a threat. You don’t make it here for as long as I have by making threats. I’m trying to teach you something. What I do is keep my fucking mouth shut—what you’ll do I have no idea. Shit this is out again.”)
All right, all right, where were we fuck-worms? I’m told by the higher-ups that you’ll be broken into teams, which would be enough to bring a smile to my face had my smiling-architecture not been long ago daggered loose by a dummy during a particularly arousing close-quarters encounter and so you’ll have to take your General’s word when I say I am in my preternaturally sophisticated mind smiling wide at the very thought of you lonely ass-fuckers gathering in teams so as to multiply your almost-guaranteed individual failings by an aggregate determined by some suit in a processing-cage who’s never once held a dummy at close range and whispered something sweet into its rubbery ear while developing a swift and excruciating erection. Men—and I use the term loosely—it is time to embrace your assignments and to ignore the heat and the lack of ventilation and the noises of other rallies occurring in adjacent chambers because in just a few moments, the doors open and you enter into the most important endeavor of your young and miserable lives which if I’m lucky will be coming to an end toot fucking sweet because I don’t know that I’ll be able to stand here again and address you dung-monkeys without firing this semiautomatic rifle into your soft and worthless bodies so much do you sicken this old General’s 99-percent dead and battle-blackened heart.
Take off your helmets and look beneath the cloth liner. You’ll find a number there. That is your team number, and shall remain your team number for the duration of your assignment or until we fucking tell you it is no longer your team number or until you abandon your post and are hunted down and executed in a manner befitting your cowardice, said manner being far too awesome to reveal to a bunch of grub-eating ape-fuckers like the ones I am currently interlocuting. Would anyone like to ask me about the higher-ups now? Now would be a great time. Oh Christ the sadness is back. Your old general has been a father to young non-dummies and he knows the pain of separation and fear and solitude. But he also knows that the same pain as occurring in you quote unquote men is a mere eidolon preventing the destruction of all that would destroy us. Give me a minute to compose myself, you fuckheads!
Talk Therapy, cont.
: Just put your head through this.
: Is this a real story?
: That’s what they always ask me. What do you weigh?
: About 175.
: Mmm. Well listen, I always say the same thing: I hope the rope holds.
: Me too?
: That’s a good one.
: Oh, I just thought of something. If it breaks can I still sign up?
: I’d have to call the General. But be warned, he’s sort of a prick.
: Believe me I know.
: Don’t try bonding. I’ve been incapable of caring since ’89.
: Can’t blame a dummy for trying.
: That too snug? Good. Now step up please. Kick or yank?
Every Day is Recruitment Day
“It’s also reported that 7 billion tons of coal are excavated from the earth each year. Mind this is an earth that can be circled in mere hours by a swift-flying jet, which by the way there are reportedly swift-flying jets. Also, there are swift-moving trains that levitate on magnets and there are power plants that convert radioactive isotopes (whatever they are) to fuel-energy and there are satellites which are objects we’ve launched up into the sky and beyond the reported atmosphere and that just go around and around the planet that we’re gravitationally pinned to and by the way, we’re reportedly gravitationally pinned to a planet and that planet circles a reported sun 93 million miles distant and there are reportedly 70 sextillion suns in the reported universe and also it is reported that life originated from nothing which nothing was condensed into a point of near-infinite density and it is also reported that there is something called “infinity” which don’t even ask me about that and it is reported that by adding certain enzymes from the bellies of ruminants to certain forms of liquid-dispersant from the udders of ruminants you can create something called cheese, which I have had myself and will admit is delicious though what exactly an enzyme is is anyone’s guess and there are reportedly over six-billion dummies each of whom I suppose gets his or her own ton-plus of coal each year and how wasteful is that if you’re looking for a rallying point, and reportedly there is a nation called ‘Uganda’ which I believe the last recruiter spoke with you about? and reportedly we have invented something called the microchip which helps run machines which could be anything from a toaster to a nuclear-missile-launching supercomputer though I don’t believe you need a microchip to build a toaster but what do I know about it? and there are reportedly—”
“Jesus, that’s enough. Just give me the fucking pen.”
Team One, you will be charged with physical abuse. As any dummy may have been manufactured to resemble the life form at any stage of its ontogenetic evolution we recommend consulting your fieldbook for maximally effective methods, though for instance should the dummy appear to you as an adolescent boy there is schoolyard bullying, parental beatings and/or sexual abuse provided there is no pleasure in it (the dummies convert our pleasure into a dangerous explosive and so under no circumstance are you to enjoy your work you shit-fucking ass-moles). These are of course examples and not recommendations and each case shall be treated on a case-by-case basis which means don’t try too hard to do what seems right because it will likely come back to haunt you anyway, that haunting taking the form of pain.
Team Two, you will be charged with evaluating the capacity for psychological abuse to form what is for our purposes the Holy Grail, namely a self-destroying dummy, the discovery of which would relieve us of the most difficult part of this whole preposterous endeavor, i.e., how do we get the fucker’s heart to stop beating?
Team Three, you are what we call Long Viewers. Examine the military-industrial complex. Look at the corporate infrastructures. Situate the dummy or dummies within a Modern Life substructure so alienating as to bring the dummy-illusion of Selfhood to a slow and grinding halt. If we can’t kill them we can at least make them more like us. Hold on a second…
(Oh Christ. Yes, okay. Okay. I’ll be down there in a minute, just keep it warm. Yes you fucking heard me, keep it warm, I might want to hug it.)
Sorry cockroaches… your General just received some good news. My eye-holes are filling with happiness fluid. Just give me a moment here… okay good, good, today is the first day of the rest of my life and so on and so forth.
Now be aware that these strategies are all an enormous smokescreen and that all of my tender rhetoric is designed to do one thing and one thing only: create an enormous smokescreen for my tender rhetoric. You want to know why you’re here? Well that makes one of us. Jesus, this is stupid… why is everything so stupid? We are going to open the doors now. You want some real advice, you miserable eunuchs? A dummy doesn’t always know it’s a dummy. You have to bring the dummy to it. Oh, and remember, you are a giant shitstain on the surface of the earth and nobody loves you. And also, seriously men, you can choose not to bring the dummy to it, you can just do your best to bloodlet the fucker, that would be merciful of you. I once showed a beautiful dummy the truth. Then I lived with it for fifteen years while it tried to drink away the dumminess. I was merciless. I fucked it twice a week and I sullied its latex skin with my sweat and semen and then I left it for dead and found another, younger dummy to afflict with my truth-telling. Do you see these bars, piss-monkeys? Do you see these medals? A man does what he must. Honestly I wish I were more like you maggots I really do. Are we ready? Okay we’re ready. Suppress your emotions, imbeciles. Suppress logic, too. Suppress rationality. Suppress caring. Suppress not-caring. Become one with the universe that hates your fucking heart. And prepare for a world of pain.
Open the fucking doors already!
“So yeah, I once holed up with this dummy in—hey, this is kicked by the way—in what they call the East Village which is maybe fifteen hectares north of our current position. We were both tending bar at a place—shit man, you’re not gonna believe this but the fucking place was called Mars, I just fucking remembered that. Well anyway she was one hot fucking dummy. This was way before I got recruited though now I’m pretty sure we’re all recruited at birth. They want us to think we’re deciding. I’m not sure why yet, I’m working on that part. How long’s it take to pack that fucking thing? But yeah, so I’m holed up with this dummy and we’re going at it two or three times a fucking day, you know?, like totally into each other, in awe and wonder at our shit-ass luck at having found another person who likes sex as much as we each respectively do, and I’m telling myself all the time, Hey man, you are one happy lucky motherfucker, but I just could never believe it, you know? Like what does it mean that you have to tell yourself you’re happy? And the longer I’m with the dummy the more I realize that I’m not really with the dummy. See—shit man, we’ve gotta get some fucking beer in here—see, there’s always two me’s, there’s the me who’s like, fucking the dummy off the side of our shared bed at three in the morning with the neon from a neighboring restaurant’s signage pouring like bright blood through our open window, and then there’s the me who’s watching me fucking the dummy off the side of the bed and thinking things like, man this is the shit, this is like a fucking porno, flex your muscles a little, make it look right, you fucking dumbass.
The day I realized that the dummy was a dummy was the day I realized that there was only one of her to the two of me. That’s what they don’t want you to know around here. Shit, I’m so fucking high now. This is all told to you in like, highest confidence. Five tours man, I’m never going back. But then nobody is, right? Hey, I’ve got something better than this—you ever freebase?)
: Yes General. This one was human. You should have heard the neck snap. It was pretty fucking glorious.
: That’s my son you’re talking about Corporal. My little boy. I loved him like a… well I loved him.
: Yes sir. We’ll incinerate his useless carcass and scatter his ashes through the ventilation ducts.
: It’s a hell of a thing Corporal.
: So I’m told sir.
: Give us a minute. The old man’s got a few things to get off his chest.
We fled the elders. When the guns had been once again taken up and embraced with the touch of a dancer taking up a partner’s hand and placing it into position, here, there, there was no choice but for us both to walk away. Walk where we came up here in the days when walking was a joy for us, though there were joys we would know less of soon enough. We had held hands when it was permitted, by the narrow trail and by the narrow ways which we were taught to walk before the Lord of locusts swarmed. He was God, Lord, Load of Hocus Pocus. And we believed.
They were his ministers, though they had squared off toe-to-toe amongst themselves, pulled whiskers from each Elder’s underbeard, swore names and oaths not heard outside of scriptures heard in church, thrown punches, broken oaths and shattered bones.
Those were the leaders of us all up on the mountain. Greater men none of us had known to breathe. Nor greater names. Greater lengths we might have walked or sailed to see them, to be with them, or be with their whispered words at least. But it was not the distance which seemed biblical, the burden of days to make our way. It was the burning of the sun, which was worse on us than working in the tannery with comical masters looking down on our stained hands. They always laughed. But the guns had been lifted, only once, against us.
This once was fusillade enough. I would have stood it, notwithstanding my weakness in the guts when I saw blood. I had mastered it while still a tanner, measured myself in terms of what was too much for my eyes to burden themselves to bear witness. Each time I pushed them farther from the sockets they turned in. Each time I looked longer at the skins, stared, my hard-earned concentration came from the hair, from the hooves, from the ears that were burned by me. For that was the job I had. I was the burner of lumber-bearing beasts, taken from the hills and fields, just as I had been, and set down in a frigorific yard. I was given a task. I performed it with exactness, I declare this.
Over the body of the bruised when beaten at the hour of sunup, where the scalp hair meets the nooking of the neck, there hair had flowed or fallen, as blood would, and by the handful. Hair, the Dealer is the only man I ever saw take care of. He kept pots and tins of wax pomades, some scented with gold unguents of tropical bruteshow origin, some with essences boiled up from petals of such flowers as can be picked only in climates I have never felt upon my skin, some with extracts used to make confectionary wafers. But now his West was won.
Each fragrance in the Dealer’s hair had been a March day on my calendar, the journal of his appearances to me turned the world itself. These meetings, for me, and God’s gracious time, have taken lonely scents. I inhale my full expanse of years, and writing them all out, for me always the evening air wafts of soot China ink, a liquid also brought me by the Dealer. How could it not? These frigorific hands write down the center and the navigation of my knowledge, the undertaking of an act by which to understand my brainpan’s corrugations, my exile of myself off from the Elders, my plan to take Samantha with me to a city we had never seen but heard in narratives which drifted through the oil ooze of smoke from within hot tanning fires, the oil steam from over tanning vats.
Always we were told there was a royal city where the Elders once had gathered, Elders even older than those men to whom I had entrusted care of my Samantha. She came back to me from them with stories of their cross examinations. And she bore sores the Elders used to manage me, pressed me almost as a wad of cotton, woolen in one ear, is used to cure infection. The sick ear tighter for the fist of it, and deafer to all milder enticings.
Samantha harkened to Elders entire, as if their dim recitals and fair tales of distant granaries were worth more to her, and rang truer, than the battle hymns we sang before breaking open loaves as big as heads of cabbage, before pouring water as fragrant as the mountain flowers from which snow water ran, and as brilliant as the Dealer’s hair, pomaded and new flattened.
Samantha had heard these wizardly descriptions and had trespassed them on to me, had wiggled them in through the slats of me, those piercings in the wickerwork of speech, where light comes streaming, burning barley, in. Her words came slinking, truth like the very truth when it is written as a serpent hieroglyph.
How could I not believe God’s city to be more real than the tanner’s hands I used to cut through bones and thews with my own broke-tip jointing knife? It seemed I saw through bridal veils to it, the square dimensions of the city and its very set of stones. This vision, insinuated, laid serpent’s eggs within my head, left surface patterns sidewinding to biforked fruited trees.
When Samantha spoke it was to behold a hieroglyphus wriggle free of its grown ancient carapace, just dead scale and death skin from which to shrug. It was a living illustration, emboldened ink, tar from a lake turned over, black mud so prime ordained that knowing nothing whatsoever was already knowing more than seeing this. So were her words exposed to my fool ear, so cool and quenching to the fires of doubt that scorched my testimony, so blistering upon the summer rock. Her words worked up a chain of blossoms, worried at a woodbine fruit, stirred up a nest of snakes newborn unto my enemies, now gleaming brass, now hissing on the brazen stick.
So blinding God’s true city seemed to me, no difference the distances Samantha would describe to me as we lay bare and parted in the darkness of our bed, which never ceased to feel to me as it had on that night Samantha would become God’s bride through me entwined in mortal arms. I glimpsed God’s city as if my own grown and vital organs. I had heard but never seen them. And yet I envisioned it, figured red and bright before my eyes, in the carcasses I worked. Almost bejeweled they seemed to me, thick encrusted and openly revealed under my knife.
It was farther inland we must travel, this is what Samantha said to me.
Farther into the ice, hard sea it would be to me, deeper under the crust. Farther down to a sphere of crystal rock. No man dare look at his two feet for fear of being struck snow-blind by God Lord’s paving stones. This was the place to which we would repair, Samantha made known to me in tones partook of overtures of operas I had heard only in a dream so many years ago of sleeping I remembered it only in sudden crowbursts of night birds which shook me from my slumbers, nocturnes I must have heard – I could swear it – though I had scarcely known piano and had barely undertook such music from the teachings of the Dealer.
Notes by night, he would poem them to me, as he had heard them played in parlors into which he had received admittance.
These were gatherings, he told me, where women would be seated on round chairs with legs no thicker than a flower stem. So lightly did the sitters rest upon their cushions that almost one suspected ghost forces playing secret roles, lifecraft of buoyancy which turned the music room into one lily pond. Dense and heaped with pads, at once it was, trailers choking sight from overwatered eyes. But what man could look away? For to see was to be dipped into lagoons, to be wrapped in pink and patterned Paris blankets, to be shuttled naked through Arabic looms, piled deep with carpets that in raree tales can be ridden and then brought to land atop the domes of castles behind breachless sparkling walls shard-tipped with gold and ivory spears.
Those were the tomes the Dealer spoke to me, his words merging into those of my Samantha. There was, one instance, no telling one throat from the other, and now no norm to square them with my own. Their tales so tightly intertwixted, they became a single staff of healing, round bell ringing in my ear.
By day, I worked over my cauldrons and my cutting block. By night, I let Samantha’s hair pour over me as would a nostrum purchased with assurances my faith in it would make me healthier than man had hoof to cleave. Samantha’s fingers found my chest, felt it, tested where I would allow their tips to tap and pressure me. They tempted my capacity for imagining which divinations of my innards Samantha was conducting as she stirred beside me in the night. It seemed she was erasing maps, blurring regions and formations that cut through me and had been charted with brass instruments and read in tight-rigged tents. Samantha spread open the compass of my soul, I thought, there, or the measure of my mystery, here. She blew onto my birthmark, deciphered my born hour of ultimate demise. What angels or demons watched over me, she also seemed to read, there, too, there, here. Here, her hand felt guided by their kiting all about me, immaterial but paper-winged, and brighter to Samantha than the candlelight which shook the room before I pinched the flame with blackened fingers.
If ever there had been a nurselorn language, one whelped among tribes of sightless almost-creatures without tooth or tongue, then these were the alien utterings, the acrostic verse Samantha spoke over my nape and neck, along my ribs and loams, up to the broadleaf tree, over the mountain. I knew no other way to listen than to lay as still as all my senses could be kept and hear this wisdom as it came to me from my own ailing spoken plain to me. Still, I quivered underneath Samantha’s hand.
As a boy, I had bow hunted after birds, pulled taut the ligament while bunching up the horns of it. I would let the bull expand back to its unstrung far extremes, and I would place the arrow’s notch over the string. I pulled back, my fingers at the fletching. One hand squeezed tight fist over arching stick. I stood that way, straight-backed, poised and waiting for the demisemiquaver. But there came nothing. I aimed at every precious anything at hand. And I prayed to God that all would take swift flight, or be blown instantly away, before my strength would fail me and I would become a killer.
How soon my arms would shake the open frame of me. How quickly my fingers would burn as if gripping tongs just taken from the fire. Yet I would not yield, would not allow the arrow to release. It was an exercise of spirit I repeated every sunup, first aiming at small creatures other than were pets to me, later aiming at the neutered animals I had been given. I had named them friends. Finally, when my arms and chest had grown so broad they could withstand the furnace heat, could absorb it, almost leech strength in the more the tension built to torment me, finally, I learned the double wisdom of the bow. Though it aimed into the distance, it was ever drawn on me. Of my own soul the bow became divining rod. The very quaking spoke full gospel of my heart. These were the revelations I could never pen, for they came to me only when my hands were shaking with the power of an inner choir the bow could no more silence, for I had mastered it. Bow had become a singing sword to me, and I the song it formed of chords drawn up from dooms below.
But now this wellspring was struck forth by my Samantha’s hand. It was the old familiar treble, that ever-troubling moan. A terror almost I had felt at the power of my boyish health, as if the tinctures brought me by the Dealer – made of lymph or liver of cooked rattlesnakes – had indeed lived up to his predictions, even the least potable. Though I had tried as many as were within reach of the blanket of resources I had spread before him on those autumn days or summer nights when he came walking up. One more time around the mountainside he would come, up to where wagons were loaded with munitions to be sent up to the Elders, or with shipments to be set apart for mission storehouses before they were presented to Samantha for cutting into cakes and kidney pies.
I felt this thrill of fear from which I wanted to retreat but I could not, too trained its grip on me, my whole anatomy one more lamb to strangle. These nights were worship of a sort that I had never known before. Even in the Elders’ meetings, even when they first laid open their Good Books before me and plew shirts, and showed me the tokens scarred into their skin, signs that had convinced how many souls before me that had sold all that they had.
The hands Samantha placed on me became Orion moths, winged correlates of light invisible to eyes not spiritual, though spirit eyes were what Samantha had. Eyes that could pierce the midnight lampless caverns where the Elders kept the almacens of dry provisions we would need for the long trip away from this land island of shotguns, hides, desert and old church discipline, long years of kneeling shriven before a forger’s fire, or shivering within the only quilts which were permitted, or sleeping single on those nights the Elders had demanded of the company of my Samantha, and it was understood I would commit her fully to their trust, which was the safest place for any girl to sleep. Did I not see?
And if I didn’t, I would know the engines of their wrath, the swung bell of trumpet they would bruise with, blare to wake the dead if this was what it took to put the fear of God upon our backs. Nor were these treatments less convincing than the murder and the outbreak laid together, hatched and written, one more commandment from the mount of God, there, in the bed where I had sheltered with Samantha.
I would have stayed there on the mountain, never left, so straight the ways, so strict the sleeves, so blistered the backs of hands and feet described to me. And I had seen their handling of the Dealer. Just as they had shouldered their shotguns, once was enough, no reason now to doubt they would release me from this life into a longer one to come.
But the face Samantha turned to me in dreams, just as it rose over me in the morning, once more each day as the seasons shifted with a restlessness that soon enough became a breaking from my bones, a kind of aching case of rheum, sharp as Paul’s own pricking thorn impinging newer covenants on me, a graver form of marriage. It seared me night and day, the crystal sphere of it. Shimmering orb so charged with holy might that all who see it grow Mosaic horns.
Then would meat bones be full cleaned. Then would meat skins be taken and exchanged for coats of many flames. Only to see God’s city would be joy enough for me. Only to see it once and then what happened to me mattered to me no more than what happened to the parents I had left behind me on the prairie, all those mortal years ago. Where had God driven the days off? Where had God damned children of the Dealer? Where had they gone, the tonics and horse powders he had brought me on the mountain? Where had gone everything but love of my Samantha?
That night, the one I still recite each morning, that final night, is, like all other nights, not anymore. We drove our horses to the edge of the great precipice beyond which plains appear, the basin where the Dealer worked his business. And we smacked the horses with twin flaming brands as if to make them carry us full gallop. But we had never mounted. We listened to death whinnies and the wind that filled the wide abyss, listened for the beat of horses touching desert floor, the noise of horses bursting, as sure as horses roar when forced into night sky.
And we heard nothing.
But gone they were, and for that trespass, sin against the Elders, there could be no forgiveness. As there could be no other form of travel for us now but walk over the mountain.
Surely, guns were taken up once more. Surely, pains prepared for our redeeming. Surely hands of cards were dealt to choose the fates we each would meet once we had taken on their chains. But God, Lord, Load of Hocus Pocus, had one final trick for me, after the many tender acts of magic I had seen. Greater things has God Lord shown to lesser men, I do not mind it. But never greater grace to me. Great lengths I walked, Samantha right behind me. We held hands.
So many stars hung overhead that night it seemed the sky might smother us. Then came the day of my deliverance, which is still miracle to me, and causes me to think this pen will shatter in my hand. But I must write. The pen bear witness, this last once, and for all time.
There came a sudden cloud of rain, storm up from God knew where, then an ice volley of grape hail. Never such a downpour have I seen, never such a hurling forth of wrath upon a woman and a man since angel first stretched flaming hand and forbid Adam’s swift damnation, though he thought it paradise.
Shot fell about us with a sound of beating hooves, a bursting heart each almost sounded, rocks by thousands falling from the skies. Yet not a feather struck us. We walked tall, free of fear, the mountain now behind, our clothes soaked only, and our skins now clean and bright. I had become as Job, though without sores. I had become as Lot, though without wife. For when I turned back there was no Samantha on the trail with me. Only a fruit tree bearing woodbine out of season. The sun had risen up. All rain and clouds were gone, as was all hail to see. I stood looking at the lone invasive tree. I touched fruit skin. I dared to pick it. All seemed given to be God Lord’s final gift to me, the final words of love breathed from the Dealer.
I did not want.
My husband drives his taxi from five in the morning until six at night. I wake up before him to boil water for tea, lay out his clothes, make his bath. Then I go back to sleep. When it is light out I get up, cover myself as usual, say my prayers, eat my food. It is my job to keep the house clean and cook the dinner. That is easy. I don’t tell my husband it is easy. I tell him it is hard. I tell him how hard I scrub the floor, and how carefully I fold the laundry. But I do not scrub the floor so hard, and I fold the laundry very fast and carelessly. I am a smart woman. People can’t tell. It is easy to wash the dirty plates or put the chicken to cook. Many things are so easy. But I say it is so hard for me. My husband thinks I stay at home all day, maybe watching the television because I am so tired. I don’t do that. I am not stupid. I go out. I walk and talk to people. I see things. I look around. People think to be a woman is so difficult. I say it is easy. I have an easy life. I do what I want. God is very good.
On my block, beneath the subway that runs up high between the buildings, there is a big store full of chickens. They have so many kinds of chickens. It smells very bad there. I like it. I go there and think, why, God, have you so many different chickens? There are white chickens, red chickens, yellow and grey chickens. Each time I go I buy a different kind. Today I buy a black chicken. Its feet are very thick and red. The feathers look so oily, so shiny. The chicken’s face looks like a monkey face. I tell the woman which one I want. She opens the big cage and takes him by his legs. He is angry. His wings spread so far, almost as far as the woman is tall. She is taller than me. I am short in this country. But in my country I am tall. In my country people say I am very good looking. But here people don’t see me. I like it this way. I am easy to hide. I lift the corner of my black dress, I lift the corner of my hijab. I tell my friend, I go behind the curtain, like this. Many people say to kill the chicken in the store. But I like to kill it at home, myself, and sit by the window and pull the feathers out and look down on the street, at all the people.
There are so many different kinds of people, it makes me laugh. We are like the chickens. Fat and thin, big and small, this one with the face like a donkey, that one with arms like a rat. I put the chicken to cook. I put the oil in the pot and water and carrots and potatoes, onions and spices. I do not peel the carrots. That is too boring for me. My husband will eat the dirt on the carrots and say nothing. He does not taste very carefully. He is too tired at night from driving his taxi from here and there, and so many people saying go this way, now that way, and the cars blocking him, and angry people yelling and blowing their horns. He will not taste the dirt in the soup. Me, I like rice. I put the rice to cook with butter and salt and cover the pot with a cloth and then the lid, and I fix my hijab with pins in my hair and go out again.
There is one place I like to go and sit and talk with my friend. She works on the next street. Her work is so easy, so she can talk with me while she works. Women go to her to braid their hair or pluck their eyebrows or color their hair, those things. She is very good, my friend, since she is very smart and has strong hands. Whatever the women ask, do this, my friend will do, and still talk with me about things. We never talk about boring things, you know. She is a black, my friend. She holds her head like a lion, very proud. I like her. When I lost my child she said, don’t worry, you can have my child. I shook my head. Her child has something wrong with him. He lives with her on top of her shop, just playing games all day. He looks so stupid to me. I ask my friend, Is he reading books? Is he thinking something? She says no. He is only sitting and playing games. He smokes something, he eats candies. I tell my friend, you can keep your child. I will make another one. If I will be able. We laugh. We laugh because my husband is ugly. He is so ugly. He looks like an ugly cow. That’s alright. He works very hard. But sometimes I say to him, Wear my hijab. You are too ugly for me. We laugh together, me and my friend.
Today my friend has no customers in her shop. She tells me there is another woman in another shop who is stealing all the customers. I say that is very bad. I say, Let us hurt that other woman and burn her shop. My friend laughs. I laugh too. She is very smart. Oh well, she says. She pulls my hijab down. Oh no, I say. You will disturb my pins. She pulls the pins out and holds them in her mouth. She likes to brush my hair. It is soft and long and black. It is very nice. When my friend puts her hand on my head, to hold my hair down, her fingers come down on my face like this, and it feels very nice. I say to her, Thank you, thank you. That feels so nice.
We listen to music, just some love songs. We eat some cherries because it is nearly summer. Then a woman comes for her hair. But she looks strange to me. My friend gets up. My friend is very fat, so fat she gets stuck in the chair. But then she gets up. Hello? she says. Hello. The strange woman has a voice like a man. Then I remember sometimes men want to be like women. Have women’s hair and clothes. I think, this is one of the men playing games. I think, I do not like it. I fix my hijab. But my friend is very nice. Come this way, sit down, and so on. What can I do for you? she says just like she says to a woman, but this is not a woman. It is a different person. I think, why God, you have so many kinds? The person says, I need a new style, and my friend is so nice. I look at the person in the mirror to see its face. It has big lips and big eyes and wide and thick, bumpy brown skin and it’s ugly. That’s alright, I think, maybe it is a nice person. But I don’t know that. The hands are so big and ugly, and fingernails are so long and painted purple. Then I think, oh my God, and I look at the breasts. They have some paper in them, I think. They must have some paper napkins in there. The bra is showing through the shirt. I think of what is in there, the stuffing in the bra. Maybe it is garbage in there, I think. Maybe some dirty toilet paper. I reach under my hijab and feel my breasts. They are soft and warm. I smell like onions and spices. It is not very nice.
My friend is talking to the person. Then she takes her brush and is brushing its hair. I think, is it real hair? Man’s hair so long? I don’t know. The person says something, it says how life is hard, how it is hard to walk in these shoes. The person’s shoes are really terrible. They are plastic and orange with jewels. Not real jewels. And they are very big and high and they squeeze the person’s feet, which are a man’s feet, I think. The toenails are painted purple. It looks really terrible. Me, I am wearing black shoes made of cloth. I don’t care how I look on the outside. I am just hiding. It’s alright. I am free inside. Then my friend is saying, yes, life is so hard! And I feel mad and I say, No, life is so easy. I tell them, You are wrong. If your shoes are not good, change them, I say. Look, I say. I think I am being very nice. I am a woman, I wear these cloth shoes. Be easy, I say. Your shoes are very difficult, that’s not smart. You can buy these there, down the street. Only five dollars. I can take you. Okay, the person says. I’ll try on those shoes.
So I am happy. If I can do something nice for this person, maybe it will see how life is easy. You take the easy way, then you have a good time. Like I tell my husband, if the road is full, take another road, you will get there faster. And he says, You don’t understand anything. You’re a woman. You don’t know. I laugh. Because I know my husband. He is always taking the difficult road. His friends, the other taxi drivers, all they talk about is the roads that are difficult. They never say, Oh that road was so nice, oh that road was so fast, I love that road. It doesn’t matter. I don’t drive a taxi. So for me, I love all roads.
When my friend is finished with the person’s hair, it looks very nice. I say, How nice you look. Like a woman, I say. The person laughs. I feel the person doesn’t like me, or thinks I am stupid. Oh, I am not stupid, I say. I pull down my hijab and say, look at me, I am not a stupid woman. I turn my face. Okay, says the person. It says for me to relax, be comfortable. I pull my hijab back up. I don’t know, maybe this person is a bad man. Maybe it is a man who plays games, so he can play tricks. That is terrible. But the person looks all right. It looks strange, but it looks like a nice person, I think. It pays my friend and I say, I will take the person to buy the shoes, then I will come back to talk. Okay, says my friend. She is smiling, like I am acting funny. I don’t mind.
I go with the person on the street. It is very tall. I shake my head. The shoes are so terrible. It walks like a horse on two feet. I point down the road at the store that sells cloth shoes. They don’t speak English there. We walk together. The person has pants which show the bum in back. I can see the hair on the bum in back. The top of it. And in the front, there is nothing. Where is the penis? I ask. I am not shy. I say what I want. The penis, I say, where is it? The person says it is a secret. I say, But how? It says it is private. It puts it in the private place, it says. I shake my head. I do not believe it. I say, but where? The person says I am too curious. I am too nosey. But I am not too nosey. I say, Please, show me how. But first, buy the shoes. The person says nothing.
We go to the shop. Hello, I say to the man, waving my hands. Please, bring us these shoes, for this person. I point to my cloth shoes, and then to the person’s feet. The man shakes his head. I say, For this person, big ones. But they haven’t the big size the person needs for shoes. I say, I am sorry. The person says it doesn’t matter. I say, But now please, show me where you put it? The person says we must go someplace private. I say, Come to my home, I have soup. Do you like chicken? I say. The person says okay, so we walk that way to my house. I am thinking this is very good. Many people will not believe it. I will see the secret way. I think, God, thank you. Thank you, God.
In my home, it is very small. There is only one place to sit. On the bed. I say, Okay, first you sit, be my guest and have the chicken soup. I bring the table to the bed. The person is very big, so big I must bring the table away a little. It isn’t very comfortable. I am sorry, I say. Your legs are too big. My legs, my husband’s legs, they are small. So it is like that. The person tries to cross its legs. It bumps the table. See, I say to it, not very comfortable. I am sorry. I go to taste the soup. It is not finished cooking, but I take the broth and some chicken. I will not give the person the carrots with the dirt. That is not nice. I say, Please, try it. It doesn’t taste good, I say to be polite. The person must lean over to the table. It tastes the broth. It is too hot, I say. Blow on it. The person is so strange. I have never seen someone so ugly like this. It wears purple makeup on its face, on its eyes, and pink lipstick. Its skin is thick and bumpy and oily. I want to see it eat the soup. So I lean over and blow the soup. I think, this person could be my child. I could blow the soup for my child like this, this person. The person tastes the broth again. Thank you, it says. The voice is so strange. It makes me happy. It is like the bad smell in the chicken store. I like the strange things. When the person is done drinking the soup, it eats the potatoes. I say, Now please show me how you hide it.
The person says, I will show you, but you must pay me. I can’t believe it. I say, That is terrible. How can you ask for money, I say. But I want to see. I say, My husband will see the money gone, even a few dollars. I will have to tell. Tell, don’t tell, says the person. How much money? It says how much. Okay, I say. I say, please, close your eyes. Cover your eyes with your hands. I keep the money in the bag of onions below the sink. I take as many dollars. I watch the person hold up the big ugly hands. There is a ring on one finger. I say, Alright, here is your money. Now please, show me where you hide it. And the person stands and takes the money and carefully unbuttons its pants and pulls them down. I am watching very closely. I sit on the bed. I must hide my eyes a little behind my hijab. I am shy, I say. The person shows me what is down there. Pulls it from beneath his bum, bending his knees. You see now? it asks me. Yes, I say, I see. And then I feel very stupid. The penis is very small and thin and brown and wrinkled. I sit on the bed and watch it in the person’s hand. It smells like the bum. It is like an old snake. It is blind and weak like an old snake. I say, Oh, my God, I am sorry. It must make you very sad. The person says nothing, but I see its face and it is very sad. I like it very much.
The next day I go to see my friend at her shop. Still, she has no customers. I am very quiet. I sit and look through the window. I watch her sweep the floor. Then she asks me what did I do with that person yesterday. Did you find those shoes? I say no. No shoes. I am quiet. She asks have I ever seen a person like that before. I say no. It was the first time for me. She smiles. She is thinking something, I know. So I say, what are you thinking? She says, I think you liked that person. I say yes, I did. It was so interesting. I think that person is so sad, I say. But my friend says no. Those people aren’t sad. They do what they want, she says. Maybe she is right. I don’t know.
It is fine, it is nothing, I think. But then I think it is not fine, it is not nothing. I wonder what the person is doing now. I ask my friend, What do those people do? How do they get money? I say, Nobody would choose such a person for a job. Those people, they look terrible. My friend says the person yesterday has a special job. The job is to be someone’s friend. I think to say, Oh yes, I know about it. I think of yesterday, the person in my home, asking for money. But I cannot tell my friend about that. She is too boring. Well, I say, I need to make some money too. And that is true. I need to make back the money I gave to the person. My friend says, Anybody can make money. It only depends what you want to do. I say, I would do anything, it doesn’t matter. My friend says, Clean houses, care for other women’s children. She says, Go upstairs and use the computer. My child will help you to write an ad. It’s so easy. Alright, I’ll do it, I say. Although my friend’s child is so terrible. Every child is terrible, I think. I would never care for another woman’s child. But I could clean houses. That’s easy. Anybody can do that.
My friend takes me upstairs to her home where her child is playing games on the television. He is very fat and round and has eyes like a frog. He does not move his head, only his eyes. His head does not move from the television. Help this woman, says my friend. The child makes a face. Do it now, she says. The child throws something on the floor. He moves his head at last. When his head moves, his neck wrinkles like a turtle. And the carpet, the chair he sits on, all is so dirty and smelly. Help her write an ad, my friend says. On the computer.
The child is so fat, like my friend. So fat that he must bend over his knees and put his hands on the ground, then move his bum up to the edge of the couch, then put his hands on the edge of the couch, and push himself up. I can see his ears are so dirty and full of wax. I look at my friend. She does not make a face. I think, Better to have no child than one who doesn’t wash, who is so fat, so ugly. The child walks to the desk, where there is a computer. He sits in the chair. Then he turns his head. What do you want me to write, he says. And I am surprised because his voice does not sound stupid. It sounds very soft and careful. He looks at the computer and pushes the buttons. My friend says, Tell him what you want to say. Thank you, I say. Write that I am a smart and friendly woman who works so hard to clean dirty places. Write that I will do anything except be kind to children. And give my phone number. I tell him my phone number.
Give a name, says my friend. Okay, I think a while. Write my name is Sparkle. Because that is like sparkling clean. My real name has a strange sound. People here don’t like it. The child pushes all the buttons. He is smiling a little. Maybe he is not so dumb, but he is so strange. When he is done, he puts his hands on the edge of the desk and holds the desk, then he tries to lift his bum from the chair. He must push on the desk to lift his bum from the chair. Then he does it and moves the chair away and walks back to the couch and sits like an elephant splashing into water. But then he makes a noise. Hand me that please, he says and points to a thing on the floor. I go and pick it up. It is part of his game. He takes it from me and pushes the buttons and the game goes on.
I must go cook dinner, I tell my friend. She is in her kitchen, eating something. I have never been in her kitchen before. It is not so clean. There are cereals on the floor. My friend is pulling the refrigerator door and looking in. She takes a chocolate pudding from inside. Chocolate pudding? She asks me. No, thank you. I don’t like that kind of food, I say. I think I should tell her to clean her kitchen or tell her child to do something better. Take some fresh air or wash himself. But I am quiet. I will see you later, I say. And thank you. She puts her finger in the chocolate pudding and uses her long fingernail like a spoon. Her fingernails are like that person’s fingernails. They are plastic pieces stuck on. I look at my friend’s shoes. They are terrible, like the person’s. They are red plastic shoes, very shiny, and my friend’s foot is squeezing through the sides. I make my voice very soft and friendly. I ask, Why do you wear those shoes? Do you like them? I like them, says my friend. People like looking at them. So do I, she says. You like them? she asks me. Oh yes, I say. They are very good looking. I am lying. It is best to lie sometimes.
I like to lie to my husband. If he says, where did you buy the soap? I say, I bought it in the shop downstairs. But really I bought it down the road. Or why did you throw away my newspapers? I was not done reading them. Oh, I say, I spilled yogurt on them. I am so sorry. And when he says, Why must you sleep this way? I want to see your face sometimes. I say, It is because the bed is hard here. I pat the place on the bed between us. And it hurts my back. He is very pushy sometimes. He will say, I want you to sleep here, closer this way. I don’t believe the bed is hard where you say it is hard. I say, oh, alright, and I move myself closer, filling the space between us. And he can do what he wants then. And I stay in the spot, and he does what he wants. Sometimes it is really terrible. Sometimes I like it very much. And in the morning, I hold the chair with my hands. Oh, my god, I say, it hurts very much. And he says, What has happened? Are you ill? But I say, No, it is my back. It is almost broken from that hard place in the bed. And he is sorry, but he is also so angry that he can’t make me happy. And so I burn the rice, and I burn the special herbs which makes him cough. And I am angry too.
Sometimes I say, life is difficult. And always what happens? I lose my key, or someone pushes me in the road. You must be so careful what you say. Sometimes I am so angry, and I am thinking of the person, and I think I must change my life, I must go someplace different, I must leave all of this, I must fly away. So I must pray now and say how life is easy, oh, what a good life I have, and God help me not to boast too much for happiness. And then I feel good again. I go to pick another chicken. This one looks like a little cat, golden brown. I laugh at her terrible singing, hold her between my knees, and pass the afternoon while I twist her neck very slowly, just a little bit, a little bit more, and so on. I sit by the window. I look down at all the people.
(NOTE: This lecture was originally presented by Powell to the MFA Creative Writing Program of Columbia University in September, 2010.)
I am thinking tonight, as I address this unenviable task, of Flannery O’Connor, because she would advise against it, my addressing this unenviable task. I revere her in a way that she would also advise against, in fact would probably repudiate outright, hard: as something of the godhead, or goddesshead, of letters. I like touching the goddesshead. I do it whenever I can. I’ll touch the godhead too. Once I was so drunk on the grounds of Rowan Oak and a storm hit so violently that I was convinced Wash Jones would come out of the house with the scythe and I would not hear him for the thunder and only at the last minute in a flash of lightning would I see him with the weapon poised to behead me, which I deserved.
I call Flannery’s cousin Louise Florencourt sometimes to touch the goddesshead. Louise is nine months younger than Flannery would be were she alive, and regally correct (she was one of the first three women to attend Harvard Law School, in 1937), and never married, and is Catholic, and is literary executrix of her famous cousin’s estate, and lives right there in Milledgeville in her famous cousin’s mother’s big house on Greene Street so fine that it once served as the temporary governor’s mansion, and Louise still has a mule, Flossie, on the famous farm, a hennie mule that was almost there when Flannery was, or maybe was there, mules live forever and my arithmetic is weak and I have not asked Louise if Flossie and Flannery actually overlapped, so Louise is to my mind the closest thing, genotypically and phenotypically, to Flannery O’Connor, and when I talk to Louise I feel it’s as close as it’s going to get to talking to Flannery, touching the goddesshead.
Sometimes Louise quietly rebukes, and that is thrilling. Once at her country club at lunch I told her of my recent divorce and she presumed I would be in some kind of rebound peril and she said, “You have to be very careful, Mr. Powell. Of course I’m too old.” I froze the way I imagine one does when playing cards in a saloon and you are accused of cheating.
I feel I may have gotten a little off-line. Maybe I should say here that I think the craft of fiction has a lot more to do with being off-line than with being on-line, a whole lot more, but in saying that I would be appreciably more off-line than I wish to be at this juncture. I have not even properly detailed yet why this task is unenviable and why in its particulars I am reminded of Flannery O’Connor. I have intimated that these are things I will say, and one of the things fiction must do, I am afraid, is deliver what is intimated will be delivered. Here is Flannery O’Connor, then, if you must have it, on the giving of advice, and why I am calling the giving of advice unenviable:
“I am becoming convinced that anybody who gives anybody else advice ought to spend forty days in the desert both before and after.”
My arithmetic is not so weak that I cannot figure that to be eighty days in the desert. That is too much. I have no experience with the desert but I spent thirty-seven days on the ground in Kenya, as opposed to in the safari car where mzungu is advised to stay, and was so debilitated by what the French doctor attending my survival called an intestinal weerus after we spent three months looking for a parasite that could not be found by every blood test there is, and stool analysis, and finally sonogram, which altogether I estimate would have cost about ten thousand dollars in the states but that ran me $250 in France, so please do not tell me that we do not want a public option or that socialized medicine is evil-–was so debilitated by the weerus that I found Jesus, or He me, walking along a quay on a midwinter day in sunny Bretagne.
Jesus I now know, though Flannery would cane me for this, is the invisible friend that we tell children after age five they may not have. He will pull you through, even through a weerus from Africa. My Jesus wears a Pink Panther suit dirty at the knees.
Where are we? I am braving the eighty days, then, because Ben Marcus has offered me some of Columbia’s money to do so, and I am a good boy who meets his contractual obligations. I was a good boy as a boy and wanted to attend to my intellectual fundament by coming to Columbia but my mother would not fill out the financial disclosure that would have secured the necessary aid and so I did not come, and divorced my mother, and did not, as you can already glean, ever attend to my intellectual fundament. Another good boy who had trouble with his mother but who did manage to come to New York, whether to attend to his intellectual fundament or not, with whom I was familiar as I struggled against mothers and want of intellection, is Tennessee Williams. I flunked out of chemistry school by reading everything Tennessee Williams wrote instead of organic chemistry, and a kind of early mother-in-law gave a party for him in Charleston and did not tell me, and while in Charleston, to premier one of those late failed plays you can learn so much more from than from the earlier well-made plays, just as you can see how and why Hemingway was so good only by reading him after he had lost his mind, Tennessee Williams bought a safari suit out of the window of Dumas & Sons on King Street, and it is said he wore it for the duration of his time in Charleston, which I estimate at two weeks. Tennessee Williams drunk and in his stained khaki suit smelling probably like Kenya and I was not invited! Fortunately that girl got rid of me and that got rid of that kind of early mother-in-law who did not invite me. I once inadvertently saw her freshly showered, and she had powdered what Butters on South Park calls bush with heavy talc so that it looked a ghostly white over black, an unappetizing pastry as it were, and once that daughter who would so prudently later get rid of me caught her taking acid and slapped her. You all have probably heard that Tennessee Williams when he got so suddenly rich and famous in fancy New York hotels mistook chocolate sauce for gravy and poured it on his steak and broke the arms to sofas and so forth. It was behavior of that sort, on top of my having read all the bad formative work and the good work and the later thrilling deteriorating work, while being declared a failure at chemistry school, which would make me then have to be a roofer, which among other transgressions would have that girl biochemist get rid of me, and me her Bermuda Triangle mother, that made me really want to meet Tennessee Williams. I would have had nothing to say of interest to him sitting there in a giant wingchair in his fouled khaki with the ludicrous fond epaulettes. I was then as pretty as a girl so maybe he would have been interested in me had I said nothing at all, but I’d not have had the wit for that.
Here is what I hope with everything I have left in me I would not have said: Mr. Williams, I am a roofer in Texas because I read all your stuff and I am honing my craft. I would not be mortified today had I said: Mr. Williams, I am a roofer in Texas because I read all your stuff. Ms. O’Connor’s Hazel Motes, whom I trust all of you know, or know of, put it this way: “I’ve started my own church. . . The Church Without Christ.” Nabokov has his famous bitchy roosterism about the worst thing a student can say to him is that he, the student (and he probably meant right here at Columbia), has a lot of ideas; for me, rivaling Nabokov for bitchery and failing in every other measure to even get on scale (for example, my speaking a second language I now concede will depend upon the Language Fairy’s putting one under my pillow), the last thing I want to hear, ever, and a thing for which I will dismiss a petitioner outright who seeks study anywhere near me, is the phrase “hone my craft.” I would rather hear “spank my monkey.” In fact it is reasonably likely that I will admit an applicant avowing that he seeks to spank his monkey if he can manage some slight elegance or surprise or deprecation to indicate that maybe he understands how likely it is that the pursuit of writing is so often naught but a spanking of one’s monkey, and sometimes someone else’s monkey. I have used the masculine pronoun in the construction of this silly conceit not in a spirit of sexism but because I hoped some elegance might redeem the silliness and because women are not commonly thought of in connection with monkey spanking. Be assured that with equal ardor I do not want a woman to tell me she wants to hone her craft.
People, we have started our craft talk, the Craft Talk without Craft. It has been a prodigious introduction and it remains to be seen if a talk can ensue at all. I am weak from fear of the desert.
I am now going to proffer some little things that may combine in your mind to mean something, or not. They may mean something discretely, or not. They may combine better in an order I do not have the wit to determine, but that is okay, since you are having to hear them in the air where they are already subject to the Brownian motion of podium slur and so are already combining in the weird indeterminate order of the misheard and the partially heard. I grasped Brownian motion before flunking out of chemistry school. Had the mother-in-law who powdered herself so prodigiously spilled talc into the toilet, a distinct possibility given the liberality of the dusting of her cruller, you could have seen the talc move on the toilet water in what is called Brownian motion. If there is calculus to describe Brownian motion I mercifully flunked out still innocent of it. That one can even now utter the clause “if there is calculus” is an indicator of supreme naivete because there is calculus to describe everything, which is why, aside from reading Mr. Williams when I was supposed to read Mr. Morrison and Mr. Boyd, I flunked out of chemistry school. I am going on about this now not merely because of my giant reluctance to start the Craft Talk without Craft but also because remaining innocent of things is in my view an important part of writing, which will become clear if I ever start the talk.
Here then are seven utterances by six more or less smart people that taken together form a manifesto for deintellectualizing the approach to craft, or for admitting that it is but spanking the monkey, one’s or someone else’s:
1) “My best stories come out of nowhere, with no concern for form at all.” Barry Hannah
2) “I can take a sentence apart and tell you why I did it; obviously that’s the key to the whole thing, being able to write a sentence, and I’ve got a sense of what my sentences ought to do.” Pete Dexter
3) “Learn to play your instruments, then get sexy.” Debbie Harry
4) “Some people run to conceits or wisdom but I hold to the hard, brown, nut-like word. I might add that there is enough aesthetic excitement there to satisfy anyone but a damned fool.” Donald Barthelme (character)
5) “There is at the back of every artist’s mind something like a pattern or a type of architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would like to make or in which he would wish to wander; the strange flora and fauna of his own secret planet; the sort of thing he likes to think about. This general atmosphere, and pattern or structure of growth, governs all his creations, however varied.” G. K. Chesterton
6) “Anyway, when I told you to write what was easy for you, what I should have said was what was possible for you.” Flannery O’Connor
7) “Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult but because it wishes to be art.” Donald Barthelme (himself)
If I may presume to boil down the podium slur and condense these positions: the larger scheme of things will take care of itself if you will be sure to locate the right next hard brown nut-like word. Play your instrument, the sentence, before getting sexy with conceits and wisdom. Your notion of form, if you have one, is safely in the back of your mind, the landscape of your dreams, and it will out as you struggle with what is possible for you to struggle with, the words. Let things become difficult on their own, if they so insist (and they may not), without your deliberate help.
I saw Allen Collins become a world-class sexy rockstar advancing the conceits of a psychedelic band with the wisdom to masquerade as the redneck band Lynyrd Skynyrd. I watched him learn to play his guitar in the eighth grade with an amp so small he could put his foot on it to play better. When he was not suspended he was aimlessly walking the halls of junior high school. He did not want to be a rockstar, he wanted to be a good guitar player. He became that, and then he became the other.
It has taken us a long time to get here, and I confess I am as tired of this as you are. I feel like taking a pill and speeding things up. If any of you has any synthetic narcotics please see me before I enter the desert. I would now like to debunk craft books.
As a child even before I reached the flunking-out-of-science stage, I glanced at some craft books. I even still own some, in particular a thin volume called, pertinently, I presume, The Craft of Fiction, by Percy Lubbock, whose name I love, but whose book alas I have not opened. I do remember actually opening the House of Fiction, by Caroline Gordon, who ran with Allen Tate and Randall Jarrell and Peter Taylor and took counsel from Andrew Lytle and gave it to Flannery O’Connor. In this book were complicated diagrams having to do with point of view, I think; they featured a circle and an arrow. The arrow might come just to the circle, like common sperm, or it might penetrate the circle, like the putatively lucky one, and these relative positions of the arrow had to do with matters of omniscience, and limited omniscience, and so forth-–who could, appropriately, conceive what. A diagram of the benzene ring with its famous resonating bonds was by contrast more intelligible than these pictures, and that is one reason I pursued chemistry as opposed to English in college. Another reason is that I could not write a critical paper on, say, assonance and dissonance in the ballads of Thomas Campion without getting a D because, one professor told another, ending my English majoring the day I learned of it, I did not believe in the paper. Which was true; it was a parody of an English paper, but it was more astute than the non-parodies in the room. I could reproduce the mathematical argument that any given particle can be, at some probable moment, on the backside of the moon without getting a D. This argument I also had trouble believing but I was not, in the chemistry department, punished for skepticism.
In these books, these craft books, then, you will also find bloviations on terms such as exposition, which means a fair in which goods or wares or scientific and cultural wonders are displayed to the public; round characters and flat characters; back story; rising action, crisis, climax, denouement, detumescence; theme; metaphor; the difference between the ambivalent, a good thing, and the ambiguous, a bad thing; the bastardizing of telling versus the apotheosis of showing, hands down the largest bogosity of them all; and the existence of the necessary inevitable which necessarily cannot be anticipated before its inevitability becomes apparent. I will feel better going into the desert whether I have pills from you or not if you will all give me assurances that you will never, ever, give a thought to any of these ephemera above, except that if you think you can make a flat character I would like to see a whole book of really flat characters in it and I would like you to mail it to me in the desert. Promise me that you will never say to anyone that you wanted to establish a “close third.” Promise me that you will never use the term, or think that you are covertly rendering, an “unreliable narrator.” Nor may you entertain that there is some kind of subtle difference between a narrator and an author. There is only a huge difference, so the matter of the difference need not be entertained except by obvious and dim people from whom we do not need hear, aside from me.
The nineteen rules, some say twenty-two, governing the art of romantic fiction that Twain laid out in his dismembering of Fenimore Cooper you may use. Of particular value are Use the right word, not its second cousin, followed hard by Eschew surplusage. Twain has, as genius does, anticipated by fifty years and bettered by one word William Strunk’s more common and pedestrian and second-cousinly and surplussey Omit needless words. Forget the hokum that adjectives are second-class citizens.
Man, I like the oxycodone without the aspirin afixed to it. The aspirin is the damage doer. I wish Jimi Hendrix would walk in here and end this. Strunk and White have another famous bogus rule: Place the emphatic words at the end of the sentence. Let us accept for the moment that some words are inherently more emphatic by themselves than others, even if the argument is tenuous. Is cut throat more emphatic or less emphatic than sanguinary demise? Is harbinger more emphatic than hint? Is bastard more emphatic than shiftless character? Is siren more emphatic than pretty girl, really? But for the hell of it let’s say rock breaks scissors. Now, what Strunk and White mean, of course, is that the words at the end of a sentence are emphatic, the ones that are emphasized, and this is a useful notion. Presumably, then, the words not at the end are not emphasized as much. Now look at this, which I will read in a distracting if not deliberately comic manner to emphasize the relevant words, by which I mean words that are repeated but in positions of differing emphasis:
“Mrs. May’s bedroom window was low and faced on the east and the bull, silvered in the moonlight, stood under it, his head raised as if he listened–-like some patient god come down to woo her–-for a stir inside the room. The window was dark and the sound of her breathing too light to be carried outside. Clouds crossing the moon blackened him and in the dark he began to tear at the hedge. Presently they passed and he appeared again in the same spot, chewing steadily, with a hedge-wreath that he had ripped loose for himself caught in the tips of his horns. When the moon drifted into retirement again, there was nothing to mark his place but the steady sound of his chewing. Then abruptly a pink glow filled the window. Bars of light slid across him as the venetian blind was slit. He took a step backward and lowered his head as if to show the wreath across his horns.”
That is Miss O’Connor holding to the hard brown nut-like word. She is eschewing the conceit and wisdom that Mrs. May is the most presumptuous woman in Georgia if not in the world and that her presumption will merit this bull’s goring her to death. But she is discovering it, and telling it, and building the necessary inevitable that is not supposed to be apparent. Here are the repeated words, in order: head raised, chewing steadily, horns, steady chewing, lowered head, horns.
Miss O’Connor was paying attention to the word, and she had a sense of what her sentences ought to do: “Bars of light slid across him as the venetian blind was slit” is not “Mrs. May opened the blinds and bars of light slid across the bull.”
She can hardly contain the outrage inspired in her by Mrs. May. She is eager to get going on the portrait that will make us celebrate with her the violent undoing of this kind of person. Mrs. May next dismisses the bull as “Some nigger’s scrub bull,” then this:
“Green rubber curlers sprouted neatly over her forehead and her face beneath them was smooth as concrete with an egg-white paste that drew the wrinkles out while she slept.”
We will watch much happen to Mrs. May as she sleeps, and in fact not until the bull gores her does she wake: “…[S]he had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.”
Write like that. Herewith is concluded the Craft Talk without Craft. I would assess it so far a failure. I have attempted in its method, as opposed to its message–that is to say, I have attempted in the preaching itself rather than in the content of the sermon–to instruct all that I am qualified to instruct: that writing is controlled whimsy. Force whimsy just enough to make sense. How much force does that require? Good question.
There are martial-arts enthusiasts in the room, or at least one. Hello, Lt. Wilson. I myself have endured enough dojo and kwoon, in which, the kwoon, one frequently holds a position called horse long enough to stave off terminal old-man butt well enough that perfectly correct women like Louise Florencourt are compelled to tell you they are too old, and a certain kind of less correct middle-aged woman is compelled to freshen the accusation that one is in the throes of the mid-life crisis, which accusation this certain kind of middle-aged woman apparently takes more pleasure in issuing each time she utters it-–where are we? Where we are is I am demonstrating not enough force upon the whimsy.
In the kung-fu kwoon it is paramount that in a fight one remain loose; this is arguably the martial-arts equivalent to the NRA safety rule #1 that you Always Point the Gun in a Safe Direction, which, alas, proves the only rule necessary. In kung fu the big and necessary rule is Remain Loose, and the neophytes and the seekers of the grandfather’s wisdom keep asking, How loose? And the answer is, Well, grasshopper, not exactly a noodle. You must place enough force upon your whimsy that it is not exactly a noodle.
Al dente, then, allows accidents of utterance that may have unintentional consequences, happy and unhappy. I should not have revealed that I have had an intimate-seeming lunch in Milledgeville, but alas I did, as one thing led to another. I should not have slurred Kenya as I did when I said “Tennessee Williams drunk and in his stained khaki suit smelling probably like Kenya and I was not invited!” Kenya does not smell bad. India smells bad-–at least the Cooum River beside the Connemara Hotel in Madras does, and I advise you never to stand on the bridge over it, but to run. I used Kenya only because I had already detailed the rigors of the weerus that came from Kenya, and therefore the joke that Tennessee Williams smelled as bad as Kenya would work without the undue stress of a new and strange entity upon the reader. Tennessee Williams’ smelling like the Cooum, next to the Connemara Hotel, for example, almost funny now, would not have been funny in the first instance. Or maybe it would have.
All of this is about the power of repetition, which is but emphasizing words to the second power. All writing is the right word, the right position of the word, and the right position of the word to the second power, its repetition. All of this is but Making Sense, the big and necessary only rule in writing. It is the equivalent, clearly, to always pointing the gun in a safe direction and to remaining loose, but not as loose as a noodle.
I feel fine. I have acquitted myself handsomely and neatly, by accident, the only way neatness is palatable. I have failed most in not detailing exactly what Tennessee Williams looked like in the large chair, an overstuffed wingchair in the parlor of a Charleston single house, sitting weirdly aslant, in his dirty safari suit, resembling a tiny mad African king looking around the room for boys, for me, who was not there, as pretty as a girl. As Mr. Williams himself was to put it, more or less, the future becomes the present, the present becomes the past, and the past is filled with eternal regret.
Goodbye. You will not see me again, unless you yourselves are compelled to give advice and join me in the desert. Bring the pills.